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O Magazine


and films.

Empires, skyscrapers
and atrocities

by Quim Casas

Rubén Lardín wrote on the book by different authors David Cronenberg. Los misterios del organismo: High Rise and Shivers aren’t the same thing, but both are amoral parables with an aim to provoke, and both take place in a building that fakes the social act taking as a starting point the same middle-class bourgeoisie.” High Rise, J(ames) G(raham) Ballard’s novel, and Shivers, Cronenberg’s film, appeared at the same time, in 1975, so none of them influenced the other: the Canadian director had written the script a couple of years before and the British novelist born in Shanghai couldn’t have seen the film before finishing his novel. Despite this fact, the resemblance between both is so evident that we could say that Shivers is the best possible adaptation that could have been made of Ballard’s novel. This idea doesn’t even reach a hypothesis stage, and for this reason the relationship between the two novels becomes a real mystery: never before were two authors as linked when it comes to their intentions and achievements without seeing or reading each other.

The building we see on Shivers, through which spreads a parasite virus that deforms libido and intensifies violence, is practically identical, in physical structure and as a social power structure, as the skyscraper on Ballard’s novel. The way chaos spreads is also very similar in both of them, as is the denial of any glimpse of morals or ethical behaviour once the characters are infected. The portrait of the decadence that the human race can reach, initially metabolised in the destruction of furniture, junk and garbage piled up in corridors and landings, might be more vicious in Ballard’s work, though. But Cronenberg, always using some fantasy elements, shoots non-reason and nepotism very well, even if the end of his work has more to do with the world infection portrayed at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The stories written by Ballard and Cronenberg talk to us, definitively, of the end of civilisation.

The writer would have to wait two more decades for Cronenberg to adapt him in the literal sense of the term, with Crash. And two more decades have gone by for High Rise to be literally turned into a film: High-Rise, directed by Ben Wheatley. Behind both films we find the person who has probably been most interested in translating Ballard’s devastating universe into film: Crash and High-Rise are produced by Jeremy Thomas, someone who’s always had the intuition to defend extreme projects: Naked Lunch, the reading that Cronenberg did of an impossible to put into images novel by William Burroughs, was also made thanks to Thomas. So we owe this British producer more than a coherent career: we owe him the production of unique films that curl within themselves with no possible continuity.

The director of Sightseers and A Field in England knows how to portray a skyscraper as an ecosystem of its own, an entity with its own life: forty floors with spa, swimming pool, gym, supermarket, offices, parties, social class division, middle class bourgeoisie and avant-garde rich folks. The failure, says Royal, the architect of the building (Jeremy Irons), isn’t his: the failure is the building’s. Royal inhabits the attic of his creation, crowned with a well-looked-after garden with lambs and horses, an edenic roof at the top of the grey and ugly structure around which there spread kilometres of asphalt. Laing (Tom Hiddleston), psychologist and narrator, lives in an apartment on floor twenty-five, the middle zone in social class division. In this building that reminds us of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters’ comic books about dark cities and visionary architects, people go up and down, aspiring to a better floor while order falls. Without it being particularly Ballardian, we can also trace some influence of the author on Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s film in which class differences are shown through the different wagons of a train that goes round non-stop in a frozen and post-apocalyptical world.

Cronenberg is subtler than Wheatley, theirs being nothing more than a difference in style and appreciation. Unlike the director of High-Rise, who abides by the text although at times seems to lose control within chaos, as it happens to Terry Gilliam with his futuristic fables, the director of Crash knows how to take Ballard’s sick prose to his own terrain, although he allows himself to question some of his particular interests. When talking about the re-modelling of the human body through technology, the character played by Elias Koteas, a guy fascinated by the “glorious” car accidents in which stars such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield died, says that this concept is pure science fiction, denying thus one of the many possibilities of this new flesh.

Sex, twisted steel, accidents and outraged flesh. On the first scene, Deborah Kara Unger caresses the cold metallic wing of an airplane with her bare breast. Afterwards, when James Spader –whose character, like the novel’s, is called James Ballard without this supposing it to be a first-person autobiographic narration– suffers a car accident, the last vision he has before passing out is the woman on the other car, Holly Hunter, taking off her seat belt and leaving one of her breast bare. Cronenberg shoots, with the same descriptive style of Ballard’s writing, the wounds, seams, lacerations, cuts, stitches, scars and orthopaedic prosthesis in (oppressive) contact with the flesh. The strange eroticism of the accident and its aftermath is a new way of talking about the conflict between Eros and Thanatos. “Blood still stained the hood, making little black silk serpentines which disappeared through the wholes of the windshield wiper,” Unger tells a convalescent Spader while she masturbates him.

Flesh, blood and machine. Bodies and smells. “I believe in the body odours of princess Diana,” Ballard said once. He also wrote that he believed in the beauty of car accidents, the poetry of abandoned hotels, the common sense of stones and the madness of flowers. All that is difficult to shoot, as are the decadent Mediterranean landscapes that he imagined in his books (Marbella’s euro trash or an infanticide Costa Brava). Cronenberg gets near the revealing fact: capturing the essence of Ballard’s desolate writing, be it in a direct line (Crash) or as a reflex act (Shivers). Shooting the mind’s lunar landscape, as Martin Amis said referring to the author of Super-Cannes, who imagined in one of his stories a Europe in which Yves Saint-Laurent would be fused with Saint Augustus.

Cronenberg, in all, had a predecessor in which to find inspiration: 1970s BBC short film Towards Crash (J. G. Ballard and the Motorcar), shot by Harley Cockliss as if it were a report on the novel: the shooting of some car crashes and the relationship of a woman towards cars is similar to the ones in Cronenberg’s version, although the short film counts on the silent and hieratic presence of Ballard himself as witness of his own atrocities. And their exhibition would give way to a film I do not know, The Atrocity Exhibition, by Jonathan Weiss, a condensation of the different micro novels that make up the eponymous title.

But there are different Ballards in Ballard. Can the same writer arouse two radically outlooks as different as Cronenberg’s and Steven Spielberg’s? (Wheatley is closer to the Canadian and thus doesn’t count as a third vertex). On paper, the director of Jaws would be more Conradian than Ballardian, although it seems quite logical that out of all Ballard’s production Spielberg would be interested in The Empire of the Sun sol, and Cronenberg, in Crash. Tom Stoppard’s play-writing might not have been the most adequate for the adaptation, but Spielberg, in a constriction act only ruined in part by the unnecessary musical effusiveness of the overrated John Williams, is respectful with the most descriptive and autobiographical prose of Ballard while at the same time plays at being David Lean.

The 1941 outraged by the Japanese colonial China that the novelist describes from his own experience is turned by Spielberg into a terrible landscape, but without going too much into detail. Even Christian Bale bares a certain resemblance with Antoine Doinel, and this places us in the broken childhood and lost hope territory that in Truffaut takes the shape of the sea and in Spielberg and Ballard of the sky and the fighter aircrafts flying on it. The cultural conflict is very well exposed in sequences such as the costume party one, representing the end of the old British Empire. This sequence sees Ballard himself appearing briefly, so the author, choosing to participate in the first person, must have not been too unhappy about a film that fits his style much better than Spielberg’s, of whom nobody would have said, at least not until 1987, that he might have been interested in Ballard at all; even if this is a different Ballard from the one of The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, High Rise, War Fever, Super-Cannes and Cocaine Nights.

Spielberg would have never shot Elias Koteas’ car in Crash, a bed on wheels reeking of semen, or the archaic aggressiveness of High-Rise, and in the same way Cronenberg would have better portrayed the extreme external and internal decomposition of the prisoners in the Japanese concentration camp, or the fridge full of rotting food that Christian Bale contemplates when he still hasn’t realised that the happy days are forever over. Ballard wouldn’t have shot a dinosaur film either, and still, his only credited work as script-writer is the development of the first treatment of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, a Hammer production from 1970 the pre-historic eroticism of which isn’t exactly that of Crash and High-Rise.

Coda. Ballard really loved Alien because it reminded him of Francis Bacon’s twisted paintings, and now that Mad Max is fashionable again, he defined the second movie of the saga as a punk Sistine Chapel.