Accidents will happen

The director of "Crash" talks about gender-bending, propaganda and the sexual iconography of the Edsel.

By Susie Bright
March 21, 1997 10:17PM (UTC)
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I was in my first car wreck as a teenager. I remember my girlfriend turning left in front of a fast-approaching black Lincoln, and my body flying into her lap. The rear-view mirror smacked me on the head like an evangelist preacher. I had a little red mark the shape of an angry heart right between my eyebrows. I remember my friend's brown eyes welling up with tears, and my sunny reproach: "Becky, you nearly killed me." It wasn't really that close of a call, but for some reason, my first car-wrecked reaction was to exaggerate the drama.

David Cronenberg certainly knows how to exaggerate the drama -- his revolutionary horror and surrealist sci-fi movies have consistently taunted modern fears and taboos. With such offbeat classics as "Dead Ringers," "The Brood" and "The Fly," he's shown that as well as an intimate knowledge of humanity's dark side. He knows how to be scary, grotesque, perverse and, at the same time, a devotee of beauty, epiphany and a garden of exquisite detail. He also has achieved, in his latest film, "Crash," an eroto-futuristic tale of truly lush proportions. He shows us what pornography might look like if it were made with imagination, intelligence and daring. Too much daring, according to the British government; Cronenberg's
distributor fought censors for months to get the film released in that
country -- where it became the focus of a "decency" campaign led by various
politicians. Fine Line owner Ted Turner hemmed and hawed almost as long
before he allowed "Crash" to open in the U.S.


Cronenberg doesn't shoot car chases in this movie -- he executes car ballets that seek a final orgasmic crunch. He doesn't portray romance, with guys and gals duping each other for tease or profit -- no, the sex in this movie is pagan, obsessive as lust, more petal-to-the-metal than pedal-to-the-metal.

Despite a grueling publicity schedule, a filthy publicist's office and a sore back and throat, Cronenberg spoke about "Crash" and himself with eloquence and enthusiasm.

The promotional material for "Crash" very carefully states that, yes, it's about sex and violence, but my God, it's intelligent. I know that that anticipates the reviewers who would say it's sick, it's perverse. But if you come to this film fresh, it's very erotic.


Now, isn't it interesting, though, that some of the reviews have said that it's completely not erotic, it's anti-erotic. I mean, I've had every response. I've had people say, it's amazing that you can get so much sex on the screen and have it be not the slightest bit arousing. Now, I'm with you -- I think it's sexy. I think what J.G. Ballard did in the book was interesting, too -- you start off meeting stuff that's repellent, but by the end, it's not repellent, it's attractive.

Part of the reason it's erotic is because of the way you shot it. I wondered, did he study some of the best pornographic cinematographers? Because you knew how to shoot sex. Somebody was directing those actors in their positions and their movements. When I was watching Deborah Unger and Holly Hunter, I'd think, they're fucking like porn stars, you know, like this is like some kind of high-quality Andrew Blake porn film suddenly transposed ...

But I haven't seen those.


So you were just figuring this out from scratch?

That's right. I'm a neophyte.

You're a neophyte.

Nah, I've done sex scenes before, you know, like in video.

With Hollywood movies, they know how to shoot romance scenes. But shooting sex scenes you need to do something different to make it look good, or else it's going to look like beached whales.


It's all intuitive. For me it's very much like sculpture. I don't do storyboards or anything like that. I need to be on the actual set with the real lighting and the real actors and work with them, and I use the monitor a lot because that sort of becomes your canvas. I wanted it to be seductive, because I knew that much of it was going to repel a lot of people. And in order to get the ambivalence across -- that what's repellent can also be very seductive -- I tried to make it seductive. So yes, you can imagine doing "Crash" with deliberately really ugly actors. That's not an invalid possibility. But I wanted to go the other way. I wanted to seduce the audience but not compromise what the film was saying.

You're not a filmmaker in the new '90s mode of "Rah-rah gay pride!" And yet the homosexuality in this film is just exquisite. Waiting for when James Spader's character and Vaughan (Elias Koteas) were going to finally meet -- that just built and built and built. Then that kiss -- I said, "This is the best man-to-man kiss of the year!"

I loved that. Things can get so politicized that you can't see beyond the politics. Some people took me to task -- they said, ah, you backed away from the male, the gay sex. And I thought, you know, only if you're looking at how many square inches of butt you're seeing on the screen -- and even then you could make a case, because Spader is there a lot. But I thought that kiss was the first in the movie -- that was the real passion in the movie. That should count for something.


Why have you never been afraid or repelled by sexuality or homosexuality?

I don't know. I don't think of myself as a bisexual, and certainly my obvious orientation is hetero. But even in my very first movies I was intrigued by it, interested in it, and I find it sexy, too. I mean, if it's sexy, it's sexy. I think that in this movie the people are beginning to move beyond gender. And I don't mean to be evasive by saying that. I really do think what happens in "Crash" is that the gender of whoever you're fucking starts to be irrelevant -- your own gender also.

Well, it actually reminded me of many people who talk about their attraction to sadomasochism or to bondage and say, really, I don't give a damn who's doing it to me, it is this environment and this act that sends me into ecstasy.


Yeah, I remember there was a very famous costume designer, a male, who's still working, and we were walking around Rome together. I remember he was saying that because he had fucked both men and women, he was gay. But he says, the thing is, it's just gotten to the point where it feels exactly the same. And I completely believe him.

Now, speaking of Vaughan's penis, I did want to see it at a certain point because I was so curious about his entire body, especially the tattoos. Was that a point where you thought, well, artistically I could definitely go for this, but that's just gonna bring the roof down on me distribution-wise?

Sometimes it's hard to judge. But I try not to self-censor and anticipate, because I'm aware from experience that you can't really second-guess censors, you know? What happens is that you start cutting stuff that they aren't even interested in, and what bothers them is some bizarre thing that you would never have thought of. But I did think, first I've got my actors, OK, and I'm really happy with them. And if I start to say, OK, Spader, I really want you on close-up so your cock's, you know ... suddenly people are saying, hey, that's Spader's cock, how big is it? That takes you out of the movie. If they're anonymous, the way they are mostly in porno, in a weird way that's OK. So, yes, we talk about Vaughan's penis being scarred and so on, but he's got scars on his face, he's got scars on his body, we've sort of done that. And then, you know, do we put makeup on Elias' cock if it's not scarred, which I'm assuming it isn't?

I teach a class called "The Politics Of Sexual Representation," and I talk to the students about pornography a lot. A lot of them complain there's no plot -- it's just sex scene after sex scene. The thing that initially drew me to "Crash," the first thing I heard about it, was some angry critic saying it's nothing but one sex scene after another -- the sex scenes are driving the plot. To me that's absolutely marvelous.


Sure, I say that very proudly. The critic says it as a criticism, but ...

And did you think to yourself, this is kind of innovative? Did you get excited about that?

No, no, no. When I'm alone with my computer, humility or modesty or all of that is irrelevant -- it's the energy and the excitement. Yes, I was excited, but I wasn't thinking about whether it would be innovative, I just felt that it was juicy. I'm looking for it to be juicy, just brimming with life and possibilities and complexity and interconnections and stuff like that.

In my class, many students have this sense that representing violence is wrong. They want to take it out. And as time goes on, they begin to come out of the closet and say, well, actually, here is something violent or brutal that moves me in an erotic way or a poignant, emotional way. Why is it so hard to articulate what is moving and nourishing about the violent or brutal?


I only hear stories about what's happening in the undergraduate world, because I haven't been there myself since the '60s. Obviously, things were very different because now there are new taboos structured by the politics of our times, which end up being as repressive as the old taboos. I do find people walk into movies now with a political agenda -- which is a strange thing to come to a movie with. But I think people are doing that more and more. It's almost a throwback to the old days, when if you were Marxist you saw everything only in Marxist terms. Because of their desire to change things that they feel are wrong, people have somehow shackled themselves nonetheless and limited their experiences. You have to be able to turn down the politics when they require to be turned down. The problem is, people seem to see it as either on or off. There seems to be no middle ground.

Did you feel influenced by that when you were in school? Did you think, I want the movies I make or the things I write to comment on capitalism?

No, because I think you're dead if you do that. I think what you're doing then is making propaganda -- and it ages so badly, it's so obvious. I mean, it's pathetic to see that stuff. In the old days the left wing was where the interesting stuff was happening, and the most interesting and exciting artists were there because they were not afraid to be subversive -- because in fact being subversive of the society they were in is what they wanted to do. But the ones who were strictly party line were party hacks. I mean it's like being a Hollywood hack. If you're afraid to deviate from a party line for whatever reason, it makes you not an artist -- it makes you a propagandist at the best, and just a hack at the worst. So I've always felt, I go with my intuition.

So you don't think of yourself as an artist who wants to create social change? So many people feel influenced or inspired in subversive ways by your work.


Well, I don't mind that. Because I think that the appeal of real art is to the unconscious and the subversive. Art is always subversive of society. I think that's one of its functions. The relationship between art and society is always uneasy. If civilization and authority are repressive, then art, by appealing to the unconscious, is subversive of civilization. And yet art needs society. You don't create art in a vacuum. And civilization seems to need art somehow as well. They need to go together. It's a strange duality. I think I do my best subversiveness by not worrying about whether I'm subversive or not. It does bother me sometimes if somebody thinks that I'm not. Do you know this critic Robin Wood?


He's a Canadian critic. I think his best work actually happened before he became openly Marxist and gay. He used to wear a T-shirt that said "Gay Marxist" and he was very militant. He talked about my early films in totally negative terms. I mean, people still remember his stuff. He felt that I was a force for repression -- I was representing the status quo. He saw "Shivers" [American title: "They Came From Within"] as abhorring sexual liberation and freedom, and representing a middle-class reaction. And that bothered me because I thought it was a complete misreading of the film. I mean, at the end of "Shivers," when the parasite-infected, and therefore sexually liberated, maniacs are unleashed on the city, I knew the audience was one with that, we were all for them. But he took it as though I was showing that as horrifying and scary and terrifying. Well, it is terrifying, but liberation is terrifying. By taking a totally politicized stance, he missed the real meaning of my movies. But it fit into his agenda, and as far as I know he continues to interpret all my films that way.

I often wondered, does David feel like he has to go give treats to children in hospitals, or take care of kittens, so everyone will see that you're really a decent guy?

I hate kittens. I bite off their heads! No, actually I like kittens. But I'm allergic to them, you see. No, no, I just sort of doggedly live my life the way that's intuitive, and I have three kids and I've been married twice ...

Do your kids find any of your work grotesque? Do they go, "Ooh Dad you're so sick"?

Oh, my daughter would, my little 12-year-old, but she's really grossed out by a lot of things so she hasn't seen any of my movies.

Were you squeamish when you were a kid or did you like things that were bizarre and creepy?

Well, I really liked insects as a kid, so where I came from that immediately meant that you were weird. But I thought that was ridiculous because insects are amazing. I mean, people want to go to other planets to see alien life forms and we've got them right here. They're incredible.

Let's pretend that I'm a complete innocent. What's sexy about cars? What's so hot about cars?

Well, one of the primary things about cars was the fact that you could have sex in them. And now that's sort of lost. I mean, people have lost sight of that initial excitement! But when I was a kid, the guy who had a car had sexual power over the girls in class. He could take them away. It was a place you could have sex in. It wasn't just status. You could take the girl away from the protection of her house and now she is more or less in your power. We all know that "my way or the highway" routine, and that was very real. When I grew up, that was a reality -- if you had a car you had sexual power.

Did you have such a car?

No. Barry Goldman had such a car. I was very envious. I took the streetcar. You could not have sex on a streetcar -- it was not allowed. So no, I didn't have that sexual power, but I think that's really the basis of it. Do you remember the Edsel? Secretly, they were priding themselves on having created the vaginal look. Do you remember that? It had a vagina in the front. And of course everybody said, "Wait a minute, cars have to be cocks, you're making them into a vagina, this is gonna be a disaster -- or maybe women will like it." Anyway, it was a disaster. They got the iconography all wrong.

The classic American car is powered by a V8, you know, a rumbly, big masculine engine configuration. It rumbles and it vibrates and it runs and it roars -- it's like the masculine ego talking. So cars tend to be thought of as masculine in North America. Maybe in Europe too. Ferraris are often very female looking, feline looking, but they're still considered masculine somehow.

Well, the other side of the "Crash" coin -- what is erotic about the surgical, the medical, the injured?

Well, those are two separate things. I mean, if we were talking about "Dead Ringers," what's fascinating about gynecology is it's a willing giving up of control. You have a man allowing his wife, his daughter, his sister to be examined in the most intimate, sexual -- well, it's not considered sexual, but it is sexual and it's often done by another man, which normally in society you would never allow, but suddenly because it's gynecology and it's medical and it's clinical it's OK.

When I look at Rosanna Arquette's character, that was a little easier for me to figure out because it reminded me of a time when I was a teenager and had a job in a Xerox shop, and this fellow brought in his own homemade magazine with little drawings of women who were amputees or were on crutches and so on, and little stories about them, about how he saved them and then screwed them. And their vulnerability and their frailty has this intense sense of eroticism -- and her coyness with the black leather or whatever it was that she was wearing.

There was some of that, but she's also rather aggressive, too. In England, where the press's coverage of "Crash" has been completely insane -- but that's the English disease, you know -- some critic wrote, "Among the disgusting, repulsive things that happen in this movie is a man having sex with a cripple." And I'm thinking, Wait a minute, does this mean if your husband or wife is crippled you must no longer have sex? Why do we have to be de-sexed just because we're crippled?

Really, this is the crippled rights movie of the year.

Absolutely. I mean, here I've accidentally become politically correct -- I didn't intend to. But part of the movie is saying that they all want to transform themselves in one way or another. Here's a woman who has been transformed by an accident, and she's saying, "I will incorporate my new body into my sexuality," and really all she has to do is find a lover who will go along with this because she's not going to hide the parts of her that are deformed, or crippled. She's saying, "No, this is all me, this is the new me, this is really what I am, do you wanna fuck me? Fuck this, because that's me." That's basically how I saw that character and I think that's how Rosanna was playing it.

Did you find that you had to hold the actresses' hands through this? The roles are so deviant.

No, they really were into it. Deborah, I suppose, was the furthest from being ready, but she hadn't played many roles. But Holly, of course, has been through the Hollywood mill.

What are you going to do next?

It's dangerous to talk about that.

If you want me to turn the tape off because it's a secret ...

No, it's dangerous because a lot of people, from an interview that I did three months ago, were talking about my next movie, which I now know will not be my next because there have been legal problems. My next is called "eXistenZ" and it's a sci-fi script that I wrote. It doesn't have much sex in it.

Oh, boo-hoo!

Yeah, I know.

By the way, the music was so beautiful.

I think it's brilliant. I can't believe that [composer] Howard [Shore] has never been nominated for an Oscar. It's all politics. If "Dead Ringers" didn't get Jeremy Irons a nomination, I can't see that this would be nominated. As people who have been longtime members of the Academy tell me, everybody there is old, not just in age but in spirit.

Jurassic spirit.

Jurassically parked permanently. It's a miracle that David Lynch got nominated for best director for "Blue Velvet." Of course he didn't win. With this movie, some of those Academy people would shy away, they just wouldn't want to know about it. I think that's how they felt about "Dead Ringers," which in some ways was a lot milder than this. It was about gynecology, though. That's enough to put a lot of people off.

Maybe in your dotage we could corral you into making just an unabashed cock and cunt porn film.

Well, I like watching those myself, but it's true that, like anything else, to find a good one is difficult because most of everything is trash.

The thing that Ballard put his finger on so well, as you mentioned, is that sense that the sex the people are having in your film is "normal," because of the current level of alienation. Much closer to reality.

Yeah, and if we don't like it, we aren't gonna change it unless we recognize it, and if we do like it, then let's do it more. I don't know if Ballard would go that far but sometimes he and I agree to disagree about our interpretations of the same thing.

How does he like the film?

He loves it.

Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

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