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Crash: Sex, Cars, and Obsession

Updated on October 2, 2011

Cultural and social identities along with cinematic genres are portrayed in films to allow audiences to grasp ideas that filmmakers are presenting. In the film Crash, directed by David Cronenberg, the use of vehicles and people are used both literally and figuratively to disrupt the traditional ideas that are associated with sex and death. Through the use of complex characters and key plot points, the film questions normal values in an attempt to show audiences another perspective of the human experience. This gender and sexual dynamic can be shown between the two men James (James Spader), Vaughn (Elias Koteas) and the two main women in the film Helen (Holly Hunter), and Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). Using Crash as a reflection of cultural and gender expectations through the use of the automobile industry, Cronenberg shows the obsession of how cars become an extension of peoples own desires.

The desire of body modification in American culture has become popular among women in contemporary society. The ability to destroy part of a person’s body and reconstruct parts to perfection is a commonality between celebrities and regular people alike. In Crash, the desire to modify the body is turned into a fetish that is disgusting to watch. These changes that take place correlate to the vehicles that are crashed, which leave physical damage on the human body. In the book Gender and Anthropology, the author explores the functions of the disabled body among both men and women. “Studies of contemporary discourses of the body show that disabled men continue to be feminized, while disabled women are desexualized (87). In Crash, Cronenberg deliberately disrupts this ideology by over sexualizing the disabled female body. An example from the film is when James takes a girl named Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) who has chrome leg joints to help her walk, to a car shop, where they proceed to have sex. During the sex scene, the physical scars of a previous crash are shown on Gabrielle. The scar that is shown is then used to represent a second vagina that runs down her leg. By having James have sex with the scar, Cronenberg comments on the desire of women in society and the desire to change who they look like by having surgery. In this way, the film de-fantasizes the attraction of body modification by using the physical scars of a car crash to represent societies sick obsession with over sexualizing women.

While car crashes are a tragic and an unfortunate part of daily life, the curiosity and fascination that bi-standers experience when seeing a crash is profound. In Crash, the satisfaction of watching cars getting destroyed is taken to a whole new level by the characters. In the scene where test dummies are shown trying out air bags on cars, the main characters watching the videos become incredibly turned on by what they’re watching. While Cronenberg takes this example to the extreme, the purpose of scene is to invoke self-reflection. Making a statement that everyone enjoys the thrill of watching the initial, or aftermath of a crash and that instead of being fascinated people should feel guilty. The lack of guilt that people do have over feelings of satisfaction of car crashes also comments on how society has become numb to become sympathetic for others, and dependent on pleasuring solely the individual, in this case watching someone else who was in a car crash.

The laws that are created for driving are important for the safety of both the individual and society; however, the desire to break the rules is equally as great. The rush that is experienced when driving extremely fast is an example of how people break rules to feel the satisfaction through driving. In the Ladies and Gentlemen book, Murray describes the role cars play with masculinity, “For example the image of an assertive and controlled masculinity that is traced onto Steve McQueen in Bulitt is pointedly linked to his car, as a vehicle connoting speed, thrust and agility- each structuring his relentless pursuit of various goals and objectives” (Murray 114). Crash delivers the need for speed, by portraying males as drivers who take their desire for high velocity to an extreme. An example from the film that shows this obsession for speed is the car crash between James and Catherine. In the scene both are driving fast, weaving in and out of the traffic that is in front of them. When Catherine finally has the car crash, she doesn’t die and both James and her are disappointed. The correlation of speeding can be compared to sex. For both men and women the build up right before orgasm is an intense and pleasurable feeling. The car chase that both of them experience is also intense and both of them are trying to obtain pleasure from the crash.

Sporting events designed around cars and car crashes has become popularized as more time goes on. One sport that creates an environment for crashes is Nascar sporting events. In this sport, cars race around a circular track, but the true satisfaction of the sport comes when the cars are wrecked during the race. Crash achieves this fascination of car sporting events by having characters re-enact famous car crashes throughout history. In the book Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls Murray Forman talks about the roles that cars play in entertaining society. “The film also explores a darker area that includes deliberate collisions and choreographed nonaccidents, articulations of intentional highway violence involving cars, celebrity images, women and men that are carefully planned and orchestrated sole for the transformative erotic potentials” (Murray, 111). This example can then be shown in the scene where Vaughn is speaking about a historical accident that occurred several years ago. During the scene he fantasizes and glamorizes how the car crash happened. While he is talking about the gory details the audience becomes intoxicated and continues to listen with joy. In this way, the scene becomes poisonous for society, because the commentary of creating a sport solely for crashing cars is a fetish that is growing common among people. In some ways the hunger for watching car crashes has become an important part in cinema as well. Now action films, like Live Free or Die Hard are only successful depending on how many crashes are shown in film. An example from the film is when Bruce Willis is shown blowing up a helicopter with a car; following the crash is a huge explosion that is intrinsic. Overall this leads Cronenberg to use this scene to comment on people’s desire to watch car crashes in any environment, which includes sporting events and through cinema.

One benefit to cars is the ability to trade in old cars for new cars. Crash explores this ability to swap cars by relating cars to people. In the film, James and Catherine constantly swap each over for different sexual partners. Cronenberg uses this swap of sexual partners to destroy the conventions of marriage that society has in place. By having different cars in the movie belong to multiple people, Cronenberg disrupts monogamy, and promotes the desire to have multiple partners. This ideology of multiple partners can be shown in the book Gender and Anthropology, which talks about how monogamy is a cultural creation that is used as a system of control between both genders. This control mainly allows men to know whom their daughters and sons are, and have also been used by women to keep men faithful to the relationship.  However, while monogamy is shown as a useless side of marriage, Cronenberg doesn’t destroy the concept of love. This is shown in the scene where Catherine and James are talking about Vaughn. While Vaughn is somebody that they both have sexual fantasies about, the love they have for each other is strictly exclusive. Just like the love that James and Helen have for the cars, which they crashed. This can be demonstrated in the scene where the two are looking for the cars in the junkyard. Although both get new cars, they continue to come back and look at the wrecked cars that they love. Ultimately, Cronenberg comments on how American culture tries to stay faithful by being monogamous, but then ending up truly craving sexual satisfaction through multiple relationships.

The relationship between freedom and owning a car has been a cultural ideology ever since the car was first invented. From the moment a person reaches sixteen the symbol of freedom that the car represents is unmistakable. For Crash, the film uses the concept of cars as an escape from reality and the ultimate freedom that is obtained by the characters is death. When the film shows the car chase involving Vaughn, James and Catherine towards the end, the shots shown between the three of them are mostly medium-closeup and long shots. These shots are shown to make audience members feel a sense of freedom from driving a car. Later in the scene when Vaughn runs off the barrier and then dies, the explosion of the car that is shown is dazzling and symbolizes the ultimate death. In Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls Murray Pomerance explains, “Within the contexts of most mainstream films, car crashes tend to be ends unto themselves… providing a key point of viewer gratification that may be climactic, if not precisely orgasmic” (Murray, 112-113). This freedom from reality through dying in a blaze of passion can also be related to other films, such as Like Water for Chocolate. At the end of that film the two main characters die in the heat of passion and are truly set free from the world that oppressed their love. In the end, the cars Cronenberg’s characters use are meant to symbolize a passage to freedom and an escape from a reality filled with pain.

While Crash is a film that is expressed through raw sexuality and horrific car crashes, the commentary on the effects of cars on people is significant. The film’s overall provocative nature allows gender and sexuality to be openly discussed and lends itself to being criticized. Through Cronenberg’s work, the film comments on societies sick obsession with car crashes. That society overall craves the destructive nature of car crashes for fulfilling deep fantasies of pleasure and what the pleasure represents to the individual. Overall the pleasure that is obtained from watching the film allows itself to be grotesque and hypnotic, a combination that perhaps, human beings are naturally drawn to. 


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