When I first watched David Cronenberg’s Crash a long time ago, it shocked me. The premise was already disturbing enough (an underground group of people being sexually aroused by car crashes) and the whole experience left me very uneasy, making me wonder if humans are actually capable of doing all the stuff present in the film. It was unthinkable for me to accept a motor vehicle as a kind of sexual machine and protagonists that can only feel emotion through twisted voyeurism of car accidents first, then by staging real accidents. This was in the late 90’s however, before I even knew who J.G. Ballard was and reading his novel which Cronenberg adapted. It was also before living through the first decade of the new millennium and realizing that, yes, not only humans are very capable of performing the perverted acts depicted in this movie but even worse. It’s all over the news in fact (violence, perversion, brutality) and just a click away on Google, right there in your computer…
First, let’s put things in context: Ballard’s Crash was published in 1973, a few years after his wife Mary died of pneumonia and after writing The Atrocity Exhibition (one of the most jarring collection of short stories ever conceived). Understandably, Ballard was cynical and bitter and it was during this period that he produced the infamous urban trilogy, completed by High Rise and Concrete Island. The story in Crash is told from the perspective of James Ballard who writes himself as the protagonist, a move that was strikingly effective as it blurred the line between fiction and reality, thus conceding the book the feel of a documentary. Precisely, Crash is written in a very aseptic and cold prose: there’s rarely any emotion imparted on the text, just as none of the protagonists are able to feel and love. In the plot, James leads a miserable and uneventful life where the relationship with his wife Catherine works by pure inertia and neither of them are even remotely passionate anymore, so they only move on by allowing each other to have lovers. James’ reality is completely altered after being involved in a car accident which scars him deeply and kills the passenger of another car. He finds himself wishing to reenact this accident, fascinated by the wounds and the new sexual possibilities they allow to explore. He becomes aware of the sexual tension that is present in the relationship between humans and vehicles: being in control, the shiny interior, the smell of the plastic, the feel of the handle and, above all, the rush of the speed; it all creates a sense of danger that excites him. James spends most of his days since the accident staring at the endless highways, hoping to catch a car crash with his binoculars, until he finally meets with Vaughan, a man similarly obsessed with crashes whose ultimate fantasy is to die on a collision with Elizabeth Taylor. Suffice to say that things truly go downhill from then on.
The novel was definitely an acquired taste, equally acclaimed and dismissed as a sick, perverted work. Even Cronenberg himself couldn’t finish the book at first. Make no mistakes: Crash is raw, very graphical and infinitely twisted. From recursive and exhaustive descriptions of how human bodies are in perfect harmony and conjunction with the geometrical interior of a car, to a passage describing a sexual act with the bloody scar in a female thigh, there is heavy stuff bordering plain pornography. When asked about his reasons to writing the book, Ballard once said: “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.” That could easily replace the long editorial blurb on the back cover. All of his obsessions are present here: the death wish, the monumental highways, which are the very spine of our modern culture, people succumbing to their most inner instincts, the technological landscape. The book is full of allegories and imagery that are a goldmine for psychologists, if only for trying to understand how Ballard’s mind worked. The conclusion is vague and deeply disturbing as well: technology is engulfing us and, instead of helping to progress, it’s forcing us to retreat into a new dark age where inner instincts reign and the world is devoid of any emotion. We accept this perverse technology as a necessary evil. In the prologue of the book (present in the French edition), Ballard even discusses about the death of affect in the twentieth century. From this perspective, Crash is undeniably a very powerful and effective novel; like it or not, it succeeds at representing (anticipating?) our modern culture. It has become a cliche to say that Ballard was a prophet but, in the early 70’s, possibly nobody understood technology better than him.
So, Crash is about the relationship between people and technology, how its misuse can dehumanize us, turn us into cold vessels without feelings. It’s ironic then that I’m willing to accept all this, considering that I’m constantly in touch with technology and feel very comfortable with it. While I risk sounding like a sky-is-falling alarmist here, I think that Ballard’s views are quite true to some extent. Technology can be a great tool; I use it every day to get in touch with people from all around the world, play games, listen to music, write boring articles, and more. By now, it would be extremely hard for me to live without technology; I don’t think I would suffer of withdrawal symptoms but I’d be lost without it and definitely much, much less productive. Like it or not, we have become slaves of technology: it’s part of our lives and it’s here to stay. If we are conscious of this and treat it with respect though, it could be key to unimagined possibilities.
Unfortunately, technology has become a drug: be it expensive cars, powerful computers, executives that get a rush out of constantly flying and forget about their families (make sure you watch Up In The Air) or kilometric lines to get the iPad 2, technology is definitely dehumanizing us. I do love my first iPad but I’ll be damned if I have to be in line for hours and hours to get its second iteration, or any other similar device for that matter. When reporters asked these early adopters why they were so anxious about getting it, the general response was simply a variation of “I have to have it.” It’s like a fever.
Technology is killing craftsmanship as well: whereas in the past moviemakers resorted to really creative ways to produce notorious special effects, today they have computers to do all the work for them. CGI is definitely good if used properly; to bring an example, the special effects in Forrest Gump were extraordinary, you wouldn’t believe they were effects if they told you! But compare the making of the first Star Wars with The Phantom Menace and tell me with a straight face that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong going on with the cinema. There is no longer subtlety in most films; in the past, moviemakers had to avoid showing because they didn’t have the resources. Today they can show all they want, and as a result audiences are losing the ability to appreciate subtlety. The age of digital books is also upon us; in a few years, all of our reading will be done through means of electronic devices. My brain tells me this is a fantastic move: it’s practical, great for independent writers, ecological even… But my heart tells me that there’s something terrible with the notion of losing books. To quote Ballard, technology “is drawing us away from contemplating ourselves to contemplating its world.”
However, I’m digressing (and quite a bit). Ballard must have pondered about all this four decades ago whe he picked cars to make his point. Admittedly, the idea of cars as dehumanizing machines is no longer as radical as it was back then, but as a symbol it’s undeniably powerful. I began the article saying how violence and perversion are just one click away on your computer. That screen can just be as voyeuristic as the binoculars used by James to seek out the next car crash, and the number of people surrendering to this morbid fascination are growing larger every year. We are being forced to feel emotion only by the means of technology.
The novel was an eye-opener and quite a ride (pun intended). Unfortunately, upon revisiting Cronenberg’s adaptation, I realized that the movie failed to convey any of these sensitive subjects. There were none of the concerns that I found in the novel: the highways are subdued, the role of technology is downplayed, and perhaps even worse, the motivations of the characters, their mental processes, are unclear. The movie is reduced to the basic core concept: it’s just people having sex in car crashes. In a way this is to be expected since the vast majority of the book is occupied in exploring the minds of the characters, something that movies are definitely not good for. The problem, I think, is that Cronenberg decided to pick a middle ground: the movie shows but it doesn’t show enough. In other words, Ballard had the chance to be as graphic as he could “just” by using words but you can’t do that in a movie: telling about it is one thing, but showing it is completely different. Rather ironically, Crash doesn’t work through subtlety: it is the warning itself; you must look at the ugliness in the mirror. The result is rather interesting and definitely counterproductive: the movie ends being sexy at times. Indeed, many of the sequences are very erotic, especially in the way they were filmed with Hollywood glitz. Perhaps a different approach (darker, rawer) would have been more suitable, but somehow Cronenberg failed to impose the distinct mood found in his “flesh” period of films. To his credit, he did try to mimic the cold and documentary-like writing of Ballard but this results in characters that are too shallow, making it impossible to feel for them.
Far more effective perhaps is a short film produced by the BBC in the early 70’s. This small piece is a rarity and shows Ballard himself reciting passages of The Atrocity Exhibition and acting as the silent spectator of a car accident. Intercut with the sparse narrative are sequences where he explains his views on modern society and technology. The speech is monotone and hypnotic, reflecting the mood in the book. It’s surprising then that this TV short came before the actual novel, in 1971. It works amazingly well as a prelude of worse things to come and is in a way derived from the short story Crash! that is present in The Atrocity Exhibition. Overall, this fleeting production clocking at 17 minutes made me feel considerably more uneasy than watching Cronenberg’s movie. The music is chilling, the shots are mathematically precise, and Ballard’s monologue is punishing. Most importantly, the point definitely gets across.
This was Crash. Hopefully by now you’ll have this urge to put your computer or electronic device on stand by (turning it off is asking too much, I know) and go outside to watch the sky above, catch some fresh air or simply close your eyes and beg for silence.