Sunday, May 23, 2010
Crash and the Sexual Fetish of Commodity Goods
“A tear of petrol is in your eye. The hand brake penetrates your thigh. Quick let’s make love before you die.”
-Warm Leatherette by the Normal
I first saw Crash on opening day, back on March 21st, 1997, in San Francisco, California. I went into the film only knowing that it came from a controversial book, it was directed by David Cronenberg and that it was rated NC-17 (a rarity amongst studio productions). The film presented a world of graphic sex and disturbing car crash images that made a liberal minded San Francisco audience uncomfortable enough, that quite a few walked out of the movie. Though after viewing the soft-porn film, something registered and puzzled me. Was our love so strong for commodity goods that we could derive sexual gratification from them?
David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s existential novel, Crash, depicts a despotic and dehumanized world, where cars as commodities are fetishized and sexualized. Society’s obsession with car and celebrity culture is taken to an extreme, as characters reenact famous car crashes. The crashes result in the body taking on a new shape and a sexualized form, as the mind fetishizes the very trauma that reshaped its body. Unable to connect, characters participate in emotionally void sex, until through a metaphorical crash that these humans come alive. True sexual gratification is achieved through, reenactment of their own (or a celebrity’s crash), or the exploration of wounds. The wounds and scars of an accident become new sexual organs. Car manufacturing logos are tattooed on the body, and then fetishized in sexual practice. Cronenberg’s film is told with the act of sex that can be seen as pornographic, yet Crash is also a study of fetishism in our world. The fusion of modern technology with that of the human body creates a newer sexual awakening.
Crash, written in 1973 and made into a movie in 1997 by David Cronenberg, depicts characters who push their fascination with things like death of a celebrity in a car crash to an absurd limit, using such events as models for a new form of sexuality deriving not from nature and life but from technology and death. (Butterfield, 65.)
Cronenberg’s cinematic obsession of human body parts being trans-mutated by technology can be seen in much of his work. Rabid (1977) deals with a victim of a motorcycle crash who’s body become a deadly viral weapon after an operation from plastic surgery. Videodrome (1983) presents cable channels and videos, which when viewed, distorts and deforms the mind and body. The Fly (1986) uses a technological machine that breaks down the molecules of an object and transports them to a twin receiver. This machine will technologically alter the body of a human with that of an accompanying insect (fly), changing and (again) deforming the character’s body. Dead Ringers (1988) offers twin gynecologists who invent new technological tools to aide in mutilating and reshaping the female organ. eXistenZ (1999) (which foreshadows the Matrix trilogy) uses virtual reality as a theme to explore the deforming and reshaping of the mind and body. Crash is no exception, and follows the similar Cronenberg theme, which actually personalizes Ballard’s novel. Though Ballard’s the author of the book, Cronenberg is most definitely the auteur of the film. Cronenberg has presented this theme repeatedly in his previous films, though in Crash he metaphorically uses Freudian and Marxist theory to explain the neurosis of the characters involved.
Crash opens with Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) laying her left breast against an airplane, as a man comes behind her and performs oral-anal sex. This cuts to James (James Spader) performing the same sexual act on a girl who he works with. The character’s name “James,” is based on the author of the novel James G. Ballard. Both Catherine and James discuss whether each had climaxed during their respective coitus, yet both were left unsatisfied. James is a director of a film that appears to be staging a car crash. The novelist Ballard wrote a film version of Crash (1971), before the book was written (I suspect Cronenberg is cinematically acknowledging this). In this early filmic proposal, the same themes would manifest itself into his novel. The author Ballard breaks down his observation of the modern man, who shares an emotional relationship with the automobile and its accompanying environment.
I think the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car (it sums up everything), the elements of speed, drama, aggression, the junction of advertising and consumer goods of the technological landscape, the sense of violence and desire, power and energy, the shared experience of moving together through an elaborately signaled landscape. (Ballard)
James is driving home one night, when he gets into a head-on collision. The victim of the wreck flies through his windshield dead. James can see that the victim’s hand is blistered, swollen with blood. The imprinting on his hand is in the shape of a triton, which is the car manufacturer’s medallion logo. James’ twisted front medallion suggests this exchange, as the victim has become the commodity in death.
Karl Marx states:
But not to anticipate we will content ourselves with yet another example relating to the commodity form. Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values. (Marx, 7.)
When James’ witnesses the victim’s death, he sees him as a reflection of his own car ownership. The victim’s imprinting suggests his relation to the commodity form.
Through the metallic penetration, James has a sexual awakening. James new fetish has been realized through trauma and the visualization, of the human and commodity good fusing together. The victim’s wife Helen in the opposite car reveals her breast to James, as she too has the same sexual experience. James awakes in the hospital with a visit from Catherine, who informs him that Helen is a doctor. James’ encounters Helen in the hallway, with Vaughn. James’ is on crutches with his leg is in a metallic brace with pins. Helen walks with a cane, and is startled when she sees James. Catherine visits James and will masturbate him while describing a car accident. James climaxes quickly, and revolts back in shame. James fetishizes his own tragedy and is turned on by descriptions of the twisted debris of an accident. Sigmund Freud relates this with:
It seems rather that when the fetish is instituted some process occurs which reminds one of the stopping of memory in traumatic amnesia. As in this latter case, the subject’s interest comes to a halt half way, as it were; it is as though the last impression before the uncanny and traumatic one is retained as a fetish. (Freud, 155.)
James’ vision of a bodily transformation in death has produced a fetish in him, for an automobile penetration or a crash.
Throughout the film, James joins a group of likeminded fetishists. Vaughn (the horribly scarred leader), Helen, Gabriele (who’s leg is horribly mutilated and crippled), Colin (who desires to die as Jane Mansfield in a car crash), and Vera (Colin’s mentally damaged wife) all reside in a home called the “Nerve Center.” Though James is a member of the group, he exploits their wounds for his sexual gratification.
Throughout Crash, however, James tends to transgress boundaries through the penetration of the wounds of others while his own body remains largely intact. The boundaries of female bodies, of Vaughn’s body, and, by extension, those of the medium of film, often seem more porous and fluid than those of James’ body and perhaps of fiction itself. (Beckman, 109)
James’ wounds are never shown after his stay at the hospital, nor does he (or anyone else) use them for sexual pleasure. Yet, James will have sex with Gabriele’s (vaginal) leg wound, and worship Vaughn’s scarred/ tattooed (with a Lincoln Mercury logo) body. Both Vaughn and Colin give up their life experiencing a final fatal crash, but James remains a voyeur to his fetish.
Though the sexually initiated explore their newfound sexuality, James’ wife Catherine, is still uninitiated to their psychosis. James will have sex with all the accident victims, and is able to climax quickly, while he and his wife have sexual trouble. Catherine uses verbal descriptions of Vaughn to ejaculate him. James continuously tries to create a crash for Catherine, so that they can connect with this fetish. At the end of the film, James bumps his car into Catherine’s, and she drives off the side of the road. Her car is turned over sideways emitting smoke, as she lay on the grassy hill beaten and bruised. James checks on her and asks if she is okay; she responds with “yes, I think I’m alright.” He replies, “Maybe next time.” He begins to have sex with his car-battered wife, knowing that she has still not been fully initiated by the crash. Cronenberg’s conclusion establishes a metaphor of societal sexual disconnect, through our obsession of commodity goods.
Beckman, Karen. Film Falls Apart: Crash, Semen, and Pop. Grey Room, No. 12 (Summer, 2003), pp. 94-115. The MIT Press; available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1262644: INTERNET
Butterfield, Bradley. Ethical Value and Negative Aesthetics: Reconsidering the Baudrillard-Ballard Connection. PMLA, Vol. 114, No. 1, Special Topic: Ethics and Literary Study (Jan., 1999), pp. 64-77. Modern Language Association; available from
Crash! Prod. and Dir. by Harley Cokliss, 18 min. BBC Four Prod., 1971, DVD.
Freud, Sigmund. Fetishism. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Translated by James Strachey. Vol. 21. London: Hogart Press, 1964, pp. 149-157.
Marx, Karl. Section 4: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof. Capital Volume One, Part I: Commodities and Money, Chapter One: Commodities, available from