Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Revisiting CRASH

In the past couple of weeks, I have watched David Cronenberg's 1996 film of J.G. Ballard's CRASH no less than three times. This is a period when I should be reviewing new product, or perusing old product that was neglected the first time around, but CRASH started reaching out to me in ways that could not be denied.
It began innocently enough with me realizing that I had never acquired the film on DVD during those years of the industry's LD to DVD conversion, for two very good reasons: 1) the New Line DVD had not ported over the Cronenberg commentary and extras from the Criterion laserdisc, and 2) what it had put in their place was an optional R-rated viewing option, which I found offensive. I wrote about CRASH in a feature length essay that appeared in VIDEO WATCHDOG #42 (Nov/Dec 1997, sold out); since then, I hadn't seen the film again, but during that interval, I've sometimes asked myself if I might not have been too hard on it, because I'm such an admirer of J.G. Ballard's 1970 novel. (On one of my VIDEODROME interview tapes from 1982, I can be heard recommending to Cronenberg that he should read CRASH -- "I will," he promises).
I suddenly wanted to see the film again and my only ready option was my old Criterion laserdisc, which I decided to dub onto DVD-R in the process. The disc looked great on my old 32" Sony Trinitron, but viewed on my 60" Kuro Elite, the picture looks seriously dated: dim, pale in color with very uneven blacks, and, of course, non-anamorphic. I recorded the LD with its supplementary items (two cheesy trailers and a short featurette that finds the cast members talking about the project in mostly incoherent terms) and then recorded it again with Cronenberg's excellent, useful commentary activated.
Watching the film twice in close succession proved to be a useful exercise. In retrospect, CRASH appears to be the best film from Cronenberg's weakest period -- post-DEAD RINGERS to pre-SPIDER -- but, as brilliant as it sometimes is, it cannot meet the book's greatness even halfway. Yet there is something about it that tempts one to imagine that it will play even better on the next viewing -- and, in some ways, this hope holds true. After my second run-through, I knew that I couldn't live with my Criterion disc as my only reference copy anymore.
Thanks to the phenomenon of the Amazon Store, I was able to find a shrinkwrapped DVD for only $12. I watched it a few days after it arrived and it was indeed revelatory, not only as a sensual experience but because the enhanced anamorphic clarity of the image made sense of things the Criterion transfer had inadvertently glossed over, at least for me. For instance, the penultimate scene of Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter, a committed but miscast performance) and Gabriella (Rosanna Arquette)'s lesbian assignation in the back seat of a car never quite worked for me, seeming ungrounded in the rest of the story somehow; but the New Line DVD was so crisp and clear that I finally understood that they were coupling in the backseat of Vaughan (Elias Koteas)'s burned-out wreck of a car. The scene charts the inevitable next stage of Vaughan's advent into iconography.

I have not gone back to my original essay to refresh my memory of my raw first impressions of CRASH, but I remember writing that it's a failing of the film that James (James Spader) and Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) are such inexplicably icy characters; they seem to be such compulsive sex-obsessives because they require the warmth of other people. I think I made the point that they seem like the tenants we see driving out of the Starliner highrise at the end of SHIVERS, parasite-driven erotophiles rather than real human beings. This is curious because Cronenberg's commentary admits to him not appreciating CRASH on his first reading, finding Ballard's language too clinical and without the "passion words" he needed to feel closer to the story. In Ballard, that clinical quality of the wording is its passion, but Cronenberg's translation of the text to the screen is not just cerebral but unfeeling. Seeing the film again did persuade me that Unger really is quite remarkable -- ravishing in an Ava Gardner, film noir kind of way, as Iain Sinclair notes in his fine BFI Modern Classics book on CRASH -- but misdirected, so that she's far too poised and abstracted. Spader's lead performance strikes a cold note, too, but at least he's permitted scenes that show him an aggressor in passion and not without a sense of humor. Unger, far better in David Fincher's wonderful THE GAME, doesn't quite thaw even when she momentarily fears that Vaughan might strangle her.

Elias Koteas as Vaughan, whose interpretation of the role I don't think I liked initially, turns out to be the film's ace in the hole. He's brilliant in the way he summons the charisma from this creep, who is somehow able to pass for a doctor in a hospital corridor, able to drive into roped-off accident sites on the highway with a flashbulb camera, able to slip his unwashed hand between Dr. Remington's legs in one brazen move and send James a primly conservative "what are you looking at?" reprimand look a second later. I also like how the film, moreso than the book, shows how the standards of people like James and Helen slip as they become lured into Vaughan's underground fetish world, ending up passing their evenings in the seedy living room of the stunt driver family, the Seagraves, watching videos of car crashes narrated in languages no one in the room understands.

There is an elliptic scene of male homosexual foreplay (involving bizarre medical tattoos of what Vaughan calls "ragged prophecies") and intercourse, but where the movie presses its most provocative buttons is in the car sex scene between James and Gabriella, who wears a bizarre kind of leather and metal body brace. James is shown removing the cumbersome accoutrement from her leg, ripping away her fishnet stockings to expose a frankly labial gash that runs up the back of her thigh, encompassing an even more frankly clitoral nub of flesh, and having sex with the wound. It's the film's most persuasively erotic scene, but the one leading into it -- Gabriella teasing a Mercedes dealer who tries to install her in a showroom car and ends up inflicting costly damage in the display model -- is anecdotal and silly, though extremely well played by Arquette. In his commentary, Cronenberg describes the car salesman as the most realistic character in the film, but he seems to me the least realistic -- a sitcom's idea of a car salesman.

The side break on the Criterion disc actually assists the film by punctuating a problem spot where the movie appears to have run out of money. One minute, James is in Vaughan's car and then we're suddenly looking at the back of James' head as he's looking out an office window -- it's still night, but he's somewhere else entirely. Someone, presumably a co-worker, asks if he needs a lift home. Without turning his head, James answers that Catherine is coming to pick him up. In the next shot, Catherine is there, outside James' office, watching, but so is Vaughan, clearly shaken up as he's questioned by police about some offscreen incident involving the hit-and-run of a pedestrian. "Vaughan's not interested in pedestrians," James says -- a nice line. The New Line DVD, which plays through without side break interruption, makes the viewer more aware of something missing, of something assembled from available pieces, in order to explain what would otherwise be the sudden introduction of Catherine into the backseat of Vaughan's car for the celebrated car wash sequence.

My retrospective interest in the film led me to belatedly acquire the aforementioned Iain Sinclair book, which I can enthusiastically recommend, especially to Ballard fans. He has problems with the film also, and the book spends most of its slim page count in a valuable exploration of J.G. Ballard's work and its adaptation to film, including some very rare early films either based on or somehow connected to Ballard's CRASH.

As for Cronenberg's CRASH, while I have a better feeling about it now than I did prior to this revisitation, it still leaves me very much in the same place where it leaves its two protagonists -- knocked sideways rather than for a loop, disappointed if not quite disengaged, and muttering to myself, "Maybe the next one... maybe the next one..."

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