“I don't endorse everything that happens in either the novel or the film of Crash,” was author JG Ballard's spin on the content of his most controversial book and David Cronenberg's movie adaptation. "But both are cautionary tales...”
JG Ballard's '60s and '70s home life may have been that of a “rather sober figure ... bringing up three children, with a golden retriever and a cat” but the world inside his head was much darker.
A scribbler of bleak and challenging sci-fi tales, Ballard had already swirled up controversy with his short story collection The Atrocity Exhibition and organised a presentation of smashed car wrecks - called simply 'Crashed Cars' – as disturbingly sexual images. But it took 1973's Crash to fully work out his obsession with the erotic potential of road accidents.
The book is an account of a man's growing fascination with car crashes and the victims of car crashes, where sex and suffering, twisted metal and twisted bodies intertwine. And yes, where a man has sex with a whacking great scar on a woman's leg. “Cautionary tale”? Yeah, definitely. Filmable? Most sane people thought not...
Even David Cronenberg, never usually splattered with the sane brush, had his doubts when he first read it. “I thought, 'Well, it's certainly very powerful, and it certainly does put you in a very strange space - one that you've never been in before - but I can't see making it into a movie.'"
The book knocked around in DC's head for years before in 1991 he suddenly blurted out to his producer Jeremy Thomas over lunch that he wanted to film Ballard's book (“Until I actually uttered those words, I had never consciously thought about it...”).
Luckily, Thomas already owned an option on Crash, having acquired it way back in the '70s. He was also a mate of Ballard's which helped in getting the movie off the starting block...
Leads like Holly Hunter and James Spader came to Cronenberg rather than the other way around.
Hunter had her agent pester him to give her the role of Helen Remington, while James Spader's only concern about taking on the film was who else was going to be in it. “He said, 'After all I do fuck everybody in the movie,'” laughed Cronenberg.
A lack of budget accounts for part of the film's stripped-back look, but a lot of its down-to-earth brutality (still squirmily disturbing to this day) is deliberate.
Yes, it's full of car crashes, but these aren't cinematic, Hollywoodised car crashes. “Cronenberg wanted the collisions to be brutal, nasty, intense and quick, as crashes are in real life,” says stunt co-ordinator Ted Hanlon. “And without the attendant explosions or cliched slow motion tracking shots..."
Almost as difficult to film were the numerous sex scenes. One anal sex encounter between Spader and Deborah Kara Unger was, uh, especially hard...
“That was a difficult scene to do, but in bizarre ways,” said Cronenberg. “You can't get hair to look the same when it's messy! You can't get pillows to scrunch up the same way! I had those agonies, as well as getting the scene to work.”
Cronenberg's policy on set was to let actors review on the video monitors as much of their performance in sex scenes as they wanted to.
“They could see exactly how they looked naked, how they looked talking, or where their ass was when their skirt was pulled up,” he said. “If they were going to freak out and be upset then fuck it, they were going to freak out and be upset and we'd discuss it.”
But when the film opened, it was the media who freaked out. Daily Mail film critic Christopher Tookey declared that “Crash is the point at which even a liberal society should draw the line.” The Daily Mail and the Evening Standard campaigned for it to be banned in the UK.
To their undying credit, the BBFC for once showed some backbone and – after consulting with lawyers and disabled groups – passed the film uncut with an 18 certificate in 1997.
Westminster Council weren't so liberal, and not only banned it from being shown in their part of London, but subsequently from being sold on VHS there. Several other local councils around Britain followed suit.
Faced with “Little England at its worst” as he put it, Ballard came out swinging in defence of the film.
"How could this film be criticised and Martin Scorsese films like GoodFellas and Casino be lauded by critics?" he demanded. "Both are bloodthirsty and horrific and practically a handbook to any yobbo wanting to beat someone up."
Time has treated Crash well. Lots of so-called “shocking” films lose their power after a decade or so, but Crash still has that vicious jolt of hard liquor about it.
It's a film that arouses and disturbs – often both at the same time. Particularly if you catch it at one of its rare cinema outings these days and have to drive home afterwards...
“In a sense the prophecy that Crash embodies has been fulfilled,” Ballard said when the film came out.
“People are much more honest about the nature of their own sexualities, about the nature of their own imaginations... I think, had I been wrong it wouldn't have been possible to film the book as effectively as David has done...”
Or for those dark prophecies about the workings of human desire to be so hard-hitting more than a decade after the cameras stopped rolling.
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