Death drive: Multiple readings of Cronenberg’s Crash

By Adrienne Harris, PhD

How to describe the film Crash, made by Cronenberg, in 1997. It tracks a long gory slide from accident into perversion and obsession. The film details the gradual submersion of a couple in a series of deep, increasingly violent scenes of sex, automobiles and various forms of combustion, mechanical and libidinal. In the words of one of the many sex and violence-obsessed characters Vaughn (an alter or a stand in both for the movie maker, Cronenberg and for the lead character James Ballard but also for the author of the novel from which the film is drawn, J.D. Ballard), “this is about sexuality and its impact on the creation of new forms of embodied life, of cyborgs”.

Like many Cronenberg films, Crash seems to demand a psychoanalytic reading. In response, I am going to approach this difficult unsettling film, through four different readings—not all psychoanalytic.

The first reading is to see the film as an account of the traumatic (small t) instantiation of all sexuality, a Laplanchian reading. Desire, aim, object choice, and subjectivity are constructed or implanted and translated in a series of thunderclap encounters of flesh on metal. The sexual fluids in these scenes are variously blood, semen, and gasoline. Following Laplanche, sexuality is constructed in a moment of excess and intersubjective encounter, arising from inside and/also impacting from outside.

Secondly, I read the film as a meditation on the interplay of art and pornography, on the voyeurism and traumatization in any audience’s reception of visual material. These two readings could be said to be immanent in many of Cronenberg’s film. This film is about sexual obsession, to be sure, but it is also about the links between creativity and sexual excitement. Over and over again, in this film, a raw experience, usually of violence, and usually sexualized violence, is repeated in a story one character tells another. Raw experience is transcribed, represented, translated and reproduced for voyeuristic pleasure. From the private murmurings of a sexual couple, to the high tech commercial films the main character makes, to the hand-held camera driven, amateur night productions of famous crashes, Crash is a film in which the intention is to interpellate the viewer, the filmmaker and the characters.

Everyone on the screen and in the audience become both producers and consumers of scenes of violence and excitement. Along with the characters in the film, we, the viewers, flip back and forth between the position of voyeur and exhibitionist. Scoptophilia and narcissistic display are always in tension here. And in this context, characters and viewers are spared nothing. One of my dilemmas about showing and in some cases even discussing clips and visual details from this film is that the film is a traumatizing agent, I think intentionally.

I also want to use the film to comment on matters from a later historical period than the film itself. I am interested in thinking of this film in the light of the current phenomena of altered bodies, of surgical construction/destruction, of the sacrifice of tissue to excitement and identity, in short, a transgender reading.

Finally, I want to consider a more political reading, or rather a political use of this film. There is so much carnage, damage, dismemberment in the film, this plethora has made me want to explore the almost total absence of the images of dismemberment and humiliation central to the current war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. These aspects of thinking about the film made me want to show clips and make the reader look at the visual material, to insist on the importance of seeing, recording, internalizing the evidence of damage.

Crash is a film about sexualized obsessions with cars, body parts, steel (as weapon and as machine), and about the excitement in narratizing, or repeating, or filming or reproducing moments of impact, scarring, and contact. I am arguing that sexuality is at the heart of this project, aggression more or less its handmaiden (if I can use such a delicate term). But I think one could make a different argument about the interweaving of sexuality and aggression. Hence my title: Death Drive. It may be perverse of me to want to normalize Cronenberg’s project. Certainly excitement follows on death in various ways in this film. I think of Abraham and Torok’s incisive reading of the emergence of excitement in the wake of death.

“Melancholy” in fact seems to occupy a rather small area of the possible uses authorized by the notion of intrapsychic crypt as well as endocryptic identification. In point of fact, these notions had been familiar to us before they were found appropriate to circumscribe the “manic-depressive.” For years, we have been talking about “preservative repression,” “unutterable libidinal experiences,” “covert identification.” Now that the nature of “melancholic” identification is finally stated clearly, quite a few other modes of being, just as enigmatic, are becoming crystallized around the same notions. We are going to mention—in addition to the “manic-depressive”—two other modes, commonly called “fetishism” and “neurosis of failure.” It seems to us that these inventions of the mind also rest on some “gaping wound,” opened long ago within the ego and disguised by a phantasmic and secret construction in the spot and place of the very thing from which, through the loss, the ego was cut off. To disguise the wound is, in all cases, the destination of this type of construction—to disguise the wound because it is unspeakable, for to state it in words would be fatal to the entire topography.” (Abraham and Torok, p.19)

From the very beginning, Cronenberg makes it personal. Based on a novel by J.D. Ballard, the main character, a filmmaker, is called James Ballard. Throughout the film, Ballard and his dark alter ego Vaughn are making films, films that we, the viewer, are then subjected to. The conception of sexuality as a car crash and one initiated in a stream of traffic on a thruway is brilliant. Sexual desire is ‘initiated’ or imprinted, or registered (vide Laplanche) in a stream of anonymous vehicles/drivers. Ballard, driving on the 401—the major transcontinental roadway in Canada—in a moment of inattention loses control of his car, crashes into another car, and a body from that other car flies through his windshield landing almost in his lap: a draped body in the front seat of the car, the site of many adolescent sexual initiations, particular in an automobile. I need probably to declare some interest in this matter, having grown up in Canada, driving on the 401, and engaged in many intense projects undertaken by adolescents in automobiles.

The inattention that initiates the crash is telling: Ballard was hunting for pornographic photos in the glove compartment of his car. Sexual curiosity undermines vigilance and self-management. On impact, Ballard is sexuated, to use a Lacanian term. He looks at the car he has crashed into and sees a woman, adjusting her underwear and drawing a coat over her breasts. The crash apparently occurs at the conjunction of at least 2 sexually preoccupied and aroused drivers.

From this first crash, Ballard is drawn into increasingly titillating scenes of simulated and real crashes, filmed and/or narrated for the excitement of viewers. But the first crash has every element that reverberates in the rest of the film. The crash constructs a particular kind of excitement. The ingredients of blood, smash, metal, scar, in a moment of traumatic excess, create a sexual subject complete with an array of wishes, objects, part objects and actions in relation to these objects. With the introduction of language, of film, and photograph, and story, the scene is endlessly translated. This is one rendering I would say of Laplanche’s model of sexuality, the outcome of what he has termed ‘enigmatic maternal seduction’. Hence the vision in the first crash of the woman in the car, Madonna-like rearranging her breasts in the folds of her coat.

For Cronenberg, in this film, gender seems at one level unimportant and at another, crucial. The first car scene contains an ambiguity. Are women the mediations between men? Where does homosexual desire and heterosexual desire both link and differentiate? This confusion repeats throughout the film. In a heterosexual sexual scene, the women narrates a scene of homosexual penetration, intended to arouse her male partner, as, in a parallel process, the film maker seeks to arouse the viewer.

Vaughn is one of the filmmaker pornographers who makes images and staged scenes of damaged accident victims. He stages famous car crashes (James Dean and Jayne Mansfield being particular favorites). He is, as I suggested, an alter of Ballard, the character and Cronenberg, the filmmaker. Vaughn lives with a number of women, one in particular who has been disfigured by a car accident. In a repeating scene, the women and Ballard sit on a sofa, watching a film of a car crash, each person with a hand on the neighboring person’s genitals. Gender, as an aspect of subject or object, seems irrelevant.

But that’s not quite right. Over the experience of watching the film and in thinking afterwards, I came to feel that, in a film that seems open to so many combinations of metal and flesh as the initiating site of desire, there is yet a site of inhibition. While this film appears to be about polymorphous perversion, and the multiple channels through which sexuality can run, there is a founding terror or inhibition and of anxious disavowal. There is one dangerous organ, one disavowed body part and it is the female genital. Almost all the explicitly sexual scenes in this film center on anal sex. Women are almost always filmed from the back, the visual focus on buttocks. The curving steel flesh of a car, or an airplane is, repeatedly, matched with the curving flesh of a woman’s buttocks.

The female genital appears in the film, as scarring or disfigurement. Often the object of intense scrutiny, scars, gashes and injuries are also, always sutured over. Sometimes the scars migrate upward to face and chest. Scars are fabricated through tattoos on several men. Vaughn has a facial scar, lovingly attended to by Ballard and by the camera. The scar becomes a kind of fetish, registering and refusing the vagina. One of the women, outfitted with braces and prosthetics has a long lurid scare along her leg. Gender, it seems, does matter, but luridly. Castration horrifies and fascinates the viewer a measure of the power of mastering pain and a site you look away from, if you can. To think about the question of gender and sexual difference, in a sense this film reads these matters very conventionally, with difference being reifed on the body and signifiers of lack and limit arise in highly conventional and gender-orderly ways. Later in the paper, I will suggest an alternative way of thinking about gender and sexual difference.

Linked to the central preoccupation with how sexuality arises and is instantiated and reproduced in minds and bodies, this film is also about filming, about the relation of artistic production and excitement in the maker and the viewer. Through the course of the film, the requirement for more extreme forms of danger, crashing and coupling keeps getting ramped up.

The James Dean crash produces only some mild concussion and bleeding, while the Jayne Mansfield simulation ends in actual death all around. Vaughn, coming upon the scene, is enraged that his crew and flat mates enacted the scene without him. Being left out, left alone, in the potent moment of crash and destruction is the ultimate sadness, the terrible moment of exclusion and melancholy.

In film making, in the artistic endeavors, and in the relational matrices in this film, one is encouraged to move towards danger. There is a repeating moment, which is shot from the back, looking over the shoulder of a character. The viewer sees someone in a car moving towards smash up, and slowly, languorously, we see the character slip off his or her seat belt. Safety on the roads is propaganda, it’s for suckers. And in a very telling choice, Cronenberg stages several scenes on the 401, where drivers slow down and gawk at the carnage of bodies and metal and blood. These are the kinds of moments when the viewer is pulled into an unsettling identification with the filmmaker and the characters searching anxiously for wrecked bodies. Looking at carnage excites and soothes. In this way, the film is about artistic reception; about the way scoptophilia underwrites aesthetic appreciation. Watching is inevitably a form of enactment.

These ways of reading Crash are very much located in thinking of Cronenberg’s very visible, long term, and acute preoccupations over many films. These issues are central to his work. But I also want to use the film to think about two other matters, more contemporary to our culture and time than to the period 1995, when the film was made.

The film requires us to rethink what we mean by bodies and by materiality. The construction and reconstruction of bodies is now the material in many therapies and analyses in a way perhaps unprecedented. Reconstructive surgery, assisted reproduction, transgender surgeries. We are, as a culture, (I am speaking of the first world now), in a new and unsettling landscape where mechanical forms of life (organic or inorganic) interweave, where the distinctions of metal and flesh are sometimes unclear. In this film, the perfectibility of the sexual body, its perfect smoothness and shiny skin, is endlessly watched for and longed for. But the soldering of machine and body, the inevitable fusing of car and body in sexuality, the excitement of damage undoes some of this more conventional fetishization. The sexualizing of a car, let alone a car crash, is a particularly modern phenomenon. Perhaps we would need to rewrite or at least resituate the Three Essays (Freud, 1905) in the context of sexual initiation and the automobile in the later half of the 20th century. And now, in a culture with extreme danger and violence on the Internet, often in pornographic events in which the viewer is an active participant, the mixing of machine and body escalates.

The film might thus be seen as an inquiry into what is an increasing matter of contemporary interest, the limits of the body, the forms of materiality, the emergence of cyborgs into daily life and into gendered and sexual life. Embodiment, materiality is being transformed by many new forms of technology. Technology and consciousness are entering new kinds of synergy, synergies that operate at conscious and unconscious levels. In this film, new bodies, some scarred and some perfectly sculpted (whether humans or automobiles) are carried and formed and animated in many forms of narration, representation. The oldest forms of subject construction, narration and story telling, are integrated in new forms of the body (Harris, 2005). In this way, the film seems prescient of much of the current debates on trans phenomena and trans gender. So let me briefly revisit the question of sexual difference and read Crash in the letter of new work on embodiment (Salamon, 2010). Difference, in the sense of the respectful appreciation of ‘otherness’ is at the heart of relatedness, of human subjectivity, but not tied to essentials of the body which is fabricatable, sutured, Difference is unstable but indispensible.

Finally, I want to think about dismemberment and the violence inflicted on bodies by machines in the context of war imagery. To look backward for a moment, it seems now clear to many Americans that the US government took a number of lessons from the experience in Vietnam and in the popular opposition to that war that arose in the 1960’s and 70’s. The visual presentation on television of body bags and death counts really accelerated opposition to that war. Nightly, people were forced to look at the visual evidence of the losses and injuries in that war, and this was combined with a draft to which all young men were, in theory, susceptible. These two factors were a powerful stimulus to a determined and vocal anti-war movement. Since then, no TV, no draft, no body counts. In the Iraq war, one striking but almost invisible factor in the experience of that war, is the terrible amount of disfiguring and dismembering wounds suffered by soldiers and civilians. Mike Davis and Tom Englehardt (2006) have written a blog entry about suicide bombing—the use of cars and vehicles for delivering bombs and grenades—which they called The Poor Man’s Air Force. But, in consequence of the type of warfare, veterans of this war seem more like those of the First World War than of subsequent combats. Here is where I felt the importance of showing clips from Crash. I began to think of this as I watched scene after scene of damaged, dismembered bodies in this film. I also found my own receptive stance—the mix of horror and excitement—to be exactly the problematic state of war imagery. Donald Moss (2007) has written about this in analyzing the experience of seeing the photos of Abu Graibh, the anxious interplay of pornography and recording of trauma and damage, that, in so many ways, distances us as a culture and as individuals from the damage inflicted to civilians and soldiers. In this way also the film seems prescient.

Or retrospective since the often denied or erased presence of the damaged, dismembered vets is a ubiquitous part of way imagery and war experience.

Now about the death drive? The film ends with a final chase and crash scene involving Ballard and his girlfriend/wife. It is certainly possible to reverse the emphasis I have put on sexuality over aggression and see that the wish to murder and be murdered dominates all other excitements in this film. In a sense, in this paper I have opted to think about the violence in all sexuality, particularly in its ‘traumatic’ instantiation in psyche and in its use in art. But in this film’s ending images, the longing for death is as strong as the desire for connection or even for domination. This enigma is very central to many psychoanalytic discussions. Is libidinal excitement a defense against mourning (Torok and Abraham, 1994) or does the pull for death create excitement (Bataille, 1986)? z


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