An image of cinema: style and extremity in David Cronenberg’s Crash
In 1996, David Cronenberg released his film version of J.G. Ballard’s novel, Crash, which had been published in 1973. The film immediately ran into trouble, especially in the United Kingdom, where a virulent press campaign was mounted against it by the Daily Mail and Evening Standard, two right-wing papers belonging to the same publishing group, Associated Newspapers, concerned to support ‘family values’ and, not surprisingly, the Conservative Party, which, though in power at the time of the film’s first showing at the London Film Festival in November 1996, was coming up for re-election. [For an account of the proceedings, see: Mark Kermode and Julian Petley, ‘Road Rage’, Sight and Sound 7:6 (June, 1997), 16-18.]
One ostensible reason for the uproar was, of course, the explicit depiction of sex that is one characteristic of the film. Another was the bizarre character of the sex depicted. For example, James Ballard, a TV commercials producer, has sex with Gabrielle, who has been disabled by a car accident. He does so by penetrating the wound in her leg with his penis. However, the real ground of the outrage the film caused may not have been simply the nature of what was being shown, but the film’s cold and distanced manner of doing it. It was this aspect of the film that struck the Sight and Sound reviewer, Leslie Dick, who, having noted it, went on to argue that it was precisely ‘the stylisation, the use of tableau, the subtle intensity of Howard Shore’s score, the emptiness of the characters’ that are the strengths of the film, working together to make it what it is—‘so disturbing, witty and dispassionate’ [Sight and Sound 7:6 (June, 1997), 49]. Cronenberg makes no attempt to assimilate the sexual activity of the characters to pre-existing paradigms of fulfilment or satisfaction, nor does he aim at subordinating sex or lust to the ‘higher’ plane of love. The film seems deliberately constructed so as to resist the viewer’s assimilation of it to established hierarchies of moral value.
Crash is also constructed in a way that side-steps issues of cultural or national identity. Despite the fact that the film is set on the freeways around Toronto, no clear sense of it as Canadian, or as engaging with the particulars of Canadian life, emerges. These are matters it is indifferent to. Rather as with Spider (2002), Cronenberg’s most recently completed work, which is set in a London of indeterminate time and equally indeterminate place, what is unique to the city and the way of life associated with it gives way to something other—a certain outsideness, or sense of exile, a feature of his work that is, I believe, crucial to its understanding. Even a film like Dead Ringers (1988), which is set on the streets and squares and in the restaurants of Toronto, is curiously abstracted from the life of that city, as perhaps befits a film whose subject is the progressive removal of its protagonists, the ‘fabulous’ Mantle twins, from the world in which, initially, they were so effortlessly at home. The point may be clarified by reference to The Waste Land: as with the London of Eliot’s poem, we find ourselves in Crash, as we do in Cronenberg’s other urban works (Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome and Dead Ringers, for example), in a city that is ‘unreal’, a place that is there and not there, an almost elemental strangeness present in its absence. One might, indeed, extend this thought of errancy and exile to Eliot’s poetry as a whole, and say that it is poised, exquisitely, on the cusp of a chiasmus somewhere between French and English, a working-through of a series of increasingly complex relationships with certain French masters, from Laforgue (Prufrock) and Baudelaire (The Waste Land and The Hollow Men) to Mallarmé (Ash-Wednesday and Burnt Norton) and Valéry (Little Gidding). Something akin to this holds for Cronenberg also, though not in the sense that he is directly beholden to any particular French poet: it is rather the case that he attends to an understanding of art which has, if not its origin, at least a compelling and contemporary expression in the work of certain modern French writers, while at the same time he remains faithful to what looks like a classically conceived cinema of narrative, based on formal structures of editing and plot development as these have developed in the American mainstream. What Cronenberg has achieved, in Crash, and elsewhere, is, I would argue, a cinema that adheres in certain respects to an understanding of representation that finds in symbolist and post-symbolist poetry (that of Mallarmé and Eliot, for example) its most complex expression.
Here, poetry strives to reach to that uncanny and paradoxical space that Blanchot calls ‘the space of literature’, where the movement or trajectory of the poem is of more significance than what the poem says, and the act of reference, of reference beyond the text, is transposed, or transformed, in such a way that ‘the order of the text need no longer submit to the sequentiality of mundane time’ [Timothy Clark, Derrida, Heidegger, Blanchot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 82]. The poem, stepping beyond itself, says nothing beyond itself. To place Cronenberg in the context of this essentially literary and modernist aesthetic would be to suggest that what Crash, and other of Cronenberg’s films, such as Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly and Spider, achieve, is less a cinema of images than an image of cinema—a cinema other than itself, which resists our inclination to subordinate it to narrative action and meaning, while setting before us the duplicities of the image, and the manifold fascinations thereof. And yet, no matter how convincingly Crash succeeds in seeming to abandon the security of meaning, it cannot avoid signifying this abandonment. Internal to the imaginative dynamic of the film is an interminable slippage between security and insecurity, marking the site of a meaning without meaning, a security without security, which is prior to both these categories, undermining their stability. The film is the opening of a threshold within itself, a crossing over towards itself as other.
I will try to exemplify (and clarify) this claim in regard to Crash by reference to a French writer, and ascetic of writing, Maurice Blanchot, whose thought, deriving in part from a profound engagement with Mallarmé, is of pertinence here. When we think about the relation between an object and the image of that object, it would seem natural to say, taking a commonsense view, that the object precedes the image. We see, then we imagine. The image comes after the object. However, as Blanchot understands the matter, this ‘after’ means that the thing, the object, must remove itself to a distance in order that it may be grasped, or seen. The object withdraws behind its image, and as it does so it, the object, becomes ‘that which no one can grasp, the unreal, the impossible’ [The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), p.255].
Like the Kantian thing-in-itself, it becomes the thing as distance, present in its absence, graspable because ungraspable: it appears as that which has disappeared. As Blanchot puts it, memorably: ‘It is the return of what does not come back, the strange heart of remoteness as the life and the sole heart of the thing’ [op. cit., p.256]. This possibility that objects have, of abandoning themselves to the image, to a resemblance behind which there is nothing, is a condition Blanchot seeks to elucidate, strange though it may seem, by reference to the condition of the cadaver, the corpse, whose condition he aligns with that of art.
The cadaver is its own image. It no longer entertains any relation with this world, where it still appears, except that of an image, an obscure possibility, a shadow ever present behind the living form which now, far from separating itself from this form, transforms it entirely into shadow. The corpse is a reflection becoming master of the life it reflects—absorbing it, identifying substantively with it by moving it from its use value and from its truth value to something incredible—something neutral which there is no getting used to. And if the cadaver is so resemblant, it is because it is, at a certain moment, resemblance par excellence; altogether resemblance, and also nothing more. It is the likeness, likeness to an absolute degree, overwhelming and marvellous. But what does it resemble? Nothing [op. cit., p.258].
The cadaver is present to us in the world, but it is not of the world. The uncanny quality of the corpse makes itself felt in the way it comes to resemble itself, and, as it recedes into its own image, the neutral, impersonal nature of its being opens a fissure within itself. The cadaver intimates a presence of absence anterior to manifestation, and in so doing affirms ‘the possibility of a world behind the world, of a regression, an indefinite subsistence, undetermined and indifferent, about which we only know that human reality, upon finishing, reconstitutes its presence and its proximity’ [op. cit., p.257]. By analogy (a well-known analogy of Heidegger’s, which Blanchot develops), a tool, when damaged, becomes its own image, and, no longer disappearing into its use, appears. As with the damaged tool, so with the corpse: it resembles itself, becoming in death its own image. The relation it had with the world, in which it still appears, no longer exists, and inasmuch as it draws down into itself the life it was once possessed of it loses what it had of truth and value to something that neither is nor is not: the neuter, the neutral. Transforming the life that once animated it into that of which it is now the master, the corpse reigns sovereign over reflected life, changing the life that has been into a pure resemblance, a resemblance that resembles nothing.
Words have a comparable power, that of going beyond concepts, standing outside themselves, so that, in poetry such as Mallarmé’s, or Eliot’s, language may come to be apprehended as what it seems fitting to call an image of language. To see what this amounts to, we may consider certain features of the syntactical organisation of Eliot's poetry. As the English critic, D.W. Harding, has noted, Eliot's poetry is not a poetry of statement. It is ‘no more “about” anything than an abstract term like “love” is about anything: it is a linguistic creation’ [Experience Into Words (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970), p. 108]. Linguistic creation is characterised, in Burnt Norton, for example, by the use of statements that put forward and simultaneously reject concepts that come ready-made, concepts that might have seemed close to the idea that Eliot was striving to express, but which by virtue of their explicitness obscure it:
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.
This is a poetry that enacts its own resistance to capture by paraphrase. Despite its abstraction, the writing achieves singularity through the display, or laying open to view, of patterns of negation and differentiation. In simultaneously offering and rejecting concept and statement the poem generates an apprehension of both past and potential experience which is nonetheless independent of specific situations, and as we try to invest the lines with our own experiences and capacities we find ourselves suspended in the strange time before the beginning and after the end, a time where there is neither end nor beginning, and ‘all is always now’. Negations are produced, which in their turn are negated, only for these to be themselves negated, establishing a pattern of aporetic assertion whereby the process of the poem’s being uttered ceaselessly divides itself from, while at the same time returning to, what is uttered. The torsion of the poem’s movement turns the act of saying and what is said around each other, in an interminably deferred withdrawal and approach, as the writing folds back on itself, producing itself as that image of language which proved for Blanchot so powerful an object of fascination. To use a different idiom, one might say that the poem represents the lack of the function that engendered it. Again, something similar may be seen in the first section of Ash-Wednesday, where, as Harding notes, the grammatical status of clauses within the almost unpunctuated lines alters as we move from the end of one sentence to the beginning of the next:
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
The whole passage may be taken as a complete statement, or the fourth line may be seen as the beginning of another statement:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
Here, similarly, the last line may be taken as the opening of a further statement:
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
The lines change their meaning in the process of reading, depending on whether they are read in relation to the units of sense that come before or after them. The reader has to keep both the ongoing and retrospective readings in mind at the same time: one reads simultaneously, as it were, both ‘Let these words answer/For what is done, not to be done again’ and ‘For what is done, not to be done again/May the judgement not be too heavy upon us’.
The effect of this and other symbolist procedures, procedures deriving from Eliot’s reworking of Mallarmé’s practice, here, and in Ash-Wednesday as a whole, is, so Harding contends, ‘to convey not a succession of related attitudes but a fusion which is slightly different from them all’ [Experience Into Words, p. 107]. The poem defines what seems like a unity of attitude and feeling which the language of concept is unable to comprehend, a complex based on resignation, contrition, suffering and patience, ‘intense weariness and awareness of strength remaining, hope of forgiveness, longing to regress and longing for a new start which is still the same journey continued’. The poem is the creation of ‘a complex attitude for which we have no name, although nameable attitudes form the boundaries within which it has been created’ [op. cit., p. 107]. The effect is not, I think, to create an awareness of ineffable meaning lying forever beyond our grasp, but to construct an illusion of meaning, whereby the syntax, with its varying movements of contradiction and negativity, constantly offering the possibility of meaning, only to withdraw it, constitutes a form that is not reducible to sense. What is clear is that the language of the poem acquires a presence and reality of its own, replacing the awareness of concepts with a sense of something other, immanent within the poem's conflicting and often uncertain displacement through time. Hugh Kenner has described the result of this process: ‘Mallarmé, approached with such diffidence after so long, is the austere codifier of Eliot's difficult art, the art of creating with an air of utter precision the feel of concepts one cannot localize’ [The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), p. 136]. Eliot's kind of poetry, like Mallarmé’s, says something, but something which cannot be paraphrased: it says itself. Its language is a language of paradox, and as such it makes of language a unique gesture, a language that reveals itself to be a language of its own, an image of language, a language that is not our language, a language in use, but one whose understanding is possible only against the background of the possibilities of meaning it brings into play. It is as though Eliot were forcing us to understand the form of our language, and to realise, through the shifting and often intermittent movement of the possibilities of meaning he draws out, the nature of sense.
To make clear the bearing of all this on Crash, I propose to examine at some length a sequence that occurs about halfway into the film, in which we see Vaughan, a character whose role remains problematic throughout the film, stage the James Dean crash before a specially invited audience, including James Ballard, and Helen Remington, a doctor, whose husband Ballard has killed accidentally in a crash earlier in the film. Mutually aroused by the accident, Ballard and Helen Remington have had sex in an airport parking lot just prior to Vaughan’s spectacle. Set at night, on a country road somewhere outside Toronto, the sequence begins with a close-up of the wheel housing of a car, and Vaughan is heard intoning: ‘Don’t worry, that guy’s gotta see us!’ The camera tilts up to reveal Vaughan, dressed in blue overalls, stretching sensuously over the far side of the car, caressing its body with his left hand, as he repeats the words: ‘Don’t worry, that guy’s gotta see us!’ The camera tracks with him as he moves right to left, and as it does so it becomes clear that he has been leaning over what is the right rear end of a Porsche, so that the wheel housing we originally saw was also at the rear, but on the car’s left. From this position, he works along the whole of the right side of the Porsche, still bent down close to it, continuing to stroke its bodywork with deliberate and delicate movements of his left hand, while scrutinising the surface and fittings with intense concentration. As Vaughan goes forward, he straightens slightly and a microphone in his right hand becomes visible. He speaks into it: ‘These were the confident last words of the brilliant young Hollywood star James Dean as he piloted his Porsche 550 Spyder race car towards a date with death on a lonely stretch of California two-lane blacktop, Route 466’. Vaughan now reaches the front end of the Porsche and straightens up, rubbing his forehead with his left hand, while he continues to walk slowly right to left. The camera tracks with him as he leaves the sports car off frame right. He intones the line again: ‘Don’t worry, that guy’s gotta see us!’ As he speaks, the bonnet of another car comes into frame left. It is a replica of the Ford that Donald Turnupseed was driving when he hit Dean’s Porsche. Vaughan walks on at the same slow pace, until he comes up to the Ford’s windscreen. There is now a cut. The shot has lasted 43 seconds, and is filmed in a blue that will prove to be the dominant colour of the rest of the sequence, as it will of much of the film as a whole. Blue is especially noticeable during the staging of the crash itself and the subsequent escape from the traffic police, whose flashing red warning lights contrast markedly with it. The cut is through 180 degrees, so that in the second shot of the sequence Vaughan is seen from his right, while the side of the Ford that we see is its left. The camera tracks right as he walks at an increased pace around the second car, and addresses himself to the audience, which is now visible in the background. He says: ‘The year, 1955; the day, September thirtieth; the time: now’. There is then a cut to a medium shot of Helen and James, as they and other members of the audience applaud. This is followed by a reverse shot to Vaughan. The camera is tracking with him as he continues left to right in long shot, completing his circuit of the two cars, while giving details about Dean’s car, ‘Little Bastard’.
What I am trying to suggest here, in giving what may appear a flat, not to say, boring, account of the sequence, is the deliberately distanced mode, not only of Vaughan’s, but also of the film’s, presentation of the Dean crash. It is as though Cronenberg were engaged in drawing attention to the process of direction itself. To watch the sequence is to become aware of the laying out of Vaughan’s laying out of the event. There is support for this view in the fact that this sequence is not paralleled directly in J.G. Ballard’s novel. There, Vaughan, “nightmare angel of the expressways”, stages a re-enactment with five cars of a multiple pile-up on the North Circular Road (now replaced by the eight-lane London orbital highway, the M25) in which seven people were killed. The re-enactment seems to be an official event and is to be filmed. In the version of Crash published by Faber in 1996 part of this idea—the idea of the crash being filmed—has been retained. [The Faber version is not a transcription of the final film. It is the version published by the Script Shop, Santa Monica, which is dated: Second Draft, September 1st 1994.]
In Crash itself, however, these explicit references to filmmaking have been dropped, while the event is presented as illegal. Nonetheless, what Cronenberg appears to have found relevant in the novel is Vaughan’s role in the proceedings: “Vaughan’s present role in the stadium seemed that of a film director” [Crash (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 85]. This point is echoed in the Faber version, which describes Vaughan as being “more the director of the event, possibly the ringmaster, than an actor in it” [David Cronenberg, Crash (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 27]. This idea, of Vaughan as ringmaster, is evident in the shots so far considered; however, it is substantially modified as the sequence proceeds. The style of the sequence is deliberate and unhurried—dispassionate. It establishes a series of spatial and temporal relationships between actors and objects that are intelligible and clearly worked out. The patterning of these relationships effects an integration of the character into the world of the objects, and of the objects into that of the character. Furthermore, the rhythms of speech and gesture imply reciprocity between the way Vaughan moves and speaks and the movement of the camera, so that the intent deliberation of the direction has as its counterpart that of the protagonist. The final effect of the rhythm of the editing, with its frequent use of long-held shots, and of Vaughan’s concentrated, obsessive speech and posture, is to reinforce the sense that anything without pertinence to the world of the event is to be excluded from it. It is an exclusion Cronenberg emphasises by his use of colour. The patterning of black and varied shades of deep blue encloses the characters within the confines of an ambience from which they are unable—or do not wish—to escape. It seems to give expression to a complicity which holds them together. At no point in this sequence, or elsewhere in the film, do the characters require argument or explanation in order to understand one another; nor do they require persuading of the rightness of their undertakings. They discover one another through what they do, and it is what they do that holds them together. Vaughan’s role is, therefore, not only that of a director or an actor, though he is both of these. He embodies an ambivalence that typifies the whole film: he seems a man intent on catching at qualities in experience that are fractured and elusive, while the film itself moves through time towards a goal it will never quite reach. After the crash, when Seagrave and Vaughan remain with their eyes closed, still sitting inside the badly damaged Porsche, James asks Helen: “Is that part of the act or are they genuinely hurt?” She replies: “I don’t know. You can never be sure with Vaughan. This is his show”.
Vaughan begins the re-enactment by telling the audience that his drivers wear no helmets or harness of any kind and that it is solely on their skill that he and they depend for their safety, ‘so that we can bring you the ultimate in authenticity’. What Vaughan is seeking to re-enact here is the shock of the first event, of Dean’s crash. In recreating that shock, and in attempting to feel it in its unmediated presence, he is, one might say, endeavouring to overcome the belatedness, the deferred action, inherent in representation, which, for Blanchot, is revealed in the relation between the object and the image. It is a belatedness evident in the fact that the claim to the ultimate in authenticity—death—is one that violates the bounds of sense. To assert as a literal truth that one is dead is to say nothing intelligible. To pass beyond the limit involved here, beyond the threshold of meaning towards the other of meaning, would be ceaselessly, and vainly, to attempt to identify the process that articulates meaning with what is being said—to identify the second shock with the first. This is to use words and images at the expense of meaning—not to represent or to signify, but to present. It is an endlessly repeated attempt to exalt an excess, an excess of syntax over and beyond the semantic, and to endow word or image with the status of a thing. The idea that this dislocation of meaning is indeed Vaughan’s ambition is supported by the manner in which the sequence depicting the collision is set up. With the camera placed low on the side of the Porsche that crashes into the Ford, what we see is not a representation of James Dean’s fatal accident, but two cars impacting into one another, each the same model as those involved in the originating event. The concentration on the impact continues when the collision is over. Brett Trask, playing Turnupseed, staggers out of the Ford, the camera following him in a pan and track right as he moves back unsteadily from the car. He then walks forward, coming closer to the camera until he is seen only from the waist down, before moving off frame left. Just prior to his exit, extra-diegetic music is heard, softly at first, then rising somewhat in volume. The camera tracks downward left to the smashed front end of the Ford, from which steam is leaking and hissing. The music is subdued, a minimal variation in its notes, and the camera continues forward, craning up to bring the Porsche into view, with Vaughan, frame left, and Seagrave, frame right, motionless in their seats. The engine area of the Porsche has been devastated. The two men appear not so much injured as exhausted. However, the film gives no sense that anything has been accomplished. There has been no movement in the narrative towards a moment of culmination or climax. The music has evoked nothing answering to excitement or emotional fulfilment in any of the participants in the action, nor has it in any way elicited an intensity of response in Helen and James, while they were watching from the stand. Furthermore, the event ends in farce, as the traffic police close the scene down, a point Vaughan himself recognises when he refers to their intervention as ‘a joke’. He is later to ask Helen and James, as the three of them are driving away from the scene in Vaughan’s Lincoln, with Seagrave lying injured on the rear seat: ‘Was I glib?’ His tone is at once questioning and gleefully energetic—even self-applauding. In other words, the traumatic moment of the re-enacted impact, like that of the original, can be experienced only after the event, by which time the singularity of it has dissipated into a retrospective overlay of reflection and uncertain meaning. Because of this, the temporality of Vaughan’s undertaking is hard to grasp. Essential to it, however, is the opening of a gap or rupture. Something is made manifest, but in the appearing of that something there is also a disappearing. The ‘ultimate in authenticity’ would therefore seem to be a kind of achieved failure: what is sought for is sought for as lacking. This idea may be amplified by reference to the point later in the film when Vaughan describes his ‘project’ as relating to ‘a liberation of sexual energy that mediates the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form’. He tells Ballard: ‘To fully understand that, and to live that . . . that is my project’. The statement is ambiguous: the phrase ‘an intensity impossible in any other form’ refers back to ‘a liberation of sexual energy that mediates’ and to ‘the sexuality of those who have died’. Both readings are possible and there are no grounds on which to choose one rather than the other. This is indicative of something of the duplicity—or ambivalence—which it is a major part of Cronenberg’s undertaking to explore in Crash and which Vaughan may be said to embody or be the incarnation of. His project is to live through—in the double sense of by means of and beyond—the deaths of others. There is in Crash a dynamic of paradox—of impossibility—of which Vaughan is the avatar.
It is these notions of paradox and impossibility that are fundamental to the aesthetic of the film, an aesthetic illuminated, or so I have proposed, by Blanchot, whose special concern it has been to draw out the implications of ideas very similar to these for literature. Just as the cadaver resembles itself, so the poem says itself, effecting what, for Blanchot, is the object or goal of literature, a return to the pre-conceptual singularity of things as they were before their annihilation by words:
[S]omething was there and is no longer there. Something has disappeared. How can I recover it, how can I turn around and look at what exists before, if all my power consists of making it into what exists after? The language of literature is a search for this moment which precedes literature. Literature usually calls it existence; it wants the cat as it exists, the pebble taking the side of things, not man, but the pebble, and in this pebble what man rejects by saying it, what is the foundation of speech and what speech excludes in speaking, the abyss, Lazarus in the tomb and not Lazarus brought back into the daylight, the one who already smells bad, who is Evil, Lazarus lost and not Lazarus saved and brought back to life [The Gaze of Orpheus, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Station Hill, 1981), p. 46].
Literature gives itself over, not to the resurrection wrought by conceptual thought, but to what Leslie Hill has described as ‘the unthinkable singularity that precedes the concept as its simultaneous condition of both possibility and impossibility’ [Leslie Hill, Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary (London and New York; Routledge, 1997), p. 112. Hill implies here that Blanchot is trying to give an account of the a priori conditions of meaning itself. It should be noted that a number of philosophers have of recent years contested the intelligibility of such an attempt. Cora Diamond, James Conant, and Juliet Floyd, amongst others, have addressed the matter, particularly in relation to the Tractatus. For an overview of this position, see: Rupert Read and Rob Deans, ‘”Nothing is Shown”: a “resolute” response to Mounce, Emiliani, Koethe and Vilhauer’, Philosophical Investigations 26:3 (July, 2003), 239-268. I believe there are important implications in this work for the reading of Blanchot (and Levinas), which I have no space to develop here.]
Taking as fundamental the (Hegelian) thesis that the word is the murderer of the thing, Blanchot locates the possibility of literature in its return to the impossible point of origin that precedes the word. Moving beyond itself it seeks itself as other than itself. ‘Literature is a kind of murderous weapon by which language commits suicide’: in this remark, deriving explicitly from Blanchot, Tzvetan Todorov characterises the modern fantastic, the exemplary representative of which is Kafka. He continues: ‘For writing to be possible, it must be born out of the death of what it speaks about; but this death makes writing itself impossible, for there is no longer anything to write about. Literature can become possible only insofar as it makes itself impossible. Either what we say is actually here, in which case there is no room for literature; or else there is room for literature, in which case there is no longer anything to say’ [The Fantastic, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Cornell University Press, 1980), p. 175]. In comparable fashion, Crash shows itself to be possible only insofar as a movement towards the impossible may be taken as the basis and condition of that possibility. To see Crash in this way is to see it as a continuing movement towards death, as an unending asymptote that Blanchot terms ‘the impossibility of dying’. The site of the impossible is where meaning simultaneously approaches and withdraws, as in the impact of flesh on flesh, flesh on metal, metal on metal and metal on flesh—the crash. The temporal dislocations implicit in representation come together around the crash to create a layered and complex dynamic of conflicting significance: the wound represents the crash, while the wound itself finds representation in the scar and diverse indentations of metal. It is a dynamic reflexively symbolised in the tattoos, inscribed, like pieces of writing, on the bodies of Vaughan and Ballard.
There is one further matter that I wish to consider here, the question of extra-textual reference. The film refers to an actual event, the crash on the thirteenth of September, 1955, in which James Dean died. The account of the film I have so far presented may appear to imply that Crash is a film with no reference outside itself, being an image born of the death of what it depicts. However, the re-creation of the Dean crash not only refers to that specific event, it cannot but evoke the vast iconography devoted to the star, James Dean—the photographs and myths, the books and films (Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Hollywood Babylon come to mind). Vaughan himself describes Dean, glibly, he fears, as ‘a Hollywood icon’. There are references elsewhere in the film to Jayne Mansfield, another Hollywood icon of the 1950s, and to John F. Kennedy. Obviously, then, Crash refers outside itself. But, as we have seen, following Blanchot, the relation of reference, as between object and image, person and cadaver, is not as straightforward as this statement might suggest. Images are like words in this respect, that, like words, they have the power to make things disappear. Things are lost beneath concepts, as they are beneath images, their singularity negated. But words themselves have the power to disappear, absenting themselves from the totality of language which they realise, destroying themselves endlessly, as they open themselves to the materiality of what is, to the singularity which precedes language, and comes after it. The same is true of the image. Vaughan’s staging of the Dean crash is not only a reference to an event, it refers to that act of reference. There is at the heart of Crash a double mimesis, whereby the film refers not only to the myriad myths enfolding the star within their aura, it refers to the act of referring to those myths. The corona, or accretion, of connotation attaching to the image of James Dean is itself exhibited by the film as having the same order of inverted precedence as that which typifies the inversion of precedence between image and object, corpse and human being. There is no footage of Dean’s crash itself (only newsreel and photos of the aftermath). What Cronenberg creates is Vaughan creating that event, not only as a reconstruction based on what he knows of how it actually occurred, but as an image of itself. The event narrated and the narration of the event each support the other. There is a parallel, again, with Eliot: at the end of The Waste Land the notes appear to offer the poem’s sources. However, the way we see those sources changes irrevocably as we read the poem—to read The Waste Land is to re-read it, and to re-read it just is to enter upon that transformation. The traffic is not in one direction only: the poem and the tradition that informs the poem do not enjoy a relation of temporal irreversibility, in which tradition precedes the poem. The poem folds itself back upon the tradition, re-constituting it, re-making it in its own image. When one sees the Thames, and thinks of the line: ‘Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song’, is this to hear Spenser or Eliot, or both, or perhaps neither, perhaps something or someone else—no one? So with Crash: the drive of the film is to shift our understanding of the relation between the living and the dead, and it may be that the dead live on after the living. That, at least, was Vaughan’s conjecture. The film exhibits a mimesis of mimesis: Cronenberg’s style is marked by a re-doubling of itself, marking itself as the re-marking of itself, as referring to itself referring to itself. The separation of itself from itself is thus at least comparable to that of the image, or the cadaver. The deathliness of Cronenberg’s style finds its ‘end’ here: the staging of the Dean crash, for example, refers to an actual event it has at the same time constituted, and in that very act of reference refers to the act of reference itself. The act of referring to the Dean crash, or Jayne Mansfield or John F. Kennedy, a first order act of mimesis, is itself referred to, in a way that makes of the authenticity Vaughan aims at the authenticity of a simulacrum, the copy of a copy. The neutral space, the between internal to the image, thus opened up, is similar to that detachment from itself that ruptures the working of narrative. Without letting itself go, narrative nonetheless effects a renouncing of its identity as narrative, as it rejoins itself stripped of presence in its own un-working (désœvrement).
[T]he nature of narrative (récit) is in no way foretold, when one sees in it the true account of an exceptional event, which took place and which one could try to report. Narrative is not the relating of an event but that event itself, the approach of this event, the place where it is called on to unfold, an event still to come, by the magnetic power of which the narrative itself can hope to come true. [The Book to Come, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford university Press, 2003), p. 6.]
The narrative, the récit, is the event it narrates; it is the enactment of narration.
[Narrative] ‘relates’ only itself, and at the same time as this relation occurs, it produces what it recounts, what is possible, what is possible as an account only if it actualises what happens in this account, for then it possesses the point or the framework where the reality that the narrative ‘describes’ can endlessly join with its reality as a narrative, can guarantee it and find in it its guarantee. [Op. cit., p. 7. I am indebted here to the discussion of these two passages by Clark, op. cit., pp. 85-86.]
The narrative, in its relation, produces as its object itself, and yet the narrative is ‘no more than a process of relating’ [Clark, op. cit., p.86]. The narrative, and the narrated event produced by the narrative, are each the justification or guarantee of the other, each ceaselessly turning around the other in a movement whereby Crash steps back from itself, and in so doing engenders itself as an image of itself.
Crash is a film of the nocturnal. Its objects and people appear as though in twilit shapes, in a world suffused with a cold and alienating blue. The city seems unreal, invented, as though the things and beings in it no longer composed a world and, in Emmanuel Levinas’s phrase, ‘were swimming in the chaos of their existence’ [Existence and existents, trans. A. Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978), p. 59. This book first appeared in French in 1947, and was of fundamental importance to Blanchot.]. Despite the realism, even naturalism, of the film, human beings and the objects around them, the cars, the straps, buckles and other paraphernalia, seem to fall back into their materiality, and are made compellingly present in their density, weight and shape, a presence reinforced by the music and sound design. One may think here of the sharpness and clarity of sound when Ballard undoes the strap surrounding Gabrielle's wound, or tears her net stocking from her leg. Her body acquires a depersonalised presence, as Ballard manipulates it, treating her as though he were trying to reach back to her in her heaviness and density, as though she were a thing, prior to her negation by language. This attempt to reach outside symbolisation or image involves something akin to an experience in which ‘the forms of night are dissolved in the night, the darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence’ [p. 58].
The darkness of the night is the experience of what Levinas calls the ‘il y a’, the ‘there is’. It is what remains after the annihilation of all existents, all things, all beings, and though it is nothing it is not pure nothingness. It is an absence that is undeniably there, a presence, which can be designated, but only in the impersonal form, such as ‘it rains’ or ‘it is warm’. We feel it as a vibration in the void, or hear it as an echo of silence. It is how things are as they lie exterior to the world, outside meaning and impervious to being. Cronenberg puts this experience into play at various points in the film, most notably in the car wash sequence, where through an absence of perspective, achieved by means of framing and cutting, he confronts us with a world that is no longer a world. We are faced with an exterior that is not an exterior, an interior that is not an interior. The personalities of Vaughan and Catherine are invaded by the night, submerged by the car, engulfed by the sound of the brushes and foam, their bodies part of the fittings and upholstery. As Ballard watches in the mirror, it is as though he too, in his tranced immobility, had been stifled by the darkness of the night, in which things disappear and the self is lost:
The disappearance of all things and of the I leaves what cannot disappear, the sheer fact of being in which one participates, whether one wants to or not, without having taken the initiative, anonymously. [p. 58]
Cronenberg flattens the image, by means of a division of the screen by intrusive framings, spaces and divisions that attract our attention, holding us to the surface, while at the same time he draws us inward, through action staged in depth and by deliberately paced movements of the camera. This duplicity, combined with the temporal passage of the narrative, tends towards stylized, almost dream-like suspension, setting the film's realism in tension with itself. Ambiguity pervades texture and action, until the narrative comes to seem formed from the death, the elision, of what it represents. Crash confronts us with ‘the obscure invasion’ [p. 59] of what is there, before which it is impossible to take refuge in oneself. Exposed to what makes the narrative impossible, we see what is on the edge of disappearing.
In centring itself on the crash, the film is in effect a testimony to its own negation. The crash is that which was there and is now no longer there. It exists only as the presence of an absence. This elusive and somewhat opaque ontology of difference results in a shift of the aesthetic parameters of the film away from considerations of narrative to a more palpable engagement with matters of style. The effect is of a film remarkably attentive to the elaboration of negation and ambiguity. It is as though one were being moved through space, while being suspended in time. The viewer is held as though in a prolonged present tense, in which the reality of the events depicted appears strangely abstract and distant, and ‘All is always now’. The violence of impact and the potencies of emotional tempo seemed drained of life and passion. Colour, the pace of cutting and the deliberateness of utterance and gesture are notable in contributing significantly to this impression, creating what is a consummately realised effect of delay, despite Cronenberg’s reliance on the established patterns of classical continuity or analytic editing, of shot/reverse shot. Or perhaps one should say, the structures of continuity editing are what bring about the effect of suspension, insofar as they break free of the demands of narrative, delineating a temporal progression of their own, no less insistent than that of the narrative action. Whereas, in a more classically inclined film, the editing would have served the action, here editing and narrative action enjoy a more or less comparable status, the edited dismemberment of the scene and the enacted events of the scene being played off against each other. The effect of suspension is reinforced by the fact that a number of sequences refer only minimally to the sequences that come before or after them. There is here a tendency towards self-containment, evident also between the shots that make up the individual sequences, the result of which is a certain dismemberment of the film from within, so that the component elements of it (the individual sequences, even the individual shots) become separate from each other, standing as units in their own right, rather than being subordinated to the ongoing movement of the whole.
The kinetic energy of the film is thereby slowed down—a paradoxical consequence, one might think, for a work so concerned with the automobile. The effect is conducive to a loss of impetus, as the film seems to fold back on itself, moving forward only hesitantly, feeling its way, as it were. The fact that sequences come in one order rather than another is therefore of less importance than it would be were a more classical structure involved. An unstable equilibrium results, and we alternate between possibilities of similar priority and significance. No one pattern of relationship, no one form of sexuality, has greater validity than another. The pertinence of structure such as this to an understanding of Crash may be confirmed by reference to the sequence, again set at night, where Vaughan picks up a prostitute at the airport and has sex with her in the back of his car, while James drives, watching them in the rear-view mirror. Here, the camera is so positioned that a series of internal frames are created, including the windscreen, the car windows, the rear seat enclosure, the mirror, and so on. The effect is to break down actions, objects and persons into shifting nuances of shape, gesture and colour. The result is an intense configuration of elements, conveying a sense of something both dynamic and still, and an emphasis on artificial arrangement that seems intended to awaken a sense of the extraordinary. The unexpected juxtaposition of situations, accompanied by a sensuously repetitious score, leads to a build-up of intensity of mood, arising from how the subject matter is made strange. It is important to note that the intensity is generated from within the process of estrangement itself; it is not imposed from outside, as it is with many other road movies, which only too often direct the viewer to already existing conventions (like those of the Western) and established interpretations of them. What Cronenberg does is to dislocate individual elements from their normal context, isolating them within unfamiliar colours and gestures evocative of a meaning one cannot quite pin down. The style is mannered and incongruous, and the more incongruous it appears the more it suggests a realm of perception whose qualities are at variance with one another, unreconciled. It is as though Cronenberg were creating a world alien to common expectation in order that it may be experienced in its otherness.
Considerations of style point to another matter central to the film, that of perversion. This follows from the fact that any account of Cronenberg’s presentation of perverse acts must draw on the question that is central to the film’s style, that is, the question of singularity. The issue is one Pierre Klossowski has discussed in relation to Sade, and his remarks are pertinent to Cronenberg’s film. For Sade, the central case of perversion is that of sodomy. Sodomy is the biblical term, and it refers to acts that are not confined to homosexual practice. Klossowski is at pains to differentiate between sodomy and homosexuality, since homosexulaity is not an intrinsic perversion, as sodomy is. Homosexual forms of behaviour, like heterosexual ones, can give rise to institutions, and historically have done so.
But sodomy is formulated by a specific gesture of countergenerality, the most significant in Sade’s eyes—that which strikes precisely at the law of the propagation of the species and thus bears witness to the death of the species in the individual. [Sade My Neighbour, trans. Alphonso Lingis (London: Quartet, 1992), p. 24.]
The simulacrum of the act of generation, sodomy is a mockery of it. For Sade, according to Klossowski, the gesture of sodomy transgresses the organic specificity of individuals, and so “introduces into existence the principle of the metamorphosis of beings into one another” [p. 26]. The singularity of the gesture derives from the fact that it is not a gesture expressive of general significance. Many gestures are so expressive, possessing a generality that is one with the generality of speech. However, as Klossowksi points out, “[t]he singular gesture of the pervert empties all content out of speech at once, since it is by itself the whole of existence for him” [p. 26]. Given this, it follows that from the moment the pervert speaks the singularity of the gesture motivating that discourse is disavowed. Klossowski writes: ‘For the pervert who speaks, the obstacle is not to be singular but to belong to generality in his own singularity’ [p. 27]. One consequence of this is that in the Sadean text the gesture finds as its true locus the secret society. Here the gesture becomes a simulacrum, a rite, which the members of the secret society have no need to explain to one another, but in which they are complicit.
Many of these features of the Sadean text find their parallels in the film, including the secret society, the ritual or simulacrum of ritual, as well as repeated acts of sodomy. Vaughan’s “project” is nothing other than the living out, in all its intensity, of a gesture that is “by itself the whole of existence for him”. To have this as his aim is to seek out the transgression of individual specificity in order that the singular may come to expression, and others like Helen, Catherine, Gabrielle, Seagrave and James participate in the project with him. What Vaughan takes as his aim, characters in films from an earlier period of Cronenberg’s career are forced to endure. Nola Carveth in The Brood and Rose in Rabid, for example, are both subjected to the ravages of the singular. In Videodrome, Max Renn is finally annihilated by the “new flesh”, while in The Fly Seth Brundle is taken utterly beyond the limits of individuality and selfhood.
It is in this connection that Sade’s conception of the significance of the woman has its relevance. For Sade, the abolition of norms—of the rules or canons underpinning meaning, generality, and so on—is of greater importance to the woman than it is to the pervert, since the woman remains subject to them, at least organically, trapped as she is within the maternal function. A figure such as Juliette has to learn to undergo with frigidity, with a coolness akin to a disciplined or ascetic apathy, the perverse acts committed on her body, in order that she may by this means extirpate within herself all maternal instinct, a process whose end is reached when she is able to present herself to the Sadean pervert as the simulacrum of what his own act designates. It is an achievement one might describe as the transgression of transgression. Similar notions are also crucial to Cronenberg’s treatment of the woman, though in him the idea of the singular differs significantly from what Sade makes of it. The role Sade ascribed to Juliette—that of transgression and the abolition of norms—becomes in Crash a function of style. Style is now no longer the individual representation of the general. Nothing other than a formal strategy, it subjugates the general in order to bring to the fore the singular, transforming its object into a purely aesthetic phenomenon. It is here—in the formal strategies of cinematic style—that we find “the reversal of sensuous passivity into active intellection”, which Klossowski sees as the integral affirmation of atheism. By this he means an affirmation of singularity freed from association with normative canons of reason, and, like Sade, he takes it to be the achievement of the woman. It was in Juliette that, for Sade, “the pre-eminent act of transgression” found “the image complementary to it” [Klossowski, p. 28]. In the later Cronenberg, style fulfils this role. Style has become the site of the feminine. [A similar conception of style as feminine finds expression in the symbolist image of the dancer. Peter Nicholls has noted how, in Mallarmé, the dance is used to create “a kind of double articulation”. He argues that “the ‘figure’ of the dance creates a space which is within but not reducible to the regulated spacing of language” (Modernisms: A Literary Guide [London: Macmillan, 1995], p. 41). He also develops the idea of style as feminine in relation to Swinburne (ibid., p. 61).]
To make a work—a film, a novel—is to produce something that has meaning, and so is related to other works that have meaning. Such a work is bound to the world of symbolic representations, a world of norms. To create a work that returns to the point of origin of representation, prior to the security of the normative, is, I have argued, the ambition of Crash, evinced in its conformity to a certain idea of singularity. The light of Cronenberg’s art is a black light, undoing the world and leading it back to its origin. At the end of the film, James, driving the car in which Vaughan underwent his final, fatal accident, forces Catherine off the road, perhaps trying to kill her. She survives, and they lie together on the grass of the central reservation, between two lines of traffic. James murmurs lovingly in her ear: ‘Maybe the next time, darling, maybe the next time’. In the myth of Orpheus, the poet enters the underworld to bring Eurydice back from death. He is permitted to do this on one condition, that he does not look at her again. This condition he fails to obey: Eurydice is lost irrevocably, and the poet himself is finally torn apart and destroyed—dispersed. From one point of view, Blanchot sees the myth as an exemplary account of the necessity of obliqueness and indirection within the work. However, it is this obliqueness that Orpheus disregards. It is an act of betrayal and sacrifice, which loses the work and seals Eurydice’s fate. Nonetheless, it is ‘as unavoidable as it is necessary’ [Hill, op. cit., p. 119]. For Blanchot, as Leslie Hill puts it, ‘it is a response to another more demanding requirement, to the law of the origin and of worklessness itself, which asserts that what is essential is not the work, but the darkness without which there would be no work at all’ [ibid., p 119]. Blanchot writes: ‘The work is everything for Orpheus, everything except that desired gaze in which the work is lost, so that it is only in this gaze that the work can go beyond itself, unite with its origin and establish itself in impossibility’ [Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus, p. 102.]. Or as Vaughan says, twice repeating the words of the dead star, James Dean: ‘Don’t worry, that guy’s gotta see us!’
The Virtues of Knowledge
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