Eros and Thanatos Collide in David Cronenberg’s Id-Driven Adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s ‘Crash’

Art by Rich Kelly

 
By Koraljka Suton

As a young upstart filmmaker I felt that you were not a real filmmaker if you didn’t write your own stuff and it should be original. And that was beyond the French version of the auteur theory which was really meant to rehabilitate the artistic credibility of guys like Howard Hawks and John Ford. The French were saying a director could work within the studio system and still be an artist and that those guys were, even though they didn’t normally write their own stuff. And for years I said, no, no you have to write your own stuff. But then I got involved with Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and it was more of a studio project, and there were five scripts that had been written, one of them by Stephen King himself, and frankly I didn’t think his script was the best of the five. In fact, I thought that if I did his script people would kill me for betraying his novel. I think what happened is that he just wanted to try something else. He wasn’t interested in just doing the novels, so he changed it quite a lot to the point where it was less like the novel than Jeffrey Boam’s script, which was actually more faithful. So I started to work with Boam, and I started to really enjoy the process of working with other people and on the script, and I thought, well this is interesting ’cause what it means is, if you mix your blood with other people’s, then you will create something that you wouldn’t have done on your own, but is enough of you that it’s exciting and feels like you. It’s kind of like making children. —David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg never was a crowd-pleasing director, being one of the originators of the body horror genre, thereby constantly pushing the envelope when it came to the depiction of the gruesomely transformative potential of the human body, its correlation to the psyche and its co-existence with technology. After having directed and written original scripts to visceral and genre-bending films such as Rabid, Scanners and Videodrome, this polarizing Canadian auteur started adapting from other sources, a process he was initially in resistance to, as described above. After The Dead Zone, Cronenberg made several other metaphorical children this way, bringing George Langelaan’s 1957 short story The Fly to the big screen, basing his 1988 movie Dead Ringers on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, as well as on the lives of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, adapting William S. Burroughs’ 1955 novel Naked Lunch and making a movie about David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly. All of this before ultimately creating Crash (not to by mistaken for Paul Haggis’ 2004 Oscar-winning melodrama Crash, the title of which posed a considerable issue for Cronenberg and was a gaffe Haggis later apologized for), a 1996 genre-wise-ambiguous film adapted from English author J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name that was published 23 years prior. It would be an understatement to say that Ballard’s Crash was highly controversial when it hit book stores—among the publishers that rejected it was even one whose first reader stated the following: “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” So unconventional was Ballard’s material that the fearless and unapologetic director himself had his doubts about the possibility of it being made into a feature-length: “I thought, ‘Well, it’s certainly very powerful, and it certainly does put you in a very strange space—one that you’ve never been in before—but I can’t see making it into a movie.’” But eventually, make it into a movie was exactly what he did, subsequently managing to polarize critics and viewers yet again, in true Cronenberg style.

 
Crash premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 and received a Special Jury Prize, an award not given annually as is the case with the Grand Prize of the Jury, but only at the official jury’s request. The Jury president at the time was none other than Francis Ford Coppola, who proclaimed that the award was given to Crash “for originality, for daring and for audacity” and that the choice was a controversial one, with certain jury members abstaining “very passionately.” In the meantime, others felt very passionate about aggressive campaigning—The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard were very keen on getting Crash banned in the United Kingdom (‘Ban This Car Crash Sex Film!’). As a result, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) consulted with a Queen’s Counsel, to see if the movie breached the Obscene Publications Act, 11 disabled people, to determine whether the film’s portrayal of physically challenged individuals could be considered offensive, and a psychologist, to decide if Crash’s plot would inspire copy-cats. None of the above found any reason to ban it (the aforementioned group of 11 people was even pleased that a disabled person was portrayed as being both attractive and sexually active), so the BBFC released the uncut version with an 18 rating in March 1997. The movie was nonetheless banned by Westminster Council, making it impossible for Crash to be shown in cinemas in the West End. It was released in both NC-17 and R versions in the United States, with the NC-17 version being advertised as “The most controversial film in years.”

But why so controversial in the first place? Explicitly writing or making movies about sexuality and its many possible manifestations was, and still is, albeit to a much lesser extent, a trigger for both uproar and outrage, due to our imposed societal constrictions and the individual ones that follow suit. Many critics and viewers today argue that Cronenberg’s film was way ahead of its time, due to the treatment the main characters’ sexual desires and practices got, with the director passing no judgment in the process, but rather positioning himself in the role of an unbiased observer. During the course of the 90-minute film, we follow James Ballard—named after the author himself—played by James Spader, a man disconnected from his producer job and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who he is in an open marriage with. The only time either one of them can feel genuine arousal, and thereby connection, is when they describe their sexual escapades with other people to one another. Their lives start to change when James gets into a car accident. The driver of the other car dies immediately, but his wife Helen (Holly Hunter) survives and ultimately finds herself attracted to both James and the prospect of having sex in cars. In an attempt to understand why their shared car wreck resulted in such intense arousal, Helen introduces James to Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a man who does re-creations of famous car crashes and leads a cult of symphorophiliacs—people who are turned on by staging and watching catastrophes or car accidents. Soon enough, James, Helen and Catherine all become part of Vaughan’s group, masturbating to car safety test videos, taking photographs of car crashes and engaging in car-sex with members of the group, regardless of gender, with safety being the least of their concerns.

 
Many of those scenes were considered pornographic, obscene, disgusting and offensive by audiences and critics alike, but one that really struck a chord with viewers and rubbed them the wrong way was a scene between James Spader and Rosanna Arquette’s characters. One of Vaughan’s followers, the attractive and disabled Gabrielle, whose legs are covered in steel braces, sports a huge scar resembling a vulva on the back of one of her thighs. This element of Gabrielle’s appearance additionally arouses James who, upon getting in a car with her, penetrates into her scar, instead of her vagina. Audiences were both appalled and offended on behalf of disabled persons, but Cronenberg saw it differently: “She’s not saying, ‘I should hide myself away.’ She’s saying, ‘My disfigurement is not disfigurement, it’s a transformation and a mutation and it can be sexual.’ Scars have been sexy for years.” Other sex scenes turned out to be no less provocative, with the example of James and Catherine engaging in anal sex, while Catherine insists James describe to her Vaughan’s anus, as well as his presumably scarred penis and the taste of his semen. Due to the explicit nature of such scenes, Cronenberg had a policy on set of allowing actors to review their sex scenes on the monitors as much as they wanted to. “They could see exactly how they looked naked, how they looked talking, or where their ass was when their skirt was pulled up. If they were going to freak out and be upset then fuck it, they were going to freak out and be upset and we’d discuss it.”

Pornography is created to arouse you sexually and has no other purpose. It’s obvious ‘Crash’ is not pornographic. People say it’s sexual but not erotic, as though that was a criticism. The only time most people have seen sex scenes is in pornography. In most movies, the story stops, you have a sex scene, then the story continues. But there’s nothing to say you can’t use a series of sex scenes as a structural element—things evolve and character is revealed. Why not? It’s part of the narrative of one’s life. —David Cronenberg

 
What needs to be taken into account when examining Crash and the reasons why it makes for such captivating cinema, is precisely the way Cronenberg managed to make an id-driven movie, as opposed to a plot- or character-driven one. Instead of resorting to dialogue or outward events, Cronenberg uses sex as a narrative tool, a vehicle whose function is to propel the characters into their next course of action and the plot to wherever it needs to be headed. Here, character development (or deterioration, depending on the eye of the beholder) is a byproduct of sex and the influence sex has on those engaging in it. In any case, Cronenberg would rather show us, than tell us—and what he shows is explicit fetishist sex, but without any eroticism, let alone pornographic tendencies. Such scenes seek not to arouse the viewer, but to convey a sense of emptiness and mechanicality, because what the characters are really searching for is a thrill, an intense energy surge that will, for a brief amount of time, allow them to escape the void that has become their life, deprived of any genuine connection and sensuality and, therefore, lacking true eroticism.

The difference between approaching themes in art and in genre is a matter of comfort. And I think that it’s a matter of intellect. For example, what happens in ‘The Fly’ would be very hard to take in a normal drama. Basically, an attractive guy meets an attractive girl and then contracts a terrible wasting disease and the girl watches as he deteriorates and, ultimately, she helps to kill him. That’s really the plot of ‘The Fly’ on an emotional level and that would be very hard to take if it were just a realistic drama. But when it’s a sci-fi horror mix, it sort of allows the audience to have some distance and they still feel the emotional impact of those things, but it gives them a little bit of safety, you know? But in terms of a movie like ‘Naked Lunch’ or ‘Crash,’ it’s just a question of what people are used to and what they expect from a movie. And when they’re not getting the structure that they’re familiar with, or an aesthetic approach that they understand, then there is a distance there but it’s not a good distance. It’s off-putting to them. So at that point the appeal is to a much narrower audience that can understand you and engage with the movie that you’ve made. —David Cronenberg

 
Crash is a story with deep feelings of loneliness and separateness permeating its core, showcasing the characters’ inability to touch each other physically as a means of diving into another person’s internal world, as well as displaying the protagonists’ lack of know-how when it comes to approaching sex as a process of re-establishing connection with a partner, as opposed to it being a mere mechanical action that requires extra stimuli, eventually calling for ever-higher levels of intensity. And in a world where technological advancement is slowly but surely taking over every facet of our lives, this disconnect becomes even more apparent, with technology amplifying our separateness on the one hand, and giving us tools we can use as loneliness avoidance strategies on the other. In the case of Crash, its characters cannot manage to find genuine arousal in that which is familiar, in the person they had grown accustomed to, which ultimately results in them seeking refuge in the extreme, at the meeting point of Eros and Thanatos, provided by the technology in the form of the motorcar.

Most people would say now, if you said ‘I’m doing a movie about high-technology,’ they’d think you’re talking about computers and the Internet or something like that, and if you said you are using a motorcar to represent that they would be quite surprised because they don’t think of the motorcar as being high-tech. But it is, it’s incredibly high-tech ’cause of the way it has absolutely altered human existence and our perception of what power we have or don’t have. It really has compressed time and space and it really also, especially in America, but I think in every country, it represents to a certain extent a sexual freedom and power. And so, the car is a very potent representative of technology I think. —David Cronenberg

This potent representative of technology, as Cronenberg refers to the car, is an outward trigger that enables the characters to tap into their sexual energy, because of their ineptitude to connect with it intrinsically. This sexual energy that Cronenberg portrays is at the same time a creative and a destructive force, with the characters both literally and metaphorically crashing and colliding into one another for the purpose of losing themselves in la petite mort (the little death i.e., orgasm). For what they seek but do not understand why, is that moment of release where all thoughts and concepts cease to exist and the rush of energy through their entire bodies results in a brief loss of consciousness—a transition not unlike death. Due to their incapacity to achieve this through genuine emotional connection and without extreme external catalysts, the characters’ only way of reaching their personal little deaths is by either witnessing literal death or getting close to experiencing it themselves, finding both release and relief in the pain that is inflicted upon them and the ecstasy that is born within them once they realize that they had survived. The prospect of death, therefore, becomes synonymous with the moment of orgasm—both symbolizing the imminent unknown, the intensity, duration and outcome of which one can neither predict, suspend nor control.

 
The film’s all about dealing with mortality. I always do this in my films, it’s a rehearsal for my own death to see what my characters do with theirs. They’ve eroticized death, and that’s their triumph. It’s a good trick to pull off if you can do it. —David Cronenberg

To loosely paraphrase Holly Hunter, who allegedly “pestered” the director into giving her the role of Helen because she desperately wanted to work with him, movies often tell us how we should think and feel, without engaging any of our senses, our imaginations or capacities for expanding our individual perceptions. Just as life happens to some people, without their willingness to get involved in its creation, so do certain movies—they just happen to you, leaving nothing to be discovered, uncovered or deduced. Cronenberg’s films, Crash included, are on the exact opposite side of the spectrum, demanding our active participation. In serving as a wake-up call of sorts, Crash holds a gigantic mirror to those watching, casually and unrestrictedly projecting back to us our own lack of self-awareness, our own connection deprivation and our own potential for both self-destruction and immense creation, thus challenging us to be brave enough to withstand—our own reflection.

Written by Koraljka Suton. Koraljka is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »

 
Screenwriter must-read: David Cronenberg’s screenplay for Crash [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Crash is getting a brand-new 4K restoration and a spot at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Recorded Picture Company and Turbine Media Group have completed work on their 4K restoration of Crash that was supervised by the film’s writer-director Cronenberg and director of photography Peter Suschitzky. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
“As a restored version of Crash finally emerges at the Venice Film Festival and producer Jeremy Thomas donates his personal archive to the BFI, we asked Thomas to cast his mind back to the unparalleled British media furore and Westminster ban that greeted the film’s release in 1996.” —Beyond the bounds of depravity: an oral history of David Cronenberg’s Crash

“I’m not sure you’re going to like anybody in Crash,” the director acknowledged in an interview. “It is a difficult film to access, but you can observe something from a distance and still be fascinated by it.” In making formula Hollywood films, he adds, “you know which buttons you’re supposed to push and if you’re professional enough to push them, you get the required response. Here I’m pushing buttons that nobody knew they had before, and I’m groping in the dark for those buttons. I’m not sure which ones I’m pushing.”



 
David Cronenberg, his collaborators, and his critics, discuss the controversial sensuality of Crash. Throughout the talk, Cronenberg shares his initial response of repulsion towards Ballard’s clinical and humorless approach to such a “medical sensuality,” and his sudden, impulsive decision to make the film (“I did have a Ferrari at the time, that might have had something to do with it,” he says).

 
In creating the prosthetics and scars for the injured characters in Crash, the production team turned to real-world inspirations. Hear from Stephan Dupuis as he discusses constructing the braces, body armour, and scars for the film. —Crash: Body Brace and Scars









 
In the 13-minute talk, Cronenberg delves into his perception of the film’s happy ending, getting into a car accident of his own, the complexities of translating J.G. Ballard, and racing vintage cars. Of particular interest is his comparison to his own body of work as that of a Ferrari, instead of a Ford, naturally, a perfectly Cronenbergian sentiment assuring his outlier reputation. He also talks about how he gained exclusive access to roads in Canada for Crash, and the logistics of finding unique ways to shoot someone inside a car, “without getting cute.” —Mike Mazzanti

 
In talking with Cronenberg, it’s hard to believe that this articulate, soft-spoken man is the creator of some of the most disturbing films of the past few decades. Speaking from his Toronto office, Cronenberg addressed the controversy surrounding his 1996 film. —Revisiting David Cronenberg’s Crash

 
Crash audio commentary with David Cronenberg.

 
Interviews with Cronenberg, and the stars of the movie, on Crash, from Sky’s Movie Channel.


Open YouTube video

 
Cinéma, de notre temps—David Cronenberg: I Have to Make the Word Be Flesh.

 

PETER SUSCHITZKY, ASC

The only long relationship I really had was with David Cronenberg. I shot two films with John Boorman but they were separated by 20 years, so it wasn’t exactly a marriage. Whereas with David Cronenberg it was very much a professional marriage. It was a wonderful opportunity to develop a relationship with him and shoot so many films together. Each one presented a different challenge. Each was quite different from the previous one. I found them all very stimulating to work on. For me, the key is to be stimulated by the project regardless of whether it’s going to be successful or not. I’m a firm believer in the importance of the context of what we cinematographers do. I think it’s pointless to think that you can do beautiful work on a bad film. Perhaps you can do good work on a bad film but it’s not going to have much meaning. Whereas if you do quite good work, maybe not great work, on a really good film, people will think you’re great and at the same time you’ll be stimulated. Actually I’ve found that I’ve done my best work on the most challenging films. Films which have been most stimulating to work on. They were all interesting. None were easy. I don’t make life easy for myself because I’m very tough on myself and I’m always trying to do something that I haven’t managed to do before, always pushing myself. Some of the most stimulating were Crash and Naked Lunch, I think. They were so unusual. It was very tough and the night exteriors were shot in the beginning of winter in Toronto. It got very cold and unpleasant. But I knew I was shooting a fascinating movie, so I was very happy. —Peter Suschitzky

 
Peter Suschitzky’s seminar in Cannes, as part of the ExcelLens tribute organized by Angénieux.

 
Scout Tafoya’s series about initially maligned films soldiers on with a look back at David Cronenberg’s best and most divisive film.

 
On 12 February 1971… the Radio Times announced, for 8.30pm on BBC2, ‘Crash!’. To be introduced by James Mossman. ‘For science fiction writer J.G. Ballard, the key image of the present day is the man in the motor car. It is the image that represents the dreams and fantasies that all too easily can turn into nightmares. In a film for Review Ballard explains the beauty and fascination of this potentially deadly technology.’ —Crash! Full-Tilt Autogeddon

 
J.G. Ballard on ITV’s South Bank Show.

 
J.G. Ballard: The Future Is Now.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Cronenberg’s Crash. Photographed by Michael Gibson & Jonathan Wenk © Fine Line Features, Alliance Communications Corporation, Recorded Picture Company, The Movie Network, Téléfilm Canada. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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