Screen 39:2, Summer 1998, p. 180-185

debate

Crimes of the Future

MICHAEL GRANT

 

Crash has caused offence and scandal, provoked a response, at any rate in Britain, similiar to that inaugurated By Robert Fulford in Toronto on the release of Shivers in 1975. However, Cronenberg´s work has provoked opposition, not only from film critics of the right, but also from Robin Wood, a writer of very different persuasion, who has consistently found Cronenberg´s films essentially life-denying: for him, they demonstrate a negativity which lacks even the potential for joy or redemptive renewal. To the extent that one finds in Crash a certain coldness and artifice of style, one may think these views at least partly justified. And yet, I would argue, the film is not open to appreciation of the kind many of the criticisms aimed at Cronenberg´s work appear to take for granted. Unlike other films one may wish to compare to Cronenberg´s - the zombie films of George Romero, for example - Crash is not easily grasped in terms of its message ot theme, nor does it yield a clearly defined moral stance towards its protagonists or their actions. What is crucial to the film is the imaginative effort involved in apprehending it, an effort inseraparable from what we are almost certain to experience as an inexorable moment towards failure and death. This is to say that there is indeed genuine contamination in the film, and it is a contamination of the established order of life and death, separation and fissure. However, the life of the film is that of the imagination, and if we are going to find revitalising potency anywhere in it we will find it there, in how we respond to the enactment the film offers of the creative process itself. And to characterize that process, however briefly (even gnomically), I would say that with Crash Cronenberg has created a future from which he already speaks.

The point at issue here, which brings into relief the critical challenge posed by Croneneberg´s art, may be clarified by reference to some remarks of Walter Benjamin´s in his essay 'The storyteller'. Benjamin points out that in the Middle Ages (and in what remains today of traditional societies), there was no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not died. Death was integral to life, as mourning and celebration found expression in the great religious festivals and the passage of the seasons. However, in modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. Today we live in rooms whoch have never been touched by death, and when our deaths approach we are stowed away in hospitals or sanatoria, out of sight and out of mind. Nonetheless, it is 'characteristic that not only man´s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. [1] As someone´s life comes to an end, the unforgettable emerges in his gestures and expressions; it imparts to 'everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him'. [2] Death, insists Benjamin, is the very source from which the traditional form of the story, the folk-tale, the chronicle, draws its authority. For the story-teller (from Chaucer to Rudyard Kipling) death is recognized and accepted as a natural part of life. Life can only be meaningful if we accept the fact that we die and the world goes on.

In this the traditional story or tale differs from the novel, which Benjamin assimilates to the Romantic tradition. The novel, he argues, is the only art form that includes time amongst its constitutive principles. There is a duality between the inwardness or subjectivity of the protagonist and the outside world which can only be overcome for the hero when he is in a position to comprehend the unity of his life, a unity encompassed in memory. Benjamin quotes from George Lukacs´s Theory of the Novel: 'The insight which grasps this unity... becomes the divinatory-intuitive grasping of the unattained and therefore inexpressible meaning of life'. [3] The novel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is concerned to exorcize the terrors of death for both the writer and the reader. As Benjamin remarks: 'What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about'. This suggests that there is something of the religious still attaching to the practice of the novel. The novel came into the ascendant at a time when religious form could no longer satisfy the Romantic ambition to find human experience itself an incarnation of the sacramental. Romantics like Blake and Shelley sought to achieve through the imagination an intimacy and spirituality powerful enough to challenge established religion on its own ground. In the novel we are encouraged to identify with the hero, so that when the hero dies, either literally or figuratively (through marriage or passing into some other wholly new state), the presentation of his death impresses upon the reader the sense that what is being revealed is the true meaning of life. The hero of the novel is removed from the continuum of life and given an exceptional destiny, which condenses into itself a meaning and significance beyond the ordinary, a meaning and significance that are for the protagonist otherwise inexpressible. The same holds true of many Hollywood films: consider the last sequence of Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946). Here the deaths of the hero and heroine, who have fatally wounded each other in a final shoot-out, give meaning and purpose to their lives. Cradled in each other´s arms and united by death in a kind of marriage, the final crane shot gathers them into a mystical union with the American wilderness.

But Crash is not organized in accordance with the principles of the novelistic continuum, despite the fact of its adaptation from a novel. The significance of the film lies elsewhere, in Cronenberg´s  understanding of the critical role played by modern art in relation to the forms of modern life. Stanley Cavell has argued that it is not merely the threat of fraudulence and the necessity for trust that has become characteristic of the modern, 'but equally reactions of disgust, embarrassment, impatience, partisanship, excitement without release, silence without serenity'. [4] There is a dynamic of spiritual life present in Romantic art, but not the fulfillment, and this tradition of  provocation and failure has been handed on to the moderns. Cavell´s remarks on modern art give what might be called grammatical facts, facts that tell us what kind of object a modern work of art is, and what that work means for us. They find support from J.G. Ballard. In an interview concerned with Cronenberg´s film of his novel Crash, Ballard argues that the emphasis on what he calls the 'sacramental aspect' of the car crash is far more pronounced in the film than it is in the book. The crashes are performed like profane versions of the mass.

Bertolucci, whom I know slightly, called the film 'a religious masterpiece' and I know what he meant. The compulsive rehearsal of the same scenario - these endless crashes being planned and executed - is in fact no more than the sort of repetitions you find in religious observance. The same mantras are recited, the same knees are bent before the same bleeding Christ up on his cross. [5]

Ballard finds in the car-wash sequence in Crash - which he considers one of the great scenes of cinema - the same quality of the ritualistic, in which the characters are made aware of some sort of transcendent experience taking place, lying outside their comprehension or grasp. It is in this sense that Crash may be described as critical: the evocation of religious iconography serves to make clear the failure of that evocation to connect with a living tradition, or to speak with authority on behalf of the individual. An unbridgeable rupture opens between the individual´s experience and the traditional forms that once served to make sense of that experience. And this is Cavell´s point: poetry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has altered in such a way that the issues of sincerity and intention and seriousness are forced on the reader by the poem itself. This does not require the reader to respond in ways that are somehow fuller or more complex than those asked of us  by earlier writing, but it does require a response that is more personal. Modern poetry 'promises us, not the re-assembly of community, but personal relationship unsponsored by that community; not the overcoming of our isolation, but the sharing of that isolation'. If modern art expresses a religious impulse, it does so far as it promises 'not to save the world out of love, but to save love for the world until it is responsive again'. [6]

Cronenberg has discussed what he sees as part of the undertaking of Crash in terms that bear directly on Cavell´s argument. In an interview, Cronenberg´s attention is drawn by Chris Rodley to a line of dialogue in the script which has Vaughan saying of the car crash that it should be seen as 'fertilizing'. Cronenberg notes that the dialogue her comes directly from the novel, and compares Vaughan´s position with an argument he has put forward in relation to Shivers: that the parasites in that film should be seen as a creative force, not a destructive one. The crucial issue for him in Crash concers the 'tension between reality and that whole idea of an idealized life', [7] and he argues that in the film idealization and fantasy are shown to precede reality and to give shape to it.

In Crash I´m saying that if some harsh reality envelops you, rather than be crushed, destroyed or diminished by it, embrace it fully. Develop it and take it even further than it wanted to go itself. See if that´s not a creative endeavour. If that is not positive. [8]

For its director, then, it is the film´s transformative power that constitutes its imaginative life. And this is borne out by its cinematic realization. An austere dispassion of style combines formal control with socially excessive narrative action in ways that recall other of the later Cronenberg films, such as Dead Ringers (1988) and M. Butterfly (1993). The result is an art whose hieratic power frames the transmutation of presence into absence, of being into nothingness. Cronenberg´s cinema may thus be placed in relation to one of the most significant traditions of modern poetry: for Mallarmé the poetic act is a transsubstantiation of real presence into poetic absence, the real flower becoming transformed into the flower absent from all bouquets, and something similar may be said of Cronenberg´s cinema, where events of the present are transformed into 'crimes of the future'. The ontological displacement of the symbolist poem (Eliot´s 'Burnt Norton', for example) has as its counterpart in Cronenberg´s later cinema a displacement of temporality. In Crash, our contemporary obsessions with the sexuality of the machine and the erotic potentials of prosthesis are projected ahead of themselves, by means of a style that creates a time that is not yet ours, except in imagination. Style is therefore central to the film, and Vaughan, the renegade scientist, is the focus of Cronenberg´s stylistic achievement: he is the avatar, not of time - the time of clocks, deadlines and appointments, of past, present and future - but of temporality, where what has been is what will have been for what is still in the process of becoming. It is here, in this ecstasis of becoming or running ahead, that for, Heidegger, Dasein is revealed in its authentic being as futural: 'in running ahead [Dasein] becomes visible as this one singular uniqueness of its singular fate in the possibility of its singular past'. [9]

The spectacles and crashes that Vaughan presides over present a temporality of this order, including in James and Catherine that anxiety or angst in which Dasein takes upon itself the proximity of the nothing. As their lives move with increasing intensity around him, they come more deeply to understand what it would be to find their unique and singular fulfilment in what Heidegger has famously described as 'an impassioned freedom towards death'. [10] It is this passion that Vaughan, with his freedom from illusion, a freedom he combines paradoxically with assurance and anxiety, embodies for them. Nonetheless it is part of the complexity of the film that they are able to acknowledge the fundamental contigency and essential mortality of their lives only after Vaughan´s death, and this they do only inasmuch as they are able to acknowledge each other.

Cronenberg describes his film as an existential love story, and in this he is undoubtedly correct: if James and Catherine achieve fulfilment it is because at the end of the film they are able to love each other, and yet it is a love consummated beside the highway and under the wreckage of Catherine´s car - their bodies bearing the stigmata of death, of Vaughan´s accomplished death and of their own anticipated deaths.

To argue in this vein is to say that Crash explores conditions of temporality far removed from those of the novel, as least as Walter Benjamin presents it. Nonetheless, I would at the same time insist that Cronenberg is a profound literary filmmaker. Modernist poetry has been described 'as something which so shapes time as to make us live its elapsing, its complex duration, with unusual attention to each present moment'. [11] In Cronenberg this sense of complex duration is not to be separated from his sense of mortality and the transformation of the body. The result in Crash is a narrative that explores the limits - the lack, we might say - of what engenders it. Cronenberg has spoken of his outlook as one of 'astringent romanticism', and of his characters as artists doomed to create and doomed equally to fail. [12] In them he addresses his own condition, that of the modern artist condemned to explore in ever-renewed transformations if failure and death the inexorable conditions of art. Cronenberg has considered these matters elsewhere, of course, but in no other film has his integrity of vision been so completely sustained, or his cinematic mastery so absolutely realized.

 

Notes

1 Walter Benjamin, 'The Storyteller', in Illuminations, trans. Hannah Arendt (London: Fontana/Collins, 1977), p.94

2 Ibid

3 Quoted in ibid, p.99

4 Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.229

5 'Dangerous Driving', J.G. Ballard interview by Ralph Rugoff, Frieze, no. 34 (May 1997), p.50

6 Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?, p.229

7 Chris Rodley (ed.), Cronenberg on Cronenberg (London, Faber and Faber, 1997), p.201

8 Ibid, p.202

9 Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time, trans. William McNeill (Oxford, Blackwell, 1992)

10 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson (London, SCM Press, 1962), p.311

11 Donald Davie, The Poet in the Imaginary Museum (Manchester, Carcanet Press, 1977), p.103

12 in an interview with David Breskin, cited by Peter Morris, David Cronenberg: a Delicate Balance (Toronto, ECW Press, 1994), p.129