Archives for the month of: October, 2013

(These are gallery notes for Beloved, a forthcoming exhibition of photographs by Darren Andrews at Lancaster City Museum)

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Death is the principal subject of photography. The fascination a photograph holds for us lies in our knowledge that the frozen moment captured in the image has passed. Whether chemical or digital, and whether taken over eight hours (like the earliest surviving photograph taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826) or a millisecond, a photograph is a monument to dead time, to the past, a record of loss. The bitter-sweet pleasure of viewing family photographs rests, for instance, on the knowledge that the people, places and events on display in the images are all locked irretrievably in the past.

 

Appropriately, then, this latest series of photographs by Lancaster-based photographer Darren Andrews takes death as a central theme. Shot in cemeteries around Lancashire, Beloved consists of images of headstones, memorial statues, makeshift shrines and grave tokens left by grieving relatives. Thus, this is a series of photographs about contemporary rituals around death and the ways in which we commemorate the loss of friends, family members and lovers with sculpture, flowers, children’s toys, kitsch decorations, letters, poetry and religious text and imagery.

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This is the first body of work Andrews has shot with a digital camera, and the hyper-clarity and intense colour of the medium reveals another moving dimension of this imagery. Beloved shows the way in which these symbolic monuments to the dead are all also undergoing beautiful decay. The photographs capture the rich textures of frost-damaged, acid-rain etched, soot-stained and lichen-covered granite and marble, the rich colours of the withered flowers, rotting wood, faded plastic, and matted fur of soft toys. There is a long tradition of the ‘memento mori’[1] in European art, art-works that remind us of the fragility and brevity of life through such symbolically loaded imagery as skulls, burning candles, delicate blossoms, ripe fruit and hour-glasses. This series of photographs about death and decay is a subtle, moving and fascinating contribution to this tradition. 

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[1] Latin for ‘Remember that you will die’

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This is a short piece I wrote for the online journal e-International Relations on the turn towards documentary and docudrama in depictions of the War on Terror on film and TV: http://www.e-ir.info/2013/10/16/documenting-the-war-on-terror/

Introduction to I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Park, 2006) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 7th July 2008

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University UK)

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of a print of this film)

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Park Chan-wook is undoubtedly the most famous Korean film director, both inside and outside South Korea although his status within South Korea is rather different from his international profile. Park’s fourth film, Joint Security Area, released in 2000, was a complexly plotted satirical account of a friendship that springs up between border guards on night watch on opposite sides of the bridge of no return that straddles the demilitarized zone running between North and South Korea. Although it draws on the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa organizing the story around flashbacks and red herrings, it was immensely successful commercially and has been seen by more South Koreans than any other film.

Outside Korea, Park’s reputation is rather different and he is primarily known as the director of excessive, ultra-violent thrillers. This reputation was cemented by his seventh film Oldboy (2003), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004. Oldboy is a highly stylized film based on a series of manga comics about a man who has been held prisoner in a room for 15 years without knowing why, and upon his release he sets out to get revenge on his captor. The film certainly includes some very violent fight sequences, although it also poses questions throughout as to how real the action we are watching is as opposed to being a fantasy of the delusional main character; however, what ensured the film’s notoriety was the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 in which South Korean student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people. Cho sent several photographs of himself to NBC on the day of the atrocity including one image in which he mimicked the pose of the protagonist of Oldboy.

I want to suggest however that this director’s reputation for making ultraviolent movies is slightly misleading for a couple of reasons and we need to be cautious about this association. One of the challenges of watching Korean films in the West is resisting the almost automatic association of these films with excess (which can verge on racist generalizations). A good example of this response is that of the distinguished American critic Andrew Sarris, whose contemptuous review of Oldboy asked, ‘What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?’

Of course, violence and excess has been a key means of marketing Asian films in Europe and the US for a long time. Those films that are most likely to make it to the screens of British art-house cinemas like this from Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Hong Kong and Japan, are those films that correspond to this expectation of excess.  Whatever the reason for this, whether or not it is due to Western orientalist stereotypes of South-East Asian cultures as inherently unhinged, tasteless, misogynistic, it means that what is distributed in the West is very selective and unrepresentative. Just as in Britain and the US, The Korean box office is dominated by romances, comedies and melodramas. In this respect, as a romantic comedy, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006) is more representative of Korean cinema than Park’s more well known films. Incidentally, for follow-up viewing there’s another recent Korean film, 3-Iron (2004) on BBC 4 this Wednesday – a very slow-paced romance by Kim Ki-Duk who, like Park, has also produced some barely watchable film violence.

A second important point about violence in Korean cinema is that it emerges from a particular historical context that shifts its meaning. Korea’s history in the 20th century was extremely traumatic. Annexation by Japan in 1910 led to a systematic attempt to destroy Korean national culture. This was followed by the country’s participation in the second world war, the Korean war which ran from 1950-3 and which left millions dead, the subsequent partition of the country, the imposition of martial law in 1972, the assassination of the president in 1979, and the violent crushing of political dissent during this period. As a result, when censorship restrictions were lifted in the early 1990s, following democratic elections in the late 1980s, the response of many film-makers was to make films about anti-social, anti-authoritarian characters. In this context, the gangster or the criminal protagonist in many films can be understood as a rejection of this history. In this respect the cartoonish, exuberant, cinematic violence found in some Korean films can be understood, at least in part, as a celebration of new-found political freedoms, revelling in the opportunity for transgression.

I’m a Cyborg, But that’s OK is Park’s tenth film and is very different from the type of film with which we might associate him. He has explained that he made the film for his young daughter partly as an apology for having spent so much time away from her filming on location as she was growing up, and partly so that he had a film that was suitable for her to watch so that she could understand what her father does. He has also suggested that he himself wanted a break from making a run of unrelievedly dark films, and so turned to this rather lighter material. The film is a romantic comedy of sorts that focuses on the relationship between two patients in a mental hospital, one of whom, Young-goon, believes she is a cyborg, and the other, Il-sun, who believes he can steal people’s souls and who is afraid he is vanishing to a dot. The idea that Park made this for his daughter is curious and troubling as the central character is a self-harming anorexic whose cyborg fantasy speaks of an extremely uneasy relationship with her body. In so far as this is a romantic comedy it is one that has uncomfortable undertones.

However, it’s also a very accomplished film. Park is a supreme stylist, and his films are made with exquisite and self-conscious attention to visual detail, and this film is his first experiment in shooting with Viper ‘Filmstream’ HD digital cameras rather than on film, which is partly responsible for the hyper-real clarity of the images and the smoothness of the slow-motion sequences.

Park is a philosophy graduate who worked as a film critic before moving on to direct films and he is very ready to acknowledge influences.  He explained in an interview in 2004 that:

‘I decided to become a film director after watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo. During the movie, I found myself screaming in my head. If I don’t at least try to become a movie director I will seriously regret it when I’m lying on my deathbed! After that, akin to James Stewart when he was blindly chasing after some mysterious woman, I searched aimlessly for some kind of irrational beauty.’

He goes on to explain that although Hitchcock was a profound inspiration initially there is a broad a range of influences bearing on his films, these include ‘people like Sophocles, Shakespeare, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, Austen, Philip K Dick, Zelazny and Vonnegut.’ This seems like a wildly grand claim but I think that Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut are very significant influences on this film with their interest in psychosis and confusion. Indeed one of the pleasures of Park’s films lies in identifying the sources. The credits sequence of I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, which shows the interior of some sort of machine and the opening scene of a factory staffed by robotic workers cites Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis; James Cameron’s Terminator (1984), the cyborg film par excellence, is also cited, while Tim Burton’s films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are a clear influence upon the non-naturalistic sets and the rather uneven tone of the film which slides between child-like innocence and something more desperate and uncomfortable.

Film musicals are also a very important influence upon the style of this film. One of the key characteristics of Hollywood musicals is highly choreographed and mobile camera-work and you’ll see that there is barely a shot in this film in which the prowling camera isn’t tilting, arcing, craning, dollying, dancing around the actors, strapped to their bodies or simply viewing the action from extreme angles. One of the effects of this elaborate stylization is the sense throughout the film that what we are seeing is unreal or questionable, as if we are seeing events from the unreliable perspective of one the patients. Park explained that the initial premise for this film was to imagine what a mental hospital would be like if there were no staff and it was just occupied by patients. He suggests that it is like the 1995 animated film Toy Story in which the toys come to life when no humans are present. In many films from Sam Fuller’s 1963 thriller Shock Corridor through One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) to Girl, Interrupted (Mangold, 1999), mental hospitals are depicted as hellish metaphors for society at large, microcosmic institutions that drive their patients to insanity through drugs, electro-shock therapy and conditioning. In Park’s film the mental hospital is a colourful and unreal psychedelic playground.

Park is often described as an auteur, a director like Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick (another key influence) whose work is characterized by a signature style or a consistent set of themes. He refuses this description of himself and says that he just takes each project as it comes. However, this film does develop further certain consistent preoccupations in his work – an interest in narratives that are focused on obsessive, deluded or insane protagonists, and an interest in the effects of confinement and isolation upon individuals. Thus, if the hospital in I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is a playground, it is not necessarily a pleasant place to find oneself.

Two final points to note with regard to this film. The first is that the main male character Il-sun is played by a Korean popstar whose stage name is Bi (which translates as ‘Rain’). He is very successful – the South-East Asian equivalent of Justin Timberlake – and this was his first film. Park has explained quite candidly that he cast him as a big box-office draw, and in one of the most delightfully arbitrary sequences in the film he sings a superb version of Frank Ifield’s famous song, ‘She taught me to yodel’, to Young-goon, when they are put in solitary confinement in neighbouring cells. He was also chosen because he wasn’t a professional actor and Park suggests that his inexperience means that he conveyed a strong sense of awkwardness and innocence. He is working on developing this parallel career as a filmstar and has appeared most recently in the film Speed Racer (2008) by the Wachowski brothers.

A second point is that, in spite of this casting, Park regards this film as a box-office failure. Although it was number one on the weekend of its release it was quickly withdrawn and grossed less than $2.5m. Whereas the monster movie The Host (Bong, 2006), which was also screened at the Dukes cinema, broke Korean box office records with 12.3 million tickets, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK sold a relatively paltry 780,000. For the director of Joint Security Area, the film that has been seen by more South Koreans than any other, this is both frustrating and amusing.

Introduction to Metropolis (Lang, 1927) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 16 Jan 2010

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University UK)

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of a print of the definitive 2010 restoration of this film)

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Premiered in Berlin on January 10th, 1927, Metropolis was the most expensive film produced in Germany up until that point. With 36,000 extras, 200,000 costumes and costing 5m Reichsmarks it was the Titanic (Cameron, 1997) or the Avatar (Cameron, 2009) of its day. The film was intended to challenge the commercial and aesthetic international dominance of American cinema that had continued from the First World War onwards, and its director, Fritz Lang, contended that German culture could imbue the technology of modern cinema with a spirituality and significance that American films lacked.  Metropolis, which is about the seductive marvels (and dangers) of industrial technology, is thus also a film about the marvellous industrial technology of cinema. It was intended to demonstrate that technically sophisticated, mainstream cinema could also be deeply moving and thought-provoking.

The stylistic influence of Metropolis is quite profound. It developed an epic visual vocabulary in its depiction of a technologized society that has served as a template for the imagined futures of twentieth century science-fiction cinema. Familiar images of future cities as vast, labyrinthine spaces from which nature has been expunged in films like Logan’s Run (Anderson, 1976), Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), Brazil (Gilliam, 1985), The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997), and The Matrix (Wachowski, Wachowski, 1999) are derived, at least in part, from Metropolis.

Despite its influence, however, the film’s critical reception has been quite ambivalent.

A standard critique of Metropolis has been that its visual inventiveness is not matched by an equally sophisticated narrative. The American film historian Tom Gunning suggests, however, that a key reason for the sceptical response to the film is a failure to understand it as allegory, a symbolic narrative rather than a realistic hypothesis of a possible future. As a result, the film has tended to be regarded as simplistic. When HG Wells reviewed the film for the New York Times, he famously dismissed Metropolis as ‘the silliest film’ partly because of his belief that science fiction’s responsibility was scientifically rigorous prophecy (and partly because he felt it was plagiarising his own work). However, unlike Blade Runner, say, Metropolis is not an attempt to present a convincingly realistic depiction of a possible future, but instead is a mythic narrative. Lang’s two previous films, both very successful and visually rich, were of stories from Der Nibelungen – German mythology – and we might understand Metropolis as a continuation of this preoccupation with mythic storytelling – a futuristic folk-tale, or modern myth. In the preface to the novel, from which the film was adapted, Thea von Harbou writes, ‘This book is not of today or of the future. It tells of no place…It has a moral grown on the pillar of understanding’. The film too should be seen as a moral tale but, the American film historian Tom Gunning suggests, this has made the film confusing for film viewers who are used to analysing layered, realist films whose themes and messages are hidden and elusive. ‘It is the over-explicit nature of this film’, he writes, ‘that makes many viewers, trained to hunt out subterranean meanings and organic symbols, so uncomfortable’.

Like many film-makers and critics of the silent period, Lang had an idealistic notion of cinema’s social role and he felt that film could comprise an international language that would allow complete communication between cultures. He wrote in the 1920s that ‘The internationalization of film language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have such difficulty understanding each other in all too many languages’. This claim rests on an understanding of cinema as a primarily visual medium and so it is important to recognize that Metropolis was not conceived as a literary film, or as an art film for a small audience of connoisseurs, but as a film that addresses as broad an audience as possible by exploiting the capacity of cinema to produce rich, complex, narrative images.

This is a film about a society organized entirely around the requirements of capitalism and industry. Metropolis, whose name identifies it as a generic city, rather than a specific place, is a dystopia in which the workers have been reduced to cybernetic components of the giant machines that power the city. They live like animals in underground caverns and, as we see in the opening scenes, even their physical movements have become machine-like – they are robotic figures. Thus, although this is a society that has been transformed by radical technological expansion and the rationalized efficiencies of Taylorism and Fordism, industrial technology has not emancipated the workers but has dehumanized them. The city is an architectural manifestation of these repressive class divisions so that while the workers live underground ‘in the depths’, the elite live and work above ground in modernist skyscrapers entertaining themselves in decadent nightclubs, sports arenas, lecture halls, theatres, pleasure gardens and brothels. Gender roles are also extremely traditional in this supposedly advanced context, with women occupying the roles of mothers and saintly madonnas on the one hand, and prostitutes and seductive vamps on the other.

The class conflict that results is explored through the invocation of Christian myths. Metropolis is ruled over by a patriarch, Joh Frederson, who uncovers a burgeoning, illicit religion forming among the workers around a woman called Maria who preaches to them about the coming of a messianic figure called the ‘mediator’, (der Mittler), who will bring the classes together. Meanwhile, Frederson’s son, a playboy named Freder has become infatuated with Maria and has disguised himself as a worker in order to travel to the worker’s underground city to meet her. Frederson asks the crazed scientist, Rotwang to turn the robot he has built into a replica of Maria, so that they can use the robot to disrupt this potentially seditious underground movement. It transpires, however, that Rotwang resents Frederson because years earlier, Frederson married the woman he loved, so in revenge he programs Maria to cause havoc and she leads the workers to destroy the city. Rotwang, who sports a robotic hand and whose workshop is decorated with a pentangle, represents the irrational, uncontrollable dimension of technology.

So, the film explores the social impact of technological progress and capitalist exploitation. It also explores the way in which religion functions both as consolation and as a vehicle for political resistance.  Despite its dramatization of class struggle and the violent inequalities produced by capitalism, the film has often been seen as, at best, politically ambivalent. The workers remain de-individualized and framed as bodies rather than rational intellectual figures, and the liberal narrative resolution which favours reconciliation rather than resistance and confrontation is abrupt and somewhat unconvincing: ‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!’ The film has often been read as fascist while the studio producing the film felt that it displayed Communist sympathies.

But of course, Metropolis’s significance is not that it offers an insightful narrative examination of class politics, or a progressive political programme, but that, through the medium of a big-budget action film, and a mythic tale of an alternative reality, it gives us images of the effects of advanced industrial capitalism, which depends upon the subjugation, depersonalization and invisibility of labouring bodies. It also offers us spectacular and threatening images of a society organized around principles of rationality, efficiency, surveillance and control. It is a distorting mirror, reflecting back to audiences of the 1920s an exaggerated, grotesque image of contemporary reality. This is crystallized in a sequence in which a shot of a massive exploding generator dissolves into a shot of a sacrificial furnace into which ranks of uniformed workers, who are identified by number rather than name, are being marched. It is an image that captures the relentless, indifferent violence of modern industrial capitalism in which humans are simply another resource, and also the horror of rationalized, assembly-line genocide that was to follow just a few years later.

The version of Metropolis released in January 1927 was around 2½ hours long and was received with little enthusiasm. As a result the distributor, UFA, cut about a quarter of the film out. The American distributor, Paramount, made even more severe cuts, handing the film to a playwright and critic, Channing Pollock, who reframed the film as a Frankenstein-derived story about an inventor attempting to replace humans with robots. Pollock changed the names of characters and rewrote the intertitles, cutting out entire subplots and characters as well as the crucial back-story of the longstanding rivalry between the inventor and the head of the city, and he also altered the running order of the story. Consequently, the shortened versions of the films were incoherent and perhaps because of this, the film was a disastrous commercial failure that almost bankrupted the studio.

The material cut from the film was ordered to be destroyed, and so it was assumed that the original version was lost for good, but in 2008 an almost complete copy of the 1927 edit was found in an Argentinian film archive. That print was very badly damaged, but it provided restorers with most of the missing scenes and the correct running order. There are still one or two missing passages but of the five or six versions of Metropolis I’ve seen, this is the first that makes sense and it raises the question of whether the film might have had a different reputation if it was known in this version. There is a clearer motivation for characters’ behaviour and there is also a certain amount of comedy that wasn’t evident in earlier versions.

This is a film that was designed to be viewed on big screen, a much bigger screen than this, accompanied by a symphony orchestra playing the specifically commissioned score, but watching it on a cinema screen of any size, also allows us to see the subtleties of the performances, the nuanced hand gestures and facial movements, as well as the intricacies of the production design. 1927 was the year in which sound film became commercially viable with the release of the Jazz Singer, and for many critics and film-makers of the time, the pedestrian realism of synchronized sound film destroyed the poetry and allusiveness of cinema, as well as its capacity to cross language barriers. It meant that the primarily visual medium of cinema was superseded by an audio-visual medium, which required film-makers and audiences to engage with a new aesthetic regime. So, Metropolis is a film from the summit of silent cinema, one of the last and one of the most refined, ambitious, expensive and mature works of the silent period.

References:

Thomas Elsaesser (2000) Metropolis. London: BFI

Tom Gunning (2000) Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: BFI

In March this year I organised a one-day research symposium on production design in cinema at Lancaster University. This video is of the introductory keynote paper by Prof. Sir Christopher Frayling, which includes a historical survey of approaches to film production design and outlines some of the key issues for scholars and critics studying this field of film production and aesthetics.

The video opens with my introduction in which I set out the context for the keynote paper and the papers and discussions across the rest of the day (and I hand over to Christopher at around 9 minutes).

Frustratingly, copyright restrictions mean that we were unable to include in the video the many stills and production sketches with which Prof Frayling illustrated his talk, but we have included captions to indicate what was displayed on the screen during the presentation. In any case, Christopher is a very engaging and knowledgeable speaker and so this is a fascinating and informative talk.

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Most of the SF novels I’ve read have been battered copies borrowed from libraries or bought from second-hand book-shops and charity shops and there is something especially appropriate about this temporal contradiction. These novels, that are frequently imaginings of possible anachronistic futures, belong to the past – scuffed, yellowed, foxed relics that sit in a ‘time out of joint’ (to cite Philip K Dick [citing Shakespeare]).

One of the particular generic pleasures of these ageing SF novels is the cover art which is exemplified by these two novels, picked up in an Oxfam book-shop at the weekend. It often seems that the cover illustrations of SF novels have little to do with the content of the books – one wonders how much these artists knew of the specific stories they were providing the key image for, and what the authors thought of the covers to their books – and so the cover imagery has a separate status. It is not an illustration of the story but takes the brief (to design an attractive and arresting cover for a particular story) as a springboard for an independent art-work with an often tenuous relationship to the book. There are certain visual tropes that recur again and again as seen in these two covers – depopulated surrealist landscapes on the one hand (sometimes rendered in collage or photomontage), and excessive reliance upon the airbrush on the other to depict the smooth surfaces of skin, clothing and spacecraft.

These are not especially beautiful images. They are both functional and visually striking, but whereas there are some artists whose work is immediately identifiable – such as Bruce Pennington, Chris Foss, Jim Burns, Chris Moore, James Marsh, Ian Miller –  these images (by Miss Moss and Adrian Chesterman) are rather more generic. So, this not a matter of nostalgia for the lost art of the novel as a physical object, nor an ironic pleasure in kitsch imagery, but simply a reflection upon the richness of the worlds glimpsed beneath the titles and text on the covers of SF paperbacks.

As it happens the two novels also appear to exemplify one of the principal preoccupations of SF writing and SF imagery, which is with gender and sexuality. According to the blurb, Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a feminist classic from 1962 about a female scientist – a ‘communications expert’ – who explores her own sexuality while becoming entangled with the ‘strange and unnerving life forms’ she is studying. If Mitchison’s novel is about femininity and female sexuality, The Demolished Man, on the other hand, (which is by Alfred Bester author of a superb, timelessly cinematic novel from 1956, The Stars My Destination) is clearly a novel about masculinity: ‘One man sets himself against the whole sophisticated paraphernalia of twenty-fourth century crime fighting, conducted by the peepers – trained telepathists with a strict code of ethics’, explains the blurb.

Introduction to Crash (Cronenberg, 1996) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 26/11/07

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for the screening of this film in connection with a Lancaster University seminar series, ‘New Sciences of Protection: Designing Safe Living’) 

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Crash is the 1996 film adaptation of a 1973 novel by British writer JG Ballard. It was directed and adapted for the screen by Canadian director David Cronenberg who is a particularly appropriate director as his films share Ballard’s preoccupation with the way identity and experience is shaped by modern technological society. His films are also marked by an impassivity and formal restraint that neatly parallels the emotional coolness of Ballard’s writing.

JG Ballard is perhaps best known as a science fiction writer, however the books he writes are clearly distinct from conventional generic SF. They are not concerned with heroic space travel and other worlds, or with distant futures, but with what he terms ‘inner space’ – the point where the mind and external reality intersect in confusing and ambiguous ways. In this respect, his writing is very influenced by surrealism, which in turn was closely informed by psychoanalysis.

Although Crash is not set in an alternative reality – the film is shot and set in present-day Toronto – it is helpful to understand it in terms of the category of science fiction – it is concerned precisely with the ways that technology is incorporated into our lives, and with thinking through the consequences of this incorporation – how it changes the way we interact with one another, how it changes the way we see ourselves.

The value of science fiction for Ballard is that in imagining future worlds and other spaces it offers a metaphorical account of contemporary reality. Science fiction takes significant details of contemporary reality and exaggerates them, and so it gives us an extreme, excessive, distorted picture of ourselves, emphasizing elements and tendencies that might otherwise be unnoticeable because they are so familiar and mundane. We are surrounded by cyborgs – with atomic pacemakers, titanium joints, pins and plates, plastic heart valves and prosthetic limbs – but in its images of robotic killing machines, science fiction attempts to estrange us from this everyday reality, to make us see it differently, and to reflect upon the radical transformations that have been introduced into our lives by technological change. As Ballard puts it, ‘However crudely or naively, science fiction at least attempts to place a philosophical and metaphysical frame around the most important events within our lives and our consciousnesses’ (Ballard 1985: 6).

A good example of this is David Cronenberg’s 1983 film, Videodrome, a science fiction-horror hybrid that is about the way that television alters our perception of reality. The film focuses on a sleazy television executive who becomes fixated upon a pornographic satellite channel called Videodrome, which appears to show real people being tortured and murdered. It transpires that the programme broadcasts a signal that causes fatal brain tumours in its viewers and as the film progresses, the executive becomes steadily more confused about the boundaries between the real world and the world on the TV screen, experiencing more and more vivid and frequent hallucinations. By the film’s culmination he has begun to merge with the machinery around him, inserting videotapes into a slot in his stomach his hand fusing with a revolver that he stores in his stomach and the film climaxes with his suicide. Cronenberg’s film is a gruesome cautionary tale about the effects of communications media on our experience of the world. It takes an aspect of contemporary life – concerns about the ubiquity of television – and exaggerates, distorts and amplifies this familiar anxiety until it becomes horrific and satirical.

What this means for Ballard is that, in its capacity to home in on areas of our lives that escape the attention of more conventional film and literature, science fiction is the only genre that is equipped to discuss and represent contemporary reality. The defining feature of contemporary reality, he suggests, is the ‘death of affect’: the death of our ability to feel. Whereas much science fiction is optimistic or technophilic – a celebration of the ways in which our lives are being expanded through technological advances, both Ballard and Cronenberg are moralists, holding up warning signs, asking us to beware of the accident ahead. Ballard has written that Crash is ‘an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis’ (Ibid.: 9).

For example, like much of their other work the film is about western post-industrial consumer society in which we have been seduced by the promise of new, intense erotic gratifications, but in reality have found ourselves living increasingly alienated, anaesthetized lives, in which our communication with each other is increasingly mediated and impersonal. In reaction to this monotonous, complacent, risk-averse and infantilizing social context, the characters in Crash become fascinated by car crashes.

Cars have a particularly close relationship with cinema. The crime writer Elmore Leonard has suggested, for example, that a car chase is unrepresentable in any other medium – you can’t write a car chase. Automobiles appear at exactly the same time as cinema – the late 1880s, and there are clear parallels between the experience offered by the two technologies – speed, exhilaration, the sensation of movement, the novelty and visual spectacle of brand new technology, the possibility to travel to other places. Ballard has also said in an interview that ‘the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car. It sums everything up’.

One of the most challenging conceptual premises of Crash is that car crashes aren’t accidents, but instead that on some level we want to crash. We crash our cars deliberately. As Ballard, who was in a serious car accident in the 1960s, puts it, the book ‘is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm institutionalized in all industrial societies that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions’ (Ibid.: 9). If we were really afraid of car crashes, he suggested in a BBC TV programme in 1971 we’d never be able to get into a car. So, what Crash explores is the question of why, in the face of this ongoing slaughter on the roads, we continue to drive, continue to put ourselves at risk of death and injury. This might seem to be utterly irrational but Crash is interested in the irrational logic that drives us to continue putting ourselves in danger in this way. What the film is driving at is the idea that in the context of a technologically sophisticated, comfortable, alienated and reified life in the west, a society characterized by the death of affect – the car crash is a rare moment of intensity. In a society in which we can no longer feel, and can no longer experience events authentically, in which every experience is packaged and commodified and made safe, the car crash is an event that tears a hole through the uniform and perfect surface of our simulated lives, exposing us briefly to the horror of reality – to death, pain and feeling.

As Ballard put it in 1971, ‘The car-crash is the most dramatic event in most people’s lives, apart from their own deaths, and in many cases, the two will coincide. Are we just victims in a totally meaningless tragedy, or does it in fact take place with our unconscious, even conscious contrivance?’

When the film was released in Britain there was a brief and predictable controversy over the decision by one or two local councils to ban the film on the grounds that, to quote the film reviewer from the Daily Mail, it eroticizes sado-masochism and orthopaedic fetishism. I think that this is a misunderstanding of what the film attempts to do. It is entirely correct that this is a film about perversity and fetishism in its preoccupation with wounded and disabled bodies, for example, but it is far from a celebration of perversity – it depicts fetishistic desire, and the erotic fascination we have with car crashes, but it doesn’t depict them in an erotic way. One of the central attractions of mainstream cinema is the thrilling, visceral, eroticized spectacle of death and destruction – collapsing buildings, motorway pile-ups, terrorist atrocities, exploding space-ships, luxury cruise liners sinking, the slaughter of the battlefield. Rapid editing, hyper-kinetic cinematography, melodramatic performances, dynamic music, vivid colours and elaborate special effects all contribute to the exciting rush of action sequences in Hollywood films.

By contrast, although it shows some extreme behaviour and situations, and a great deal of sex, Cronenberg’s film is stylistically very restrained and, I would suggest, is quite emotionally unengaging. It is more likely to leave you cold than to arouse you. The performances are consistently inexpressive, and with the exception of several point-of-view shots from crashing cars, camera movements are generally slow and smooth. The editing is also slow, and the film’s colour scheme is muted and limited; the shots are dominated by greys and blues and bruise-coloured pinks, purples, browns and dark reds, with very few bright colours. Daytime scenes are lit with a cold, soft, wintry light and the night scenes are lit with neon or sodium lights. The music is also sombre and uncomfortable.

Thus, the film can best be understood, then, as belonging to a satirical, cautionary tradition of science fiction and fantasy film and literature that extends back to Jonathan Swift.

References:

JG Ballard (1975) ‘Introduction to the French edition of Crash (1974)in Crash London: Panther

Crash!, Harley Cokliss, 1971. BBC TV

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