Cool Cars: Three by David Cronenberg (1979 - 2012) - Reviewed

It’s no secret by now that the Canadian master science-fiction and horror filmmaker David Cronenberg has a passionate affinity for motor vehicles.  Whether they’re race cars, motorcycles, standard motor cars or limousines, the metallic, gasoline and electricity driven machines are a favorite pastime for the provocateur.  Aside from personal enjoyment and interest in the vehicle, the motor car time and time again in the director’s career have taken center stage in his films almost like a character.  A vintage car racer himself who has had his own share of auto accidents, Cronenberg’s fascination with the motor vehicle has taken form among many cinematic incarnations of his devising over the last three decades.  

Charting a map as checkered as the director’s diverse and ever evolving filmography, Cronenberg’s artistic journey through the possibilities of the motor vehicle in film began innocently enough with his race car drama Fast Company early in his career just before making a mainstream splash Scanners which also sports a dangerous car crash.  Taking a sharp turn into glacial psychosexuality with his surreal, caustic satire Crash, no one could ever look or think about motorcars the same way ever again.  And finally the sleek, crystalline futuristic limousine of Cosmopolis took viewers into what began to feel like the interior lining of an unidentified flying object.  

From the straightforward to the uncompromisingly surreal and perversely erotic, the motor car like many of Cronenberg’s characters found itself under intense clinical scrutiny as well as shape shifting body modification at the tip of a razor sharp scalpel.  Cars have always been an attractive feature for fictional (particularly action) films but rarely have they been explored so deeply for their connection to or containment of people.  As much about the inhabitants of the motor vehicle as well as the overarching cumulative transformative effect of the vehicle on human beings, Cronenberg’s precise, anthropological and medical eye has altered the cinematic shape of the car and made viewers ponder the very transportation devices we live in and have long since taken for granted. 

With this, the Movie Sleuth investigates three of Cronenberg’s efforts: the racecar drama Fast Company, the controversial and penetrative Crash and lastly the limo driven cyber-currency thriller Cosmopolis.  These three films form a loose connection involving the clinical, austere writer-director’s chilly regard for his subjects illustrating mankind’s inescapable connection to the motor vehicle for good or for ill and the social as well as physiological transformation the vehicle has when coming into contact with the human form.

Fast Company (1979)

When the discussion of personal projects with respect to David Cronenberg comes up, people usually think of dark and uncompromising horror shows delving deep into the psyche and the limits of science fiction.  All of which makes his straightforward passion piece about the competitive car racing profession the greatest outlier in the eclectic auteur’s filmography.  Considered by Cronenberg to be among the most important works of his career and one he nearly returned to years later in his unrealized film project Red Cars, the aptly named Fast Company follows Lonnie Johnson (William Smith), an aging racer who finds himself in an uphill battle with motor oil company tycoon Phil Adamson (late industry veteran John Saxon) who is eager to kick Lonnie off the track.
Co-starring the late Claudia Jennings in her final film role (tragically killed in a car accident later that year), Fast Company is as far removed from what you would expect from the Canadian provocateur as anything in the director’s illustrious career.  And yet sharp eyed viewers will notice the presence of impending frequent collaborators such as cinematographer Mark Irwin who proceeded to shoot every Cronenberg film onward until the two parted ways after completion of The Fly.  The film also costars Nicholas Campbell, best known for his troubled cop in Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone as well as one of William S. Burroughs’ close confidantes in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch.

What stands out with Fast Company is Cronenberg’s attention to technical detail with respect to the operation and maintenance of the race car and how easily one false move can send the speed racer up in flames.  Cronenberg was no stranger to the dangers presented, himself a fellow racer in the past with more than a few fender benders to his name.  So strong is the director’s passion for the profession of race car driving the prospect of Mr. Cronenberg directing a Fast and the Furious film really isn’t as farfetched as it sounds.  Moreover, the racecar film up to that time was generally a broad widescreen spectacle ala John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix as opposed to the down and dirty intimate approach to filming racecars Cronenberg took.
Despite being widely released in Canada the film never saw a real theatrical run in the United States due to the distribution company for the film going belly up at the time of release.  Since then the film was souped up by Blue Underground in a new restored transfer supervised by Cronenberg.  Seen now the soundtrack by Fred Mollin is indeed awful and the film itself bears none of the clinical extraterrestrial regard for car racing as one would expect from the eventual increasingly surreal provocateur.  And yet the film introduced Cronenberg to not only Mark Irwin but also art director Carol Spier, sound editor Bryan Day and film editor Ronald Sanders who all would return to each successive Cronenberg project. 

In the context of his subsequent works Fast Company tends to get overlooked and dismissed.  While not distinctly Cronenbergian in form as we’ve come to expect it nonetheless remains an important evolutionary chapter in the director’s depiction of the motor vehicle on film.  Moreover, the film helped form a lifelong team who have stuck by Cronenberg’s uncompromising visions, however oppressive, ever since.

Crash (1996)

The gulf between art and pornography is an endlessly debated one with regard to sex scenes in film.  Are they there to simply titillate as they so often do or is there something substantive to be said about graphically depicting and filming human intimacy onscreen?  In what feels like a poison pill to the pornography comes David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of novelist J.G. Ballard’s monumentally controversial book Crash, a film so incendiary, so glacial regarding sexuality it becomes unerotic, so drenched in death it feels like we’re watching robots copulating.  Functionally however it is as much of an examination of the structural layout of pornography as it is an ultimate encapsulation of the very themes of sociological and physical transformation running through Videodrome and The Fly, coming across as plainly science fiction horror rather than smut.   
Film producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) frequently engage in detached sexual trysts with many anonymous partners to spice up their sex lives only to interact with each other like bloodless machines.  One night a traffic collision occurs between James and a mercurial doctor named Helen (Holly Hunter), killing her husband.  Instead of hating James for taking her husband’s life, Helen takes him under her wing and brings him into contact with Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a sadomasochistic car-crash fetishist and his crippled cyborg protégé Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette).  Together, these four will form an erotic psychosexual symbiosis as they jointly seek out the illicit erotic power emanating from the explosive and penetrative car crash, careening in a perversely extreme odyssey of sex and death, flesh and metal.

Far more disturbing than Shinya Tsukamoto’s equally metallic psychosexual science-fiction horror shocker Tetsuo: The Iron Man and a far more acerbic and astute critique of the consumption of pornography than Cronenberg’s own Videodrome, Crash from the moment of inception to the tumultuous theatrical world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival where it won a custom made Special Jury Prize for ‘originality, for daring, and for audacity’, remains a dangerous work of art.  Hypnotic as it is horrific and deeply disturbing this ice-cold jagged shard of a film is something of a hill to scale for the viewer to consume and for its cast and crew to create.  Featuring deliberately cold-blooded performances from its ensemble cast who completely go the full unmitigated distance in creating this bold, indigestible cinematic vision, a haunting atonal guitar score by legendary Cronenberg regular composer Howard Shore and slick symmetrical cinematography by Peter Suschitzsky, Crash remains the writer-director’s most audacious and intellectually as well as viscerally provocative film yet.
Still the most controversial film ever made in Canada, Crash all but immediately offended Cannes Film Festival-goers with Francis Ford Coppola infamously refusing to personally hand the Special Jury Prize to Cronenberg and Ted Turner leaving the film in temporary distribution limbo for almost a year.  Given the kiss-of-death NC-17 in the United States, the film was largely overlooked by the general public save for the few brave filmgoers who must have had a hard time getting back into their cars and driving home after watching it.  Though dripping with explicit sex, Crash more or less does for the car what Jaws did to people’s fears about going into the water.

Never before has the car, filmed seductively by Suschitzky as though an inanimate metallic object is being eroticized, been so thoroughly examined and pored over by the camera or lit so icily with silver and blue hues dominating the color scheme.  For something we take for granted and rely so completely upon, the motor car has embedded itself into our way of life and for many our sexuality as well.  Close-ups of human hands groping dents, cracks and contours of the edges of the car or women exposing their breasts to rub upon a car’s surface suggest the inanimate manmade object is itself now a target of objectification.
Finally given its due in Germany and the UK as the first David Cronenberg title to receive a lavish 4K UHD restoration, the film is now widely regarded as one of the provocateur’s finest films, a contemporary distillation of pornography to illustrate the queasy influence technology imposes upon the human body and mind.  Unrelenting and uncompromising, the largely inaccessible motion picture is not for everybody or easy to recommend to even the most adventurous.  Yet for those willing to board Cronenberg’s cool, dangerously seductive and sharp edged motorcar ride will come away well rewarded by the journey.

Cosmopolis (2012)

Young and clean-cut well-dressed twenty-eight year old multi-billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sits in his elite, futuristic limousine surrounded by bodyguards catering to his every whim as he careens towards a simple minded goal of getting a haircut.  His journey there becomes a day long episodic and self-destructive odyssey through a Manhattan engulfed in chaotic riots while on the brink of worldwide economic collapse.  Much of Eric’s journey remains within the extraterrestrial confines of his alien spaceship of a limo with infrequent pit stops for extramarital sexual liaisons and daily medical exams, all of which come to him.  As Eric’s own assets are in shambles, losing millions of dollars by the minute through his own undoing, his single-minded focus on the menial task of receiving said haircut intensifies his journey towards oblivion. 
Based on the novel by Don DeLillo and adapted for the screen by David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis gazes deep into the future of cyber capital with the world at the fingertips of a man with everything who one day decides to throw it all away.  Co-starring a gifted cast including but not limited to Sarah Gadon, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti, this might be the most positively reptilian set of characters since Cronenberg’s car crash enthusiasts in Crash.  Watch Morton’s robotic delivery of her theorizing on the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protestors surrounding Eric’s limo for instance and you’ll feel you’re in the presence of a cyborg.  And of course Giamatti’s turn as a bug-eyed psychopath will sear itself into your mind and won’t allow you to look at the actor the same way ever again!

Transcribing nearly all of DeLillo’s bloodless dialogue unfettered from book to screen, the characters of this ensemble downward spiral talk to each other like aliens that have been marooned upon the planet we call Earth.  Much of this science-fiction aura comes from Peter Suschitzsky’s chilly, symmetrical cinematography inside the limousine which will no doubt recall the sterilized images within David Bowman’s space pod in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Though the interior of the limo is adorned with shimmering artifice, blue lights and touch screens, it never becomes claustrophobic and starts to take on the spatial depth of a conference room with the chief company executive sprawled out across the table. 
The film’s soundtrack naturally brings Howard Shore back into the proceedings but not before pairing him up with Canadian indie rock band Metric who were friends of Pattinson’s and contributed an original track to Twilight Saga: Eclipse.  Co-writing three original tracks with much of Shore’s score performed by Metric, the film also incorporates Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan into the film as a late rap artist coupled with a newly recorded original track co-written by K’naan and none other than novelist Don DeLillo.  The resulting soundtrack is an eclectic mixture of original songs tailor made for the film’s glacial universe, placing us deep within the headspace of Eric Packer’s netherworld perpetuated by the technologically advanced coffin of his limousine.
Leading this pack of cold blooded crocodiles is Pattinson in his first post-Twilight role as a man seeming to have lost any and every trace of his humanity even after he starts to let himself and his high-tech limousine deteriorate.  For anyone who thought (and still thinks) Pattinson can’t act are in for a most rude awakening who completely inhabits the role of the vampiric Eric Packer.  Pattinson has come a long way since then, featuring in Cronenberg’s next film Maps to the Stars while also leading many inspired independent projects, but Cosmopolis is still the one this Pattinson fan keeps returning to.  Moreover, the actor had amassed something of a teen heartthrob fanbase ala Leonardo DiCaprio’s megastar status from Titanic, making Cosmopolis the perfect vehicle for the actor to alienate each and every one of them. 

Devised by French producer Paulo Branco who planned the picture as a $20 million venture with only Cronenberg in mind to direct, Cosmopolis is as much of an outlier in the director’s filmography as his period pieces M Butterfly and A Dangerous Method.  The film competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival but opened to mixed reviews before being released as a limited arthouse theatrical venture.  Despite losing money in the end, the film won over former Pattinson detractors and represents arguably the third and final film by David Cronenberg where the motor vehicle took center stage and almost (like Crash) became a living thing.
What’s curious too is how despite the alienating vibe of the film and its central vehicle, the limousine over time starts to reflect the inhabiting human’s state of mind.  As Eric loses his Gucci suit jacket, messes his hair, takes a pie to the face and lets himself go, so too does the exterior of his limousine which begins as a sexy milky white sheen beauty before ending as a rock and projectile battered graffiti covered grotesque.  The car almost becomes like the clothing worn by Eric and implies the look of one’s car says everything you need to know about the owner.  Though neither we nor Eric are entirely sure of why he needs to engage in destroying himself, Cosmopolis represents in microcosm the ways with which the wealthy are boxed in by and move through our world undetected and whether or not their way of life has let them remain human.

--Andrew Kotwicki