Vaughan unfolded to me all his obsessions with the mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue.
J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel focuses on a filmmaker, Ballard, and his wife, Catherine, whose open marriage encourages extra-marital liaisons. Their life becomes a good deal more experimental after they become involved in a traffic accident which kills a man. Ballard develops a relationship with the victim’s wife, Dr. Helen Remington, a woman who eroticizes technology and violence. All soon become involved with Vaughan, a charismatic, disturbed artist obsessed with automobile crashes. Vaughan explores the sexual dimensions of violence, danger, and celebrity, and ultimately plans a staged collision with actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Another character drawn to Vaughan is Gabrielle, a woman disabled and reshaped by violence and technology. As the protagonist's relationship with this group develops, he finds himself in danger.
Crash is a disturbing book, carried along by Ballard’s descriptive style. The book’s most disquieting scenes are also its best. In the nineteenth chapter, the protagonist and Gabrielle have sex in a car (of course), and they explore the sexual possibilities created by injury:
...I moved my hand from her pubis to the scars on her thighs, feeling the tender causeways driven through her flesh by the handbrake of the car in which she had crashed. My right arm held her shoulder, feeling the impress of the contoured leather.... I explored the scars on her thighs and arms, feeling for the wound areas under her left breast, as she in turn explored mine, deciphering together these codes of a sexuality made possible by our two car-crashes.
My first orgasm, within the deep wound of her thigh, jolted my semen along this channel.... she wiped it against the silver controls of the clutch treadle. My mouth was fastened on the scar below her left breast, exploring its sickle-shaped trough. Gabrielle turned in her seat, revolving her body around me, so that I could explore the wounds of her right hip (178-9).
He goes on to dream of "other accidents that might enlarge this repertory of orifices, relating them to more elements of the automobile’s engineering, to the ever-more complex technologies of the future" (179). He visualizes "the injuries of film actresses and television personalities, whose bodies would flower into dozens of auxiliary orifices, points of sexual conjunction with their audiences formed by the swerving technology of the automobile"(180).
One needn't view the novel's images and obsessions as metaphors or symbols for specific things. They resonate with a range of contemporary concerns, including the sexualization of technology (more prominent now than when Ballard wrote this novel), and of violence, and of celebrity. They also reflect all manner of desire and taboo. In addition, many would see the relevance of the characters' erotic fixations to our culture, which sells destruction as sexy. Indeed, in his introduction to the 1995 edition, Ballard discusses his book as a "total metaphor" for "life in today’s society," with an obvious emphasis on the "marriage of sex and technology."
The specific paraphilia depicted in this novel-- arousal related to car crashes-- suits Ballard’s themes. In addition, most readers can view this sexuality with a certain clinical distance. Some of us may eroticize cars, or violence, or celebrities, but only a few, I suspect, in the specific manner of these characters1.
Crash does not always sustain interest. Like pornography, it tends to be repetitive, and might have made a more impressive novella. Nevertheless, it holds up as a fascinating, if disturbing read.
David Cronenberg adapted Crash into an atmospheric film, flawed but often brilliant. Not surprisingly, it received both applause and boos when it played Cannes in 1996. Like the novel, it has been stylishly rendered, but it also runs longer than many people’s patience will tolerate.
I suspect it also caused near heart failure in some people who rented it ten years later, thinking it was Paul Haggis’s Oscar-winning film about race relations.2
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg
Cinematography by Peter Suschitzky
James Spader...James Ballard
Holly Hunter...Helen Remington
Deborah Kara Unger...Catherine Ballard
It’s not surprising Cronenberg would have made this film; Ballard’s novel suits his interests in taboos, technology, and sexuality. The author has expressed great satisfaction with the film, which features a creepy score, excellent cinematography, and syncopated dialogue. The car crashes have been realistically staged; Cronenberg employed a small army of stunt drivers to create scenes which bear little resemblance to the typical Hollywood chase and smash fare.
The complete film (edited versions exist) features a good many sex scenes, but these are less explicit than what one might find on some contemporary cable stations. The implications can be strong, however; the encounter between Ballard and Gabrielle, though less developed than in the novel, likely will unsettle most viewers.
Cronenberg changes the setting from London to Toronto, though he does not make the locale explicit. We receive no views of that city’s most famous sexual architecture, the phallic CN Tower and its counterpart, the retracting-roof Rogers Centre. Rather, Cronenberg chooses locations along highways, near the concrete-heavy airport strip, and in bleak, industrial areas.
The film eliminates Vaughan’s ill-fated plot to arrange a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor, and emphasizes his involvement with reenactments of famous celebrity crashes as a kind of perverse sexual art. The restaging of James Dean's death proves suspenseful, and grimly recalls our culture's fixation with celebrities, dead and alive.
Crash features first-rate actors, though the performances may leave some viewers cold. The characters have a curious, at times anesthetized detachment, a world-weary sexuality. They also whisper quite a bit.
Koteas portrays Vaughan as a heavy-breathing, somewhat obvious pervert, but he convinces us the character’s obsessions are genuine. Rosanna Arquette gives perhaps the most remarkable performance as Gabrielle, so reconstructed by surgery that she has become a kind of cyborg.
The movie plays with interpretations of its material. Vaughan claims that his work connects to "something we are all intimately involved in: the reshaping of the human body by technology." Later, her refutes this claim, and says that the crashes are really about the "liberating of sexual energy." Then again, perhaps he does it because he's deranged and it gets him off.
As with the novel, the film resonates with real-world issues and psychology. One fascinating scene has several characters watching crash footage the way others might view erotica. Seagrave finds one tape as good as another. Remington needs to see the end of a specific tape to be satisfied. Gabrielle seems mildly disturbed that Remington needs to watch that specific scene. Her own body has been abused, twisted, and damaged, and yet she apparently finds Remington’s kink less acceptable than her own. I suspect many viewers will find this scene familiar, as one might the reflection in a fun house mirror.
Certain narrative elements work better in the novel than onscreen. We’re left wondering why Ballard faces no apparent legal consequences for the accident, given that the film shows him as clearly at fault. The liaison between Ballard and Remington also feels more plausible in the novel, which develops character in a more satisfying manner. Finally, a key scene near the ending has the characters interfering with a fresh crash site to a degree that would never be permitted.
Of course, one has to wonder how realistic Cronenberg intends the film to be. It’s heavily stylized. As in the book, the level of traffic seems to increase and decrease according to the principal characters’ psychological states—- a fact on which they comment. The unreal aspects do not preclude criticism of the film’s verisimilitude, but they do suggest that the critic proceed with caution.
By now it should be clear that neither novel nor movie will appeal to all people. For those with curiosity about sex and technology and tolerance for unsettling material, I cautiously recommend Crash.
1. Does anyone actually do this? There is a paraphilia, symphorophilia, in which accidents or disasters arouse people. Such a tendency can lead to a person arranging disasters, as do the characters in Crash. A 1996 Eye Weekly examination of the question interviewed a number of paramedics and others involved with crashes. Their sample had never encountered evidence of anything like the subculture Ballard and Cronenberg depict. See Tom Lyons, "Is this Stuff for Real?" Eye Weekly October 3, 1996. http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_10.03.96/FILM/cv1003.php.
2. Reportedly, Cronenberg asked Haggis to give his Crash a different title, to avoid confusion. He didn’t. For what it is worth, the Internet Movie Database lists more than ten films by this title.