Early on in David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), James Spader’s eponymous James is driving Holly Hunter’s Helen to the airport after the latter’s husband has been killed and her car destroyed. As they drive, the sexual tension between the two is visceral, and James pulls at his seatbelt in frustration–almost as though thumbing at the belt of his pants. By the time the two reach the airport garage, sex has been proposed, and they strip and fornicate in full view of other airport-goers who pass the car.
Already, this behavior would be risque, but it is brought over the edge by the fact that not only was Helen’s husband killed in a car accident–James was the responsible driver.
Crash is a film in which a character choice like Holly’s must be accepted, because all characters exist along a spectrum from sterile nihilism to outright daring and self-abnegation. Indeed, Crash is a film whose backdrop is modernity writ large, and which uses that canvas to explore themes of sexuality, life, death, and technology.
Beginning the mining around these themes, Crash’s very first shot consists of James’s girlfriend, Catherine, pressing her bare breast against the trunk of a car while being penetrated from behind by someone other than James. As the film immediately establishes, in this world it is not enough that Catherine engages in the “rush” of adultery–another rush is needed, and increasingly it will be found through technology.
More overtly, the character who best represents this impulse to technology is named Vaughan, a dangerous, fringe technician who deploys his knowledge of cars to stage and reenact famous–often fatal–crashes. For Vaughan, the sexual impulse has completely merged with both a death wish and the desire to be “upgraded” by technology, something Vaughan expresses to James in a scene where the former hazards early pontification on transhumanism. In this schema, the car crash itself presents the tantalizing possibility of becoming something “more” than human, either literally ensnared in metal or wounded in ways that bring forth new orifices.
On this note, Crash is highly overt and intentional about blurring the line between scar and orifice, featuring an immobilized character, Vaughan’s girlfriend Gabrielle, one of whose legs bears a long and vaginal scar that James licks when the two have sex. As Crash seems aware, there is always a vivisective edge to sex, a hungering after the mystery of “entering” another person. Playfully, the film suggests that a wound is just as opportune an ingress as a God-given orifice.
Extending this theme, something that seems to background the entirety of Crash is actually a lack: it is the lack of anything divine, anything outside of and beyond human will or desire. Notably, not once in this film is any form of natural landscape displayed, nor do any characters express a belief in a higher power; this world’s terra firma is the highway, the concrete jungle, and characters within this setting are consumed by an infinitude of whim.
Crash is a film whose characters eviscerate themselves out of a lack of both boundaries and meaning.
When Roe versus Wade was overturned, it was impossible for me not to think back to the world of Crash, as it is clear that world exists only in a situation of sexual freedom. That is, only with technologies like condoms, birth control, and the morning-after-pill is sex separated from its natural conclusion–conception–in which case it can be engaged in without consequence. This being the case, there is a frustration that lingers over and begins to coincide with sex’s pleasure; whether meeting the barrier of the condom or the cancellation of a birth control method, the sperm is denied its biological function.
As Crash begs us to ask, does this subjugation of biological function to our will necessarily make us happy? Sex being reduced to pleasure, the human spirit will thencefore seek out other pleasures, whether inventing new forms of sex as Vaughan does when he proposes technological transformations, or flirting with death itself as an irreducible source of rush. As Crash reminds us, not only life, but also death is related to sex; sex both portends the death of a certain version of ourselves through procuring us children, and shares with death in its proclivity for enlightenment, for altering consciousness.
As I regard a world in which Crash’s form of sexual freedom has been rendered anachronistic, it is not as though I celebrate this change–far from it. However, Crash helps me sit with the fact that, if that sexual freedom is one I and millions of other people are reluctant to lose, it is also a freedom that was in a sense invented by technology–technologies usher in new freedoms, and afterward we expect levels of control that our forebears did not know.
Far beyond the horizon of Crash, there is a field through which nature resounds and over which God surveys, and in this field sex is relegated to its spiritual function–it is conducted neither wastefully nor frivolously. For this reason, efforts to change oneself through technological “upgrades” do not arise; the self is accepted as given, as a crystalline portal onto the beauty that is God. In this world, one need not “enter” another person except as invited, and with benevolent, loving intentions; the “mystery” of sex has been eliminated because all are one. Similarly, the impulse to experimentation with death does not occur, for God bounds life in a way that makes this experimentation irrelevant; through God’s eyes, life is already known. Neither scars are interesting, nor a scorching end in metal; one’s seatbelt is worn, but not because one is afraid of death, but rather because one enjoys life so much.