Crash is finally due to hit British cinema screens this summer, after months of breast-beating and bans. Producer Chris Auty told Peter Martin about the making - and mauling - of director David Cronenberg's film of JG Ballard's book
'The copy-cat argument is just a joke'
'I'd read the book at Cambridge. I thought it was incredible, also probably unfilmable. It's a great piece of modernist literature and presents all sorts of problems for a screenplay writer. Three years ago David Cronenberg delivered a script which Jeremy Thomas, Hercules Bellville and I - the three directors of The Recorded Picture Company - read overnight. He had managed to devise a script which was like a concerto: it had that simplicity and elegance. Five weeks later a new draft arrived, slightly further simplified so that you really had the four characters at the centre as a kind of quadrille. At that point we knew we wanted to make the film.
'By the end of Cannes  the film was in effect financed. We shot it in Toronto on a closed set through the autumn. We just finished post-production in time to make it to Cannes , where the film was selected to play in the main competition. The screening was extraordinary. About a quarter of the audience whistled and booed, and about half cheered and gave it a standing ovation. The film received the Special Jury Prize, which provoked considerable controversy because it became clear that the jury had been spilt. They nearly came to blows over it.
'Britain was one of the very few countries where we had not got a distributor. We agreed a deal with Columbia Tristar. After quite a bit of fuss I have to say, because the reaction of some of the distributors in England intimated what perhaps we should have known beforehand, which was that England was going to be problematic for the film. At the beginning of September when we still had not finalised the deal, but we knew who the distributor was going to be, I submitted the film directly to the British Board of Film Classification for censorship. We expected a couple of voices saying Cronenberg is a sleaze monster and everyone else to say "we loved it" or "we hated it". No, we did not expect what happened. [The BBFC refused to grant Crash a certificate until six months later in March 1997.]
'During the summer it had opened in France. Three quarters of a million people went to see it. It was the controversial film of the summer. It was also only a 16 certificate and was seen throughout provincial France without a problem. In Italy a small Catholic group called for the film not to be shown and a judge in chambers simply heard a petition from both sides on the same day, looked at the film and said there was no case to answer. The film played perfectly happily. There was a small protest in Buenos Aires which was resolved in a similar way.
'There are only three grounds on which one can object to the film: that it might be likely to cause copy-cat incidents; that the sexual behaviour of the protagonists is perverse, and that perversity should never be explored; and that it is morally neutral - the Alexander Walker [London Evening Standard film critic] argument.
'To take them in turn. The copy-cat argument is just a joke. It implies that the film is violent, and the film is not violent. I suppose the only copy-cat incident you could induce with the film is to encourage teenagers to fuck in the back of cars in car washes. Or to test drive cars head on into each other, which I simply do not believe people will do. There is no evidence that it has happened anywhere in the world where the film has been released. Or it might somehow induce teenagers to become obsessed with cars, but as David Cronenberg points out the obsession of youth and testosterone with the car is a function of the modern age since the war. The iconography of the car and the teenager is something which exists already. So I think that is a nonsense.
'On the second argument, you cannot restrict depictions of human life to only those aspects which you find pretty and pleasant. There are aspects which are darker than that, and if you do not explore them life would be poorer and art would not exist. So I think that is a nonsense.
'The third argument, that the film is morally anarchic, is not something I agree with. I think it is a deeply moral film. It depicts a world where people become very disconnected from their own lives. The point about the crash at the beginning is that it is literally a point of impact between two people, who discover that they are connected suddenly by virtue of the impact. The whole film can be read as a fable about the ghostliness of highly technologicalised modern life. The central characters are desperately in search of meaning and love. The need to make contact as symbolised by the crash is an effort that we all need to make over, and over, and over again, unless we are to become ghosts or zombies of a technologicalised era. The film is addressing a subject that is central to the end of the twentieth century, in an age of telephony and computing where more and more emotional experiences are occurring in cyber-virtual contexts. I think it is a very important thing, and I am still taken aback that in England people seem unable to take that reasonably.
'Neither the book nor the film is written with a moral primer, but both are written as anxious contemplation of what happens when emotion drains out of our daily life into a kind of technological ether. That point is much stronger in the film than in the book. The fact that the film does not have a morality chapter at the end saying these people should be punished, does not in my view mean it is a sort of immoral product; precisely those statements which are open are the ones that tend to have the strongest artistic carrying ability. Macbeth does not require someone to stand up and say "killer, murderer, seducer" for the point to be quite clear to everybody.
'The copy-cat argument has only ever been applied to moving pictures, perversely. People think that with literature there is a sufficient gap between the art form and the consumer's perception of reality. Nobody mistakes a book for real life, and that is kind of simple because of the way the semiotics of text is encoded. If you move a stage up, to theatre, the same argument applies: a theatre audience cannot possibly mistake what is happening on stage for life. As soon as you turn to film, and the entire history of film censorship is encapsulated in this, the concept is that it is a mass medium in which the unsophisticated audience is potentially capable of not seeing the line that divides fiction from life. I simply do not believe that. If you have children it is perverse to believe that. Any child has a clear grasp of the boundary between life and what they see on the box.
'I am more concerned about violent actualité footage from the news which is brief and decontextualised as far as a young person is concerned, than I am with fictional output, where clearly the encoding of the fiction is an elaborate piece of work and people are used to those generic ideas of what constitutes an artistic frame. That's where Alexander Walker's argument falls down, that the film has no moral frame. Everybody who sees the film sees its aesthetic frame, and with the aesthetic frame goes some sense of what the artist thinks that life should be. The distinction that applies here is between Catholic sensibilities and the Anglophone-Protestant tradition, symbolism versus realism.
'In my personal capacity I am a convinced libertarian. I do not believe in censorship and I do believe that people should be able to choose. I do feel that there is a certain age threshold with children. In a climate where there is no censorship one would hope that artists are less interested in the boundaries they have to get round, and more interested in what they are trying to say. If there is classification, which I think there should be, it has to be independently administered. There is quite a swell of pressure to bring film censorship into some sort of statutory framework, and there have already been moves in that direction with the Video Recordings Act.
'I have yet to hear somebody explain to me how if you intend to have a democracy you can decide which elements of the democracy are sufficiently intelligent to protect the rest of us. Apart from anything else I find that those powers are often vested in the judgement of people whom I do not respect.'
All's not well that ends well
Despite a hate campaign by the Daily Mail, the ban imposed by Westminster council, and two Tory ministers advising other local authorities to copy-cat Westminster's action, the director of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has finally passed Crash uncut for public exhibition. But this is no triumph for freedom over censorship.
BBFC director James Ferman only passed Crash for release after it was given a clean bill of health by special reports which he commissioned. Among Ferman's expert witnesses were Dr Paul Britton, the forensic psychologist who masterminded the failed police attempt to sting Colin Stagg for the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common; and a group of disabled people who were asked to view the 'sex, wrecks and calipers' film and report on whether it offended them.
This means that public access to films now depends on the mapping of our minds according to the dubious tenets of criminal psychology, and the personal feelings of minority groups exercising what Independent columnist Thomas Sutcliffe rightly described as 'an entirely illusory human right - the right not to be offended' (20 March 1997). The right of rational individuals to free access to visual material, and the freedom of the majority to make up our own minds, have dropped out of sight, prompting director David Cronenberg to point out that 'while I was in England I heard no one saying the word freedom; not one person. It's as though the word - as in freedom of expression, freedom of speech, democratic freedom - was political suicide'.
There is one sort of freedom which can still be mentioned in polite company. When Crash was held up by the British censors, 50 prominent people from the film and media world wrote to demand its release in the name of artistic freedom. This may be sufficient to secure their professional interests as artists, but it is not strong enough to protect our right to make up our own minds, especially now that 'defending artistic freedom' is fast becoming a euphemism for censoring that which does not qualify as art. We should have unhindered access to films with no artistic merit whatsoever, even if it is only to bin them after a few frames. The point is that we need the freedom to decide for ourselves.
For all their talk of artistic freedom, today's film people are more inclined to self-censorship than pushing back the boundaries. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda paid several million dollars for Crash but still did not want to release it. When George Romero, who made the gore-fest Night of the Living Dead, can appear in a BBC2 documentary and warn that directors like himself and Cronenberg are in danger of going too far, we really have got something to worry about.
Signs of the times
'I'm very upset. I was supposed to be going on a visit in February, but then all the trouble started. I hope to goodness it can be sorted out.'
Norman Wisdom on the crisis in Albania, where the 82-year-old funny man was once mobbed by comedy-starved Albanians shouting 'Oh, Mr Grimsdale!'. For 40 years, Norman Wisdom's were the only Western films allowed in the country. The late dictator Enver Hoxha believed his on-screen persona as the put-upon Norman Perkin to be suitably 'proletarian'.
'The Navy came back to me and said they were slightly worried. They wanted an act that was guaranteed to be squeaky clean and politically correct. With the sort of shows Jim does it was not felt they could guarantee that.'
Richard Astbury, head of Combined Services Entertainment, explaining the decision to drop Jim 'Falklands' Davidson from a show on the aircraft carrier Illustrious
'I would like to affirm that my relationship with the Forces remains as strong as it has ever been.'
'I'm going to sue you, ref, if I get my leg busted.'
Portsmouth Royal Navy football player, whose threats caused the referee to halt the game while he sought assurances from the manager that he would not be prosecuted
A two-day seminar is to be held in Stoke-on-Trent 'to explore the tensions and problems of being not black, not female, not gay - and usually in the wrong'. The event is for voluntary sector managers.
'This is the last thing we need. He should not be entering nude pictures in magazine competitions. He is supposed to be an ambassador for Sussex County Cricket Club.'
An 'angry member', complaining about the behaviour of Nigel Bett, the club secretary, who appeared naked in British Naturism magazine
Ashford Town footballer Tom Parks put in an extra 90 minutes before the away fixture at Merthyr Tydfil - hiding in the toilet on the team bus in an effort to avoid passport officials at the Welsh border. He did the same on the way back, before asking manager Neil Cugley if it was safe to come out.
British Airways is considering dropping the Union Flag from its plane tails, to encourage a more 'international' image. Britannia Airways has dropped its 'Royal Service' because it believes the word 'Royal' no longer confers 'kudos'. Now Ribena has dropped the Royal Warrant from its label. All this at the time Lady Thatcher has controversially decided to adopt a regal mode of address for her new letterhead, which includes the Queen's coat of arms.
'I should have said the capitalist system is based on stealing.'
Lord Soper, when pressed on the subject of whether stealing from supermarkets can be justifiable
'That inch'll do us.'
Mike Hicks, General Secretary, Communist Party of Britain, explains why he's backing Blair despite his view that there's 'barely an inch' between Labour and the Tories
'I didn't throw the ball hard, I just picked it up and threw it over my head like you do from a throw-in. A steward forced his way into the crowd and grabbed me. Another fan jumped on him and dragged me back and some other supporters formed a circle around me.'
Kevin O'Neill (13) who was ejected from Grimsby Town's football ground for throwing the ball in the Tranmere goalkeeper's face
'The boy admitted throwing chewing gum at the goal-keeper. He did not give the ball back to him, he threw it at him with some vigour and followed it up with a V-sign.'
Grimsby Town safety officer John Tuke's version of events. That chewing gum can be pretty dangerous in the wrong hands.
King of the ring
'We all have a moment when we're at the top of our game. For Muhammad Ali, the fight would be the crowning achievement in an extraordinary career. He was a king amongst kings - Ali was King of the World!.' This is how executive producer David Sonenberg accounts for the title, When We Were Kings, of the Oscar-winning documentary about the legendary Rumble in the Jungle, when Ali knocked out George Foreman to regain the world heavyweight title in Zaire in 1974.
Director Leon Gast has interspersed footage of the build-up and the fight alongside new interviews with George Plimpton and writer Norman Mailer, who were commentators at the time, and film-maker Spike Lee. More than 20 years on, Plimpton and Mailer are still excited by Ali. Mailer is moved to laughter and near to tears as he recalls the occasion when Ali commented on how well he was looking. Mailer says he felt so happy and excited he had to go and urinate.
Ali excelled at perhaps the most violent of all sports, threatened to 'torture' his opponents, and stood up to the authorities when he refused the draft saying, 'no Vietcong ever called me nigger'. When We Were Kings is an unashamed celebration of the strength, aggression and power embodied in him. It is a timely reminder that these are qualities to be admired, not frowned upon as 'masculinist' character defects.
When We Were Kings opens in May.
Jim Minton is a lifelong boxing fan
Boxing in a corner
'Boxing is no longer socially acceptable. That is illustrated by who markets and sells it - Sky TV, almost exclusively now. They started by outbidding like they did with football but now the BBC and ITV just don't want to know. They get too much flak because there is so much controversy attached to it.' Jonathan Rendall is a boxing journalist, ex-manager of retired World Boxing Organisation featherweight champion Colin McMillan, and now author of This Bloody Mary is the Only Thing I Own. His new book, which is sharp like a good fighter's jab, suggests that we are witnessing the end of boxing as a noble art.
'The grass roots are dying', Rendall explained. 'When I first got into boxing writing, which was only in 1987, every paper had a couple of correspondents, a number one and a number two like they do for football. The Amateur Boxing Association finals were at the Albert Hall and they had 300 words on it. Now the papers only cover big professional fights and they are trying to move the ABAs' - to a smaller dinner show - 'in Birmingham'.
Boxing is held in bad odour, even by its own: 'Ten years ago if you polled people in boxing most of them would say at least in public that Ali's already evident Parkinson's Syndrome was nothing to do with boxing, but now you would find very few people who wouldn't say that boxing had something to do with it.' When Rendall interviewed Lennox Lewis recently the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion told him boxing was 'evil'.
Rendall reckons that boxing will continue, but downgraded to a Disneyworld sideshow. 'Las Vegas is a microcosm of the whole thing. Boxing was important because the high rollers would come to Vegas, the hotels would comp out the high rollers, and it really made a difference to them on the drop they get in the casinos. Whereas now the casinos are owned by the Disneys, the multi-nationals, not the Mafiosi. They still put on the big fights but not in the same way. Boxing is now a heritage tourist attraction, like you go to the wildlife park to see the bears.'
This Bloody Mary is the Only Thing I Own is published by Faber & Faber price £14.99.
Mark Collings writes for Amateur Boxing Scene, and trains amateur boxers at St George's club in East London
Oporto: neither Hell nor Hillsborough
After partying in the main square of Oporto (sun up, shorts on, shirts off, drunk - in March) the heave-ho to get into the ground was a good crack, apart from a brief flurry of police batons. Panicked by the numbers (10 000 approx) the police tried to slow the rush of away fans getting in, but had a sudden change of heart when their crowd-control barriers were returned to them by air-mail. And then we were inside the ground, on our own huge if crumbling terrace, with no cops or stewards to control us.
So I was there when Manchester United dismissed FC Porto from the European Cup. But back in the square the next day, I wondered if I had been at a different match. The conversation had turned to the appalling treatment we received at the hands of the Portuguese authorities, and how close we were to disaster etc. On returning to the hotel one of the suited Johns I had vaguely noticed asked me if I was all right. The logo on his jacket identified him as 'Special Projects Security' and I recalled seeing knots of them looking too officious for their own good - or ours.
It turned out that, at our expense (my standing ticket cost £50), United had despatched a 150-strong security unit to protect us. Well, thanks but no thanks. From the age of nine I have been going to Old Trafford without a nanny and I certainly do not need one now.
Back in Britain, headlines about 'the Hell that was Oporto' and 'a Hillsborough waiting to happen' were everywhere. OK, during a brief volley of plastic bullets fired by witless cops, half-a-dozen United fans were injured. Unfortunate, but hardly hellish. Indeed if Oporto was a hell-hole, book me a season ticket to Hades. The Hillsborough analogy trivialises that very real disaster, besides being totally inaccurate - the terrace we were on could easily have accommodated another two or three thousand.
If the whingers have their way, a foreign football excursion is destined to become as exciting as a trip to Thurrock Lakeside or the local garden centre, with approved fans whisked from airport to stadium just in time to view the game from hermetically sealed boxes, free from all abuse and infection. Now that would be hell.
Bantering with Porto fans and taunting the Portuguese police resulted in no injury whatsoever for 99.9 per cent of United fans. The only time I was threatened was by a group of Reds who were sounding off about Portuguese brutality compared to English fair play. I could not help but point out to them that the British police were not noted for their kid-glove treatment of black people, Irishmen or anyone else who gets in their way - like the 96 people they sent to their deaths on that big, crumbling terrace at, where was it? Oh yes; Hillsborough.
Alec Turner has been a Manchester United supporter for 35 years
You Sadowitz bastard
Jerry Sadowitz offers to show Timandra Harkness a trick or two
Jerry Sadowitz is known as the bad boy of comedy, so offensive that a Canadian audience member once punched him unconscious only three words into his act. Mind you, the three words were 'Good evening, Moosefuckers'. Recently, however, Sadowitz has been performing card tricks and other close-up magic in intimate venues. But he insists that he is not going soft. 'I'm sure a lot of people will think the close-up magic is selling out. It's something I've been doing for years and years, that's all it is.'
The virtuosity of Sadowitz the magician is all the more impressive for being understated - this man does things with a grapefruit that you would not believe. In his magic show the rude persona is confined to throwaway flashes (after a gag about child abduction: 'I'll probably get blamed for the Dunblane massacre now'), which are easily absorbed by the audience. But hopefully the Sadowitz holiday from aggravated comedy is coming to an end.
'I've been getting encouragement to do it again because Britain is ready for it', he announces. 'Material that's in my head at the moment is offensive to everybody. I'm making sure the material is more offensive.' Britain may be ready, but are the promoters? 'I've got an act inside me, but where am I going to do it? I have to get commercial backing but I've got to make sure it's not acceptable. I don't want a stand-up show to be acceptable, ever.'
Sadowitz, the man who once got his prick out on live television, sees the pressure to be TV-friendly as a severely limiting influence on comedy. 'Most comedians in this country, if they weren't given TV publicity, wouldn't get the backing. People in the business are very lazy and short-sighted - if they can't see an instant shiny presenter they're not interested.' His frustration at being kept off TV surfaces in his magic show. 'I hate poofs', he quips, 'unless you work in television, of course'. Then he switches to self-mockery: 'You'll notice the venues are getting smaller and smaller. I'm starting to feel like Hitler in his bunker.' On his card table, 'Hitler' maps out his battle plan: 'This is ITV - over here, the BBC.'
If the fat controllers will not let him on prime time, and some backers are backing out, it is not because Sadowitz lacks an audience. The magic show is sold out a week ahead, with devoted fans queuing up for returns every night, and at the Edinburgh festival last summer he was performing three different shows and filling the house with all of them. He is in a strong position, then, to be scathing about other British comics.
'Most of them are terrible', he declares. I offer a few exceptions. He dismisses them as 'crap and totally forgettable', then attacks the comics who appeared at the London Palladium in March to support the Liverpool Dockers. 'I don't even think of them as comedians, I think they're just desperate people trying to get publicity with their limited talent.' So are there no new talents to take over from Billy Connolly and Alexei Sayle, whom he still admires? 'I'm fucking here', he says.
Sadowitz is not planning to play the Edinburgh festival this year. 'Not if I can help it. It's a big bloody meat market. It's all a media circus, but if I come up with some novel idea that I fancy doing, I will go up.' So what does he plan to do next? 'I plan to have a wank, actually. You can join me if you like.'
Reproduced from LM issue 100, May 1997