The Atrocity Exhibition Review
Jonathan Weiss’s version of J.G. Ballard’s unfilmable series of experimental writings gathered together loosely as a novel under the title of The Atrocity Exhibition opens with a voice-over disclaimer from one of the characters, Dr Nathan, warning the viewer that what they are about to see is the product of a disturbed and unusual mind – the research notes of a scientist, Professor Travis working for unfathomable reasons on a bizarre project to recreate the key events and atrocities of the 20th Century, his work constituting “a document of his mental breakdown”. As well as serving as a good framing device for the unstructured nature of what follows and alerting the viewer of the somewhat disturbing nature of the film, it as good a way of questioning the strange compulsion that drove the author himself to write one of his most challenging and experimental books.
There are few writers whose own personal obsessions are so frankly and plainly delineated in such a uniquely identifiable a voice as in the works of J.G. Ballard. Born up in Shanghai, the son of a British businessman, he spent the three years of the war as an adolescent in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for the city’s British community – a period that he would write about in his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (faithfully adapted to the screen in 1987 by Stephen Spielberg). Arriving in the UK for the first time after his war-time experiences in Shanghai, Ballard initially trained as a doctor, but it would eventually be through his writing that he would find a way to undertake the real study that interested him – the loss of innocence and destruction of society that would be the outcome of the Second World War.
Undoubtedly inspired by his experiences in the POW camp, Ballard’s obsession with a comfortable bourgeois society turned upside down and forced to re-evaluate its moral bearings would subsequently be examined in his books, initially as natural disaster science-fiction stories (The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World, The Drought), and later through more speculative and prophetic breakdowns of society and abandonment of moral guidelines incurred by a growing dissatisfaction by the pampered middle-classes with the restrictive and sexually repressive world they have built around themselves (High-Rise, Crash, Cocaine Nights, Millennium People). The Ballardian landscape is thus iconically littered with drained swimming pools, low-flying aircraft, deserted and abandoned space centres and utopias where every sexual perversion can be freely acted out – but few of his works are quite as methodical, challenging, controversial and experimental in their examination of the underlying madness in society as his visionary 1970 work, The Atrocity Exhibition. In this series of non-linear, non-narrative vignettes, Ballard would place the still warm corpse of the 20th century onto a mortuary slab and with clinical detachment perform an autopsy into the neuroses that had brought about its demise.
Weiss’s filmed adaptation of Ballard’s non-linear narrative divides the film into five parts which nevertheless remain quite faithful to the totality of themes and ideas explored in the original book. 1. world war III as a conceptual act taps into a particular mood or zeitgeist of the late sixties, where the story’s psychiatrist Travis investigates a number of incidents – Hiroshima, Vietnam, Marilyn Monroe and the assassination of President Kennedy – seeing them as acts that presage the next world war. This is all wrapped up in an LSD-inspired rumination on the nature of time and space. Jean-Luc Godard was using this same material during this same period in films like Weekend and One + One, but in contrast to Godard’s ambivalence towards the artistic and cultural significance of such material, which he would ultimately come to regard as fascist, Ballard is fully embracing in his artistic appropriation of this subject matter as further evidence of the decadence of modern society. Ballard approaches it scientifically and aesthetically, but unemotionally, decontextualising and juxtaposing these events, examining them for something arising out of a particular geometric configuration they propose, seeing it as a kind of Dadaist art installation, and the subject matter is all the more disturbing for it.
2. the geometry of her face as a diagram for murder and 3. the crash as a fertilising event both take these themes further, applying them to the human body and sexuality in conjunction with technology, specifically in regards to destruction, dismemberment and death in car collisions. This in turn would inspire Ballard’s next novel Crash, (filmed in 1996 by David Cronenberg) but all the material is already here, Ballard prophetically seeing the trend towards reconstructive and cosmetic surgery, celebrity worship, the chromium sheen of the automobile as a fetishistic object of desire, power and sexuality and the resultant breakdown of conventional human means of communication. “sex is not a conceptual act, it’s probably only through these perversions that we can make contact with each other at all. We need to invent a series of imaginary perversions to keep the activity alive”. Weiss brings this material fully to life, blending images of crash-test dummies with scenes of surgery, footage of the disfiguration of Hiroshima survivors and scenes of sexual activity – and yes, he even manages to get Ronald Reagan fucked.
While the controversial juxtaposition of images and idea of the early part of the film still retains the power to disturb, the prophetic nature has in other ways been diminished by it actually being seen to have been in many ways realised in modern society through televised wars, greater glorification and desensitisation towards violence and even the predominance of reality TV. Much more speculative and consequently possibly more disturbing and enigmatic since the Space Age is still not with us, are the latter parts of The Atrocity Exhibition where Ballard speculates on man’s ability to imagine even more coldly elaborate and technological means to bring about death, destruction and alienation within society. 4. nightmares of anxiety (death in space) taps into the impact of the space race on the public consciousness that probably seemed more imminent and significant in the years the book was written, 1966-69. For Ballard space did represent another frontier - not in terms of physical journeys to other planets, as you might expect, but in terms of the inner exploration of the human psyche, as can also be seen in Ballard’s 1965 adapted for television science-fiction drama Thirteen to Centaurus. In that respect, this part and the last section of the film more closely resembles Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker in terms of mood and subject (Tarkovsky’s non-linear experimentation in film moreover being a clear influence on the director Weiss).
5. virtual death summarises the totality of the various themes that have been broached throughout the film exceptionally well, using footage of the air shuttle disaster, the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination and speculation on the suicide of Marilyn Monroe as examples of deaths that had a huge impact on society, yet were only experienced in virtual terms by the majority of people, through news items, TV and radio reports and photographs. Carrying such a weight of baggage of the unknown and speculative, this section is particularly mysterious, tying in with it the fates of the strange characters of Travis Talbert, Karen Novotny and Dr. Nathan, who try to “solve” these enigmas thrown up by the 20th century through scientific investigation.
Weiss works superbly with the material here, creating the most Ballard-like visual representation of the author’s work on the screen, with his ubiquitous scientists, doctors and mysterious beautiful women haunting concrete bunkers, motorway underpasses, aircraft landing strips and other areas of urban isolation. The screen is also kept busy with significant and meaningful montages of archive news and documentary footage of atrocities, scientific charts and tools, autopsy reports and x-rays, close-ups of organs being operated upon and pornographic sex scenes. They are all meaningfully integrated into the screenplay – if not in any immediately comprehensible way, at least in a way that is true to how Ballard envisioned it in his writing - and thankfully not in any pretentious rapid-fire montage. The same kind of attention is applied to the music score which is eclectic and appropriate throughout, with only Gorecki’s Symphony No.3 being overly familiar, though it is a fine alternative to Philip Glass’s accompaniment for the exploding of the space shuttle at the end of Koyaanisatsi. The use of ambient noise and effects on the soundtrack is also carefully used and extremely effective.
The Atrocity Exhibition is released by Reel23, a pan-European distributor, but is available through UK outlets. The disc is not region encoded and is in PAL format. The disc is nicely packaged, slipcased in a cardboard digipack.
The image quality is exceptionally good, and if not quite perfect, it’s as good as. The film seems to have been shot in a variety of film stocks, some of the softness and grain suggesting 16mm, and there is also footage borrowed from a number of other less than pristine sources, but there is little more than a few minor flecks here and there, which are rare and not frequent enough to have any significant impact on the image. Colours and tones look perfect, with deep solid blacks – the image clear and stable. There is nothing here that could be seriously faulted.
The audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 is similarly strong with both dialogue and music score coming across clearly and accurately.
An English language film, subtitles are provided in Dutch, French, German and Spanish, but there are no English subtitles for hard of hearing.
Commentary by author J.G. Ballard
In the company of the director, J.G. Ballard is full of praise for how Weiss has adapted his book – so well is it done that Ballard fears that the filmmaker shows worrying signs of relating perhaps rather too closely to the insane psychiatrist who is the protagonist of the book. Ballard’s commentary is everything you could wish for, talking about the inspiration, the working method and what he hoped the book would achieve. Essentially he refers to how the mind seeks to find familiar patterns and create a construct to explain what it perceives, but what happens when an insane person attempts to rationalise an insane world? He refers also to specific events on the screen and about how appropriate he finds them. Talking about Travis and his attempts to reconstruct and explain the insanity of the works, perhaps for therapeutic reasons, you do often wonder if he is talking about the character or about himself. The commentary lasts 80 minutes before Ballard calls it a day, but it is a fascinating commentary.
Commentary by director Jonathan Weiss
The director’s solo commentary is equally interesting. He talks about his lack of interest in conventional filmmaking and how he had to create a new space to work within in order to film Ballard’s book. This necessitates disorienting the viewer to some extent to make them think about what they are seeing, the perspective adopted and the meaning of the choices made. It’s comforting to find out that a lot of the seeming inconsistencies and timelines throughout the course of the film are in this way intentional. The commentary goes on to explain the choices made, what they are attempting to illustrate and other meditations that the film’s subject gives rise to.
In addition there is a Booklet containing a Synopsis, a Director’s Statement, Biographies, and a fax from the author to the filmmaker. It folds out into the poster artwork for the film.
Any description of The Atrocity Exhibition can appear a bit obscure and intimidating, and indeed there is an awful lot to take in here and an awful lot that can be got out of this experimental film – far more than I have touched on even in this lengthy review. The point of the film however is not to follow or understand what is shown – if you can make sense of it, then you are almost certainly insane. What the film does manage to achieve is to effectively enter into the mind and world of J.G. Ballard with alarming facility and succeed in presenting a familiar world in a strange and disturbing light. The Atrocity Exhibition presents us with an insane world, one that is increasingly becoming more and more so, defying any attempt to rationalise it or react emotionally towards it. In order to understand it, Ballard suggests a new way of thinking, a desensitised scientific approach rather than an emotional response, but he also warns that the ultimate outcome of this course of thinking is madness.