I look left. Two headlights stare into my eyes, beaming unrelentingly. Although my head was only in this position for no more than a second, it felt as though I stared at those lights for an eternity. A scream escapes my throat before I register that I’m about to be the centerpiece to an extravagant explosion of metal and sound. The scream came from a primal fear, just one last cry for help in the face of death. The cars unite. Airbags explode. My ears are ringing. I’m alive. My driver’s side door is completely smashed in, so I have to jump out of the passenger door. As I run towards the other car to check on the driver, I hear her lamenting to a pedestrian “how could this have happened again?” Once I make it to her door, she looks in my eyes, now welling with tears and dilated, and says, “why didn’t you stop?”
Every detail of that story ripples on the surface of my mind. I could explain in detail every person I was with, what song was playing in my car, what the airbag’s smelled like, what clothes I was wearing, what the police officer said to me, and exactly where I was. The location is particularly important when exploring my story’s relevance to David Cronenberg’s 1996 film, Crash.
The specific street which I had my accident just so happened to be the same street which I had to drive down every single time I would go see my ex-girlfriend over the course of our relationship. Every day a part of me would wince in fear as I drove through the intersection which I almost lost my life in. I would have never gone back to that intersection if I could for the rest of my life, but there was a strange psycho-sexual feeling when I did finally arrive to my ex’s house. I had just been reminded of my closest encounter with death and now I’m about to have fundamental sexual experiences. My brain is mired in confusion, but I never failed to return. This confounding sexual relationship I have with car accidents made Crash resonate with me in an incredibly strange way and is the reason I can come to the conclusions about this film’s symbolism and theses that I do.
Cronenberg‘s overarching metaphor for Crash is car crashes as sexual experiences. They change you forever, whether that be physically or psychologically, and you find yourself unable to shake your memories of these experiences, so you become unhealthily obsessed with trying to recreate that feeling. The film sees James get ushered into a community of physically and mentally damaged people who associate with the common interest of car crashes being sexual experiences. Each member of this bunch expresses their trauma through different ways. An alcoholic who appears to have some sort of brain damage, a stoner who wears a full body brace, a stunt driver who expresses his inner desire to be a woman through his playing of other people in his car accidents, culminating in his demise being when he is fully in drag. Vaughn is the ringleader of this group, taking his obsession with car accidents to a demented extent, orchestrating illegal reenactments of fatal celebrity car accidents. Vaughn is an incredibly complex character who operates as a self-criticism by Cronenberg, but also similarly to Frank Booth of Blue Velvet in that he bastardizes sexual experiences and manipulates them, taking the sexualize car accidents to a violent extent.
Vaughn fetishizes celebrity car accidents and seeks the recreate them as they are inseparable from the celebrity itself, thus making the celebrity immortal. Cronenberg pokes fun at himself through Vaughn, with Vaughn at the drop of a hat completely changing what his project is all about, even writing off his initial statement of purpose as a passable and unassuming Sci-fi facade rather than the sinister passion project about the fragility of life that he later claims is his true goal.
The final character to analyze is James, played by James Spader, who is a sexually charged individual who is reborn into a new world after a devastating car accident near the airport. This new world James is a part of is thoroughly confounding and fugue-like, with characters like his partner and Vaughn seeming all-knowing to everything not only afflicting James, but the audience too. James spirals deeper down the rabbit’s hole of sexual deviance after his car accident, pushing his sexual exploits to new lengths, even giving in to his own gay desires which his partner may have implanted in his head during an earlier scene. This scene feels pivotal to James, as after this scene he now becomes the aggressor on the road, causing his partner to get in an awful accident and then having sex with her immediately after the accident. James has now become what once frightened him, the car accident, and any subsequent sexual experiences involving cars, has changed him forever.
Now it may seem as though I’ve just described the horniest film ever put to celluloid, and that may be the case, but I believe Cronenberg is trying to get at the life changing experience that is sex, and how death amplified said experience in a way that confounds the mind and clouds any semblance of judgement. This is truly a film meant to be seen in order to believe, and many interpretations are possible, but through my own experiences with car crashes and sexual endeavors, the film has resonated in a way no other has and is a true treasure of 90s cinema.