Cinefantastique, Volume 28 Number 10, April 1997
The most audacious picture of 1996 finally comes out in 1997.
By Paul Wardle
The release of a new film by David Cronenberg is always certain to be accompanied by widely divergent opinions from critics and viewers alike. Cronenberg has often been vilified for making disturbing or violent films, even by those who have no problem with the senseless carnage in the average dasher flick. Cronenberg's films tend to affect viewers on a much deeper level. It has been said that he is actually making the same film over and over again, but a more poignant explanation might be that, despite the changes in characters, settings and plotlines, each film is consistent with his artistic vision, one that chooses to depict biological horror or the human elements of science fiction, and that his approach to filmmaking hits too chose to home for some people.
Cronenberg's latest work is an adaptation of the bizarre J.G. Ballard novel, CRASH. It's one of the most controversial and talkedabout films of 1996, polarizing people into either loving or hating it. It was given a special award for "audacity" at the Cannes Film Festival, and in July it opened to great critical and boxoffice success in France. In October, its Canadian release was also successful, though the advertisements were curiously worded: "Love it, Hate it, See it"which demonstrates the difficulty Alliance Releasing (the Canadian distributor) faced in deciding how to market the film.
Like many of David Cronenberg's films, CRASH is about obsession and the way in which it makes those who succumb to it outcasts from society, though not necessarily disliking that status. "They've all experienced car crashes," the writer/director is quoted in the official press release, "which have somehow unleashed a kind of erotic imagery that surprises them. They try, each in their own way, to incorporate that into their lives."
The lead character is named after Ballard himself. He and his wife (played by James Spader and Deborah Unger) are jaded, emotionally bankrupt people who have an open marriage and try a variety of sexual deviations to regain some spark in their relationship. Their budding interest in automobiles as sex toys is intensified after Ballard experience an auto accident. Gradually, the viewer is introduced to a secret society of car fetishists, whose ringleader, Vaughan (Elias Koteas), is a sociopathic bisexual who stages famous celebrity crashes for the entertainment of like-minded individuals. Intense performances by Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette flesh-out the cast and add fascinating subtext to the barrenness created by the lead characters. Arquette's character is particularly enticing: a woman whose obsession with having sex in moving vehicles has resulted in serious injury. Despite this, she seems deliriously happy with her affliction, wearing her disability like a badge of honor. Her legs are splinted in a complex series of leg braces combined with leather clothing to form an interesting variation of bondage gear.
One comment heard from a viewer after a screening was that there was no story. They should have read the bookCronenberg's adaptation has far more coherence and is one instance when the film improves on the book.
At his office in Toronto, the director pointed out that, despite the lack of splashy special effects in CRASH (as opposed to THE FLY or VIDEODROME), making a film which consists mainly of sex scenes and car crashes presents unique problems of its own. "It's a strange position to be in," said Cronenberg. "You have the logistics of an action movie to deal with, but it's not an action movie. So you have to take all the energy and pains that an action movie demands, but you don't really score points for that. So some days, I had, for example, 35 stunt drivers and 35 stunt cars on a road that we completely blocked off, and we were shooting in the rain, and having to choreograph that as any stunt, but telling the stunt guys, `No, I don't want the triple roll with the explosion.' What's interesting is the way people have had their reality redefined by Hollywood. I had one guy say to me that the car crashes weren't realistic. I asked him what he meant, and he said, `There's none of that slow motion stuff and the shots where you see it from five different angles... and there were no explosions.' So I asked him if he had ever been in a car accident himself, and he said, `No.' I laughed, because to him, what he described is real. I was trying to make (the accidents) realistic, but I was more interested in the aftermath than the crashes themselves. Nevertheless, even though I was focusing more on the psychology behind the events, we still had to do all that sophisticated stuff. Far instance, in the first crash that Bollard is involved in, we used a 'robot car, like a little dirt [toy] scar, but this was a full-sized one controlled by a radii remote controller. This is state of the art when it comes to filming crashes. It was developed by a Canadian company. It hasn't been used very much yet, but it's quite amazing. You can stand on a hill and drive a real car down below just using this little remote control with an antenna."
Cronenberg continued, "There is a lot of special effects makeup in the movie, but it is very subtle, very realistic-stuff people probably don't even notice, like Elias Koteas with scars on his face all the time. That's very difficult to do, because it's a moving face that you cannot specifically light only for the effects. He's got to be free to do whatever a person does and not worry about smiling too much because it's going to crinkle the scar. It's a difficult special effect that you don't score too many points with, but has to be right or everybody will see it. Obviously, the audience that comes to see CRASH is not an effectsoriented audience, so something like Rosanna Arquette's leg wound was a little bit more spectacular. However, for a horror film audience that would be no big deal. The context would be, though, because I don't think even that audience has seen a scene like that before. But it's very strange how Hollywood has changed people's perceptions of what is realistic."
Even stranger is the way people try to categorize and label Cronenberg films. Because NAKED LUNCH, M. BUTTERFLY, DEAD RINGERS, and CRASH-unlike his earlier work cannot easily be pigeonholed as horror or science fiction, some critics and fans have been speculating that the director is distancing himself from those genres. "Not at all," Cronenberg replied. "I don't think in those terms. For me, that's just a marketing problem. Do you market this as a horror film, a science fiction film, or what? For example, NAKED LUNCH: huge effects, creatures-you name it, we had it. But you wouldn't really call it a horror film; you wouldn't call it a sci-fi film. And I don't care," he laughed. "It's not relevant. The creative process does not work in term of categories. Not for me anyway, and not for most people, I think. No, I still have great love and affection for both genres. I have a big Philip K. Dick collection."
Similarly, he dispels another myth about his recent work: that he has stopped filming his own stories and has instead become more interested in adapting the works of other writers. "I have written two original scripts at the moment and been contracted to write a third. The third one is CRIMES OF THE FUTURE." Aficionados will recognize this as the title of a lowbudget film Cronenberg directed in 1970. He is reusing only the title and the concept, but it is not an actual remake of the original, which is included on the laser disc of DEAD RINGERS. "CRIMES OF THE FUTURE will definitely be scifi," said Cronenberg. "Another script I've written called EXISTENZ is also sci-fi, and the other one, RED CARS, is about auto racing."
While audiences await his next original film, CRASH has finally been scheduled for March 21,1997. The delay can be blamed on Ted Turner, who was widely quoted as saying he found the film disgusting and, for a time, tried to block its release by Fineline Features, which was a subsidiary of the corporation he recently sold to Time-Warner. Many people have speculated that Turner's trepidation about releasing the film was due to worry about his public image as a producer of family entertainment, especially with the Time-Warner deal imminent.
Cronenberg claims there will be no more interference from the entertainment mogul, but what does he think about Turner's very public attack on the film and his efforts to block its release? Cronenberg is refreshingly candid on this subject. "Someone showed me an article that discussed Turner's early life. He was racing yachts with his first wife one time. She was racing against him, and was several months pregnant, and because she was winning, he crashed his yacht into her. He couldn't bear to be beaten by a woman. As a child he was abused by his father, not sexually, but he was beaten, and he freaked out when he saw BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, which deals with child abuse. One might ask if he's really reacting to his own life and it's hitting too close to home." Cronenberg won't speculate what it is in CRASH that might be affecting Turner on the same level, but he clearly feels there is more to Turner's reaction than a man genuinely interested in preserving decency.
The sex scenes have offended many conservative viewers besides Turner, but Cronenberg had no problem with the cast members' acceptance of the material."That was one of the things we discussed the least: the sex scenes," he said. "The problem with the scene[s] is: how do you choreograph it, how do you make it work, how do you say the dialogue so that it works the best? Those [considerations] are normal for any scene. The actors were totally on board. When you read the script, you certainly know on what level the movie is. There was no question. When Holly [Hunter] came out to do the scene with Spader in the car, she had no underpants on. She was naked from the waist down. I didn't tell her `no underpants'; she [decided that on her own]. Likewise with the other actors. That was part of the heart of the film. If there had been a problem, they would have just not done the movie."
Cronenberg added that a couple of actors who were approached before James Spader were "completely repulsed by the entire project." He chose not to name the actors, but added that they were very well known. Cronenberg is not going to waste time in production trying to convince performers to take their clothes off, something which would be, in his own words, "a nightmare," and ultimately "ludicrous and demeaning to the entire project."
Since the film was released in Canada, many people have commented that the Ballard book was a perfect choice for Cronenberg, and has a connection to the type of vision his films always exhibit. It should come as a surprise to many that Cronenberg was neither a Ballard fan, nor did he have a fondness for CRASH when he first read it.
"It was sent to me by a journalist," he recalled. "I only read half of it and didn't read the rest until six months later. Even after that, I didn't relate to it. Many people have said that the connection is obvious between this and my other work, but after the fact, everything is obvious. I still haven't read his earlier sci-fi work. Mostly I've read all the stuff he's written since he wrote CRASH. I don't read books looking for material [to film]. Then it was a couple of years later that I was talking to Jeremy Thomas when we were making NAKED LUNCH, and he asked me if there was anything I was desperate to do, that we could work on together, and I said, `I think we should do CRASH.' Well, he went crazy. He said he optioned the book when it came out; he couldn't get it made; he knew Ballard, and he could introduce me. Meanwhile, I'm saying to myself, `Why did I say that?' I was sure I wasn't interested, butthose are very honest moments and very revealing. The book was obviously [on my mind] percolating away under the surface, and it had begun some kind of process in me which I obviously needed to make the movie to complete. We never looked back."
He was quick to point out, though, that the book as written by Ballard wouldn't seem as connected to his vision as the finished film does. Despite this, he was pleased that Ballard loved the movie, even joining him on stage at the Cannes Film Festival, and has been vocal in his praise of Cronenberg's adaptation of his story. "But it is different from the book, and he knew it would be," said Cronenberg, "and that delighted him. He's that kind of person. He was excited to see his work filtered through my sensibility. Whenever you see someone try to become the other person, it never works. It's always flawed and wooden and stiff.
"A lot of people still think of CRASH as a sci-fi book," the director continued, "and it's not just the momentum from his earlier work. It's also the psychology of the people. It's not a normal psychology, but it's presented as normal for the characters. Ballard has even said that the film goes beyond the book. He meant it in terms of the psychology-that the movie begins where the book ends. That psychology is accepted by the movie as the norm."
The subject of censorship inevitably arises when discussing a film like this. Was a different cut of the film made for European distribution and have any concessions been made for North American censors? Cronenberg's views on censorship are well known, and nothing has been edited out since he cut the film to his satisfaction.
"If you self-censor, you're pretty well doomed," he said. "It's impossible to let the censors inside your door but keep them only in the vestibule. They will swarm all over your house," he chuckled. "You have to forget them. We were in a completely hermetically sealed environment when we were making this movie, and the only dynamics that were considered by all of us, in terms of sex, violence or anything else, was how it worked within the film. And I've tried to be very true to that. Some people looked at THE DEAD ZONE and said, `It's more mainstream; it's not so violent; it's not so dependent on effects,' and all this nonsense. Then I made THE FLY, which was very violent, very sexual, and very dependent on effects. It's only because THE DEAD ZONE had that melancholy tone. You could feel when you were going too far one way or the other. To be sexually explicit in that movie was wrong. It just didn't work and it had nothing to do with worrying about censors."
The film won several Genie awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), including one for best director, of which Cronenberg is justly proud, considering that his early films were not that highly regarded by the Canadian film industry. Even at Cannes, there were two out of the ten members who did not vote for CRASH, but Francis Ford Coppolawas not among them, contrary to what the Canadian press reported at the time. The film has been well-received by openminded people everywhere it has played. Though there wasn't much competition at the theatres when CRASH opened in Canada, Cronenberg insists its success had nothing to do with loyalty to him as a Canadian. "I wish!" he joked. "M. BUTTERFLY flopped and NAKED LUNCH wasn't as strong. Certainly there are a core of fans who are interested in my work, but on the scale that you need to release a picture, that's not enough."
As reported earlier, the Canadian advertising for CRASH was strange. Even negative reviews were quoted in the ads, something rather unusual. And one reviewer, who stated that she didn't like the film, still urged people to see it, practically an unprecedented occurrence. Cronenberg was flattered, but had his own explanation for this odd turn of events. "I believe that a lot of people simply did not have the (mental) equipment to know how to react, and I mean critics as well. It was hitting them at such an oblique and strange angle that they couldn't decipher their own reactions which is why you get these strange anomalies. Even for that reason people should see the movie! How many movies do that?"
Of all the countries that have considered the film, perhaps the strangest response has been from England. "First of all," Cronenberg explained, "the British Board Of Film Classification has not given the film a certificate or refused it one. It hasn't made its ruling. I know from talking to the censor himself that it will not be banned. However, the English are so insane and their newspapers are so insane, and their politics are so crazed right now, because for the first time in 17 years, Tories are behind in the polls. There's an election coming up, and every one feels the Labour Party will win, and they're desperate for anything to cling to. Now, here comes this movie that they can try to ban to show how tough they can be. They're completely obsessed with control. No one is talking freedom of expression. To say freedom is like political suicide. Even the Labour Party is saying, `No, we'll ban CRASH sooner!' Every week there's something like a kid stabbing a schoolmaster. They want to bring back caning of children in the schools. They're really nuts! They have a weird island mentality there, fear of contamination from the outside world. People came up to me and told me I was right. It's like a confession they're making. I know the censor wants to pass the film uncut, but it's a political situation. He's afraid he'll lose his job; he's afraid that the government will take over censorship just as an excuse. At the moment, the censor board is not a government-controlled thing. There's an obscure legal structure there where local councils of boroughs can decide to do an interim ban. So Westminster Council did an interim ban pending the outcome of the censor board's decision. The Westminster Council controls the west end of London where all the good cinemas are and all the tourists go. However, a) it would not mean it would be banned anywhere else; b) it would only be an interim ban; and c) they're banning a movie that can't be released anyway because it hasn't got a certificate yet, so no one could see it anyway. What's interesting is that they're pretending that it's a violent film. They're still repressed there, and they can't deal with the sex, so they talk about it as violence. They're comparing it to NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which I think is misleading, and here's the point where publicity turns bad. People will tell you there's no such thing as bad publicity, but I don't agree, because you get the wrong people coming to see the moviethey're disappointed, because it's not what they think, and then the people who would like it don't go. I actually had a guy say that he was cringing through the first three quarters of it, waiting for this ultra-violence that he had been told about; it doesn't happen, but by that time, he had sort of missed the movie. Now he says he's going to have to see it again if he can."
In fact Cronenberg's adaptation of what was a very grisly book, is quite tasteful and not at all excessive in its depictions of the crash victims or the carnage of the collisions, whereas Ballard's novel positively wallowed in page after page of gory descriptions. What could easily have become a gorefest in the hands of a lesser director is not exploitational, despite the distortions of truth by the British government and Ted Turner. "The real violence of the movie is conceptual violence," said Cronenberg. "It's the idea of what the characters are doing and thinking that disturbs people. Just as when they come out of the theatre, they're conscious of the fragility they have when driving through traffic that they've numbed themselves to. Then there was all this worry about copycat crimes. What? Teenagers will have sex in cars? That never happens. Also, the people in the movie are not kids. They're mature adults."
The film was independently financed, yet the original backersthree Frenchmen, whose organization, U.G.C. was originally suppose to finance CRASH-backed out when they read the script. It was a decision they would live to regret, when they saw CRASH's success at Cannes. Their refusal "really surprised" Cronenberg, who, along with Ballard, is held in high esteem in France. Upon seeing the finished film, they told him, "We've made a mistake." The only involvement with the Hollywood machine was Fineline, who were involved solely for the U.S. distribution. "They don't pay you money until you hand them the film," Cronenberg added, "and anything can happen until that moment."
None of these battles over censorship or acceptance are anything new to Cronenberg. Over the years, many of his films have elicited negative reactions from even respected critics and a large number of intelligent filmgoers. Why does his work provoke such responses? "Because the films are serious," he opined. "Who is going to have a really negative reaction to INDEPENDENCE DAY? It's not worth a negative reaction. It doesn't call forth emotions one way or another. It's not meant to. A lot of filmmaking these days is very superficial. It's safe. It's not meant to get anyone too riled up, and even when it purports to take a moral stance, everybody knows that no one involved in the movie really cares about the moral part of it. A moral stance in Hollywood films is often just part of the narrative. It's a character attribute. This guy stands up for justice. It's not like the filmmakers were worrying about that. They made the character have a strong point of view so he can struggle with someone, conflict being the essence of drama. You look at STRANGE DAYS. I was really surprised to see it starting to become a movie about a race war, and not really being a sci-fi movie at all. Yet they didn't have the guts to complete that. The movie ends with a 38-second race riot that is immediately calmed, with no repercussion or aftermath. Either you leave it out or you do it. Sadly, it was just a plot device. You feel that the filmmakers did not care.
"I do not consider myself a political filmmaker in the sense of making a film about social concerns like racism," Cronenberg continued, "but in the politics of human existence, I'm very passionately committed. That, to me, is what it is about CRASH that generates such a passionate response. I think it's responding to my own passion; and obviously, because it's not easy stuff, some of it's going to be negative. Some Italian journalists accused it of being a pornographic film, but I actually found that to be more of a structural problem. They hadn't seen a movie that would start with three sex scenes in a row and had sequential sex scenes, except for porn films. But as I would say to them if I had a chance, it would be a very bad porn film, because it does not satisfy all those things that you would want from a porn film. If I were going to make a porn film, it would not be like CRASH, but structurally, it has some of the elements of a porn film, rather than the content."
Clearly, a key element of the book and the movie is this secret society of fetishists. This is a theme often repeated in Cronenberg's work. The lead character is usually an outcast from society, either because he has telepathic powers (THE DEAD ZONE, SCANNERS), a mutated, disfigured appearance (THE FLY) or a deep, dark secret (VIDEODROME, DEAD RINGERS). The question then follows, whether this is a psychological extension of Cronenberg's own feeling of isolation from the outside world. He was a fan of 1950's E.C. horror and science fiction comics, which was a good starting point for his later career, but other than that, he denies having anything but a normal, middle-class childhood.
"I've never thought of myself as an outcast," he said. "I have a very good, supportive family. I grew up on a street where everybody looked after everybody else's kids; everybody was in and out of each other's houses. Too normal, I suppose, to really feel like an outcast with a capital `O'. On the other hand, I read a lot, which a lot of kids didn't do; I collected butterflies; I had a girlfriend when I was five. Everybody else was playing football and I was over at my girlfriend's place, acting out little dramas, so I felt different in a sense from the `normal' kid, but there were enough other kids like me that from that point of view I didn't feel isolated."
Though not as repressive or conservative as the 1980s, the 1990s have been a volatile decade, and the situation Cronenberg described in England-a country where even the governmentowned BBCTV once broadcast a show like MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS-is rapidly changing. Changes are being enacted to take away the artistic freedom that British television has always taken for granted. According to Cronenberg, the new legislation, if it takes root, will eliminate, among other things, anything "disturbing." With this in mind, does Cronenberg think the climate of the '90s is becoming more repressive or more liberal?
"I think it's cyclical," he responded. "It's obvious that we have been in periods where freedom was more valued and that this is a period where fear is more in control. Censorship is not about morality; it's about fear and control. Whether that will continue for the next three years of the 1990s, I wouldn't even want to guess. I'm willing to be surprised. The cycles have been and can be quite short."
If movies, books, comics, or television could really be responsible for turning people to assault, murder, rape, or other violent activities, then wouldn't the censors, who are exposed to these materials day in and day out, be the ones most likely to commit these crimes? Cronenberg agrees: "It's not a simple mechanistic understanding of these things that will lead people to copy them. People want to believe (as someone put it) that to portray it is to endorse it. If that were true, that would mean that all subtlety in art is impossible, all satire is impossible, all humor is impossible. The idea that people will just do what is up on the screen is ludicrous. By that argument, you could also make a case for suppressing all news, because when someone like Jeffrey Dahmer gets famous, that's enough of a motivation for some people who are desperate to have their 15 minutes of fame. I had to get this blunt for England: it doesn't really matter if a guy walks into a theatre showing NATURAL BORN KILLERS saying, `When I leave this theatre, I'm going to shoot five people, but I want to see this movie first.' Then, when he comes out, he says, `You know, I think I'll stab those five people instead, because it was so neat in the movie when they stabbed people.' That's not even the issue. The issue is: can someone go into a theatre not being a killer and come out of the theatre a killer. If you could prove that, it would be pretty devastating. I absolutely don't believe it's possible, and I don't think it's ever happened. Therefore, that's not the issue. If someone is on the verge of killing, then anything can trigger them off, whether it's a pair of highheel shoes in a window, or "Helter Skelter," the Beatles song. Are you going to ban all Beatles songs because there might be another Charles Manson out there?"
Specifically regarding the point about the censors being exposed to the same material, Cronenberg had this to say: "You know what one person said to me here [about that]? `Oh, well, we rotate the people. We don't all see them all.' What do you do when you're dealing with a mentality like that? At basis, censorship is very condescending and patronizing. You're basically saying, `I am educated enough and poised enough and mature enough and stable enough, but there are people out there who are not. And I don't want them to get crazed and kill me.' That's what's really there, and in England it's so obvious. All that formal colonial energy is now turned inward. The people they're afraid of are now on the island. It's a racist thing; it's a class thing. All of these things indicate that England hasn't really changed that much in a couple hundred years."
Cronenberg has chosen to stay in Toronto, while many of his contemporaries have had their greatest success after leaving Canada and going to Hollywood, London, or New York. Perhaps because of this, he has remained close to the influences that made his early films so unique. He describes his decision thusly: "Everybody shoots in Toronto. They're shooting a movie called MIMIC with Mira Sorvino. Other directors shoot here using Carol Spier and my crew. They're not all Canadian productions, obviously, but I think the industry is very healthy. If people are coming here to shoot, why would I go away? It doesn't make sense. My moment where I might have moved to the States passed very early in my life. I must say, it's very sweet to have a lot of young filmmakers tell me I inspired them-not only my work, but the fact that I've stayed here. It just proves that you can establish an international reputation at home. So, if I've done nothing else, I've done that, and that's some thing."
Yet he has done more. He has made films, regardless of their subject matter or viewpoint, that are artistic, that have integrity, and that stay in our minds for years to come. With the glut of anonymous, bigbudget films that permeate the industry, that, too, is no small feat.