All posts by Shane Wilson

CHANNEL 366: UNDONE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Hisko Hulsing

FEATURING: Rosa Salazar, Bob Odenkirk, Angelique Cabral, Constance Marie, Siddharth Dhananjay

PLOT: Following a car accident, underachiever Alma discovers that… well, I’ll let her tell you: “I’m seeing my dead father because of my big ventricles, and he’s training me to travel in time so I can save him from being murdered.”

Still from "Undone" (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we’ve previously discussed, TV is very much its own thing, and we probably won’t be inducting any ongoing series into the pantheon of weirdness. But Undone has legit weird chops, and deserves to be part of the conversation about the joys of entertainment that departs from the norm.

COMMENTS: Fans of s Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly 1 will be familiar with the technique of rotoscoping, in which filmed footage is traced, colored, and enhanced, combining the benefits of actor-driven performance and real-world situations with the flights of fancy and reality-bending leaps of animation. It can be used to make animation seem more real (see almost any Disney fairy tale), but it can be used to arguably greater effect by lending surrealism and surprise to a concrete, grounded universe. You could conceivably throw animated techniques into a live-action movie (Speed Racer comes to mind), but when everything appears to be drawn, you’re actually starting out with a more comfortable sense of uncertainty.

This makes rotoscoped animation an almost perfect medium for a story that pertains to an examination of the mind and the possibility of mental illness. Undone, the tale of a young woman who is either developing extraordinary powers or is steadily losing her grip, may open with perfectly ordinary, even bland scenes of a heat-blanched San Antonio, but the slight wobble of the frame, the distinct outline of people and things, the trappings of animation start us off in an unsteady place. So when we go into Alma’s brain and watch those things start to deconstruct, we’re fully prepared for the journey, even as it leads us into stranger places. Form follows function.

“Undone” is the creation of Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, two veterans of the popular, traditionally animated “BoJack Horseman.” That show has itself played with linear time and the inner workings of thought and memory (in particular, two episodes–“Downer Ending” and “Time’s Arrow”–seem to have directly informed this new series), but “Undone” has none of the blatant satire or absurdity of its predecessor. It manages to feel both more real and dreamier.

Like another streaming series I’ve reviewed recently, a lot of weight rests on the shoulders of one woman to sell both the likeability of her frequently unlikeable character, and the terror and wonder of confronting fantastic forces that feel beyond her control. In this case, that’s Rosa Salazar, who earned her chops in animation-enhanced acting in the title role of Alita: Battle Angel. Salazar’s Alma is by turns charming, selfish, independent, and righteous—but always compelling and deserving of empathy. We are given several opportunities to consider that we are putting our faith in a mentally unstable hero, but the urge for her to win out is consistent. Ably supported by a cast of supporting characters who could all headline their own show, Salazar is a true star.

It’s worth noting that one of the most delightfully weird elements of “Undone” is the way it mainstreams voices and cultures that are typically ignored, tokenized, or fetishized. Alma, for instance, is Latinx, Mestiza, half-Jewish, millennial, Texan (her rant about the Alamo is spot-on), but never any of these things exclusively to advance the plot or at the expense of being relatably human. Similarly, her father’s faith or her boyfriend’s home country are essential to understanding them and who they are to Alma, but they don’t feel like they came from a diversity checklist devised to maximize revenue streams. They’re interesting, they add complexity, and they make a surreal enterprise feel very real. If it’s weird, it’s because it’s finally not weird at all.

“Undone” is hardly perfect. The limits of the animation can be felt most in the “real-world” scenes, when actors walk awkwardly in and out of scenes like they’ve stepped out of the cutscenes from a 1990s CD-ROM game. Perhaps even more awkward is the basic limitation of the TV series itself. To spend time in a created universe is to ultimately need some kind of understanding; we’re gonna need to know how the transporter works, even if it’s just a device to get Kirk down to the planet. The more Alma begins to take control over time and space, the more invested we become in knowing what’s going on, and that can be incredibly dangerous for a series. Explain too much and you’re “Lost;try and pile on the mysteries for too long and you’re “Twin Peaks.” It’s a fine line, and with the prospect of a second season teased by this season’s finale, “Undone” is teetering right on the edge. But for now, the show is an easy-to-binge, well-balanced mélange of sober and strange.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages somehow to be both surreal and yet strangely hyper-real, a sensation enhanced by the technique of rotoscope animation, which traces live-action actors (all terrific) against oil-painting backgrounds to shimmering, hypnotic effect.”–Matt Roush, TV Insider

CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

Since we last visited our friends at Netflix, things have taken a turn on the streaming weirdness front. The dark future that may await us was succinctly outlined in this Fast Company headline: “Netflix canceling ‘Tuca and Bertie’ is a bad sign for all the distinctive, weird shows streaming is supposed to keep alive”. The lack of love for this quirky animated comedy—a cousin to the more widely acclaimed BoJack Horseman by way of the character design of Tuca creator Lisa Hanawalt—would seem to bode ill for fans of more offbeat programming, especially with the broader success of critically reviled features like Murder Mystery and Bird Box.

On the other hand, one of the service’s biggest brands, “Stranger Things,” is simply not the kind of mainstream fare you would be likely to find on network TV. Someone with the time and patience to scroll through all of the available programming would also find such offerings as the fiercely impenetrable “The OA,” the coal-black premise of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the deeply uncomfortable comedy of “I Think You Should Leave,” or the shifting tone of animated anthology “Love, Death & Robots.” And the decision to welcome back “Russian Doll” for a second season suggests weird is not quite yet off-limits.

So let’s hold off for a bit on eulogizing Netflix’s middle finger to the mainstream, and let’s instead turn our attention toward two recent debuts which have tripped the weirdometer for critics. They also point to two very different possible outcomes for on-demand bizarre entertainment.

Still from Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, FrankensteinWhen it comes to mockumentary, there are a number of goals the filmmaker can pursue. The granddaddy of them all, This is Spial Tap, joyously punctures of the legends of rock stars. A more recent example, Netflix’s own American Vandal, sets its sights on the dubious techniques and motives of “real-crime” films and podcasts. Another ongoing series, “Documentary Now!,” is concerned with replicating the look and feel of the subjects it lampoons with startling faithfulness and exactitude. The goal of “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein” seems to be to let star David Harbour be silly. At the outset, Harbour explains that he is investigating the fateful performance that destroyed his father’s career, an early 70s live (?) TV broadcast of a curious adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic in which the infamous scientist (also played by Harbour in full Wellesian pretentious-actor mode) poses as his own monster in order to secure funding.

It’s all very absurd. But there’s a big problem with “Frankenstein’s…”: all else aside, the program fails in its singular goal to be funny. You can tell the creators think they’re being hilarious, but nothing is believable enough to be satirical, and nothing is wacky enough to be independently uproarious. Harbour is meant to seem thunderstruck Continue reading CHANNEL 366: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER’S MONSTER, FRANKENSTEIN (2019) / ANIMA (2019)

CHANNEL 366: “RUSSIAN DOLL” (2019)

There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten
We never thought it would end then
We never thought it would end

–Harry Nilsson

DIRECTED BY: Leslye Headland, Jamie Babbit, Natasha Lyonne

FEATURING: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett, Greta Lee, Elizabeth Ashley

PLOT: After dying in a car accident the night of her 36th birthday, video game programmer Nadia finds herself alive once more, back at her party; a series of sudden and violent deaths demonstrate that she is trapped in a time loop, and increasing complications make it more challenging and essential that she understand why this is occurring and how she can emerge with her life and soul intact.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: “Russian Doll” is technically a TV series rather than a proper movie, and only slightly weird. It’s worth discussing, however, because it takes a shopworn premise and injects it with a combination of energy, quirk and unabashed heart that makes it feel fresh and worthy of the urge to jump into the next chapter.

COMMENTS: To even hear the plot to “Russian Doll” is to directly confront the woodchuck-shaped elephant in the room. Yes, it’s the recurring time loop, matched up with the repeated attempt to “get things right”. There may be hundreds of examples of the device across every medium, including some that ought to be listed somewhere. But one looms monolithically above the rest, the highest order of high-concept storytelling. The trope is even named after it. So if you’re gonna come at Groundhog Day, you best not miss.

It’s a measure of what a delightful experience “Russian Doll” is that not only does it not miss, it transcends this starting point to become very much its own clever, compelling creation. It does this through a combination of techniques and tricks, but the fulcrum of the whole enterprise is the impossibly-good Natasha Lyonne. With her Muppet-pelt hair, aggressively over-the-top Noo Yawk accent, and the attitude of a barely functional alcoholic with a permanent middle finger extended to the world, Nadia should not be tolerable even in eight compact episodes of television. But Lyonne has natural charm that quickly makes it apparent why her put-upon friends and rejected paramours remain drawn to her. She’s very funny (at a bar, her simple demand of the bartender is “More drunk, please”) and fiercely loyal, so much so that she frequently hurts others to spare them the greater pain she knows she tends to inflict. So once she realizes the nature of her predicament, we’re invested in her because we like her, not just because we’re eager to solve the puzzle. It helps that her redemption arc doesn’t shave off her sharp edges. (In addition to creating the show, Lyonne scripts and directs the final episode, putting her firmly in charge of her own story.) Nadia is still Nadia—sarcastic, impulsive, damaged at her very core—but she’s finding out how to be a better version of herself.

With the series’ focal point in strong hands, the show can invest in its other strengths, like a deep bench of interesting characters, a rich and absorbing lower Manhattan milieu to occupy, and a series of twists that compound the time-loop and lift the show out of the shadow of that Punxsutawney rodent.

The full shape of the streaming revolution is not yet clear, as shows have to hit a narrow sweet spot of buzzy and gimmicky just to hold on to the public’s attention. In some cases, this has resulted in series that rely on familiar brands, adapt controversial source material, or drop famous names into offkilter plots. (To say nothing of wild entries from across the sea.) What is has certainly done is inject a whole lot of why-the-hell-not bravery into a TV landscape dominated by procedurals, game shows, and rich people being awful. Streaming TV is making the tube safe for the weird, or at least the different, and while “Russian Doll” may not be the strangest thing you can find on Netflix, it goes a long way toward mainstreaming the fund of offbeat choices and audience challenges that have traditionally lived only on the fringes.

The series was co-created by Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler. A second season has been promised, which will be quite a trick. Season 1 is a shining little jewel box of a show. Having seen what I’ve seen, I’m confident in Lyonne’s abilities. But the risk is out there that the delicate balance of weird and palatable will be upended. But if they screw it up… well, I guess they can always start over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s funny, warm, and strange, growing deeper and more resonant across its eight episodes.”–Ned Lannaman, The Stranger (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ALPHAVILLE (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard

FEATURING: Eddie Constantine, , Akim Tamiroff,

PLOT: Detective Lemmy Caution sneaks into a soulless, computer-controlled metropolis in search of a fellow agent, and eventually sets about destroying the entire enterprise.

Still from Alphaville (1965)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Alphaville is Godard’s angry screed against the inhumanity of the modern world. Appropriately, he adopts a low-tech approach to depict a future world governed by mathematics and free of human passion, and lets the awkward collision of noir and science fiction create a naturally unsettling, thought-provoking landscape.

COMMENTS: There’s a story of how Alphaville came to be that is not strictly necessary to understanding the film, but which does offer an intriguing insight into the mind of its fiercely independent director. FBI agent Lemmy Caution was the creation of a British novelist, and was portrayed in seven French-language films by expatriate actor Eddie Constantine. Audiences came to know Caution as an archetype of the grizzled tough guy who is as apt to use his fists as his wits to solve problems. Godard evidently decided that this character would be the perfect antidote to a universe where a computer has extinguished human emotion, so he created a plot that brought the detective into the future. But knowing the havoc his plan would wreak, Godard enlisted his assistant director to draft a false treatment based on one of the original books, which was presented to the moneymen who eventually bankrolled the picture. Cash in hand, Godard set about making a movie of his own design with the cheeky subtitle une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), essentially obliterating the character and derailing Constantine’s career.

It’s a clever bit of legerdemain as well as a fascinating example of cultural appropriation. But I tell this story because it offers a useful insight into some of Godard’s  unusual choices in Alphaville. Soulless, dystopian futures were hardly without precedent, but as far as Godard is concerned, Paris in 1965 already is just such a dystopia. He carefully avoids the most familiar sights of the City of Lights, using newer buildings and designs to reflect the changing soul of the city. But even without futuristic flourishes or scenic adornment, Alphaville the city is unmistakably Paris, with modern architecture and new devices—Caution’s Instamatic camera and Ford Galaxie were startling new innovations for the time—standing in for the future-as-now. For this reason, Godard isn’t just stealing Lemmy Caution to be his bad boy. He needs the constant of Lemmy Caution to hold on to, because he’s out to show that the modern world has become completely detached from humanity; the detective is essential as a familiar icon of a blood-and-guts world to stand up to the soul-sucking new. And even if you aren’t familiar with the character specifically, Constantine’s recognizable hard-as-nails portrayal marks him as the thing that doesn’t belong in Alphaville. Like Mike Hammer showing up in Brave New World, Lemmy Caution is here to stand out, representing humanity in all its passion and even ugliness. He is discordant just by being.

Part of what makes everything so uncomfortable is how normal it all looks, with just one thing put off-kilter to turn the prism. Caution checks into a nice hotel room and is escorted by a helpful but disengaged employee who immediately takes off her dress in anticipation of being used for sex. Every room has a helpful dictionary, which is regularly replaced with a new volume to reflect the words that have been stricken from the vocabulary at the computer’s direction. Familiar cities still exist in the outside, but their names are slightly off. Leading citizens watch passively as rebels—in full-throated protest against the computerized dictatorship—are executed in a swimming pool, after which bathing beauties haul away the bodies. Perhaps the most distressing disconnect is heroine Natasha, a dark-eyed beauty whose status as the daughter of Alphaville’s creator is curiously irrelevant. When she makes a bold proclamation at the film’s conclusion—“Je t’aime”—it signals a connection with her humanity, but the words are chillingly unpracticed, as she tries them on like a pair of shoes that have yet to be broken in.

The most science fictional element is α60, the computer that runs Alphaville and saps the population of its humanity. Godard could never have envisioned the computer as the placid and murderous HAL 9000 or the charmingly imperious Ultron. Instead, α60 is malevolent, a mob boss with a voice that mangles speech as easily as its master plan mangles souls. The computer speaks bluntly of mankind’s doom, and only Caution seems capable of (or interested in) saying no.

Godard isn’t subtle. The scientist who runs the central computer is named von Braun, a blatant call-out to the German scientist who masterminded America’s moon rocket program. As if that weren’t sufficiently on-the-nose, we learn that von Braun previously went by the name Nosferatu. And when Caution destroys α60 with a few carefully chosen words from Jorge Luis Borges, the effect is so catastrophic that human beings are suddenly unable to walk. Faced with going big or going home, he lays it all on the table.

Because Godard has no time for subtlety. He sees the cataclysm happening in real time. He is demanding that the world rise up against those who would place formulas above poems. Humanity is dying, he says, and Alphaville is his howl at the dying of the light.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It begins as a fast-moving prank that combines the amusing agitations of a character on the order of James Bond and the highly pictorial fascinations of a slick science-fiction mystery, and it makes for some brisk satiric mischief when it is zipping along in this vein. Then, half way through, it swings abruptly into a solemn allegorical account of this suddenly sobered fellow with a weird computer-controlled society, and the whole thing becomes a tedious tussle with intellectual banalities.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by ubermolch. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

366 UNDERGROUND: SHE FOUND NOW (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Zachary O. Burch

FEATURING: Francesca Caterina Ghi, Nidalas Madden, Peyton Rowe, Tyair Blackman

PLOT: With a storm approaching, a group of housemates try to resolve their personal relationships, while a mysterious entity lurks in the shadows.

Still from "She Found Now" (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: She Found Now is a curious little film, featuring interesting screen images and loaded with portentous symbolism and mannered acting. But the dream state dramatized is not new enough to be surprising, and the weirder elements feel less motivated by the plot than positioned to obscure it.

COMMENTS: The pretty girl looks up from her pasta, searches for the right moment, and then makes her play to break the ice with her paramour: “So, I heard around that there’s supposed to be a hurricane coming by. Would you feel comfortable at my place?” Such is the nature of things in the universe of She Found Now—disaster lurks around the corner, but people show only the most casual awareness of it.

This scene, which kicks things off, is not like any other in the film, and yet it’s strangely representative of the movie as a whole. Most of the action, such as it is, takes place within a single apartment, but the characters are mentally elsewhere most of the time, either in a dream locale (like the restaurant, rendered in amusingly obvious green screen), a landscape of their own fears, or in the mind of someone outside. Our characters are trapped, but longing for an elsewhere they can only imagine.

The filmmakers clearly appreciate surreal humor. A scene in front of a static-filled television almost has a vibe to it, as more people keep arriving to gape at the screen. Similarly amusing is a game of Trivial Pursuit where the trivia is people’s lives: “How do you feel?” “Are you satisfied with yourself?” Director Burch and co-screenwriter K. L. Scott also have a knack for striking imagery: a monochromatic encounter with a mystery doppelganger is effectively creepy, while a shadow puppet that lingers and transforms is genuinely unsettling.

Given their limitations, the makers of She Found Now do a lot with a little. They clearly learned the trick of leaning into their challenges. For example, one can easily surmise that actors were not available to re-record dialogue. Instead, they cast new voices that are blatantly out-of-step with the visuals. It adds another layer of dissonance to a storyline that is built on mystery.

My biggest problem, though, concerns that mystery. All the surrealism, all the deliberate oddness and opaqueness… it doesn’t add up to very much. In the final act of the film, when all of our main characters are being stalked by a malevolent force, the antagonist is rendered as a guy with bear paws whose face is blocked out by a big dot. Should we know who this is? Is the absence of a face a metaphorical comment on our fears? Or is it just a lo-fi solution to an inability to properly represent the horror being invoked?

I was plagued by questions like this throughout She Found Now. Even the title flummoxed me. Is that a comment on the lead’s predicament, or her conclusion? Which now is “Now”? And should I draw any inference from the fact that the title is not only drawn from a song by cult shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine, but that the album in question marked that band’s emergence from a 14-year hiatus? She Found Now feels like a word problem that is impossible to solve because there just aren’t enough clues to piece the answer together, and yet the film is nothing without its mysteries.

There’s the hint of something powerful in She Found Now. I suspect the filmmakers were hoping to invoke something ian, a visual metaphor for potent psychological roadblocks. But the reference point I kept coming back to was “No Exit,” the legendary play by Jean-Paul Sartre in which three people trapped in a room for an eternity come to learn that “hell is other people.” These flatmates do not hate each other, but they are trapped in each others’ self-destructive orbits. But so much is invested in deliberately obscuring those real emotions in surreal decoration that the movie never gets to be what it really is.

CAPSULE: THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK (1984)

aka Gwendoline

DIRECTED BY: Just Jaeckin

FEATURING: Tawny Kitaen, Brent Huff, Zabou, Bernadette Lafont

PLOT: The precocious and beautiful daughter of a lost explorer follows his footsteps into the wilds of darkest Asia, stumbling upon a distaff cult that has harnessed the power of a volcano for their own nefarious ends.

Still from THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF YIK YAK (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gwendoline is going for a Barbarella-meets-Indiana Jones vibe, which means a lot of silliness and comic book-style strangeness. Ultimately, it’s all empty calories, neither compelling enough as a story nor strange enough as a concept to earn a spot here. Softcore eroticism is all it has to offer.

COMMENTS: This is undoubtedly a politically incorrect thing to say in this day and age, but for a teenage boy in the mid- to late-80s, premium cable was an absolute godsend. Before the internet gave us way too much access with more excitement and variety than the average copy of Playboy could offer, softcore cinema on TV was a treasure to any puberty-stricken manchild who had no concept of how to relate to the opposite sex but still longed with piquant desperation to see a bare breast. So many spring breaks and fraternity vacations and sorority car washes captured on celluloid seemingly for the exclusive enjoyment of these sad bubbling cauldrons of undirected testosterone… and if the movie had a nerdy theme or a B- to C- list star, so much the better.

The Perils of Gwendoline is an almost perfect exemplar of the form: a goofy adventure with shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring the only real reason for its existence—a frequently naked Tawny Kitaen. Before her hood-sliding appearance in Whitesnake videos (and well before her unfortunate turn as domestic abuser and troubled soul), Kitaen was probably best known as Tom Hanks’ smokeshow bride in Bachelor Party. With fiery red hair and a girl-next-door smile, she had all the makings of a star. Gwendoline is one of her few starring roles, and watching it… well, it quickly becomes clear why her career didn’t exactly take off. Kitaen is beautiful, but pouty and whiny. Yes, we expect our heroine to be shallow at first, as she wanders innocently into the wild world in pursuit of the rare butterfly that became her father’s obsession. But Gwendoline goes well past naïve and arrives at annoying, so much so that you wonder why her faithful maid Beth doesn’t ditch her at the first opportunity.

Gwendoline meets her match in the mercenary Willard, played with equal parts stupidity and obnoxiousness by Brent Huff. This relationship is clearly meant to sparkle with witty repartee, and perhaps the dubbed version of this French film achieves that goal. Alas, in English, not so much. Together, it’s a contest between Kitaen and Huff to see who can be the more irritating. But since we’re treated to several not-remotely-subtle excuses for Gwendoline and Beth to strip or writhe in ecstasy, it’s a burden we just have to bear.

Fortunately, once our adventurers escape from a tribe of cannibals of dubious racial sensitivity, we get to where the movie really wants to go: the hidden city of Pikaho (no, seriously), populated exclusively by women who fight and race chariots in leather shoulder pads and thong bikinis. This ups the weird quotient significantly, with complex explanations for how this society prospers, strange medieval-futuristic design mashups, and the all-important minimum justification for women to take off their clothes. It’s as though the filmmakers took their jungle adventure-pastiche as far as they could go, and then just started indulging every other fetish they had.

A movie like this can be enjoyably dumb, even beyond its usefulness as fantasy fodder. But Gwendoline is more often just dumb. For exotic locales and copious nudity (both specialties of director Jaeckin, as seen in his magnum opus, Emmanuelle), the movie delivers in spades. But for coherent story and decent acting, you should not have come here in the first place. It mainly serves as a relic of a far off time, back when one could turn to HBO after midnight for a glimpse of the forbidden.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Perils of Gwendoline is a movie I saw way back when I was probably too young to appreciate it, and time has only made it more wacky. Half a low-rent Indiana Jones rip-off, half a French tittie flick, The Perils of Gwendoline is bad to be sure, but it’s so bizarrely and charmingly bad that you simply have to see it to believe it really exists. Fans of bad acting, sets literally made of cardboard, and action sequences bordering on the surreally amateurish will have a ball with this one.” – Scott Weinberg, eFilmCritic

(This movie was nominated for review by Bob Barfield. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CRASH (1996)

DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg

FEATURING: James Spader, Holly Hunter, , ,

PLOT: The survivor of a violent car crash immerses himself in a hidden world of auto accident fetishists and the dangerous and masochistic lengths they go to in search of sexual gratification.

Still from Crash (1996)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With three other entries, you can’t feel too bad about depriving David Cronenberg of another spot on our very full list. But Crash undeniably focuses on a very unusual kink, and treats its obsessive pursuers with respect and understanding.

COMMENTS: When Crash came out, the conversation inevitably focused on its central fetish. Given his filmography—a  CV. deeply fascinated with the horrors of the body—a tale of sexual adventurers who find carnal thrills in confronting the specter of mechanized death must have seemed like a natural match for David Cronenberg. But the literalization of the characters’ passions—both sexual and automotive—was almost destined to shock and offend, regardless of who was behind the camera. Talk of such an outré fetish sucked all the air out of the room, reducing Crash to a one-line précis: “that movie where people get off on car crashes.” (Eventually to be replaced by: “No, the earlier one; not the one that solved racism.”)

For anyone who went to the multiplex anticipating the sex-fueled romp that the controversy portended, it must have been a rude awakening indeed. Has there ever been a sadder movie about sex?  Crash‘s interests are not prurient, strictly speaking. The characters are deeply unsatisfied, sexually and in all other ways. It’s almost cliché by now to build a film around characters who “just want to feel something,” but Cronenberg earns it by investing in the emotional hollows of people who feel isolated and yearn for an experience that feels authentic and meaningful, no matter how transgressive or self-destructive.

Consider the vacant stares of the beautiful people that populate Crash, led by loveable freak-a-deek James Spader. His James Ballard (who, significantly, shares a name with the original novel’s author) has a gorgeous wife, a powerful job in the film industry, a modern-to-with-an-inch-of-its-life condo… and he is dead to the world. He and his wife trade tales of their infidelities in hope of getting a charge from the jealousy. It takes a fatal car wreck that leaves him seriously injured to jump-start his moribund psyche. He pursues it by hooking up with a fellow survivor of his crash, but finds even deeper connections through an obsessive photographer who masterminds a secret underground club of fellow auto-smashup aficionados who re-enact car crashes of the rich and famous. None of these other people seem any happier, desperate as they are to recapture a high that can only be achieved by risking life itself.

Even if you’re enough of a go-with-the-flow kind of person to buy into the whole symphorophilic angle, Cronenberg manages to find a way to heighten the stakes for you, most notably through one of Vaughan’s acolytes, a crash victim in braces (Arquette) with a large scar on her leg that goes from being a visual simile of a vagina to a literal substitute for one. Of course, if you’ve watched James Woods turn his chest cavity into a gun holster, this may not seem that shocking to you. But where other Cronenberg films explore the human body through the lens of hallucination or horror-fantasy, Crash sets those filters aside. Yep, they’re really going to do it like that. Yep, they’re really going to revel in it.

And that’s probably what turned off so many people about Crash. There’s no shield, no veneer of artificiality to protect you from these people and things they will do to make a connection. They’re too weird to be normal, but not weird enough to easily dismiss, and certainly not the kind of “weirdness” the mainstream can usually handle, like being into super sexytime. As Cronenberg himself says, “I love to disappoint people.” Judging from the agony Spader and Unger radiate as their ultimate act of intercourse falls a mite short of true satisfaction, Cronenberg is a very happy man.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the result is so far from being involving or compelling, so intentionally disconnected from any kind of recognizable emotion, that by comparison David Lynch’s removed ‘Lost Highway’ plays like ‘Lassie Come Home.'” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times [contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kyle Conley. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)