❉ Crash is often called a “cautionary tale” which was as true for the film’s UK release as much as its content, writes Jon Dear.
“If the man in the motor car is the key image of the twentieth century then the automobile crash is the most significant trauma. The car crash is the most traumatic event of most people’s lives, apart from their own deaths, and in many cases the two will coincide…If we really feared a car crash, none of us would be able to drive a car.” – J.G. Ballard
Few films have gripped the U.K. with such panic as David Cronenberg’s Crash, and its Blu-ray release has been a long time coming. Crash caused a furore when it debuted at Cannes, taking the Jury Prize despite the very public abstention of Jury president Francis Ford Coppola. There followed a huge campaign of moral indignation led by (who else?) the Daily Mail including an investigation into the private lives of those at the BBFC responsible for its certification. MPs on both sides of the House weighed in, Culture Secretary Virginia Bottomley helped get the film banned, and Labour MP Mark Fisher criticised the RAC for suggesting the film may have potential for education in the dangers of car crashes.
But what were the protests actually about? Why was the film deemed so shocking? It’s doubtful the majority of protestors had seen the film at Cannes or its solitary screening at the London Film Festival. Such outrage is self-perpetuating and amidst the sound and fury there is little of substance, just words like “depravity”, “perverted” and “repellent”, and that feels more like projection than a critical appraisal of what’s happening on screen. The novel the film was based on had been published in 1973, director David Cronenberg had form with bodily corruption, so the content was scarcely unexpected. There are more erotic films than Crash, there are more violent films but something about the fusion of breaking metal and flesh seemed to strike a nerve.
The structure of the film is surprisingly conventional, a couple, James and Catherine Ballard (James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) are growing increasingly apart, James has a chance encounter with another woman, Helen (Holly Hunter) they bump into each other sometime later and she draws him into a new world that widens his perspectives. It’s just the chance encounter is a car crash, and the wider world is those people who achieve spiritual and sexual fulfilment through car crashes. There is a lot of sex in Crash, and quite a lot of car crashes. So while it’s tempting to see the hostility as simply a distaste for people with a scar tissue fetish, the fact that it had such a reaction in Britain suggest there are cultural factors at play. Perhaps it’s because it centres around car crashes, and the associated tragedy; perhaps it because the car, one of the most obvious symbols of freedom in capitalism, is used as a vehicle of moral corruption, or perhaps every man going through a midlife crisis doesn’t like to be reminded of the connection between cars and potency.
Crash is a cold film, from the chrome lettering of the title sequence to the pathological cast of characters, everything seems designed to make the viewer uneasy. Spaces are sterile, functional and largely transitory. Even James and Catherine’s home overlooks a large road network. Only the home of stunt driver Seagrave (Peter MacNeill) looks like an identifiable human space and the scenes set there are overlaid with poverty and decay. But it’s also the base of operations of Vaughn (Elias Koteas). Vaughn is the heart (well, engine) of this film. He’s the only one to show any real emotion, even if it’s a psychotic obsession with recreating famous fatal collections. We first encounter him both MCing and participating in a restaging of James Dean’s final moments. Wisely Cronenberg loses the novel’s subplot of attempting to kill Elizabeth Taylor, that wouldn’t have translated as well here. Too focussed, too personal.
There’s little about the film that gives an indication of the time in which it’s set, fashion and technology suggest a contemporary setting yet the characters act with a coolness more associated with various filmic visions of the future, they experience trauma but don’t seem to feel pain, as if Cronenberg has extrapolated a transhumanist vision of a transformed future humanity where humans and cars are the same and transplanted it into ‘90s Canada. If he’d actually set Crash in the future, he may not have faced the vitriol he did. And because you’re seeing visions of the future which do not relate to the current human experience because humanity itself has been transformed, it creates something like an inversed hauntology. Perhaps this could be at the heart of why so many people find it upsetting. Interestingly, when Ben Wheatley made Ballard’s High-Rise (2015), in many ways a sister story to Crash, he chose to make it as a period piece, giving it the mid-70s setting of the novel’s publication. I think that was a mistake but that’s another story.
The 4K restoration looks amazing, accentuating both the cold clinical spaces of the outside and the cramped, oppressive interior space of the car. DoP Peter Suchitzky can shoot pretty much anything and the viewer is uncomfortably close to the action both in and outside the vehicles. A key sequence occurs around the hour mark, Vaughn, James and Catherine drive by the scene of a motorway accident, of course Vaughn must stop and take photographs. No one challenges him or interferes with his wanderings, not mutilated crash survivors nor emergency workers. All three explore the site like a 3D tableau, Vaughn even posing Catherine in some shots. It’s a fantastical, magical and utterly horrific space and carries far more power than similar sequences in something like Nightcrawler (2014), which is played entirely naturally with Police swiftly removing any interlopers.
The BD has a decent set of extras, including new interviews with Suchitzky, Exec. Producer Jeremy Thomas, Casting Director Deirdre Bowen and Composer Howard Shore, and a commentary from the always interesting Adrian Martin. But it’s in the plethora of archive material that I found the real gems. There’s a Q&A with Cronenberg and Ballard from the 1996 London Film Festival after Crash had received its solitary screening, and there’s Crash!, a short film from the BBC’s Review series broadcast in 1971, featuring Ballard and loosely adapted from his novel The Atrocity Exhibition and where the quote at the beginning of this review comes from. If you’ve not seen Cronenberg’s film before, I recommend this as a perfect introduction to what both Ballard and Cronenberg try to do with the story and what so many of its critics fail to understand.
Crash is often called a “cautionary tale” which is as true for the release of this film as much as anything contained within it, and I think it’s telling that Cronenberg would never attempt something so controversial again. Cars are far safter places than they were in either 1973 or 1996, and perhaps cinema is too. And as we look back on something that may never be made in this way again, it’s important to remember that everything is transitory, with the possible exception of misplaced outrage.
Ultra HD 4K and Blu-Ray Contents:
❉ Brand new 4K restoration of the uncut NC-17 version from the original 35mm camera negative, supervised by writer-director David Cronenberg and director of photography Peter Suschitzky
❉ High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation/4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentation in High Dynamic Range
❉ 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
❉ Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
❉ Brand new audio commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin
❉ Cronenberg Challenge – new interview with director of photography Peter Suschitzky
❉ Mechanical Animals – new interview with executive producer Jeremy Thomas
❉ The Shore Thing – new interview with composer Howard Shore
❉ License to Drive – new interview with casting director Deirdre Bowen
❉ Archival “Behind the Scenes” featurette
❉ Archival interviews with David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard and actors James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger and Elias Koteas
❉ Cronenberg: Concrete Cowboy – brand new video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal on Cronenberg’s use of Toronto as a filming location
❉ Original Trailers
❉ Fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Vanessa Morgan and Araceli Molina, alongside a reprinted excerpt from Cronenberg on Cronenberg
❉ Fold-out double-sided poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork
❉ Limited edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx
❉ ‘Crash’ (1996) is out on download 30 November 2020, and Blu-Ray/4K UHD 14 December 2020 from Arrow Video. Duration: 100 mins. BBFC Cert 18. 4K UHD, RRP £34.99: CRASH LIMITED EDITION UHD | Order on Blu-ray, RRP £29.99: CRASH LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY
❉ Jon Dear is a freelance writer on television and film. You can find more of his writing at https://viewsfromahill.com/ He also hosts BERGCAST, a podcast on Nigel Kneale which can be found at bergcast.room207press.com.