Erotic Car-Crashes: Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard

by on Dec.29, 2010

Anybody have any feelings about David Cronenberg’s movie-version of J.G. Ballard’s wound-culture classic, Crash?

I just watched it last night and I didn’t entirely like it. I haven’t really made up my mind about it. Ballard’s original is of course already over the top and ridiculous and beautiful (sometimes the beautiful, baroque prose is the most ridiculous thing about it!). But the movie seemed less interesting, more just simply ridiculous in its softcore-ness.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the omission of Elizabeth Taylor, that icon of vulnerable (and wound-able, kill-able) celebrity power, the whole object of Vaughn’s sexual/technological/death fantasies. I have no idea why Cronenberg just omitted her. Without her, the ending just kind of peters outs with some more ridiculous sex.

For me, however, I was most disappointed in the treatment of Seagrave, the stunt-man. As people who have read my blog posts and/or my poems, I am really interested in the stunt double, the stunted person who exists outside-yet-part-of the movie, a body that is not brought into the narrative, doesn’t get psychology etc. In Ballard’s novel, Seagrave goes “rouge”, and is seen driving around in Elizabeth Taylor drag on a motorcycle around town driven by a kind of jouissance, a kind of extra-social death drive. In the movie he’s just found at the scene of an accident and Vaughn realizes that Seagrave had gone rouge. But that’s too late, that loses the entire hilarity of when he’s on the loose. OK, that’s a very small detail but for me that was really a loss.

Perhaps I see the stunt man as a kind of grand-guignol performance artist, almost Artaud-like. I like that the movie foregrounds the position of Vaughn as a “performance artist.” One of the interesting things about the novel is the way Vaughn’s voyeuristic photographs of crash-scenes suggests something about performance art. As Ballard (the narrator) says in the book, he makes every accident seem like a crime scene. The same could be said of a lot of the “documentation” of performance art: it makes it seem like an accident or a crime scene. (Enter: Chris Burden, who shot himself as performance art. Enter the Viennese Action Theater’s Orgiastic Mysteries) I don’t read a lot about performance art, but it seems that this is a real anxiety in the way documentation is discussed: that it becomes aestheticized, supplant the act. Which Beuys embraces with great effect.

This connection between Ballard’s violence and performance art is perhaps most apparent in the title of Ballard’s novel *The Atrocity Exhibition*.

In Crash, indeed, art (media) and life become insperable. The result of this aestheticized (media-ated) life: a kind of pan-sexuality. No interior or exterior. No hole is privileged.

Here’s Siskel and Ebert’s take on the movie:

Siskel: “Crash left me feeling empty not challenged in the “am-I-hip-enough-to-get-it” kind of way.” It left him “cold.” I think this is correct, and I think Ebert is right to say so. Siskel apparently can’t deal with a movie that doesn’t give him anywhere to stand, doesn’t offer him any transcendence, just offers him a worldview that isn’t even transgressive in the “hip-enough” way (too sexual, too graphic, too violent), but instead is just thoroughly bleak and even ridiculous. And Ebert is right to a certain extent that Ballard is a critic of this worldview.

But there’s some part of me that feels that the novel is more interesting, more perceptive than the social critic, the moralist Ballard himself thinks.

A couple of more car-crashes:

Marinetti’s car-crash as founding moment of Futurism and modernity:

“The words were scarcely out of my mouth when I spun my car around with the frenzy of a dog trying to bite its tail, and there, suddenly, were two cyclists coming towards me, shaking their fists, wobbling like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments. Their stupid dilemma was blocking my way—Damn! Ouch!… I stopped short and to my disgust rolled over into a ditch with my wheels in the air…

O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black beast of my Sudanese nurse… When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!

A crowd of fishermen with handlines and gouty naturalists were already swarming around the prodigy. With patient, loving care those people rigged a tall derrick and iron grapnels to fish out my car, like a big beached shark. Up it came from the ditch, slowly, leaving in the bottom, like scales, its heavy framework of good sense and its soft upholstery of comfort.

They thought it was dead, my beautiful shark, but a caress from me was enough to revive it; and there it was, alive again, running on its powerful fins!

And so, faces smeared with good factory muck—plastered with metallic waste, with senseless sweat, with celestial soot—we, bruised, our arms in slings, but unafraid, declared our high intentions to all the living of the earth:”

Radiohead’s rebirth:

I guess what these two have in common with Ballard is the presence of the messianic and the sexual; intensity and rebirth; trauma and art, shock and modernity.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Josef Horáček

    I saw the movie when it first came out, and totally hated it. I seriously contemplated leaving the theater after the first two lines of dialogue and regretted that I didn’t. I don’t know the book, which could make a big difference. Like Johannes, I’m very interested in trauma and art, violence and pleasure, but as far as I can remember, the setting only provided a shallow excuse for some gratuitous soft porn.