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Crash! Full-Tilt AutogeddonAuthor: Simon Sellars • Aug 10th, 2007 •
by Simon Sellars
Director: Harley Cokliss | Writer: J.G. Ballard
Starring: J.G. Ballard & Gabrielle Drake
I wasn’t satisfied by just writing SF stories, you see. My imagination was eager to expand in all directions.”
J.G. Ballard. ‘From Shanghai to Shepperton’, 1982.
Leached away by the camera lens, the dimension of depth is missing from the room, and the two figures have an increasingly abstract relationship to each other, and to the rectilinear forms of the settee, walls and ceiling. In this context almost anything is possible, their movements are a series of postural equations that must have some significance other than their apparent one.”
J.G. Ballard, ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’ (1976)
..:: MORE: Ballardian.com transcript of the film’s voiceover and meta-narration.
When Paul Haggis won the Best Picture Oscar in 2005 for a film called Crash, fellow Canadian David Cronenberg wasn’t among the well-wishers. In fact Cronenberg was positively livid, accusing Haggis of ‘functional stupidity’ for allegedly stealing the title of the Baron of Blood’s 1996 Ballard adaptation. But funnily enough Cronenberg wasn’t the first to direct a film called Crash. He wasn’t even the first to direct a Ballard adaptation called Crash. That’s a title claimed 25 years earlier by Harley Cokeliss, formerly known as ‘Harley Cokliss’, who made the 1971 short film ‘Crash!’ from fragments found in Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition; even the film’s title, punctuation and all, is lifted from an Atrocity chapter. Of course, Cokliss also pre-empted Jonathan Weiss’s feature-film version of Atrocity, released in 2000.
That achievement, of being the first – pre-Cronenberg, pre-Weiss – is worthy in itself, but Cokliss’s film has something even more prized, something else the other two could never have: it stars J.G. Ballard. With his brooding, hypermasculine presence, Ballard plays a version of Atrocity’s ‘T’ character alongside the actor Gabrielle Drake, her own role a composite of the book’s archetypal ‘sex-kit’ women.
The film was a product of the most experimental, darkest phase of Ballard’s career. It was an era of psychological blowback from the sudden, shocking death of his wife in 1964, an era that had produced the cut-up ‘condensed novels’ of Atrocity plus a series of strange collages and ‘advertisers’ announcements’. One of the ‘ads’ featured a bondage photo of a bound and ball-gagged woman set to inscrutable text: ‘In her face the diagram of bones forms a geometry of murder. After Freud’s exploration within the psyche it is now the outer world of reality which must be quantified and eroticised.’ Later there were further literary experiments, concrete poems and ‘impressionistic’ film reviews, and an aborted multimedia theatrical play based around car crashes. After that came an actual gallery exhibition of crashed cars, replete with strippers and the drunken destruction of the ‘exhibits’ by an enraged audience.
Then came Cokliss and ‘Crash!’.
In all of these experiments, aborted works, happenings, events, the motif of the car crash is crucial. Ballard sought to understand the role that automobile styling, and mass consumerism, plays in our lives. His sights were set on what he saw as the built-in death drive that technology embodies, the effacing of identity, the shutting off of our neurological systems. Our willingness to submit to the amniotic bliss of the technological womb. Of course, today we know where all this would eventually beach: his 1973 masterpiece, Crash. But in 1971 Ballard was still pushing the farthest limits of his obsession, refining riffs and routines, expanding the parameters of the car crash as far as popular culture would allow. Crucially this was far beyond the stuffy confines of ‘literature’, which Ballard has never had much time for, and into visual art and film: the realm of the popular imaginary.
‘On 12 February 1971 … the Radio Times announced, for 8.30pm on BBC2, ‘Crash!’. To be introduced by James Mossman. ‘For science fiction writer J.G. Ballard, the key image of the present day is the man in the motor car. It is the image that represents the dreams and fantasies that all too easily can turn into nightmares. In a film for Review Ballard explains the beauty and fascination of this potentially deadly technology.’
Quoted in Crash: David Cronenberg’s Post-mortem on J.G. Ballard’s ‘Trajectory of Fate’, by Iain Sinclair (1999).
Ballard and Gabrielle Drake in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
‘Crash!’ is rather a strange film. It doesn’t have a title sequence, there are no credits and there is no explanation of who Ballard is. It begins with Gabrielle Drake in profile, turning to the camera as a discordant oscillator tone is heard. Then we see Ballard, his strident gaze alighting on his natural habitat: the rooftop of a multistorey car park.
Next we hear a meta-narration enacted by a plummy BBC type, as vintage crash-test footage plays. Old, finned American cars collide in slow motion. Plastic dummies are expelled through windows and doors, gracefully shattering into smithereens. The narration is a slightly edited version of a passage in Ballard’s ‘You, Me and the Continuum’ (1966), one of the Atrocity texts. But it’s a tougher version. The original told us the crashing cars were ‘worrying each other like amiable whales’ but there’s nothing of the kind here, just a pure litany of impact zones, flying fenders, severed torsos, dummies disintegrating in a ‘carnival of arms and legs’.
I remember seeing some films on television of test crashes a few years ago. They were using American cars of the late 50s, a period I suppose when the American dream, and American confidence, were at their highest point.”
J.G. Ballard, voiceover from Crash! (1971).
Intercut with the crash tests are subliminal glimpses of Ballard and Drake. Then Cokliss switches to Ballard cruising in his large vehicle. Crucially it’s an American model, a left-hand drive, and in it our man rumbles down motorways and feeder roads, down the Westway, on the M41 towards Shepherds Bush. There are some heavy-handed repeats set to phased sound effects: motorway signs looped over and over like the revolving backdrop in a Warner Bros cartoon. The meta-narration gives way to Ballard’s own voiceover: first person, in a tone you just don’t hear from him in interviews or in person. In Iain Sinclair’s book on Cronenberg’s Crash, which features a discussion of the Cokliss film, Sinclair describes Ballard’s voice here as ‘a schizophrenic buzz’. But he also sounds weary, maybe jaded, maybe a little disgusted, as he tells us that that ‘the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car’.
His aim, Ballard suggests, is to home in on the ‘marriage of the physical aspects of ourselves with the imaginative and technological aspects of our lives’. It’s a key point, a partner to his assertion later in the film that ‘we only make sense of ourselves in terms of these huge technological systems’. Indeed, the egocentric popular culture of today, the all-invasive media landscape in which the private becomes public – the Facebook glossolalia of intimate, private space projected onto a global screen – can perhaps be understood in these terms, a result of what Ballard sees as ‘the shared experience of moving together through an elaborately signalled landscape’.
All filtered via this very 70s incantation of cocooned drivers in a ‘metallised dream’.
Ballard in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
The point having been made, the music returns, edgy and stressed, perhaps synthesised, sounding like plucked, discordant violins. Ballard is the driver. He turns to his right and sees Drake in the passenger seat. He blinks, looks again and she’s gone. We now know what she represents: our ‘strange love affair with the machine, with its own death’, according to his voiceover. There’s a clunky edit and the music cuts (it’s ‘sound design’, really, pure atmosphere, as functional as stage-set mise-en-scene). Ballard walks around a new-car showroom admiring Pontiacs, Cadillacs – the kind of American cars that add so much gravitas to Atrocity. His voiceover tells us that ‘the styling of motor cars, and of the American motor car in particular, has always struck me as incredibly important… I’m interested in the exact way in which it brings together the visual codes for expressing our ordinary perceptions about reality. For example, that the future is something with a fin on it’.
But acolytes know you’ll never find a tail fin in Ballard’s future, for his future is an anti-Gernsback continuum that has no need for sci-fi trappings because science fiction, for Ballard, is the stuff of the everyday. Ballard’s future is a fiction of the next five minutes, of the spinal landscape, of our bodies tracked and extended into utterly banal technology. Cokliss knows it too, and he shifts gear, treating us to canted tracking shots of fetishised car grilles. The sequence is hypnotic, lasts a few minutes, before Ballard, his chest thrust out, walks on by with the stride of a man on a mission. He stops at one particular vehicle, looks in the window, jaw set.
Ballard in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
Ballard knows exactly where the camera is. He’s a natural. In this film, he’s an actor. He has presence, undeniably. Wearing his ‘drunk tank Haiti suit’ (as Sinclair describes it), he sees the woman inside the car and there’s a musky erotic charge as her coquettish gaze returns Ballard’s smouldering stare. There’s a close up: her hand is between her thighs and we recall the second of Ballard’s ‘advertiser’s announcements’ for Ambit magazine, with its coded message: ‘Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?’. Classic Ballardian motifs: the merging of our bodies with technology; the manner in which even our most banal and everyday actions are super stylised in the face of an enveloping technological reality – it’s all here in this film. Importantly, the film is a continuum with Ballard’s earlier works, with the multimedia experiments outlined earlier.
LEFT: Drake’s hand in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
RIGHT: detail from Ballard’s second Ambit ‘advertisement’ (1967).
[Harley Cokliss] was an American who was over here. He made a number of documentaries for the BBC. Then he went to the States. He made a thriller with Burt Reynolds and one or two other films. I don’t know what he’s doing now.
J.G. Ballard, quoted in Sinclair’s Crash (1999).
In an interview for Sinclair’s Crash book, Chris Petit is dismissive of Cokliss: ‘I was amazed that Harley had read Crash, because he’s not a big reader. Although he never particularly had a career, he was a major hustler’ (but of course Cokliss’s film is based on Atrocity, not Crash as Petit states). Sinclair asks if Cokliss had ‘any status as a director’ – Petit replies, ‘Not really, no.’ But a quick web check of Cokliss’s career reveals some interesting tidbits that aren’t in the Sinclair book. Yes, Cokliss was ‘on the verge of making it as an exploitation director’, as Petit terms it. But he was also studio second-unit director on The Empire Strikes Back, so his stocks must have been reasonably high at some point. And he forged a successful latter-day career as a director of children’s fantasy adventure. But most importantly, for the time frame under discussion, Harley Cokliss actually had form and he had inclination. Just after ‘Crash!’, he made a documentary on Eduardo Paolozzi, a very important figure in the Ballardian universe, and he filmed and interviewed Philip K Dick, too.
Admittedly, on a technical level some of the pacing in ‘Crash!’ seems a bit off, as in the moments after we’ve submitted to the dramatic tension of the rather effective sound design and the charged interplay between Ballard and the woman, only to be shoehorned into, well, something else: a clumsy jolt into Ballard’s voiceover and a scene of spaghetti junctions. But aside from that, conceptually, either Cokliss has done his homework (and, yes, read the books) and has absorbed Ballard’s texts thoroughly, or Ballard is the invisible guiding hand behind the camera. Either way the film deserves serious appraisal, rather than languishing as a footnote to a ‘failed exploitation’ career.
The film was based on my interest in the car crash — as it emerged through the pages of The Atrocity Exhibition. It was made in the early 70s. With Gabrielle Drake. She was quite a serious actress in her early days, but then she moved off into Crossroads or something. She was very sweet. I met her a few times on the set, as it were, chasing around multi-storey car parks in Watford.”
Ballard, quoted in Sinclair’s Crash (1999).
My thoughts are that Ballard is in control. It’s very much his film and he knows it. His voice takes command. His body language dominates. Here Ballard was testing riffs (or ‘routines’, as Sinclair calls them, after Burroughs) that would, in time, become familiar. Don’t treat this phase of Ballard’s career lightly: it contains the seeds of what we’ve come to know and understand as ‘Ballardian’. There are fragments of quotes that we now recognise from Ballard’s famous introduction to Crash, regarding Freud and the distinction between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality. His evocation of an ‘elaborately signalled landscape’ would later be recycled into the 1994 introduction to Concrete Island. Elsewhere in the film, Ballard spits out his by-now familiar assertion that if all human life on the planet was to vanish overnight, the psychology of the human race could be reconstituted from the technological detritus. (Yes, spits. As before, Ballard’s voiceover verges on disgust; there’s a rather large bee in his bonnet, it seems). The subtext is: to visiting aliens, stumbling across our discarded playthings, we’d be pegged as a band of proto-cyborgs.
ABOVE: Drake in ‘Crash!’ (dir. Harley Cokliss, 1971): ‘the complexity of movement when a woman gets out of a car’.
ABOVE: Rosanna Arquette as Gabrielle in Crash (1996; dir. David Cronenberg).
Ballard’s voiceover tells us he’s ‘fascinated with the complexity of movement when a woman gets out of a car’ and you can see the fruits of that complexity, the literalisation of an obsession, in the character Gabrielle in the novel Crash, and in Cronenberg’s Crash. This severely crippled character, her every movement a complex cryptogram of prosthetics, flesh and leather that isolate her body parts into a perverse geometric grid, was, according to Sinclair, named by Ballard after Gabrielle Drake, the woman in Cokliss’s film.
And it makes sense, especially as Ballard’s voiceover, that eulogy to the complexity of the woman/car, gives way once more to the meta-narration, the plummy Englishman, who verbalises another Atrocity text, this time the list-paragraph entitled ‘Elements of an Orgasm’. It’s found in Ballard’s 1969 piece, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, later included in Atrocity, and it’s actually an inventory, a sex kit, a focus on a woman decommissioned, fragmented, magnified, then reordered by technology:
NARRATOR: Her ungainly transit across the passenger seat through the nearside door. The overlay of her knees with the metal door flank. The conjunction of the aluminized gutter trim with the volumes of her thighs. The crushing of her left breast by the door frame, and its self extension as she continued to rise. The movement of her left hand across the chromium trim of the right headlamp assembly. Her movements distorted in the projecting carapace of the bonnet. The jut and rake of her pubis as she sits in the driver’s seat. The soft pressure of her thighs against the rim of the steering wheel.
The sequence is overlaid with an ascending sound design, with staccato percussion fills, and there are some disorientating slow-motion close ups of knees, a breast, her hand on the gear stick. It’s phallic, yes, and obvious, but actually subtle in contrast to the remarkably similar, though overcranked scene in Mike Hodge’s Get Carter (released in the same year, 1971), in which Carter’s female rescuer changes gears with increasing speed and furtiveness while Michael Caine silently watches with smouldering lasciviousness in the passenger seat. Is Cokliss sending up Hodge’s macho anti-hero – Caine’s Carter? Is the parody an intentional counterpoint to Ballard’s more cerebral dissection of the cheap sex of the automobile?
Again Ballard is driving solo. He pulls into a car wash, gets out, stares unblinkingly as the vaginal parting of the brushes slowly come together to engulf the vehicle. Sinclair writes that Cokliss’s film subverts Cronenberg’s, that there are ‘disquieting parallels’, and nowhere is that more so than here (there are also ‘disquieting parallels’ with Weiss’s Atrocity film, but I’m saving that for another essay). In the Cronenberg there is of course a supercharged carwash scene, in which Vaughan fucks Ballard/Spader’s wife in the back seat while Spader/Ballard drives. Vaughan brutalises her, rearranging her body into death-driven accident postures: cracking her neck sideways, in weird angles, violently splaying her body across the seat as if she’s just been crushed by a car accident. She’s a living crash-test dummy and Vaughan literally fucks the life out of her.
ABOVE: The empty car-wash scene in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
ABOVE: Brutalised sex in Cronenberg’s car wash (Crash, 1996).
But Cokliss (the ‘interestingly named Harley Cokliss’, as Sinclair calls him) sexually frustrates this earlier Ballard. The woman is of course glimpsed almost subliminally once again, but the focus is more on Ballard, who glares, fuming, wordless, until the brushes wipe the window and block him from view. He literally sees sex in the motor car, yet he’s frustratingly displaced from it, as his voiceover links the ‘relationship between sexuality and the motor car body’. Cut to a long, voyeuristic shot of Ms Drake taking a shower. Graphic matches pit her body parts with various automobile parts: the point of her nipple, for example, fading to reveal the tip of a manufacturer’s medallion. It’s a bit obvious but it’s nicely shot, and Gabrielle Drake writhes nakedly, and in the end it makes the point well.
Now we’re on the home stretch, as Ballard walks through a junkyard, admiring the car wrecks, the ominous sigils of consumerism representing what his voiceover tells us are our ‘arranged deaths’. As an aside, I like how Ballard, although jaded, disdainful, offers his own opinion as if it’s just that: his own. The point is never forceful (although the tone may appear to be): ‘Have we reached a point now in the 70s,’ his voiceover asks, ‘where we only make sense in terms of these huge technological systems? I think so myself…’
‘I think so myself.’
(Under all circumstances, no matter how taxing — in person, in interview, in this film — Ballard is never less than unfailingly polite and generous with his time. It was the mark of the man.)
Then there’s that long oscillating tone again and it signals Gabrielle, bloody in the car, her head smashed on the steering wheel. Just as there was no sex in the car wash, Cokliss here denies us the car crash, the real money shot, which Cronenberg supplies in spades of course (oh, and in Spader, if only in dry humps). She opens the door, falls out, and the meta-narrative intones the third and final passage from Atrocity. As before, it’s taken from ‘The Summer Cannibals’ (or at least the first half is; the second half appears to have been written exclusively for the film).
‘Regaining consciousness,’ the meta-narrator tell us, ‘she stared at the blood on her legs. The heavy liquid pulled at her skirt. The bruise under her left breast reached behind her sternum, seizing like a hand at her heart.’
In shock, perhaps close to death, she turns and stares ‘at the waiting figure of the man she knew to be Dr Tallis’.
Ballard is Tallis. She turns to look at him, at JGB.
Drake in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
This detail is a curious inclusion. The ‘T’ figure in Atrocity, variously known as Tallis, Traven, Talbot and so on, is a psychiatrist suffering a mental breakdown; the fractured narrative is delivered via his fractured psyche. But up until now the narration in this film has been divested of its context in the book. Ballard, and perhaps Cokliss, have simply chosen the most evocative passages to do with the car and the role of the car crash (and in that sense, it’s more of a prototype for the Cronenberg film than the Weiss film, as Sinclair correctly identifies). There’s been no mention of character names, no anchoring to a world outside the film. Why mention Tallis, then, at this late stage? This would make no sense to an audience – a mainstream BBC audience – unfamiliar with one of Ballard’s least commercial works.
Never mind. There’s more test crash footage and a sound design of tortuously slowed down metallic crunching to go with it, like a contact mic lowered into the depths of hell. Ballard offers a summation: ‘Filmed in slow motion, these crashes had a beautiful stylised grace’. Yes, we realise, they’re important because they show us how ‘everything becomes more stylised, cut off from ordinary feeling’. Of course, both Cronenberg and Weiss also make effective use of test-crash footage; the motif is an important key to Ballard’s work, and worthy of an essay in its own right (which I am working on; stay tuned).
Crash-test footage in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
There are an enormous number of multi-storey car parks in Watford, I discovered. It’s the Mecca of the multi-storey car park. And they’re quite ornate, some of them. They played a special role in The Atrocity Exhibition. They were iconic structures. I was interested in the gauge of psychoarchitectonics and its canted floors, as a depository for cars, seemed to let one into a new dimension. They obviously decided they had to beautify these structures. They covered them in strange trellises. It was a bizarre time.”
Ballard, quoted in Sinclair’s Crash (1999).
Finally Ballard’s car ascends up the ramp of that wonderful multi-storey car park, truly a work of art, in a sequence that’s again strangely similar to a parallel scene in Get Carter (which of course makes great use of its ‘grim up north’ Newcastle urbanism). But in Cokliss/Ballard, the car park becomes, dare I say it, ‘psychogeography’, not merely ominous mise-en-scene like in the Carter/Caine, but a mapping of the affective behaviour of the structure – of the fiction of the world around us, this ‘enormous novel’, as Ballard calls it.
‘One of the most mysterious buildings ever built’… (‘Crash!’; dir. Harley Cokliss).
Ballard, in voiceover, asks us to:
Take a structure like a multi-storey car park, one of the most mysterious buildings ever built. Is it a model for some strange psychological state, some kind of vision glimpsed within its bizarre geometry? What effect does using these buildings have on us? Are the real myths of this century being written in terms of these huge unnoticed structures?
Then at last he emerges onto the rooftop into daylight, out from the dank cavernous bowels, as he watches the woman down below, who walks away, while his voiceover intones a scenario of ‘modern technology reaching into our dreams and [changing] our whole way of looking at things: forcing us to contemplate its world instead of ourselves’.
And that’s it – the film’s over.
What to make of it? Well, can we say that Ballard was obsessed at this time? Losing himself in the mantra of repetition? Hypnotising himself with the ritual significance of automobile trauma? Exploring it from every conceivable angle in theatre, exhibitions, visual art, film? (In anything but straight writing, it seemed, at least between Atrocity and Crash.) And isn’t it often the case that such artists – or mediators between worlds, if you like – lose themselves in the glare and (excuse the cliché) fly far too close to the sun? As Sinclair asks in the Crash book, regarding the uncanny similarities between the death of Princess Di and Ballard’s work: ‘Had he activated a demonic psychopathology that could only be appeased by regular sacrifices?’
For incantations of this kind, repeated often enough, sometimes bring something back with them when the voyager, the cosmonaut of inner space, re-enters the world. There are ruptures in space-time. Matter collides and there is fallout, like a Sumerian demon woken from the dead and hungry for souls.
Refer back to the film, where Ballard tells us that:
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, and even conscious, connivance? … Are these arranged deaths arranged by the colliding forces of the technological landscape, by our own unconscious fantasies about power and aggression, our obsessions with consumer goods and desires, the overlaying fictions that are more and more taking the place of reality?”
LEFT: Ballard in ‘Crash!’ (1971; dir. Harley Cokliss).
And so it happened that shortly after the publication of his novel, Crash, in 1973 – two years after the Cokliss film – James Graham Ballard rolled his Ford Zephyr on a divided motorway after a blow out forced the vehicle into oncoming traffic. The car landed upside down with petrol leaking everywhere and Ballard was trapped: the roof had jammed down and the doors wouldn’t budge. Panicked and frozen, with the apocalyptic scent of fuel filling his nostrils, the shouts of ‘Petrol! Petrol!’ from onlookers filling his ears, and the realisation that the car could explode any second swamping his mind, he managed to reach deep within himself, eventually pulling body and mind together to somehow force down a window and escape before he was engulfed in the heat-death of full-tilt autogeddon.
POSTSCRIPT: In an uncanny Ballardian moment, JGB’s accident would be immortalised in Cronenberg’s Crash, where the director, digging deep into Ballard’s own real-life mythology, fashioned a scene in which the film’s Ballard, played by James Spader, suffered that same scenario and that same subsequent swerve into oncoming traffic. Except this time Holly Hunter playing Helen Remington slammed into James Spader/’James Ballard’. Hunter/Remington’s husband was killed, and Ballard/Spader took his place, and the cycle began again. For J.G. Ballard’s sins we were given a new crash (a new ‘Crash’), a new ‘Ballard’, a new director, a new film, and a reiteration of circular time, as Ballard and his ghastly obsession became reborn in the heat-death of repetition. As Sinclair says: ‘The same crashes happen over and over as new victims are initiated into the vision.’
Simon Sellars, 2007.
+ Crash! Voiceover Transcription (1971)
+ Ford, Simon. ‘A Psychopathic Hymn: J.G. Ballard’s ‘Crashed Cars’ Exhibition of 1970′ (2005). /seconds magazine.
+ Juno, Andrea & Vale. ‘J.G. Ballard: Interview by A. Juno and Vale’. RE/Search 8/9: J.G. Ballard (1984). In which Ballard relates the circumstances of his car crash, alongside accompanying photos of his ruined car.
+ Sinclair, Iain. Crash: David Cronenberg’s Post-mortem on J.G. Ballard’s ‘Trajectory of Fate’ (BFI Modern Classics; 1999).
+ Harley Cokeliss Filmography
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