Tuesday 14 June 2022

The Question in Bodies #40: F*** the Future (i)

(This, first in a four-part look at the key works of J.G. Ballard and their film adaptations, first appeared on my Patreon, about a year ago. Want to see stuff miles in advance and a bunch of stuff you wouldn't see otherwise? You know what to do.)

The Sexual Counter-Revolution
I think that the general consensus is that we are now more or less resigned to the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies having been subject to a lengthy and successful counter-revolution, with the result that society is right now less openly sexual than it has been for a long time. And certainly, while steps have been made since that time to support people with sexualities other than the hetero and genders other than the cis, the keys of power are working harder than ever to wind the clock backwards. A decade ago, many would have found it unthinkable that the UK would be listed alongside Turkey, Russia, Poland and Hungary as one of the worst places to be LGBTQ+ in the so-called developed world. The fact that in the USA there’s even a debate as to whether anti-gay conversion therapy should be outlawed is really quite a telling indicator of the way that the wind is blowing. For those of us who identify as queer, these are frightening times.

But while from the top of our societies down our identities and sexualities seem more at risk than ever, in the everyday traffic of our lives, it isn’t really like that. In fact, our passions have balkanised, divided into any number of communities, subcommunities and infracommunities, where we can talk about these things, where we can remain radicalised against the mainstream norms. We have whole samizdat spaces existing within the social media, entire languages. In a way this is how it's always been for most of history. The liberalisation of the media, and the bringing of us into the mainstream, was an enterprise of only a few decades. As media branched off and splintered, the multiplicities of human identity split off into entire phyla, leaving commodified, acceptable versions behind in the mainstream, husks of the human self, there for the hand of power to ram itself into and manipulate like a rainbow cavalcade of Muppets (and let's not even get to what happened to the actual Muppets). Multinational corporations – sociopathic and rapacious by definition – adding rainbow flags to their logos one month a year isn't actually progress.

The flip side of this, the good side of this, is that the communities on the new margins have networks that they never had before. It's easier than ever to find your tribe, no matter how esoteric its concerns might once have been. Our closets are conditional now, furnished with WiFi. We can functionally be different people in different spaces for good or ill.

When our sexualities have been balkanised, so have our selves.

Psychopathic hymns
My favourite story about JG Ballard is about how from time to time chemically fried explorers of outer reaches of human perception would turn up at the doorstep of Ballard’s house in suburban Shepperton, expecting to find a wild-eyed prophet. But Ballard, who had been widowed early on, and who largely brought his kids up by himself in an era where single dads were vanishingly rare, was, although entirely comfortable with those folks, and his home was hardly conventional, really not that person. The story goes that he would invite these people in, give them a nice cup of tea, chat quite pleasantly about his work and send them, confused, on their way. I don’t have any idea if that’s entirely true – it made its way into one of his obituaries when he died in 2009 – but I really hope some version of it is, since it’s a perfect proto-example of the phenomenon I’ve been talking about.

It might seem strange that, having stated the likely success of the Sexual Counter-Revolution, I might go back to texts created in the height of that original sexual revolution to expand upon it. But of all the transgressive writings of that era, J.G. Ballard’s series of four psychosexual social satires written between 1969 and 1975 – not really science fiction, not wholly contemporary, absolutely identity horror – are among the most useful texts to look at here because they are, I think, prophetic in a way that a lot of the more celebratory or optimistic tracts of the era are not. And they're disturbing; they straddle the line between contemporary fiction, sci-fi and horror. They are at the heart of this. They are The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), High-Rise (1975), Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974). I’m going to leave Concrete Island, as interesting as it is, to one side, and look at the other three novels, along with “Low-Flying Aircraft”, a short story from the same period, for the simple reason that these four texts, the three novels and the short story, all have film adaptations.

The extent to which Ballard nailed his predictions of the future pretty much demonstrates itself in how appalled people were with The Atrocity Exhibition and, even more so, Crash. This phenomenon repeated itself in 1996 when David Cronenberg’s thoughtful but no less transgressive film adaptation of Crash hit the screens. And with Ballard, it wasn’t just the usual gatekeepers of public decency who were horrified – his own publisher, Nelson Doubleday, ordered the first American run of The Atrocity Exhibition pulped before it ever hit the shelves (but then, who could blame the Americans for getting cold feet, with chapter titles like “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”?). And in 1973 a reader at Cape, according to legend, reported to have written the wonderful marginal note on a manuscript of Crash: “This author is beyond psychiatric help... DO NOT PUBLISH.” Some editions of the book still use that as a blurb.

We’ve mentioned Cronenberg already, but The Atrocity Exhibition was filmed in 2000 by Jonathan Weiss, and Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump adapted High-Rise in 2015. Another Ballard story of the same era, “Low-Flying Aircraft” (1973), received a Portuguese-language screen adaptation in 2002 from Solveig Nordlund – both story and film deserve a look here, being closely adjacent to the discussion.

It’s interesting that if we don’t count Ballard’s script credit for Hammer’s 1970 “cavemen poking stop motion monsters with spears” movie When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, of the seven filmed adaptations of Ballard’s fiction I'm aware of at the time of writing, amounting to five films and two TV episodes, four of the films are based on texts from this era. The fifth, Empire of the Sun (Stephen Spielberg, 1987), is based upon Ballard’s semi-autobiographical 1984 book of the same name, which once again had its genesis in one of the sections of The Atrocity Exhibition.

I won’t go into the two TV episodes, other than to list them for completeness, and to note that they are both adaptations of Ballard’s early science fiction, adapted for anthology shows: the story “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962), dramatised as part of the early BBC anthology Out of the Unknown (Season One, 1965); and “The Drowned Giant” (1964), as one of the better episodes of Netflix’s maddeningly patchy animated series Love Death and Robots (Season Two, 2021).

(Note: A TV adaptation of Ballard’s 2000 novel Super Cannes, directed by Brandon Cronenberg, was announced as being in pre-production in May 2021.)

This period of Ballard’s work, then, chimes with filmmakers. It’s not hard to argue that The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash and High-Rise are the fulcrum of Ballard’s prolific work and, quite possibly, the best and best-known things he ever wrote. Each of them deals with human identity – primarily but not entirely masculine identity – in the context of a mechanistic environment, as defined by the technocratic encasements of our society. Ballard argues in all three that our sexuality has become part of the machine of which we have become a part. They’re early transhuman texts.

“Sex, of course, remains our continuing preoccupation. As you and I know, the act of intercourse is almost always a model for something else. What will follow is the psychopathology of sex, relationships so lunar and abstract that people will become mere extensions of the geometries of situations. This will allow an exploration, without any taint of guit, of every aspect of psychopathology... however consoling, it seems likely that our familiar perversions will soon come to an end, if only because their equivalents are too readily available in strange stair angles, in the mysterious eroticisms of overpasses, in distortions of gesture and posture.”
– Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, “Tolerances of the Human Face”

All three share characters and the same view of human identity as defined by sexuality, itself defined by the mechanistic frameworks of modern living. In all three books, sex is described as an operation of geometry. Here, bodies intersect. Flesh is the material from which pistons, levers and girders are made; blood, semen and vaginal fluid are lubricant and fuel. Conversely, brutalist high rise buildings become phallic objects, the metaphor of a society encased inside a giant erect cock never explicitly said but always there. The “mysterious eroticisms of overpasses” signify the weight of bodies lying across each other, their blood and cum formed in flowing traffic, each cell itself a body. The damage done to automobile bodywork in a head-on collision is an act of penetration here.

In Ballard’s quasi-dystopia everything is mechanistic, and nested like a series of bracketed equations, one inside the other, bodies reduced to algebraic forms, inside bodies, inside bodies: the human inside the artificial inside the social, all only different in forms of degree, in living breathing mechanics, and every form, internal and external, material and imaginal, in its own way eminently breakable.

Imaginary Perversions

In 1964, Ballard’s wife Mary died suddenly of pneumonia while on holiday in Spain, leaving him single father to three young children. Many would have collapsed under the pressure.

His daughter Bea would write, shortly after his passing:

“Few of my parents' friends thought he would manage, for it was extremely rare at the time to find single fathers bringing up children on their own. But my father was determined to do it. He felt that as long as the surviving parent was loving and remained close to the children, they would thrive. He was right. We not only thrived; we had the most idyllic childhood I can imagine.”
– Bea Ballard, “My Dad, the Perfect Mum”, The Times, 26th April 2009

He doted on his family. Meanwhile, he channelled his grief into the pieces that would eventually become The Atrocity Exhibition.

The Atrocity Exhibition is probably Ballard’s most challenging novel, really a collection of collected pieces, most of which had seen print elsewhere. Later editions of the book would include supplementary chapters, along with annotations and an afterword by the author.

Very loosely, a psychiatrist whose identity collapse is signified by the constant shifting of his name – Travis, Talbot, Tallis, Talbert, and so on, although Ballard himself stated the core name is Traven (Note: annotation to “2. The University of Death”, 1991 Re/Search edition, p19) so that’s what I’ll use – embarks on a project to recreate conceptually the horrors of the twentieth century in an attempt to trigger the onset of World War Three. It will, he believes, be fought in the human mind. All of this, following the logic of a man in a state of psychological fracture, constitutes some attempt to make sense of the Twentieth Century.

Traven’s wife Margaret, herself a psychiatrist, and Traven’s analyst Dr Nathan follow the disintegrating shrink’s movements, acting as a sort of Greek chorus. On his conceptual journey, he is accompanied by a shifting cast of figures, some of whom may be imaginary; foremost among them are two young women with whom Traven is having on-off affairs, Karen Novotny and Catherine Austin. Traven particularly treats Karen Novotny (and just as it is with Catherine Austin, the name is always fully stated, never just “Karen” or “Miss Novotny”) as a construct, a sort of walking toolbox for his psychosexual experiments. Karen Novotny dies repeatedly, in a number of ways – divining which if any of her deaths are imaginary is beside the point, she’s dead in the vignette at hand. She is even at one point reduced to a “kit” made of her discorporate erogenous zones, kept neatly and cleanly in a box, the final level of objectification and dehumanisation. We don’t get to see why Karen Novotny might want to stick around, or what she gets out of it. She is just, in the man’s mind, there, and at his (chillingly literal) disposal.

Ballard wrote Dr Nathan to be the “safe and sane voice of the sciences. His commentaries are accurate and he knows what is going on. On the other hand, reason rationalises reality for him, as it does for the rest of us… in the sense of providing a more palatable or convenient explanation, and there are so many subjects today about which we should not be reasonable.” (Note: Ballard, annotation to ”6. The Great American Nude”, 1991 Re/Search edition, p54). Reason is a slippery thing, and it’s pretty clear in The Atrocity Exhibition that reason isn't adequate to approach the confluence of sex and death that Traven’s Atrocity Exhibition represents. Still, perhaps because he misses the point, Dr Nathan’s statements on the nature of future relationships revealed by Traven’s blackly comic experiments are as pertinent and prophetic as Ballard’s statements about what he represents are.

“Sex is now a conceptual act, it’s probably only in terms of the perversions that we can make contact with each other at all. The perversions are completely neutral, cut off from any suggestion of psychopathology—in fact, most of the ones I’ve tried are out of date. We need to invent a series of imaginary sexual perversions just to keep the activity alive...”
– Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, “The Summer Cannibals”

I don’t know if that was true in 1970, but I think that in the online spaces we inhabit it has to some extent become a reality.

The Atrocity Exhibition is for me an exploration of the horror of unbound heterosexuality, how heteronormativity without checks becomes anything but normative. Ballard equates sex and violence, and Traven’s treatment of the acquiescent Karen Novotny follows the trajectory of violent control, becoming a sort of mechanised sexual fascism performed by a figure as devoid of character as his victim. As conservatism tends to fascism, so, The Atrocity Exhibition implicitly (accidentally?) posits, heterosexuality tends to this.

It's something of a relief when the blandly monstrous Traven vanishes altogether from the text. The book ends with detourned plastic surgery texts with the names of celebrities inserted, some mischievous market research on the sexual impact of Ronald Reagan that might have given Chris Morris inspiration, genealogies of murder, and a description of the Kennedy assassination as a downhill motor race. To say these final sections – containing the funniest passages in the book – are tasteless is to miss the point: good taste is an affectation, an act of ineffectual avoidance.

(Note: I don’t think I've seen anyone else write anything that suggests they find The Atrocity Exhibition as funny as I do. So maybe it’s just me.)

In this world, men are monsters, and women are appliances. We mean straight men and women, of course. The queers are excluded from the sample, which is all the more notable because Traven is explicitly bisexual, without ever acting on his more homoerotic impulses. And without that control sample, of course Traven’s methodology is suspect.

No final result of Traven’s inevitably doomed experiments is even allowed to appear in the text – it’s not even designed to be read in order, really. In one of the later editions of the book, an afterword from Ballard suggests you flip through and find an interesting section of his strange work of prophecy, and then read around it, giving his blessing, I think accidentally, to use it as a vehicle for occasional bibliomancy, like people in the past have used the Bible and the Aeneid. The Scriptures and Virgil led Dante through Hell. The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard’s private map of a psychosexual Hell, born of grief and the consequent fracture of the self that brings.

Mae West’s Reduction Mammoplasty
Jonathan Weiss’s turn of the century attempt at translating The Atrocity Exhibition to screen appears, in that context, a little baffling. In short, it’s not completely a success. The non-linear scenes of the page, available for the reader to flip back and forth through or cut up with scissors now have an imposed order on the screen.

(Note: William Burroughs, pioneer of the cut-up technique, rated The Atrocity Exhibition highly: “Since people are made of image, this is literally an explosive book… this book stirs sexual depths untouched by the hardest-core illustrated porn.” – Burroughs, preface to the 1991 Re/Search edition, p7, being complimentary in only the way Burroughs could be.)

Weiss’s film is surprisingly dull, and that dullness is only emphasised by the occasional intercut footage of real-world sex acts, crash tests and war crimes. Victor Slezak doesn't have a lot to work with as (his name a constant in the film) Travis, and Anna Juvander’s Karen Novotny is nothing more than a gorgeous mannequin, to be posed and dressed, to have her shadow drawn around with Sharpies, and to be fucked in the back of a car with a photo of Ronald Reagan covering her face. This sounds like it might at least be weird – only it really isn't, because the contextless parade of closely adapted scenes that don’t connect makes everything tonally homogenous. Maybe that’s the point, I don’t know.

Ballard, of whom every account paints a picture of a man possessing tremendous professional and personal grace, made it known, as he would with Cronenberg’s Crash, that he was very much flattered by Weiss’s film, and he more than once called it “extraordinary”. But the DVD commentary, which features Ballard alongside a clearly starstruck Weiss, is mainly a (fascinating) conversation about what Ballard intended with his book, and barely mentions the mechanics of filmmaking or adaptation at all. About 40 minutes before the film ends, Ballard seems to let out a sound like the one you make when you puff out your cheeks and blow, and, quite abruptly, he says, “Let’s call it a day, shall we?” The commentary ends, leaving the film’s last sections without any further Illumination.

It’s quite a hard film to track down now, and the occasional rare copy of its sole DVD release on the secondary market tends to go for exorbitant prices (I was fortunate to find one that was simply expensive rather than bank breaking, thank heavens). But like many collector’s items, the primary value of a copy of Weiss’ movie lies in the acquisition of the object, not in the film itself.

Perhaps in this age of fractured viewing (Note: see my discussion of Poppy) you could make a version in the form of a nested playlist made of randomised streaming videos, the brief, gnomic vignettes grouped and made to be played in any order. Ballard, of all the futurists of his age, was the one most in tune with the future. I would love to know what he would have thought of that idea.