The Man Who Viewed Too Much
24 March 1997


Written and directed by David Cronenberg
Adapted from the novel Crash by J.G. Ballard
Rating: **

The Quiet Room

Written and directed by Rolf de Heer
Rating: **

Gray's Anatomy

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Spalding Gray
Adapted from the stage monologue Gray's Anatomy by Spalding Gray
Rating: ***

The Watermelon Woman

Written and directed by Cheryl Dunye
Rating: ** ½

Ratings are on a four-star scale

Almost a full year after its debut at Cannes, at which it was awarded a special (and unprecedented, to the best of my knowledge) prize for "originality, daring, and audacity", David Cronenberg's latest and most controversial film, Crash, has finally opened in the United States. (Canada and most of Europe saw it in 1996.) Like Ted Turner, who owns its distributor, Fine Line Features, and who reportedly was responsible for the delayed release, I didn't care for it. Unlike Ted Turner, however, I wasn't morally outraged or physically repulsed by Crash; the only thing about the experience that truly nauseated me was the sound of others in the theater gasping and retching at the sight of two men kissing -- this from a crowd that sat respectfully and placidly through a scene in which a man fucks a woman's gaping wound. (Two women also kiss in the film; predictably, this seemed to bother nobody.) In fact, by the film's second hour I would have welcomed outrage or repulsion, since a visceral reaction would at least have relieved the boredom. Crash is audacious, all right: it jettisons such obviously superfluous elements as narrative progression and character development, replacing them with a series of tediously unerotic (yes, intentionally so, but who cares?) sex scenes, somnambulistic acting, and an admittedly impressive visual flair. I've never seen anything like it, and I'm in no rush to see anything like it in future. If this is the cutting edge of contemporary cinema, park me in front of a beat-up print of Double Indemnity, pronto.

To be fair, the first half or so of the movie did hold my attention, if only because Cronenberg's skill as a director remains undiminished and because the premise is so utterly bizarre. Adapted from J.G. Ballard's 1973 novel, which I haven't read, it concerns a group of morose, emotionally stunted people who are sexually excited by automobile accidents. James Ballard (James Spader) and Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) meet when the fenders of their respective vehicles do, at about 75 m.p.h. Remington's husband, who apparently neglected to buckle up, is thrown from the car and killed; Ballard and Remington end up in an eerily empty hospital for victims of airline crashes, where both encounter the local guru of accident fetishization, Vaughan (Elias Koteas). He in turn introduces them to Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), another crash "victim" (the word is inappropriate in this context), whose legs are encased in what looks like a cross between post-operative braces and bondage gear. Ballard also gradually involves his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), with whom he shares a "passion" (the word is inappropriate in this context) for relating tales of extramarital liaisons while screwing the other, in the group's activities, which consist of alternately bashing each other's vehicles and boffing each other in same. For a change of pace, they masturbate while watching Swedish auto-safety films, breathing heavily as crash-test dummies are ritually mutilated.

This is patently ludicrous stuff, and it might have worked well as over-the-top satire, but Cronenberg's tone is somber, humorless, damn near funereal, and we're evidently intended to take the whole thing seriously, as metaphor. Trouble is, beyond the arresting subject matter and the director's typically artful compositions (and yet another fine score from Howard Shore), there's nothing to engage the senses; like Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, Crash is a film that's much more interesting to think about afterwards than to watch. Of the actors, only Koteas, heavily scarred and suitably intense, makes an impression; Spader is a zombie, gazing blankly at everything in sight without suggesting for a moment that any emotion is churning beneath the surface, and Hunter turns in easily the least distinctive performance of her career, including her ten-second voice-only bit in the Coens' Blood Simple. (The less said about the vacuous Unger, the better; the only movie playing in Hell probably stars her and Lost Highway's Balthazar Getty, with Jami Gertz in an important supporting role.)

Despite the bland performances, Crash is reasonably compelling for two or three reels; if nothing else, you're busy wondering where the hell it's headed. The film's highlight takes place early: Koteas, reprising his role as Exotica's master of ceremonies, hosts a re-enactment of the fatal crash of James Dean in September 1955 (to which I facetiously alluded in my review of Lost Highway, unaware that it would figure prominently in Cronenberg's then forthcoming film). Several dozen spectators, including Ballard and Remington, sit in bleachers, watching with rapt attention as Vaughan dramatically narrates the tale of Dean's demise; after setting the scene, he climbs into a replica of Dean's Spyder -- he's playing the role of Dean's mechanic, who survived the accident only to be killed in another accident decades later, as Vaughan breathlessly informs us -- while two drivers portray Dean himself and the college kid with whose car he collided. The vehicles crash, spectacularly, and for a moment Vaughan seems to be genuinely injured, perhaps dead...but he's merely pausing for dramatic effect. Slowly, he raises his microphone to his lips, eyes still closed, and continues his narration, describing the aftermath. Slyly funny, beautifully focused, and utterly riveting, this scene is everything that the rest of Crash ought to be and is not.

Why? In part, because Vaughan knows how to tell a story, while Cronenberg, who knew once, can no longer be bothered. Interviewed in the current issue of Film Comment, Cronenberg questions the importance of a conventional narrative; his film, meanwhile, confirms it. (I except films without any narrative pretense, such as the work of Ken Jacobs and Stan Brakhage; Crash, which looks like a narrative work but isn't, is a very different animal.) Vaughan's unusual performance-art piece is the last gasp of narrative invention; from that point on, Crash spins its wheels, to lesser and lesser effect. The only thing that changes from scene to scene is who is fucking who, and eventually the film begins to seem like The Cronenberg Variations, as written by Trent Reznor rather than Bach. Dr. Helen Remington, who initially appears to be one of the four main characters, inexplicably vanishes from the picture in the final reels (apart from a gratuitous final scene in which she makes out with Gabrielle in Vaughan's junked car), making one wonder in retrospect what she was doing in the movie in the first place. The film never loses sight of the Ballards, but neither does it ever suggest that they're in any way altered by the weird journey they undertake -- in the film's final scene, they appear to be the same wounded, empty vessels that we saw in their first scene together. (There's even an repeated line of dialogue, albeit with a new, more ominous meaning the second time around.)

Not having read the book, I can't say whether these flaws are Ballard's or Cronenberg's; I'm told that the novel is written in the first person, from James' perspective, and I would imagine that this provides the reader with some valuable insight into the protagonist's mindset, and by extension that of the others as well. Perhaps not; either way, the film, which ideally should be judged independently of the novel in any case, is distressingly opaque. I mentioned Atom Egoyan's masterpiece Exotica a while back, and the two films have more in common than just Elias Koteas: both are distinctively Canadian works, aesthetically and temperamentally, and both are tales of emotional trauma expressed via what polite society would consider sexual perversion. The difference is that Egoyan's film, however elliptical and cryptic its structure, has a deeply charged emotional core, expressed both via its actors (Bruce Greenwood, in particular, invests even his most banal lines with an affecting and sometimes heartbreaking concentration) and via its explication, admirably succinct and uninflected, of the events which led its characters to the edge of this unusual precipice. Crash, by contrast, takes place in a vacuum; not only do we know nothing of the characters' lives prior to the moment the film began, we know virtually nothing of their existence in the world at large, which itself barely seems to exist in the first place. (Presumably this was by design, though to what purpose I couldn't begin to say.) Consequently, Exotica is devastating, while Crash is merely interesting. (In the interest of fairness, I should note that Egoyan reportedly loves Crash, and, as a member of the '96 Cannes jury, was instrumental in bestowing the award for "originality, daring, and audacity" upon it, so I clearly have no idea what the hell I'm talking about.)

Egoyan's enthusiasm, which I find baffling, suggests a pertinent rhetorical question: If Crash is as dull and uninvolving as I claim it is (and it is), what accounts for the rave reviews that it's received in other quarters? The obvious answer, and the correct one, is that tastes differ. The film's admirers no doubt see virtues that I've overlooked, and were unperturbed by what I perceive as its glaring flaws. As I say, this is the correct answer...but it's also the boring answer, and as it's been far too long since I was last insulted by one of my readers, allow me to cynically posit another possibility: people prefer to err on the side of the angels. Here we have a serious movie by a respected, important filmmaker, based upon a cult novel by an equally respected and important writer; a movie that has inspired tremendous controversy virtually everywhere that it's been screened, and that many have found offensive and disgusting; a movie that only belatedly managed to secure a U.S. release, even though it was financed by Fine Line Features, a division of Time/Warner; a movie that Ted Turner, who once wanted to put a dash of red into Rosebud, has publicly denounced, even though he technically owns it; a movie that won a special award for originality, daring, and audacity, and that blatantly and defiantly disregards numerous Hollywood cinematic conventions; a movie about people who are turned on by car crashes, fer cryin' out loud. What cinéaste wouldn't want to love it? I can't be sure, of course, but I strongly suspect that some people are so taken with the very idea of Crash that the experience of actually seeing the film becomes more or less irrelevant -- it would have to be downright inept (which it definitely is not, whatever my qualms) to disappoint them.

For example, take a look at my pal Bryant Frazer's review of the film. Go ahead and read the whole thing, if you haven't already done so -- it's a terrific piece of writing. I'll wait. [Pause.] Welcome back. Not bad, eh? Bookmark him, Dano. Now, Bryant liked the movie a lot more than I did, which is just fine -- I disagree with every critic from time to time, sometimes vehemently. And I don't for a moment intend to imply that he's a camp follower, or suggest that he automatically responds favorably to anything slightly out of the ordinary; he's panned such offbeat and celebrated pictures as The Usual Suspects, Fargo, and Lost Highway, to name only a few. I have nothing but the greatest respect for the man (what little I know of him personally; we've seen a few movies together) and his work. At the same time, however, I couldn't help noticing that his praise of Crash was preceded by a pull quote from Turner in which he accuses the film's fans of being warped, and I was alarmed to stumble upon the following passage:

"Of all the cast, only Holly Hunter seems to make a self-conscious effort at fitting in -- her slightly twerpy line readings only call attention to themselves. Still, I think that everyone involved in Crash should get a trophy, since it's heartening to see "name" actors fearlessly tackle risky material."

On this point, I take issue with Mr. Frazer; I don't give out trophies for good intentions, and I tend to think that for critics to do so is a terribly bad idea. A kind word in passing, perhaps; a figurative hunk of metal with an engraved brass plaque at its base, no. Again, don't misunderstand -- I have no doubt that Bryant's admiration for the film is genuine. But offhand comments like this one betray a mindset that I find mildly distressing, one that's prone to reward originality and daring and audacity for their own sake, regardless of whether such risk-taking results in a coherent and illuminating work of art. There are, to be sure, far greater offenses than a bias in favor of movies that defy convention -- it's certainly preferable to a bias against such movies -- but I wonder how many of the glowing reviews of Crash that I've seen took a sketchy, first-draft shape in the critic's mental notepad, before the projector had even been started?

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Is The Quiet Room over yet? Or am I still watching it? Rolf de Heer's psychodrama about a seven-year-old girl who stops talking to get her squabbling parents' attention might have made a first-rate 15-minute short; at 57 hours and 14 minutes, however, it becomes just a tad repetitive and tiresome. I'm all for leisurely, measured pacing and minute examination of characters' lives, but this film doesn't exactly suffer from a surfeit of ideas -- there was really no need for it to be longer than Die Zweite Heimat, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Lars von Trier's work-in-progress The Kingdom combined.

Okay, I confess, I didn't actually look at my watch -- maybe it wasn't quite that long. But even an hour and a half was enough to stupefy me; by the end, I no longer had the strength even to move my hand in the circular get-on-with-it gesture that had characterized my response to The Quiet Room for the previous hour. Moment to moment, the film is effective and affecting; unfortunately, every moment is the same moment. If Crash spins its wheels, The Quiet Room is up on blocks.

The film's primary asset is young Chloe Ferguson, who plays The Girl (all of the film's characters are unnamed; The Girl's parents are simply The Mother and The Father) in the present tense, at age seven. (The actress' younger sister, Phoebe Ferguson, appears in a few brief flashback scenes.) A remarkably expressive child actor with an arresting face, she, and she alone, makes The Quiet Room tolerable, and occasionally even moving; her rare smiles are infectious, and while the film's premise requires her character to spend most of its three-day running time in a deep funk, she manages to communicate a fairly wide range of emotions without the benefit of dialogue. Or, rather, she could have done so, had De Heer been willing to trust her. Instead, his script has The Girl jabber incessantly in voiceover, both when alone and in "conversation" with her parents (played unmemorably by Paul Blackwell and Celine O'Leary), who can't hear her precocious replies to their questions and comments. This handy road map to The Girl's feelings and desires effectively undercuts any emotional power the film might otherwise have had; imagine Holly Hunter speaking in voiceover throughout The Piano,and you'll have an idea of how miserably misguided this choice was.

Eliding the voiceover might help The Quiet Room somewhat, but the best and simplest way to improve it would be to leave three-quarters of the footage on the cutting room floor; there simply isn't enough material here to justify a feature-length film. It's quickly established that The Mother and The Father are ignoring The Girl in favor of endless petty bickering, and that The Girl, unhappy about this development, has adopted silence as a weapon. There's only so much you can do with this scenario, and De Heer does all of it about twenty times over, making Crash look like a model of narrative economy by comparison. The occasional flashbacks break up the monotony, and the use of language with regard to them is intriguing -- The Girl refers to herself at age three in the present tense, not the past, as if the happiness her family once shared is still a tangible entity, just out of reach. But even this inspired notion is eventually discarded, and we're left with yet another variation of the line "Still not talking, huh?"

I was surprised, upon investigating the film's credits in preparation for this review, to discover that it is not an adaptation of a stage play. It certainly looks like one: nonstop dialogue (most of it in voiceover, true, but that might have been a cinematic alternative to a gimmick that would only work onstage, in which The Girl would speak aloud and the other actors would simply pretend not to hear her; theater audiences, for obvious reasons, find it easier to suspend disbelief than do movie audiences), four characters (there's also a teen babysitter, but that's it), one set. Rolf de Heer, who is best known in his native Australia for the reportedly outrageous Bad Boy Bubby, which hasn't been released in the U.S., has a strong visual sense, and I was prepared to applaud his skill in making the most of a weak play. Turns out he wrote the thing himself, directly for the screen. Can we get a little voiceover on him, by any chance? I'm dying to know what he was thinking.

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IN BRIEF: If you've seen and enjoyed either or both of the two previous movies adapted from Spalding Gray's monologues, Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box, then you're more or less guaranteed to enjoy Gray's Anatomy, which is more of the same. Directed by Steven Soderbergh (taking a break from editing his forthcoming low-budget experimental film, Schizopolis) with equal parts astounding visual invention and ludicrous visual excess (the scenes in which Gray appears to be sitting in the PeopleMover at Disneyland are borderline laughable), it's the tale of Gray's attempts to treat -- or, more often, avoid treating -- a fairly serious eye problem. Typically engrossing and hilarious, it nonetheless left a faintly sour taste in my mouth; too many of Gray's "real-life" adventures in this one seem to have been undertaken expressly in order to provide him with suitably wacky monologue material. If he continues in this vein, I'd like to see him tackle the mundane next time out. In other words, live first, then write. I'd intended to write at length about Cheryl Dunye's ambitious The Watermelon Woman last week, but was foiled by an unusually hectic schedule and the depletion of my energy reserves. Just as well, perhaps, because most of my lengthier review would probably have been wasted on a convoluted description of the film's insane agenda: it's a fake documentary, a lesbian romance, a meditation on racial and sexual politics in Hollywood's golden age, a meditation on racial and sexual politics today, a making-the-low-budget-movie comedy, a personal essay film, and about six other things besides. (The title refers to an invented black actress of the 1930s, with whom filmmaker Dunye, playing "herself," becomes obsessed.) Much of this is skillfully done, and I applaud Dunye's courage and fortitude (sorry, no trophies), but her reach exceeds her grasp -- while The Watermelon Woman works marvelously in bits and pieces, the film as a whole is utterly incoherent. Plus, her primary source of inspiration, as explicitly noted in the film itself, is Rose Troche's 1994 lesbian hit Go Fish -- a movie I thought almost totally inept -- and consequently her movie suffers from many of the same flaws that plagued Troche's, notably terrible acting and aggressively literal dialogue. (A lesson from Mamet, who understands this if he understands nothing else: "The guy says to the girl, 'That's a lovely dress' -- he does not say, 'I haven't been laid in six weeks.'") Not bad, but I'm still waiting eagerly, and patiently (as a straight male, I can afford to be patient), for a lesbian film with something stronger than good intentions to recommend it.

Next week (in all likelihood): The Eighteenth, Liar Liar