Crash: Carnal & Chrome
The Daily Mail once wrote that "Crash is the point at which even a liberal society should draw the line." Naturally, it's one of our favourite novels and adaptations ever made.
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I wonder if I would have read Crash differently if my lung hadn't collapsed. All I knew of Ballard's apoplectic metallurgy before reading it was the nocto-sleaze of the Cronenberg poster and that it was broadly about cars and sex. I expected the perversions of an era slowly forgetting itself in the metropolis, neutered into mercury sludge to be pumped back to the motherworm. It is that, of course, very much so – Ballard chronicles his pornography in an obvious blasting of the gaze away from the body and ogling towards the machine – but what I didn't expect is that more often it would be sad, and more often than that it would be idealistic. It is sad because all of the characters are victims of an unnatural trauma, kept alive by unnatural tubes. They've been disfigured and resurrected by steel and glimpsed death, first in the corpses they're head-locked opposite in a car-seat dinner date with, and then in their own sundered flesh. Persona is reassembled and biology is tapping on the passenger window. I recognise in their epistemological bruising that temporal severance of injury... life before and after; a clock's limb that cannot be replugged. What is so impressive about Ballard's vision, however, is his willingness to believe that damage is only another word for transformation. His prose is just as turned on as his characters by the fantasy of man becoming a titanium magus and the world becoming his highway. It's no longer hip to be a cynic, you know? All of your dystopian fear of the metaverse is tired, excitement for the transhuman potential of the pixel is wired. Although the characters did not choose the blood lens through which they must now fetishise the world, these are new eyeballs and anything new is exhilarating, especially when you're now dead behind a wheel in about half of the other timelines. Each breath is a sale, all eye contact is stolen, film violence is evergreen, pain is an anvil upon which all sensations are fired, and sex is the most urgent dilemma. In Crash, Ballard submits to the screeching nosedive of a plane but leaves the oxygen mask off – better to experience purely that holy paradox: when you're freefalling, on the inside it feels like you're moving upwards.
– Introduction by Caleb Carter
The man in a motorcar is the absolute archetypal image of the modern landscape.
Wrung out of the so-called golden age of pornography, J.G. Ballard’s asphyxiation of traditionalism, Crash, is a “psychotic hymn” to an erotic, overlit realm of endless highways stretching towards crowded artificial horizons of concrete cities thrusting upwards from the mud, less interested in where these men in motorcars are headed, but rather in what makes them suddenly stop. It's when the seat-belt pulled tight around your neck becomes a form of bondage and the smell and texture of leather, and how it sounds when you're against it, creaking like an animalistic second skin, draws out the brute nature of the human body: Ballard balances our stiff, eager fuselages on a knife’s edge between pleasure and death, and as metal turns to dust, we confuse it with our own mortality or at least see how it can
etch into your skin, smear through your hair, wiggle into your brain, hot lick your—
—“long thighs, hard hips and buttocks, the scarred muscles of his stomach and chest, his heavy nipples together that invited the countless injuries waiting among the protruding toggles and instrument heads of the car interior,” waiting to fold in an origami of steel, halting in a place where arousal is coded as the body wounded by technology, and cars are framed against the musculatures of our own bodies, propped up against the analepsis of a post-acid-trip awakening. It’s one of those books you open and go into, head down, and when you close it again to come up for air your perspective has changed. The world looks different, now drowning in leather and chrome. Centring on a character bearing the author’s real name, Ballard has emptied himself into ‘James Ballard’, the word made flesh, heavy, rather if man is moulding into machine—
—and sentences accumulate into Orphic currents, grotesque mutations of the human body and awkward fusions of man and technology meet in head-on collision, a demented meltdown of the borders between anatomy and geometry, and between desire and suffering. Both body and car effuse fluid, “blood, semen and engine coolant” converge, while the emulsion of the body and machine also becomes fluid; desire oozing through your veins like motor oil, auto-autonomy-anatomy bleeding, a tear of petrol rolling down your cheek as you lick your metal blisters and bloody sores with an unsoldered tongue, where to feed the infinite is to fill your car with piss and semen and to plug your own holes with the gas pump, overdosing on bottomless syringes of saliva, where to ignite the erotic is also to erode as the handbrake penetrates your thigh, and your burning flesh satisfies haemorrhaged desires—
—because Ballard views the car crash as a fertilising event and sex as a rejuvenating one, “a door that is always open,” and touches every level of our existence. Perhaps it’s much simpler, and the power and weight and technicality are what the male mind supposes we carry between our legs: a crashing car collapsing in on itself just like the thrusting of penis-into-vagina, and beyond, where we see ourselves provide the sexual organs of the technological world, where we have built environments that streak across landscapes like an extension of the entire mesh of our nervous systems, winding across the roadside rest-stops of “lesbian supermarket manageresses burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars,” of “autistic children crushed in rear-end collisions, their eyes less wounded in death,” of “buses filled with mental defectives drowning together stoically in roadside industrial canals” and following them all the way to the peripheral orgasm of the cosmos—
—or to reduce it down further, suppose that these coffin-shaped machines (if you die in a car crash, do you still get carried to the cemetery in a hearse?) are as necessary to us as our own deaths and rebirths; like an infant that can only detect light and motion before moving on to faces and larger shapes, it could be that we are seduced by our own reflections in chrome reminding us of the first visual register of our mother’s presence, the same way tight, hard, shiny latex and vinyl holds a fetishist power over us control freaks who (not-so) secretly long to take our hands off the steering wheel – here is birth, death, rebirth – emerging Lazarus-like as the modern desire to replace our ancient Gods and myths with the sleek lines and soft purr of the automobile. In Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism from 1909, there is a car crash that epitomises our contradictory popular culture (where sex is sin and yet sex is paradise), “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!” – prophesising Ballard’s search for connection and passion against a world oversaturated by technology and media. While it may feel like the most niche Pornhub category possible, for artists and philosophers, when a technology is new it yields Utopias.
“I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit. I wanted to force it to look in the mirror.”
But Cronenberg – in his 1994 adaptation – obscures these gooey, liquid ideas, trading the squishy flesh of Videodrome and The Fly for something harder; a cold, metallic translation moving mechanically and clinically across scenes of vestigial carnality. ‘Adaptation’ feels like the wrong word. Cronenberg is playing with film as an alchemical process, a magical game of transforming literature into image through kinetic visualisation, or – more in line with his newest fascination – like some experimental surgery, twisting the spine of Ballard’s world into some new horny golem. The film would go on to win a special jury prize at Cannes for “audacity”, a category invented on the spot. Ballard himself insists that the film is even better than the book, but it’s easier to grasp Cronenberg’s staging of a biological theatre when you view it as a film that rides shotgun to Ballard’s onanistic revels. Ballard’s polymorphously perverse literalisation and fusing together of the sex drive and death drive (proving that one necessitates the other) is flattened by the blacks and blues and steely glints of Cronenberg’s nightmare, built around the bare chassis of Ballard’s ideas and reupholstering his novel as something self-congratulatory, self-absorbed, pointless. As James Spader’s ‘Ballard’ says in the film’s most potent addition to the novel: “It’s all very satisfying… I’m not sure I understand why.”
We are hardwired to seek meaning, to make the world signify and to render the thing visible, and in Crash, violence wounds the surface of reality, allowing red truth to stew through. In a Cronenberg film, Thanatos isn't some shadowed maw, clipping the soul’s wings across a milky river. Rather, death in Cronenbergia is the soul's final reckoning with the body. The mind is pummelled to impulse and spasm, reduced to futile gasps at air whilst drowning in blood and rendered in blinding white hour-long seconds as the brain is wrapped around the septum. Every wound seems to reveal a little bit more of a clockwork we can’t ignore because wiring that deep ignores us. What computing can one find if they cut deep enough? And what does that mean for a man who is already dead? What zombie will be recalled from the dirt? In a Cronenberg film, the guts of the real movie always hides behind the fleshy facade of the one it’s pretending to be.
The revolt of the flesh is absurd. When, in moments of lucidity (often found in the immediate moments post-coital or pre-fatal), the meaning we have clothed the world in – all the imagery and symbols – slips away, there is nothing left but that secret longing to return to a state of non-being: music, commercial breaks, news flashes, adverts, live broadcasts, movies, social media, all exist to fill the screen, to fill the irremediable void lest it, as Baudrillard wrote, “reveals the depth of the emptiness squinting out at us through this little window.”
When JFK's brains painted the backseat of his 1961 Lincoln Continental (in Crash, Vaughn drives a 1963 Lincoln) and was captured in the Zapruder film, it became an apotheosis of vehicular pornography, a snuff film readily available for everyone to see on YouTube, fractured and scattered into a million different realities through analysis and conspiracy, an absolute fetishization of a moment in history we will never understand, and, in turn, an obliteration of the man's final moment not as a tragedy or a destructive act of violence, but as a source for mystery and a creation of new possibility. Because here we see it: the car, death, celebrity, sex – all the ideas wrapped around Crash’s vacancy – are all things that orbit the “abyss” (or create it) but don't fill it. JFK’s murder, without an understanding, is senseless and pointless, a small tremor of history’s own undulating cycle of birth-death-rebirth where history was “made” that day, where the absence of the “what-if” becomes null and where only a writer as vapid as Stephen King would even bother attempting something as empty as imagining what could have been. Ballard and Cronenberg see enough voids in the world to try and shake free one more.