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  • Dry Leatherette: Cronenberg’s Crash
  • Terry Harpold
David Cronenberg, Crash. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Deborah Unger, Rosanna Arquette. Fine Line Features, 1996.

The unfamiliar planes of her hips and legs steered me into unique culs-de-sac, strange declensions of skin and musculature.1

Crash begins with a brilliant visual and aural segué. The title credits, dented chrome letterforms, pull out of a vanishing point into the glare of oncoming h eadlights. (Those of an automobile driven by the viewer? These first frames establish the film’s equivalence of cinema screen and windscreen, driver and audience; any reflective field in the visual landscapes of Crash—chrome, glass, vinyl, p ainted steel, and flesh—may be a projective screen.) Behind the credits, Howard Shore’s spare soundtrack repeats this tropology of approach, echo, reflection, abstraction. Cut to a floating POV shot that repeats the swerving movements of the credits: an airplane hangar, parked, partially disassembled private planes, gleaming surfaces of steel and glass. Catherine Ballard (Deborah Unger) is bent over a plane wing, caressing her bared breast (she holds an erect nipple against the wing’s rivets); her skirt is raised over her hips, presenting the curve of her buttocks to her lover’s face.

The opening scene leads immediately to two further couplings. James Ballard (James Spader), a producer of television commercials, grapples vigorously in a darkened supply room with his camera assistant (his face and then thrusting groin buried in her buttocks), as his assistant director calls from outside for his approval of a tracking shot. Cut to James and Catherine, standing on their apartment balcony, describing to each other the day’s earlier infidelities. Her back is turned to him. She quietly raises her skirt to reveal the cleft of her buttocks, and he enters her from behind as they continue talking in low tones. Her white-knuckled hands grasp the balcony rails, as the camera roves over her shoulder to a panoramic shot of the urgent, perpetual traffic jams on the flyovers below.

This opening triptych is noteworthy for its audacity—only a porn flick, says conventional wisdom, should begin with three uninterrupted sex scenes—and for its cool, detached anality. Since its controversial debut at Cannes in 1996 2 critics have complained of the film’s deadening, counter-erotic repetitions; the sex-scenes disconcert by both their frequency (nearly always occurring in sequences of two or three) and peculiar, inhuman grace: “Crash makes you nostalgic for the ersatz heartiness of porno performers,” writes Anthony Lane,

at least they’re pretending, for the viewer’s sake, to have a good time, whereas the characters in Crash are so unsmiling—so driven, in every sense—that they make you ashamed of ever having enjoyed yourself.

(“Off the Road” 107)

This formalist sexual monotony is obviously intentional. Like much of Cronenberg’s work, Crash’s narrative structure is determined more by the conventions of cinematic form than by its subject matter (this is one of its weaknesses, but for re asons other than monotony). Why not, Cronenberg proposes in a 1997 interview with Gavin Smith, construct a plot on the basis of a series of sex scenes? Why must film have a progressive narrative that gets anywhere? Why should the characters elicit sympath y, or evolve between the first and last scenes? (“Mind Over Matter” 20) Crash is obviously not unique in travelling a narrative route of uncertain shape or destination. It may be that the early repetition of sex scenes in the film makes it di fficult to resist comparing them to the enthusiasm and blatancy of porn. In that regard, the cerebrality, disconnectedness, and abstraction of the sex in Crash are likely to disappoint.

The principle of disconnection and abstraction accounts for the film’s determined rear-endedness: nearly every act of intercourse shown in the movie is anal or rear-entry, Cronenberg’s trope for a disjunction at the center of his characters’ intimate embraces:

It’s been suggested that I’m obsessed with asses, but I like everything, you know. I don’t think that I’m too overly obsessed with asses. It’s more, “How do you have...

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