Crash (1996) may not be David Cronenberg’s most perfect film, but re-watching it this past weekend it strikes me as upsetting and strange even by the standards of his own work—and that’s saying something, considering that Cronenberg is the man behind such mind-fucks as Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and The Brood.  Cronenberg’s perversity cannot be limited to a single genre or type of material; while he is often said to explore “body horror,” only two or three of his films could properly be called horror movies.  Others are better classified as science fiction, crime thrillers, or psychological dramas.  The one thing they all share is Cronenberg’s uncompromising vision, a determination to probe his subjects, literally and figuratively, past the point of their (and our) comfort. 
Cronenbergs work combines the intellectual curiosity of a scientist with the creative curiosity of an artist.  Crash, a film about a subculture of kinksters for whom cars and car accidents serve as a sexual fetish, has a clinical, detached tone at the same time that it is powerfully erotic, even for those viewers who may not share the characters’ highly specialized proclivities.  The steel-gray world of the film is both cold and sensuous, and its hard, metallic textures, like its characters’ beautiful, scarred bodies, are both attractive and repulsive.             

To watch Crash now is to be reminded of the firestorm of controversy over sexually explicit films that played out over the course of the 1990s.  1990 saw the creation of the now-defunct NC-17 rating with which a number of independent and art-house films, Crash included, were slapped.  Crash appeared in the wake of New Queer Cinema, after indies like Todd Haynes’ Poison had inspired the wrath of the right wing but before Ellen DeGeneres made it okay to be gay on primetime TV.  Crash was (and is) defiantly, scarily queer in rejecting conventional ideas not only about sex (nearly all of its characters are bi- or pan-sexual) but also about bodies and bodily harm.  Like, say, Gun Crazy and In the Realm of the Senses, Crash takes place within a closed world of erotic obsession in which the characters remain confined, blindly pursuing their desires without so much as a thought for anyone outside that world.  As if inspired by Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985), their bodies have become post-human objects, fusions of metal, leather, and scarred flesh.  Cars function as outer layers of artificial skin, shells to be stroked and penetrated.  For Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger), the ultimate expression of her husband’s love would be for him to kill her with his car. Most shockingly, Cronenberg resists the impulse to judge or pathologize.  His approach is rather to regard, complicate, and challenge.

Twenty years on, Crashs ideas retain an unnerving power.  In the time since I first saw it, certain moments have come to feel like fragments of a half-remembered dream.  Was that really there in the film, I’ve wondered, or did I imagine it?  It’s all really there, as it turns out.  But even while the film is playing it seems, somehow, not to be happening.  This may have to do with the restraint and discretion of its actors and settings, which could be described as stereotypically Canadian.  The violent impulses of the characters roil beneath quiet, soft, unassuming personae.  Even their dirty talk sounds prim and clinical.  Yet they are consumed with a sexual desire that they are compelled to pursue unto death.  Even after we leave the world of this film  we may find that its sexual charge has burrowed its way under our skin.



The Films of 2016: The Witch

Most of the great horror stories play on the tension between, on the one hand, the psychological and the realistic and, on the other, the realm of the supernatural.  Rosemary’s Baby, for example, surprises us by confirming that the “paranoid” fears of its heroine are actually real.  Other horror stories leave such questions open: does the governess in The Turn of the Screw really see ghosts, or has her sanity begun to fray?  Is The Shining’s Overlook Hotel haunted by otherworldly beings, or only by the all-too-human demons lurking within the American family?  Robert Eggers’ The Witch plays a similar bait-and-switch game with its audience, presenting us with various, sometimes contradictory explanations for the gruesome circumstances that befall its characters.  But—unlike in, say, The Turn of the Screw—its ambiguities end up creating more confusion than terror. 


"We need the eggs": Reflections on Valentine's Day and "Annie Hall"

Annie Hall is so often listed as one of the great romantic comedies that one is likely to forget—or never to realize—that it’s also a break-up movie.  It’s a romance told in flashback, narrated by Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, who lets us know from the very first shot of the film that he and Diane Keaton’s Annie are no longer together.  With Alvy as our guide we spend the next ninety minutes poring over the memories of their ill-fated relationship, until we’re eventually deposited at the Upper West Side café where they have a bittersweet last meeting.  I’ve seen Annie Hall dozens of times, very often around Valentine’s Day (when it tends to screen at repertory houses whose programmers also seem to feel that it’s a romantic film); watching it this week in the aftermath of a break-up, its melancholic tone hit me in a way that it never has before.


The Films of 2016: No Home Movie

When Chantal Akerman died last fall I wrote that her films are less esoteric and forbidding than their reputations would suggest.  Akerman’s engagement with “big” ideas—migration, feminism, capitalism—is often rooted in familiar domestic environments.  With No Home Movie, her final film (it was completed shortly before her death), Akerman has made one of her most accessible and personal works.  No Home Movie functions as a documentary portrait of Akerman’s elderly mother Natalia, a Polish Jew who settled in Belgium in the 1940s and who, at the time of filming, lived alone in a modestly furnished Brussels apartment.  It also speaks to the broader themes and motifs of Akerman’s body of work as a whole, acting as a kind of summation of her entire career.    


The homosexuals in the text: Norman Atun and Lee Kang-Sheng in "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone" (2007)

I wouldn’t number I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (2007) among my favorite films by Tsai Ming-Liang, but it contains a moment so emotionally powerful that it stopped me cold.  The film is—in typical fashion for Tsai—a bizarre romance set in a vaguely apocalyptic urban environment, where two men (Lee Kang Sheng and Norman Atun) engage in a wordless, possibly sexless love affair catalyzed by their sharing a mattress in a crowded slum.  When Lee also strikes up a romance with a female nurse who works in the apartment upstairs, Atun’s jealousy is aroused, and in a fit of passion he threatens to cut Lee’s throat with the sharp edge of a tin can.  And then, as Lee’s eyes plead with Atun to spare his life, Atun dissolves into tears.  Lee caresses Atun’s face with his hand; Atun presses it to his mouth as the tears run down his cheeks.  As Tsai’s films come closer and closer to embracing wordlessness (his short film from last year, No-No Sleep, contains no spoken dialogue at all), he becomes more and more attuned to the power of bodily gestures to speak for themselves.  


The Films of 2015: Looking back

- 2015 was a quietly satisfying year at the movies, both literally and figuratively.  Most of my favorite films of the year could be described as quiet—character- and performance-driven, dialogue-heavy, many of them centering on female characters and relationships.  As bombastic, borderline assaultive action blockbusters continue to rule the box office, I found myself gravitating toward subtler, more intimate fare.  Even Mad Max: Fury Road, which became one of the year’s most unexpected critical darlings, left me cold—though I did enjoy the yin-and-yang pair of Westerns that ended the year, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant.  My favorite cinematic memories of the last twelve months, though, were seeing the Somerville Theatre's Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective over the summer and, more recently, attending a two-day screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971) at the Harvard Film Archive.  In addition to being an unforgettable experience, the latter screening proved that Rivette (may he rest in peace) was a better filmmakercrazier, riskier, more blindingly passionatethan 95% of any of today’s would-be auteurs. 


Notes on "Out 1"

1. Writing in 1974, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour Out 1 (1971) “[had] been screened publicly only once…and remains for all practical purposes an invisible, legendary work.”  Now, over forty years later, Out 1 has been made visible: it is available on Blu-ray and for download, and is being exhibited theatrically in select cities.  Watching the film this past weekend at the Harvard Film Archive was thrilling, exhausting, and confounding, possibly the most memorable cinematic experience of the year.  (It screened in four three-hour intervals over two days, with intermissions and dinner breaks built in.)  Coming as it did on the heels of Rivette’s death, the screening felt even more momentous and special than it otherwise might have, as if (to quote the opening remarks by the Archive’s David Pendleton) those of us in attendance were somehow communing with Rivette’s spirit.