Sunday, August 05, 2007

David Cronenberg's Crash

I am a big fan of David Cronenberg's work. He is one of the few genuine auteurs working in cinema today who also has achieved a good deal of mainstream success and acclaim. I had somehow missed watching his most controversial film Crash all this while. I finally caught up with it last weekend at the museum of modern art where it was screened as a part of an exhibition of works related to artistic explorations of new technologies and media. (Link to the online exhibition here. Caution: bizarre colour scheme and site design.) The auditorium was as usual packed though a lot of people did walk out in the first fifteen minutes or so. Mostly elderly ladies I think, all lifetime members of the museum, who had no idea what was in store for them.

Even in the context of a highly controversial filmography Crash stands out. It was denounced by a London critic as "beyond the bounds of depravity." Ted Turner, who owned the company which produced the film said that only "warped minds" would like it and did his best to wreck its north american release. It was released only after a one year delay with an NC-17 rating. And all this after it received great acclaim at the cannes film festival where it was awarded a special jury prize for "originality, audacity and daring." Cahiers du Cinema also selected it as the best film of the year.

It is without doubt an original, audacious and important work of art. It raises very serious questions about the way we live now, questions which are only getting more and more important with the passage of time. The film has a very bare and minimal plot. It is based on a novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard which I have not read. It is basically about a group of people who find themselves sexually aroused by orchestrating and participating in car crashes. It is as if all sexual contact between people were mediated through cars. The narrative structure follows the standard pornography aesthetic. It is just a tableau of one sex scene after another punctuated by the actors speaking their lines as if under some sort of trance or hypnosis. It all sounds too bizarre to make any sense but its audacity lies in following this vision to the limit and still managing to make it interesting, intriguing and unsettling.

It is first of all an eloquent portrait of the culture of eroticisation that we see all around, specially in the west. A culture in which every opportunity seems to be potentially exploitable for a sensory experience. A culture which sexualises inanimate objects (I am reminded of the recent brouhaha over a recently released cell phone) and makes them an extension of body itself, a body as far as it is defined by sexual desire. In fact the only thing advertisers and product designers these days have to do is to find some way to wrap their products in inventive sexual metaphors and imageries and their job is done. It doesn't matter what function the product is supposed to serve and how efficient and effective it is. The film itself is quite vague and hermetic (one of its major weakness in my opinion) but I think this is what Cronenberg means when he says he is interested in "potential extensions of bodies through technological means" (not exact words.) I am also tempted to namecheck Karl Marx who identified "commodity fetishism" as one of the important elements of capitalist society, or any society built around the concept of private propery. Here the focus is only on sexual relationship but it is true for any social relationships. They are all centred around the values placed on privately owned commodities. Ballard has also acknowledged the influence of french thinker Jean Baudrillard who in turn had elaborated on Marx's theory and technology's role in altering human experience of reality. I have only bare-bones knowledge of these topics but the film surely has a lot to say about these things.

The film is not without its flaws however. One of the main ones is, as I mentioned before, its hermeticism and vagueness. Cronenberg is reluctant to give an explanation. His approach is too clinical, too detached - it is as if he were observing some bizarre species and their bizarre behaviour through a microscope! He isn't interested in theorising or explaining. He doesn't even provide enough context, which makes it seem rather timid in the end. Were these people always like this? What really went wrong? Who is responsible? Can anything be done now? The film doesn't even go to these places where you can ask these questions.

As is usual with Cronenberg when it comes to the technique and details everything is absolutely first class. Specially the cinematography by Peter Suschitsky and the score by Howard Shore. They both create a brilliant atmosphere and mood which is sustained throughout. In short, an important film. It may be graphic, disturbing, even sickening, but it will also make you think about important things. One of those rare sex films NOT meant for adolescents.

11 comments:

Cheshire Cat said...

Yes, Cronenberg is technically brilliant, and quite appropriately he fetishises technology (or does he only comment on the fetishisation of technology?). I still feel sorry for the typewriter in "Naked Lunch". What a weird, and weirdly compelling movie... I haven't seen "Crash" yet, but it appears that he takes his obsessions to the limit there.

Alok said...

He just observes people fetishising technologies. He is too clinical to express his approval or disapproval explicitly, part of what makes it so frustrating and also disturbing. But even though it is not explicit it is obvious a critique and comment on this culture.

Matt said...

I think your questions towards the end of the piece would find answers in the original text. Ballard has been fulsome in his praise of the film, which despite the change of location (which is in around Heathrow in the book) sticks to the affect-drained blankness of the book.

Alok said...

I haven't read the book yet. Will definitely check it out soon. Thanks...

antonia said...

I had seen the EXistenZ one a couple of years ago which is truly great, and like you said about the details, it had some awesome monsters in it. It is an awesome film about realiy and perception of what you think is reality or a videogame and how that influences one's relation to other people & one's personality.

Szerelem said...

I havent seen a lot of Cronenberg but I saw Spider a few years back and it left me totally depressed. You must have seen it?

Alok said...

antonia: yes he repeatedly comes to the same subject in his films -- how new technologies and media are changing people's perception of reality and how as a reality their relationship with the outside world and other people are getting affected as a result.

szerelem: yes he is interested in the darker side of things. agree about the Spider. unlike his other films it is low on "weirdness", thats make it even more depressing.

anurag said...

alok, did not you find, along with 'commodity fetishism', an obsession of characters with sex not as a primal force but a journey for its rediscovery in their lives to get some pleasure of contact, the characters are having 'hope' in sex which they try to rekindle by wierd means (like bt crashing into each other). Also, didnt you find glimpses of masochism/sadism ( actually now the film even reminds me of Conspirators of Pleasure) in the character of Gabrielle.

I need to see it again because I think its a wonderful film.

Alok said...

yes it is definitely about making contact but they can contact only via cars, which are just extensions of their bodies. in fact most of the sex scenes are shown as completely devoid of any feelings of togetherness. just pure private ecstacy and pleasure. most of the key sex scenes are not even face to face!

it is comment about how in our culture the only way people can make contact is via sex or sexual metaphors and extensions... and if you take that to its logical conclusion you will reach at this absurd vision. eros thanatos both become spectacle, potential sources of erotic stimulation.

conspirators of pleasure is very similar. in fact it is the ultimate portrait of sexual fetishism and alienation.

Wessel said...

just saw the movie again last night for the second time.

Must say out of all the reviews I found on the web, yours is the best.

Alok said...

it was just a short comment rather than a review... I am glad that you liked it and found it of some use.