Car-nal Knowledge

This must be the year for nonsensical movies involving automobiles, violence, confused identities and sex, directed by guys named Dave. No sooner has David Lynch led his disciples off on a wild-goose chase called Lost Highway, in which the main character morphs into somebody else, than David Cronenberg pops up with a new blast of incoherence called Crash, which purports to explore the eroticism of car smashups. It's graphic, and thus provoked a minor tempest at last year's Cannes film festival. Evidently, the moviemakers are hoping it will do the same thing at the multiplex in Keokuk.

You know you're supposed to be in the presence of High Film Art--better make that Avant-Garde High Film Art--when, in scene one, the camera creeps into a dimly lit hangar full of unmistakably phallic Cessnas and Gulfstreams, and the leading lady, emerging from the shadows, promptly yanks up the rear of her skirt and, sprawled against a convenient engine cowling, is penetrated by an anonymous airplane mechanic. This is but the first of many such encounters. Before we're done, virtually every major and minor character in Crash has had sex with every other character (usually in a car), a round robin that says more for democracy than discernment and less about the attraction of ideas than the age-old grip of pornography.

Cronenberg, an experimenter right down to his tippy-toes, did some nice work in his free-form adaptation of William Burroughs's Naked Lunch. At least two of his other films, the twin-doctors chiller Dead Ringers and the futurist fantasy Scanners, about a telepathic underground, revealed a keen eye and an inventive mind. But in tackling Crash, British sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard's turgid 1973 novel, he's landed in the ditch. The unreadable is now the unwatchable. What Cronenberg hopes is "disturbing" will likely be, for many, merely annoying.

Ballard's book and Cronenberg's film propose that within the gory spectacle of the car crash, there's also some kind of collision between ecstasy and death--just what every motorist needs in this age of alienation and loneliness. In service of this fantasy, author and filmmaker create a cult of fetishists who get off on watching crash-test-dummy videos, accumulating gruesome injuries in their own pre-planned accidents and obsessing on bloody celebrity mishaps like the ones that took the lives of James Dean, Jayne Mansfield and Grace Kelly. The JFK assassination? That would be auto-eroticism (if we may abuse that term) of another sort. The godfather and chief recruiting officer of the cult, a deeply scarred deep thinker named Vaughan (Elias Koteas) even tools around town in a black Lincoln limo identical to Kennedy's--and uses it to great advantage as a sexual come-on. You know, an ass wagon.

Vaughan's acolytes include a director of TV commercials who's called (what else?) James Ballard, played by (who else?) moviedom's best-practiced yuppie psychopath, James Spader. Ballard's luscious blonde wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), the sexual adventurer in the airplane hangar, is another of the crash freaks. Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter, of all people), whose husband has just been killed on the highway, is a third. A fourth is Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a woman so experienced in automotive self-flagellation that her very flesh is now zipped together just like her black leather jacket and she wears kinky chrome braces on both legs. These people like to drive their cars into each other, and they like to have sex in cars, with whoever is handy. They can no longer distinguish between violence and lust. Something else, too: In effect, they're having sex with cars.

Why do they do it? For that, we should probably defer to their leader and house philosopher. The car crash, our Lincoln owner Vaughan says (with a straight face), is "a liberation of sexual energy that mediates the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form." Oh, really? Keep inhaling those exhaust fumes, pal, and call back in the morning.

Cronenberg is cruising the same surrealist neighborhood where the aforementioned Mr. Lynch hangs out. But lest anyone be tempted to take either him or J.G. Ballard too seriously, it might be instructive to note the exorbitant pride the author takes in a comment an early reader at his British publishing house made after reading Crash 25 years ago: "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!" Could any writer, in his wildest imagining, conjure up a greater compliment to his work? Probably not. By the way, this is the same J.G. Ballard whose semi-autobiographical novel of childhood, Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg turned into one of most inspirational (and squarest) movies of 1987.

In any event, Cronenberg has bought Ballard in toto. He, too, is willing to follow these dreary fetishists down any road, apparently convinced that an obsession with screwing in the car wash or re-enacting Jayne Mansfield's death right down to the exquisite detail of her slain Chihuahua has something important to say about the condition of contemporary man. And what would that be? Why, that the primacy of the machine has dehumanized us all. Wow. There's a radical new idea for the Nineties--the 1890s.

Screenplay by David Cronenberg, from a novel by J.G. Ballard. Directed by David Cronenberg. With James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas and Holly Hunter.


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