The following article was published in N-SPHERE January 2011 issue.


2011 – now. 1996 – Cronenberg releases the film Crash. 1973 – J. G. Ballard releases the novel Crash. 1960 – Camus dies in a car accident. 1955 – James Dean dies in his Porsche 550. Hear the crushing steel. Feel the steering wheel. Now let’s go back to hyper–reality.
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Hear the crushing steel.

Bringing into focus a group of people living in the urban landscape of Toronto (London in J.G. Ballard’s novel) who share a common fascination for car Crashes and the exploration of sexuality, Cronenberg’s Crash has created controversies for both its elaborate depictions of intercourses and sexual fantasies in technologically–filled settings, and the ambiguity concerning the treatment of the machine–sex–death triptych, a constant triangle throughout the film and novel alike. At the core of the narrative is placed Vaughan, a man who used to work in the TV industry, now obsessively staging and filming scenes of car wrecks, gradually gathering material for his head–on collision with actress Elizabeth Taylor. In his search, Vaughan meets James and Catherine Ballard, a couple attempting to revive their sexual relationship, and from then on the plot develops into a continuum of auto–Crashes, celebration of wounds and new forms of sexuality, increasingly involving more persons.

A tear of petrol is in your eye.

Crash has often been read as a transgression of existing limits, such as the celebration of a new sexuality born from the embrace of the machine as an extension of the body. But what if the invasion of the body by shards of machinery, the breaking glass and its reflections, the persons pushing their own limits in a continuum of explorations of the body, the steering wheel and handbrake penetrating open wounds, do not merely present the future as a fetish or a hyper real space which lacks emotion and desire as suggested, for instance, by Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation? What if the fascination about Crash (both the film and the novel) is about borders, and the space of negotiation and fluidity they create? A hypothesis.

On one level, the paraphilias endlessly explored in Crash draw attention to wounds as open sexual orifices and the techno–body investigated through a continuum of death simulacrums. In this sense, the well–known dichotomy of Eros / Thanatos and Apollo / Dyonisus are reconstructed and questioned, leading to a growing fascination for the body and the machine – both as central elements of contemporary society. On a further level, this constant investigation places the temporary borders at the core, transforming them into spaces where inside and outside are in a continuous shift, where the public and private spheres are in constant reversal, where the hybridization of those boundaries questions the very position of the signified and the signifier, of the subject and spectator. The point where mutation takes place is given either by the wound or the existence of characters such as Vaughan, the car as a symbolic technological entity, the actors on the list of possible auto–Crashes, the camera which draws a thin line between spectators and performers. The outcome is not important, but the continuous games of reversal and simulation, creating a seducing narrow zone which functions as a catalyst.

In Religion and Culture, Michel Foucault defines transgression as “an action which involves the limit, that narrow zone of a line where it displays the flash of its passage, but perhaps also its entire trajectory, even its origin”. Therefore, transgression does not only involve the space existing after the limit is crossed, but also the “narrow zone of a line” where the shift takes place. In Crash, most actions and encounters between the characters (most of them being, perhaps not coincidentally shift–workers, junior airline personnel, car–park attendants, waitresses and stewardesses) seem to revolve around transit points, hence placing emphasis on this passage of change and mutability where two sides converge: roads, airports, duty–free malls, hospitals, multi–storey car–parks. In the case of hospitals, a cycle is repeated endlessly, as people are born in infirmaries and die in emergency rooms. The link is not only created between an individual and others who suffer from similar injuries (hence, almost paradoxically, fostering a sense of “community”), but also between life and death, a hospital bed thus becoming a place for persons waiting in an invisible line for their moment to arrive.

Throughout the film, we also get a large number of longshots of bridges, almost as if humans try to escape the claustrophobic landscape through a possible autogeddon taking place on the bridge where cars form an apparently endless row of contortions. Following Vaughan’s example of launching himself into open space, a techno–apocalypse would become the transgressive act which provokes massive suicide and ends death. Although the given coordinates are simple, the citizens become more seduced by the snake–like row of cars forming and fragmenting itself endlessly, without heading towards a breaking point. The asphalt roads become a magnetic border and a chaotic realm of flux and motion.

The hand brake penetrates your thigh.

In 1960, Elizabeth Taylor stars in Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann). Impersonating a poor and promiscuous fashion model named Gloria Wandrous, she dies in a high speed auto–Crash which also marks the end of the film. In a constant attempt of transgressing her social conditions and balancing her unsteady sex drive, the young woman finds herself trapped in a love–technology–death triangle constantly nourished by the oppressive society and the need for speed. It is perhaps not coincidental that Vaughan chooses Elizabeth Taylor as the person to die in a head–on–collision with him, their car Crash leading to an eternal union similar to that of Siamese twins. However, his interest is not solely oriented towards Elizabeth Taylor, but towards all public figures who have a life considered different than that of ordinary persons. Through the medium, either film cameras or photographs, a mutation takes place: on one level, the private lives of screen figures become public, linking them more to the collective spectacle than to the personal sphere; on a further level, through the auto–Crash, they are at the border between life and death, between humanity and the possibility of reaching immortality through transcendence. The aggressive collision also enables an immediate mimetic identification of the witnesses with the victims. Hence, the actress Elizabeth Taylor would no longer seem different, but average, thus erasing the dichotomy between spectator and performer.

Quick, let’s make love before you die.

At some point in the film, James Ballard asserts that “The world was beginning to flower into wounds”, therefore the wound seems to function as a commutation space between the body and the psyche, but also between the individual and the collective. The body is no longer an impenetrable shell, but instead an uneven surface dominated by incisions, the surgery being primarily performed by technology. It is also a powerful eroticized narrow zone where the wounds become artificial orifices that gradually deconstruct the supposed rules of sexuality and annihilate the role of natural organs. The bond created is not only one between body and machine, but it also links, on the one hand, two different individuals and, on the other, a conventional form of sexuality with a new one waiting to be explored. Differently, when the wound creates a bond between an individual and a collective during car collisions, the private and public registers communicate through the open orifice, which leads to a mutation of the public sphere. The interior comes out while the outside infiltrates: by witnessing, viewing and analyzing the subject, the injury is no longer private, but is instead relocated in the collective spectacle. Later, the wound becomes a trauma, hence creating an additional bond between the psychic and the physical pain, between the inside and the outside.

Join the car Crash set.

The collision of visionary aesthetics and transgressive iconography within Cronenberg’s Crash make it a film worth watching. Without isolating it as a complementary entity, J.G Ballard placed the car–Crash culture within a hyper–real space, which thus erases dichotomous pairs and notions of past or future. The created society is positioned at the threshold of transgression, where the fragment and the border are privileged over a hypothetical unity. The question remains: in the end, what makes Crash popular even almost 40 years after its publishing when technology is already pre–2011?

Movie still: Crash. 1996.

by Diana Daia

Full article here.