The Ultimate Transfer of Energy: Where is the Horror in David Cronenberg’s Crash?
Despite the fetishism, tangled wrecks of flesh and dirty talk in David Cronenberg’s Crash, the true revulsion comes from somewhere else. Perhaps it rests in the characters’ inability to derive pleasure from the natural action of coitus, a word from the Latin coire or “going together.” When two systems come together in an inelastic collision, like a car wreck, there is a loss of energy in the form of heat, sound, light, vibration into other systems, etc. Although the kinetic energy is not conserved, the energy “lost” really just goes elsewhere—again, as heat or sound in the case of a car crash. Since the sexual transfer of energy is not sufficient for James (James Spader) and Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger) to feel anything in their closed system of marriage—even when supplemented with infidelity and cuckolding—Cronenberg takes us on a quest to find another transfer of energy sufficient enough to introduce feeling, sensation and the desired chaos into the closed system.
The characters are phantoms floating through the film’s blue-washed, atmospheric steam of coolant on hot pipe. It was as if Cronenberg and director of photography Peter Suschitzky wanted the lens through which we viewed the numbness of the characters—their zeroed out kinetic energy and waning potential energy—to be a sex-steamed car windshield. Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of Crash notes how the “characters sleepwalk through this story in a state of futuristic numbness.”
The numbness and the need to feel by pursuing some unsaid pleasure-pain seems to exist even before James’ car accident. After Catherine has sex with a stranger in an airplane hangar and James has sex with a camera girl, the couple exchange the most basic details of their trysts; namely, where were you, and did you come? Their speech is hushed, recited, as if these talks are becoming stale. There is a cuckolding fetish at play, but it is spoken of in such a toneless manner that it is hard to believe the characters care in a sexual way. There are no meditations or judgements. Even Catherine’s orgasm during a monologue of dirty talk while are nothing more than muffled whimpers. There is neither the typical dynamism of cinematic sex in Crash nor the romance. The nerves of their genitals seem to be on par with fingertips poking and grasping for something, anything.
If the transfer of energy from sex is not sufficient, then where are they to find a force strong enough to shake the scar tissue from their nerves—to shake their closed, monochromatic systems into excited, disordered states? Maslin’s review of Crashgoes on to say that the numbed characters are “seeking extreme forms of sensation because familiar feelings have long since failed them.”
Is there horror in unfeeling alone? Does the horror emanate from elsewhere—from what the characters can do to the body to overcome unfeeling—nulled states of kinetic energy?
Vaughan (Elias Koteas) initially claims that the end goal of his “project” is the “reshaping of the human body by modern technology.” He is under the impression that car crashes are “fertilizing” rather than “destructive.” Is he then just fetishizing the notion that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can take different forms? If sexual energy in its organic form between humans, its procreative form between man and woman, cannot be created—cannot be enhanced or conjured by cuckolding or random flings—then perhaps bringing the disorder of high impact auto wrecks into the closed system of a marriage will do the trick for Catherine and James. Since a mere crash of limbs in the sheets does not suffice, then perhaps Vaughan’s true purpose is to soup-up the libido in a car crash.
The first literal transfer of energy is between the cars of James and Dr. Remington (Holly Hunter). The transfer of energy does not end with the collision of front bumpers. The transfer is not complete until Dr. Remington’s husband crashes through his windshield and then through James’ windshield. It is coital in the literal sense that two things have come together, but there is a near cuckolding experience in the transfer of Mr. Remington through James’ windshield: Dr. Remington’s breast is exposed (from the accident or an en route romp, it is not clear) as her husband’s dead and bloodied body rockets through the closed system of James’ car—the disorder in James’ system coming less from the bloody, human missile in the passenger seat, and more from the resultant fetishization of the accident due to the sight of Remington’s breast.
The human body in Crash is fetishized only in terms of the mechanical prosthetics/apparatuses needed to repair it (Vaughan and James’ scars; and Gabrielle’s (Rosanna Arquette) leg braces and deep, stitched-up leg scar). The fetish seems to rely on one mechanical apparatus (the car) robbing the body of its inherent mechanical abilities. Perhaps the energy transferred in the various accidents—conserved and moved to new systems—can be felt in sex with fellow victims. James performs a type of cunnilingus on Gabrielle’s scar. Vaughan does the same to the tattoo James gets over the wound on his thigh—a further fetishization of an already fetishized scar. James’ watches from the front seat of the car, as it goes through the car wash, while Catherine fingers Vaughan’s scars.
This carwash scene, the scene of Vaughan playing with Catherine’s breasts, is framed in mechanics: in the roof being put up; in the windows being raised; and in the car rolling out of frame as it is swallowed in a froth of automated brushes and mops slapping across and behind our view of James and his view of Vaughan and Catherine. The framing of the sex, slowly encroached upon by the mechanized roof, windows and washing apparatuses robs the intercourse of any human quality.
Prior to this scene, another type of cuckolding is endeavored upon in their pleasure quest—a voyeurism perpetrated against other victims. When James, Vaughan and Catherine arrive on the scene of a recent car accident, Vaughan’s heavy breathing and quivering rivals any of Catherine’s prior orgasmic moans. The trio appears disembodied as they waltz unnoticed through the wreck, fogged in steam and washed in rescue lights. The rescue teams with their good intentions seem cuckolded by the trio of aesthetics creeping through the steam, photographing, stealing images from the scene and planting themselves among the authentic horrors of the wreck. Even the authenticity of the “accident” is undermined as it was performed by Vaughan’s friend, Seagrave, in full costume. Vaughan also succumbs to his delusion that these wrecks are the material of fertilization not destruction. While discussing the fatal crash of James Dean, Vaughan says, “James Dean dies of a broken neck and becomes immortal.”
Vaughan, it seems, is seeing life and preservation in these transfers of energy. Using the word “fertilization” to describe the coming together of two tons of steel at high rates of speed seems crazy, but for Catherine and James, having lost fulfilment in sex, it would seem like a logical step.
I guess the true horror lies in James’ bafflement when trying to use logic to view his desire for the next best crash of vehicle, body, and energy: “It’s all very satisfying. I’m not sure I understand why.” There is horror in not knowing the nature of a desire or a fetish because it is illogical and unfounded, but pleasurable nonetheless—the pleasure contingent on the fetish, not on logical links. But the horror of Crash is not merely in the fetishization of the grotesque: it lies in the pursuit of the ultimate transfer of energy, the one mankind has been trying to uncover since consciousness—life to death. Perhaps this is the transfer that James and Catherine are ultimately after. Perhaps the vehicles, the sex and the numbness are just a means to that ultimate transfer where the energy does not transfer from body to body, but from body to... no one can say for sure.
This quest for the ultimate transfer is made apparent at the end of the film as James and Catherine are lying in the grass and Catherine whispers, “I think I’m alright.” Her tone is not one of relief, and James’ desire to know if she is ok does not sound as if it is coming from a place of concern. The film ends with James saying, “Maybe the next one darling. Maybe the next one.” The horror exists in the realization that being alright is not enough of an ending for Catherine and James, that being alright is a state to be overcome, and that the viewer knows James and Catherine will not stop until they achieve that ultimate transfer of energy where life leaves the closed system of the body.
“The Ultimate Transfer of Energy: Where is the Horror in David Cronenberg’s Crash?” by Ryan Latini is the first place winner of Fall 2018 Monolith Medium Literary Contest.