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Simon Brook's Minus One

Author: • Mar 8th, 2008 •

Category: alternate worlds, David Cronenberg, film, humour, medical procedure, psychiatry, reviews, short stories, Steven Spielberg, the middle classes

MINUS ONE (1991)

Written & directed by: Simon Brook.
Based on the short story by: J.G. Ballard.
Produced by: Susanna Virtanen.
Music: Joshua Zaentz.

Starring: Alfred Hyslop, Paul Ravich, Earl Hagen, Bob Arcaro.

I’m probably biased, but in my estimation Ballard has hardly released a clunker — at least in novel form. Granted, The Wind from Nowhere is even in Ballard’s own analysis, ‘just a piece of hackwork’, knocked off in a matter of weeks to get a foot in the door, but still it has its moments. And the ones the critics loathe — Kingdom Come, say — reflect more the sour prejudice of mainstream media than they do Ballard. I find resonance with Kingdom Come each time I set foot outside my door. How many other 78-year-old novelists can we say that about?

But if we turn to the short stories it’s a slightly different matter, at least early on. ‘Now: Zero’ (1959), for example, was predicated on a last-sentence twist that was as corny as it was predictable. Ballard was big on the surprise reveal in those days, yet when it paid off the reward was secure. ‘Concentration City’, a classic short published two years before ‘Now Zero’, hinged on the sneak attack of the last line and was all the better for it. Even so, the feeling lingers that Ballard, pre-Atrocity Exhibition, was somewhat inconsistent, reinforced by the fact that ‘The Subliminal Man’, one of his very best stories (either novel or short), came out in 1963, the same year as one of his weakest efforts, ‘Minus One’.

‘Subliminal Man’ is quintessentially Ballardian: its sharply delineated descriptions of motorways, flyovers and shopping malls haven’t aged at all. As with the vision of urban panic in ‘Concentration City’, it works precisely because of the taste and restraint Ballard dedicates to the mise en scene; both stories are imbued with an uncanny resonance, the power of suggestion, as much for what they don’t reveal as for what they do. But ‘Minus One’, contextualised with the rest of the oeuvre, is completely baffling. It barely feels like Ballard at all, straining to make its point with considerable overkill.

‘Minus One’ is set in Green Hill Asylum, which ‘serves the role of a private prison’, catering to the very rich who dump their mentally defective relatives and lovers there — ‘abandoned casualties of the army of privilege’ — safe in the knowledge that these outcasts will not be seen nor heard from again; the asylum promises they won’t be re-entering society, presumably from a cocktail of drugs and shock treatment. But when a patient, Hinton, goes missing, the asylum’s director, Dr Mellinger, panics. Fearful of losing his job, he manages to convince his staff that Hinton never existed in the first place.

Although it’s not a bad premise, paradoxically the very nature of that premise reveals the story’s greatest flaw: it’s just too talky, with its tedious description (rather than depiction) of events. Yes, that’s necessary, given Hinton apparently doesn’t exist and therefore his ‘backstory’ can’t be shown, but it hardly makes for great writing. Ballard toys with the old ‘what is reality and who defines it?’ conundrum, and almost trips over his words describing Mellinger’s examination of Hinton’s ‘total existential role in the unhappy farce of which he was the author and principal star’. Perhaps we can detect the elements of a failed experiment here, the story’s overblown dialogue and interior monologues leading to a much more pared down and streamlined prose in Ballard’s late-60s works. But then again, even Ballard’s student story, ‘The Violent Noon’, written some 12 years earlier, seems to have a sharper blade. Maybe ‘Minus One’ was simply an aberration, reminding Ballard of the need to refocus; remember, ‘The Terminal Beach’, his stunning document of postwar malaise, came just one year later…

In ‘Minus One’ Ballard clearly has a point to make about the nature of psychiatry and its insular cabal but his heart just doesn’t seem in it, as when Mellinger meditates on Hinton’s file:

He refused to accept that this mindless cripple with his anonymous features could have been responsible for the confusion and anxiety of the previous day. Was it possible that these few pieces of paper constituted this meagre individual’s full claim to reality?

Unfortunately, the concept is not really developed beyond the ‘few pieces of paper’ analogy, and ultimately there is never any doubt that Hinton actually existed; the Ballard of just a few years’ hence would undoubtedly have heightened that ambiguity. Eventually the whole thing limps to a halt with yet another of Ballard’s patented twists in the tail, and while I admit I didn’t see it coming, after it unfurled itself I found it rather banal: potentially mindblowing, but, again, undercooked in its execution.

So, why did documentary filmmaker, Simon Brook, choose this story, this runt in JGB’s litter, as his first foray into film in 1991? I don’t really know, but I do know that ever since I saw a listing for it on IMDB I had to see it. So I tracked Simon down and asked him to send me a copy. (Note that as Simon now lives in France, he has requested I also upload a version with French subtitles, alongside the version you see at the start of this post.)

The film is undeniably stagey, but I’m guessing that had to have been a chief reason for Simon choosing the story; with a cast of four, set in a psychiatrist’s study, you won’t be needing a massive budget. Offsetting that, Simon’s fluid, restless camera extracts the maximum mileage from close angles and slow backward pans, relentlessly tracing the study’s cramped interior, mimicking the asylum’s stuffy worldview. Plus he cleverly mixes up the eyeline matches; the scenic parameters between two characters engaging in dialogue are never simply a matter of reversing the shot when one character is speaking to the other. Instead, we see perspectives from the side, from above, from everywhere. It’s a brisk cinematographic pace, but sometimes the pacing works against the film; if you slacken your concentration for a second or two you might actually miss the final twist.

The acting magnifies the overtly rhetorical language and vaudevillian aspects of Ballard’s story, an effect further intensified by Joshua Zaentz’s faux-chamber-music soundtrack. I can’t say any of that is to my taste. Alfred Hyslop, as Mellinger, eye-pops and mugs for the camera, veering dangerously close to Carry On territory, while Paul Ravich, the actor playing Booth, Mellinger’s main underling, comes to resemble the spaced-out astro-hippies in John Carpenter’s Dark Star. It’s all a bit much.

I can’t help wondering what the results would have been like if the film had played up the dark secret of the asylum, with its habit of making people disappear. There is a hint of this, when we learn that Dr Normand, who doesn’t go along with Mellinger’s methodology, has been lobotomised; that’s a great touch that wasn’t in Ballard’s story, but I’m really talking about mood and tone, and the acting and music, mainly. Combined with the twist in the end, enacted in Mellinger’s claustrophobic study, and Simon’s camera breathing down everyone’s necks, the effect could have been rather disturbing.

Still, this may well be the only time you will see Ballard played strictly for laughs. And for that, Simon Brook certainly deserves his place in the pantheon of unsung directors of JGB, alongside Potter, Cokliss, Scoggins and Cazals.

It’s not all Cronenberg and Spielberg, you know…

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8 Responses »

  1. I find little fault with Ballard’s early novelettes and short stories – and I was introduced to them as a teenager in the 1960s by the pulp SF magazines like IF, Astounding Stories, Magazine of F&SF, etc. The problem with *The Wind From Nowhere* is that it is a novel or novelette, but would have been MUCH better as a short story.

    In Larry Niven’s (American VERY successful SF writer)’s memorable statement: “You have to write a certain amount of utter garbage at the beginning – just to get it out of your system and learn the craft.” How can we fault Ballard for doing exactly that at the beginning of his career? It was his writing- apprenticeship. As Ballard learned the subtle craft of writing novels, his early weak short stories began to develop and even metamorphize into novels – in the way the short story “The Crystal Man” (which I read in the SF pulps around 1965) was later developed into a full novel, *The Crystal World*. Writing is HARD WORK! And like carpentry, you have to hit your thumbs and damage some wood and nails before you can become a Master Carpenter of your craft – which JGB certainly is today – and will be forever.

  2. A coda to my previous comment: in the SF- pulp-magazine -publishing world of the late 1950s or the 1960’s, the “surprise twist” or “last-sentence surprise-ending” was almost a prerequisite to successful-and reader-satisfying short SF stories, and was very much in vogue and looked on with much favor by the editors of the pulp SF publications. It was the style of the time, which ANY short-story SF author would VERY likely include to assure himself of his manuscript’s acceptance by the editors of the pulps. This device was, in a way, almost expected by the readers. The readers in the SFF-pulp market of the time would have felt cheated without it!

    The “surprise twist” at the end of the fantasy/SF pulp short story was therefore almost mandatory for any (especially new) writer who hoped to sell his work in that tight half-century-old SF-pulp niche-market.

    And now of course, almost 50 years later – yes, it is looked at as a “corny” and quite outdated literary device. Times DO change- along with the reader’s markets and expectations. We have come quite a long way in 50 years now, to the point where the SF short-story format (and market) is almost nonexistent…. how many SF pulps containing short stories do YOU see on the stands? I see VERY few here in the USA. It was a quite different SF and fantasy-story literary era then… and JGB knew that his reader-market and his editors would expect -indeed, demand- the “surprise-twist ending”. So I believe it is rather unfair in that sense to judge JGB’s early work by our contemporary literary standards. He was only writing what would sell, and what the editors and readers demanded… and wholly supporting oneself in that era by writing for the SF pulps was a VERY precarious living! Most other successful SF authors back then had a “day job” – Like Isaac Asimov’s professorship! (And JGB’s own stint with that Chemical markets commercial trade-magazine!)

  3. no one’s denying that was the style of the times. and even so, i don’t think anyone could say ‘now: zero’ or ‘minus one’ are among jgb’s finer efforts. just because they were written 40 years ago doesn’t mean they are exempt from analysis.

    my point is that jgb seemed to me to be a little inconsistent compared with his later standards, and that ‘minus one’ was one of his weaker efforts, and therefore a strange choice for a film.

    what did you think of the film, by the way?

  4. The film seems a bit slow to me – probably because it’s trying to follow the verbal narrative of JGB’s story. It looks like Brook was aiming at Clockwork Orange but ended up with something a bit Murder She Wrote. The film I want to see is the Unlimited Dream Company directed by and starring Richard Gere. I think it was probably on this site that I read that he’d taken out the rights for it in the ‘seventies or ‘eighties. Surely a comedy of the year has fallen by the wayside….

  5. Good point about Clockwork Orange, the actor playing Dr Mellinger seems like he’s trying to do a Patrick Magee. As for Richard Gere, no you didn’t read that here!

    Are you serious? You’re sure you’re not misrembering some other actor? Richard Gere and UDC? Really?? Come on, are you having me on?

  6. It’s the truth about Richard Gere buying the rights for Unlimited Dream Company! Maybe I read it in User’s Guide to the Millenium or one of the ReSearch books. Maybe JGB was joking… I laughed out loud when I read it. It is an unlikely pairing, but I would definately pay to see it.

  7. i’m not sure “Minus One,” the story, really has a true “twist” in the way “Concentration City” does. Ballard’s last line is just sort of a clever throw-away here, I think. Robert Block’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” — now THAT’s a twist!!

  8. This film and Ballard’s story comes into context with the Soviet Union’s use of psychaitry to surpress dissent and the Argentinian military junta of the 70’s that disappeared people into non existence. Ballard’s story may be flawed, but it strikes a nerve.

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