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Death Drive's Joy Ride: David Cronenberg's Crash

Manuel Camblor Other Voices, v.1, n.3 (January 1999)

Copyright 1999, Manuel Camblor, all rights reserved Introductory: Anti-film and Truth or Dare Traditional narrative cinema has often been exposed as the instrument of preference for the manipulation of desire (in the Lacanian/Hegelian sense of an 'artificial' reaffirmation of the ego in the dialectic of desire and recognition involved in the creation of subjecthood) in the endeavour to perpetuate any number of repressive ideologies. The peculiar predicament of the spectator, 'sutured' to a symbolic object on the movie screen that provides for an illusory sense of 'intelligibility,' 'unity' and 'security' for his/her subject position (an assumed 'safe place' of his/her own in the symbolic order), has stimulated volumes upon volumes of critical writing which hint -- explicitly or

implicitly -- at how the ultimate subversion of the conventions of narrative film could come to pass. That coup-to-come, in the myriad guises it can assume, is what I am designating, with terminology loosely borrowed from Julia Kristeva, as anti-film. This anti-film, Kristeva writes somewhat ambiguously in 1975, may (or may not) arise from the pinnacle of "specular fascination" attained in a century of narrative cinema, beyond which "both its dread and seduction might break out in laughter and distantiation." She dreams up "an impossible film: Don Juan by Einsenstein and Hitchcock, with music by Schnberg. (In)visible. Empty hall. But what a rite of terror and seduction!" (1) A "rite" requiring immense imaginative effort from the viewer, who must learn to profit everdifferently from an awareness of "seducing" while being "seduced." 'Suture,' it would seem to follow from this, must be reconfigured into a highly self-conscious activity on the part of the audience, as opposed to the passive state propitiated hitherto by the film industry in the service of the dominant Order. Laura Mulvey is slightly more specific about an agenda in her famous piece "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema:" The satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represent the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked. Not in favor of a reconstructed new pleasure, which cannot exist in the abstract, nor of intellectual unpleasure, but to make way for a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film. The alternative is the thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, or daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire. (2) More than twenty years after these proclamations from Kristeva and Mulvey, in our frantically cynical and media-supersaturated 1990s, a simmering little doubt pushes me to begin these pages. It is a doubt that begins at the moment when I believe I "see myself seeing myself" seeing movies in general and one movie in particular and I exercise my postmodern option to (over)interpret. The closest my doubt comes to crystallizing into a clear query is this: What, if anything, has happened to film in the direction of that "new language of desire" Mulvey posits, which should be at the very heart of any anti-film project ? Certainly, the filmic medium has seen an abundance of subversively intended experimentation. But in most cases that experimentation has only ended up by proving the infinite capacities of the symbolic order -- 'big Other' -- to recuperate (to incorporate into its structure) even the most violent of attacks against its mechanisms. The way movies are made is incessantly meddled with. But have the technical and political shifts of the medium itself caused any radical evolution of the film-viewing subject as such? As I state above, there is a specific recent film in my mind's eye as I write this. That film is David Cronenberg's controversial distillation of J.G. Ballard's 1973 techno-sex novel Crash. At the 1996 Cannes Festival, the film received a "Special Jury Award" for "originality, audacity and daring." Such a response from the judges of that prestigious event and a substantial amount of critical acclaim from other quarters did not prevent Crash from being banned in England and having its United States release delayed by nearly half a year. In terms of its mass-marketability, Crash started out by hitting a lot of people in the wrong way. In an interview for Film Comment, Croneneberg explains: I'm questioning a lot of things that are, certainly in Hollywood terms, the immutables of film narrative. First of all, that you must have a narrative. Secondly, that it must go in a certain way. Thirdly, that your characters should be sympathetic and should evolve and you should tie everything up, all those "well-made-play" kind of things that Hollywood has been so successful

selling over the years -- a perfectly legitimate thing to do. B ut when you're not doing it and your audience's expectations are formed by that, they don't know what to do. (3) Which, as far as confrontational directorial intentions go, qualifies Crash as a work of anti-film. Either the audience leaves the theater in frustration or struggles to figure out "what to do" -- and is irreparably altered by the struggle. Cronenberg's statement rings intriguingly close to the "total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film" as proposed by Mulvey. Going hard against the grain of Hollywood doxa (among others), Cronenberg has created an odd cinematic specimen, what one critic calls "the first real truth-or-dare movie" of the current hyperdecade. (4) This description is accurate in that a double challenge is issued in several directions at once -- to the dominant ideology behind filmmaking, to the subject position of the spectator and to the symbolic order itself in which "public morals" are encoded. Truth. Or dare. For Crash, though it does not invent a "new language of desire," clearly aims to produce a drastic uncertainty in the old one which translates into a destabilization of the ego as conditioned by the traditional narrative fiction film. This is by no means to say that Crash succeeds where other films have failed -- that it effectively begins the long-awaited "revolution." It is far too early to make those assumptions. But nevertheless, the powerful positive and negative responses that the film has elicited all over ("It has become a very emotional movie....There's going to be a lot of different reactions. I do think we might get a lot of people throwing things," are Cronenberg's comment to one interviewer) seem to back up its director's words and make it of vital interest for any theorization of film and its audiences. It is considering all this that I would like to move into a detailed exploration of Crash, as film and phenomenon -- subversive or otherwise -- through an optic necessarily colored by notions borrowed from Lacan; a meditation on what the film does and how it does it and of whatever consequences this may hold for our existing theoretical notions of desire, subjecthood, the ego and the "true 'I'" of the spectator-subject. So, Crash and psychoanalysis; film and interpretive tool, taken up together yet again -- but this time at the level of "truth or dare." As we know well, no such game is ever without a modicum of danger. Which decreases or increases, depending on how the challenges are received... 2. Something in Your 'I:' A Crash Course in Visual and Other Perversities Talking to Cineaste magazine about Crash, David Cronenberg remarks that "...It's a dangerous film in many ways. It does violence to people's understanding of human relationships, it does violence to people's understanding of eroticism....But I think that's a primary function of art. To do violence to the little cocoon that we sometimes find ourselves enveloped in." (5) A new dimension is added to Cronenberg's questioning of "the immutables of film narrative" in the fragment I quoted earlier. "Violence" focuses here directly on the symbolic practice (the configuration of given forms of "understanding") that results in the constitution of the ego. This being the case, Crash emerges as a prime example of the ethos behind Cronenberg's entire filmic oeuvre. Guided as his films are by an unrelenting concern with shaking up "safe" social identities and inflicting some manner of intellectual and emotional damage upon the preconceptions of the viewer, they all fit under the sign of the "dangerous." In Cronenberg's own (and often-repeated) words, his art is propelled by a mighty will "to show the unshowable, speak the unspeakable" at any cost. One views, as Cronenberg would have it, literally risking one's self. From Stereo and Shivers at the beginning of his career, to Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead

Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly and now Crash, Cronenberg has dealt in bizarre variations upon the theme of modern man grappling with the horror of extreme alienation; twisted mutations of the human psyche and, ultimately, of the human body, are the inevitable outcome (a TV executive hallucinates about acquiring new bodily orifices as he begins to metamorphose into a VCR in Videodrome, an experiment gone haywire fuses a scientist with an insect in The Fly, the minds of a pair of twins are fatally thrust into one body in Dead Ringers, etc.). Consciousness suffers brutal alterations for the central characters of Cronenberg's films, as do their interactions with other people, with language, with the physical environment they inhabit and with the technological artifacts of which they make quotidian use. Everything merges into monstrosity -- gorgeous just as often as it is horrible -- at the outermost reaches of neurosis. "Reality" turns into an uncanny space that must be negotiated to the best of the abilities of the characters "confronting" it. The result of the negotiation is, to say the least, always on the side of havoc for "common sense" and conventional attitudes about life, society and the world. As I have already mentioned, Crash is Cronenberg in particularly fine cinematic form. And in spite of the contentions raised by the director against "the immutables of film narrative," the film does contain a very linear story (no flashbacks or flash-forwards, no voice-over explanations, etc.) that is not altogether difficult to summarize. James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) appear to be mired in a sex life completely devoid of emotion, hard and cold as the bleak urban landscape they inhabit. They frequently indulge in sordid sexual adventures with complete strangers, about which they later "compare notes" at home as a way of getting each other hot -- anything for a sexual experience that transcends the dreariness of life in the modern city, to be shocked into feeling alive. Then a change takes place. One night, Ballard is involved in a headon collision with the car of Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), whose husband is killed instantly in the accident. Ballard and Remington survive and begin a sexual liaison sparked precisely by that shared survival. Remington eventually brings Ballard into contact with an underground group of motorcrash fetishists led by a highly charismatic mystery man named Vaughan (Elias Koteas). Under Vaughan's zealous guidance, the group operates as a sort of orgiastic coven whose members are united by the erotic thrills they derive from everything related to automobile wrecks. They revel in simulacra of famous fatal crashes (two are at least partly "played out" in Crash : the ones that killed James Dean and Jane Mansfield, respectively) presented for their enjoyment by Vaughan and constantly participate in acts of polymorphous carnality inside or around automobiles, at rest or in motion (everyone fucks everyone else in diverse combinations; any car fulfills the erotic requirement, not just the models typically glamorized by materialistic fetishism), crashing into each other's vehicles by way of foreplay. Vaughan studies car crashes and their victims (in photographs, in films and in real life) obsessively, trying to imagine every possible permutation of disaster so as to reenact it for his followers (in this he is reminiscent of Sade's libertines in The 120 Days of Sodom, with their irrepressible flair for combinatorics and theatricality). Metal and human skin, preferably bent out of shape, torn or otherwise traumatized after car collisions, are the sources of the new eroticism put into practice by Vaughan's coterie of "crashophiles." Their jouissance, individual and collective, stems from a vision (a word of great relevance here) of the machine finally becoming inextricable from sex, from the flesh as it dents, breaks, bleeds, suppurates and scars. Ballard quickly becomes the object of much attention from Vaughan, who makes him privy to a number of escapades, which lead to Vaughan having sex first with Ballard's wife and later with Ballard himself. Vaughan at one point reveals to Ballard the existence of a "project" behind his actions, though he never clarifies what that "project" consists of beyond the generality of exploring

the "benevolent psychopathology that beckons to us" from the "fertilizing encounter of man and technology." When Vaughan dies in a car accident, Ballard takes over his car, his habits and, ostensibly, the "project." The end, etc. On account of this basic content (of a "direct signified"), accustomed as most of us have become to extremes of violence and sexual "kink" as the primary subject matter of film and television, Crash can hardly be deemed unexpectedly shocking or repulsive (I am, after all, discussing the filmmaker for whose "trademark of auteur." the term "body horror" was coined; can we forget, say, the exploding human head in Scanners or the "gynecological instruments for mutant women" in Dead Ringers ?) Its depictions of sexual acts and varied gore, while graphic, remain well within the confines of a certain "visual decorum." And yet, shocking the film is indeed. A word used repeatedly by critics and by Cronenberg himself to describe Crash is "pornographic." But for Cronenberg this term may hold more than the conventional "skin flick" connotations. Interviewed by American Cinematographer , he proposes that: The book of Crash is not written like porn at all; it's very clinical and very medical in its descriptions of everything, including sex. But at some point you find yourself being turned on by it and you say to yourself, "Oh my God, I'm capable of being turned on by this ? It's unbelievable. I would love to have that happen with this movie. (6) A subtle seduction. All considerations of fidelity to J.G. Ballard's novel aside, what comes across in the statement above is a different conception of what makes pornography. The word here approaches its etymological sense of a "writing" or mise-en-discours of the sexual or, alternatively, of an eroticization of discursiveness. Which brings us right back to the "dangerousness" attributed to the film by Cronenberg. The "violence" done to the social preconceptions of the audience is not about the tainting of "real life" by an intrusive discourse of "aberrant" sexuality, but about putting in display the eroticism inherent in the very production and reception of discourse (a secondary, nongenital but still "fertilizing" sexuality). The film "interpolates" the viewer directly, as if it could see him or her, demanding a response. In his extremely hostile review of Crash for The New Yorker, Anthony Lane may unwittingly be onto something when he writes that "People are right to be shocked by Crash, but for the wrong reasons. What it shows you, even in scarred closeup, is only mildly nauseating compared to what it insists in telling you." (7) Nausea. That "telling" which Lane objects to in Crash is not the delivery of a "moral of the story," but rather the mobilization of a discourse that is not easily bearable precisely because it is (mis)recognized as "alien" and "intruding" into -- and incompatible with -- the symbolic order. Alas, Lane sees the film not as pornographic or erotic but as "bare-assed philosophy," the allimportant "safe" titillation of the audience abandoned for the sake of something full of obvious "disdain for the customary satisfactions of cinema." Which amounts to doxic criticism in the "missionary" position, to put it as bluntly as Lane himself may. The critic is confronted with a sexualized discourse he does not "know what to do with." So he rejects it in the name of entertainment and the narrowest possible conception of the sexual; Crash is chalked up as pure blundering travesty, in equal parts "road movie, blue movie, black comedy and a load of white noise about nothing..." Of course, it would be more than foolish to allow this Verneinung to slow us down. Cronenberg provides a quasi-anecdote that proves helpful in considering the most common resistance Crash encounters:

In one of my little test screenings someone said, 'A series of sex scenes is not a plot.' And I said, 'Why not? Who says? It worked for Arthur Schnitzler.' And the answer is that it can be, but not when the sex scenes are the normal kind of sex scenes: lyrical little interludes and then on with the real movie. Those can usually be cut out and not change the plot or characters one iota. In Crash, very often the sex scenes are absolutely the plot and the character development. You can't take them out. These are not twentieth-century sexual relationships or love relationships. These are something else. We're saying that a normal, upper-middle class couple could have this as their norm in the notso-distant future. (8) The anonymous impromptu censor does comprehend at least that he or she has been watching "a series of sex scenes" and emplots each sex scene individually as such, even while denying the status of "plot" to their serial placement. A narrative chain is presented where signifiers do not attach to a "signified" but to other signifiers, with the linkage points plainly visible and yet unsatisfactory as far as the accepted "grammar" of narrative is concerned. Sex scene leading to sex scene, leading to sex scene, leading to... No recognizable closure, no bliss in domesticity, no "paradise found" and no validation of traditional social protocols. Vaughan dies and Ballard takes his place as sexual taskmaster. In the final sequence of the film, Ballard rams his wife's convertible off a freeway. The car is overturned, but Catherine seems to be unhurt apart from a few small cuts and bruises. With cars speeding by in the background, caressing her in a decidedly sexual way, then sliding his fingers under her panties, pulling them down Ballard gently whispers to Catherine: "Maybe the next one darling... Maybe the next one..." They kiss; he enters her from behind. The next what ? More could follow, the chain could continue ; but the screen fades to black and the credits roll. And the message? There is none except for those questions one may be left with, the blanks the film asks us to fill if we have watched it up to that point. The dizzying ambiguity of that calmly repeated "maybe the next one..." thwarts the expectation of a comfortingly visible "happy ever after..." A loose signifier, the last line spoken in Crash terrifies by not letting one off the hook; it is the imperious reminder of one's undeferable turn at "truth or dare." In the American Cinematographer interview, Cronenberg is reminded by his interlocutor that the scars of the accident survivors in Crash -- particularly an extremely prominent one born by Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a member of Vaughan's circle of followers -- are turned into "erotic focal points" in the film's specular space. Cronenberg replies that should those "focal points" be recognizable to the viewer as "erotic," he or she is ...Hopefully entering into the psychology of the characters. I'd like people to be thinking, "Even though those feelings were completely distant and impossible for me, I do have a kinship with these characters." As soon as you've made one connection like that, you can start to make others. (9)

The picture is a trap for the gaze," declares Lacan in his seminar on "Anamorphosis." A point -- what Roland Barthes denominates a punctum -- emerges in the picture and causes the viewer to take a closer look, it "catches" his/her gaze; vision is utilized "to capture the subject," to have his/her desire "fixed in the picture" by what he or she misconstrues as an answering gaze from within the picture. A "kinship" is discovered in spite of any resistance on the part of the spectator; (mis)recognition of an unlikely object leads to an interrogation -- however reluctant -- of desire. Gabrielle's scar becomes a potent erotic signifier (not just a "neo-sex organ," as a number of critics have called it, but a symbolic phallus on its own right) in the symbolic economy of Crash and, since it does possess a degree of intelligibility qua signifier, claims a portion of the 'big Other' for itself with a vengeance, thereby noticeably upsetting its structure. (10) The greatest "danger" Crash presents, then, is that of the subject's active introduction to its unfamiliar (definitely in the Freudian sense of unheimlich ) discursive space. This introduction can, in the best and worst of cases, render the subject most ill-at-ease with "reality" (in the Lacanian employment of the word). The imaginary, the symbolic and the real are thrown off balance as the subject proceeds to fumble toward those connections Cronenberg speaks about. As Lacan announces in his seminar on "Sexuality in the Defiles of the Signifier," sexuality is "the reality of the unconscious." If this is so, the eroticized emission and reception of a signifier (that letter which "always reaches its destination," no matter how 'dirty' its contents, given that the destination is the symbolic order itself) effectively establishes an area of contact with the unconscious. Entrance into the sexualized discourse of Crash thus entails coming to terms with whatever one may finds in those areas of contact, a process that can be hazardous to one's egohealth insofar as it carries one away from the ego-affirmation one is used to. Julia Kristeva calls frayage the "nameless dread" preceding the (mis)recognition in the symbolic order of the image which "unifies" and "reassures" our subject position as its viewers. Frayage, Kristeva adds, "is the mark of the aggressivity and/or the anguish aroused by the contract of desire with someone else." (11) The resistance of the subject to "identification" with the characters in Crash serves to exacerbate frayage (it is no coincidence that so many viewers of the film I have talked to proclaim if "dreadful" and yet cannot give a name to whatever it is that makes it so). A contract of desire is at hand which happens to be as at odds with the social conditioning of most viewers as it is tempting. The subject is torn, faced with excruciatingly difficult choices. David Cronenberg seems to have taken this fact into account. We know he anticipated no small amount of resistance from his audience. Which leads me to believe that it is precisely this resistance he capitalizes on to achieve a highly innovative kind of "horror" film; the spectator is left in the state of "nameless dread," undelivered from frayage even when the theater lights go up after the films inconclusive conclusion. This effect is achieved, as I have begun to show by bringing up the last sentence of Crash and the placement of "erotic focal points," by dint of the characters' speech and -perhaps more importantly -- on the level of the deployment of visual signifiers and the creation of a visual "atmosphere." To this latter aspect of the orchestration of the visual in the film it is that I want to dedicate the next section of the present essay. Naturally, this means we have quite a bit of

film to go through... 3. Partners in Psychopathology: The Director's 'Cut' and the Sujet-Suppos-Savoir In order to recenter those of my listeners with whom I was most concerned -- the psychoanalysts -- in a direction conforming with analytic experience, the very handling of the concept [of transference] must, depending on the level at which the teacher's speech is placed, take into account the effects of the formulations on the listener. We are all such that we, the teacher included, are in a relation to the reality of the unconscious, which my intervention not only elucidates, but to a certain point engenders. - Jacques Lacan, "Sexuality in the Defiles of the Signifier," 1964 Someone said to me: "You're the Vaughan of the audience," and I thought that was very apt. It's like you're doing an experiment, but you're not outside the experiment. It's one of the first principles of science that you cannot observe something without changing it....You are a part of the experiment even while you are conducting it. Vaughan was also experimenting on himself. I didn't want him to be a guru with all the answers....He's a little ahead of [his followers], but only a little. He needs their energy and support and involvement to continue. - David Cronenberg, interviewed in Film Comment, 1997 Several commentators of Crash have concluded that the nameless salesman in the Mercedes-Benz showroom Gabrielle and Ballard pay a visit to is "the only normal character in the film." Gabrielle expresses to him the wish to verify whether a body like hers (she wears bulky prosthetic devices on both of her legs) will fit into a two-seat convertible and the salesman is quick to oblige her. He assists her in climbing into the car and while doing so cannot take his eyes off the grotesque scar on her fishnet-stockinged thigh. It is hard to refrain from reading a note of sexual excitement in his distressed look. The camera lingers on his hand as it touches Gabrielle's leg to lift it into the cockpit of the car. Gabrielle smiles mischievously. When the hinge on one of her prostheses gets caught in the exquisitely smooth cabretta leather of the driver's seat, it causes a rip (a wound on the precious body of the Mercedes as conspicuous as the scar on Gabrielle). In consternation, "the only normal character in the film bluntly says: "Oh fuck... This is bad..." (12) Cut somewhat drastically to a totally new scene, with Gabrielle and Ballard having sex in her car, elsewhere. As far as the film is concerned, causing damage to the expensive car in the showroom has no direct material consequences for Gabrielle or Ballard. It is merely foreplay for the next scene. One is left to try and figure out the "normal" in the sparkling eyes the Mercedes-Benz salesman and in his last words, which playfully refuse to land on whatever may "normally" have been "bad" about such a ..situation. The cinematic cut (an updating, as Cronenberg frequently mentions, of the Godardian "jump cut" that Cronenberg proclaims to use to "weed out" what does not interest him), in my reading of the sequence, acts not unlike the abrupt interruption of the psychoanalytic session la Lacan; it pushes me toward radical doubt about what is being said and left unsaid. I wonder, hoping for a breakthrough, if the "fuck" of the salesman is simply an empty expletive or if it is a function of unexpected arousal (what he really deems "bad?") A distinctive element surfaces in the Mercedes-Benz sequence that is also characteristic of all the

other erotically loaded scenes in Crash. Directorial choreography, pacing, cutting and color join the strategically placed "erotic focal points" to outweigh by far the deliberately somnambulary performances of the actors in the creation of the film's odd "feel." There are abundant visual suggestions as to the probability that no one -- least of all filmmaker and audience -- is outside the reach of the "deviant" sexuality Vaughan and his acolytes make into their lifestyle, their "norm." A threatening premise, indeed, and cause for much discomfort. Yet I will argue that it is the "look" given to the film by its director -- the thoroughly vitiated but nevertheless breathable "air" of its "visual atmosphere" -- rather than any character "brought to life" by the actors, that holds the viewer fast (a sailor's knot in the 'suture,' so to speak) in his or her uncomfortable position. Crash aims to absorb; every part of it implicates the viewer, wanting his or her psychological complicity. But before going into further explanations about this matter, I would like to submit for your approval a few technical details of the making of Crash which are essential to an understanding of the visual manipulations attempted in it (as explained by Cronenberg and his director of photography, Peter Suschitzky to various movie-industry publications). The movie was shot mostly on location in Toronto, on a decidedly low budget ($6 million) for Hollywood standards. Many of the important car sequences were filmed on actual, fully operational streets and freeways in the city (contrary to the 'proper' practice of using abandoned roads or freeway segments under construction so as not to disturb traffic) using available light. There are none of the special effects (slow motion, explosions, etc.) habitually associated with car-action films. Apart from, in the director's phrase, a certain aura of "found art," the overall visual result of all this in the film is a somber cinematography where what Cronenberg calls "bruise colors" predominate -- the browns, reds, purples, grays, blacks and blues of traumatized human skin. A wonderful factoid is connected to this specific, highly symbolic color coordination. As Cronenberg relates: We decided to use bruise colors for the costumes. As soon as that decision was made, it affected everything, including the upholstery in the wife's Miata, which is a purpley color. We had the car reupholstered just for that reason. In the book, her car is white, but no cinematographer is going to want you to have a white car, so we made the car silver. We had to paint a combination for the car that didn't really exist in the Miata line. (13) Within the network of visual signifiers ("metaphorical devices" is the name Cronenberg uses) set in motion by Crash, Catherine Ballard's little sports car acquires a special valence once one is aware that it is decked out in a "bruise color" of its own (everything is affected by the color scheme). It is yet another "bruised" object (or "wounded" in a way comparable but not identical to the "unfortunate" Mercedes in the showroom, since in this case it is the director who has inflicted the "wound" hors-scne) within the larger context of the "bruised" cinematography of the film. (14) A prettily "damaged" creature. Much has been made in the press items devoted to Crash of the "harsh beauty" of its cinematography. Cronenberg repeatedly affirms that he purposefully set out to give the film a sharp aesthetic appeal. It could be that even something as "innocent" as appreciation of the film's "bruised" visuals on a supposedly purely aesthetic plain, where one cannot or does not consciously ascribe a "meaning" to the visual signifier -- thrusts one irreversibly into the erotics of Crash. Even minimal entry into its symbolic economy places one in "danger." (Mis)recognition can take on many forms. There is no telling what in the picture will return the viewer's gaze, but he or she can at least be sure that it was placed there by someone. The importance of specularity -- of what is seen as well as what is shown and in what ways -- for

the erotic discourse of Crash cannot be overestimated. The eye occupies a privileged position in the film's hierarchy of erogenous zones. Every sexual encounter in the film is witnessed from at least two directions (the spectator and an actor who may also be watching), with mirrors and screens playing a pivotal part. Car windows, windshields and rearview mirrors are a very recognizable aid to the choreographed action on the cinema screen. One is always at least halfway conscious of a look, a stare, whether of a character in the film or of one's own. Let us consider briefly, to "see" more clearly, where the eyes fall (or, more accurately, are made to fall ) in four sex sequences from Crash... After their head-on collision at the beginning of the film, Ballard stares at Dr. Helen Remington through the shattered windshields of their two cars. Dr. Remington's husband lies dead on the hood of Ballard's car (he was jettisoned forward on impact, through one windshield and onto another). The camera moves out of Ballard's point of view and halts to leave the windshield of Dr. Remington's car as a frame for what happens next. With a zombie-like stare at Ballard, she removes her seatbelt and bares her left breast to Ballard. Fade to black.
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At the home of Vaughan's assistant, the stunt driver Seagrave (Peter MacNeil), Gabrielle, Dr. Remington and Ballard sit on a sofa, watching a video of Volvo crash tests (Cronenberg's semi-covert joke at the expense of the Swedish porno industry, if we consider what turns these characters on and what would be a good "sex movie" for them). The three begin to fondle each other's genitalia over their clothes, glassy eyes glued to the television screen. Gabrielle stops looking at the screen to look at Ballard and Dr. Remington.
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Vaughan and Ballard take a night drive in Vaughan's car. The pick up a prostitute at a parking garage. Vaughan goes to the back seat with the hooker while Ballard drives the car (She has asked Vaughan if she is to fuck both men; Vaughan's reply is "My friend's just gonna watch...) Scarcely paying attention to the road, which is deserted, Ballard watches the observes acrobatics taking place in the back seat as they are reflected on the rearview mirrors of the car. We see the car accelerate as Ballard gets increasingly excited by what he sees. Sometimes the car swerves lightly and when it goes on a bridge the feeling that "accidents could happen" is inescapable.
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Vaughan and Ballard take another night drive in Vaughan's car, this time with Ballard's wife along for the ride. Vaughan and Catherine are in the back seat, Ballard drives. They take the vehicle to an all-night car wash to clean off blood stains that have appeared "inexplicably" on its side. As the car is covered by creamy suds, Vaughan brutally fucks Catherine. Ballard watches their reflection in the central rearview mirror.
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In each of these sequences we are confronted with sexual acts that are multiply and blatantly "perverse" according to the traditional mores of which the characters in Crash live in constant defiance. What comes out from this with particular force is the scopic orientation of the acts, which is rooted in but also greatly in excess of conventional notions about voyeurism and exhibitionism. The characters rarely look each other in the eye. (15) And yet, they are always looking. A spectacle is always in the works and it is this which sets off the first erotic stirring. The pleasure comes from the visibility of the acts, from gazes meeting and...colliding. The spectacle of the car crash and its aftereffects -- the wounds, the death, the marks of an equal expenditure of the human body and of technology, all there to be viewed -- is what holds the true power to eroticize in the discourse of Crash, to make the discourse erotic. The actual fact of the car crash, "fast, brutal and over before you know it" is, it turns out, simply the means to a "higher" end. (16) On this visual key, it may be pertinent to add another sequence to the four above, one that seems to want a specific reaction from the audience in the movie theater. Chronologically it falls right between the first and the second scenes I have described. It is the sequence in which James Dean's last drive is staged by Vaughan. Emphasis should be made on staging here. For Vaughan -- as for any film or theater director worth his/her salt, one may add -- it is essential that every aspect of the performance be fastidiously taken into account, every eventuality planned ahead for. And so, from our theater seats we witness, thanks to Vaughan and to David Cronenberg, a most impressive reenactment of an important crash. And, on makeshift grandstand by the side of the road on which the reenactment takes place, we see an audience that watches the spectacle with a mixture of delight and worry. A distorted mirroring occurs -- one audience directly facing another, with the spectacle

in the middle, in the space of the looking glass we may or may not venture to go through. (17) A spectacle is masterfully arranged in order to produce an upheaval for its viewers, whether they be inside or outside the film. It seems significant that it should be after the performance of the James Dean crash that Ballard gains admittance into the cult led by Vaughan. The viewing of that spectacle, of which Vaughan is both "producer" and "director," is what provides catharsis for Ballard, what finally activates awareness of a new desire in him. When Ballard visits the workshop where Vaughan carries out his meticulous investigations of car crashes and plots out the simulacra that so enthrall his followers, Vaughan proclaims that the two men are "partners in psychopathology." After this pronouncement, reciprocal assistance in the exploration of the psychopathology in question is agreed upon silently, with an exchange of gazes. It is also at this moment that Ballard learns of Vaughan's nebulous "project." The fact that Vaughan never elaborates on the specifics of this "project" or of the "philosophy" behind it does not affect the appearance he has of being in control of what he is doing -- of knowing. (18) Ballard follows, perhaps without total trust in Vaughan, but still assuming a certain inequality in their "partnership," since Vaughan seems to comprehend the psychopathology that unites the two men much better than Ballard. Collaborative exploration by these two "partners," to use a Lacanian turn of phrase, amounts to "a search for truth in which one is supposed to know, or at least to know more than the other." (19) It should be fairly easy to guess what I am trying to get at here. Ballard enters into what can be considered a transferential relation with Vaughan, if we accept Lacan's much criticized re-definition of transference. An intersubjective link is formed by the two men entering into the sexualized province of human language that is the "partnership" through which they shall discover the intricacies of their respective desires. In Lacan's formulation, transference starts with the assumption by the analysand of a knowledge about himself or herself that he or she is not in contact with -- a "knowledge" he or she "does not yet know." The analysand supposes that the analyst is in possession -- at least partially -- of that knowledge and fully capable of leading him or her to its attainment. This is what energizes the "search" for the truth of desire on the parts of both participants. The death of Vaughan does put a temporary damper to the proceedings. But Ballard continues the "search" in the end, using Vaughan's "instruments" (the recovered and repaired car) and perhaps believing himself to have acquired at least a small parcel of the elusive "knowledge" of his desire (though the film shows us very clearly that this parcel is small; Ballard clearly lacks Vaughan's guiltlessness, panache and dexterity in experimenting with their "psychopathology"). Lacan, as we have seen earlier, calls sexuality "the reality of the unconscious." That formula is carried further: "The transference is the enactment of the reality of the unconscious" -- its "outing onto the sphere of the 'big Other' (the unconscious is made of language, it is a language, but "internalized") -- its new mise en signe and mise en discours. (20) Vaughan and Ballard are united by an erotic symbolic and discursive practice -- an exchange of sexualized signifiers by which "truth" may be reached. Vaughan is the teacher whose education can never be complete, Ballard is the student who is not only being instructed but adds new dimensions to his teacher's continued education. As long as they are engaged in this exchange of sexualized signifiers, both learning, there shall be transference and the chance to catch a glimpse of the unconscious as it opens up, even if it is ever so briefly. I will lay myself wide open now to some very harsh criticism from certain parties. For I am one hundred percent with Slavoj Zizek when he posits that "the only way to produce something real in theory is to pursue the transferential fiction to the end, even if one does not know where the end is and the pursuit turn out to be infinite. It may also be one (if not the only) way to produce something

real in practice for our time. About studying the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Zizek writes that the temptation among Hitchcock aficionados toward "the elevation of Hitchcock to the status of a Godlike demiurge who masters even the smallest details of his work....is simply is simply a sign of transferential relationship, where Hitchcock functions as the 'subject supposed to know.'" (21) That this can be the case for scholars on the work of a dead man has a funny way of reminding me of Ballard after Vaughan's death. But what I wish to make absolutely plain is that I have willingly placed myself in a transferential relationship to David Cronenberg through Crash, even if I am also inclined to believe him when he claims to be, as the "Vaughan of the audience," to be only "a little ahead" of us Cronenberg is not a flawless sujet suppos savoir . Instead, as the instigator of a good game of "truth or dare," he is surprisingly able to make one fear that he can call one's bluffs at any moment, should one choose to bluff -- a singularly gifted master for a risky ceremony rather than a guru or shaman. From that last image we can return to the proposition of Crash as anti-film. Lacan provides with a useful clue for our negotiation of the frayage involved in the "specular seduction" Crash attempts. In the seminar on "Analysis and Truth, or the Closure of the Unconscious" he makes the following important differentiation: What is certain is that the transference is one thing, th therapeutic end another. Nor is the transference to be confused with a mere means. The two extremes of what has been formulated in analytic literature are situated here. How often will you read formulas which associate, for example, the transference with identification, whereas identification is merely a pause, a false termination of the analysis which is very frequently confused with its normal termination. Its relationship to the transference is close, but precisely in that by which the transference has not been analyzed. (22) "Identification" provides a transitory "satisfaction" in the dialectic of desire and recognition; it is literally, the pleasure of the "ego boost." So it is with the 'sutured' spectator of traditional narrative cinema, as I have noted before. But in Crash a different relationship between film, audience and filmmaker is sought. A transference occurs between Ballard and Vaughan which suggests the possibility of a similar exchange between Cronenberg and his audience, with the film itself as the binding sexualized discourse that exteriorizes shreds of the unconscious. Transference, in short, is what mobilizes the intellectual and emotional "connections" Cronenberg wishes from the audience -- their entry into the psychopathology given "presence" by the film. The audience is to leave the theater having begun a process -- as opposed to having received a quick "fix." The great problem inherent in all this is that as the film ends, the spectator is left alone -- like Ballard after Vaughan's death -- to continue with his or her associations. The sujet suppos savoir becomes absent and yet the chase after "truth" must go on. I am aware that all this verbiage about "truth" could very well make Anthony Lane somewhat right in calling Crash "bare-assed philosophy." And indeed, as he says, "...You may not want to watch." Just as you may not, under any circumstances, want your ego psychoanalytically dismantled. For it takes a special courage or a special foolishness, depending on your stance on the matter, to prefer an ebb and flow of "nameless dread" to the false reassurance of "identification." The anti-film, to repeat Julia Kristeva's sublime little dream, is "a rite of terror and seduction." Which, I would venture, is one of the dimensions of transference and of the experience that is Crash insofar as it is transference that it wants from its viewer. If the film proves truly subversive it is, we could conclude, because it refuses to take "identification" as the be-all-end-all of the medium it partakes in when it is, in fact, merely a stage in a process of which transference is the driving force. Perhaps

the discovery of a "new language of desire" requires, first and foremost, that we reassess and learn to use all the hidden resources that the old one places at our disposal. Crash, in challenging some of us and pushing us toward a new level of consciousness as film spectators, is decidedly a move in the right direction. The one thing I regret is that this has not caught the eye of more people. But maybe the next one...

Endnotes: 1 Kristeva, J., "Ellipsis on Dread and the Specular Seduction" in Rosen, P., ed., Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, pp. 241-242. 2 Mulvey, L., "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in Rosen, P., ed., p. 200. 3 Smith, G., "Cronenberg: Mind Over Matter" in Film Comment, Vol.33, No.2, March/April 1997, p. 20. 4 Rodley, C., introduction to Rodley, C., ed., Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p. xxiii. 5 Grundmann, G., "Plight of the Crash Fest Mummies: David Cronenberg's Crash " in Cineaste, Vol.XXII, No.4, 1997, p. 25. 6 Pizzello, S., "Driver's Side: Director David Cronenberg Pulls Over to Answer American Cinematographer's Questions about Crash " in American Cinematographer, Vol.78, No.4, April 1997, p. 47. 7 Lane, A, "Off the Road" in The New Yorker, March 31 1997, p. 107. 8 Rodley, C., ed., Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p. 199. 9 Pizzello, S., in American Cinematographer, p. 47. 10 The last sequence of Crash, which I briefly discuss above, cones back to mind here. The members of Vaughan's group all possess prominently visible scars or other bodily deformities acquired in the car accidents they have survived. Until the end of the film, Catherine Ballard is the one character connected to Vaughan's group who does not have any such marks. "Maybe the next one..." could refer, in fact, to the acquisition of a wound (which Catherine apparently fails to do while totaling her car) -- of the symbolic phallus. 11 Kristeva, J., "Ellipsis on Dread and the Specular Seduction" in Rosen, P., ed., Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, pp. 236 and 238. 12 It was interesting to find that this last interjection of the salesman's does not appear in the published script of Crash., where all the salesman gets to say is "Is there something here that interests you?"

13 Pizzello, S., in American Cinematographer, p. 48 (italics mine). 14 Another obviously "bruised" vehicle in Crash is Vaughan's car, a 1963 Lincoln Continental identical to the model in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Patches of composite over the dents gathered in the cars countless collisions are not painted over, so they stand out against the faded remains of the car's faded black paint job. It may be worth noting that most of the "bruised" cars in the film (the Mercedes, the Miata, the Lincoln and, we may add, the Porsche used in the reenactment of the James Dean crash) are convertibles -- a denomination that should not slip by us unnoticed, even if time and space do not allow for greater elaboration upon it. 15 From the darkest recesses of moralistic clich hell, a judgment of the specularity of Crash comes forth. In his piece for Cineaste, Roy Grundmann professes in a flurish of righteousness that "...The film's showcasing of anal and rear-entry sex...is a metaphor for [the] profoundly antisocial attitudes of its characters. As rear-entry sex involves a refusal to face the sex partner and to confront his or her humanity, the film uses it as a close analogy to the cult member's practice of crashing one another's cars..." (Cineaste, p. 27). In this case, there is an inability to disassociate one sphere of sexuality from another. To be "looking elsewhere" is taken as a mark of disdain for one's partner. But in Crash it seems to be the case that genital acts are truly subordinate to the scopic drive. Not to fuck per se, but to see and to show fucking is what characterizes the sexuality of the characters. The sexual partner matters less, it should follow, than the sexual scene. 16 The description is Cronenberg's in Rodley, C., ed., Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p.203. Even when a collision is about to take place, the point of view shot almost always goes through a windshield, whether looking out of or into a car. The scene is thus doubly "framed" for enjoyment: in the windshield and in the movie screen. 17 Another curious item for our records: The sequence where the characters watch crash test videos sitting on the sofa at Seagrave's house makes for another kind of anamorphic audience mirroring, which anticipates the home video release of Crash. In this case, the spectacle comes from a television either way, which makes the mirroring a much more direct affair. 18 Vaughan makes some scattered enigmatic remarks about his "project" and alludes to the existence of a "philosophy" behind it. This may be an echo of a famous line from Cronenberg's Videodrome. One of the characters -- the celebrated "media expert" Prof. Bryan O'Blivion -pronounces a pirate television show "dangerous" and specifies that "it is dangerous because it has a philosophy." At first Vaughan tells Ballard something about "the reshaping of the human body by modern technology" being the underlying idea of his "project." But later, when questioned by Ballard, Vaughan admits to this being "...A crude sci-fi concept that floats on the surface and doesn't threaten anybody. I use it to test the resilience of my partners in psychopathology." 19 This is the way in which Lacan begins to describe the relationship of transference between analysand and analyst in the seminar "Analysis and Truth or the Closure of the Unconscious" in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p.137. 20 Lacan, J., "Sexuality in the Defiles of the Signifier" in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p.149. 21 Zizek, S., introduction to Zizek, S., ed., Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan

(But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, p.10. 22 Lacan, J., "Analysis and Truth, or the Closure of the Unconscious" in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, pp.145-146. Works Cited: Cronenberg, David, 1997, Crash (published screenplay). London. Faber & Faber. Grundmann, Roy, "Plight of the Crash Fest Mummies" in Cineaste, Vol.XXII, No.4, Spring 1997. Daviau. Allan & Elmes, Fred, 1997, "Auto Erotic" (interview with Peter Suschitzky, BSC), in American Cinematographer, Vol.78, No.4, April 1997. Lacan, Jacques (Sheridan, Alan, trans.), 1981, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York, W.W. Norton & Co. Lane, Anthony, "The Current Cinema: Off the Road" (review of Crash ), in The New Yorker, March 31, 1997. Pizzello, Stephen, "Driver's Side" (interview with David Cronenberg), in American Cinematographer, Vol.78, No.4, April 1997. Rodley, Chris, ed., 1997, Cronenberg on Cronenberg. London, Faber & Faber. Rosen, Philip, ed., 1986, Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York, Columbia University Press. Smith, Gavin, "David Cronenberg: Mind Over Matter" (interview with David Cronenberg), in Film Comment, Vol.33, No.2, March/April 1997. Zizek, Slavoj, 1994, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). New York, Verso.