In the documentary The American Nightmare, David Cronenberg describes the characters in his films as trying to “derail biology,” something that’s seen in the mutations undergone by characters in Shivers, The Fly and many others. Among this portion of Cronenberg’s output, the films that do the most with the derailing of biology are Videodrome and Crash, establishing their own landscapes and languages of mutated desires, queering the norm and forcing characters to question both what they want and who they are.
For both of these films, desire becomes queered by the way in which it relates to technology. Videodrome and Crash present characters whose physical desires become fused with the technology that begins to take over their lives. The cold, the mechanical, the projected — all of these traits become lively embodied and erotic.
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After his first car wreck, and the rush of eroticism that comes with it, Crash’s James Ballard (James Spader) is in the hospital, recovering from his injuries. His wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), describes the wreck and slowly sexually gratifies James. She says that “the cabin was deformed, there was dust and glass. Plastic flakes everywhere inside. The carpeting was damp, it stank of blood and other body and machine fluids.” This soft, almost hypnotic monologue shows the first step in the world of Crash that melds the coldly clinical with the sexually alive; desire is turned on its head, fueled by acts of destruction. The characters’ bodies are joined together almost as if they’re extensions of car wrecks themselves, something vividly seen in the film’s final moments: James and his wife have sex in the wreckage of their car, with their bodies literally extending out of it like spare parts. It is, of course, the impact of the crash that drives their bodies together.
In David Cronenberg’s Crash, this twisting of bodies and sexual desire is described by Vaughan (Elias Koteas), as “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology,” a theme that’s also at the forefront of Videodrome. While Crash exists in the coldly detached world, Videodrome’s is violently subjected, warped and shaped by the hallucinations of Max Wren (James Woods). Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) — not his real name, but his television name — argues to Max that “television is reality. And reality is less than television.” Like Max, Brian experienced visions after exposure to the Videodrome signal, visions that he says “coalesce and become flesh. Uncontrollable flesh.” These merging of thoughts and flesh showcase how Videodrome queers desire and bodies. The bodies are forced to change as a response to outside stimuli that brings pain and pleasure simultaneously. In both Crash and Videodrome, this takes the form of a sort of heightened sadomasochism. There’s a sequence in Videodrome where Max enters a red-walled room where the programme is broadcast from. At first, he’s given a whip by Nicki (Debbie Harry), in the flesh, but as this act goes on, the object of his abuse and affection changes, to a TV with Nicki inside it. She says, within the TV, “what are you waiting for lover? Let’s perform.” The TV is just as alive as the real Nicki,, as it seems to move, in pain and pleasure, from the impact of Max’s strikes.
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The landscape of desire changes in both of these films. In Videodrome, it’s TV studios and screens themselves, and in Crash, it’s car wrecks and hospitals. Desire is reconfigured in both of these films to align with the alterations and mutations of the body. The “new flesh” that is praised in Videodrome becomes a battleground of pain, pleasure and twisted desire.
With these changes in desire, there’s a sense of sexual fluidity that overcomes some of David Cronenberg’s characters. The most stark, disturbing example of this is in Videodrome. Max’s hallucinations begin to affect his body, as well as the world around him. Sitting down, watching Videodrome, he idly scratches at a wound on his stomach — a wound that develops, changes and mutates. What was once a small cut becomes a vagina. The mutation that his body undergoes queers both his biology and his desire. There’s a similar fluidity brought on by heightened desire in Crash. While having sex with James, Catherine asks him questions about Vaughan: would James fuck Vaughan, or suck his penis. She also bluntly asks “are you attracted to him?” James’ response speaks volumes not only for the heightened sexuality that he’s become surrounded with, but also the ways in which it forces him to reconsider his own desires: “I don’t know. But when he’s in that car…” For James, cars, and their wrecks, have become the sites of desire, and have begun to queer his own sexuality. In conversation with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), he asks about Vaughan photographing her during sex, asking if the acts were being treated “as if they were traffic accidents.” Her response is as cold and clinical as the world around her: “Yes. They felt like traffic accidents.”
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In David Cronenberg’s Crash, sex feels like a traffic accident. In Videodrome, it becomes the subject of a warped, projected fantasy. Technology attacks and merges with the body in extremis, forcing people and their flesh to be reconfigured, and queered. In Videodrome, Max is literally seduced by the image of a Nicki Brand broadcast, seemingly meant for him alone, on Videodrome. The image on the TV has a Beckettian focus on her lips as she teases Max: “Come to me now. Come to Nikki. Don’t keep me waiting.” Max doesn’t keep her waiting, as he moves in to kiss her image and is literally pulled into the screen, into a new landscape of warped desire.
The idea of “derailing biology,” as David Cronenberg himself puts it, situates the body horror in his films as a queer act. His characters aren’t derailing biology, but queering it. From the sex organ that grows on Max’s stomach to the fusions of metal and skin, crashing and contact, these bodies are queering themselves and their desires. It even forces James to question his sexuality in terms of desire, just as the hallucinations of Videodrome force Max to question the sex of his own, ever-changing body.
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While the bodies of these David Cronenberg characters are fusions of technology and skin, the acts that they engage in are also a sort of fusion. The description that Helen gives of sex acts feeling “like traffic accidents” makes sense. The way that bodies come together in both Videodrome and Crash are violent collisions of opposites. Through the destruction and creation of flesh and tech in Videodrome, these desires contradict themselves. In order to create, James Ballard must destroy both his body and his car, although — as the David Cronenberg film goes on — the line between the two things begins to blur. Technology becomes an extension of the individual, queering their body and changing desires.
The queerness of these mutations comes out in the ways that the characters react to the world. The cold distance of Crash is literally destroyed by the contact of metal on metal, and then skin on skin — just like in Videodrome, when television becomes reality, and reality becomes less than television. In American Nightmare, after saying that his characters are “derailing biology,” David Cronenberg says that such an act is “of course, to derail destiny,” something that can easily be read as an act of queer resistance, for better or worse. Max himself tries to resist Videodrome for as long as he can, even crying out “death to Videodrome.” His last words echo out from the TV screen, embodying the contradictory, destructive resistance that these mutating bodies try and fail to reach: long live the new flesh.
Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a writer, artist and editor. Their writing on the intersections of culture, queerness and politics has been published by The Los Angeles Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies and other places both in print and online.