BALLARDIAN

Novelist J. G. Ballard maintained that “people aren’t moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers – they’re moving in … to get away from other people. Even people like themselves.” 

And that was Ballard on a cheery day. His worldview was so distinctively bleak that “Ballardian” came to denote a particular constellation of dystopian decline: bleak man-made landscapes and technologically induced alienation, accompanied by environmental and emotional decay.  

Ballard’s childhood experience of being interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on the outskirts of Shanghai in the 1940s shaped his view of the world and influenced his writing.  

“I don’t think you can go through the experience of war without one’s perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience”.

For some weird reason his bleak vision has been catnip to filmmakers — so with this week’s release of High Rise we are exploring all things Ballardian. high-riseHIGH RISE (2016)

Ben Wheatley directs High-Rise—based on the final installment of a quartet of novels by JG Ballard – the first three are the Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974). Thematically High-Rise follows on from Concrete Island with its Ballardian premise: “Can we overcome fear, hunger, isolation, and find the courage and cunning to defeat anything that the elements can throw at us?”

High-Rise, the most conventional of Ballard’s 70s novels, has famously been a property in development ever since it was published, attracting and crushing several would-be adapters before the current team of director Ben Wheatley and wife Amy Jump.

Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller star in the film set in a luxurious apartment building where your location (higher floors) determine your rank and class. Initially, life seems like paradise to the solitude-seeking Hiddleston. But as power outages become more frequent and building flaws emerge on the lower floors, the regimented social strata begins to crumble and the building becomes a battlefield in a literal class war.

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crashCRASH (1996)

David Cronenberg directed this film based on Ballard’s novel. Cronenberg’s study of the sexual aspect of man’s relationship to technology was a magnet for controversy, drawing a NC-17 rating and sniping from all directions, including studio owner Ted Turner, who tried to prevent the film’s American release 

James Ballard (James Spader) survives a brutal car crash and finds himself drawn into a mysterious subculture of people who fetishize car crashes as erotic events. He meets Vaughn, a charismatic group leader who stages recreations of celebrity car crashes.

The fetish for car crashes has a strange bonding effect on Spaders’ marriage to wife Deborah Kara Unger. They already had an open marriage, but now their increasingly skewed desires lead them to play out more and more dangerous scenarios. Following a crash which leaves his wife broken and bruised on the edge of a road Spader caresses her saying, “Maybe the next one,” implying that the logical end result of their extreme fetish is death.

In his review, Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars, writing:

Crash is like a porno movie made by a computer: It downloads gigabytes of information about sex, it discovers our love affair with cars, and it combines them in a mistaken algorithm. The result is challenging, courageous and original–a dissection of the mechanics of pornography. I admired it, although I cannot say I “liked” it.

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empire of the sunEMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)

Ironically, Ballard’s best-known book was his most conventional. Empire of the Sun is a semi-autobiographical historical novel that was shortlisted for the Booker prize and brought Ballard a broader audience. The film adaptation was directed by Steven Spielberg, starring John Malkovich and a very young Christian Bale, with Tom Stoppard writing the script.

Ballard’s experiences as a young boy in Shanghai during WWII would be too much to handle for most adults, let alone a coddled expatriate boy. They skewed his ability to view the world with detachment and gave him an extreme perspective on the brutality of human nature.

After Japan invades Shanghai On December 8, 1941, Bale (Ballard) is separated from his family and survives on his own street smarts.  Eventually, he is caught and tossed into a Japanese prison camp—which he views as an exciting adventure. The story ends during the 1945 liberation: on the verge of manhood, the 13-year-old Bale reunited with his family but will never again be the pampered brat whom we met in the early scenes.

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When_Dinosaurs_Ruled_the_EarthWHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) 

Written and directed by Val Guest, based on a story by Ballard, and produced by Hammer Films who also brought us the buxom fantasy One Million Years B.C.

When Ballard was asked to develop a treatment for the film he turned in a dark satiric treatment that poked fun at the prehistoric film genre. His version was rejected by Hammer who then brought in Val Guest to revise the treatment and direct.

The loose plot centers on Sanna (Playboy centerfold Victoria Vetri), a member of the Shell Tribe who is rescued from certain death by the Rock Tribe’s Tara (Robin Hawdon). Her arrival at the Rock camp coincides with the mysterious formation of a new fire in the sky: the moon. Sanna is blamed for this affront to the sun; she flees, Tara follows. Their shared adventures loom as large as the giants who once ruled the earth.

The film did poorly in the box office but did win Hammer its only Oscar — for visual effects.

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homeHOME (2003)

Richard Curson Smith wrote and directed this bizarre adaptation of JG Ballard’s “The Enormous Space” for BBC.

After a traumatic crash and desertion by his wife, Ballard’s modern man Ballantyne chooses to cut himself off from the world and “experiment” with his life.

He decides to exercise control by staying home, cutting himself off from the rest of the world, and simplify his life by destroying the furniture. A neighbor, a friend’s wife and a co-worker notice his odd behavior but do not question him as they do not feel they have any right to tell him what to do.

As Ballantyne rids himself of surface clutter he is led to a startling discovery; the house itself is behaving oddly and transforming itself – or is it all just happening in his fevered mind? The changes begin to obsess and take control of Ballantyne. As resources become more limited, he has to get creative with his “experiment”, leading to disastrous and eventually deadly interactions with the outside as we plunge into the world of horror.

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ballardJG BALLARD DOCUMENTARY (1990)

John Henderson and Christopher Petit directed this 1990 BBC documentary profiling Ballard.

This documentary chronicles his life from 1940’s Shanghai and London in the 50s, up through his cult popularity and post-Empire of the Sun prominence. It paints a picture of Ballard as a towering figure of 20th-century literature, bridging the gap between sci fi genre fiction and experimental literature. He was able to synthesize his personal history and obsessions into a body of work that had far reaching influence, even beyond his 19 novels and dozens of short stories.

Considering the volume of his work it is surprising only a few have been adapted into film. Ballard and film stand tantalizingly close to each other, both through the handful of “official” adaptations and a number of obscure underground films. Ballard expresses his admiration for films like La Jetée and Mad Max 2, which mirror his views of the imminent post-apocalyptic landscape.

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Elma Cremin

Co-Founder at Followthethread
A long-time fixture of New York’s glittering social scene, Miami’s jai lai courts, and the interstate highway system’s “big rigs,” Elma Cremin has spent her life absorbing all things pop culture.Movies, cult tv shows, documentaries, art, fashion—you cut her and she’ll bleed out in the colors of an Andy Warhol Brillo Pad box. Finally, after years of working inside the system with such networks as Sundance, Trio, Fuse TV and Ovation, she went “ghost protocol” and co-founded FollowTheThread in order to work outside the petty restraints of the industry and share her remarkable knowledge.

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2 Comments

  1. I just saw the Ballard film “High Rise”. It was frightening, disgusting, exciting, and incredibly thought provoking.Well worth it…better than “Crash”. Good old Jeremy Irons!

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