Crash: The Family-Values Edition

film-crashWhen David Cronenberg was editing Crash — a movie he always intended to be rated NC-17 — he put together an R-rated version as well. Why? Partly out of curiosity and partly, I suspect, because he knew that Fine Line Features would want a version palatable to Blockbuster (which prudishly and hypocritically refuses to stock NC-17 films), and he preferred to oversee the bowdlerization himself, rather than have some Fine Line intern mutilate his minor masterpiece.

Since I own a copy of the original, uncut Crash, I thought it might be fun to compare it to the MPAA-approved R-rated Crash — the version Blockbuster is proud to carry in its stock of family entertainment. I figured: Who knows? The cut version might include footage unseen in theaters — as did the TV version of Cronenberg’s major masterpiece, Videodrome (of which there are at least three versions: the TV version with added footage, the trimmed R-rated theatrical version, and the uncut, unrated video version).

Alas, the slashed Crash offers no such goodies; it’s just ten minutes shorter than the NC-17 version (which itself is pretty short, clocking in at 100 minutes). Unlike, say, Paul Thomas Anderson (“I hated losing this scene! I hated losing that scene!” he blurts repeatedly about the deleted scenes on the Boogie Nights DVD), Cronenberg is ruthless in the editing room. He isn’t much of a deleted-scenes guy: what you see in the finished movie is what he wanted to put there (since he has final cut). Ironically, for all intents and purposes, the NC-17 Crash isn’t much more explicit than the fun-for-the-whole-family Crash. This movie was never particularly explicit — the sex scenes merely suffered from the MPAA’s twin no-nos: length and frequency.

What we’re missing in the R version, with three major exceptions, is a few seconds shaved off all the sex scenes. Just as a few spurts of blood make the difference between an R-rated horror film and an NC-17 horror film, so a few frames of writhing and bumping make the difference between the NC-17 Crash and the R-rated Crash. Some of the trims are unnoticeable unless you watch both versions side by side; most of the cuts amount to a stroke or thrust here, a semen-stained hand there. That’s not to say there’s no difference, though.

In one case, the R-rated cut eliminates one of the film’s bits of deadpan humor — when Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) is mechanically straddling James Ballard (James Spader) in a car, asking “Have you come?” (He mumbles “I’m okay.”) The R version picks them up when they’re finished, adjusting their clothes. Another funny bit — when Ballard, Helen, and the maimed Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) fondle each other while watching Swedish crash-test videos — is only alluded to in the R version, which deletes the panning shot of their heavy petting.

The most eye-opening difference is the loss of an entire scene — when Ballard is copulating with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) and she’s talking him through a homosexual fantasy involving the car-crash guru Vaughan (Elias Koteas). Both parties are totally nude in the scene, which is probably the most explicit in the movie (actual genital contact is about all you don’t see). So the MPAA’s objection to the scene isn’t surprising — but it is stupid.

What do you lose when you lose this scene? Well, let’s see. You lose the set-up for Ballard’s later tryst with Vaughan. You lose the information that Ballard is disclosing his new explorations to Catherine (as they disclose other such extramarital activities), and so, when Catherine goes along for a ride with Ballard and Vaughan in the R-rated cut, it’s jarring (how does she know about Vaughan?). You lose what Cronenberg called the three-way sex — they’re having sex with an imaginary third person in bed with them (Vaughan).

Most of all, you lose Cronenberg’s complex, subtle sexual syntax — who’s fucking whom, and who’s positioned where, is the source of much unspoken information in this movie. In this case, we see that Ballard (who is boffing Catherine from behind) is beginning to distance himself from his wife — and perhaps readying himself for anal sex with Vaughan. (Incidentally, this scene also comes right before the “Have you come?” scene, where Helen is straddling Ballard but is no longer facing him, as she was in an earlier scene.)

Another brief scene completely gone from the R-rated version — perhaps because it links sex and violence in a direct and disturbing way — is the one after the car-wash sequence, when the nude Catherine reclines and displays the bruises Vaughan left on her body during their rough backseat sex. We no longer see the physical toll Ballard’s journey is taking on his wife, and we lose the visual foreshadowing (“Prophecy is dirty and ragged”) of the tattooing scene that precedes the sex between Ballard and Vaughan. And the movie now ends on the famous line “Maybe next time,” without the final roadside sex between Ballard and the dazed Catherine as the camera pans up and away.

Oddly, the film’s most celebrated/reviled moment — when Ballard mounts (not unlike a dog in heat) the vagina-like scar on Gabrielle’s leg — remains, to these eyes, pretty much intact. Whether a few frames have been clipped here isn’t really relevant; you get the sense of what he’s doing, as you did in the NC-17 cut — and is this what Blockbuster Video considers acceptable R-rated family entertainment? Gee, maybe Blockbuster is more radical than I thought. Ditto the MPAA — or maybe they didn’t understand what was going on in the scene. And yes, all the car-accident gore is intact; the MPAA approves of mangled bodies but disapproves of naked bodies — what else is new?

In any event, your best bet is obviously Cronenberg’s NC-17 version, available in video stores without sticks up their asses. I’ve also seen the uncut tape for sale at Suncoast; it’s not letterboxed, but Cronenberg usually shoots 1.66:1, which is so close to TV’s 1.33 aspect ratio that you don’t lose much in the transfer. You certainly lose less than you will if you watch the R-rated version — which isn’t Crash, but merely a fender-bender.

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