In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week we look at a Cause Célèbre, David Cronenberg’s masterful Ballard adaptation, Crash.
I’ve always been fascinated by J.G. Ballard as a figure. Growing up in a very proper British family but in Shanghai, Ballard’s viewpoint as an outsider to our sceptered isles with a native’s understanding made him in many ways the enfant terrible of British literature, and in many ways Ballard blazed the trail for more famous American writers like Brett Easton Ellis, Don De Lillo, and Chuck Palahniuk, with his blend of heightened reality, vulgarity, and class detachment. Although the most famous adaptation of a Ballard novel is the family adventure epic Empire of the Sun, it was his run in the 70s that is really emblematic of what defines Ballard’s legacy in the world of literature. I remember reading in the introduction to Ballard’s seminal social horror ‘High Rise’ that importantly and tragically, Ballard’s wife died suddenly of pneumonia in 1964 leaving Ballard with a lot of responsibility and a lot of grief and not many ways to process it. As a result of this he went into a deep state of social alienation and preempted by his influential and famous work ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ in 1970, he would write three novels that not only capture a deep sense of social alienation, grief, but also satirical worlds that preempt the landscape that would characterise the reign of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. These being ‘Crash’ in 1973, ‘Concrete Island’ in 1974, and ‘High Rise’ in 1975. These are novels that take a stern look at the physical products of our society and uses them as dark mirrors of the society that created them. ‘High Rise’ is maybe the most literal and singular of these works, that novel and the excellent adaptation by Ben Wheatley, take a look at a form of architecture that was consciously created to be a form of social influence, that being Brutalism. Functional architecture to encourage a rigid and functional society where people fill their allocated roles and just get on with things. Just as the high rises that became the identifying feature of social architecture in the 70s and 80s made in a Brutalist style were purely a functional way to organise people in a world where people felt like there was increasingly not enough room. What the next 15 years would show though is that society doesn’t work that way, and in Ballard’s novel the building slowly stops working as things go wrong because things do go wrong. In this way he unpicks how society cannot be corralled by unemotional mechanisms that attempt to control with no nuance and all rigidity. ‘Crash’ is maybe the most twisted and cracked of the three though.
‘Crash’, Ballard’s seminal (in more ways than one) tragedy is book ended by car crashes, and includes many in between, both constructed and not. You see, the novel concerns itself with the construction of a unit of people who get off on car crashes, one in particular gets off on reconstructed car crashes of famous celebrities. In the novel there’s a lot more of imagining just any celebrity in the car crash but the movie tends to be strictly limited to real life celebrity car crashes… and it’s a really tough read. I actually found ‘High Rise’ much more smooth going as a read but ‘Crash’ comes straight out the gate with ‘and he looked down as his blood mixed with his semen and vomit’, and stuff like that, and it never really goes away. It is an assault of vulgarity. Ballard’s work at this time was majorly alienating. In capturing the social alienation these novels are told coldly, detached from society, a step removed, much like a David Cronenberg movie. Much like how Ben Wheatley is really the only filmmaker aside from Nicolas Roeg who had a go at adapting ‘High Rise’ who could capture that novel’s insanity, after reading ‘Crash’, I realised that Cronenberg is absolutely the only filmmaker who could do justice to that novel.
Cronenberg’s film comes at an interesting time in his filmography as well, ever since he made The Fly in1986 he started moving further away from body horror, a genre he defined, and into psychological thrillers, horrors, and mystery. Dead Ringers, his first film after The Fly while it deals deeply with the corporeal it is much more concerned with the dramatic tragedy of Jeremy Iron’s lead gynaecologists than it is any explicitly gross out body horror. Next would be Naked Lunch, another adaptation of an author who is important to both me and Mr. Cronenberg, William S. Burroughs, (although I know much more about his novel ‘Junkie’ than ‘Naked Lunch’), which is the film where there can be a solid marking line between body horror and surrealism, a line which had being blurred consistently throughout the 80s with films like Society and A Nightmare on Elm Street because Naked Lunch’s weird freaky shit that would normally be reserved for the body takes place entirely in the lead character’s internal mental space and in the same way as Crash, deals with societal alienation being driven by fringe desires like drug addiction. Crash comes after the film after Naked Lunch though, that being M. Butterfly, a film quite widely derided, and one of the few Cronenberg’s I’ve never seen, so maybe adapting an undisputed classic of postmodern literature is maybe the only way Cronenberg could possibly have made a film unabashedly strange and perverse after a flop on the level of M. Butterfly as Crash.
Cronenberg’s Crash, like Frears’ High Fidelity translates the novel from its native Britain to an American city the writers know better. James Spader plays a fictionalised version of Ballard who never existed even in his novelistic version, or else Ballard would probably be in prison. After being ran into oncoming traffic he hits the car in which Dr. Helen Remington, played by Holly Hunter, is a passenger. Her husband, in a real visceral beat of shock, dies violently in the crash. Ballard is already in an open relationship with his wife played by Deborah Kara Unger and after going to a show of celebrity crash mimicry by Elias Koteas as Dr. Robert Vaughan they kind of enter into a ménage à cinq including somebody already in Vaughan’s orbit played by Rosanna Arquette. Interestingly, the casting of Arquette and the set dressing of their strange den of a HQ immediately made me think of Pulp Fiction, which I haven’t seen for years but had only come out two years before Crash.
Spader’s casting is interesting. In the 90s he had made roles like this his hunting ground where he is slightly boyish, but also very skeezy, and enigmatic, and untrustworthy, but broadly very human and interesting with roles like Crash, Sex Lies & Videotape, & Secretary, all of which deal with alternative expressions of sexuality. In this case Spader not only has lots and lots and lots of normal sex but everyone has lots and lots and lots of unconventional sex. Arquette’s character has severe leg restrictions and amputation after one of Vaughan’s car crashes and her and Spader make some kind of perverse sexual show of her needing help into a car at a show garage and Spader doing nothing to help. All of this overt sexuality, perverse of otherwise, caught Crash in a lot of media hot water especially in the hyper sensationalistic but also hyper conservative media atmosphere of Ballard’s native UK. In publications like the heinous The Daily Mail journalists like Christopher Tookey attempted to launch a now ill remembered moral panic with headlines like “Ban This Car Crash Sex Film” that really do seem silly now especially as given the UK’s 18 certification that the film received it is impossible for anyone who is not an adult, legally free to see whatever the fuck they want, to have seen it in cinemas. This rating is much more standard in the UK as opposed to the USA’s equivalent NC-17 rating which you hardly ever see given to a major release. This campaign in fact is credited as the reason Tookey’s campaign to become the vice-president of The Critic’s Circle failed, because his campaign was silly. Mostly because really, the sex is very important to a very touching and character driven story about grief and relationships.
One thing the film captured very well is how a strong personality in a fringe group of people can cause others to revolve around him in his group, in this case that person being Vaughan. It is something that I have unfortunately experienced as someone who frequently does not fit into society. I have found myself in groups frequently whose only collective identity is being rejected from the rest of society and feeling like outsiders. Time and time again the groups, myself included become gravitated to one strong person in the group because really, we’ve been beaten down and away from previous people in our lives so the one person who seems to have it together, we gravitate to that, because we want that confidence, and it’s incredibly toxic. The book more than the film captures potentially homoerotic elements of this relationship but the film explores a different but still very real element of this dynamic despite sticking very faithfully to the novel. The really explicit and perverse sexuality in the film only serves to highlight the extremity of the feeling more than anything else, and it’s all, in my opinion, necessary to not only do the aforementioned purpose but really just set the alienating and jagged tone of the film which highlights the frosty, detached, and withdrawn tone of the story and feelings of the characters.
It’s a story with actually I think a lot to teach. If the explicit nature of the film is too much for you that’s really okay, I don’t blame you for not watching this film, but if you can take it I cannot recommend this film highly enough. In the day since I watched this film it has only become more apparent that this is my new favourite Cronenberg film, the previous one being The Brood, and I’ve seen nearly all of his pictures. It is a devastating portrait of the confusion of loss and people you cling to when you’ve truly lost something. It is also as much as anything a treatise on Freud’s theories of the origins of fetish because it’s Cronenberg so of course it is! But what I really want to hammer home here is that this film is a masterpiece with a lot of raw honest emotion to it, and what it shouldn’t be remembered for is scandal, it should be remembered for being excellent.