'Crash': The Automobile in Film as a Vehicle of Trauma and Horror

Reading Karen Beckman’s work demanded that I think more carefully about the place of the automobile and collisions in pop culture. Interesting cases are abundant.

Crash: Cinema and the Politics of Speed and Stasis

Publisher: Duke University Press
Length: 320 pages
Author: Karen Beckman
Price: $24.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-09

Karen Beckman of the University of Pennsylvania has produced a fascinating study of the place of the car crash in cinema. Carefully articulated with reference to Walter Benjamin, Paul Virilio, and other theorists, Beckman’s mission is “to explore how film, through the recurrent trope of the car crash, stages, excites, and disciplines the unconscious drives that pull us toward speed, risk, and the vulnerability of the self that is forged by these drives.” The wide range of her cases includes slapstick comedies, researchers’ crash tests, J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, Andy Warhol’s Since, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, among several others.

Although the book is written as a contribution to ongoing academic debates within film studies, the author’s observations and arguments should nonetheless be interesting to film lovers. Obviously, having seen the films she so incisively discusses will contribute to the reader’s enjoyment of the book.

When I first learned of Beckman’s book and its focus, I expected Paul Haggis’s Crash to be featured prominently in the analysis. The 2005 Oscar winning film is dismissed, however, as “a clichéd and sensational depiction of racial tensions in Los Angeles, which seem to be resolved by a miraculous snowfall.” Given the richness of the films she does analyze, however, excluding the Haggis film is not problematic. Beckman’s thorough discussions of these works provide an intriguing examination of the relationship between film as moving image and the automobile as a technological advance that permitted new ranges of individual movement. She incorporates insights from other research to illustrate the affinities between the medium of film and the experience of automobile travel, the products of “two industries of modern mobile vision.” Indeed, watching the world flash by while riding in a car or bus, whether on city streets or across a verdant landscape, affords its own kind of cinematic experience.

After reviewing the place of the car crash in slapstick comedies, driver safety movies, and crash test studies (some using chimpanzees and cadavers), Beckman turns to the cinema of the '50s and '60s. In these films, she writes, the car “gradually became aligned with fantasies of uninhibited motion toward as-yet unrealized dreams of the future, of liberation from domesticity and the constraints of postwar society.” Although not a crash per se, an automobile—indeed, a whole motorcade—served as a scenario for a profound national trauma in 1963: the murder of President Kennedy as captured in the Zapruder film.

Having already portrayed grisly car crashes in his “Death and Disaster” series, Warhol turned his attention to the assassination, with the aid of Factory Superstars like Ondine, Ivy Nicholson, Ingrid Superstar, International Velvet, and Mary Woronov as JFK (thereby making her, according to Beckman, “perhaps the first female president on film”). Beckman convincingly shows how Warhol’s Since enables a reimagining of the link between the spectator and the televised traumatic event through the re-enactment of the assassination in the sexualized space of the Factory’s couch, a stage where the Superstar actors never fully commit to their roles.

González Iñárritu’s Amores perros brings together the lives of three groups of people through the trauma of a car crash in Mexico City. Beckman praises the film for its ambiguous position with regard to US culture and the nationalism that grips so much of the Mexican imagination. Noting the influence of the photographer Nan Goldin, Beckman argues that the film’s continuous return to the moment of the crash frames contemporary Mexico as “an endlessly traumatic present in which forward narrative movement can only be achieved paradoxically by moving backward to an already lived instant.”

Like certain other films she discusses, the impact of González Iñárritu’s approach raises questions about the experience of viewing a film. How will the spectator’s visual reception of cinematic crashes be altered as more and more films are shot in 3D? Clearly, “the impact of transportation technologies on the individual, the couple, and the family” remains a subject of great concern. Today, commercials warning against drunk driving have been joined by admonitions against texting while driving, recounting stories of young lives ended in order to exchange the most abbreviated of messages.

Reading Beckman’s work therefore demanded that I think more carefully about the place of the automobile and collisions in pop culture. Interesting cases are abundant. The opening themes of TV sitcoms celebrating the independence and careers of women, e.g., Alice and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, began with an image of a moving car on a highway, symbolizing the discarding of a past identity and individual mobility (the theme of That Girl begins with a train ride). Shows like World’s Most Amazing Videos play off the shock and horror of watching every motorist’s nightmare made real for unfortunate others. The success of the Grand Theft Auto video games is widespread, while actual police chases, often involving multiple crashes, are energetically followed and narrated via news channels’ helicopters. In film, the commercial power of the car motif endures, as seen in the popularity of the Fast and the Furious film franchise and the Disney/Pixar Cars animated film (a sequel is in production).

Also, of course, car crashes have been responsible for ending the lives of 20th century legends like James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Jackson Pollock, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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