Cinema Femme will be bringing you essays written by women and non-binary people about films that are cult classics and how they are impacting our world today. Today we feature an essay by Peyton Robinson (RogerEbert.com, JumpCutOnline, and One Perfect Shot).
Niche is a delicate, almost laughable word to use to describe David Cronenberg’s 1996 cult classic thriller, “Crash”. Yet, it’s entirely accurate, as the film and the community around it are defined by subculture. Cult classics don’t exist without dedicated fanbases that are somewhat contrary to popular culture; and there’s nothing more ultra-specific and underground than car crash fetishism.
“Crash” follows James Ballard (James Spader), who after being involved in a deadly car crash, meets Vaughn (Elias Koteas) and Helen (Holly Hunter), who introduce him to a subculture of car crash victims who participate in the staging of crashes for sexual gratification. In addition to being in crashes himself, Vaughn, the ringleader of it all, also reenacts those of famous celebrity deaths for audiences, co-opting their tragedies for entertainment.
The relationship between celebrity and media has only burned deeper and deeper into the core of culture since the film’s release. The internet is not only where fan bases and cult followings now thrive, but also the vehicle of public opinion, which now has more real-life tangible influence than ever before. Successes and downfalls alike can originate online from the “send tweet” button of political figures or your local barista. On the surface, “Crash” is about symphorophilia, but what’s truly compelling is the impetus of the fetish that festers on its underbelly — trauma, celebrity idolization, and technological fixation — all of which define our current age of social media and communication.
Vaughn’s obsession with violence via car crash is motivated by his idolization of celebrities who perished the same way, like James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. In his eyes, these individuals are no longer people, but legacies and stories. They’ve been depersonalized on account on what’s happened to them, characterized only by their fates. Social media works the same way, where celebrities now are defined by their sorrows, “brands,” or scandals: viewed only through hyper-specific, monolithic lenses. Kanye no longer exists without mention of his mental illness, Britney without her conservatorship, Will Smith without the slap. And the expiry of these associations may not even exist.
Vaughn demonstrates the crash of James Dean, introducing it with “the date: September 30th. The year: 1955. The time: now.” It is the undigging of trauma made public domain — the regurgitation of celebrity woe, so much so that the pain is immortalized. James, Helen, and Gabrielle only entered the community of car crash fetishism through their involuntary thrust into the trauma of the event itself. It’s become something they use to feel personal sovereignty, even at the expense of others.
Nowhere is trauma more accessible than social media. If we are not the direct source of experiencing it, it is easy enough to find, or even stumble upon. When videos of people dying at the hands of police are uploaded to Instagram, detailed accounts of horrific acts outlined in Twitter threads, and horrifying headlines bombarding timelines every day, social media is nothing if not a trauma center. This exposure to horror online follows us in intrusive thoughts offline, and it’s a toxic cycle of finding ourselves unable to look away, unable to resist refreshing the page and doom scrolling. The option to log off doesn’t always feel feasible when the anxiety doesn’t dissipate the second we close the app, so instead we grasp for straws of control by contributing to the conversation.
Social media is the most accessible form of communication. When Vaughn references “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology,” we can look at today and wonder how the internet has reshaped our minds. Attention spans are shot, desensitization is apparent, and despite constant reminders, many users behave as if their words don’t have real life consequences. And when drama blows up on Twitter, whether it’s a scandal, death, or political event, we read timelines like the morning news, dig into any details we can find, and flippantly throw out two cents as if our input is integral to the situation.
In the same way that the hypersexuality in “Crash” is filmed with a cold, clinical lens and dripping with an evident sense of emotional distance, internet discourse operates the same way. The sex in Crash is more about exploiting how two bodies can fit together (like the notorious scene between James and Gabrielle), and online forums can be more about exploiting the ability to have a voice, an impact — the capability to insert yourself into the lives of others. For the characters in “Crash”, the fetish isn’t only about the participation in disaster, but being a voyeur to it: photographing crash scenes and their victims as well as staging them themselves. They sit in circles watching crash demonstrations, only avoiding the recognition of their own trauma by masturbating each other. It’s a grand allegory for the consumption of reality television, fetishization of celebrity, and avoidance of trauma recognition through projection on social media.
The value of “Crash” is in the extreme relationship between people, gratification, and technology. In the film, it’s cars, but the value of its argument can continue to be applied as our technology changes. Today, it’s social media. In 20 years, it can be something else. The car crash fetishization that James, Vaughn, and company participate in is an outlet for being part of a greater movement, attaching reins to their trauma (no matter how shallow and superficial) in an attempt to feel, emotionally and physically, in the driver’s seat.
James notes that “after being bombarded by road safety propaganda, it’s almost a relief to find myself in an actual accident,” as it is verification that the pain is real — that the caution and recognition of it isn’t for naught. While “Crash” uses the lens of extreme sexuality and car crash fetishism, the values of fetishizing celebrity woe and displaying your own trauma in order to cope are traits we see in the toxic side of internet culture today. Both are examples of trauma spawned echo chambers: both seen as an escape and reclamation of control, but both with existential and fatalistic capability, sometimes (most times) existing outside the blinders of our own lack of self-awareness.