Metal as an Extension of Human Flesh in David Cronenberg’s ‘Crash’


David Cronenberg’s Crash had earned a reputation for itself as one of the most controversial films of the 90’s, and in the years that have passed since its release, it’s easy enough to say that there aren’t many films that would have went out the same way that this had done so. Adapted from J. G. Ballard’s novel of the same name, Crash is a film that can drive one’s feelings towards complete arousal or utterly disturbing, for it exemplifies everything that has made Cronenberg’s work every bit as distinctive as it is. But with a film like this, there’s no true “middle ground” when it comes to getting a picture of how people feel about such a work – but it’s hard to not admire the fact that David Cronenberg would have taken a big risk of this sort with trying to bring Ballard’s novel to the big screen. Yet it still stays in tune with his own brand of body horror, as it also transforms itself into something so oddly desirable, for its images are never easy to let go of for as difficult as they can be to grasp. It’s a miracle of some sort that a film like this was even made, but Cronenberg never lets down on his promise.


Set in Toronto, Crash tells the story of film producer James Ballard (James Spader), whose introduction is no less fitting – we see him having sex in his office. His wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) is also introduced rather fittingly too in this same nature, for in the film’s opening scene we see her caressing her breast onto the hull of a prop plane before a stranger prepares himself to pleasure her. But when the two are around one another, they find that they are not enthused with having sexual intercourse together. Ballard finds himself having gotten involved with a car crash, in which a man was killed but his wife Helen (Holly Hunter), is not only traumatized by the incident and her injuries but also aroused by the nature of the event. This is where Ballard also finds himself draw into a cult where celebrity car crashes are recreated by Vaughan (Elias Koteas) as a means of “fertilizing.” In connecting a link between the arousal of the grotesque, what David Cronenberg brings us to witness with Crash is a film that would already be so difficult to pinpoint, but also feels like the perfect culmination of every single one of his own talents being weaved together.

Cronenberg captures some sort of psychopathy in Crash from as much as the core concept, but he is also never not fascinated by the material which he chooses to work with. He never lets anything hold him back from approaching even the most obscene, whether it be within the nudity or the images of the injuries, but that would already be scratching the surface of what makes Crash every bit as stimulating an experience. It draws you in from its visualization of metal as human flesh, with the car crashes playing themselves out to be like a release for the much needed energy to enhance sexual interactivity. When you watch the movie, Cronenberg never holds back on showing the idea as implausible in any sense of the word. Yet tapping into these sensibilities and his audience’s desire to see more out of the imagery, we’re also seeing Cronenberg create an ambience that draws oneself in much like his own body horror films – leaving us to ask ourselves to what degree can our darkest desires turn into something more dangerous.

When you have an image much like that of Deborah Kara Unger licking a brand new airplane, while caressing her nude breast onto its wing, there’s a distinctive coldness that draws oneself into its own world. It becomes apparent from that moment that people are in a sense, attached to their own machines, but this also parallels the way in which people have also grown up to become attached to machines in their daily lives. But Cronenberg using these mechanisms as a means of opening up new possibilities towards looking at how metal can also be seen as a “new flesh,” akin to what he was searching for through Videodrome. Yet there’s something more that David Cronenberg taps into with Crash that also makes for another fascinating case study – especially as he explores the effects of trauma upon sexuality, with these people having lived through violent experiences that almost mirror their fantasies. It’s the fact that these people have survived an incident of such nature that thrusts them into another world, but the seduction of such an idea already leaves us to wonder if our desires are really something worth going for no matter how dangerous the prospects of making them possible may be.

There’s also a seductive quality to how Crash builds its own ambience, from the way its characters talk with one another, often isolated yet you still feel a sense of closeness in between them. Adding to that, Peter Suschitzky’s eye behind the camera is incredibly voyeuristic, from the extreme close-ups of skin and metal that already bring out a desire to come closer to one’s own flesh, and the crash sequences stick their landing. They’re impeccably put together, but the way Cronenberg allows you to experience them also creates a ride so visceral it would be rather difficult to pinpoint. From the way you hear the scraping of metal meshing together with the injury, from the breaking of glass, even these crashes are made to sound like they’re incredibly erotic. Yet in retrospect, they also become the less shocking moments of the film – rather the sex itself becomes haunting because of how much closer we see that these people have become even towards their own flesh. It’s astounding a story of this sort can even be conceptualized on paper, but even the notion of “fertilization” opens up even more possibilities to where these fetishes can lead oneself. Could it lead them even towards death, for even this film captures a tragedy like no other – and Cronenberg isn’t one to shy away from the notion of desensitization in this sense.

Crash is a film all about how people come together through the marriage of man and machine, for amidst a car crash you are forever linked with the metal in your skin upon death. Yet as Cronenberg translates the words of J. G. Ballard’s novel to the screen, what makes Crash so hypnotizing is the very fact that like the best of Cronenberg’s films, he draws you into a world that almost could be like our own, yet its people function differently. It’s astounding to me that anyone could ever manage to make a film like this, knowing the sort of boundaries that would be broken from the concept or the imagery, but in the eyes of David Cronenberg it’s easy enough to say that what comes forward is a horror movie unlike most others. Like his best horror films, it remains highly tragic, but even he sees that maybe these tragedies could open something happy for these people. It could even come across as pornographic, yet Cronenberg doesn’t hold back on showing that maybe such fantasies can unleash greater potential in realizing what happens following such an incident.

Watch the trailer right here.

All images via The Movie Network.

Directed by David Cronenberg
Screenplay by David Cronenberg, from the novel by J. G. Ballard
Produced by David Cronenberg
Starring James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette
Release Date: October 4, 1996
Running Time: 100 minutes


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