The crash—be it in a car, train, plane, or less popular mode of high-speed, high-risk transport—is one of cinema’s basic visual sacraments, beginning with silent comedy’s injury-free Model T smack-ups. Like the dance number, the adventure-film stunt, and the gunfight, crashes have been ubiquitous ocular orgasms ever since Hollywood started using the phrase “big budget,” raising unshirted hell from a comfortable distance and filling the screen with krazy chaos that, in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, audiences would more than likely see nowhere else.
The attraction is primal—at the time that movies were first projected for audiences, transportation was relatively slow and scant on decimation, but combustive technology and flight raised the stakes on vehicular accidents, and the results were something to see. For seven decades or more, wrecks were an axiom of pulp entertainment—pure spectacle, resonating waves of hair-raising danger that never quite reached us.
That has changed: In movies, crashes are no longer just marvels of destruction or even narrative kick-starts. Slowly, the crash has claimed ground as a thematic and dramatic fulcrum, finding itself at the shaken, shuddering center of movies’ emotional mission. For openers, Crash did an astonishing job of raising consciousness about the fiery, deadening enchantment of mechanistic calamity. Of course, the film is Ballard and Cronenberg’s nipple-twist on civilian post-traumatic stress, a psycho-state usually relegated to subplots but addressed unblinkingly in Weir’s Fearless and Kieslowski’s Blue, both released in 1993. Here, surviving deadly catastrophe becomes its own perverting cross, and in both movies the wound is at first experienced as an incomprehensible unburdening. There is no other story; the crash has become the story.
In 1996, Jacques Doillon’s Ponette studied the bludgeoning aftereffects of an orphaning wreck on a four-year-old, for whom the accident ignites a crisis of metaphysical hunger. In the last two years, crash shock has proliferated: While Random Hearts is traditionally configured around an airplane wipeout, and Fight Club‘s one-car chicken race is only a minor impasse on its way to apocalypse hyperbole, Jesus’ Son hovers over a slick-highway crack-up as if it were a forbidding memory—as it would’ve been for the hero, had he not been lost on dope. The Dutch film Total Loss also flashes forward and back around a protracted flyaway pileup that punctuates everything coming before it with friction sparks and spraying glass. Pollock‘s climactic collision, like the ones that end both Steve Prefontaine biopics, is deliberately anticlimactic, while Erin Brockovich‘s opening sleight-of-hand whiplasher has Julia Roberts blindsided out of the corner of our eye; emotionally marginal, they still club the viscera. Unbreakable begins with an offscreen train derailment that seems to haunt the film and Bruce Willis’s gloom-plagued hero long after the nominal plot supposedly takes over. Cast Away‘s aerial plunge is a universalized nightmare come true, and never forgotten amid the trials that follow. You Can Count On Me‘s most potent moments stem from the sister-brother protagonists’ shared lives under the shadow of their parents’ fatal crash years before—a split second in time that continues to exhale decades later, dwarfing the lives that press on.
In reflecting and refracting their audience’s perspective, movies have been compelled to address the reality of vehicular disaster. As the century-plus of cinema and modern transportation has worn on, our mass participation in the dynamic has evolved from spectator to survivor. And anybody who’s escaped a serious crash can tell you that the electric relationship between an individual and the juggernaut trauma he or she experienced on the road or rails or airways is, in the end, harrying, demonically irreducible, and bottomlessly mysterious. (I’ve had my share, and my life turns on one of them as if on a hinge.) Strange as it may seem to the non-initiates, Ballard and Cronenberg’s vision isn’t merely metaphorical; it’s affective. So many of us belong to this tribe, and more are being inducted every hour. Crawling from the wreckage might be the characteristic social ache of the last and next 50 years, the holy ordeal of the postindustrial community. Our mundane experience of machinery gone amok has silently demanded representation, and movies have only begun to listen.