Cinefantastique, Volume 28, Number 3, October 1996, p.8-9, 61
David Cronenberg turns S&M injury to S.F. metaphor
By Alan Jones
David Cronenbergīs CRASH, based on the 1973 J.G. Ballard cult novel that turns car accidents into sado-masochistic sexual turn-ons for an auto-erotic elite, is another terminally intellectual work from Canadaīs "Venereal Visconti," which will be embraced by his fans and reviled by censor boards worldwide. Colder in execution than even THE NAKED LUNCH and extreme in its depiction of fetishistic sexual obsession, Cronenbergīs latest personal statement, one he says is set in "a very seductive, sensual and enveloping world," turns horrendous bodily injury into a science-fiction metaphor for how humanity must adapt to this runaway technological age.
James Spader and Deborah Unger play Mr. and Mrs. Ballard, who find themselves increasingly attracted to the sexual excitement of pain and mutilation after a fatal accident brings them into a coven-like circle of "experimenters," led by guru Vaughn (Elias Koteas), who restages famous fatal car crashes from the past - James Deanīs and Jayne Mansfieldīs being just two -as kinky cabaret entertainment. Between depicting the flesh-to-metal contacts as "fertilizing rather [than] destructive" (Ballardīs own words) and pushing the sexual envelope to new cinematic boundaries, Cronenbergīs cool, remote and highly stylized approach offered his actors, including Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette, challenges unlike any of them had ever dared before.
Personifying CRASHīs prevailing sense of frigid composure and erotic daring is Deborah Unger as Catherine Ballard. She said, "When David Cronenberg sent me his script, I responded very much the same way the Cannes audience did at the premiere: I was shocked, taken aback, absolutely altered by it - and unprepared by that alteration. I wasnīt familiar with the book, nor was I pre-disposed to the world it depicted. But undeniably the script imapected me and changed me."
Playing Ungerīs other half is STARGATE star James Spader. Together, they explore the psychological and philosphical terrain that Cronenberg shockingly gouges wide open from Ballardīs bleakly deviant vision. Spader, like Unger, was turned-on creatively by the script. He said, "I was curious and intrigued. It was unlike anything Iīd ever read before. I gave Cronenberg a call and said, 'This is just like your other films, yet it is unlike any other movie Iīve seen.' It was so original and provocative, I couldnīt wait to do it."
Unger admitted, "I was nervous about embarking on such a journey. The sexual ennui I eventually claimed for Catherine was not something I easily picked out of my own personal closet. My fear stemmed mainly from the fact that I would become afraid to let myself go and really go for it."
What helped the actress deal with the explicit content was the frostily flat style Cronenberg extracted from his actors. "David was so specific and precise about what he wanted. The characters were clearly based on the metaphoric level. There was no room for versimilitude. I couldnīt research Catherine at all - itīs not as if I could have gone into shopping mall Anywhere U.S.A., and seen Catherine strolling along. There also came a point where it was self-defeating to keep rereading the novel. I had to trust my own instincts and go with my own independent and organic feelings. None of us could intellectualize what we were doing, either: 'This is what Iīm doing here, for that reason.' But everyone knew when a note was struck that David would enjoy conducting."
With Cronenbergīs control-freak directorial style and the minimal dialogue spoken in hushed tones, Spader recalled not having as much artistic freedom as usual. "It became rapidly clear there were interpretations within scenes that felt right and wrong and the twain did not meet," he said. "If we were off-base with the tone, we knew it immediately. All the actors came to a silent agreement about that right feeling. The tone was set in 1973 by Ballard in the novel and reasserted by Cronenberg in hi script. It was therefore interesting, in an inarticulate way, how the tone was re-set again by the actors performing those scenes. There was no dictation at all... we just gave in to that world and those ideas."
What Cronenberg did more than anything, according to Unger, was inspire her with trust. "David doesnīt use actors the way other directors do," she remarked. "He ekes out them a willingness to provide him with practically anything. He is such an intelligent, erudite, charismatic, subtle, and precise man, and it was delightful to discover those qualities, as I had no preconceived notions about him before we met. He saw Catherine in me long before I did! His approach to us, and the film in general, was unique. I keep discovering more thought-provoking things in it each time I see it. You canīt just see CRASH once. It demands repeated viewings. For once past the stop-signs, all your personal conceptions, and misconceptions are removed, and the experience becomes less alienating."
Nevertheless, Unger had stop signs of her own, erected during the filming in Toronto. "There was no doubt about it: everyone knew we were entering uncharted territory. Did it feel ground-breaking? I felt it intuitively, I think. Initially, I felt I was on a precipice, but then I had to abandon those thoughts, or I wouldnīt have lent myself to any explorations whatsoever. And there were lots of opportunities for exploration. I had a great sense of freedom with Catherine because Cronenberg-Ballardīs world dictated it. Her character couldnīt back or spark out with wit or bon mots. Catherineīs sexual boredom was not familiar to me, although I was aware of the sort of world it would exist in - one where the objectification of the individual is more important than their sense of humanity."
Spader met J.G. Ballard for the first time at the Cannes premiere, so any similarities between himself and the author were accidental. But he did read the novel after finishing the script. "Cronenbergīs script was extremely faithful to the book," he said. "There werenīt many surprises in comparing the two. Actually, the novel was a nice little textbook to have near because the narrative is so interior, and you could examine it more. Cronenbergīs decision not to pull back from the novel was the correct approach. CRASH had to be put on the screen with all its extremity intact for it to work."
He continued, "Ballardīs character is strangely one of an aggressively participating observer, he breaks all the rules of what that usually means by being completely participatory in whatīs going on - not in an over way, yet very physically. It all lends a hallucinatory tone to the piece which allows you the illusion of reflection. CRASH doesnīt have a lot of the usual emotional colors that this type of movie often has. The actors donīt react with tremendous drama. However, it does have a relentless pace and structure thatīs odd - thereīs a feeling of a weirdly dichotomous pace to the sequences, one that I havenīt seen on film before."
CRASH is most definitely science fiction in Spaderīs mind. "Itīs the science of fiction and the fiction of science," he pointed out. "Both words are operative to larger and lesser degrees. One of the things I found most interesting in relationship to this was Ballardīs own introduction to the French edition of Crash. In it he talks of his defining sense of science-fiction as manīs reconciliation of conflict, the technology that surrounds them both, and what they create. Man can create any world he wants, but then he has to wrestle with it. Very often man creates a world thatīs in conflict with himself and his own natural order. Now that doesnīt necessarily mean outer space in 50 years time. By deliberated design Ballard picked a technology thatīs been around for over 100 years: the automobile. That puts CRASH in the same traditional category of H.G. Wells, who looked beyond existing technologies to where they would lead."
He continued, "But if you look beyond the automobile, it could be about any technology: telecommunications, computer... CRASH is about a sense of velocity and that come to play in our lives. It serves us, or we serve it. Cronenbergīs concern in CRASH is how sex will change. Thatīs discussed within the context of the material, anyway. If you think about it, the redefinition and reinvention of sex in our lifetime has been enormous. The sexual world we have created for ourselves has been so volatile and tumultuous - itīs certainly a different place today than it was eight years ago when we made SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, which dealt in other way with the subject. CRASH takes cinematic sex to another level of newness. How sex would change, evolve and transform was something we discussed a lot with Cronenberg."
The polarized "love it/hate it" views of CRASH donīt phase Spader. He feels it comes with the territory the movie tries to navigate. "Some people want to participate in what itīs trying to say; others donīt. Even when I was working on it my responses kept being conflicted. Most of the times I was completely exhilarated and tantalized by it - I thought Iīd reached the wall of complete discovery, but then Iīd find a secret door in that door and enter a new level. You see, what Cronenberg is asking audiences to do, and what they donīt like doing, is to speak in a film language that is new and unfamiliar. I am fascinated by peoplesī passionate responses to it. No one has been indifferent, and you canīt get a much more freakish environment than the Cannes Festival. How many people see a film like this and are then forced to discuss it for days after? Provocation is what the characters in CRASH were looking for - a taboo something that demanded a reaction and a connection. And the movie brilliantly invokes that same reaction, too."