Crash (1996)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Crash, David Cronenberg’s highly controversial and disturbing feature about a group of car crash survivors and the obsessive sexual fetishism they develop around their experience. Based on the equally controversial novel by J.G. Ballard, it was banned from public screening in its country of origin (Canada) as well as in many other countries, and released in both an R- and NC-17-rated form in the U.S. Despite widespread protest and outrage over its combination of graphic sexual and violent content, it was widely acclaimed by critics for its bold depiction of an uncomfortable and unorthodox subject matter, as well as for the cinematic prowess of its director in bringing his twisted vision to the screen.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on James, a sexually adventurous film producer whose marriage to the beautiful Catherine is spiced up by the reports they bring back to each other of their mutual infidelities. After a traumatic automobile accident requiring a lengthy hospital rehabilitation, he becomes involved with a community of other survivors that has gathered around Vaughan, a charismatic and hyper-sexual figure who encourages- and participates in- the merging of their sexual impulses with their fixation on the crash experience; James draws Catherine into the circle to join him, and with the others they explore ever-riskier fantasies in the pursuit of their dark passions. Though there is a structural arc to the story, which involves Vaughan’s role as sexual mentor and the gradual transference of his obsessions to James and Catherine, the narrative takes a back seat, if you’ll pardon the expression, to Cronenberg’s perverse fantasia of sexual deviancy.

From the very first scene, in which we see Catherine pressing her exposed breasts against the fuselage of an airplane during a clandestine encounter in an airport hangar, Cronenberg sets up his motif, a juxtaposition of soft flesh and hard metal which strives to make the viewer’s experience as close as possible to a tactile one; as the film progresses, it moves through its brief interstitial scenes- ostensibly necessary for the advancement of the plot, but in actuality merely required for establishing the next sexual scenario- into one graphic encounter after another, each one pushing us further past our comfortable boundaries and deeper into an unfamiliar realm of extreme sexual fetishism. Taboos fall away one by one as we witness erotic acts between various combinations of genders, performed in private and in public, involving sexual and non-sexual body parts, and almost always in connection with cars. This saturation of sexual imagery is not gratuitous: Cronenberg’s aim is to turn us on, certainly; but by mingling blatant eroticism with the adrenaline rush of recklessly driven vehicles, the carnage of roadside disasters, and a heavy dose of the body horror he so frequently returns to in his films, he triggers our sexual response alongside our conflicting reactions of fear and repulsion- alerting us to the possible dark corners in our own libidos and making us paraphiles by association. It’s an effect that makes Crash a highly unique cinematic experience, a sexual horror film which completely removes the distancing elements between our shock and our arousal- the subject he shows us is the object of both.

Of course, this experiment in dysfunctional autoeroticism is not for the squeamish; even those comfortable with explicit sexual content may find themselves turning away from the accompanying depictions of twisted metal and disfigured body parts, and most especially the frequent merging of the two. Those who are able to brave it out, however, might find themselves in awe of the way Cronenberg uses his skill to manipulate their wiring, like some sort of mad psychosexual scientist, to elicit responses ordinarily deemed inappropriate in the face of such stimuli. At the very least, the film begets a grudging admiration for its director’s ability to exploit the basic similarity between the primal reactions to sex and horror, and to use it in a visceral exploration of themes usually handled in the realm of intellect- the role of social conditioning in defining “normal” sexuality, the aphrodisiac effects of dangerous or forbidden behavior, and the age-old psychological connection between sex and death.

In bringing Ballard’s novel to the screen, Cronenberg (who also wrote the screenplay) updates it from its original 1970s setting and transposes the action from London to Toronto, but the underlying feeling of participating in something you shouldn’t remains the same, as does the tantalizing use of the author’s last name for the leading character, though Ballard denied any autobiographical connections (which didn’t stop eyebrows being raised when he was seriously injured in a car accident shortly after the book’s publication). To add another coincidental wrinkle, the character shares his first name with the actor portraying him, James Spader. Cronenberg’s shrewd casting adds another layer to the motif of contrasting textures, with outwardly cool, aloof performers- Spader and Deborah Kara Unger (as his wife)- colliding with the hot, rough, seething energy of Elias Koteas as Vaughan. The sparks are palpable; Koteas exudes raw, musky sensuality in every scene, making it clear how this underground sexual prophet attracts his furtive, broken followers. As a fellow survivor of the same crash, whose affair with James is the first step on his journey into dangerous obsession, Holly Hunter gives us a straight-laced, almost asexual surface that belies the ravenous carnal appetite underneath; and Rosanna Arquette, as another of Vaughan’s acolytes, is the ultimate embodiment of the film’s grotesque fantasy, a mangled sexpot encased in a set of rigid metal braces, beautiful and terrifying as some sort of steampunk sex robot- the perfect object of paraphiliac desire.

Rounding out the total package is the moody cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, which somehow gives a glossy, candy-shell shine to the dark and shadowy atmosphere of the film’s environment; and the background score, by longtime Cronenberg colleague Howard Shore, which underlines the director’s dominant concerns with a piercing, metallic guitar sound that manages to be both dissonant and harmonious.

Crash is one of those films that falls definitively into the category of cinema as art; there are doubtless many viewers who would disagree, citing its subject matter as unworthy or its deliberately titillating sexual content as exploitative. It’s a film that challenges us, that makes us uncomfortable by forcing us to cross boundaries we accept as sacred, and the first response to such material is often to dismiss it as trash. However, just like controversial works in other media- such as “Piss Christ” or “The Human Printing Press,” or the writings of the Marquis de Sade- there is a powerful voice behind this movie, one with a purpose and a need to express something about the human experience that can enlighten us despite our defensive reaction to its form. That said, it should be duly noted that Crash is not meant as entertainment, at least not for the casual movie-goer; though it is loaded with sex scenes and car chases, they are not in the nature of the ones which normally make for box office appeal. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie- I’ve had a much better time watching other Cronenberg films, disturbing though they usually are- and I’m not even sure I can say it enriched me, in any way. I can, however, say that it forced itself into my consciousness and made itself a permanent part of my psyche, for better or for worse, and that in itself is enough for me to recommend it highly, at least to those adventurous cinemaphiles who are willing to be disturbed, or even outraged. It’s not safe cinema, but then, as the denizens of the secret world portrayed in Crash would tell you, there are sometimes more important things than being safe.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115964/

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Crash (1996)

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Today’s cinema adventure: Crash, David Cronenberg’s highly controversial and disturbing feature about a group of car crash survivors and the obsessive sexual fetishism they develop around their experience. Based on the equally controversial novel by J.G. Ballard, it was banned from public screening in its country of origin (Canada) as well as in many other countries, and released in both an R- and NC-17-rated form in the U.S. Despite widespread protest and outrage over its combination of graphic sexual and violent content, it was widely acclaimed by critics for its bold depiction of an uncomfortable and unorthodox subject matter, as well as for the cinematic prowess of its director in bringing his twisted vision to the screen.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on James, a sexually adventurous film producer whose marriage to the beautiful Catherine is spiced up by the reports they bring back to each other of their mutual infidelities. After a traumatic automobile accident requiring a lengthy hospital rehabilitation, he becomes involved with a community of other survivors that has gathered around Vaughan, a charismatic and hyper-sexual figure who encourages- and participates in- the merging of their sexual impulses with their fixation on the crash experience; James draws Catherine into the circle to join him, and with the others they explore ever-riskier fantasies in the pursuit of their dark passions. Though there is a structural arc to the story, which involves Vaughan’s role as sexual mentor and the gradual transference of his obsessions to James and Catherine, the narrative takes a back seat, if you’ll pardon the expression, to Cronenberg’s perverse fantasia of sexual deviancy.

From the very first scene, in which we see Catherine pressing her exposed breasts against the fuselage of an airplane during a clandestine encounter in an airport hangar, Cronenberg sets up his motif, a juxtaposition of soft flesh and hard metal which strives to make the viewer’s experience as close as possible to a tactile one; as the film progresses, it moves through its brief interstitial scenes- ostensibly necessary for the advancement of the plot, but in actuality merely required for establishing the next sexual scenario- into one graphic encounter after another, each one pushing us further past our comfortable boundaries and deeper into an unfamiliar realm of extreme sexual fetishism. Taboos fall away one by one as we witness erotic acts between various combinations of genders, performed in private and in public, involving sexual and non-sexual body parts, and almost always in connection with cars. This saturation of sexual imagery is not gratuitous: Cronenberg’s aim is to turn us on, certainly; but by mingling blatant eroticism with the adrenaline rush of recklessly driven vehicles, the carnage of roadside disasters, and a heavy dose of the body horror he so frequently returns to in his films, he triggers our sexual response alongside our conflicting reactions of fear and repulsion- alerting us to the possible dark corners in our own libidos and making us paraphiles by association. It’s an effect that makes Crash a highly unique cinematic experience, a sexual horror film which completely removes the distancing elements between our shock and our arousal- the subject he shows us is the object of both.

Of course, this experiment in dysfunctional autoeroticism is not for the squeamish; even those comfortable with explicit sexual content may find themselves turning away from the accompanying depictions of twisted metal and disfigured body parts, and most especially the frequent merging of the two. Those who are able to brave it out, however, might find themselves in awe of the way Cronenberg uses his skill to manipulate their wiring, like some sort of mad psychosexual scientist, to elicit responses ordinarily deemed inappropriate in the face of such stimuli. At the very least, the film begets a grudging admiration for its director’s ability to exploit the basic similarity between the primal reactions to sex and horror, and to use it in a visceral exploration of themes usually handled in the realm of intellect- the role of social conditioning in defining “normal” sexuality, the aphrodisiac effects of dangerous or forbidden behavior, and the age-old psychological connection between sex and death.

In bringing Ballard’s novel to the screen, Cronenberg (who also wrote the screenplay) updates it from its original 1970s setting and transposes the action from London to Toronto, but the underlying feeling of participating in something you shouldn’t remains the same, as does the tantalizing use of the author’s last name for the leading character, though Ballard denied any autobiographical connections (which didn’t stop eyebrows being raised when he was seriously injured in a car accident shortly after the book’s publication). To add another coincidental wrinkle, the character shares his first name with the actor portraying him, James Spader. Cronenberg’s shrewd casting adds another layer to the motif of contrasting textures, with outwardly cool, aloof performers- Spader and Deborah Kara Unger (as his wife)- colliding with the hot, rough, seething energy of Elias Koteas as Vaughan. The sparks are palpable; Koteas exudes raw, musky sensuality in every scene, making it clear how this underground sexual prophet attracts his furtive, broken followers. As a fellow survivor of the same crash, whose affair with James is the first step on his journey into dangerous obsession, Holly Hunter gives us a straight-laced, almost asexual surface that belies the ravenous carnal appetite underneath; and Rosanna Arquette, as another of Vaughan’s acolytes, is the ultimate embodiment of the film’s grotesque fantasy, a mangled sexpot encased in a set of rigid metal braces, beautiful and terrifying as some sort of steampunk sex robot- the perfect object of paraphiliac desire.

Rounding out the total package is the moody cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, which somehow gives a glossy, candy-shell shine to the dark and shadowy atmosphere of the film’s environment; and the background score, by longtime Cronenberg colleague Howard Shore, which underlines the director’s dominant concerns with a piercing, metallic guitar sound that manages to be both dissonant and harmonious.

Crash is one of those films that falls definitively into the category of cinema as art; there are doubtless many viewers who would disagree, citing its subject matter as unworthy or its deliberately titillating sexual content as exploitative. It’s a film that challenges us, that makes us uncomfortable by forcing us to cross boundaries we accept as sacred, and the first response to such material is often to dismiss it as trash. However, just like controversial works in other media- such as “Piss Christ” or “The Human Printing Press,” or the writings of the Marquis de Sade- there is a powerful voice behind this movie, one with a purpose and a need to express something about the human experience that can enlighten us despite our defensive reaction to its form. That said, it should be duly noted that Crash is not meant as entertainment, at least not for the casual movie-goer; though it is loaded with sex scenes and car chases, they are not in the nature of the ones which normally make for box office appeal. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie- I’ve had a much better time watching other Cronenberg films, disturbing though they usually are- and I’m not even sure I can say it enriched me, in any way. I can, however, say that it forced itself into my consciousness and made itself a permanent part of my psyche, for better or for worse, and that in itself is enough for me to recommend it highly, at least to those adventurous cinemaphiles who are willing to be disturbed, or even outraged. It’s not safe cinema, but then, as the denizens of the secret world portrayed in Crash would tell you, there are sometimes more important things than being safe.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115964/

 

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Sebastiane (1976) [Warning: some images may be NSFW]

Today’s cinema adventure: Derek Jarman’s 1976 debut feature, Sebastiane, a fictionalized vision of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, presented less as a meditation on spiritual themes than as a homoerotic fantasy in which the soldier Sebastianus, after falling from favor with the Roman Emperor Diocletian, is exiled to a remote oupost in the wilderness, where his refusal to yield to his commanding officer’s obsessive lust eventually leads to his ritual execution by arrows.  A work that is historically significant not only for being the first film produced in authentic Latin (and as such, the first British-made movie to be shown in England with subtitles), but- more importantly- for the prologue featuring an erotic dance by legendary glam-era performance artist Lindsay Kemp and his Troupe, and its inclusion of an early score by electronic music pioneer Brian Eno, Sebastiane was never anybody’s idea of a mainstream film, not even its creator’s.  Like most of Jarman’s films, it’s not big on story, but despite its shoestring budget, it is lovingly and beautifully shot, each frame artfully crafted so that the final result resembles a Renaissance painting in motion. The extensive nudity (all male, of course) was explained by Jarman as being because they “couldn’t afford costumes” (sure, Derek, sure… we believe you), and needless to say the film was highly controversial at the time of release; but although many viewers may fixate on what often seems like gratuitous nudity and sexual content, Jarman is not merely concerned with exploiting or even celebrating the male form; he has much to say about the issue of homosexual shame.  On the surface, the film would seem to comply with the traditional Catholic assertion that homosexual behavior is a sin to be forsworn, and that Sebastianus’ fate is to be sacrificed to that ideal, destroyed by unrepentant sinners for his refusal to debase himself- a decidedly conflicting message, when one considers the fact that the film is heavily laden with imagery clearly intended to elicit homosexual fantasies.  Certainly these themes of religiously-fueled guilt are in play within Sebastiane, and Jarman undoubtedly wrapped some of his own spiritual struggles into his film; but like most art, the true nature of the themes expressed lies beneath the obvious details.  Sebastianus’ rejection is of the flesh itself, regardless of sexual orientation: it is his devotion to a life of the spirit that makes him an outcast and a martyr, and it is the jealousy and pride of those who fail to understand him that leads to his death; in the end, sexuality is irrelevant here, and Jarman’s true indictment is against the base and brutal tendencies of stereotypical masculinity, the hypocrisy of judgement and violence against those who do not conform to the status quo, and the arrogance of those who choose to subvert their own spirituality to their egotistical desires and insecurities.  In short, the film is more about homophobia than homosexuality, and its abundance of homoerotic imagery is as much to incite as to excite.  Of course, that same imagery is sufficient to ensure that the majority of religious bigots will never see this film, so in a way, Sebastiane is a prime example of an artist “preaching to the choir;” and, truthfully, the copious amount of it ultimately displaces Jarman’s higher purpose, so that his inaugural cinematic excursion ends up being more stimulating on a decidedly lower level.  My own reaction: it’s a very pretty movie to look at, and probably one of the most erotic ones I have seen (much more so than porn, actually); but at times I couldn’t help being reminded of those soft-core late-night “Skinemax” flicks I would sometimes catch my Dad watching at 3 in the morning… slow motion photography of someone taking a shower, with the frame cropped in just the right place to keep it from being obscene, that sort of thing, except instead of beautiful women, here it was beautiful men.  I can’t say I had any complaints, but I was ready for it to be over about 30 minutes before it actually was.  It might have helped if the actors (Leonardo Treviglio as Sebastianus, supported by Barney James, Neil Kennedy, and Richard Warwick, among others- none of whom had significant careers afterward) had delivered performances that were as beautiful as their bodies… but I guess we can’t have everything.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075177/

Crimes of Passion (1984)

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Today’s cinema adventure “Crimes of Passion, the controversial 1984 sexual thriller by cinematic bad-boy Ken Russell, centered around a hard-driven career woman who gets her sexual validation moonlighting- in disguise- as a streetwalker named “China Blue.” With his characteristic excess, both in his artistic style and his explicit depiction of sex, Russell uses the titillating scenario to explore a variety of psycho-sexual themes, portraying attitudes and behavior at both ends of the spectrum between depravity and repression; provoking numerous questions about the relationships between love, sex, truth, fantasy, shame, guilt and redemption; and exploring the difficulty of overcoming fear and immaturity in order to form an honest human connection. A heady and ambitious agenda, to be sure, and whether or not Russell and his screenwriter/producer, Barry Sandler, have succeeded in achieving it is still the subject of much debate- as with most of the director’s work, the response of critics and audiences is sharply divided between “hate it” or “love it.” My take: Russell’s madness has a method, and with his almost cartoonish depiction of the erotic underworld inhabited by China Blue and her clientele, he highlights the absurdity of our sexual prejudices and suggests that we have much more to fear from the consequences of repressing our natural desires. Helping considerably towards this goal is Kathleen Turner, at the height of her sexual appeal, delivering a remarkable performance infused not only with the necessary gleeful eroticism but also the vulnerability of a woman terrified by emotional intimacy. Also superb is Anthony Perkins, in an underrated turn as a seedy street preacher whose shame over his own pornographic impulses leads him to an obsession with “saving” China Blue; though derided by many critics as “over-the-top,” Perkins’ work here is frighteningly accurate, which should be clear to anyone who has ever had an encounter with a dangerously schizophrenic denizen of the streets. These two share several delicious scenes together, skillfully enacting an ongoing point/counterpoint about sexual morality that underscores the movie’s themes and provides many of its most delightfully melodramatic moments. Not as proficient is John Laughlin as a naive young husband whose failing marriage leads him to China Blue’s bed- but despite his somewhat stilted acting, his sincerity shines through enough to provide the necessary relief from the darkness of the skid row surroundings. Other notable elements include the costumes, scenic design and cinematography, all of which brilliantly contrast between the garish night-time world of the red-light district and the bland suburban daylight of the film’s other scenes- the two worlds seem almost as if they have been spliced together from two different films. Less successful- perhaps the film’s biggest flaw, really- is the tinny electronic score (provided by Rick Wakeman of the band Yes), which may have seemed like a good idea at the time but now provides a ludicrously dated atmosphere in a film that might otherwise seem almost timeless. Nevertheless, Russell’s film retains a surprising depth and resonance despite- or perhaps because of- the sensationalism of its hyper-sexual surface, and even if there are times when his intellectualism threatens to undermine the plot or his exploitative excess threatens to alienate his audience, the compelling performances of his two stars succeed in maintaining the emotional connection that is necessary to ensure the slow build of suspense into the climactic scenes. Overall, though Crimes of Passion lacks the audacious mastery that made instant classics of some of Russell’s earlier works, it still packs a powerful punch, melding sensuality with horror and humor with high drama, and ultimately- in my view anyway- standing as one of the most memorable and unique films of the eighties.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087100/

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