Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Cronenberg's Crash - Unlikeable

David Cronenberg's Crash made me want to throw up, emotionally. That doesn't mean it's a bad film, but it's not usually a compliment to say "it was very well-made, but the characters were ugly and troubling in an unchallenging way, and I never want to see it again."

Not everything or everyone is meant to be liked. Not everything or everyone intends to be liked, at some time or another. A smart, experienced person should be able to tell when they're in these situations, and judge matters accordingly. That's art - and life.

James (James Spader) is a film producer. He and his wife, Catharine (Deborah Kara Unger) seem to have lost their passion for each other, tho they do spend a lot of time screwing their many various lovers. Then they get into a car crash with another married couple.

Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) is the wife of the other driver. Her hubby is killed in the wreck, but she's more or less okay, as is Catharine. James, meanwhile, is less bothered by his need for a brief hospital stay than by a moment that's more pivotal to him: when he saw Helen climbing out of her wrecked car, one of her breasts popped loose from her blouse as she unbuckled herself. Soon, James begins an affair with Helen, and she introduces him to Vaughan (Elias Koreas), an artist/cult leader type who restages famous car accidents that for crash fetishists.

Then, life goes from kinda creepy and skeevy to definitely creepy and skeevy and insane. These folks are turned on by wrecks, and danger - hell, James' accident happened because by Helen was screwing her husband. Now, everybody starts f--king everyone else, and we follow folks who see danger, violence, and injury as a massive turn on. Seriously, at one point, SPOILER ALERT, Spader screws a large wound on Rosanna Arquette's leg. Holy f--k.

As you can imagine, the movie was divisive, especially after taking the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (among other awards). Critics either praised the film as daring and original or called it vile trash. All of those responses, however, were a little dumb, because: firstly, as I mentioned above, art can depict things without endorsing them, like a thought experiment or challenging a norm.

Worse still, David only directed and wrote the screenplay. Crash is based on a book by JG Ballard, who actually f--king named the lead character "James Ballard." Any ill critique and controversy should've stuck to the source material, and simply judged DC's work as a production of that story. These critics, then, were pretty unprofessional, and uneducated.

What struck me the most about the movie is that James and Catharine are, from scene 1, deeply-messed up - and unappealing. They're pretty enough to get sex a lot, but they actually display zero charm, which is weird to witness, as they're both sociopaths and nymphomaniacs. Sorry for TMI, but having sex too seldom brings my mood down. If I can't get it, tho, I can survive that.

This couple, however, is compelled to keep hitting the pleasure button all the time. They can't survive without, I'm assuming, filling the emotional void within themselves by banging other folks. So they don't decide to write or exercise or work on their problems when they can't get sex easily - they just look for new ways to get off. The film has a supreme focus on these unenviable characters, and it shows in the slow way that it follows them all - the camera is virtually a stalker.

As you can imagine, watching people like this discover a deadly and rather nasty - and worst of all, violent - fetish is a very unpleasant experience. But: the actors are all better than great ,with material that can be genuinely challenging; the movie looks beautiful, despite the events it shows; the musical compositions by Howard Shore are just excellent. And, in the end, Mr. Cronenberg will always be an amazing director, so his work deserves attention and respect, regardless of whether or not I "like" the result.

It's not always meant to be likeable. Nor supposed to be.

And though it's unpleasant, Crash does have a lot to say about obsession, and about the games that people play with each other and themselves. It is interesting to imagine this deviant sub-subculture of car crash fetishization - but I might be reacting to the fact that Vaughan's rhetoric is about people's bodies being transformed by modern technology, and that's been a theme of this director for decades.

It is weird and sort of sickening to watch all these different people, virtually a bunch of horny robots, mix together like a bunch of spilled cans of paint. Here, at least, they really do resemble some odd sort of traffic accident: limbs and hair and hands and skin compressed against each other, even if everything they're feeling is turned back onto themselves - a destructive and utterly-narcissistic sex addiction. And this last part means that Cronenberg hit the same general subject matter as Steve McQueen would, more than a decade later, in 2011's Shame.

But skipping this movie also means you'd miss a unique performance in Ms. Hunter's career, as well as a rare chance to see Koteas and Unger with more central roles than they often have. As for Spader, I'm a biased judge; all I can say is that he does his thing well here. And whether you enjoy the experience of DC's film or not, it might give you a lot to think about, as surely as Shame did for some.

Not me, of course, save how repulsive or compulsive some folks can be. I took a great sex course in college, and it gave me all the tools to have a very healthy attitude about sexuality. I'm just saying that I don't like the movie, despite recognizing that it's meant to be unlikeable, in some ways.

A smart, experienced person should be able to tell... and judge matters accordingly. That's art - and life.


  1. I initially disliked this film. I'll admit, a big part of the reason I disliked it was that I had a huge crush on Holly Hunter, and was upset that someone would "ruin" her being in an R-rated sex film with a bunch of car crash fetishism, leg brace humping, and Elias Koteas. The ratio of sex scenes to eroticism in this movie is astoundingly low, possibly incalculable (dividing any integer by zero is problematic).

    Still, even on my first viewing the ending of the movie floored me, and these days I'm pissed that several years later, Paul Haggis gave his piece of crap Oscar-winning movie the same name, causing confusion ever after. (Seriously, how is it possible that Lee Daniels has to change the title of his film The Butler, because 100 years earlier a short silent film had that name, but Haggis gets to reuse the title "Crash" just eight years after Cronenberg's film?)

    As Thaddeus said, it's not an enjoyable film, but it's an interesting study of fetishism and modern life. I disagree with the idea that James and Catherine are pleasure-seeking robots. At the beginning of the film, they're numb. They're pursuing things that should be pleasurable (extramarital sex, and IIRC, drug use?) but they're obviously not getting much pleasure out of those experiences. That numbness doesn't break until they discover this bizarre fetish and the even weirder community built around it.

    While the (fictional?) fetish is weird and "gross," it's a good metaphor for some real forces that power our sex drive--the fear of death, the adrenaline rush of danger, etc. I'd be curious to see it again in a double bill with the somewhat-similar Fight Club, or the polar opposite Secretary (with James Spader playing a similar role in two very different ways).

    1. I really like your perspective about this film. I understand your disappointment with Ms. Hunter, but she's the last person to take a role like this for foolish reasons. She must have wanted a change or been drawn to the part for good reasons.

      I do agree that the leads are emotionally-numb, and that they reach some point of emotion at the end of the film. It's just impossible for me not to see them as dissatisfied sociopaths, and I think a lot of the film bears that out.

      And, yes, screw Haggis - I don't understand how he got to use that title, either. Or why it seemed like a good idea, given that the latter film came out only a few years after the former one.


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