What was the best film of 1996? That’s easy: David Cronenberg’s CRASH. An adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1973 cult novel (and NOT to be confused with the Paul Haggis flick of the same name), it was by far the most uncompromising and confrontational film of the year, perhaps even the decade. Unlike most safe, predictable Hollywood productions, CRASH steadfastly refuses to kowtow to its audience. So be it. In spite of the efforts of Ted Turner and others to suppress this movie, it’s clear that CRASH is not going to go away.
For a while it looked as if Americans wouldn’t get a chance to see CRASH. After its premiere at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, the film was picked up for domestic release by the Ted Turner-owned Fine Line Features. Super-mogul Turner pronounced himself “appalled” by CRASH, and attempted to suppress its American release (and nor was he alone in his efforts to ban Cronenberg’s film–similar attempts were launched, often successfully, throughout Britain). Meanwhile, the film was given a limited release in Canada in the fall of ‘96, where it cleaned up at the box office. Apparently its high grosses changed Turner’s mind about the film’s merit; Fine Line released it in the US in March, and it’s now readily available on DVD.
So what’s all the fuss about? CRASH is not, as many have alleged, a porno movie. Although it has more than its share of sex scenes, most are shot from the waist up. Besides, CRASH has much more on its mind than the average stag film. All of the upset that CRASH has caused only testifies to its power. Perverted though they may seem, it’s clear that the images and themes of Crash hit a little too close to home.
After a near-fatal car accident in which a doctor is killed, James Ballard (James Spader), starts an affair with the doctor’s widow (Holly Hunter). The two find that they can only have sex in Ballard’s car, an exact reproduction of the vehicle he destroyed in the accident. Finding himself increasingly attracted to images of car accidents, Ballard and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) are sucked into the bizarre and deadly world of Vaughan (Elias Koteas), whose activities include staging famous car accidents.
The film’s premise is drawn from a piece in Ballard’s 1969 collection THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION. Whereas the short story ran a whopping four pages, the resulting novel numbered over two hundred. It should come as no surprise that repetitiveness is one of the key criticisms leveled at the novel; it’s also a charge leveled at the film (“A collection of sex scenes is not a plot,” complained a viewer at a test screening). Yes, the constant sex scenes (often presented two, sometimes three in a row) are repetitive, but then it’s not always the sex itself that matters. It’s more often the sight of a hand clutching the upholstery or fingers caressing the accident wounds on a woman’s shoulder such details convey more fully the plot of CRASH than any conventional method.
Technically, CRASH is top notch in every respect, as we’ve come to expect from Cronenberg. The car accidents are brilliantly staged, as are the sex scenes. But those viewers expecting to see something along the lines of Cronenberg’s earlier films (VIDEODROME, DEAD RINGERS, NAKED LUNCH, etc.) are bound to be disappointed.
CRASH is unrivaled, even in Cronenberg’s already unique filmography. But then, as bizarre as it is, perhaps Cronenberg’s greatest achievement here is the unsettling familiarity of his images: babes stroking auto parts, sex in the back seat of a convertible, car chases, car crashes…all well-known to us from thousands of movies and television commercials. This, then, is CRASH’s most disconcerting quality: it deals with fantasies we’ve already had.
Alliance Communications Productions/ Fine Line Features. 100 minutes
Director: David Cronenberg
Producers: David Cronenberg, Stephane Reichel, Marilyn Stonehouse
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
(Based on the novel by J.G. Ballard)
Cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Cast: James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeil, Yolande Julian, Cheryl Swarts, Judah Katz