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'Like Alice in Wonderland': Solveig Nordlund on J.G. BallardAuthor: Rick McGrath • Aug 24th, 2008 •
‘Like Alice in Wonderland’: Solveig Nordlund on J.G. Ballard
Interview by Rick McGrath
Margarida Marinho in Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (dir. Solveig Nordlund, 2002).
An interview with Solveig Nordlund follows this review, plus clips from Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude.
In 2002 the Ballardian feature-film universe expanded substantially with the release of Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude, Solveig Nordlund’s artfully rendered riff on JG Ballard’s 1976 short story, ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’. Seen mainly at film festivals, this Portuguese-Swedish co-production was a welcome addition to the Ballard filmography.
Ballard’s story receives its power from its fantastic setting (an abandoned Spanish resort in the future), his trio of representative characters – Dr Gould, the iconoclast visionary, Richard Forrester, the horny bureaucrat, and Judith Forrester, the mannequin-like mother – and the dark irony of ignoring Mother Nature. Ballard slowly teases out the plot, revealing that humankind has been systematically killing off its deformed newborn (called ‘Zotes’ in the film) for the past thirty years, seemingly unaware they were slaughtering the first generation of a new variation of homo sapiens. The story’s genius lies in its deft and subtle details and immaculate timing, leading the reader blindly along with Forrester through sex hotels of irony to the oddly optimistic ending, where the culture of one empire again crumbles and the children of the world begin to assume control of their new universe.
Culture’s fear of the unknown and special revulsion toward the sexually deformed is analyzed in psychological and artistic terms in ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’. These babies aren’t born with deformities of the limbs, such as the thalidomide babies of the 1960s, but with optic-nerve-exposed eyes and deformed genitals, aberrations guaranteed to register high on the psychological disgust scale. In this otherworld, mothers will kill, not nurture, their abnormal babies. Forrester sees these sexual deformities as ‘grim parodies of human genitalia’, and he cannot go beyond the ‘nervousness and loathing’ they elicit. All is now subject to an irrational norm. Blind but sighted, sexually deviant but innocent, these doomed children offer up a Dorian Gray portrait of civilisation’s obsessions which everyone is only too willing to rip and burn, horrified at seeing their true selves revealed at last.
In the following interview, Nordlund says, ‘I centred the story on the woman, on her fears and longings’. By inverting the masculinity of the short story, the film reclaims the natural bond of mother and baby and corrects the errors of civilisation as Ballard imagines it. As Nordlund explains: ‘When I did the film I thought very much about parents who want to educate their children into copies of themselves and don’t see the beauty of difference.’
LEFT: Solveig Nordlund (photo by Rick McGrath).
The basic plot is still there – the deformed baby is given to Carmen after the epiphany that these newborn aren’t monsters – but pretty well everything else, save the location, is changed to a feminine perspective, a parallel version of Ballard’s original. In Ballard’s story Judith is essentially a baby incubator, reflecting culture’s taboos and fears about abnormality. She immediately forgets all after the child is born and presumed killed, leaving the resort ‘with the amiable and fixed expression of a display-window mannequin’. Nordlund re-creates her as the driving force behind the story, from her desire to have the baby through her troubled pregnancy to her transformative encounters with Carmen and her ultimate ‘correct’ decision. She and Carmen bond to the point where they start looking the same. In a world of generational warfare, this is definitely an act of peace. Gould changes from Ballard’s observant biker hippie pilot into a surrogate mother — thus retaining a slight echo to Ballard’s Gould — and Nordlund is forced to compensate for his philosophic posturings by greatly enlarging the role of Carmen. A black-shawled, hand-signing mongoloid waif in Ballard, found by Gould and herded by silver paint, she’s transformed by Nordlund into a complex mystery, an exotic beauty in slink who wanders the dark halls like a hologram from the future. Forrester’s role is also diminished – he either makes passes at Judite or is combing the deserted grounds, talking with Gould, or stalking Carmen.
Nordlund keeps her eye firmly on the social by replacing Ballard’s Dali references with state-produced posters showing Zotes on the one hand (baby head with dark, wormy areas where the eyes should be, and the menacing ZOTE written underneath) and normal babies on the other (complete with slogans such as “This Is Us” and “I Believe In The Future”). Nordlund has created the same psychological war zone as Ballard, pitting Eros against Thanatos, but she uses a much less psychologically sensitive path, replacing personal “newsreels from Hell” and the attendant disgust with “monsters” one should fear because they’re seen as grotesque throwbacks to an earlier, more primitive time. The sense of disgust, so prevalent in the short story, is not given any kind of deep psychological examination by Nordlund, although flushing a Zote down the toilet is some recognition of the feeling’s psychological roots.
The film is a marvellous treat for eye and ear. Carmen’s psychedelic cave-room, for example, with its watches and fluorescent lighting is amazing. The cinematography of Acácio de Almeida is often breathtaking in its subtle love affair with light, and the music by Johan Zachrisson is evocative and emotional. The special effects are often highly foregrounded to maximise the intimate effect, and art direction is helped immeasurably by the found set, an abandoned seaside resort in Spain. This is a strong, punchy movie that emphasises the flow of the action in carefully crafted edits.
I made contact with Solveig Nordlund during the July opening ceremonies of J.G. Ballard: Autopsy of the New Millennium exhibition at Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Culture, where Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude was (and will be) screening. We met for a chat and coffee on our final day there, but unfortunately circumstances made it impossible to do any kind of formal interview. Fortunately, Solveig graciously agreed to conduct the following email Q&A after we had settled down from the Millennium Autopsy rush.
– Rick McGrath.
RICK McGRATH: Solveig, can you tell us when you first became interested in film, and about the beginnings of your career?
SOLVEIG NORDLUND: I was always interested in film, since I was a child, and I wanted to become a filmmaker. I just didn’t know how. To satisfy my mother I studied at the University of Stockholm and participated in a film made by a theatre group, but I had already met my Portuguese husband and wanted to leave Sweden. My Portuguese husband studied film in London and I followed him there and so it began. I began to work with him and only later did I make proper studies, with the French director Jean Roch in Paris from 1972 to 74.
Do you remember when you first became aware of Ballard?
I read Ballard for the first time in the late 60s in a Portuguese science-fiction collection. I think the first story of his I read was ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’. It must have had a great impact. I began to read all his books and later I made a short film based on this story, called ‘Journey to Orion’. It was totally shot in one of those big ferries between Stockholm and Helsinki. The idea was that the inside of ferryboats and spacecrafts look more or less the same: a closed world with no exit. Made to last for a long time and endure tough weather. After that I obtained the rights to shoot ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’.
When I had the opportunity in 1986 to propose programs about different writers for Swedish television, I proposed Ballard and managed to convince the board. I went to London in order to visit him at his house in Shepperton. I did a series of portraits of my literary favourites, another one was Marguerite Duras. In Sweden the JG interview was called ‘Future Now’ and everybody was impressed with his intensity. JG himself liked it very much. For me it was an opportunity to get to know him and the beginning of a kind of friendship.
What kind of friendship can you have with J.G.? I think I’d always have the feeling he was sizing me up as a potential character. In The Kindness of Women, the family renting the apartment beside the Ballards in Spain are called the Nordlunds. Did you think J.G. was thinking of you?
I feel befriended with Ballard and his universe. That’s the kind of friendship it is. I think he wrote The Kindness of Women at the same time as I made the interview with him. He probably needed a name and took mine.
Was he as you expected?
I expected to meet a tall military-like man and got very surprised when a small, jovial and round man came out of the house. He asked if I had a hat and made me think of Alice in Wonderland. He invited me in and as it was already six in the afternoon he was authorized to begin to drink. We talked and planned the interview for the following day. J.G. Ballard is a fascinating storyteller, also when he is telling his own story.
When you first read ‘Low Flying Aircraft’, did it strike you as filmable?
I think all J.G. Ballard’s stories are filmable and I think I have thought of them all as films. I was on a film festival in Troia, Portugal, the seaside resort that I later used in Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude. I think it was in 1987. Troia was a tourist investment that was interrupted by the revolution in 1974, and this abandoned place struck me as the perfect set for a Ballard story. I thought of stories from Vermillion Sands and Low-Flying Aircraft. It took me 15 years to concretise the project.
That’s amazing, that these big lumps of resort would still be vacant after all those years. You must have been amazed. How did you first get in? With permission, or as a trespasser?
It was a tourist project that had begun to be built before the revolution with Brazilian money and that was nationalised after the revolution. Some buildings were used but they never finished the big hotels. They were a kind of unfinished ruins, that you could enter trespassing.
How did Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude come about?
After having done the Swedish television program ‘Future Now’ with Jim, I did ‘Journey to Orion’. After that I obtained the rights to film ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’. The film is a Portuguese-Swedish low budget co-production. At the beginning I thought of shooting it in English, with international actors, but the budget didn’t allow it. And as there were threats that they were going to reconstruct the seaside resort Troia, I had to hurry with the film. It was shot in 2002 and one or two years later the towers were imploded.
‘Journey to Orion’ (dir. Solveig Nordlund, 1987). Part 2 is also available.
When did you decide to make the alterations to J.G.’s basic plot?
Ballard’s story is a short story and I had to do a feature film. In Ballard’s story everything is in the head of the husband who is waiting for his wife to come back with the results of the scan. I centred the story on the woman, on her fears and longings. I participated in a workshop directed by the English script doctor Colin Tucker in order to elaborate the script in that sense. It works in the way that a group of people with scripts criticise each other’s works. Colin Tucker directed us.
How did you choose the cast and crew?
The crew was chosen among technicians I normally work with, Acácio de Almeida for example. The cast was chosen among Portuguese actors once it was decided that there was no possibility to have an international cast. I think we shot for eight weeks. And edited for another six weeks. There were some complementary shots and a rather long digital post-production. From the start of shooting till the film finished, it was nine months more or less.
I was slightly surprised by the Orwellian society you use as a backdrop. Where did that idea come from?
I think it comes from Jim Ballard. When I asked him if it was something he thought I should think about when writing the script, he mentioned the laws of genetic cleaning that until very recently were in use for example in Sweden, and the fear of global epidemics, for example, AIDs.
Interesting. Governments are vaguely mentioned in the short story, but in your version they actively seek out and destroy the newborn, which you call Zotes. I like your slogan, too: ‘We Believe In The Future. This is Us.’ Where did that come from?
From nowhere especial. Just sounded right.
How often did you consult with Ballard over the film?
Only in the beginning, when I asked if he had something he wanted to point out in the story.
What do you think is J.G.’s point in the short story? Given the variations in the film, do you feel it still represents Ballard’s vision, or your own?
I think J.G.’s point is to show that humans make everything to transform and dominate nature but that nature always will find new dimensions in order to survive. When I did the film I thought very much about parents who want to educate their children into copies of themselves and don’t see the beauty of difference.
Has J.G. seen it?
Yes, and he liked it very much. He wrote a very enthusiastic letter where he mentioned especially the cinematography and the actress, Margarida Marinho.
She is fantastic. How did you find her?
She is a very well-known and popular Portuguese actress now, but in 2002 she was in the beginning of her career.
The cinematography is truly breathtaking. Aside from the power of the sets, Acácio De Almeida’s lens seems to caress the light in a very Ballardian way. You must have been very happy with the results.
Yes I was. I also was very lucky to have a very good post-production laboratory with very good technicians.
I was also quite taken with the film’s art direction. Mona Teresia Forsén did an amazing job with the film’s overall look. Did you work this out together? Gould’s stylized fluorescent green ‘V’ sign is also compelling.
Mona Teresia Forsén is a very well-known Swedish art director, but there were many hands that collaborated in the creation of the visual aspect. The Zote alphabet, for example, was created by the Portuguese artist Rui Serra.
I thought the sound was foregrounded in an interesting way, and that Johan Zachrisson’s musical score is very evocative. Did you work closely on this with Johan?
Yes. Johan Zachrisson is a collaborator of mine since a long time. He is Swedish but lives and works in Portugal. I think we tried to get a correspondence to the green colour that the doctor paints the world with.
You show Carmen in the film as a sort of futuristic movie starlet, with sexy dark glasses.
Carmen hides her deformed eyes behind dark glasses. She is blind in a conventional way, she sees with other senses, that’s why she moves in such an adulatory way. Don’t forget that her father, the doctor, has made her look like an ordinary Venus client in order to protect her.
Are you influenced by any particular filmmakers?
I admire Alain Resnais’ Muriel and Providence.
Do you think your film has a happy ending?
Yes. Life goes on even if it is not our life.
Will the film ever be available on DVD? Many people are curious to see it.
It is on DVD in Portugal. If somebody is interested in publishing it with English subtitles I would be happy.
Miguel Guilherme and Rui Morrison in Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (dir. Solveig Nordlund, 2002).
Do you have plans to do anything more from the Ballard oeuvre?
I like very much ‘Deep End’, the story about the last fish on Earth. I had plans to do Concrete Island. I think it is an amazing story and so frightening. You can die in the middle of the crowd without anybody seeing you. But the rights JG’s agent demanded were so high that it’s not possible. But who knows, he has many good short stories.
You told me in Barcelona you didn’t think any more JGB stories would be made into films because of the cost of film rights. Can you elaborate?
I think J.G.’s agent has set a Spielberg level for his novels.
I heard £3.5 million — that’s a lot of money. I wonder if JG knows what’s going on? You’d think he’d like to have his stories made into movies, where reality and illusion combine.
I think he knows and agrees.
What appeals to you most about JGB?
J.G.’s stories are often told as thoughts and memories, but those thoughts and memories are very visual. I like to imagine those worlds the main characters see. I think that had the film rights been more accessible, most of his novels would have been made into film. Now, a lot of films inspired by his work have been made instead.
Many people who have visited the Ballard home comment on its quirkiness. Did you find it unusual?
I found it touching, a big man in a small house. Like Alice in Wonderland.
Interview by Rick McGrath, 2008.
Born in Stockholm on June 9, 1943, Solveig Nordlund began working in film while completing her degree in art history from her native Stockholm’s Universitet. Leaving Sweden for Portugal, Nordlund first worked as an assistant and then a film editor on such productions as Sweet Habits (1973) and Doomed Love (1978). In 1976 she co-founded the left-wing film cooperative Grupo Zero, and that year directed her first film, although she received no on-screen credit. In 1978, she directed a pair of medium-length features, but did not direct her first full-length feature until 1980 with Dina e Django. Nordlund then returned to Sweden in 1982 where she founded the Torrom Film Company. In 1986 she directed ‘Journey to Orion’, her take on J.G. Ballard’s ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’, which won a prize at the Bilbao Festival, and also directed a filmed interview with Ballard called Future Now. In 1998, Nordlund’s Swedish-Portuguese-Mozambican co-production Comedia Infantil was nominated for a Tiger Award at that year’s Rotterdam Film Festival. In 1999 she made The Ticket Inspector, which won the RTP/Onda Curta Prize at the Avanca Film Festival, and followed that with Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude in 2002, which won an award at the Coimbra Caminhos do Cinema Portugués, and My Baby in 2003.
..:: NORDLUND & BALLARD ON YOUTUBE:
+ Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude trailer.
+ Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (extract; part 1).
+ Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (extract; part 2).
+ Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (extract; part 3).
+ Future Now interview (extract).
+ ‘Journey to Orion’, part 1.
+ ‘Journey to Orion’, part 2.
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