Ever since it was launched at the Cannes International Film Festival last May, leaving an audience of the world’s most jaded filmgoers dazed and confused, David Cronenberg’s Crash has been on a collision course with controversy. Splitting the jury at Cannes, it came away with an unprecedented prize for “audacity, originality and daring.” Crash, a tale of characters who get their sexual kicks from car accidents, went on to become a boxoffice smash last summer in France. It has also made an impressive dent in Canada, racking up $1.3-million in damage at the box office in just one month. But in the United States, Crash appears to have hit a serious roadblock—in the form of media mogul Ted Turner.
Cronenberg told Maclean’s last week that Turner saw the film and was so outraged by it that he halted its American release. The U.S. distributor of Crash is Fine Line Features, a division of New Line Cinema—a part of the Turner empire, which recently merged with Time-Warner Inc. Originally, Fine Line’s U.S. release of Crash was timed to coincide with its October release in Canada. But last June, amid reports that Turner found the film repulsive and wanted to bury it, Cronenberg learned that Fine Line was pushing back the release to next spring. And now, despite reassurances from Fine Line that the film is set to open in U.S. theatres in March, he says, “I’m still worried that it will not be released at all. And the delay has already done hideous damage to the film. We’ve lost the momentum we’d built up from Cannes.”
Stories of Turner’s interference with Crash have been circulating through the industry since June. Last month, Cronenberg finally talked to a New Line executive who, the director says, privately confirmed that Turner’s outraged response to Crash was in fact the reason for the delay. “He said all the rumors were true,” Cronenberg recalls. “He said Turner was morally offended and worried about copycat incidents.” The notion that viewers might get behind the wheel and act out Crash scenarios on the open road strikes Cronenberg as absurd. “I can’t imagine what Turner is thinking,” he says. “Is he worried that people are going to masturbate in their cars and smash into one another? Or that they’re going to take long, lingering car washes with their girlfriends ... or what?” Turner was unavailable for an interview last week, and a representative at his Atlanta headquarters declined to comment.
The obstacles encountered by Crash point to a larger trend. As Christian conservatism gains ground in the United States, and media conglomerates swallow up independent production companies, the future of tough, provocative films is becoming increasingly precarious. After Disney’s takeover of Miramax Films two years ago,
Miramax executives discovered they no longer had the freedom to release fdms with an NC-17 rating—ones restricted to an adult audience. And Turner has squelched plans to air Bastard Out of Carolina, a searing drama about child sexual abuse directed by Anjelica Huston and commissioned by the Turner Broadcasting System. “I think it’s very ominous,” says Cronenberg. “Miramax has been Disneyfied, and New Line has been Turnerized.”
Cronenberg’s concerns are echoed by many of his colleagues. “It is censorship in the worst possible way,” says Bingham Ray, a senior executive at October Films, the largest truly independent U.S. film company, whose fall releases include the Cannes award winners Secrets and Lies and Breaking the Waves. “What happened with Crash,” adds Ray, “is that there’s one individual and his wife [Jane Fonda] who took exception to this film and said, ‘No way, we’re not putting our name on it.’ We would love to have distributed that film. I think it has ‘hit’ written all over it.” Fine Line president Ruth Vitale, who is based in New York City, told Maclean’s that the company fully intends to release Crash in March. “The movie is outrageous and wonderful,” she says. “It deserves time. There’s about 40 films being released from now until the end of the year— it’s the most crowded marketplace—and there’s no need to jam Crash into a space just to cram it in. Crash has enough of its own buzz to hold until March, when it could really perform and realize its potential.”
Another Fine Line executive recently told The Hollywood Reporter, a trade paper, that Crash does not need to open in the fall because it is not an Academy Award contender.
“That annoys me no end,” says Cronenberg. “David Lynch got a nomination for directing Blue Velvet, which was a big shock because it was such an extreme film.” He adds that director Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, said it was “the best-directed film he had ever seen, and Bernardo Bertolucci [Last Tango in Paris] told me it was a religious masterpiece. So that’s two votes right there— and I’d vote for it.”
Meanwhile, Cronenberg remains skeptical about Fine Line’s commitment to release the movie in March. “I’m still not convinced,” he says. “They’ve also denied that Ted Turner had anything to do with the release schedule, and I know that to be a lie. Turner’s rancor about the film is deep, and it’s not a money thing, because the movie has proved it can make money.” The Crash cast is very upset by the delay,” he adds. Holly Hunter has called Turner’s treatment of the film an act of “cultural fascism.” Casting further uncertainty over the release are reports that Time-Warner is seeking to sell both New Line and Fine Line. “Basically, we feel that New Line executives are no longer in control,” says Cronenberg. “Now, they’re serving two masters: Time-Warner and Turner. They’re in an untenable position. And it seems to be getting more untenable by the minute. They don’t know where they’re going to be, and they’re putting on a brave front.”
If and when Crash hits U.S. theatres, Fine Line has agreed that it should carry an NC-17 rating, which cuts off access to some major advertising outlets, theatres and video chains. Cronenberg cut a version for Blockbuster Video that would comply with an American R-rating (permissible for children accompanied by adults). “But part of it was an experiment to see what the R-rated version would look like,” he says. “It’s 10 full minutes shorter. And that doesn’t make any sense to me.” Adds the director: “The NC-17 rating carries a stigma that is completely undeserved. But if you want an R-rating, you have to consider that a five-year-old can see it.”
Crash is not the only Canadian movie that has run into trouble with the American rating system. Last year, the Motion Picture Association of America, the ratings umpire, asked Toronto director Patricia Rozema to make cuts to her lesbian romance, When Night is Falling, to avoid the NC-17 brand. “If it were a heterosexual love story, they wouldn’t have thought twice about it,” says Rozema, recalling her negotiations with the MPAA. But, to avoid appearing homophobic, the MPAA focused on the movie’s one heterosexual love scene, she says. “It was a hilarious process where they tried to indicate what they found offensive—you can only have a certain number of thrusts.” In the end, Rozema declined to make the cuts and her U.S. distributor, October Films, released the movie unrated. The moral context for sexual content carries significant weight in the eyes of the MPAA, according to Rozema. “Even Basic Instinct could be tolerated to a greater degree because it was a cautionary tale of vicious killer dykes, whereas the entire context of my film is that these were regular folks and that love was a beautiful thing.”
As Rozema’s distributor, Ray deplores his country’s double standard for sex and violence. “We live in a culture that celebrates violence, and tolerates it,” he says. “But sex tends to scare people. It’s OK to put a gun to a woman’s head in a movie advertisement, but to touch a woman’s breast is taboo. And I think that’s sick.”
October Films has released several NC-17 films, including Abel Ferrara’s 1995 vampire movie, The Addiction. And it had to make a cut to avoid an NC-17 for Breaking the Waves, Danish director Lars von Triers’s brilliant melodrama about a disabled oil-rig worker who drives his bride to sexual degradation. The movie contains a brutal rape scene. But all the MPAA wanted cut, says Ray, was a tender moment between the newlyweds in which she touches his penis.”
The MPAA ratings system was created by the Hollywood studios to police themselves. But as certain media titans, such as Ted Turner, take their moral leadership to heart, there may be less and less room for disturbing content in film and television. Last year, Disney demanded that Miramax make cuts to Kids, an acclaimed movie about teenage sexuality, before finally allowing its subsidiary to release it through another company altogether. And, according to the show business bible Variety, Turner is obstructing even international sales of Huston’s Bastard Out of Carolina, which contains graphic scenes of child rape and repeated physical abuse.
Meanwhile, Cronenberg, a mild-mannered provocateur from a mild-mannered nation, has confounded an American mogul’s code of cinematic decency with one the most provocative films of the decade. Canada has been importing screen violence from the United States for years. By exporting sex, if the gods see fit, perhaps it can improve the balance of trade.
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