Crash (1996) Review

(excerpt from my Cronenberg paper)

When one looks at the films typically considered “Cronenbergesque” it’s clear why. Videodrome, The Fly, Scanners, eXistenZ all have the clear melding of man and technology with plenty of sexual content strewn about. Cronenberg in his later years has done quite a few films that on the surface seem very odd for him, but actually end up fitting his style perfectly. Crash is one such film. On the surface it’s about a group of people who get sexually excited by car crashes, but just underneath the surface is a slow commentary on sex and technology. The tropes of a Cronenberg film are there, just shown in a different light.

The editing in a lot of Cronenberg films is very discontinuous, forcing you to read between the lines and most of the time creating the feeling of a labyrinth. This usually makes sense with the descent that most characters make into madness/sanity/clarity/etc… With Crash it also fits, marking the characters James Spader’s and Deborah Unger’s descent into the world of erotic crashes. This descent is clear, but what isn’t clear in the story is where it’s going. There’s no end goal, no antagonist. There’s just an ever increasing amount of sex and violence that ends with (big shocker) a car crash (with more sex). While this may turn off some viewers, what it does allow is for an audience to mull over the images presented in front of them and fully understand or at least interpret Cronenberg’s metaphor.

Cronenberg’s movies tend to take place in the shadows, and Crash is no stranger to them. Sure there are scenes that take place during the day, but a good chunk of the film contains low-key lighting. The lighting, coupled with the editing, is what really gives the film it’s Cronenberg feel. Be it to emphasize the shady world the characters are descending into or to show how certain characters have a dark side, the lighting gives life to the world we’re viewing.

The score is a unique listen, containing little more than an electric guitar. The eerie sounds it emits blanket the movie in this strange surrealistic ambience. The lack of any other instrument helps also to create a feeling of isolation, despite the frequent sexual activity on screen. In fact Cronenberg plays on isolation not just with the sound, but with the framing as well. There are several points in the movie where despite characters sitting right next to each other, their close-ups are framed to show just them, leaving empty space to the side if necessary. In one particular scene were James Spader, Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette are sitting on the couch and their close ups show only their heads, but immediately following those shots is a single shot showing all of their crotches, where they are stroking/fingering each others genitals. It’s isolation of the mind, despite intimacy of the body.

Cronenberg’s metaphor that runs through Crash is that the meeting of metal violently in a car crash is not unlike the meeting of flesh during sex. The only difference is the speed at which each happens. Hence Holly Hunter yelling at the VCR to go slower when watching car crash test footage. Cronenberg seems to speak occasionally through the character Vaughn, bringing some of Cronenberg’s traditional ideas into context. For example the Cronenbergesque idea of body manipulated by technology is quite relevant to Crash. The bodies of the characters are not only twisted and broken by the car crashes, but also manipulated by the medical technology. These manipulations, as the true melding of technology and body, Cronenberg and his characters fetishizes them, making out with the scars and bruises. At the end of the movie where Deborah Unger’s car crash proves to provide her no real bodily harm, James Spader whispers “Maybe next time.” It’s as if these manipulations are the ideal furthering of the body, or as Videodrome calls it “The New Flesh.”

Cronenberg uses long, and what could be considered gratuitous sex scenes. These scenes are plentiful and often times long, but they do serve a purpose. The NC-17 this film earned prevented people from seeing what Cronenberg was trying to do. There are so many sex scenes and each one is different, conveying different emotions and serving different purposes. They are not only important for character development and showing their addiction and descent into a sex-crazed madness. That’s not to say that the plot of the film doesn’t becomes lost amongst the constant sex and soon it becomes clear that we’re as lost as the characters are. Whether this was Cronenberg’s intent or not is up for debate, but it does make for a viewing experience that requires a lot of patience.

Can you believe that my professor thought my analysis of Cronenberg’s metaphor (with some revision) would be worthy of publishing?

eXistenZ (1999) Review

(Excerpt from my Cronenberg paper)

eXistenZ is a unique picture to say the least, but it is no doubt a Cronenberg film. It has technology and man melding, sexual under and overtones, and some creepy insects, all Cronenberg tropes. In his previous film Videodrome Cronenberg played on the idea of not only technology and man melding, but also humans creating new realities for ourselves through technology. He’s said that the ultimate goal is to remove the screen, allowing that separation between virtual and real to become indistinguishable. In eXistenZ we get that removed screen as now virtual reality takes over our brains. It’s done so through bio-ports and organic technology, literally becoming an extension of ourselves.

Cronenberg’s said that guns are extensions of people’s hands, phones extensions of our mouths and ears. After all technology comes from us, it’s not some foreign thing that invades our lives. This is portrayed quite well with some unique production design. The organic gun is made out of bones and looks like the extension of a hand, the phone (that we see briefly) looks like some puffy tissue, almost like ear wax and the cords that connect the people to the flesh colored pod clearly resemble umbilical cords. The color scheme of the clothes, walls, etc… in the testing room all have a similar flesh color to them too.

The film has a unique way of covering up what would typically be called pitfalls by incorporating them back into the movie. The inconsistent actions of the characters are merely the game forcing them to do certain things. The twists and turns of the plot that have little foreshadowing are akin to how video games actually progress and a character even remarks when emerging from the game that they were hard to follow. Any unknowns over the course of the movie are not only covered by the fact that it was all a game, but double covered in that it still could be a game. These unknowns play into the intentionally open ending, whether we would like answers or not. For as much world-building as Cronenberg does though, it’s still not enough. We only see the world from the perspective of a few characters and it’s never quite explained what’s normal or not. Is the world totally ruled by the Virtual Reality companies? How many people do have bio-ports? How are the games actually programmed? It leaves us asking more questions than the characters, but we’re left with no answers at the end when it’s revealed that everything we had questions about might not have answers since it’s all a game.

The actual testing event itself has the unique feel of not a game testing site, but rather a self-help seminar. This all plays into the theme of virtual reality being more real than reality and where the lines are drawn. The people in the testing room treat Allegra like she’s a god of sorts, and in a way she is. She literally built the worlds that they live their lives in and prefer and they worship her for that. When they meet up with Gas, he’s talking about how his “real life” is the lowest form of reality for him and Cronenberg puts him in a doorway (showing he’s trapped) in a small part of the frame (showing how empty the world around him is. Once she and Ted enter the virtual world, Cronenberg puts an emphasis on shots of their hands touching things, a sign that things feel real, despite not being and continues this motif after they enter the “real world.” The realities start to blur together and as more and more things get thrown at us we become uncertain of where things are going to go and suspense is effectively created.

Sex is an integral part of the seduction of the Virtual reality. The very plugging in is very sexual and the inclusion of saliva solidifies this. On top of that, the characters they become in the game start to have sex and for Ted (the audience stand-in) he is literally being seduced by the game so that’ll he’ll accept it. When he gets back to the real world Allegra acts just as seductive as in the game, tipping us off that something might be off.

Overall, eXistenZ is an unusual trip into the world of Virtual Reality, akin to both The Matrix and Inception, but of course with the Cronenberg twist. His use of odd technologies to emphasize our bodily connection, religious and sexual themes to get us invested in the virtual reality and confusing twists to make us doubt actual reality all serve to put us in the place of Ted and in a way experience this odd trip for ourselves. It’s open-ending may be unsatisfying, but it’s designed to be that way.