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A Benign Psychopathology – The Films of J. G. Ballard

March 30, 2010

Back in July of 2009, I put up an article about some of the attempts to adapt J. G. Ballard’s work for the screen and, in particular, Harley Cokliss’ take on “Crash!”, one of the sections from Ballard’s experimental novel/short-story collection The Atrocity Exhibition (1969).  That article was written in order to help me work out a few ideas for a much longer piece I was writing for Vector – The Critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.  That longer piece turned out quite nicely and, as it has been a bit slow around here recently, I have obtained permission to republish it online – at least until the BSFA sorts out their mooted online archive.

So, many thanks to Niall Harrison for giving me permission to republish this online and I suggest that all those not already members join the BSFA immediately, if only to get the chance to read Vector.

A Benign Psychopathology – The Films of J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard’s career spans a number of different phases. To science fiction fans he will be most fondly remembered for his early works of dystopian SF or his later works dealing with a twisted version of the present, but it is Ballard’s more experimental phase that has provided the richest pickings for film directors. Indeed, the ideas contained within Ballard’s experimental work The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) have inspired not only that novel but also three genuinely remarkable films.

The DVD for The Atrocity Exhibition

The Atrocity Exhibition (2000)

Adapting The Atrocity Exhibition was always going to be a challenge. Part novel and part collection, the book is an accumulation of vaguely inter-related short stories and novel fragments that were written and published entirely separately. The book is experimental insofar as it steadfastly refuses to adopt anything resembling a traditional plot or characters while its thematic content is abstract, obscure and half-formed. Even critical explorations of the book tend to swiftly devolve into critical jargon and elliptical analogies (such as Roger Luckhurst’s suggestion that the book’s protagonist is a T-cell), which do surprisingly little to elucidate the book’s dense and confusing tapestry of ideas and images.  However, despite its elusive nature, the book still has power. A power that flows through all of the films based upon it.

Jonathan Weiss’ adaptation is framed as a clinical document. Its opening voiceover contains the solemn statement that the film is the product of a diseased mind, a project undertaken by a man (Victor Slezak) referred to alternately as Travis, Talbert and Traben in the hope of charting his open rebellion against the known psychological world. His conceptual World War III is an attempt to engage with the disintegration of the system of symbols and signs that govern human interaction and society. Having introduced us to this idea in the first of five literal chapters, in the remaining four Weiss explores it through the lenses of cosmetic surgery, car crashes, space exploration and death as a media phenomenon. Each chapter includes a series of staged psychodramas in which Travis forces lovers, colleagues and students to engage with a set of symbols in a completely new way. The film plays around with identity not only by blurring the boundaries of Travis but also by having his foils die, come to life and skip back and forth in time.

Weiss cinematises these various psychodramas by staging them in a series of architecturally astonishing settings that pulsate with modernist menace and just a hint of twisted futurity. Abandoned roads, junk yards, conference centres and old hospitals all conspire to create an atmosphere that is almost perfectly Ballardian. These short scenes (frequently quoting the intentionally portentous dialogue of the book) are then augmented via the use of footage taken of famous events such as the death of President Kennedy and the 1986 Challenger shuttle crash. Events which we have experienced and reacted to but only as media objects. A collection of media objects that suggest that our emotions are not linked to the real world but rather to a system of signs and symbols that we can theoretically move beyond.

As a work of non-narrative cinema, Atrocity Exhibition undeniably delivers the goods on a stylistic level. Weiss carefully deploys his famous footage, prompting us to consider again our emotional reactions to it. This process is only aided by the film’s superbly weird soundtrack, which juxtaposes moments of tenderness with helicopters and atonal music.

The experience of watching The Atrocity Exhibition is unlike any other cinematic experience. Even compared to such famously non-narrative films such as Godard’s Week End (1967) and Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the film comes across as ferociously inaccessible and intimidatingly intense. However, the weirdness is undeniably part of the film’s charm. It is only fitting that a film all about the construction of media images should demand of us a different critical stance than do other films and TV series. Should you track down the DVD you will also find an 80 minute commentary track by Ballard himself, framing and reframing the ideas in the book and film.
If it has a weakness, it is simply that it has been a long time coming. When Ballard wrote The Atrocity Exhibition in the mid to late 60s, his vision of a new kind of society demanding a new form of perception was prophetic. However, many of his ideas about the de-coupling of symbols from the real world would later be articulated more fully by postmodernist and social constructionist theorists. Similarly, Weiss’ decision to follow Ballard into obsessions with nuclear tests, Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, the Kennedy assassination and the war in Vietnam make the emotional baggage evoked by the film’s visuals slightly more dusty than it needed to be. However, these minor quibbles notwithstanding, Weiss’ adaptation remains an interesting and important contribution to the understanding of Ballard’s work.

Still from the Film

Crash! (1971)

One of the most fascinating things about Ballard as a writer was his lack of ideas. In the world of SF writing this is generally seen as a weakness but for Ballard it was undeniably a real strength. Ballard came up with new ideas less frequently than he did new ideas for books. Throughout his career we can see him returning to the same well repeatedly, using the same ideas in different ways and to different ends. Exploring them thoroughly before moving on. Sometimes we can even see the process of Ballard moving between great ideas, as the obsession with celebrity mutates into an interest in the car and an interest in the car mutates into an interest in the effects that our architecture have on our psyches. In between the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition and the novel Crash (1973), Ballard made a film with Harley Cokliss, a director with a deep interest in science fiction who wound up directing episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules. Cokliss’ Crash! featured not only Ballard himself as an actor but also a fresh voice over by Ballard written especially for the film.

In matters of tone as well as form, Crash! seems to be balanced between different works. A blend of evocative visuals and the kind of voice-over you might find in a worthy BBC-produced monograph such as Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973) or Clark’s Civilisation (1973), the film lacks the blood and semen-splattered human frailty of Crash’s narrative but it also comes across as more accessible and polished than the disjointed experimentalism of The Atrocity Exhibition.

Conceptually, the film is somewhat hit and miss. Neither a work of narrative cinema nor a traditional documentary, Ballard’s voice-over is accompanied by images featuring Ballard and a nameless woman played by Gabrielle Drake (best known for her appearance in Gerry Anderson’s 60s TV show UFO). Unlike Cronenberg’s adaptation of the novel, Crash! makes great use of London’s modernist infrastructure, which is what inspired Ballard in the first place. With a haunted expression, Ballard edges his huge American car along motorways and through car parks. The outlandish stylings of the car are somehow in synch with the grey brutalism of its surroundings whilst Cokliss deploys futuristic synthesiser noises and snatches of atonal music to emphasise a tangible sense of dread and alienation. Indeed, atonal music’s disfigured beauty and haunting futurism seems to be a surprisingly good fit for Ballard’s ideas.  As Ballard suggests in the voice-over, as much as the car is suited to the landscape of the 20th Century, we are unsuited to the car. If we really understood the dangers of driving and the number of deaths caused by car accidents we would not be driving at all. We would flee in terror. And yet we do not. We work and save in order to buy cars of our own. Cokliss captures that ambivalence perfectly.

However, as with Weiss’ adaptation, once Ballard’s initial ideas are laid out and enhanced by intriguing imagery, the film starts to wallow. Ballard’s voice-over refuses to focus on any particular area and he moves too quickly for Cokliss to simply accompany the words with images, with the result that much of the voice-over is accompanied by a disjointed mute psychodrama involving Ballard and his nameless companion. The two actors glare at each other through car windows. Sometimes the glares are inviting, at other times they are alienating, but in truth their interaction are just a collection of images. A visual holding pattern that Cokliss can access should he desire to illustrate anything in Ballard’s voice over. So we move from the woman glaring at Ballard in the car to the woman slowly getting out of the car as Ballard speaks of the interaction between the female body and the design of a car. Then we move from glaring in car parks to images of the woman caked in blood as the voice-over switches to one of Ballard’s descriptions of a car crash victim.

In-between literary projects, Ballard’s ideas were, with hindsight, perhaps not yet focussed enough to allow a proper cinematic treatment, leading to the film’s rather uneven character. However, when Cokliss does manage to sink his teeth into a proper idea, he brings far more to the table visually and sonically than Cronenberg ever did.

Film Poster

Crash (1996)

One of the central themes of Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition is the representation of celebrity. This is not the same thing as being interested in the celebrities themselves or being interested in the fact that our culture is obsessed with celebrity. In one vignette, Ballard has his protagonist plaster images of Elizabeth Taylor over a disused air field before mentioning in passing the fact that she died in a car crash. The real Elizabeth Taylor is not the object of desire and fascination, instead it is the image of Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor as a cultural artefact with no grounding in the real world. An artefact that we can twist and deform to suit our own emotional and sexual purposes. Given Ballard’s peculiar relationship with celebrity, it is perhaps only fitting that the film adaptation of his novel Crash should be partly overshadowed by the reputations of some of the people involved in the project.

For example, It is difficult to engage with the film now without being mindful of the fact that James Spader (the actor who plays Ballard) is an actor with a history of appearing in films with fetishistic themes whether it be Mannequin (1987), Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) or the more recent Secretary (2002). Similarly, our reaction to Crash is also likely to be coloured by the fact that it is by David Cronenberg, who made his name with films such as The Brood (1979), Videodrome (1983), Scanners (1981) and The Fly (1986), all films about the refashioning of the human mind and form by advanced knowledge and technology.

Given these kinds of cultural associations, Crash should be an immensely over-powering piece of cinema but instead it is quite a low-key film that slips all too easily into the recognisable mould of sexualised psychological thrillers such as Basic Instinct (1992) and Color of Night (1994), granting the film’s characters a degree of self-involved seriousness which, one might argue, is at odds with the mocking sub-text of the novel.

The film follows the novel in being presented as a kind of sexual Portal-Quest fantasy. James (Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) are a young attractive middle-class couple who are caught in the teeth of a form of sexual malaise that pushes them both to have extra-marital dalliances. However, instead of talking about why this might be or what they want from each other, their shared language is degraded to questions of who came and who did not. These early adventures foreshadow what is to come. Catherine rubs her Heinleinian nipples against the engine of a light aircraft as a suspender cuts into the curve of her thigh. Meanwhile James and a camera operator contort themselves as they try to have sex in a cupboard. A tangle of limbs and a headless torso flail in frustration as the camera and the lovers struggle to fit everything into shot.

When the car crash finally comes, Cronenberg draws on the pornographic elements of the Horror experience by leering over a procession of scars, bruises, limps and elaborate orthopaedic braces. This is Cronenberg deconstructing the aesthetics of his own Body Horror sub-genre and presenting them not as horrifying but as sexually stimulating. James’ first encounter with arch-fetishist Vaughan (Elias Koteas) sees his damaged body being ogled and prodded even though James is not yet ready to realise this. Later, a frustrated and bed-ridden James receives a hand-job from his wife while she describes the damage to the car in detail. James squirms before finally pulling away… the juxtaposition of pleasure, automotive damage assessments and injuries is too much for him. The sexual language of the couple has suddenly become more complex and he is not ready for it. He needs to be initiated.

This initiation comes at the hands of Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), a brittle woman whose severe hair-style, leather gloves and layered clothing speak of someone who protects herself from the world. Or the world from her. After she and James survive a second car crash, the pair become lovers and she introduces him to Vaughan. Vaughan is a man who is consumed and defined by his fetish. He lives in a huge limousine, the same model as the one JFK was assassinated in, and he supports himself by illegally staging recreations of famous Hollywood car accidents. He is also the head of a tribe of people who share his fetishisation of car accidents including burned out stuntmen and Gabriella (Rosanna Arquette), whose leg and back braces seem to have been styled so as to accentuate her body. Medical equipment not fetishised but sexualised.

This group introduce James to a whole new sexualised world. A world they wander around in a constant state of sexual arousal. They endlessly paw at each others groins. They fuck in cars. They fuck while in car parks and car washes. They fuck each other. They fuck other people. They flirt with car salesmen, reducing them to jelly through the medium of orthopaedic braces and fishnet tights. In a society where the needs of the car dictate so much of our architecture, the streets of the city themselves become fetish objects and so the group exist in a kind of heightened sexual reality where the neural signals attached to mundane items have been switched from “functional” to “sexy”. The sexual characteristics of humans are also changed by this heightened reality. The group do not prize large breasts and healthy physiques… they swoon for the scarred, the maimed and the disfigured.

Vaughan’s gift to his followers is a new psychopathology. A form of mental illness that is beneficial to the people suffering from it because it is better adapted to the aesthetic realities of the modern world. Vaughan’s fetish frees human sexuality from the constraints of the bedroom or the swingers’ club and brings it out onto the streets and motor ways. Films such as Basic Instinct pretend to show their audiences a new world, a more sexualised world. But in truth it is the same world we live in now. James and Catherine struggled as a couple because this world had exhausted its sexual meaning. Catherine’s stockings and James’ sixpack had lost their potential to stimulate and thrill. However, by following Vaughan they discovered a whole new sexual language and a whole new world. The film ends with the couple intentionally crashing their car. James takes his wife from behind as she rubs herself against the top of the car’s door frame. They inhabit a different semiotic world. Crash presents itself as an erotic bildungsroman but its message is ultimately quite different. The correct way to achieve sexual happiness is not to realise what one really wants and to go out and find it, instead the solution is to change what one wants so that one is happy with what one has and what one has in the West in the 21st Century, is the car.

Film Poster

Empire of the Sun (1987)

One of the enduring puzzles about the work of J. G. Ballard has been its presence in the public eye. As an author who dabbled in genre while the ghetto walls were still firmly in place before moving on to aggressively inaccessible and sexually explicit works of literary fiction, Ballard’s output seemed perfectly suited to the kind of niche occupied by a cult author. However, despite Ballard’s refusal to peddle palliative or populist fiction, he acquired a certain level of fame. Certainly enough fame to merit a mention on the news when he died and certainly enough fame to earn him a (reportedly) unwanted position as one of the first people the media call in the advent of an unexpected celebrity death. One reason for Ballard’s continued visibility was Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s partly fictional and partly autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984).

Beginning with the invasion of Shanghai by the Japanese, the film follows young Jim Graham (Christian Bale) as he transitions from being the spoiled only child of a British taipan to being an energetic and adventurous scrounger struggling to survive in a Japanese internment camp.

The opening sequences are among the most evocative to ever appear in a Spielberg film. We open with a BBC-voiced narrator informing us of the existence of a Japanese army huddled outside the gates of the town while inside, British ex-pats enjoy the kind of existence you might expect from Surrey rather than Shanghai. Indeed, were it not for the junks in the harbour, it would be easy to mistake Shanghai’s skyline for that of Liverpool, while Jim’s home is a quintessentially English country house on a quintessentially English street, the only indication of the house’s true location being the faces of its staff and the beggar at the gate. Indeed, when Jim first notices the beggar he is shocked. The poverty and ethnicity of the elderly man are completely outside of the manufactured Englishness of his existence. In one spectacular scene, a procession of British people in fancy dress make their way through the city. Inside their limousines all is clean and peaceful while, outside, the city and its poverty-stricken Chinese population is gripped by panic and fear of war. When beggars dare to approach the cars they are brutally beaten to the floor by the local police. Blood splatters on the windows but the fancy dress-clad British remain clean.
Once the Japanese invade, the barriers protecting the British come tumbling down. Attempting to flee, hundreds of British people stand by the curb hailing taxis that will never come. The system has never failed them before, why would it now? When caught in a crush and forced to run for it, Jim’s father limply protests “Good heavens, this is ridiculous!”. Not ridiculous, merely the end of an age. Separated from his parents, Jim has to survive on his own in his abandoned house. Eventually forced to make his way into the city, he finds that his beliefs about how the world works are laughably out of synch with reality. “I surrender!” he pleads to the Japanese soldiers, prompting gales of laughter. “I’m English!” he screams as he runs from a mugger, while the Chinese look on unimpressed.

Upon being taken to an internment camp, Jim finds himself torn between two potential father figures, both with very different visions of the world.

Basie (John Malkovich) is an American and a born survivor who knows all of the angles and all of the flaws but who seems unwilling to see beyond those flaws. Sometimes, Basie is affectionate towards Jim. He will tech him what he needs to get by and give him things. But at other times, Basie is almost psychopathic in his lack of regard for the boy; taking bets on whether he will be killed by the guards and abandoning him not once but twice.

While Basie is an arch pragmatist who represents the baseness of the material world and the capitalist refusal to lift humanity out of that base state, Jim’s second father-figure Dr. Rawlins (Nigel Havers) represents a romantic belief in a better world. He tries to teach Jim the rudiments of a classical education but he also teaches him the basic elements of morality that seem to elude Basie.

Spielberg’s beautifully directed but ultimately quite simple coming-of-age story has augmented Ballard’s visibility by popularising a process of humanisation that began with the publishing of Empire of the Sun and which has continued with Ballard’s other pieces of life-writing such as The Kindness of Women (1991) and his autobiography Miracles of Life (2008). For many authors, Ballard’s aloof, experimental and technocratic characteristics would not be problematic but, unlike most authors, Ballard tends to cast himself in his own books. The eternally shifting identity of The Atrocity Exhibition’s protagonist can be seen as an echo of the shifting identity Ballard shares with us through his own fiction. Just as The Atrocity Exhibition’s protagonist is always a doctor, a teacher or a patient with a name beginning with the letter T, so too are Ballard’s creations doctors and writers with names based upon Ballard’s own. Ballard’s equation of himself with his characters poses a challenge to his readers. How should one feel about an author we have ‘seen’ crash cars for sexual reasons? How should we feel about an author who seems to argue that better living can be achieved through psychopathology? Regardless of what the answer might be, I suspect that one would feel a lot better about an author we have also seen as a lost but likeable child.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Of course, while there have only been a handful of Ballard adaptations this does not mean that there are no other Ballardian films. Paolo Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love (2004) shows Ballard’s eye not only for jaggedly angular modernist architecture and gleaming chrome but also an awareness of the relationship between human emotion and the environment around it. Also impressively Ballardian is Patrick Stettner’s debut film The Business of Strangers (2002). Set in an airport hotel, this film explores the suggestion made by Ballard in Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000) : A little psychopathology does a body good.

3 Comments
  1. April 4, 2010 1:16 pm

    Magnificent overview Jonathan and with this in mind I implore you to get along to the below exhibition in the event you haven’t done already.

    http://www.gagosian.com/exhibitions/2010-02-11_crash/

    What fascinates me is the disconnect between Ballard’s huge influence upon the cultural landscape, a modernist philosopher whose work fuels all sorts of facets or popular culture from Dubstep to Chris Petit’s films to architecture – yet someone who paradoxically remains pretty uninfluential in his chosen medium Prose fiction. Certainly, his touch feels more apparent in Cinema, visual arts and non-fiction (Iain Sinclair) than in actual narrative prose. Perhaps its because he writes like a visual artist, his prose style quite poor, his characters simply vehicles for ideas?

    Great to see too you locating his influence in the Consequences Of Love, a film that I think has certain aesthetic similarities to that other Italian classic Gomorrah. Somehow it seems Ballard has come to own both the brutalist backdrops of Get Carter, the decaying dream / land scapes of Tarkovsky and Consequences, and the serene Futurism of Godard’s ‘Alphaville’.

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  2. April 5, 2010 7:29 pm

    I missed it.

    Gah.

    Finished 1st of April.

    Gah.

    I heard about it before it took place but then managed to lose track of it and so never got to see it.

    Gah.

    As for Ballard’s influence… I’m not sure it’s actually all that wide-spread. The term ‘Ballardian’ has certainly entered the vernacular but beyond denoting weirdly modernist architecture, I’m not sure that most people know what it actually means.

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