Screen 39:2 (summer 1998), p.196-192

Automatic Lover


Fred Botting and Scott Wilson


Some dickless piece of shit fucked with my car

Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction


One of the most boring things one can say about a film is that it is boring. When a film´s main preoccupation is sex, moeover, this sort of judgement is often simply an expression of moral distaste dressed up as sophistication. Yet Crash starts from the premiss, attributed to Michel Foucault, that 'sex is boring'. Boredom is the film´s milieu: generically, Crash combines the stylized ennui of a seventies German urban alienation film with the grainy, low-tech, humourless repetition of a seventies German porn film.

Set in a Canada that seems to comprise totally of motorways and tower blocks, the film´s opening sexual encounters present sex as a matter-of-fact, workaday activity: an automatic emptying of the liberation of sex into the free-floating realms of consumer capitalism, a 'pornographic culture' of materialized appearances, mechanical labour and copulation. [1] On a balcony overlooking jammed motorway, James and Catherine Ballard compare notes on the day´s sexual encounters: 'how was work today darling?' is replaced by the equally perfunctory 'who did you fuck at work today darling?', and shortly followed by the question, 'Did you come?' Sex becomes the same dull daily grind as work: a banal, repetitive, mundane event absorbed in the pleasure principle of the productive and cosnumptive economy. Sex, work and pleasure, but no jouissance, at least not that day, according to the Ballards´ negative response to their own inquiries. An everyday routine, sex has become divested of desire, freed from any morality other than the imperative to enjoy, a joyless, superegoic command to keep on fucking.

Cronenberg´s film addresses the injunction to and extinction of sexual desire, in line with J.G. Ballard´s project in his novel Crash and other works. In The Atrocity Exhibition, for example, Ballard has one character speak of the need 'to invent a series of imaginary sexual perversions just to keep the activity alive'. [2]. For Vaughan in Crash, the automobile serves as a sex aid. As the film´s sex-guru, Vaughan recruits his disciples, the Ballards and Helen Remington, by setting their car accidents in a photo-narrative, thereby giving their physical trauma a new, erotic meaning. In a short time, the characters begin to share Vaughan´s interest in car crashes, an interested manifested in precipitating, photographing, recording and re-enacting automobile collisions. In his workshop, he speaks of a 'benevolent psychopathology', of the car crash as a 'fertilizing event' and a 'liberation of sexual energy'. Vaughan is credited as the film´s dominant character by the others around him, the master of ceremonies who connects crash victims, explains events and stages their ritual observances. As a paternal or phallic figure, however, he remains suspect. Elias Koteas´ performance as Vaughan as the dangerously charismatic, virile American is so excessive (often recalling Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro at their most deranged) as to successfully hint at the deficiency that determines his obsession. Far from being the intoxicating, sinister figure he appears to be for Helen Remington and the Ballards, he merely evokes incredulity, and fails to provide the point of identification that could enliven his project for a cinema audience. Looked at another way, he´s simply 'a dickless piece of shit who fucks with cars', to quote Vincent Vega from Tarantino´s Pulp Fiction.

Absent or not, Vaughan´s dick is an object of curiousity in the film. Ironically, in the one scene of normal, 'bedroom' sex between the Ballards, pleasure comes as an effect of persistent, probing inquiries into another fantasized sexual scene. Catherine Ballard interrogates her husband about Vaughan´s penis: what does it look like; is it circumcised; is it badly scarred; would her husband like to suck it? Moving from his scars to his penis, from his sexual habits to the semen smell of his car, from his arsehole to the idea of sodomizing him, the escalating series of questions and speculations spices sex with a quite literal instance of perversion - in the Lacanian sense of a turning towards the father (père version) that foregrounds the symptom or object a supporting the paternal function. [3] However, as Catherin Ballard later discovers, Vaughan´s penis, if nor already severed after 'the motorcycle accident' that was supposed to have damaged it, is not an organ he employs in the film. [4] When he´s not ramming someone with his car, he fucks with his fists, leaving behind a trail of cuts and bruises; as Catherine Ballard discovers, sex with Vaughan is just another kind of car crash.

Vaughan occupies a central place in the libidinal economies of the film´s characters, then, as their point of père version, in the form of a quasi-phallic, yet penisless, figure who sits in his car as the scarred metaphor of a 'real' castration that precisely discloses the excessive failure of traditional symbolic castration. Liberated from any taboo that might once have given it meaning, all 'normal' sexual activity disappears and the phallus (the taboo) is desired precisely as a body that has been beaten black and blue, scarred with twisted metal. Imagined and fetishized as the signifier of the desire of an Other now seen as machine, the battered and broken body is the last remnant of a human erotic imaginary in the face of a fully automated form of desire. As the bedroom is displaced by the car, sexual organs and erogenous zones are replaces by scars in a technological supplementation of quasi-erotic energy and intensity; ultimately, cars, scars and signifiers conjoin to sever sex from bodies and organs.

Signifiers of the collision, the wounds and scars, are photographed, collected, simulated and fetishized first by Vaughan, then his disciples: Catherine´s interest in Vaughan´s scarred body; Ballard´s impatience to touch the healed gash along the back of Gabrielle´s thigh; Ballards ardent sensivity towards his wife´s battered and bruised body; Ballard´s and Vaughan´s passionate kissing of each other´s bruised tatoos. Eventually the entire film is dominated by a generalized medico-pornographic gaze that is turned in on itself as a symptom of its own psychopathology. Scars endow bodies with a value they would not otherwise possess. As scar-screens, the empty units of visual identification ('characters' is too strong a word) are marked by the traces of an unspeakable automotiv jouissance unavailable to a human culture determined by the restricted economy of the pleasure principle. At the point linking and separating horror and eroticism, crash scars announce a splitting of subjectivity that comes of the transformation of bodies and their reinscription in a new order of desiring. Crash, however, seems to do no more than fetishize a generalized lack. Without any privileged place of identification, the film is plotted along a chain of scars signifying the displacement of the fetish from its 'original' location as the substitute for maternal lack, to a fetishistic repetition and universalization of lack; all figures are all-too-obviously castrated: scarred, clumsy, limping bodies, mobile only with the aid of vehicles, sticks and calipers. The effect is similar to that noted by Laura Mulvey when she suggests that the fetishistic and close representation of the female image breaks the cinematic spell, freezing the male look, rather than allowing it to assume a masterful and superior distance. [5] Similarly, in Slavoy Zizek´s version of the pornographic gaze, the discomforting of the position of a viewer as voyeur evacuates the attenuation of any secure authority. The wounds, bruises and scars repeatedly thrust by the camera into watching faces serve to abject, rather than incorporate or elevate, the look. Visual pleasure is not restored by the jubilant identification of meaning; the specator is not returned by the comforts of a recognisable resulotion which fills cinematic lack. Instead, all that is seen is a pornography of scars that either leaves one cold or becomes a horrible limit beyond which one cannot bear to look. It is from the overt presentation of generalized castration, perhaps, that the censurious morality which surrounded the release of the film in Britain takes its bearings since any moral concern expressed in regard to the likelihood of cinematic seduction or childish emulation (this is not a film advocating sex in cars) is quite untenable.

If sex, in Crash, disappears in the back of a car, it does so as an effect of its generalized automation. Significantly, the car crashes do not take place as part of a compelling narrative. Stylistically and technically, Crash refuses to evoke or simulate the sensational and spectacular effects that one would expect of a film that draws an equivalence between sex and car crashes. There are no big bangs, no sensuos slow-motion smashes, no romantic chases or erotic duels on the open highway. The crashes take place as a series of bumps that occur as an effect of sudden accelerations of minor deviations amidst the packed lanes of commuter traffic. Since sex has become work, it has become just one functioning part of the regulative synchronous machine that articulates the circulations, exchanges and communication of so many bio-mechanical vehicles that are visualized in the film´s recurrent shots of traffic flowing, a movement, relentless and aimless, that seems to be simply there, underscored by the omnipresent background noise of internal combustion engines. 'I somehow find myself driving again', Ballard remarks to Helen Remington. No sense or reason informs his decision, only a kind of automatism that is reinforced by the mutual, stupefied sense of the monotonous increase in heavy traffic. Cars replace human subjects, equivalent units of mechanical and automatic motion. In Crash, driving, work, sex and pleasure have become hyperhomogenized into the same productive-consumptive economy determining the flows of communicational vehicles. Sex, work and pleasure are bound up with driving and are absorbed by the repetitive, automatic insistence of a signifying chain. Everything accedes to a new order of automation, a social symbolic machine working with and absorbing the intensities and erotic energy previously associated with enjoyment and jouissance. [7]

In the hypersexualized and desexualized setting of Crash, sex is associated with the circulation of communicational vehicles and invested with the erotic charge of the crash. That sex is still synonymous with some sort of 'crash', therefore, does denote its survival of reinvention as a mode of nonproductive expenditure opposed to the world of work and traffic flows even as it is dependent upon them. Indeed, as Joan Copjec argues, sex appears where words and categories fail, in the gaps of signification where desire articulates and separates beings. [8] But of course it is not the human characters who are the vehicles of sexual identity, nor are they the conduits of desire; they do not have the sex. Rather, they suffer the effects of autosex, they become its 'victims' and they eroticize themselves precisely as such in the form of their wounds and scars. Strangely, this is where Crash connects up with a so-called 'political correctness' problematic. This is not so much to do with the suggestion that in its sexy depiction of paraplegic Crash shows a commendable willingness to affirm that the differently abled can also enjoy healthy relations on screen. Rather, the increasing juridical, governmental and corporate concern, in North America, with unauthorized incursions into the 'personal space' of employees (particularly the various degrees of sexual harrassment) has, in common with Crash, the close identification of work and jouissance, and an interest in intensifying sex, and the social activities around it, as something that may seriously damage your health - or psyche. It is no longer taboo, or transgression, then, that returns some interest to sex, but the location of sex as the scene of potential disaster: sex as a kind of car crash, computer crash, financial crash or lifestyle crash, physical, psychic or system violation, malfunction, illness, break down or burn out, the catastrophic point where one´s life, identity or career crashes.

Hollywood, of course, has a tradition of disaster films and of film careers arrested, destroyed or immortalized in one kind of crash or another, and they provide the conventional means by which the crash and its victims may be romanticized by the image: with its photographs and photographed reenactements of the celebrated deaths of James Dean and Jane Mansfield, Crash makes explicit reference to this tradition. The photographic image becomes the only means by which the hypermodern subject can verify its existence imaginarily and symbolically in an umbilical connection to a reality 'that has been'. [9] Absolutely bound up with a hyperhomogenizing system whose only point of fissure is the 'crash' itself, crashes become, for the hypermodern subject, simulations of the traumatic (missed) encounter with the real. [10] Which is why they must be photographed. The photograph functions as a scar in time, freezing the moment when the mortal being becomes Other, fully transformed into pure images: Vaughan´s photographs not only capture the instant when bodily parts are indelibly imprinted by mechanical components, they inscribe the image on another technological surface. As Hollywood has known for years, one´s life and destiny are realized on film, and Vaughan is another prophet of this destiny, aspiring to die in a celebrated, and much photographed, crash. (In the novel he plans to die in a car crash which also kills Elizabeth Taylor.)

In Cronenberg´s film, however, Vaughan fails, in his own fatal crash, to guarantee his own photographic immortality by impacting with a film star. Nevertheless, after his death, the Ballards carry the torch with their own brand of car sex, presided over by the spectre of Vaughan, in a repetition and replacement of ealier patterns. Having bought and rendered roadworthy Vaughan´s 1963 black Lincoln, the final sequence of the film documents their own romantically-paired car chase. With their scars and cars, sex between the two has become fully automated. Ballard is seen furiously driving Vaughan´s car-phallus-scar machine, the object of pursuit being his wife´s grey sportscar. He catches up to ram the smaller car repeatedly from behind, until it careers off the road. The Lincoln halt hurriedly. Ballard, apparently shaken, gets out and stumbles down the grassy roadside to the overturned car to peer down into the camera. As he kneels, his prostate wife comes into shot. She is not dead. He inspects her injuries and strokes her head, breathes her name and asks if she is OK. With a consolatory air, he tenderly kisses her and whisper 'maybe next time, darling.. maybe next time'. They have sex where they are lying. The camera rises, with a warm crescendo of orchestral strings, above the lovers´ ardent embrace on the grassy bank. A romantic climax and the end of the film.

The ending rewrites the story as the rediscovery of the illusion of a sexual relation. Vaughan´s death governs the reborn sex life of the Ballards, renewing desire with the promise of an unimaginable jouissance. 'Maybe next time'. Maybe next time Catherine will attain fatal bliss in the orgasmic instant of the crash. Maybe next time: jouissance remains postponed, but the recovery of its possibility, its fantasy, constitutes the occasion for the reappearance of desire. From being a mechanical failure of diminishing returns, sex is transformed by the crash and becomes, again, a liberating experience. Maybe.

Where fantasy restores the illusion, deferral and the coming promise of a sexual relation in the film, there is no fantasy or place for it made available on the screen: the audience watch a relentless series of similar acts with steadily diminishing interest, divested of curiousity, desire or identification. The screen discloses itself to be an empty space of repetition: sex, sex, sex, sex, car, crash, car, sex, sex in car, sex, sex, crash, cars, sex in car, crash ... and so on. Just as there is no sexual relation, so, in Crash, there is no cinematic relation, no fantastic unification between audience and moving images, scars having become too visible as vicious visual slashes severing voyeur and screen. Indeed, instead of the pleasurable cinematic spectacle of a narcississtic, urban alienation, Crash offers only the relation of non-relation, an experience of redundancy in the face of endless work-sex-pleasure that unfolds on film in the absence of a jouissance that is always missed, that occurs elsewhere, in another scene, at another time, beyond human comprehension in the missed instantaneousness of the crash.



1 Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan 1990). p. 34

2 Cited in Sylvère Lotringer, Overexposed (London: Paladin, 1988), p. 5

3 Jacques Lacan, 'Seminar of 21 January 1975', in Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (eds.) Feminine Sexuality (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 162-171, 167

4 David Cronenberg, Crash (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 37

5 Laura Mulvey, 'Visual pleasure and narrative cinema', Screen vol.16, no. 13 (1975), p. 18

6 Slavoy Zizek, Looking Awry (Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press, 1991), p. 108

7 Jouissance includes Lacan´s sense of the 'getting ' of meaning ('enjoy-meant') and 'erotic bliss'. See Jacques Lacan, Television, trans. Dennis Hollier, Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1990), pp. 16, 89; and his account of the discharges of sexual and bodily energies exceeding symbolic law, that is 'beyond the phallus'. 'God and the jouissance of the [under erasure] woman', in Mitchell and Rose (eds), Feminine Sexuality, pp. 137-48,; Bataille´s general economic notion of excessive expenditure, sacrificial consumption and inner experience, see Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (eds), The Bataille Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), and Lyotards 'acinema' of the libidinal intensities of the drives and wasteful and pyrotechnical disspation of energy and images, see 'Acinema', in Andrew Benjamin (ed.), The Lyotard Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp. 169-80

8 Joan Copjec, Read My Desire (Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press, 1994), p. 204

9 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (London: Fontana, 1984), p. 96

10 For a discussion of the distinction between 'hypermodern' and 'postmodern', see the issue on 'Hypervalue', Cultural Values, vol.1, no. 2 (1997)