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Literature / Crash

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"The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event."
Dr. Robert Vaughan

Crash is an infamous 1973 novel written by J.G. Ballard, which details one man's journey into the heart of a bizarre group of individuals fascinated with Auto Erotica.

A film producer named James Ballard and his wife, Catherine, spend their days having illicit affairs to fill an emotional void in their lives. When Ballard and Catherine get into a car crash that kills the driver of another car, the surviving passenger (Helen) introduces herself to them, and leads them to an underground subculture devoted to staging car crashes as a sexual fetish. Once there, Ballard meets Robert Vaughan, a scientist-turned-auto-aficionado who turns Ballard and his wife onto the erotic nature of auto accidents...

Although the book was highly controversial (Ballard was initially referred to as "beyond psychiatric help" by one publisher who refused to print it), the book went on to some minor acclaim. It was a significant lyrical and stylistic influence on British Post-Punk and Electronic Music, being direct inspirations for seminal Synth-Pop records by The Normal ("Warm Leatherette") and John Foxx (Metamatic). It later inspired a 1996 film adaptation directed by David Cronenberg, and starred James Spader as Ballard, Elias Koteas as Vaughan, Rosanna Arquette as Gabrielle and Holly Hunter as Helen, among others.

In no way, shape or form to be mistaken for the 2005 Oscar winner or a completely different novel by Jerry Spinelli.

This book and film feature examples of:

  • All Women Are Lustful: Every female character in the film is sex-crazed, although Catherine seems to be having affairs to fill an emotional void in her life.
  • Ass Shove: In the long sex scene between Catherine and Ballard in bed, where she asks him if he's ever fantasized about having sex with Vaughan, she goes into quite explicit detail about what it would involve. According to Word of God, this trope is what he's doing to her while she's talking, although the moment where he actually does it is cut from some versions of the film.
  • Author Avatar: It was a daring move, to say the least, for Ballard to name the main character after himself.
  • Auto Erotica: The Film of the Book.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The film ends with Ballard forcing his wife's car to crash. While it is implied to have helped their marriage and intimacy towards each other, Ballard's final line and Catherine's passive reaction to it suggests that they've each become a Death Seeker like Vaughan, and that they hope to kill themselves in the next crash.
    James: Maybe the next one, darling, maybe the next one...
  • Black Comedy: The sequence where Ballard, Catherine, and Vaughan find the accident caused by Seagrave, the other driver from the car crash club. Vaughan is unbelievably more concerned with Seagrave having gone ahead and re-enacted the fatal crash without him (and dressed in a wig, no less) than he is with the man's death, and he uses Catherine as a model in crash photographs while all the EMTs ignore them.
  • Body Horror: Gabrielle's "scar" on the back of her thigh, which is...capitalized on during the sex scene with Ballard in the car.
  • Book Ends: The film begins with Ballard and Catherine discussing their sexual conquests, and she tells him that she feels unfulfilled and may be satisfied after the next affair. It ends with Ballard telling his wife the same thing when their car crashes and they're laying on the ground, although the intent is different this time around.
  • Canada, Eh?: The film was shot in Toronto, Ontario, and the 401 Gardiner Expressway highway is utilized extensively in sequences throughout the film.
  • Death Seeker: Several of the members of the car crash group, including Vaughan, have a strange tendency to either idolize or attempt to re-create fatal crashes. At the end of the film, it appears that Ballard and his wife have become this as well.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: All the time. In the film, the first time we meet the two main characters, they're each having sex with near-strangers.
  • Everyone Is Bi: Almost all of the lead characters (save for Catherine) are seen having sex with both men and women, including Ballard, Vaughan, Gabrielle, and Helen.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • In the novel, the nasty things Ballard does, or thinks about doing.
    • There is a protracted sequence where Ballard and Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) have sex in a car, punctuated by the former apparently getting busy with a massive scar on the latter's body.
    • Vaughan seducing Catherine at the car wash is clearly meant to be an erotic sequence. The following scene (where Ballard attempts to either console or make love to Catherine) is less sensual, even with the fact that she is fully naked, because she has a massive "handprint" bruise on her thigh, and is clearly bothered by what she faced previously (to the point that she gets a Heroic BSoD).
    • A smoking hot Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette having sex, definitely hot. A bruised James Spader with meth-addict eyes having sex with a balding Elias Koteas, perhaps not so much...
  • Fanservice Extra: Ballard bones a nameless camera girl in the backroom of a movie set in the opening, who shows up for a split second in a later scene.
  • Grand Dame: Gabrielle is treated as one, as being in leg braces with her wound makes her the most venerated of the group, and she knows it.
  • Gross-Out Book: Both the novel and film go into disturbing detail at some of the wounds inflicted to the main characters, most notably Gabrielle's scar, which is utilized by Ballard during a sex scene.
  • Heroic BSoD: Catherine goes into this after Vaughan seduces her at the car wash, becoming non-talkative and near-catatonic, to the point that when Vaughan (fatally) attempts to run them off the road, she doesn't react in any way, shape or form.
  • How We Got Here: The book starts out by showing the aftermath of Vaughan's death, then goes back to how Ballard met him.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Word of God is that Crash was like a mirror held to the face of humanity, and "wanted to rub the human race's face in its own shit." Classy.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: Interplay of sex and injuries. A critic quote on promotional images for the film said simply, " and car crashes," and indeed, that verily sums up the entirety of the film's events.
  • It's Quiet… Too Quiet: Ballard specifically calls out the lack of traffic on the road before Vaughan attempts to drive them off the highway.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Catherine, whose character traits can be accurately summed as "Really Gets Around". Nearly all of her scenes involve her making love with someone.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: Catherine (and, to a lesser extent, Helen) are perfectly fine with being seduced/pleasured in front of other people, and display exhibitionist tendencies.
  • One-Word Title: Referring to the car crashes and the crashing of two human bodies into one another.
  • Overcrank: Although the film is about people who sexualise car crashes, it's notable for never, ever using this stock device to make the car crash look cool. All the crashes in the film happen in real time and are not played back from multiple angles; one minute they're driving along, next thing you know, wham.
  • Questionable Consent: Although Catherine was the one to initiate a sexual encounter with Vaughan at the car wash, his brutal nature of touching her causes her reactions to be either extreme surprise or genuine fear. As a result, she goes into a near-catatonic state while her husband tries to comfort her.
  • Polyamory: Most of the main characters are clearly comfortable with other people sleeping with their spouses or close friends. Ballard and Catherine have an open marriage and talk with each other about their escapades, while Ballard is fine with Vaughan seducing Helen (a woman he later has sex with) and Catherine.
  • Serious Business: The car-crash subculture. Not only is there a subculture of people who hold meetings re-enacting famous/fatal car crashes, but Vaughan is horrified that one of the major drivers was killed - not that he's dead, but that said driver re-enacted a specific crash (and died) without his involvement.
  • Setting Update: The film moves the setting from the book's 1970s London in to director David Cronenberg's own then-contemporary Toronto.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot:
    • Averted in many cases, because (according to Word of God) the sex scenes were where the characters did most of their interaction with each other. Cronenberg deliberately shot most of them as involving penetration from behind, because he didn't want the actors to be looking at each other, and he wanted the audience to be able to see both their faces in the shots.
    • Played straight during Vaughan's lovemaking with Catherine in the car wash. It cuts from her being dragged downward on the back seat and giving in to his advances, to her...ahem, wet hand grasping the driver's seat. Though, given how the preceding moments showed explicit shots of female nudity, this is probably more of a subversion.
  • Stupidity-Inducing Attack: Vaughan attempts to scare Ballard and his wife on the highway near the end of the end of the film, which results in the former accidentally swerving off the highway and over a bridge, where he crashes into the top of a double-decker bus and dies instantly.