Controversy is a trick of the trade

This week it's `Crash', last month it was `Kids', before that it was `Reservoir Dogs'. Cinema seems to be driving further and further off-limits. But, as John Lyttle argues, those who rush to the defence of Western morality are going precisely where the industry wants them
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The wonderful thing about movies destined to destroy western civilisation is that, if you miss one, there's always another along in a minute. Too young for A Clockwork Orange ("A sick film for a sick society," the Sunday Telegraph), Peeping Tom ("The filthiest film I remember seeing," The Spectator) and Bonnie and Clyde ("A cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy," New York Times)? What about Straw Dogs ("If this goes, anything goes," Evening Standard)? Or Taxi Driver ("A gory, cold-blooded story of a sick man's supposed catharsis through violence... ugly and unredeeming," LA Times)? Skipped the recent Reservoir Dogs ("A subversive, dangerous piece of work," Daily Mail), The Bad Lieutenant ("Should carry some kind of health warning or, better still, a complete ban," Sunday Mirror) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer ("A brutal, sickening outrage," Today)? And what of The Wild Bunch, Man Bites Dog, The Last Temptation of Christ and Romper Stomper? They also passed you by? How extraordinary.

Still, never mind. For hurtling down the highway, running every red light, comes Crash, David Cronenberg's film of JG Ballard's novel of sex and wrecks, mutilation and motors, dashboards and death: heavy-petting metal. And hot on its wheels is the Evening Standard, resident critic Alexander Walker parping the horn and magicking road rage into ritual denunciation. All together: "A movie beyond the bounds of depravity... the most corrupt movie ever made... a big-time film, all the right names, all reputable pedigrees, but pornography all the same... left many hardened film-goers at the Cannes preview feeling debased... it is going to encounter enormous resistance to public exhibition... Ballard and his associates... have fashioned a film that is immoral by any reasonable standard."

Ah, movies peddle dangerous smut, newspapers peddle mandarin morality. The Standard's stern hand-signals to a wilfully blinkered world are right up there with Time magazine's infamous trashing of Tennessee Williams's Southern sex comedy Baby Doll: "Possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited, with Priapean detail that might well have embarrassed Boccaccio." (As reviewer Pauline Kael, feigning disappointment, later deadpanned, "It's not quite all that, but it is a delight.") The fact that Baby Doll is now regarded as something of a classic - ditto A Clockwork Orange, Peeping Tom, Reservoir Dogs, and most of the other crimes against nature listed above - should remind us that critics have a historical resistance to work that, to purloin a Hollywood phrase, "pushes the envelope". It's true for all branches of the arts in all periods. Think Rite of Spring, Afternoon of a Faun, Finnegans Wake, Cubism. Any old "ism", actually.

Movies, however, start from an automatic disadvantage. For, while the cultural elite may partake, movies are invariably aimed squarely at the common herd, who must be led. If, on the other hand, a picture has "all the right names... and reputable pedigrees", the common herd yields to some vague Other. Some vague Other assumed not to have your ethical insight, intellectual grasp and impeccable taste. Not that Walker isn't entitled to his opinion. He is. What's more, the celluloid PR machine has learnt to stop worrying and love it. These days, if you can't manage a rave, raving is the next best thing.

"Will Crash be damaged by this?" laughs one Wardour Street insider when asked the leading question. "Frankly, the opposite. Despite starring Holly Hunter, who's a recent Oscar-winner, and James Spader, Crash is a hard sell...

"Cronenberg's last few films have not matched expectations. The Naked Lunch not doing well surprised a lot of people. M Butterfly did not attract a lot of notice. Crash is already getting attention...

"I'd certainly call it a `money review'. Other papers are going to pick it up. A cycle starts. People read about it and don't want to be left out. They want to be part of the loop, they want to be scandalised.

"What Alexander Walker has done is to turn a difficult sell into an `event picture'. I think that term came about with The Exorcist. That film had a sizeable promotional budget, but what Warner Brothers discovered was that all the stuff they were trying to keep low-key was what was giving the film `legs' [ie box-office longevity]. I still remember a quote from a woman queuing to see The Exorcist. She said, `I wanted to see what everyone was throwing up about.'

"The controversy took The Exorcist on to another level. Even the controversy about its rating. When it was being readied for release in America, there was talk that it would be given an X. That would have been commercial suicide. But it wasn't given an X, because it cost Warners too much, so it was given a PG [Parental Guidance]. Which is funny. I can't imagine anyone taking their children to see The Exorcist."

So will Crash be denied a certificate over here? "I don't think so. That's been said of everything from Reservoir Dogs to Natural Born Killers. It happens very rarely... There was The Good Son recently; but that was about a child who killed, and there had just been the James Bulger trial. And I can explain the ban on Salo [Pasolini's bloody and explicit meditation on Fascism]: first, it was a foreign film; second, there was no major money or studio or distributor behind it. Crash is something else again. But suggesting it won't get a certificate is a solid hook. If I were handling Crash, I'd be happy..."

Indeed. It also creates the sort of anticipation that even blanket mainstream advertising can no longer automatically guarantee, with audiences growing ever more sophisicated, not to say cynical, about the tricks of the trade.

Only, of course, controversy itself could be justifiably considered a trick of the trade. Or, more accurately, trades. Cinema, commercial and art-house, stands permanently charged with doing anything to sell tickets, with nary a word said about newspapers needing to sell copies. Each, of course, accuses the other of hype, but what, from a distance, may look like a stand-off increasingly seems, on closer inspection, to be a cosy and mutually comfortable relationship. The makers of Kids want to promote their film, so they print plenty of photos featuring a supposed 12-year- old girl kissing a barely older boy. Hold the feature and comment and film pages and print that picture BIG, over and over - the "Kids kiss", mega box-office for one or all.

Or perhaps some hack simply decided to take something fundamentally serious and sensationalise it. For just how conscious, how calculated, the symbiotic process is it's impossible to say. But that the process can be managed is beyond doubt. "A critic having a go at Crash is something the makers have probably factored in, or dreamt about," says our Wardour Street cynic. "You know certain critics' biases. Yes, I have leaked titbits and invited particular names to previews hoping to get a certain type of reaction. I'm not the only one." Laugh. "But that's not cheating. We're not telling them what to write. It's a platform they are pleased to jump on. They know the formula."

And what the formula does is to polarise response: for or against; pure or corrupting; good or bad. But that's not what really happens. The plain fact is that the much-derided, but infinitely astute, masses have traditionally been able to cope with advances, outrages and dollops of the "depraved" without any damage to the collective psyche or value system. We are, after all, depending on the rating, mostly talking about those over the age of 18. Adults, in other words.

It doesn't actually matter if a low-budget independent movie courts "shock horror" as a cost-effective means of garnering media coverage for a project either high-toned or low-life, or if a studio is being honest or deceitful in its assertions about the sociological and artistic merits of showing the first "virtual reality rape" (see Strange Days). Audiences even cope with (that is, see through) the bad pictures that either fail to be, or pretend to be, radical or risk-taking while merely being heavy-handed or exploitative. Take Strange Days again: it didn't have the chance to be controversial because it (deservedly) flopped. Revealingly, once the box-office figures started coming in, neither 20th Century Fox nor once- slavering journalists gave another thought to the ethics of "virtual reality rape". Ditto audience rejection of Natural Born Killers and Showgirls, both made by the sort of sledgehammer directors whose output makes the task of real (if troublesome) talents like David Cronenberg all the more difficult. Yes, yes, the selfsame masses did make Basic Instinct and JFK into box-office hits, but they saw, too, that these were different kinds of movies, albeit from the same sources. And besides, a little showbiz vulgarity can be good for the soul.

The point remains: the audience has a habit of "getting it" - whatever form "it" may, in this instance, be adopting - with an ease that eludes our cultural guardians (ah, but who will guard the guardians?). This would explain why, after many gore-dripping headlines, the much-delayed Reservoir Dogs could finally transfer to video without attracting one complaint from a public previously warned to be afraid, very afraid.

Despite equally dire warnings, it is unlikely that Crash will persuade punters to ram other motorists on the way home from screenings, suddenly eager for kinky kicks. They may, though, as the Standard states, be revolted (revulsion might, after all, be the point). Or they could be enthralled. Or bored. Certainly, there's a predictably broad spectrum of reaction among those who have seen the film (I am not yet of that lucky band; I am merely willing to give Cronenberg the benefit of the doubt). "A masterpiece," says one. "Tedious," opines another. "A partial return to form," pitches for the middle ground. What is clear from these reports is that anyone expecting "pornography" will be disappointed. Unless Alexander Walker is using that term in its strict legal sense, meaning material that is liable to deprave, rather than in its colloquial incarnation, meaning material that arouses. We're talking whimper, not bang.

But Walker must, naturally, report on what he, and he alone, perceives - even if he has no apparent faith in the film-makers, or in his readers, to make informed choices. He can't be held to account for inadvertently feeding the very thing he loathes. You write, and you offer the limelight. It's an unavoidable paradox. Much like the paradox Cronenberg inhabits: showing unpleasant things and knowing that someone is sure to thunder that he's endorsing, not dissecting. It's ironic - but it's an irony that should work to each gentleman's advantage.