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Death Metal

When Paul Walker died in the fiery crash of his Porsche Carrera GT on 11/30/2013 in Valencia, California, it was an eerie reminder of James Dean’s death in a Porsche 550 Spyder on 09/30/1955 just outside Cholame, California. (See Figure #1)

three firefighters stand around the mangled wreck of Paul Walker's red Porsche, spraying it down with hoses even though the fire appears to be out. The car is crushed as if it has gone through a compactor, with sheets of metal sticking up and possible debris that pierced the windshield. The front tire is turned completely to face the viewer, roughly perpendicular to what appears to be the hood, and the rest of the car is unrecognizable
Fig 1. Paul Walker's crashed Porsche Carerra

Here was another successful star of youth-oriented movies dying relatively young (40) in a car crash. Both Walker and Dean were car enthusiasts, both were with companions when they died—Dean’s as the passenger (he lived), Walker’s as the driver (he died)—both raced, both owned exotic Porsches, both died in exotic Porsches. It is a little early to tell if the impact of Walker’s death will rival Dean’s. Will there be a movie November 30, 2013 to dramatize the impact of his death as September 30, 1955 did with Dean’s?

Probably not, but some signs are already there that his death is special. You can see it in the unauthorized ceremonies that have already taken place at the crash site: the piles of flowers, the small planes trailing banners over the site with messages like "R.I.P. God be with Fast and Furious star Paul Walker."

And then there all the heartfelt tributes to “one of their own” posted at the scene as well as the ritual procession of mourners past the site, some in cars that had already been modified to look like the star cars of the Fast and Furious franchise that has grossed over $2billion. There are less respectful responses to his death like the collecting of relics at the crash site: an eighteen-year-old was arrested shortly after posting a picture of the roof panel he took from the scene on Instagram.

Walker’s crash has produced probably the key element in transforming his death into a myth—Walker and Roger Rodas, who was driving the Porsche, faked their deaths. That claim was on the Internet within days of Walker’s crash. After Dean’s death, there were many such stories. I remember one in particular: his growing tired of Hollywood and faking his death so he could race in peace in Canada. Auto deaths of famous people seem to generate an inordinate number of conspiracy theories and hoaxes.

Walker is just the latest in a long list of famous people who lost their lives in car wrecks: royalty like Princess Diana and Grace Kelly, Hollywood royalty like Jane Mansfield and Dean, as well as artists and writers like Jackson Pollack, Albert Camus, Nathanael West, and W.G. Sebald. The list of musicians killed in crashes is long and cuts across genres. It includes Marc Bolan, Eddie Cochran, Harry Chapin, Clifford Brown, and Lisa Lopes. It doesn’t include rappers shot in their cars, like Kenny Clutch (Maserati), Future (Maybach), OG Double D (Maybach), Notorious B.I.G. (Suburban), and the most famous Tupac Shakur (BMW 750).

There is something about car crashes that demands our attention. It partly has to do with the fact that they are dramatic, sad, shocking, and unprepared for. But there is something else. Plane crashes are noteworthy no matter who dies in them because they are unusual. Car accidents are commonplace, ever present. Every time we take to the highway, we risk an accident. We know when we see one, we feel it is less likely we will have one. We have all experienced that guilty sense of satisfaction in finally seeing the twisted metal of crashed cars after a long wait in a rubbernecking line and our disappointment, as if he have robbed of something, if the accident scene has been cleared when we get there. We don’t want to see bodies, but the wrecked cars, yes. There is more than crude, heartless voyeurism at work here.

Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck” evokes the existential questions an accident, any serious accident, raises for those involved:

The traffic moves around with care,

But we remain, touching a wound

That opens to our richest horror.

Already old, the question, Who shall die?

Becomes unspoken, Who is innocent?

For death in war is done by hands;

Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;

And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.

But this invites the occult mind,

Cancels our physics with a sneer,

And spatters all we knew of dénouement

Across the expedient and wicked stones.

From the Keystone Kops to Fast and Furious, movies can be seen as helping us dispel the anxiety that follows us on the highway like a blacked-out van, that sprouts from car wreckage, and that often creeps into the souls of drivers and passengers alike. We know, we always know, in the back of our minds that 35,000 Americans, more or less, will die on the highways in any given year (NHTSA). Movies relieve the pressure of that knowledge by making the chase and the crash, whether comic or dramatic, simply absurd.

In a collective repetition compulsion, we watch car chases over and over again in movie after movie to insulate ourselves. But the price of any compulsion is that the stakes have to be continually raised. We expect that each new chase will outdo the ones that came before, or we are bored. This need has made the car-destroying-car chase into more than a dramatic plot device. It has become a film’s reason for being. There is a whole genre of chase movies, both good and bad, from Thelma and Louise to The Chase, from Vanishing Point to Smokey and the Bandit, where the chase is the plot, the only plot. When we tell someone to “cut to the chase,” we are asking for what matters most. The chase has become a synonym for what’s important. Everything else is inconsequential or irrelevant.

The use of a high energy, virtuosic chase scene as the action center of a dramatic film was pioneered in two iconic chases—Bullit (Steve McQueen) in his Mustang GT 390 fastback in Bullit (1968) pursuing a Dodge Charger through the streets of San Francisco to the freeway and ending with a fiery crash into a gas station, and Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) in the taut chase under the Brooklyn El in The French Connection (1971). These chases emphasized driving skills. Avoiding collisions was the real test of skill. In recent years, the goal seems to be maximizing collateral damage.

In The Bourne Identity (2002), the key chase through the streets of Paris damages about a dozen cars, none seriously. Bourne’s cute Mini whips around squares, through narrow alleys as it leads BMW motorcycles down stairs and onto a highway against traffic before it escapes. The chase is exciting fun like an amusement car ride. (See also The Italian Job, both versions.) More recent chases are simply orgies of destruction.

In 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard, an armored truck pursues a Mercedes Benz step van through the streets of Moscow. They are in turn pursued by John McClane (Bruce Willis) in a commandeered Mercedes SUV in an example of good product placement. The twelve-and-a-half-minute chase scene (about 10% of the whole runtime) early in the film includes a sequence of driving against traffic at ridiculous speeds (a cliché in contemporary chase scenes), a number of high speed 180s, and many rear collisions. The chase cars routinely leave the highway entirely to fly from one level of the highway to another. The pièce de résistance involves McClane’s SUV leaping onto the top of an auto carrier and then driving across the tops of jammed vehicles between him and the bad guys. Thanks to CGI, almost anything is possible.

A new Nissan Rogue ad parodies such extraordinary feats by showing a woman driving up a ramp, leaping over the barrier to land on top of a fast-moving train, and then hopping off the train as the ad assures the viewer that “this is fantasy, cars can’t ride on trains” and warning us not to try this ourselves. In the end, the chase in AGDTDH consumes 75 vehicles, most seriously damaged.

They are squeezed, sideswiped, and smashed, as well as driven on top of. The not-surprising thing about this chase is how little damage is done to the people inside the cars. In fact, it seems to be the rule is that no one dies or is mangled in this sort of chase. We see scratches and some blood, but no detached limbs, no screaming victims, no pieces of flesh hurled across the highway in myriad serious crashes. Even the villains who drop about 20 feet from one level of highway to another are just bruised and stunned, but not killed or seriously injured. (Henchmen often die in movie chases, and the chief nemesis of the hero is often given a fiery ending in a crash, but seldom in an early chase. See any Bond film.)

The bad guys are able to shake off the effects of the crash and to continue the gunfight on their feet on the highway with renewed enthusiasm. Because there is no real suffering, we are free to enjoy the pure spectacle of cars crashing into each other without worrying about the questions Shapiro raises. We are amused rather than horrified when car chases veer onto sidewalks, scattering pedestrians and al fresco diners, because we know there will be no sickening impact of metal against flesh. We build a fantastic shield around our psyches to ward off the anxiety.

For those who tire of fantasy chases, there are plenty of real high pursuit police chases on TV and YouTube. They often climax in dramatic crashes—a stolen Corvette that rear-ends a truck and completely disintegrates or a pickup that meets a high-speed train at RR crossing and instantly turns into a John Chamberlain sculpture. (See Figure #2.) Here death is rare but present. The Corvette driver amazingly walks away from his crash. We are told the pickup driver didn’t. But we don’t see the body.

a sculpture made of brown/rusted metal, flecks of red paint spattered across some of the surface, either representing blood or scraped automobile paint left after a crash. the sculpture is purposefully difficult to make sense of, but there seems to be part of a grill and hood identifiable in the twisted, angular piece
Fig. 2 John Chamberland at the Hirshhorn

Contemporary artists have been drawn to car crashes as well as to the raw material of car wrecks. Artists like John Chamberlain and Cèsar use fenders and hoods in abstract shapes or in literal pieces of cubism. There is Ant Farm with their “Media Burn,” where a remote-controlled Cadillac crashes into a wall of televisions, and their well known line of half-buried cars known as “Cadillac Ranch.” These artists remind us that decay, destruction and violence are embedded in the very existence of the automobile. Robert Williams, the Hieronymus Bosch of Kustom Kulture, paints scenes featuring tumbling deuce roadsters avoiding toothy monsters in his own mixture of cartoons and surrealism—Tex Avery meets Salvador Dali.

The artist most identified with car crashes is Andy Warhol in his silkscreen Death and Disaster series. His “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” recently sold for $105million. Warhol’s use of grainy newspaper photos often repeated across the canvas multiple times distances us from the crash, turning it into what he called a “black and white design,” rather than a subject of horror or pity: “When you see a gruesome picture over and over, it really doesn’t have any effect.” (See Figure #3.) One of the things that he does with these images is to remind us of the anonymous, detached, unemotional tone that we find in the coverage of fatal crashes of the non-famous in the media.

a grainy photo of a car crash; the photo is rotated at an angle, adding to the confusion. one car is only a back half, the front destroyed to the rear bench seat. the second car is crumpled in on the side but the hood, windshield, and wheels are still identifiable. the background is completely black, making it unclear where this takes place, whether it is staged or of an actual crash
Fig. 3 - Andy Warhol Car Crash

Warhol’s images function in the same deadpan way that newspaper descriptions deal with sudden death. Another way of distancing ourselves from the questions Shapiro asks. Here is a report rom the September 10, 2010 The Morning Call in Allentown, PA (notice the repetition):

“A 32-year-old East Stroudsburg man was killed early Saturday morning after he lost control of his car and struck a tree in Monroe County, according to state police. The unidentified man was driving along Marshalls Creek Road in Smithfield Township when his car veered off the road and struck a tree, according to state police at Swiftwater. The accident happened shortly after 2:30 a.m. The man was pronounced dead on the scene by the Monroe County coroner’s office, state police said.”

The most disturbing, and most profound, exploration of the cultural significance of car crashes is found in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973), and the admirable, if disappointing, film adaptation by David Cronenberg, also called Crash (1996). Jean Baudrillard calls Crash “the first great novel of the universe of simulation, the one with which we will all be concerned—a symbolic universe, but one which through a sort of reversal of the mass-mediated substance (neon, concrete, car, erotic machinery) appears as if traversed by an intense form of initiation” (119).

Crash is the story of a movie director named Ballard coming to terms with the effects of his car accident, which took the life of the husband of Dr. Helen Remington, and put him in intensive care. He relives the crash again and again. It has become “a model of some ultimate and yet undreamt sexual union.”

When he leaves the hospital, he finds himself drawn to highways and traffic. Sex now seems possible only in a car, near crash sites, or in anonymous parking garages and parking lots in the non-places that exist near the London airport and along the highway. For Baudrillard,

“It is the Accident that gives form to life. It is the Accident, the insane, that is the sex of life. And the automobile, the magnetic sphere of the automobile, which ends by investing the entire universe with its tunnels, highways, toboggans, exchangers, its mobile dwelling as universal prototype, is nothing but an immense metaphor of life.” (113)

As Ballard, his wife, Dr. Remington, and others obsessively explore the myriad erotic dimensions of the violent marriage of sex and metal, they embody (literally) the ultimate wedding of eros and thanatos that propels the whole novel. These drives are not opposed forces but fused together, welded together, so to speak, through violent impact. The novel is filled with connections between car body and human body, the union of tissue with metal, often described as a marriage. The novel also is rife with the mixed aromas of semen, mucous, lubricating oil, and engine coolant. Almost every physical detail links the organic to the mechanical: “The sheen of moisture on the skin around her mouth was like a bloom on a morning windshield.” This is truly an auto-erotic novel.

But it is more than just the visual, aural, or olfactory similarities of car and body that arouse Ballard. It is evidence of the deformed, the disfigured, and the maimed, whether in metal or flesh, that he and his companions find truly exciting:

“The apparently meaningless notches on his skin, like the gouges of a chisel, marked the sharp embrace of a collapsing passenger compartment, a cuneiform of the flesh formed by shattering instrument dials, fractured gear levers and parking light switches. Together they formed an exact language of pain and sensation, eroticism and desire.” (90)

The body is a machine, the machine is a body, but that identity is manifest only in the effects of a crash.

For Baudrillard,

“Technology is never grasped except in the [automobile] accident, that is to say in the violence done to technology itself and the violence done to the body. It is the same, any shock, any blow, any impact, all the metallurgy of the accident can be read in the semiurgy of the body—neither an anatomy nor a physiology but a semiurgy of contusions, scars, mutilations, wounds that are so many new sexual organs on the body.” (112)

But in his attempt to claim the novel for his vision of post-modern simulation, Baudrillard misses some key elements of the novel. He claims that the novel’s marriage of body and technology represent just the “diffracting of bewildered signs through each other.” The novel is without psychology. It offers “no flux or desire, no libido, or death drive.” He wants to turn the mysterious artist, a man named Vaughn who is the real driving force (pun intended) of the novel, and to a lesser degree in the film, into a kind of Andy Warhol:

“The shining and saturated surface of the traffic and of the accident is without depth, but it is always doubled in Vaughn’s camera lens. The lens stockpiles and hoards accident photos like dossiers…This universe would be nothing without the hyperreal disconnection.” (117)

But Vaughn has much more in common with a character like Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans’ great decadent 1884 novel Against Nature. In fact, Ballard’s novel is better read as new example of fin de siècle excess rather than as a pioneering post-modern text (or perhaps they are the same thing).

Like Des Esseintes, Vaughn is a new kind of artist, an obsessive who devotes his life to finding and creating new sensations. Like Des Esseintes, Vaughn is extreme in his pursuits, but not detached and seemingly indifferent to his subject matter like Warhol. He is completely absorbed by his sense of mission:

“Thinking of Vaughn now, drowning in his own blood under the police arc-lights, I remember the countless imaginary disasters he described as we cruised together along the airport expressways. He dreamed of ambassadorial limousines crashing into jack-knifing butane tankers, of taxis filled with celebrating children colliding head-on below the bright display windows of deserted supermarkets. He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access roads of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal, in the haemorrages (sic) of their brain tissue flowering beneath the aluminized compression chambers and reaction vessels…

…He thought of the crashes of automobile stylists, the most abstract of all possible deaths, wounded in their cars with promiscuous laboratory technicians . . . Vaughn dreamed endlessly of the deaths of the famous, inventing imaginary crashes for them. Around the deaths of James Dean and Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield and John Kennedy he had woven elaborate fantasies.” (13-15)

While all accidents on highway are stimulating for Vaughn, he knows that it is only the deaths of stars, the famous, or notorious that truly rise to the level of myth, where death is apotheosis. Where Des Esseintes suffers from ennui, Vaughn suffers from hyperactivity. The opposite sides of the same coin.

But like Des Esseintes, Vaughn is a scientist, scholar, and artist. He fantasizes car accidents. He photographs them. He organizes them in books. He collects films of car crashes. The Zapruder Film is a sacred text to him. He attends performances of crashes at the Road Research Lab. He studies their literature: “Mechanisms of Occupant Ejection,” and “Tolerances of the Human Face in Crash Impacts.” He re-enacts or anticipates the great crashes of history: James Dean and Jayne Mansfield (in the film, Taylor in the novel).

His failed masterpiece, the one that finally kills him, involves crashing into Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine with his Lincoln Continental convertible, the car closest to the model John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated. When the Lincoln becomes so wrecked that it can’t be driven, he drives Ballard’s car towards Taylor’s. He misses her, and misses his chance for immortality, but even in failure his death furthers his own project:

“At the accident site, under the high deck of the flyover, at least five hundred people had gathered on every verge and parapet, drawn there by the news that the film actress had narrowly missed her death. How many of the people there assumed that she had already died, taking her place in the pantheon of auto disaster victims?” (221)

It is a scene not unlike the one in Valencia shortly after Paul Walker’s crash. Ballard, Baudrillard, and Cronenberg all agree that the car crash signifies a new relationship between man and machine. But what Cronenberg’s film fails to show, what it can’t show, is the intense imaginary of the narrator—what the connections he makes between man and machine feel like, what they remind him of, the smell of Vaughn’s car and his jeans, why the smells are so powerful, what keeps Ballard on the road looking for accidents, excitedly risking another crash. The film misses both what he experiences internally and what he imagines. Cronenberg misses the intensity of Ballard’s (both narrator and author’s) extraordinary vision and turns James Spader’s Ballard into a passive onlooker, an automaton.

The novel transcends the question of whether we are the masters of machines or their slaves. The machine and human have become one in their own dance of death. As Ballard says in the novel: “These unions of torn genitalia and sections of car body and instrument panel formed a series of disturbing modules, units in a new currency of pain and desire” (134).

Ballard’s novel and Baudrillard’s review both precede the great digital revolution that began in the 1980’s. The man and machine interface (even that word reflects the changes that have taken place since Ballard’s 1973 novel) is no longer mechanical. It is now about information. It’s about the union of binary code and genetic code. The cyber age is more Turing machine than Henry Ford’s. While Ballard’s vision is prophetic (and Baudrillard sees that), the instruments of realizing that vision could not be seen by him in 1973. Ballard settles for the crude crashing of machine into body. The ending is ultimately only found in death. Near the very end of the novel, after Vaughn is dead, Ballard writes, “Already I knew that I was designing the elements of my own car-crash.”

Today we don’t have to imagine our union with technology. It certainly doesn’t require a violent crash. We are already one with our new digital machines. We have Siri. We have smart phones, smart houses, and smart cars whose job is to prevent us from crashing. We have “Intelligence,” “Person of Interest,” YouTube, Instagram, the X-Men and the Xbox, The Matrix, Her, and countless variations of cybernetic heroes and villains. Baudrillard’s hyperreality has become a commonplace. There is simulation to a degree that makes his famous essay “The Precession of Simulacra” look quaint with its focus on television and Disneyland. In this context, our continuing and seemingly insatiable appetite for more and more spectacularly impossible crashes in chase scenes is evidence of the persistence of nostalgia for a place where it is still about man and machines. The irony is that it can only be reached through digital intervention.


J. G. Ballard, Crash. 1973.

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation. 1994. (Original French Publication 1981)

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