Podcast 132: Revisiting David Cronenberg's 'Crash'
After 20 years, it still serves up deliciously uncomfortable cinema
For this podcast I turn to my archives for an interview with David Cronenberg about his 1996 film "Crash," adapted from J.G. Ballard's controversial 1973 novel revolving around people with symphorophilia, in this case car-crash sexual fetishism.
In the 1970s, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg made low budget horror films that gained notoriety for their gross out effects and won acclaim for their ability to transcend genres. In the '80s, he found commercial success with an inspired remake of "The Fly," but resisted the lure of Hollywood to make personal films such as "Dead Ringers" and "Naked Lunch." In the '90s, Cronenberg brought J.G.Ballard’s seemingly unfilmable book "Crash" to the screen and shook up audiences.
When I interviewed Cronenberg in 1997 about the film, he gave me one of my all time favorite quotes.
"Most Hollywood filmmaking these days is the cinema of comfort," Cronenberg said. "The word comfort even comes into legal negotiations well, 'we can give him some comfort on that point.' I find that quite odd. I’m not looking to make comfortable cinema."
Cronenberg’s “Crash” is definitely not cinema of comfort. That’s obvious from the opening strains of Howard Shore’s eerie score. “Crash” is a fitting title for this perverse erotic tale because not only does it refer to what excites the characters but also because the film itself is like a car wreck that you feel compelled to look at and then feel guilty for being fascinated by.
James Spader and Deborah Unger play James and Catherine Ballard, an upscale urban couple who are in love but whose sex life has reached a dead end. Then James crashes head on into a car, killing the other driver and leaving the man’s wife Helen (Holly Hunter) badly injured. The accident ignites new sexual interests in James and he discovers that Helen shares this obsession. Helen then introduces the Ballards to Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a guru in this car crash sub-culture.
“Crash” won a special jury prize for its “audacity, daring and originality” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996. Then it had a near fatal collision with Ted Turner who took one look at the NC-17 film and refused to allow his NewLine Cinema to release it.
What may disturb people the most about Cronenberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s book is that he lets the story unfold without passing any moral judgment. He’s like a scientist who sets an experiment in motion and then objectively and meticulously records the results. In "Crash," he places a couple’s inability to connect under the microscope. Incapable of direct emotional contact the Ballards must use other people or things as intermediaries. And their desperate quest for shared intimacy proves oddly touching.
In talking with Cronenberg, it’s hard to believe that this articulate, soft-spoken man is the creator of some of the most disturbing films of the past few decades. Speaking from his Toronto office, Cronenberg addressed the controversy surrounding his 1996 film.