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Jonathan Weiss: The Atrocity ExhibitionAuthor: Andres Vaccari • Feb 15th, 2006 •
When film adaptations of J.G. Ballard’s work are discussed, Crash and Empire of the Sun are always mentioned but never Jonathan Weiss’s Atrocity Exhibition. Now, thanks to the Dutch film company Reel 23, we can see what Weiss was up to — they’ve recently released this buried work on DVD (and it’s a beautiful piece of packaging, too, filled with cut-up imagery and a revealing essay on the film’s genesis from Weiss himself).
According to Fright Site, the film “was shot over a two-year period in a number of disparate locations, from junkyards to abandoned military installations to the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art. It was initially completed in 1997, but reedited from a near two-hour running time down to 105 minutes for screenings at the 1999 Slamdance and 2000 Seattle Film Festivals”.
OK. So what’s it all about, then?
>>> EXCLUSIVE Read Ballardian’s fire-breathing interview with Weiss, in which the director responds to this review.
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Sound: English 2.0
Region: 0, Pal
Subtitles: Dutch, French, German and Spanish
Duration: 80 min
Price: 24.99 euro
Extras: Audio commentaries by J.G. Ballard and Jonathan Weiss
Lead Actors: Victor Slezak (Travis, The ‘T’ Figure); Anna Juvander (Karen Novotny; The Woman in White); Michael Kirby (Dr Nathan)
Director: Jonathan Weiss
Director of Photography: Bud Gardner
Screenplay: Jonathan Weiss & Michael Kirby, based on the novel by J.G. Ballard
Producers: Robert Jason; Jonathan Weiss
Music: J.G. Thirlwell (Foetus)
REVIEW BY Andrés Vaccari
First published in 1969, J.G. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition is a demanding text to read, let alone to translate into film. Rather than a ‘novel’, Atrocity Exhibition consists of a series of short fragments, which Ballard described as ‘condensed novels’, and which were published separately over a period of four years.
Centred on a psychiatrist undergoing a mental breakdown, the book deals with media violence, psychological alienation, the death of affect, and the dark unconscious drives shaping the technological environment. It expounds the now-renowned Ballardian thesis that the barrier between interior dreamscapes and the outside world has collapsed in our hyper-mediated and manufactured world. For fans of Ballard, the book is significant as a preview of themes that would later be unpacked in more depth, and with more success, in novels such as Crash and High-Rise. Although it provoked much controversy on its publication, Atrocity would most certainly have been forgotten or become a minor cult curiosity if it wasn’t for the fact that Ballard wrote it, and that it provides another perspective on his remarkable artistic vision.
The main problem with the book, and with Weiss’s film adaptation, is the outdated cultural references that saturate it: Marilyn Monroe, Nixon, the Vietnam War, etc. The strength of the rest of Ballard’s work is that it’s not set in any specific era; at best, his novels and stories mostly take place in an allegorical near future that blends with the present. The locations, for that matter, are mainly symbolic (the obvious exceptions here are Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women, and to a lesser extent Millennium People). This imbues Ballard’s worlds with their characteristic interiority and topicality. It’s also the same quality that makes Kafka’s nightmarish worlds still resonate with us, the fact that they take place in their own tome and space.
It’s hard to justify Weiss’s decision to stick so faithfully to the book, especially since so much has happened since the late sixties, and its cultural icons and motifs don’t have the resonance they once did. Examples from, say, the Gulf War, the death of Princess Diana or modern advertising would have rendered much more effectively the prophetic nature of Ballard’s intuitions, as well as reinforce the themes of Atrocity. Weiss sometimes does use some more contemporary footage (most notably, from the Challenger disaster), so why not take the same liberty with the rest of the footage? In an age where we can watch surgical procedures on reality TV, the old footage of plastic-surgery procedures and Vietnam war atrocities seem strangely quaint, not to say banal and self-conscious. Perhaps the modern world has become too Ballardian for this film to tell us anything that we can’t learn from an average afternoon on television.
Another big problem with this adaptation is the nature of writing in general, as opposed to that of film. In writing, Ballard’s clinical descriptions convey the pornographic and violent nature of scientific rationality. This does not translate well into film. For Ballard, writing is, among other things, a space in which to reflect on the nature of media images, and take some distance from them. His style often parodies scientific or pornographic texts, as much as media imagery. But how do you reflect on media images with media images?
On the page, Ballard’s obsessive, solipsistic dialogue can be poignant and humorous. When spoken by actors, it sounds preposterous, and often unintentionally funny. A description of a surgical procedure might acquire an unexpected poetic tone on the page; on the screen, a surgical procedure looks just plain repulsive and pointless. The book can also be read at random; flicking through the pages, the reader can make his own novel (a bit like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch). In the film, one is trapped into a linearity that clearly conspires against the spirit of Ballard’s original.
The Atrocity Exhibition is well crafted and beautifully photographed, although the images cannot successfully outweigh the aimlessness. Individually, the images work, but the overall effect is flat and contrived. Nonetheless, as a first feature film, it’s an impressive effort, showing great focus and marking Weiss as a unique talent. Another standout feature is the music by Jim Thirlwell (aka Foetus), which lends great atmosphere to the images.
The film’s extras include a running commentary by an enthusiastic and indefatigable Ballard, in conversation with the director. This in itself is worth the price of the DVD.
Overall, Jonathan Weiss’s Atrocity Exhibition is a nice cult object – and perhaps an interesting failure.
— Andrés Vaccari
>>>>>> Read Ballardian’s exclusive fire-breathing interview with Weiss, in which the director responds to this review and all the other critics who’ve dared to cross his path.
>>>See Reel23 for bios of Weiss and Ballard; a Director’s Statement; and letters from Ballard to Weiss praising the film; a trailer from the film; and information on how to order the DVD.
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