Screen 39: 2, Summer 1998, p. 175 - 179

The Crash Debate: Anal wounds, metallic kisses

Barbara Creed

Sheaths of metal, shards of glass, ripped leather upholstery, blood glistening on the steering wheel, two crash survivors copulating in a car, a man fucking a wound in the leg of a female crash victim, repeated episodes of anal sex, a car fetishist re-enacting the James Dean crash 'for real' - images such as these confront the viewer in David Cronenberg´s film, Crash (1996). Yet, despite its perverse subject-matter, Crash is oddly and unexpectedly detached, sombre, even pensive. Herein lies the film´s asthonishing power. Cronenberg has created an enclosed world - like a bell jar - which is bleak, uncompromising and intense, and which holds the viewer in thrall from beginning to end. The other unexpected feature of the film - given the media hype - is that its subject matter, while bordering on the pornographic, does not come across as shocking (although Westminster City Council saw fit to ban Crash, presumably disturbed by cruth-and-calliper sex).

Crash explores powerfully and with conviction the connection drawn between desire, sex and accidental death; that is death which represents in the words of one character 'a liberation', an almost 'impossible intensity', a sudden, out-of-control crash in which all systems suffer melt-down. Cronenberg asks us to consider the nature of desire in the postindustrial, postmodern age. Desire represents the opposite of the Romantic ideal of truth, beauty and wholeness; the postmodern desiring subject yearns for an experience marked by crash culture - division, simulation, brutality, obscenity, perversity, death.

Flesh melts into chrome, wounds open, technology links sex to cold smooth surfaces and metallic limbs. Yet the film´s mood is not without levity. In the best surrealistic tradition, events take on an absurd hue. It is clear that none of the characters, no matter how ressourceful in their pursuit of the erotic, will ever find fulfilment.

Crash is not as shocking as other major films by Cronenberg (Videodrome [1983]), The Fly [1986]) partly becaus its central theme - that the human psyche and body have been profoundly shaped by technology - is not new. In addition, the potentially radical nature of Cronenber´s representation of desire is undercut by an unadventurous approach to questions of sexual difference and sexual choice.

Since the heyday of the industrial revolution and the invention of increasingly powerful and marvellous machines, critics, theorists and avant-garde artists have explored the effects of technology on the human subject, for good or evil. Marinetti, founder of the Italian-based Futurist movement, argued in his Manifesto of 1909 for the virtues of technological progress, particularly its effects - change and speed - which he saw as cleansing and purifying. The surrealists were quick to explore the association between technology and desire. In his scandalous film, Un Chien andalou (1929), Luis Bunuel depicts a man becoming sexually aroused by the sight of a young woman run over by a speeding automobile. Nearly three decades earlier Emile Zola drew a similar connection between accidents and intense emotion. In La Bete humaine (1890) he wrote: 'She loved accidents: any mention of an animal run over, a man cut to pieces by a train, was bound to make her rush to the spot'. [1] From the beginning of the cinema to the present, filmmakers have revelled in the accident disaster epic (Titanic [1953, 1997]), Towering Inferno [1974], Airport [1970]) and in the depiction of train collisions and car chases followed by the ubiqitous crash. As Virilio has said: 'Every time that a new technology has been invented, a new energy harnessed, a new product made, one also invents a new negativity, a new accident.' [2] Science-fiction films have explored the relationship between human and robot (Metropolis), human and cyborg (Terminator [1984, 1991]), flesh and metal (Tetsuo [1989]), Ridley Scott´s Bladerunner (1982) portrays Rachel, the femme fatale, as desirably precisely because she may be a replicant.

Based on the underground novel by J.G. Ballard, Crash draws on this rich heritage but in a radically different manner. In an extendend detailed exploration, Crash fuses and eroticizes two key motifs of modernity, technology and the wound. The term 'crash' itself is revealing; it not only describes the accident, it also signifies a new form of human behaviour which presumably originated with the accident, that is, an experience ('crashing a party', 'crashing for the night', 'crash diet') which is dramatic and fast and which links the human experience to a parallel event in the mechanized, industrial world.

Unlike the images of modern advertising - to which Crash pays tribute - the car is ultimately rendered desirable bot because of its sleek, perfect lines and gleaming metal, but because of its potential to fuse with the human flesh. The concept of fusion is central to other Cronenberg films (The Fly, Videodrome, Dead Ringers [1988]) but it is in Crash that he most clearly eroticizes the union via the wound.

In his important article, 'Wound culture: trauma in the pathological public sphere', Mark Seltzer examines public fascination with car accidents, serial killing, and other forms of violence as a form of spectacle. He argues that public obsession with such events 'has come to make up a wound culture: the public fascination with torn and opened bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound'. [3] The key factor in the constitution of the pathological public sphere is eroticism. 'The wound and its strange attractions have become one way, that is, of locating the violence and the erotics, the erotic violence, at the crossing point of private fantasy and collective space: one way of locating what I have been calling the pathological public sphere.'

The recent tidal wave of public interest in, and controversy over, the death of Princess Diana - in what is bound to become known as 'the celebrity crash of the century' - indicates how deeply embedded crash culture has become in contemporary consciousness.

The image of the 'bleeding wound' as a symbolic form is, of course, not new to the twentieth century. In a sense there has always been a pathological public sphere, but in the twentieth century it has been secularized and popularized through the mass media. In Christian religion, Christ´s bleeding wounds have for centuries been the subject of prayer, iconography, narrative, painting and miracles. The wounds of St. Sebastian have been fetishized in painting, and the marks of the stigmata are regarded as a sign of extreme holiness. In the early twentieth century Freud tied the significance of the bleeding wound to sexual difference; it signified the castrated female genital, the sight of which created fear in the male and supposedly led to the foundation of patriarchal culture.

In the discourses the 'wound' has been overdetermined - fetishized and erotized. We find this process at work in the cinema, particularly in the horror genre but also in films such as Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg, 1980) and The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974). In the latter, which was greeted with public outrage, Dirk Bogarde, playing a member of the SS, kisses and caresses the open wound of a young Jewish girl (Charlotte Rampling) withg whom he is obsessed. Cronenberg´s fascination with wound (Rabid [1977, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers), both open and stitched, finds its most extreme statement in Crash, specifically in the sequences in which the characters eroticize (touch, caress) the wounds of other accident survivors. Crash represents a convincing instance of Seltzer´s argument.

The most confronting episode occurs when the character rather cheekily called James Ballard (James Spader) has to fuck a wound in Gabrielle´s (Rosanna Arquette) shattered leg. In contrast to virtually all of the other sex scenes, this one does not involve anal penetration. When asked why the sex portrayed is 'usually rear-entry or anal' Cronenberg replied that it 'felt right, getting both the actors looking towards the camera and not at each other. It helped the sort of "disconnected" thing.'[4] The sex scene between Ballard´s wife Catherine (Deborah Unger) and the mysterious Vaughan (Elais Koteas) - the crash fetishist - is the only one in which sex involves vaginal entry and in which the woman is beaten. Compared to Catherine´s well-groomed, world-weary husband, Vaughan is rough, brutal, animalistic. Vaughan sees the car accident as 'a fertilizing rather than destructive event - a liberation of sexual energy that mediates the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form'.

From their first meeting it is clear that she is turned on to Vaughan ('his huge car must smell of semen') but is totally unprepared fro the brutality of his sexual advances which take place in the back seat of his battered 1963 Lincoln (the car in which Kennedy was shot). Afterwards, she examines her badly bruised stomach, thighs and pubic area but - contrary to her expectations - she is not aroused by Vaughan´s violence. Unlike the anal sex scene (which almost always commence with the woman offering her breasts for the man), and the episode of 'wound' sex, this one is not only 'disconnected', it is sadistic.

It is disturbing to note that in all of the sex scenes the woman offers herself to be penetrated: she bears the 'wound' that is fucked, and she is represented as the prosthetic other. The possibility of union between human and machine is displaced, in the main, on to woman´s body. Cronenberg has stated that if the individual is enveloped by 'some harsh reality', he or she 'rather than be crushed, destroyed or diminished by it [should] embrace it fully'. [5] Crash explores this proposition in two contexts: the violence of the car crash and its aftermath is examined primarily around James: the sexual threat of the brutal male and its 'harsh reality' is explored in relation to Catherine and her encounter with Vaughan. The sexism inherent in the latter episode is mirrored at other levels in the film.

Woman is also the conduit for male desire. In the final episodes two homosexual encounters take place: one between James and Vaughan which develops logically from previous events; the other between Helen (Holly Hunter) and the crippled Gabrielle which comes across as completely tokenistic. Nothing that has previously happened prepares us for this expression of lesbian desire; it occurs gratuitously, and its enactment by the two women is coy and awkward. The scene of male eroticism, however, develops out of the growing relationship between James and Vaughan. The two men first meet in the hospital - after James´ accident - when they pass in a corridor and Vaughan tenderly examines James´ wounds. James, however, does not voice his erotic interest in Vaughan: this is 'spoken' by his wife in one of their anal encounters. This occurs after James has witnessed Vaughan´s version of 'James Dean´s Death by Porsche', and just after he rides with Vaughan and Helen in the Lincoln. Later Vaughan explains his theory of the 'reshaping of the human body by modern technology'. James is stimulated by Vaughan´s passionate convictions, his need to embrace the car crash and his macho approach to the road.

During sex, Catherine arouses James by asking him questions about his own homoerotic desires: 'Can you imagine what his anus is like? ... Would you like to sodomize him? Would you like to put your penis into his anus, thrust it up his anus? Tell me, describe it to me... Desribe how you´d reach over and unzip his greasy jeams... Have you ever sucked a penis? ... Have you ever tasted semen?' As Catherine speaks, her back to James, becomes Vaughan´s anus for him.

Woman´s desires merge with those of the man/car - but this opposite is not true. There is no parallel scene in which man takes the place of woman for another woman. Nor is there a scene in which lesbian desire - or any form of female desire - is explored convincingly in relation to Vaughan´s erotics of the wounded body. Crash thus speaks male, not female, desire; its visual style is brilliant, its subject matter is confrontational but its sexual politics are phallocentric. If, as Vaughan argues, the crash is truly liberating, or fertilizing event, then ideally it should be liberating for both sexes.

 

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Notes

1 Emile Zola, La Bete humaine (1890), quoted in Mark Seltzer: 'Wound culture: trauma in the pathological public sphere'. October 80 (Spring 1997), p.3

2 'Critical mass', Paul Virilio interviewed by Virginia Madsen, World Art no.1 (1995), p.81

3 Seltzer, 'Wound culture', p.3

4 'Crash', David Cronenberg interviewed by Chris Rodley, Sight & Sound, vol 6. no.6 (1996), p.10