Cronenberg's Crash

After having such an interesting debate over the meaning behind Donnie Darko recently, my dad suggested we watch David Cronenberg's Crash (1996), a film he described as equally thought provoking.  While our taste in film doesn't always overlap we can usually agree on the really amazing ones, so I didn't hesitate to agree.  So, for tonight's movie night Crash was our feature.

The simple way to describe Crash would be to say it's a film about a bunch of people who are turned on by car accidents and the consequent injuries.  Sounds weird but not totally unpalatable, right?  Wrong.  The best comparison I can think of is that Crash is much like Lars Von Trier's Europa: notoriously difficult to watch.  I'll also say right now this is NOT a film to watch with your family, otherwise prepare yourself for some supreme awkwardness.

I initially went into viewing it the way I usually do with films I'd like to analyse: with my laptop at the ready so I could take down important dialogue and pivotal scenes.  Well, I gave up on that after the first half hour or so, and by the fifty minute mark I wasn't sure I was going to be able to last the whole film.

My real problem was that Crash is just so goddamn gratuitous.  It is quite literally sex scene after sex scene after sex scene.  And I don't mean that in the sense that characters have meaningful encounters, or tasteful embraces modestly hidden behind the sheets.  I mean that you see everything in pornographic detail, where characters have little to no emotional connection with one another.  Then, they follow that up with the obligatory cigarette.  And it's allllllll downhill from the start of the film.  It moves from stranger-sex to bizarre scar-fetish sex, and the couplings are not exclusively heterosexual: there is also a sex scene with two men and later a sex scene with two women.  But, of course, the gaze in the film is distinctly male ["Gaze" refers to the gender perspective that a film takes - it is expressed through camera movement and particular shots, and is most distinct when it is in the process of objectifying women; think the shot of Megan Fox bending over the car hood in the first Transformers] so, regardless of the fact there must be upwards of ten different sex scenes, men are fully clothed in all but one, while women are entirely naked or at the very least mostly-naked in all of them.  It's so blatantly unequal and exploitative it makes me want to scream at the television.

The film is also frustratingly difficult to follow in terms of any real meaning, and between the car accidents, mangled bodies, and mind-numbingly repetitive sex it's hard not to quit halfway through.  The film is shot so that one cannot identify with the characters, and all the acting is done in a detached and aloof kind of way.  Character motive is equally difficult to distinguish (I found Dr. Remington's actions particularly arbitrary and counter-intuitive), making the film feel mostly like one long awkward shit-fest.

So why am I reviewing it if I hated it so thoroughly?  Well, the film isn't entirely arbitrary.  It has been widely acknowledged that one reading of the film is that it is a commentary on the depersonalization of sex: that it addresses the removal of intimacy from intimacy in our increasingly technological world.  Characters seem to couple randomly while fixating on entirely impersonal items or things.  Sex is never about the person it's with and is rather about satisfaction of unrelated desires.  Identity and even gender are irrelevant to this film's main characters.  But this is not the only interpretation.

My dad's love of the movie is founded on a much deeper meaning he perceives within the content.  His theory (which I had to be walked through more than once) is that the film is a commentary on the American sexualization of the automobile as well as a satire of some of society's more bizarre fixations.  He claims that the film uses its characters' fixation on cars to address our own fixation on trivial things like celebrities: it is a totally irrational obsession that whips many a person into a fanatical frenzy.  Similarly, the film satires our society's fixation with perfection.  The character's all-consuming lust for the scars and wounds of car accidents can directly parallel our own lust for perfection: they engage in risky car accidents in an effort to acquire erotic scarring while we risk our lives on operating tables for perfect breasts or ageless faces.  Furthermore the film (supposedly) attacks our use of sex and the female form to sell anything to anyone.  It takes "sex sells" to its extreme, overwhelming the audience with the repetitive nature of the sexual content.  Which brings us the sexualization of the automobile.

Sex has been used to sell cars almost since they were first invented.  Like most commercials, car advertisements often feature scantily clad heavily-breathing beauties writhing on the hood of the car, or they imply that the car you drive will have a direct impact on how often you will get laid - but only if you're a man.  Cars' interiors (and often exteriors too) are streamlined and rounded, the seats mimicking the curves of the female form, caressing the driver.  While most often I've heard such cars referred to as more of a phallic symbol, the argument is that they have become intrinsically sexual and this film takes that to its logical extreme, mocking our own absurdity.  The film is evocative of the way in which some people lustily discuss "chrome spinners" and "genuine leather seats"; horsepower and hemis.  In particular the character of Vaughn becomes for the other characters an extension of his vehicle's technology - they discuss his body the way others might discuss butterfly doors and elaborate sound systems.  Cronenberg ultimately instills into the sexual encounters a juxtaposition of man and machine that directs the audience toward his critique of this "auto-eroticism", as it has been called.

My dad argues that the last layer of brilliance to all this is that it can so easily be mistaken and disregarded as the power trip of a slightly depraved writer/director (Cronenberg both wrote and directed the film).  I, however, find it almost equally obnoxious as the product of the pretensions of a self-congratulatory and condescending man who is looking to insult and discomfort his audience by laughing at our inability to grasp his hyper-intellectual film.  There could be enough deep social commentary in this film to fill a Stephenie Meyer-length novel and I still wouldn't like it any better.

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