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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Seven: Crash (1996)

Still audacious after all these years. And I would term it unfilmable under modern standards of acceptance(in other words, the almost complete disregard for the NC-17 film rating—which was supposed to usher in a new wave of serious, adult-minded films), but then we got the similarly daring “Cosmopolis” from Cronenberg just this past year. With the vast majority of “Cosmopolis” taking place in the lead character’s limousine, is it any wonder that many label it an ersatz sequel to “Crash”? I can buy part of that argument, but “Crash” probably stands alone among Cronenberg’s oeuvre regarding the intended goal of James and Catherine Ballard(James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger, respectively). And that is the attempt to find the perfect orgasm. Or maybe that one can only be perfect if it culminates in death. Should that theory of the film’s intended theme be considered a spoiler 16 years on? I don’t think so. Most audiences will be too preoccupied with their shock upon their initial viewing of “Crash” to even consider whether or not I just gave anything away. It’s still a wowser(I just completed my latest view last night). I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the film since its release. Ten, maybe? Including 3 times in the theater when it first arrived. The fact is that it would be possible to get a similar work completed in today’s world. But it would probably be on a much lesser budget. And then, of course, almost no one would go to see it. And few of those who actually ventured would have the patience to comprehend it. If you want to argue that point with me, I suggest you secure us a time machine to take us back almost 16 years. I lived it—and I remember the disruption and the walk-outs.

The movie opens with James Ballard(Mr. Spader…and btw, the movie is based on a novel by J.G. Ballard)and wife Catherine(Ms. Unger)having sex in two separate scenes and locations. Not with each other, mind you—but they are not cheating on one another either. These “infidelities” are accepted practice, and are used in discussion by the couple later on to try to heighten the excitement of their marital copulations. Then James Ballard makes a discovery upon a tragic accident. A head-on crash with another car sends that car’s passenger through both windshields and into the passenger cabin with Ballard—killing that man instantly. Severely injured and in a post-accident haze, Ballard focuses his semiconscious attention on the other car’s driver. Injured as well, she shockingly proceeds to tear open her upper garments and caress herself. She appears to be sexually aroused. Both survivors are transported to a hospital that usually treats victims of airline disasters. The aroused woman turns out to be Dr. Helen Remington(played borderline unstable, and incredibly sexually charged by Holly Hunter). While recovering in different areas of the facility, they encounter Vaughan(the fan-fucking-tastic Elias Koteas)—who appears to be some type of medical photographer. Vaughan takes a keen interest in the injuries sustained by Ballard in the crash. And he’s also seen walking the halls and talking with Dr. Remington. It later turns out that Vaughan is the ringleader of a cult group that re-enacts famous celebrity car accidents. Upon their release from the hospital, Ballard and Remington have a sexual encounter in a car. In fact, from here on just about every reference to and focus of sexual proclivity is in an automobile. Ballard and Dr. Remington soon attend an obviously illegal, after hours re-enactment of the collision that killed movie star James Dean in 1955. It is emceed and participated in by Vaughan. When the group is dispersed by authorities after the crash, the expansive audience runs every which way, and Ballard, Remington, Vaughan and the drivers escape into nearby woods. Before long there are various sexual couplings and gropings between almost all of our cast—including homosexual and with multiple partners. And I must mention the mid-film arrival of Gabrielle(an astonishingly sexy, Rosanna Arquette), a woman whose legs were mangled in an accident, and now hobbles around in metal braces and provocative clothing. Oh, and the scar on one of her thighs has the appearance of a sexual organ. Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what that leads to? It may just spin your head.

Cronenberg’s body-horror theme is at full throttle in “Crash”. It’s hard to imagine a future time where this stuff wouldn’t be daring. Scars, deformities, injuries and infirmities are all made sexual. Cronenberg has always been one of cinema’s premier envelope-pushers. Can you handle it? Of course, that’s entirely up to you. You do have to be pretty adventurous to give this beast a try. Certain renowned critics vehemently opposed the film’s release. A certain media mogul(alright, Ted Turner)attempted to have the film blocked from the United States after it premiered in Canada in late 1996(it eventually hit U.S. theaters in March 1997…I saw it opening day and twice that weekend, of course). But for the most open-minded audiences(a decidedly endangered species), it is an exhilarating, highly adult ride. It ran in competition at Cannes in 1996 and was later awarded a Special Jury Prize for its “daring, audacity and originality”. Also, among its champions are the respected Cahiers du cinema magazine in France and film director Martin Scorsese. Both ordain it one of the ten greatest films of the 1990’s. It also boasts one of composer Howard Shore’s most masterful scores(I’ll label it as sounding metallic…and I listened to it incessantly after the movie opened). And it’s unfortunately nearly impossible(maybe on Blu-ray?)to experience the opening credits and title design the way it was in the theater. The chrome and dented-fender appearing letters zoomed out at you 3D-like in the manner of approaching cars. The effect was/is hypnotic. And the look given to the film by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky is wondrous. A dark, foreboding cityscape with a feel of vampiric depravity at night, and a sense of filtered sun sonambulance during the day. “Crash” should probably be considered Cronenberg’s best of the 1990’s. On my most recent watch, I can assure you that it is a sexually mature and artistic triumph. And it was(still is)way ahead of its time.      Grade:  A, with the overwhelming temptation to go A+

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2 comments on “The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Seven: Crash (1996)

  1. my only disappointment re this film is the lack of a blu ray. suschitzky’s masterful camera work and shore’s distinctive score deserve the HD transfer.

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