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J.G. Ballard: The Oracle of SheppertonAuthor: Simon Sellars • Feb 26th, 2008 •
The final version of Thomas Cazals’ tribute, ‘J.G. Ballard: The Oracle of Shepperton’, has been uploaded.
This is one of the stranger JGB-related films I’ve seen; ‘documentary’ is not quite the word for it, even as it functions as a biography of both Ballard and Shepperton.
Basically, it’s the story of Thomas’s doomed attempt to interview Ballard. He takes a taxi to Shepperton, and before he knows it is in a parallel dimension, being driven by a gruff hoodlum with clear contempt for his passenger. Shepperton motorways pass by, but only as a front projection; there is no taxi, just a car seat pretending to be one as Thomas and the driver go nowhere fast. The taxi driver, who is French speaking, tells Thomas he needs clearance to visit Shepperton, which is now the ‘new capital of the galaxy’, and we recognise the obvious nods to Godard’s Alphaville, in which Lemmy Caution similarly travels through ‘sidereal space’ in his Ford Galaxie. Finally, Thomas ‘lands’ in Shepperton and attempts to ring Ballard, but is rebuked, whining ‘I’m not an amateur’.
Weaving in and out of this is the story of Ballard’s life, told via newsreels and family snapshots. Basic canonical facts are strung together: Ballard’s time in Shanghai, his arrival in England and his settling in Shepperton, his studying of medicine, his siring of three children, his writing of Crash and Empire of the Sun…
There is an English-speaking narrator, who does quite a good job of impersonating Ballard, letting forth with some very well-chosen JGB quotes, the clack of a typewriter underpinning this prophecy of the ages.
We see what is supposed to be Ballard’s house; strange shapes and apparitions emanate from it.
Then Thomas appears to find himself in a Tarkovsky-style zone, and ‘Ballard’ tells us that:
Shepperton is nowhere, that’s its great appeal for me. There are film studios here, and it lies within the psychic catchment area of London airport so it expresses transience, classlessness, alienation and a complete lack of traditional reference points. It’s the way of the future.
Thomas, wandering aimlessly around Shepperton, interviews residents: an elderly lady shopkeep, a Lotus car salesman, a young guy playing snooker, who laughs when asked, ‘What is there to see in Shepperton?’ None of them mention Ballard or seem to know who he is; one chap, talking about ‘stars’ in the area, mentions Edward Woodward! These interviews are skilfully contrasted with Thomas’s own science fictional glimpses of the suburb, which suggest something altogether stranger below the surface of this placid riverside town. Although he gets no closer to meeting Ballard, he is beginning to hotwire the Ballardian signal directly into his frontal lobe. Then he is attacked and beaten by uniform-clad thugs, and the familiar front projections return, images of suburbia taking over from the real thing, and we are back in the zone again.
A French-speaking woman emerges, called ‘Karen Novotny’ no less — the name, of course, of the cypherwoman from The Atrocity Exhibition (all the weirdness is in French, appropriate since these sequences worm their way inside the brain of the Thomas character, who is of course from France). She informs Thomas that she and her sub-militia are attempting to wrest psychic control from Ballard, whom she calls ‘the Unlimited Dreamer’; the ‘whole city is controlled by the Unlimited Dreamer’s thought waves,’ she says.
Cut to more biographical detail. ‘Ballard’ intones, ‘We live inside an enormous novel’, which is the green light burning for more high weirdness, and we finally end up in the ‘psycho-geographic area of the first spaceport in America, opened in 2010’…
All up, this is an inventive short film, displaying considerable verve and skill, especially in its juggling of three separate time tracks: the story of Ballard, of Shepperton, of Thomas. Rather than trying to cover up the lack of budget, they’ve made a virtue of it, with the front projections standing in for unstable reality. I’m also assuming the crew actually did try to interview Ballard; rather than give up the film when that didn’t come off, they’ve weaved a story around his reclusiveness. Plus, the acting is really good — the actor playing Thomas does a great line in self-deprecation — the sound design and score is effective, and the film is faithful to the power of Ballard’s work. Rather than trying to intellectualise or contextualise Ballard, it presents his vision as ‘felt’, as experiential, as utterly mysterious as a multi-storey car park, as banal as a Shepperton high street, as transcendental as a pirate radio wave.
For Thomas Cazals, the power of J.G. Ballard’s writing is important for the transformation it wreaks on the everyday, for its power to remake the world in thrall to personal fulfillment. He is clearly in awe of the Seer from Shepperton, and has found a thoroughly unique way to parlay that into a tribute to the man. We might even be able to read the film as a parody of the typical starstruck fan who visits Shepperton hoping to catch a glimpse of his hero, and is mesmerised by the surrounding motorways and the dull suburban sheen that is now so recognisably Ballardian.
Recently, a reader commented elsewhere on this site:
Perhaps we have to take seriously the (diffused ambient) notion that Ballard’s writing really does access and stimulate previously un-tapped regions of the brain. A new organ, better fitted to understanding the monolythic psychological blandscapes of, eg. The Atrocity Exhibition (which is itself a cryptic blueprint for the construction of a unique time travel device). We have to do more deep theoretical R&D into Ballard: as fresh, varied, radical, and disturbingly alive as the source itself.
I’d say Cazals has done exactly that.
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