Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1997 interview.
Andrew Hultkrans talks with J.G. Ballard
“The deviant technology of the car-crash provided the sanction for any perverse act.” - J.G. Ballard
So concludes James Ballard, the conveniently named narrator of J.G. Ballard's novel “Crash”, while contemplating a tryst with the story's already damaged homme fatal, Vaughan, a brutal and charismatic ex-scientist whose current “project” documents grisly collisions between human flesh and Detroit dashboards. Just as Ballard found a green light for his darkest imaginings in the peculiar resonance of the car crash, David Cronenberg discovered in this “deviant technology” a new way “to show the unshowable,” resulting in his most disturbing film to date. For those intimate with Cronenberg's imagery -- exploding heads, vagi?nal stomach wounds, gynecological tools for “mutant women,” giant roaches with talking anuses -- the already elastic definition of “disturbing” has been stretched to the point of meaninglessness. Yet with “Crash”, Cronenberg has moved -- as one typically tight-sphinctered British critic put it - “beyond the bounds of depravity.” For Cronenberg aficionados, such censure functions as a tantalizing press release, for after all, one man's depravity is another man's cup of tea. If a Cronenberg film didn't mow down fifteen different notions of moral acceptability, then back up and plow them over again, it wouldn't be a Cronenberg film. Through Ballard's calmly psychotic source material, though, Cronenberg has distilled his primary theme -- psychological and bodily mutation -- dispensing with rebellious flesh and twitching vis?cera in favor of far more unnerving internal transformations.
Originally published in 1973, “Crash” is Ballard's grim report on the emergence of what he calls “a nightmare logic” in the affectless, media-saturated landscape of the late '60s. The bleak, somewhat noir narrative follows the descent of a jaded couple, who sustain their marriage by confessing their adulterous escapades to one another, into the polymorphically perverse world of Vaughan and his car-crash fetishists. Along the way, James Ballard and his wife Catherine lose their already tenuous grip on reality, yet gain a new intimacy, made possible by the “deviant technology” of the auto wreck and its resultant injuries. On first inspection, their strange journey seems as unsympathetic as Vaughan's fetish is baffling, yet the seductive tone of “Crash” beckons even the most squeamish readers to abandon their previous notions of morality and sexuality. Like the new form of intercourse Ballard enjoys with the leg wound of Vaughan's most mutilated female fol?lower, “Crash” is a perverse act that calls the very concept of perversity into question.
For a reader untutored in Ballard's typically clinical tone, the most disturbing aspect of the novel is its apparent lack of moral posture regarding its characters' self-destructive obsession. Ballard hastens to add that “Crash” is “a cautionary tale,” a deadpan exploration of extreme atrocity in the mode of Swift's “A Modest Proposal.” Cronenberg jettisons Ballard's disclaimer like a crash-test dummy, resulting in an even more boldly attractive statement than Ballard himself intended. As the director freely admits, Cronenberg assumes the role of Vaughan for his audience: “Things you normally look away from actually reveal a kind of beauty -- a different aesthetic -- and I'm going to convey that to you in as seductive a way as possible.” Through deep-blue lighting and chrome details, through the repulsively sexy performance of Elias Koteas as Vaughan, and through the inviting wounds decorating Rosanna Arquette's body, he succeeds. - AH
AH: In “Crash” (1973) and “The Atrocity Exhibition” (1970), you list perversions, mutilations, and unfortunate intersections between flesh and metal. One gets the sense that these could be medical journals written for psychopaths. Did you borrow this clinical tone from your experience as a medical student?
JB: Oh, I think so. The couple of years I spent as a medical student influenced, and goes on influencing, my fiction. I don't think I could have written either of those books without my medical experience. Anatomy and physiology seem to be a wonderful storehouse of images and metaphors of every conceivable kind, and much closer to the sort of truth of what I was trying to reach than anything I could find anywhere else, in literary sources or what have you.
AH: Did that enable you to approach the most extreme forms of bodily damage with a calm perspective? For instance, I have a friend in medical school, and he said when he first encountered the cadavers in the dissection room, he was about to pass out. But after only a few days, he was tossing organs around and joking.
JB: That's very true. That's the sort of survival mechanism that comes into play. I mean, thanks to my experiences during the war, and my childhood in Shanghai, I'd seen a great number of human corpses. But there's something about the theatrical way that cadavers lie on their glass-top tables under the cool light of the dissection room. It's like a strange cross between a Conceptual art installation and a nightclub. And the cadavers, of course, are naked, and reveal all their personal histories in scars and blotches, in facial lines, in skin color. One's looking at the entire life of a human being, not just at a dead version of the person.
And as you've said, to begin with, one's rather stunned by it all. Then this kind of grave's humor comes in, and one saunters around with a head under one's arm and isn't touched by it. But then, as you begin the process of dissecting the human being -- particularly the face, where you uncover all the facial muscles that give expression to the character -- you begin an extraordinary exploration of another individual in the most intimate possible way. All that I fed straight into my own fiction, and, to some extent, I still do.
AH: You've called “Crash” a “cautionary tale.” What were you cautioning against?
JB: Well, cautionary tales take many forms. One of the most famous of all, Swift's “Modest Proposal,” employs the deadpan approach. It seems to embrace the very subject that is the target of Swift's anger. I'd like to think that “Crash” lies in the tradition of that type of cautionary tale. I mean, when I was writing “Crash”, I certainly didn't think I was writing a cautionary tale. What I thought I was doing was following certain trends that I saw inscribed in the sensation-hungry, rather affectless landscape that was emerging in the ‘60s. I was following these trends that I saw inscribed across the graph paper to the point where they seemed likely to intersect, you know, way off the page. I saw this new logic, a nightmare logic, emerging, and this was what I was exploring. I was, in a sense, carrying out an autopsy before the cadaver was cold.
What “Crash” does -- it's particularly noticeable in the film -- is remove the moral framework that reassures the spectator that these horrific scenes are, in fact, constrained within some system of moral value. And I think that unsettles people, because they ask questions -- I mean, “Do the filmmaker and the writer really believe that auto wrecks are erotically stimulating?”
AH: What was happening in your life while you were writing “Crash”? Was there anything out of the ordinary?
JB: No, my private life was very modest. Because I'd been widowed in 1964, I spent the years bringing up my three children. And I lived -- and still do -- what appeared to be a totally bourgeois life. I was never in the drug scene. People would come here to interview me, in the heyday of Burroughs and all that, and they would expect to find a miasma of child molesting. And they would find this, you know, rather sober figure -- I hope sober -- bringing up three children, with a golden retriever and a cat. But I think it was a very good background against which to explore the external world.
AH: You had a major auto accident soon after completing the novel. Did that force you to reassess some of the flights of imagination you had just taken?
JB: No, it didn't. By a miracle I wasn't hurt. At least I hope I wasn't hurt -- you never know about long-term brain damage.
AH: But you'd already finished “Crash”, so I think the screws were already loose.
JB: I'd finished it two weeks earlier, and I know if I'd died in the crash people would have said, “Ah, he got what he deserved.” I mean, I never said that I think car crashes are sexually exciting. What I'd said is that the idea of a car crash is sexually exciting. We know they're almost the worst thing that can happen to us on the average day, and yet, at the same time, we find the idea of crashing cars very, very exciting.
Now, this is what I was exploring -- the fact that there's something about the car crash that triggers a powerful imaginative response. I mean, I've written endlessly about the peculiar resonance that the deaths of famous people in car crashes -- Mansfield, Camus, James Dean, and so on -- have, which the deaths of the famous in hotel fires and plane crashes do not have. That Kennedy's assassination took place in the course of a motorcade had a special bearing on the curious, electrifying magic his death had on the public imagination. Had Kennedy been shot as he stepped out of the aircraft in Dallas, I don't think it would have had quite the same resonance. I don't think you have to look very far, because we all know when we drive our own cars that we have our death, literally, at our fingertips. We all know that the experience of driving a car taps various feelings of aggression and competitiveness. Young men, in particular, have to grapple not just with the car as they drive, but with their own hot emotions. The car, the experience of driving, also plays into the hands of all kinds of unconscious fantasies -- of transcendence, of death. I think the car plays a special role in the twentieth-century psyche for that reason. But this is something that takes place in the imagination. It's the idea of the car crash that is sexually exciting - not the crash itself.
AH: I understand the film has caused quite a bit of tub-thumping in England.
JB: The film opened here at the London Film Festival a couple of months ago, and created an incredible storm. And I thought, “Poor David.” He must have felt how Gulliver felt among the Lilliputians. He was just amazed by the reaction of the British press, those custodians of public morality.
AH: Did he receive the old “Throw this sick bastard out!” tabloid treatment when he arrived?
JB: When “Crash” received its first screening in Cannes, I noticed that a lot of the press people who were interviewing us, even though they'd seen the film the previous evening, were really talking about an imaginary film that they'd screened inside their heads. And this is a problem with “Crash” -- people think they've seen a violently pornographic film. In fact, the car crashes are played down, there's a low degree of violence, and there's very little sex. It's only, you know, simulated sex. There are far more graphic sexual scenes in countless Hollywood films -- Basic Instinct, etc. -- and infinitely more lurid violence. But once the dog has got the bone clamped between its jaws, it won't let go. These new moral crusaders don't want to let go of “Crash”, because it's such a juicy bone. God knows what will happen if it is finally shown here.
AH: In the film, Cronenberg downplayed the fetishistic fascination with celebrity, which runs throughout the book, as well as in “The Atrocity Exhibition” (1970). Obviously, the Liz Taylor fixation would have dated the film. But I'm interested in your fascination with fragmented celebrity bodies. Particularly in “The Atrocity Exhibition”, where the discrete body parts of Jackie O. or Liz Taylor become the building blocks for the psychological architecture of their admirers. What does this breaking up of the celebrity body signify for you?
JB: Well, I think it's something that takes place as we watch celebrities interviewed on television, or see them in close-up on cinema screens. I mean, we can explore every detail of their makeup. We can see, you know, the incipient mole that is appearing on Charlotte Rampling's right cheek. It applies equally to politicians and anyone who appears regularly on television, but film stars tend to be particularly attractive and beautiful. That's why they're there. Our imaginations begin to play over these stellar figures. We can't help but dismantle them in our minds. Their bodies are tantalizingly close, almost closer to us than our own bodies.
As for Elizabeth Taylor, David and I both agreed that we wouldn't keep her in the plot. Because although she's still a remarkable presence, she would never have agreed to take part in the film.
AH: It would have been even more perverse, though, to have Vaughan be fascinated with the current Elizabeth Taylor, with all her plastic surgery.
JB: Yes. We would have been moving into a divine sort of place then. But in my novel, Elizabeth Taylor had an emblematic role. I wasn't that interested in the actual actress, but she stood for the last of the great Hollywood stars.
AH: You've often spoken of the death of affect in our near future. I was wondering if we aren't already there, and whether or not you mourn the loss of emotional depth or response?
JB: When I wrote about the death of affect in “The Atrocity Exhibition” in the late ‘60s, I was writing against a background of a sensation-hungry media landscape that seized on all the violent imagery emerging from Vietnam, from the Kennedy assassination, from civil wars in Africa -- all that atrocity footage that gave “The Atrocity Exhibition” its name. I was writing about the way in which sensation had usurped the place previously occupied by some kind of sympathetic engagement with the subject. I mean, one saw blowups of the Kennedy motorcade used as backdrops in fashion magazines. Images that should have elicited pity and concern were drained of any kind of human response, in the way that Warhol demonstrated. His art really was dedicated to just that. I don't think it is quite so blatant nowadays. It is now incorporated into the way we see the world. In the ‘60s one would see fashion models flouncing around in front of a backdrop of the Kennedy assassination, or a napalm explosion. You'd think, “My God, what are they doing?” Now, of course, thirty years later, you don't even notice it.
I think a large part of the furor created here by “Crash” has been the desperate response of people who've seen a number of appalling atrocities on British television? -- like the massacre of sixteen five-year-olds in Scotland last March -- and are looking for an explanation. You know, something must be behind this appalling event, and people think maybe there's something wrong with the media world itself.
AH: When you held your exhibition of crashed cars at the New Arts Lab in the late ‘60s, you said that the crowd at the opening got drunk and rowdy, even destructive. Over time, people were damaging the cars further, a female model you had hired was attacked, etc. It sounds reminiscent of the tenants in “High Rise” (1975). What brought on this violent reaction?
JB: Well, it surprised me at the time. I think the thesis that “Crash” elaborates was instantly recognized. People perceived, without being able to articulate it, what the show was doing -- that there was a connection between the sexual imagination and death. I hired a young woman to interview the guests at the opening on closed-circuit TV, which was a real novelty back in 1969. The intention was to deliberately overload the imagination of the guests by having them see themselves interviewed on closed-circuit television by this naked young woman. When she arrived, oddly enough, earlier in the evening, she walked in, took one look at the cars and then told me that she would interview everyone, but only topless. She would be clothed from the waist down. We'd agreed beforehand that she would interview people fully naked, but when she looked at the cars she said, “I won't appear naked, I'll just appear topless.” I thought, “That's interesting.”
The invitation I sent out to all the critics and media simply described “crashed cars, new sculpture.” So people didn't know what they were coming to see. Well, when they arrived, there was no explanatory material of any kind, no slogans on the walls or anything. There were just three crashed cars under the neutral gallery lighting. Of course, everyone got immensely overexcited. The exhibition was planned as a psychological experiment, that was its sole purpose. And it gave me the green light. I thought, “I'm onto something.” And I started writing Crash.
AH: Do you think the exhibit would meet with the same kind of response today?
JB: I think the message has got through, in a way. Even though most people, let's face it, haven't read my book, or even heard of it, the ideology has percolated into the media landscape. I was watching the last episode of Robert Hughes’ “New Theory for American Vision” last Sunday, and it showed a wonderful piece of film -- the burial of Ed Kienholz. His wife arranged to have a huge hole dug in the ground. Kienholz's corpse was seated in the front seat of a 1940 Packard -- a backseat Packard. He was seated in the passenger side, with a bottle of wine, a deck of cards, the cremated remains of his dog Smash, and a dollar bill as sort of emblematic companions, then his wife drove the car down a ramp about twenty feet below the ground. Once she got out, he was entombed -- all the earth, with dollar bills thrown in, was dumped onto him. He was buried like a pharaoh. It was profoundly moving, actually. Partly, of course, because of the car. Without the car there, it would have just been another burial.
AH: Many of Cronenberg's films deal with biological mutation, often mediated by technology. Some of your stories and novels deal with that as well. But there's a difference in the characters' response to these mutations -- in Cronenberg there's usually some kind of visceral revulsion, a sense of horror in the face of extreme change. But in some of your works -- “High Rise”, “Crash”, “The Atrocity Exhibition”, and “Concrete Island” (1974) -- there's an almost calm, tacit acceptance of the new context, as if it were relatively natural. How are your heroes able to adapt to these disturbing transformations?
JB: Well, most of Cronenberg's heroes are rebelling against whatever mutational process is underway. Only towards the end do they yield. Whereas my characters, right from my early natural-disaster novels, accept the transformation taking place, because it's an externalization of some deep, unconscious -- or semi-conscious -- need of their own. They embrace the catastrophe because they're keen to remythologize themselves, and rediscover the different world that lies beyond the transformation. So I think a rather different psychology is at work in my own fiction. On the other hand, of course, there are an awful lot of similarities. And Cronenberg's “Crash” is, in many ways, a departure from his previous films, in the sense that it's wholly naturalistic. There are no exploding heads, no organic mutations taking place, no unfolding visceral changes. It's very cool and chromed. The violent change is all played down. The crashes are like those in real life -- they're over in a second. And the sex is very stylized. In some ways, I think it's his best film.
AH: You've talked about pornography in the past. Today, it seems, even “deviant” pornography aesthetics have become mainstream - they're used in advertising and fashion layouts etc. Do you think there is any new form of pornography emerging?
JB: The sort of stylization that you see in, say, Mapplethorpe's photography, in S/M photography, doesn't seem that far removed from the stuff you pick up in the Sunday supplement magazines these days. Human beings have an almost limitless capacity to absorb the psychologically perverse, because it's all so buffered by the electronic media that stand between us and the images. Plus there's a process at work -- of which “Crash” is a part, I think -- that I call the “normalizing of the psychopathic.” More and more of what used to be regarded as aberrant or perverse activity is now accepted as more or less conventional behavior. We're almost infinitely tolerant of human behavior of any kind, as long as it's consensual. This normalizing of the psychopathic has defused huge areas of the sexually perverse -- of the human imagination, generally. Surprisingly, I'm told people are still shocked by Helmut Newton's photography.
AH: Which is hard to believe. It's hardly appalling.
JB: I think it's genius, actually. I adore Newton. If you print this, the “Artforum” readership will think Ballard is a complete idiot, but I think, since the death of Francis Bacon, the most consistently imaginative -- and, in many ways the greatest -- visual artist working today is Helmut Newton. I can't think of anyone better. Certainly not all these installation artists who are pouring out of British art schools. You know, all those sharks in formaldehyde and so on. People are shocked by Newton, but not by the sexually explicit material, that would have shocked them, say, thirty years ago. They're shocked by his voyeuristic, masculinist eye. They're shocked by their sense that this is a man who is degrading women -- which is a different matter altogether. You can degrade women just as fiercely when they're fully clothed. I see his photographs as stills in some very elegant movie that might be playing in your local cineplex. In fact, he loved the film of “Crash”. I met him about a month ago, and he said, “You know, that's the sort of film I like.”