Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Bored & Restless: The Moral Vacuum in Crash

By Adam J. Young

JG Ballard remained a visual writer. Whether a Robinson Crusoe on the side of a busy motorway. A giant man-whale lying dead on a beach who metamorphoses into a mythological figure and in the process, is destroyed by the feckless many. An Earth either transformed into crystal, plumaged into the ocean, or all dried up into oblivion. His influences are not of prose but of mechanical machines and the painted form. I do not think of his writing, I think of the images invoked.

His adaptions onto screen, weather direct or seemingly inspired by the source, directors have problems conjuring those images. Empire of the Sun is a classical Spielbergian mess of smalt stained tripe accustomed to the Director. Sickeningly sentimental in all the wrong places. High Rise, the most recent effort, has charm with its 70s aesthetic and includes a rather excellent performance by Jeremy Irons as the Enlightened man who sees his high rise as a way of changing man’s nature and society with it. Cannily to the actual high-rise planners destroying real homes in favour of those eye sores that now are accustom to the downtrodden class.

That it faults is in its execution of every other element. Pretension cinematography and subpar performances let down a film that could be a profound, albeit stuck in left liberal dogmas type of profound, piece on Neoliberalist market fanaticism.

The film that comes close to JG Ballard vision is from Freudian director David Cronenberg and his 1996 adaptation of the 1970 novel Crash.

James Ballard (James Spader) is an upper middle-class screenwriter living in Los Angeles with his wife Catherine. They have an open & loveless relationship. They rely on using their affairs as stimulation for when they have sex.

His bleak and bland life takes a sudden turn when his car smashes into Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), killing her husband in the process. Causing several injuries to themselves and their respective cars.

Rather than installing fear into Ballard & Remington, they are invigorated by the crash. It stimulates them. Seatbelts are rough constraints to themselves. Cars are now touched akin to a loved one’s soul & body. They are “awakened” to quote the advocates of the Sexual Revolution. J Ballard (I’ll use the G to separate Ballard the character and Ballard the writer) has intercourse in a rent a car with Remington. As he joins the curious subsect of car crash fetishists.

Sexual scenes in the film become an abundance as J. Ballard’s life & that of his companions devolve into a hedonist pleasure dome in the back seat of their cars. Man/Woman, Man/Man, Woman/Woman. Boundaries are gone as the lives they lead become more violent. Longing for the perfect crash becomes a necessity.   

These scenes of graphic sex are disorienting & uncomfortable. Pressed into our faces whilst bad music plays. Rather than causing stimulation for the viewer, as many other films set out to do, it breeds a feeling contempt for them. Barren of any excitement as they stare blankly at each other. “Animal like” is not the correct term, it lacks the intensity. They are thrusting machines. Nothing personal. Just pleasure.

J. Ballard eventually meets the de facto leader of this group, Vaughn. His introduction is much a Priest giving a sermon to his adoring attendants at an empty industrial estate. Even through a microphone, his words remain a soft whisper as he details the death of James Dean with accurate precision. The thought of being involved in such an iconic car crash runs through his brain. Repeating every step and it delights the crowd to watch him reenact.

He claims all of this is in the cause of “reshaping of the human body by modern technology" to an eager J. Ballard. Much like many who tried to hide their filth in guise of greater moral understanding, hide the fact what they are doing is disgusting and embarrassing. He seeks the ultimate sexual thrill. The ultimate power of destroying himself and those unfortunate to be in the cross fire of his Lincoln Convertible.

Moral ideas are secondary. When a character dies in a brutal recreation of the Jayne Mansfield crash. He is not sad at his loss, but angered that he did it without him. Irritation than anything else.

These celebrity icons; Jayne Mansfield, James Dean, & the Lincoln Convertible, the car that JFK was assassinated in, reflect a new age of Saints. Pop culture icons & Television hangers on. In a world where being the dopey dwarf is preferred. Vaughn is taking that obsession many have with celebrities they only ever see with cosmetics plastered on their faces to its logical extreme. How different is the erotic longing to emulate James Dean’s death and thinking that Elvis Presley cured your depression?

When a star dies in the cause of live fast, love hard, die young philosophy, they transcend themselves to martyrdom. Sealing their power on the idealistic, those of which long to be remembered in a fiery blaze of destruction. Terminating whatever or whomever gets in your path. Vaughn kills several people in his zenith.

That is the natural conclusion by the end of the film. Death. J. Ballard intends to kill his wife. Relighting their passion. After he revs her Mazda off the road, he solemnly repeats “maybe the next one” to her still living ear. The one time the romance is not totally devoid of emotion, sharing a bond.

Crash is a disconcerting watch. Car crashes and sexual conquest should be fun yet it remains a goulash of unfeeling. Not enjoyable, mandatory in that sense. Wake yourself up. To show the flaws inherent in that lifestyle. To witness Vaughn butcher several people in his Lincoln, remains a reaffirmation of all that should remain sane to us. Even if Cronenberg or JG Ballard himself may not have intended such an interpretation.

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