Always (Crashing) season, HOME, March 18-31, 2016
The gap in the literary landscape left by J.G. Ballard’s death in 2009 is still very much with us. He was probably the single most important post-war English novelist, and he opened up the scope and style of the English novel far beyond the sentimental, bourgeois realism that continue to be championed by broadsheet newspapers and win the Booker Prize. Ballard offered a mutated modernism for the late 20th and early 21st century. In his disconcerting, affectless prose style he transplants adventure stories to the nightmarish centres of media-dominated late capitalism.
Ballard provides us with a psychopathology, usually characterised by extreme sex and extreme violence, of the spaces and experiences that have come to define our existence: motorways, luxury apartment blocks, shopping malls, high-tech industry, suburbs, mass media, and terrorism. These things have come to loom larger in our experience and everyday life now than when Ballard was writing, and so negotiating Ballard’s work remains central to articulating a nuanced and politicised understanding of the world we live in. Thus, an invitation to reflect on adaptations, influences and parallel works, such as HOME has provided in its intelligently and perceptively curated Always (Crashing) season must be welcomed wholeheartedly.
Ballard was well known for the strong influence of the visual arts on his work. He was often photographed in front of huge copies of Paul Devaux paintings that hung in his living room, and his work constantly refers explicitly and obliquely to other surrealist painters, including Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dali. Cinema is also important to Ballard. He lived in Shepperton near the film studios, and his novels are full of cinemas, characters who are film directors, and direct references to Hollywood stars. Curiously enough, however, film seems a strangely outdated medium when it comes to Ballard. It belongs to a world of mass entertainment that was already disappearing when Ballard was writing and which retains even less importance now, as the public’s attention is split between cinema screen, television and the ascendant dominance of the internet as the media through which we negotiate and create our subjectivities. The novel, Ballard’s primary form, is even more outdated than film. Indeed, the least successful and least interesting films in this season were direct adaptations of Ballard. It was, on the other hand, the works that circled around Ballardian themes, and often manipulated them within the specific medium of cinema that were most interesting.
The season began with a short Chris Petit film originally shown as a segment in the BBC’s Moving Pictures programme in 1990, back in the days when the BBC had a serious commitment to intellectually challenging arts programming. Petit’s film set the tone for the rest of the season and gestured towards some of its key moments. The film documents some of the landscapes that Ballard is so fascinated with, particularly motorways, and draws connections between the way Ballard depicts city spaces and how they are depicted in Godard’s Alphaville (1965). He interviews Ballard about his relationship with cinema. Most interestingly of all, he reflects on why cinema, and particularly the British cinema, has never strongly responded to Ballard’s work, despite its importance and strong visual qualities. His answer to this problem is that British cinema remains hopelessly bourgeois, obsessed with social realism or historical drama, and afraid of any sort of experimental work. In contrast to this is David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), which on the evidence of this season, is the only truly successful adaptation of a Ballard novel. In Petit’s film, Cronenberg explains his response to Crash in intellectual terms, recognising Ballard’s underlying intellectual project, and recognising that it has to be updated, and adapted, in order to be successful, as well as finding cinematic means specific to the medium to recreate Ballard’s affectless voyeurism. Unfortunately, HOME was not able to source a print of Cronenberg’s film, which explains its sad absence from the season.
In contrast to Crash, Ben Wheatley’s highly anticipated new release, High-Rise (2015), the main event around which this season was structured, is nothing short of a disaster. It is a truly terrible film, possessing neither intellectual intelligence nor visual flair, and at two lumpen, turgid hours long, it is frankly boring. Wheatley’s film, as if it was a study in how-not-to-adapt-Ballard, reproduces the reasons why Petit claimed that British cinema was unable to respond to Ballard’s work of 1975.
High-Rise describes the collapse into tribal warfare of a luxury apartment block built as part of a London Docklands regeneration scheme. This extreme take on the psychopathology of new architecture and urban regeneration is more pressing to our contemporary lives than ever. However Wheatley chose to set the film in the 1970s, turning the novel’s prescient social concerns into a historical joke. The kitsch interiors and floral clothes at times looked like an episode of The Good Life. And the film might be excused for being more interested in depicting the brutalist architecture being destroyed in endless montages of debauched orgies than reflecting on what these might mean if the montages had any sort of aesthetic merit to them. How far away Wheatley is from the complexity of Ballard’s visual imagination is clear when Tom Hiddleston speaks one of the only Ballardian lines in the script. He observes that the design for the building looks like “a diagram of a catastrophic psychic event”, the sort of Ballardian observation that demands that we speculate on the relationship between architecture and psychopathology. In Wheatley’s remarkably unimaginative film, the building certainly does not look like any sort of psychic event and the line sounds clunkingly out of place.
The question may well be asked: how is it possible to adapt Ballard’s highly visual but simultaneously highly abstract prose? The other two Ballard adaptations in the season respond to this problem by adapting as literally as possible, and take the two Ballard novels that are probably easiest to adapt. Jonathan Weiss’s The Atrocity Exhibition (2000), recreates Ballard’s disturbing, disorientating montage of war, sex and celebrity, originally published in 1970. The novel is composed of several hundred short paragraphs that seem to tell a dislocated narrative about an experimental psychiatrist whose mind collapses as he performs more and more bizarre and violent experiments linking sex, death and celebrity, famously encapsulated in the title to one chapter, Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Regan. The form of the novel, composed of a montage of disconnected scenes is fairly easy to transfer to cinema, and Weiss follows the novel very closely, lifting most of his dialogue from the text. The result of its transfer to cinema is that the disconnected plot becomes a little clearer, since the constantly shifting identities of the characters become associated with specific actors whose bodily presence stabilises the character’s depiction. On the other hand, the surrealist experiments and objects that Ballard imagines become frighteningly real, as Weiss creates a briefcase with a collection of rubber body parts that can be used as a sex kit, or a film which juxtaposes the Kennedy assassination to pornography. In spite of its unsettling atmosphere it all seems a little tame. Memories of Marilyn, Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor belong to that old world of cinema as the main form of mass media and seem a little quaint now. Perhaps 2000 was fated to be the wrong time to make it, between the mass world of the cinema and the proliferation of the internet. To capture what Paul B. Preciado has called our pharmacopornographic world, the film would have to reimagine The Atrocity Exhibition in terms of Viagra, subway bombings, extreme pornography and YouTube stars, and the intense proliferation of identities and sexualities which have replaced the distant object of desire on the silver screen and the homogeneity of the space of the motorcar.
Steven Spielberg has it even easier in his Empire of the Sun (1987), adapting Ballard’s 1984 novel. This is one of the author’s few truly realist texts, though no less interesting for that. It depicts the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and the British colonists’ subsequent internment in a prison camp through the eyes of the son of a British colonial businessman, and was based on Ballard’s own experiences growing up in Shanghai during the Second World War. I have little time for Spielberg’s brand of idealised childhood wonder and sentiment, and whilst managing to capture something of the fear in the invasion of a city, he strips much of the second half of the novel of its interest in the ordered world of adults collapsing into psychical trauma and bestial behaviour, ideas that fascinate Ballard in relationship to new technologies as well as the modernity of the Second World War’s unprecedented mechanised warfare.
Some things stand out in Spielberg’s film though. Firstly, its sense of scale. The film itself belongs to a world that was soon to disappear, that of the huge film production where so much of what it depicted was real, insofar as these really are the streets of Shanghai, these really are tens of thousands of extras, these really are tanks recreating those scenes from the 1940s, when so much of that detail would now be filled in with computer generated animation. The increasingly unreality of the media, beyond what Ballard or Baudrillard could have really imagined is one of the most pressing Ballardian themes of our time. The second point of interest is in Spielberg managing to depict, probably in spite of his own ability, two remarkably Ballardian scenes, both of which juxtapose childhood, sexuality, mass media and violence in a striking way, drawing out certain connections between them. In the first of these scenes, after the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, the protagonist, Jamie, played by a baby-faced thirteen year old Christian Bale stands lost in the war torn city. He pushes his bicycle, dwarfed by the both the detritus and damaged buildings of the occupied city and a huge painted mural advertising in English and Chinese Gone with the Wind, with Vivien Leigh’s nipples depicted with exaggerated prominence through her red dress. In the second of these scenes, Jamie watches the couple who have adopted him in the internment camp having sex, with images from contraband American magazines pinned up on the wall over his bed and the American bombing of the Japanese occupation clearly visible in great fires out the window. In both cases an equivalence is formed for the voyeuristic viewer of the cinema screen, the consumer of mass media, between looking at sex and looking at war, and both are shown to be constitutive parts of our subjectivities.
Perhaps more interesting than these adaptations of Ballard, as good as they are, were the films that developed Ballardian themes alongside Ballard’s own work. In his interview with Chris Petit, Ballard spoke of his own admiration for Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. Alphaville is a film noir set in a future Paris, Alphaville starring the expatriate American actor Eddie Constantine, reprising his private eye character, Lemmy Caution, from a string of French b-movies. Caution has been entrusted with a mission to destroy the computer that runs the city of Alphaville, and whose mechanical voice is omnipresent in the city. Like all of Godard’s 60s films, its joyously playful, full of references to other films and works of literature, visually creative, charmingly amateurish and an indisputable work of genius. Most interesting in the Ballardian context, though, is how the film reimagines the space of the city. Despite being set in the future, Alphaville uses no special sets, but rather depicts Paris in the dark and uses the interiors of various new buildings with glass walls, lifts, concrete and endless identical corridors to imagine the future city. These are intercut with the mechanical voice of the computer, and various flashing neon lights which depict formulae and slogans, and whose use is architectural insofar as these are part of the world of Alphaville, but whose location is unclear. Far more successfully than Wheatley, Godard captures the sense that we already live in a media saturated architecture of control that profoundly changes our relationships to sex and violence, and by using the contemporary architecture of Paris, Godard insists that this is the world not of the future but with us now. The only unsatisfying element of this is Godard’s uncharacteristically sentimental alternative to this: a romantic individualism which hovers on the edge of parody but cannot be considered such in the face of the deadening alternative of the homogenised world of a computerised technocracy. Again, the relevance of Ballard and Ballardian works for us today is to imagine a radical way out of this deadening future without falling back on nostalgia, a danger that the near-parodic status of Godard’s alternative warns us again.
Similarly to Alphaville, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), directed by George Miller, holds particular interest in its production design. Ballard was a great admirer of the film, which is very very silly. Miller imagines a future Australia where oil has nearly run out and gangs roam the outback in cars fighting for the scarce resources. Mel Gibson plays a loner who helps a utopian community who have discovered an oil well transport their oil to the coast where they can escape this Australian hell. Somehow, its preposterous premise and outrageous production design offer a simultaneously plausible and implausible vision of the future, where everyone wears punk fashions and fetish gear but where everything is scavenged and retrofitted, a surrealist vision of the future based on a highly technologised scarcity. Like Godard’s film, it also shows how genre film, in this case the Western, allows a framework within which the similarities between the past and recent future can be considered.
I use that seemingly paradoxical term the recent future quite deliberately in considering Chris Marker’s films La jetée (1962) and Sans soleil (1983). Both of these films are concerned with how time shapes our experience and how technology can redeem time. If this sounds cryptic, that’s because it is, and despite knowing these two films intimately, I have never got a satisfactory handle on them. They must be two of the most difficult films in the history of cinema. La jetée depicts an imminent future somewhat like Alphaville where modern Paris stands in for the near future. Scientists after a nuclear apocalypse are working on the study of time travel in order to receive the possibility of their survival from the future. A man is selected as a time traveller because of his obsessive memory of a woman on an observation pier (the jetée) of the title. Learning to time travel he travels to the future and saves his civilization but realises that he is to be executed by the scientists, escaping into his vivid memory of Orly airport, he realises that this memory is in fact the memory of his own execution. Composed almost entirely of still photographs rather than moving pictures, the film imagines the future to be based on psychical-technological experiences where subjectivity and technology are no longer separable, an experience universal to humanity according to theorists of original technicity, but far more marked in our own world where our memories are constituted by technology and our bodies increasingly interfaced with machines. I wonder, however, in ending with ending with the time traveller’s desire to return to the past, Marker doesn’t fall into the same sentimentalism as Godard, though in a far more guarded and suspicious way. The photographs seem to guarantee the truth of the past moment as having happened, and the past is shown to be preferable to the future, though the stillness of the photographs also infuses all of time with death.
Sans soleil offers a more positive vision of how the future may redeem the past without fleeing to the comfort of the past. Whilst La jetée posits this whilst recognising its futility, Sans soleil begins to imagine a more utopian future based on a redemption of the recent past. In a bewildering two hours, Marker leads the viewer between a hypertechnologised Japan, the liberation struggle in Cape Verde, photographs of Icelandic children and a virtuoso reading of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). I watched this film in a sort of fugue state, suddenly bewildered by how the film had reached certain points, unclear about why this was being discussed now, but all the time making wild speculative connections. Marker replicates the bewildering saturation of images in the mass media but arranges them in order to demand the viewer to make politicised connections rather than simply sit as a passive spectator. Most importantly of all though, he redeems this mass media. He selects images of trade union struggles in Japan and liberation in Cape Verde and gives them the potentiality of the future not only by positing these as politically desirable models, but by formally detaching them from the nostalgia for the past. He runs these images through a visual synthesiser that turns them into strange shifting images of colour.
In the gap between La jetée and Sans soleil, the film image has been detached from the tyranny of the past embodied in the photograph, in favour of the possibility of recreation oriented towards the future. In Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), he redeems cinema itself from its histories of oppression, fascism and capitalism, by manipulating images through video technology into shifting dialectical and mellifluous dreams of the future. Marker does something similar but rescues technology itself and mass media from the same fate. The problem is, the political solutions Marker admires, the Marxist fighters of Africa, and the technologised leftists of Japan have long been defeated by the global might of neo-liberal capitalism, and yet the same Ballardian anxieties remain with us. How to imagine our way out of it again, and with more lasting results?
I bookended the season with another short film, Simon Barker and Jason Wood’s Always (Crashing) (2016). In this mysterious film, very loosely adapted from a Ballard short story, a car drives around a carpark in the half light, sometimes darker sometimes lighter, its driver never visible, accompanied by snatches of radio sound and ambient music. The old Saab and the stained concrete speak to the obsolescence of some of the things and spaces Ballard is so obsessed with, whilst the car’s circular movements recall the intractability of the problems he has left us with: how do we relate to technology, mass media, corporate spaces, without being crushed by the power relations that seem to make these capitalist things more powerful than the subjects who use them and sometimes resist them? The hypnotic movements of the car, its endless free flowing circles, start to become ludic, almost funny at times, and perhaps point to something I have rather forgotten in this text: the pleasures and ludic possibilities Ballard presents us with which remain pleasures even when suffused with horror and the impossibility of exit.