Friday 6 November 2020

Bodywork: "Crash"

In theory, a new 4K restoration of David Cronenberg's Crash releases today in those Scottish and Welsh cinemas permitted to reopen after regional lockdowns; the rest of the UK will have to wait for it. (It's one occasion where those drive-in screenings that became so popular this summer really wouldn't be appropriate.) Whichever road it takes to our screens, the film will enjoy an easier ride than it did upon its initial release back in 1997, when it was greeted with fulminating front pages and censorial disapproval, obliging distributors Sony to travel from council to council to get it shown at all. The Crash controversy was but one of that decade's furores, as filmmakers found new and ever more taboo-busting ways to shoot sex and violence: Cronenberg's film pulled in between a renewed fuss over so-called video nasties (Reservoir Dogs, The Good Son, Man Bites Dog) and a couple of major late-Nineties talking points that set the film world aflutter (Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut). Seen in retrospect, it has far more in common with the latter two films, auteur-driven literary adaptations released by studios that must have anticipated the risks in taking on contentious, properly adult, 18-rated material, but decided to take them anyway (in a way you feel 21st century studios likely wouldn't). What's even more apparent in 2020 than it was in 1997, when Crash was A Serious Artwork Being Suppressed By The Powers-That-Be, is that this is also a pitch-black comedy. In his source novel of 1973, J.G. Ballard was writing provocatively about men, women and machines, the death drive; Cronenberg converted that thesis into bruised, vulnerable, pulsing human flesh, and made a film about people who are forever too horny to keep their damn eyes on the road. 

If you find yourself giggling, that may be the point. Crash was a Canadian observing how ridiculous people - Americans, in particular - had become about their mode of transport; that it had become another obsession or fetish, worthy of study and dissection in the interests of public health, and thence perhaps to be chuckled at. It sets off in mock-softporn fashion, with Deborah Kara Unger - that Veronica Lake-alike who fell down a wormhole in 1947 and wound up in every other late-Nineties indie - rubbing a tit against a light aircraft; it proceeds with Holly Hunter and James Spader eyeing one another up in the immediate wake of a head-on collision that does quite spectacularly for the former's husband; it bypasses a brief shot of Spader and Hunter and Rosanna Arquette with their hands down one another's pants watching video footage of crash tests; and it builds towards a car-wash climax where the roof of a convertible extends like a cloth erection, and the windows of the Spadermobile get not just steamy but positively frothyThere are scenes where, were it not for Howard Shore's jangly score and Cronenberg's ever-sinuous camera, we could almost be watching Robin Askwith getting his end away in Confessions of a Driving Instructor.

Some of the source's seriousness survives in an underlying concern that society was accelerating towards extremes. It's not enough for these petrol-sniffers to get their kicks on Route 66; they're planning a three-way smash-up over on Route 69, putting themselves and others in mortal danger. In other words, Cronenberg was warning of exactly what those guardians of decency were worried about; he's rather more wry and dry about it, but the film is moral. This was a pre-Internet artefact, but Ballard and Cronenberg were onto the fraught relationship between society and machinery: how technology both shields and entraps us, how it simultaneously thrills and repulses, and leads some to push down increasingly hard just to feel anything. That line of investigation comes through most clearly in the narcotised performances. No-one here speaks above a whisper, even when - as the characters are at multiple points - in physical pain, or approaching orgasm. They're adrenaline junkies, from which we'd do well to keep at least two chevrons apart, but they're also visually distinctive test dummies, found in varying states of disrepair: Elias Koteas, with his Frankenstein's monster scars; Spader, with the pallor and undereye saddlebags that suggest he prepared for the role (of "James Ballard": this was as much autocritique as critique) by staying up all night for a month, wanking; Hunter, incredibly poised and precise in the middle of it all, like a brand new car on the lot; Arquette, slightly underused, but rocking the calipers in the film's kinkiest, most obviously Cronenbergian sequence. They're all tremendously well-choreographed - with their threat of imminent carnage, the driving sequences are as tense as the sex scenes are angular and peculiar - but Cronenberg views these characters as dummies first and foremost: bound at great speed for the scrapyard, which is what happens when the parts overrule the head. 

Crash opens in selected Scottish and Welsh cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD reissue on November 30.

No comments:

Post a Comment