It's a built-in need that we rehearse the difficult things of life, so they don't come as a complete surprise and don't overwhelm us.
Confession: I was nervous about seeing Crash, as I've been before all of David Cronenberg's films. But it wasn't until after surviving it that I knew why. More than anything, Cronenberg movies (e.g. Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Rabid, and The Fly) play like coming attractions of our inevitable demise, focusing on the excruciating period between the knowledge of death and its occurrence--which is why they're so much scarier than the sum of their (severed) parts. Hitchcock has his sadomasochistic showmanship and Lynch his indelible surrealism, but it's Cronenberg's existential intensity that makes each of his films equivalent to a long panic attack. Yes, we do tend to "rehearse the difficult things of life" (in both panic attacks and movies), but death is a reality for which there's no script. Crash dares to attempt writing one. At its most innovative, Cronenberg's film paves the way for a consideration of your own end of the road; at the least, it removes any feelings of invincibility from your drive home.
As you've probably heard by now, this is a movie about sex and car crashes. Based on J.G. Ballard's self-described "pornographic novel" from 1973, it was awarded for its "originality and audacity" at last year's Cannes Film Festival (amid a chorus of boos), and nearly suppressed in the States by Fine Line Features owner Ted Turner, who initially viewed it as unreleasable. (He reversed his position sometime after enjoying a wealth of free publicity.) Maybe the billionaire was afraid that impressionable kids would start having sex and getting in car accidents, or maybe he thought Cronenberg was trafficking in exploitation (as distinct from, say, director Renny Harlin in the Turner-owned The Long Kiss Goodnight?). But the irony is that Crash, despite its well-earned NC-17, is in fact a deeply abstract film masquerading as a literal one. As much of the vehicular mayhem occurs offscreen, Cronenberg's style is minimalist in the extreme: He limits the human population to his half-dozen principals, so that the world of Crash seems a projection of the characters' imaginative psyches, and his. Befitting the film's subject of experimentation, it's an experimental film.
There is, however, the sex--which is depicted as entirely consensual, mostly straight, largely without pleasure, and almost incessant. Crash opens with a bang, or rather three in a row: Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) gets up close and personal with the wing of an airplane, and then an anonymous stranger; her husband, film producer James Ballard (James Spader), spends a break between scenes getting to know a crew member; and finally, this promiscuously bored couple meets to compare notes. The fact that these seem like merely a string of cinematic transgressions turns out to be the film's first red herring. As Cronenberg is fond of mentioning in interviews, the sex scenes actually work to develop characterization, provided we pay close attention to which positions the characters are in, and whether or not they come. Well, okay then: Most of the fucking is from behind and without orgasm (signifying the characters' alienation from each other, of course), while the film's climactic mouth-to-mouth kiss occurs between two men--which somewhat offsets the sneaking suspicion that the director might be saving the gay sex for last because he considers it the most shocking.
On the other hand, the relentless carnality of Crash works to initiate the viewer into a dreamscape that appears increasingly less perverse. Like the book, the film follows its Ballard character from his head-on collision with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) through their instant desire to engage in a series of automotive trysts, and leading to their association with Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a crash-fetishist guru who's covered head-to-toe with scars from various self-inflicted "accidents." The latest of Cronenberg's many artist/scientist renegades, Vaughan also doubles very provocatively as the director's surrogate: He turns a freeway crash site into his own sensational photo shoot, hosts masturbatory screenings of crash videos, and recreates "The Fatal Crash of James Dean" as a near-suicidal performance-art spectacle until the police arrive to stop the show. The punchline to this running gag comes when Vaughan describes his "project" as "the reshaping of the human body by modern technology"--the standard-issue critical summary of the filmmaker's oeuvre.
So what about Cronenberg's project? If you read the film (and particularly its ending) literally, Crash becomes the superficial story of a couple who spice up their sex lives by doing kinky and dangerous things with their cars, 'til death do them part. Indeed, it's one of Cronenberg's countless dares that he risks earning such an interpretation. But, in that the movie's unorthodox narrative and unprecedented level of provocation is almost guaranteed to cause a shitstorm, there's a sense in which Cronenberg's ambition transcends the film itself. Assuming that it does get released, as planned, in multiplexes on Friday (which still seems hard to believe), Crash will have succeeded at nothing less than obliterating the boundaries of what can be projected in Area Theaters. Ultimately, sex and car crashes don't have that much to do with it. In other words, if this is the story of people who flirt with disaster to reinvigorate their lives and their "art," it's a metaphoric one. The making of the film, however, is the real thing.