The opening titles of Crash are very interesting (probably the best since Seven). Mysterious, haunting music plays while crisp chrome names come slowly flying from the darkness. There is a light, somewhere in the background, but its source is vague. Its source is not as important as its effect on the chrome and interaction with the darkness. Soon, some of the letters start turning up damaged. The chrome is still polished, smooth, and sexy, but the underlying metal has been stressed.
Naked Lunch, 1991, David Cronenberg, for a look at the meshing of human anatomy and machines.
Matador, 1986, Pedro Almodóvar, for a movie with a similar dark tone and a link between sex, bullfighting, and death.
Dead Ringers, 1988, David Cronenberg, for a sadder movie, also dark, also exploring a new angle on sex.
The mood of the sequence invites intimacy and asks to draw you into the space behind the screen. At first, there’s no reason not to give in, but the damaged letters, replated in chrome imply some sort of darkness and deception waiting beyond.
Crash explores the connection between people and their cars in terms of sexuality. In one sense, a person’s car is an extension of their body, and Crash asks, with this in mind, what are the mechanics of sex? Not reproduction, but sex. The only answer — the only way two cars can really interact — is to crash. Simple enough. Some of the characters do seem to be turned on by cars crashing, as if each bump were a nudge from an agreeable pelvis. Some of the characters even tattoo themselves with hood ornaments.
But there’s more. Crash also treats people as separate from their cars. Crashes and sex are linked — not interchangeable — and crashes can result in damage to the real human body. This introduces another dimension of sexuality to the car crash. If car crashes can be sexual, then the resulting damage to the human body can be a fascinating, arousing secretion of this “sex.” All of these ideas can be fascinating and arousing, not to a strange literally metaphoric car-person, but to real humans aroused by the whole subject, the movie seems to say.
The connection between cars, crashes, bodies, and sex is subtle, at least in the real world. Cronenberg does explore the connection, but more as a theme than as a metaphor. Perhaps “fetish” is a better word because a fetish is a nonsexual object of sexual desire. Yet even this is too literal a connection for Crash. The connection in Crash encompasses all of these elements.
There is a scene in which the connection works particularly well. Three characters are in a convertible, two, Vaughan and Catherine (played by Elias Koteas and Deborah Unger) in the back seat. The car is taken to a car wash because there is some blood on it. As the top of the car goes up, the top on the woman comes down and the couple in the back seat start making out. The car is now a closed dark intimate place making a slow journey through a steamy soapy dark passage. The scene is paced very slowly and each new phase of the car wash brings a new strange rhythmic sound from the brushes hitting the car. The surround sound places you (in your own dark theater) into the cramped cozy cockpit of the black ‘64 Lincoln, and you can carry the metaphor one more step if you like.
There are other spots where the connection is more of a stretch. For Vaughan, car crashes are arousing and recreating famous car crashes is like having sex with his favorite stars and starlets. The crash is a substitute for sex. The attraction is never explained and the connection is not inherently obvious, but Cronenberg handles Vaughan’s fetish in the same tone as he handles everyone else’s desires.
Another connection Cronenberg explores in Crash is the one between sexual orifices and wounds caused by accidents (see also Videodrome). Vaughan’s girlfriend Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) has suffered a lot of damage to her body. She wears a body brace and has a long wound on the back of her thigh of folded skin. This is apparently arousing to a Mercedes salesman and to main character James Ballard (James Spader), who eventually has his way with the thigh. In an earlier scene, James survives a car crash, but his leg is damaged and it has to be pinned. The steel pins penetrate through James’ skin, deep into his bones, like some cold permanent copulation. Another shot shows body damage to a slick silver sports car. The seam between the door and fender has been wrinkled and widened, which James runs his hand across and admires.
Let me take the opportunity to restate that while I can appreciate what Cronenberg is attempting, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
However, often the tone of a dream is more important than the events that transpire. The events could be true, but they don’t make a lot of sense under scrutiny of daylight. Being afraid or sad or angry because of the events in a dream tells you something interesting about your state of mind.
In that sense, Crash is like a dream. The opening credits help to set a dark, sad, brooding tone, and the rest of the movie follows suit. It’s almost as if the movie is asking for pity, except that it presents the subjects, not pitiably, but enticingly, envelopingly. The movie is like a siren whose song is not beautiful but sad and hypnotizing nonetheless. What is true of the opening titles is true of the tone of the whole movie. It is mysterious and intriguing and it invites you in, but there is some odd mixture of sincerity (the damaged letters, the repulsive connection between cars and sex) and slickness (the polishing of those letters in fresh chrome, the sexiness and sexuality of the cast and their cars).
In conclusion, I would have to say that Crash is not as disturbing as it was hyped to be, but I don’t understand why someone would make this movie. A case can be made connecting cars, crashes, bodies, and sex, but it doesn’t seem like this was a statement waiting to be made. There was nothing wrong with Crash; it was interesting on its own terms, but ultimately I am left asking “okay, but so what?”