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Ballard before Cokliss, Cokliss before Ballard, Ballard before Cronenberg

July 11, 2009

I am currently researching a piece on the films of J. G. Ballard and I came across what appears to be a rather interesting cinematic feedback loop.  In 1996, David Cronenberg adapted Ballard’s 1973 novel CrashCrash was an expansion of the ideas contained in “Crash!”, one of the sections of Ballard’s splendidly disjointed modernist collection of condensed novels The Atrocity Exhibition (1969).

However, the line between “Crash!” (1969) and Crash (1996) is not that typical of most literary adaptations.  Traditionally, the progress of forms is from short story to novel and from novel to film.  However, in this case, the line is broken by a cinematic interloper.  In between the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition and the publication of Crash (1973), Ballard’s ideas found their way into a short film by Harley Cokliss.  Not only starring but also written and narrated by Ballard himself, Crash! (1971) is somewhere between a televised essay, a work of audiovisual art and a traditional short film.  It is also quite a distinctive work when compared to its literary precursor and successor.  Indeed, by looking at the changes between the different Crash pieces, it is possible to gain an insight into Ballard’s methodologies.

CrashCovers

“Crash!” (1969) opens with the now famous line “the latent sexual content of the automobile crash” [page 153] but beyond that bold and attention-grabbing statement of intent, it is not a  particularly graphic piece of writing.  Especially given the blood and semen-drenched reputation of Ballard’s car-related writings.  Ballard writes in a dry, dispassionate and almost technocratic manner about the sexual nature of the rest positions of many crash victims and discusses the up-tick in sexual urges following the survival of a car crash (the post-traumatic sexual surge being a theme that would also resurface in Ballard’s 1996 novel Cocaine Nights).  However, in truth, the sexuality examined in “Crash!” is abstract and treated no differently to Ballard’s other avenues of desire such as the worship of celebrities.

Crash! (1971) [Ballard’s voice-over is also available here] is a self-consciously ‘arty’ piece of cinema.  Full of shots of Ballard driving a powerful American car and accompanied by futuristic-sounding synthesised noise, the film’s voice-over strips away the talk of celebrities whilst maintaining the same tone of pseudo-academic detachment.  Ballard’s interest here is the importance of the car in the topography of the human imagination.  Our towns are built around the needs of the car, our culture romanticises the car and our economies demand that people work not only to build the things but also in order to earn enough money to buy them.  The car plays a huge part in our lives whilst simultaneously killing and maiming millions of human every year.  Ballard is both puzzled and entranced by this deeply unhealthy relationship and sees the sexualisation of this relationship as almost inevitable.

The novel Crash (1973) and its ensuing adaptation Crash (1996) mark the erosion of Ballard’s sociological perspective.  As works with more traditional narratives they embody Ballard’s ideas about the effects of technology upon human sexuality in the minds and actions of a number of characters.  The concrete and human scale of the novel and film also allow Ballard and Cronenberg to explore the details of this kind of sexual fetishism in much more graphic detail.

still from Cronenberg's adaptation of the novel

still from Cronenberg's adaptation of the novel

The shift from abstract essay to traditional narrative has seen Ballard’s original idea move from a general observation to a precise exploitation of the idea unearthed by that observation.  The various literary and cinematic adaptations also see Ballard’s focus shifting as he narrows his interest from human sexuality and technology in general to the importance of the car to the actual details of what car crash fetishism might be like.  Of course, seeing Ballard return again and again to the same well of inspiration and charting how his ideas shift and change is one of the great joys of reading his work.

super_cannes_cover

Ballard was an author gifted with relatively few big ideas.  In a lesser author, this would be a failing as most authors who lack ideas tend to fall back upon stock concepts and characters.  This was never an issue for Ballard.  Ballard was precise and deliberate in his refusal to change subject matters.  When Ballard sank his teeth into an idea, he would not let go.  He would return to that idea repeatedly; Discovering new implications and exploring new interpretations and angles at length and over decades of creative endeavour.  For example, Super-Cannes (2000) was almost a re-write of Cocaine Nights (1996) but both of these works had a lot in common both with High-Rise (1975) and his final novel Kingdom Come (2006).  What is more, all of these novels are, to one degree or another, about the extent to which human psychology and sexuality are affected by the built environment and how that environment itself is sculpted by human desires.

ballard_cokliss1

The trajectory of the ideas in “Crash!” and Ballard’s car crash installation at the New Arts Laboratory at the fag end of the 1960s is a fascinating one in and of itself and to do it justice you would really need to look at the entirety of Ballard’s work but by casting an eye purely over the cinematic adaptations of Crash and its precursors you can get an insight into the way Ballard thought and the way he would twist and turn ideas over in his mind, constantly seeking new ways to exploit them.

4 Comments
  1. July 13, 2009 9:48 am

    I knew of this earlier version of Crash but had not seen it. What a fantastic film essay. The imagery of early 70’s Britain serves the material incredibely well – in fact, the imagery is far more potent and unsettling than Cronenberg’s displacement of the material to his native Canada. There is something apocalyptic about the sound design in the earlier film that works. Despite the austerity of Cronenberg’s vision, aurally it never explodes, Howard Shore’s guitar refrain working against the anxiety at the heart of the story. Ballard’s earlier effort seems far more traumatised, and a clear blueprint for Chris Petit’s later musings on British topography in ‘Radio On’ (1979)

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  2. July 13, 2009 11:06 am

    I haven’t seen Radio On. I shall have to track it down.

    I haven’t seen Cronenberg’s Crash since it was released and one of the reasons why I glossed over it in this piece is that I’m holding off on it till after I’ve re-read the novel. I have a number of quite clear memories of it (particular the scene in the car show room when she tries to climb into the back seat of a car with the braces on her legs) but my memories are mostly of it being just one of several kinky dramas with James Spader in them (I actually remember Secretary a lot better).

    What I really loved about Cokliss’ film (aside from the inspired SF casting of the woman from Gerry Andersen’s UFO) is the incongruity of Ballard driving a big American car around 70s London. I was quite surprised by the extent to which the two elements did not quite fit together.

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  3. just another reader permalink
    July 15, 2009 6:57 am

    thanks for your post, very inspiring indeed.

    your writing reminds me of two documentaries on parkour i have seen a few years ago.
    they are called ‘Jump London’ and ‘Jump Britain’.

    here we see people use their very vulnerable bodies to experience the topography of cities designed against their nature, a very conscious act/desire to challenge the physicality of both their own bodies and the environment.

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