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When Desires Collide with David Cronenberg’s Imagination

By Christian Leonzo - Sept. 24, 2015, 12:00 PM

On the formerly syndicated program At the Movies, Gene Siskel remarked, “My honest reaction is that the subject of Crash left me empty, not even challenged in the am-I-hip-enough to get it way.” He subsequently commented that it left him cold. Ebert vehemently disagreed. “Your objection is that you really didn’t bring any sympathy to what [Cronenberg] was trying to do,” Ebert explained. “He’s trying to make a pornographic movie without pornography.” Ebert continued to defend the film by saying that the movie tackled the human psyche of compulsion and obsession, substituting ordinary sexual stimuli for an entirely eccentric and bizarre new set of stimuli, car crashes!

For clarification, “not-the-point” is the key to understanding the movie’s argument. Nearly everyone, including the director, would agree that no such reality of sexual adventurers exist out there deriving pleasure from car crashes. What Cronenberg has filmed in Crash, an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel, is a metaphor, an allegory, a fantasy whereby our own real compulsions and obsessions are observed and picked apart.

Simply, Crash is the mirror of our libido, which shows us that sex frequently exists and thrives in moments of sensational distress. We as humans have the agency in this day and age to disregard many of the past’s chaste attitudes towards certain sexual acts. To knowingly seek, feel compelled by, and perform traumatic, harming acts for sexual gratification shows just how far humans are willing to commit for that next orgasmic thrill, even if the acts have baleful effects.

In the beginning, Ballard, the main character played by James Spader, is simply a cipher, someone with professional acumen behind the camera (he is a video director for commercial products). But Ballard is void of any vision or pep—stuck in the doldrums of a complacent lifestyle. Yet he almost seems to come alive, to experience a kind of sexual awakening, when he is faced with trauma:

As Ballard retires from his job’s daily duties, he heads back home, driving along a Toronto highway, when suddenly the driver of another vehicle crashes head-on with Ballard. The driver is jettisoned through the windshield into Ballard’s windshield, perishing. Both Ballard and the woman passenger of the other car are bruised and bleeding, yet something very peculiar happens. The passenger, Dr. Helen Remington (played by the terrific actress Holly Hunter), immediately rips her breast pocket to reveal her chest to Ballard. Ballard is shocked, but soon falls unconscious from his injuries. There is just enough time for Ballard to register Helen’s injuries, as well as her sexual reaction to her injuries.

Any injury can cause pain, but here in Cronenberg’s world, we see people decide to test their limits and derive sexual pleasure from the throbbing. Ballard, Dr. Remington, and the later characters in the film attempt to tiptoe the line of life and death by carefully reconstructing famous celebrity car deaths, such as James Dean’s, by replicating his Porsche 550 Spyder’s collision with a guardrail. The way that they romanticize and mythologize James Dean’s persona and untimely death echoes the sentiment of many naïve young adults that—in the words of Neil Young—“it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Ballard, through all his trials on the asphalt, somehow gains the meaning and sexual energy he never once had. Ballard now welcomes the opportunity to self-actualize through sexual gratification, and the only way, as he sees it, is through self-inflicted trauma. I’m not sure all the self-help and self-love guidebooks, mindfulness classes, and tacky inspiration posters could even remotely bring any sense of “normalcy” or fulfillment to Ballard’s psyche.

The brilliance in the film’s twisted psychosexual drama is in Cronenberg’s ingenious decision to couple two disparate fetishes and let the audience glimpse Dr. Remington’s and Ballard’s sadomasochistic pleasure from their injuries on top of their general sexual fixation with cars, or mechanophilia. I’m sure somewhere deep in the literature of Freudian psychology is a death wish paired with sexual frustration that sublimates itself through colliding vehicles and engorged sexual organs. But Crash is a metaphor with very real-life examples: the collisions in the film require consent, the subsequent pleasure from pain, and marginalized groups looking for understanding.

“In my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas...a cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed,” wrote Beat novelist William S. Borroughs. I have a feeling J.G Ballard’s novel and Cronenberg’s screenplay and film share the same sentiment—to add a chunk of the fantastical, lay bare the psyche of newfangled arousing behavior, and witness in excruciating detail the drive for sexual pleasure through the direct use of overwhelming trauma.

Christian Leonzo’s film addiction started in seventh grade with a dual screening of The Silence of the Lambs and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He went on to serve as co-artistic director of UVa’s film club OffScreen, which shows foreign, classic, and independent movies to the Charlottesville community.