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Unique visual complexities: A review of Grande Anarca

Author: • Aug 19th, 2008 •

Category: Ambit magazine, animation, architecture, Chris Marker, David Cronenberg, film, Italy, literature, medical procedure, religion, reviews, short stories, Steven Spielberg, surveillance, Tarkovsky, urban decay

GRANDE ANARCA (Italy, 2003)

review by Jamie Sherry

ABOVE: Grande Anarca, part 1 (2003; dir. Alvise Renzini).

Runtime: 18 mins
Voice: Ermanna Montanari
Sound: Davide Sandri
Music: Egle Sommacal
Editor: Benedetto Lanfranco
Photography: Alvise Renzini
Animation: Alvise Renzini
Script: Lucio Apolito (based on the short story ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’ by J.G. Ballard)
Director: Alvise Renzini
Producer: Opificio Ciclope

NOTE: An English translation of the voiceover can be found here.

In discussion about his adaptation of Marcel Proust’s Swann in Love (1984), the director Volker Schlöndorff famously remarked that ‘if I make a movie which Proustians celebrate for its fidelity, I will have failed as a director’. Predictably, the film was widely criticised for misrepresenting the source material and for perceived acts of violent reductionism. It was these issues that framed my viewing of the Italian animation Grande Anarca, based on my favourite Ballard short story, ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’ (1985). As a devotee of Ballard’s post-60s short stories, I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the film, regardless of my interest in the idea of adapting such an un-cinematic work of prose. The film ended up actually exceeding my expectations, deviating from the demands of a faithful adaptation, yet finding a life of its own amongst the wider architecture of the Ballardian.

The study of literature on film has largely liberated itself from the confines of the ‘fidelity debate’ and aesthetic judgements regarding how close the film is deemed to be to the ‘spirit of the book’. Cartmell and Whelehan’s Adaptations (1999), Stam and Raengo’s Literature and Film (2004) and Elliott’s Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate (2003), amongst others, have done much to progress the study of adaptation, a field that has privileged the status of literature over film. For too long film adaptations have been viewed as misrepresenting, reducing, despoiling and ultimately failing to capture an essential essence somehow contained in the source text. Film adaptations are judged by what they fail to do, or what they omit, rather than what they achieve, or add. Within an atheistic, post-structuralist view of adaptation, the novel does not contain a ‘spirit’, but is rather an intertextual assortment of many precursor texts that make up the bricolage landscape of culture. It is with this more open and democratic approach to adaptation that Grande Anarca should be approached, appreciating the intertextual methodology that has been employed in the adaptation process.

First published in Ambit 100 (Spring 1985), ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’ is a fascinating, if unlikely, choice of source material for a film adaptation. Very much an understudied story, it sits alongside ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’ (1976) and The Index (1977) as Ballard’s most experimental and playful self-contained short stories, whilst also sharing many of his central themes concerning madness and incarceration. Eventually published together in the compendium War Fever (1990), these stories mischievously subvert classical notions of structure, form and content, unifying Ballard’s playful deployment of paratexts as narrative medium. The French literary theorist Gérard Genette coined the neologism ‘paratext’ to describe subsidiary and secondary material such as prefaces, post-scripts, footnotes and illustrations, which illuminate, but are ultimately subservient to, the principle text. As Ballard himself noted in Paris Review (Winter,1984): ‘lists are fascinating; one could almost do a list novel’.

Ballard sets out to exploit these paratextual narrative devices to self-consciously confront the reader, and include us in an ironic discourse with the text. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (not to be confused with the chapter of the same name in The Atrocity Exhibition) commences with a lone 18-word sentence; the rest of the story comprising eighteen footnotes cited from each word, the sentence savagely deconstructed by a mental asylum inmate into its constituent units. The story is reminiscent of, and arguably indebted to, Vladimir Nabokov’s metafictional novel Pale Fire (1962), a narrative famously comprised of a character’s foreword, index and commentary on a murdered poet’s 999-line poem. As Pale Fire progresses, rather than shedding light on the elliptical poem, these fictional paratexts instead begin to illuminate the delusional psychological state of the annotator.

Ballardian: Grande Anarca

ABOVE: Still from Grande Anarca (2003; dir. Alvise Renzini).

Continuing these techniques, the use of the classical paratext as a vehicle for story is probably best encapsulated in Ballard’s The Index. The narrative is conveyed via the listed index to an imaginary autobiography that, as the short introduction informs us, is missing, or may never have existed at all. Small snippets of information in the index ultimately converge to form narratives that spectacularly reveal Ballardian obsessions with mental breakdown, sexual deviance, murder, psychological spaces and institutional confinement.

It is these themes that also dominate ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’, a piece that functions more by exclusion, than inclusion. Employing the metafictional technique of showing only the answers to questions set by an unknown authoritarian presence, a narrative becomes clear that would traditionally far exceed the limitations of a short story. As the answers progress, we learn that the interviewee is a man living surreptitiously in Ballard’s beloved Heathrow Airport:

1) Yes.
2) Male (?)
3) c/o Terminal 3, London Airport, Heathrow.
4) Twenty-seven.
5) Unknown.
6) Dr Barnado’s Primary, Kingston-upon-Thames; HM Borstal, Send, Surrey; Brunel University Computer Sciences Department.

Sometimes the answers are deliberately obtuse, with no obvious allusion to a potential question. At other times the answers are detailed in an ironic way, completely out place with the sequence of narrative events (see answer 14 below). We soon learn about the interviewee, including his criminal history:

10) Manchester Crown Court, 1984.
11) Credit card and computer fraud.
12) Guilty.
13) Two years, HM Prison, Parkhurst.
14) Stockhausen, de Kooning, Jack Kerouac.
15) Whenever possible.
16) Twice a day.
17) NSU, Herpes, gonorrhoea.

It becomes clear that the interviewee believes he befriended the second coming of Jesus within Heathrow Airport, and begins to help him with his project to provide mankind with the power of immortality:

27) I took him to Richmond Ice Rink where he immediately performed six triple salchows. I urged him to take up ice-dancing with an eye to the European Championships and eventual gold at Seoul, but he began to trace out huge double spirals on the ice. I tried to convince him that these did not feature in the compulsory figures, but he told me that the spirals represented a model of synthetic DNA.
35) When he was drunk. He claimed that he brought the gift of eternal life.
61) He stated that synthetic DNA introduced into the human germ plasm would arrest the process of ageing and extend human life almost indefinitely.
81) Government White Paper on Immortality.
82) Compulsory injection into the testicles of the entire male population over eleven years.

The protagonist accompanies this man, as he meets with members of the royal family, politicians and celebrities in a bid to raise money for the Immortality project. The plan clearly gets out of control for the interviewee, as he takes matters into his own hands:

88) Assassination.
89) I was neither paid nor incited by agents of a foreign power.
90) Despair. I wish to go back to my cubicle at London Airport.
97) I was visited in the death cell by the special envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
98) That I had killed the Son of God.
99) He walked with a slight limp. He told me that, as a condemned prisoner, I alone had been spared the sterilising injections, and that the restoration of the national birthrate was now my sole duty.
100) Yes.

ABOVE: Grande Anarca, part 2 (2003; dir. Alvise Renzini).

Ballard’s investment in us as active readers also allows meaning to be gained from absence. Ballard finds his preoccupations and themes best explored through the paratexts that traditionally surround culture’s dominant storytelling mediums. A list of answers, an index, and the footnotes of a single sentence become vehicles for the Ballardian. It is within this free interplay with the reader that we are able to construct a narrative, regardless of how unreliable the protagonist may or may not be. Within these empty spaces and narrative vacuums, the reader is empowered to create meaning. The dichotomous function of these omissions provoke us to address the character’s mental state, and serves to further problematise the role of the unreliable narrator/s within. As the author Ursula K Le Guin states in her review of War Fever, Ballard opts for storytelling in which we see the ‘condition of fictional bones without flesh — crystals without molecular instabilities to cloud the clarity’. Ballard uses metatextual techniques to highlight the devices of fiction and in doing so, provokes the reader to dwell on the relationships between fantasy and reality, concepts central to ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’.

It is these narrative devices so rooted in the literary form of the story that potentially problematise a cinematic adaptation (yet also make the concept very alluring). Conceived from the perspective that the source material is merely a starting point, Alvise Renzini’s short animation Grande Anarca diverts from ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’ in a number of notable ways. Although strongly influenced by the unusual structure of Ballard’s original text, the film completely dispenses with the central storyline of ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’, ignoring the second-coming, immortality project, murder of Jesus plot points. However, there is continuity in the film’s eerie voiceover, as the omnipotent narrator answers a set of unheard questions. Replacing the Jesus narrative with a story regarding a genetic experiment carried out on the inhabitants of a block of flats, the film also manages to confront and adapt the medium-specific tropes encoded in the literary form of the source material.

Although Renzini is credited with photography, animation and direction, the film is clearly a group effort, produced under the ‘joint tradename’ of Opificio Ciclope. Producers of various media forms, including music videos, TV graphics and documentaries, the Italian collective purports to have a ‘shared interest for interacting, mixed techniques and hybrid formats’. It is certainly this mastering of art/media forms that bestows Grande Anarca with a unique visual complexity.

The film is literally multi-layered, the images painstakingly built up in successive levels. Firstly, the background is hand-illustrated, the images then photographed and projected as slides. These slide projections are then shot using 35mm film, the individual frames then serving as a canvass to be painted and etched upon. Finally, digital post-production provides the last layer to complete the film. This inter-medial technique for building a film layer-by-layer brings to mind the German short film Copyshop (2001) in which a photocopy shop worker begins to literally replicate himself in an endless cycle. The short is produced by filming almost 18,000 photocopies of digital frames. It could be said that these animation devices, particularly well executed in Grande Anarca, in which the viewer is confronted with the mechanics and textual processes of the medium, somehow mirror the self-conscious literary referencing of Ballard’s original story.

And it is within this visual process that Grande Anarca evokes much of its drama. Dark fractured imagery blends onto inanimate objects which drift into our vision, as obscured tower blocks meld into shimmering close-ups of cells and bacteria. Distorted alien-like bodies glimmer before us, gasworks flash, abject bodies morph into DNA structures. Buildings vying for dominance over nature obtain a hallucinatory quality as swift editing coupled with repetitious music (dramatic repeating violin chords) compliment the images of tree like cells inhabiting cityscapes. The film ranges between stark black and white before displaying sepia tinted browns and blues. Although ostensibly an animation, the film does feature real footage of apartment blocks and abandoned train stations. The geometrics of man-made, Vorticist shapes mingle haphazardly with biological structures. The calm, dispassionate voiceover and the melodious repetition of the music almost produce a feeling that we are watching a propaganda film, benevolently advertising a social experiment, only the visuals offering a sinister reminder that all is not well.

The story that unfolds in Grande Anarca is clearly a major deviation from Ballard’s source story, but it is the narrative replacements that really illuminate the film-makers application to the task. The answers start off relatively dull, though are notable by their contrast to Ballard’s original text:

01) Corals.
02) Light.
03) A face-shaped flower vase.
04) Glaciers.
05) Emerald green.
06) Science fiction books: Fritz Leiber, James Ballard, Stanislaw Lem.

Ballardian: Grande Anarca

ABOVE: Still from Grande Anarca (2003; dir. Alvise Renzini).

As the film develops, it becomes clear that the narrator was involved in a complex genetic experiment on the inhabitants of a huge multi-storey building:

20) Tenants were selected from thousands of applicants.
21) Yes, I think it was a crucial event in my life.
22) Apartments were identical in shape, size, and decors. The building was divided into 22 units, identified with a letter. Each unit had 8 floors. Each floor housed 64 persons in as many apartments. The whole of the tenants were divided in 4 groups: A, T, C, G. The building contained 5632 persons.
23) I was part of the original project team, and I came up with several of the ideas in the experiment.

Importantly, the inhabitants of the building are represented by the protagonist as being both co-operative and willing participants:

30) All the tenants were aware of the nature of the experiment in different ways. I would not therefore paint in-house relations as unconscious.
31) They were deeply involved in the experiment, and they talked about it regularly: when they met on the stairs or in the garden, or during building meetings.
32) Each tenant had to spend 4 hours with the other three individuals on his team, then 8 hours on his own. He had to write 4 pages a day. In the early stages, that was how we looked for similar descriptions, cross-references, reoccurring words. At a later stage, they were forced to write about their personal desires. Finally, about their dreams.
33) In each apartment, a pneumatic system provided food rations in exchange for the reports. Locks were automatically operated. To open the doors, tenants had to deliver their daily reports.

Eventually we see thematic cross-overs with Ballard’s original story, as the synthetic depiction of DNA creates a startling psycho-pathologic relationship:

36) The building was a to-scale replica of the DNA from algae. Tenants represented nucleotides.
37) We wanted to communicate directly with the DNA, with no go-betweens.
38) We wanted to endow it with some sort of awareness.
39) By collecting the tenants’ dreams.
40) We measured everything: heartbeats, the patterns created on the windows by electric light, decibels. Everything.

As the voiceover draws the film to a close we start to view the possibility that Renzini is sourcing more than just one Ballard text, with allusions to the effects of the building architectures acting as a kind of Tarkovskian Zone:

48) During the third stage, the building started to emit a frequency at night, while the tenants slept. The wave reached a range of over 20 kilometers. Suddenly everyone was aware of the experiment.
49) The wave from the building reverberated through the dreams of whoever lived in the area. It was those obsessive dreams that spurred the riots.
50) Lies, now as before, you keep repeating your lies.
51) That was not our purpose.
52) I would rather not talk about that.
53) Several such buildings were destroyed by mistake.
54) Scientific research is not a democratic system, nor should it be.
55) The experiment could be repeated.

ABOVE: Grande Anarca, part 3 (2003; dir. Alvise Renzini).

In Grande Anarca we see the narrative structure of ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’ married to the Ballardian tropes of urban alienation, techno-surveillance, sociological experimentation and the psychological consequences of man-made environments, as best exemplified in High-Rise (1975). So whilst the film may break free from the plot points of the source story, it still exists within a wider Ballardian universe. We see the moral complexity of social experimentation, the actions of a closed community reverting to a primal state and the symbiotic relationship between man and urban structures. As Rick McGrath states in his affectionate and incredibly detailed analysis of the novel, ‘Reconstructing High-Rise’:

The horror of meaningless acts piled high with Ballard’s trademark detatched omnipotent narrator. High-Rise can both shock and exhilarate its reader, and its insistence that the ‘ends justify the means’ reinforces Ballard’s geometry of violence…

Further to this we see textual equivalents in the actions of individuals acting as a group, and the type of belief systems (religious, political and moral) that can become normalised in the reverie of community psychology. McGrath again illuminates these notions of the intoxicating myth:

J.G. Ballard has often told interviewers that his characters all seek a kind of highly personal psychic salvation, and that they will, if necessary, create their own self-defining mythologies and pursue them to their furthest logical ends, no matter how illogical it seems, or what the cost. In High-Rise, Ballard has created an isolated environment for the close study of the deconstruction of an ultra-modern apartment block into a new, devolved society…

The compliance of the subjects in the film to willingly engage with these socio-scientific experiments, even though their food can be kept from them if they do not co-operate, draws on some well explored Ballardian areas. What is exposed in both High-Rise and Grande Anarca is a pathological willingness to be imprisoned or otherwise confined in institutional regimes. As Ballard puts it in a 2001 Literary Review article, we can see ‘hints that a benign version of a Sadeian society is still emerging, of tormentors and willing victims’. Ballard explores the willingness to be dominated by these architectures of control, as the character Sinclair notes in Super-Cannes (2000), these ‘totalitarian systems of the future would be subservient and ingratiating, but the locks would be just as strong’.

Unfortunately, Grande Anarca is far from perfect, and at least for me, fails on one quite fundamental level. In most cases I am an admirer of extreme deviation from the adapted source material, but Renzini, like so many others, appears to disregard or ignore the ironic humour that saturates most pages of Ballard’s writing. From the opening line of High-Rise, through to most of the chapter titles in The Atrocity Exhibtion, Ballard is able to infuse his stories with subtle but biting wit. Taking ‘Answers to a Questionnaire’ as an example, many of the protagonist’s answers are nothing more than in-jokes as Ballard plays with the edges of humour in ways that are reminiscent both of Bret Easton Ellis and William S Burroughs:

33) Porno videos. He took a particular interest in Kamera Klimax and Electric Blue.
34) Almost every day.
36) At the Penta Hotel I tried to introduce him to Torvill and Dean…
37) Females of all ages.
38) Group sex.
58) He had a keen appreciation of money, but was not impressed when I told him of Torvill and Dean’s earnings.
63) He announced that Princess Diana was immortal.
71) He wanted me to become the warhead of a cruise missile.

The humour found in Ballard’s work is usually satirical, sometimes surreal, and always illustrative of the moral malaise infused through the story. To ignore Ballard’s humour, as I feel the makers of Grande Anarca have done, is to reduce Ballard to less than the sum of his parts. But these actions could be considered deliberate aesthetic acts, removing humour for the sake of some artistic achievement.

Ballardian: Grande Anarca

ABOVE: Still from Grande Anarca (2003; dir. Alvise Renzini).

Traditionally, fans of Ballard’s writing have had an uneasy relationship with adaptations of his writing. It seems that for some, films that explore Ballardian themes, or which have influenced Ballard, can offer more comforting routes to understand his work. These include both Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and Solyaris (1972), Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971), and of course the most potent Ballardian film, Chris Marker’s remarkable short La Jetée (1962). All benefit from their potential to be arguably more useful cinematic texts with which to contextualise Ballardian tropes, than actual official adaptations of his own books. These films are liberated from the compare-contrast analysis that dogs literal Ballard adaptations such as Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987) and Weiss’ The Atrocity Exhibition (2000), amongst a host of others. The confining responsibility of fidelity can raise the stakes for the Ballard reader, in which we are not always able to read these films either objectively or fairly.

Cronenberg, both in Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash attempts to decant experimental literary narratives into a more linear cinematic language (albeit an idiosyncratically unorthodox one). Perhaps to the point where his earlier films Videodrome (1983) and Dead Ringers (1988) could be seen as a more fitting arena to explore the Ballardian. Likewise, Spielberg’s moral subjectivity, a kind of revisionist 50’s idea of ‘Boys Own’ heroism and the inevitable triumph of good over evil, constrains his adaptation of Empire of the Sun. To the point where many, as before, may find more interesting material in his Duel (1971) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with which to better understand the relationship between Ballard and cinema. It is left to one’s imagination to wonder what could have occurred if counter-intuitively, Cronenberg had taken on Empire the Sun, and Spielberg tackled the auto-erotic allegories of Crash.

I believe that Weiss’ over-faithful use of iconic 60s imagery in his bold reworking of The Atrocity Exhibition makes the film stand out for me, in contrast to some who believe that these images lack cultural punch due to their sell-by-date expiring. In contrast to this, Renzini instead prefers to place further abstractions onto the source text. However, what the film does share with both Cronenberg and Weiss is a desire to inhabit the universe of the Ballardian. Far from slavishly conforming to Roland Barthes’ battle-cry that the ‘birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author,’ Renzini pursues a thornier path – casting aside the author’s original narrative and replacing it with something that is loosely Ballardian, rather than strictly Ballard.

Perhaps there is something inherent in Ballard’s writing that actively resists successful adaptation. McGrath’s previous mention of Ballard’s trademark ‘detatched omnipotent narrator’ could be regarded as a profoundly uncinematic central character. Taking this further, McGrath expounds on the dynamically impotent character of Laing in High-Rise and the way in which he ‘survives because his driving psychic force is self-preservation through isolation and passivity’. Again, perhaps cinematic narratives resist passive characters, demanding more open, morally unambiguous, actively obstacle defeating heroes. This in marked contrast to the types that survive the carnage of High-Rise simply by keeping their head down, staying quiet and isolating themselves from the mayhem. It could also be argued that some adaptations fail because the source material is so prescriptive; readerly texts that imprint visual codas onto the reader, allowing little in the way of artistic flourishes for the adaptor. However, with Ballard the opposite could be true. The moral ambiguity, detached solipsism, and exclusion of characters’ first person psycho-dynamics mean that we can only form vague (yet highly personal) ideas of main protagonists. When we encounter these people on screen, in the flesh, saying words, and reacting to external agents, it is possible that we balk at both the unavoidable physical humanity before us, and the distinctly un-Ballardian theatrics of film-acting which we excluded from our original reading.

Grande Anarca enjoys a curiously dichotomous romance with Ballard. The aims seem contradictory: rejecting Ballard’s authority over the story, yet clearly conforming to the author’s recognised signifiers and themes. In the process of leaving the story behind, the makers of this film enter into a new dialogue, re-inhabiting and re-acquiring universal themes of the Ballardian, displaying what the Collins English Dictionary famously describes as ‘dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments’.


+ Information on Grande Anarca at Opificio Ciclope


+ Grande Anarca Part 1
+ Grande Anarca Part 2
+ Grande Anarca Part 3

+ English translation of the voiceover.

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4 Responses »

  1. Very interesting, Jamie. And you identify the same problem Solveig Nordlund faced in her film of Low-Flying Aircraft — altho she used the original story for her own psychological purposes. The Grande Anarca film itself looks like its creators channelled Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray during production.

  2. Cronenberg’s ‘Empire of the Sun’? Worth seeing, that would have been.
    I agree totally that Ballard’s work is too singular to lend itself to adaptation – the authorial voice, the dialogue, the sly humour – one can think of a host of reasons.

  3. Love the film, Jamie. Thanks! I look forward to reading your words, too, later in the evening. Not only Duchamp and Man Ray, as Rick says above, but more so Ernst and Dominguez’s frottage and decalcomania. Brilliant!

    Love the live feed, too, Simon.

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