Karen Beckman


On her book Crash: Cinema and the Politics of Speed and Stasis

Cover Interview of February 27, 2011

In a nutshell

Crash explores the role of the car crash in film history and contemporary art practice.

I begin by recognizing that the histories of cinema and the automobile, born at the same moment, are inextricably intertwined—but resist the assumption that the shared history of cars and films necessarily means that cinema is always resonant with concepts like speed, motion, flight, and progress.

You might think of this as an “anti-road movie” book.  While in the Road Movie, as in mainstream action cinema, car crashes and other spectacles of technological disaster generally offer a moment of pause in which the narrative can either regain its momentum or take another direction, in the films I focus on, the moments of breakdown, technological failure, and the rupture of discreet bodies constitute the primary focus.  I am interested in guiding attention towards these moments of narrative and visual stasis, and in examining how cinema presents itself when the camera is aligned not with the sweeping horizontal motion of a lone car moving through iconic American landscapes but rather with the modes of vision, relationality and experience that the car crash produces.

The book travels across the twentieth century, noting the persistence of this figure not only for filmmakers, but also for writers and artists trying to define their own practice through an engagement with this disaster-inflected view of what cinema is.

I begin by looking at a number of very short films made at the turn of the century by cinema’s earliest pioneers, including Cecil Hepworth and Walter R. Booth, all of which explore the new medium’s limits and possibilities through the parallel limits and possibilities of emerging automobile technology.

As I continue to pursue this relationship through silent slapstick comedies of Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy, industrial safety films and car crash test films, it becomes clear that the cinematic car crash opens ways of thinking about not only what cinema is or could be, but also about how technology’s breakdowns create tears in the illusory fabric of social progress.  These tears can function critically, allowing different ways of both looking at the world and using audiovisual technologies to reflect on those viewing habits.

The last four chapters of the book all explore this intertwining of social critique and aesthetic experimentation through close readings of works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Luc Godard, Ant Farm, J.G. Ballard, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Nancy Davenport.