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"Thirsty Man at the Spigot": An Interview with Jonathan WeissAuthor: Simon Sellars • May 2nd, 2006 •
by Simon Sellars
Victor Slezak as ‘T’ in The Atrocity Exhibition
Ballardian presents an exclusive interview with Jonathan Weiss, director of The Atrocity Exhibition, the film based on the J.G. Ballard collection of ‘condensed novels’.
NOTE: This is a revised and expanded version of the original interview. The new additions are a reworked introduction, the addition of notes, and the inclusion of JW’s original, lengthier reply to one question (which I missed the first time around; see the note), plus my follow-up response and JW’s follow-up response. See the postscript for more background to this interview. SS
When film adaptations of JG Ballard’s work are discussed, it’s Crash and Empire of the Sun that grab the headlines. And then there’s Jonathan Weiss’s Atrocity Exhibition. For ages, JGB watchers have speculated about this film — because it’s had just a few screenings since its completion six years ago, it’s gathered a thick crust of secrecy. Weiss, working with very limited resources, oversaw a stop-start production that unfurled over a number of years. Originally running at 105 minutes, the film was edited down to its present 90-minute form after its screening at the 1999 Slamdance festival. And that was pretty much it for The Atrocity Exhibition — it never had a theatrical release, was never marketed. Very few people have seen it. But now, thanks to the Dutch company Reel 23, which recently released this buried work on DVD, we can finally see what Weiss was up to — as Andrés Vaccari did in his review of the DVD for Ballardian.
Guessing that Weiss would want the right of reply after Andrés’s less-than-enthused reaction, I approached him about an interview. Initially Weiss was polite in his dealings with me, seemingly happy to take this chance to respond. But as the interview — conducted by email — wore on, he became increasingly abusive, attacking Andrés in the harshest of language as a matter of course, but also casting myself, as publisher of the review, as ringleader in some kind of conspiracy to neuter Weiss’s career. His communication had a divisive tone to it: conciliatory one moment, abusive the next. It meant I never knew where I stood, or which Jonathan would come out to play from email to email: the sarcastic, acid-tongued victim or the charming, erudite thinker. It was like a game of ‘good cop, bad cop’ — except both cops were Jonathan Weiss. Hardly the most effective way to win over someone whose opinion you’re trying to sway.
I suppose I should state my own position on the film: in some ways I think it’s a very successful adaptation of Ballard’s book. In other ways, I agree with Andrés. But I’m also interested and involved in independent film, and Weiss’s story, from what little I knew, sounded intriguing. I wanted to talk to the man. And I wanted to present his story fairly. Not that you’d notice any such parity, here. Weiss claims he has suffered unfair and dirty treatment over the years — his encounters with the BBC and Iain Sinclair expose some very raw nerves — and he clearly perceives Andrés’s review (and by association, my website) as more of the same. So be it. I tried.
In the end, though, I came to look upon this interview as rubberneckers do at car crashes: it’s shocking, but try as I might I just couldn’t look away. Plus, there are actually worthwhile insights from Mr Weiss about the nature of the film industry and indeed about Ballard himself. That’s the Jonathan I wished I could have spent more time with.
And now here it is, flawed, fatal and totally flammable — the Jonathan Weiss Interview.
– Simon Sellars
All images © Jonathan Weiss and Reel 23
How did you first come across Atrocity Exhibition, the book?
I had been hunting for the book for a long time, maybe without even knowing it. I never went to film school and initially had no desire to be a filmmaker in the traditional sense. I had been making some truly ‘experimental’ films (I usually hate that term) in that I really was experimenting with film structure looking for what worked, what did not. I started to realise that the duration of short films might be posing inherent problems for what I had in mind. But I found very few feature length films that did what I was interested in, perhaps only Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, and a bit in some of the Derek Jarman Super 8 films blown up to 35mm, like Last of England.
And then somehow I found the RE/Search edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, and I knew in about two pages that I had the book I was looking for. It was absolutely perfect. It was already a shooting script for a film, but since Ballard was an author, he called it a book. I had read other Ballard works, but of course they are totally different from The Atrocity Exhibition, which is the ultimate distillation of his thinking, rendered in a poetically scientific style.
How did you approach Ballard?
I wrote a letter to his agent asking for permission to use the text to do a Super 8 version. I received some sort of vague permission, which would have been worth entirely nothing later. But the film became a real production, as people who were commercial entities in New York City at the time found out about what I was doing and begged to sign on. You cannot believe how enthusiastic people were to help me make it into a ‘real’ film — something that could be projected from 35mm in a typical movie house. So we just made it. It reminds me of the children’s book, Stone Soup: you start making a cauldron of soup with nothing but stones and water, but if you do it right, at the end it’s filled with vegetables and meat.
Anna Juvander in The Atrocity Exhibition
At the end of the filming process, when we had a rough cut that was close to the finished version, a friend from England who knew Ballard’s daughter offered to deliver a copy of the VHS to him. He called a few days later to report it delivered. The next day, I heard my wife at the time, Anna Juvander, who plays many roles in the film, screaming. I went to see what the ruckus was about. She was standing by the fax machine, shaking, reading a fax. It was the first one from Ballard, praising the movie. The next day, I kid you not, we received another. He loved it. He loved it so much, in fact, that when I read the faxes I thought, ‘Maybe he’s not quite right any longer’. I was not ready for him to call the movie ‘a poetic masterpiece’ — I would have been happy just hearing that he could watch it in one sitting, or something similar.
We subsequently were able to buy the rights, very reasonably, because of that. In the nick of time, too, as Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa company were after it. I shudder to think what would have happened if JGB did NOT like the movie. Moral of this story: don’t ever, ever, ever do anything as stupid as making anything without getting the rights, in stone, for one million years minimum.
Did Ballard have any input into the film?
JGB indeed helped after the film was finished with a suggestion for a little introductory sequence, which makes the film a tad bit more accessible. I liked the inaccessible opening, but saw the wisdom in his approach. Other than that, he essentially rubberstamped the film with his good wishes.
What was the funding structure like? Was it entirely private?
You are obviously not an American. There is NO such thing as public money for this kind of film in the USA. There might be public money for making a documentary about Eskimos with Down Syndrome, but not for features. That is one reason why American film is the way it is and why other countries’ films are, also, the way they are.
Why did you cut 30 minutes from the original running time?
We took out all the good parts. Like the serious sex and violence.
OK, but why?
Just kidding. I did have a funny interlude with the head of programming for the Sundance Channel, who wanted to buy the film but wondered whether the few frames (less than one second) of hard-core penetration would make it through corporate headquarters. I suggested I replace the footage, because it did not have to be penetration to do what I wanted in that scene. She looked at me like I was a naughty child: how dare I contemplate ‘compromising’ a work of art by self-censoring it. So I said, ‘Fine, leave it in’. She was fired or left the station soon after, anyway. The porn is still there. We just did some necessary editing. I am happy with the length of the final version of the film. Longer was not better.
The film took a number of years to complete. How did you maintain the look and feel over time?
Formaldehyde works wonders. The film took more than a year to shoot, mainly because the shooting schedule coincided with the worst winter in about one hundred years. The editing took forever and went through three different editing houses, because we had no money — it was done as a labour of love, and love runs out.
How did Reel 23 come into the picture?
They liked the film.
That’s it? You suggested to me that the parent company, Filmfreak, actually created Reel 23 so your film could finally be seen. That must have been a huge boost to your confidence.
The people at Filmfreak and Mr Ballard have been the only bright spots on an otherwise very depressing and bleak landscape since making the film. The problem, of course, is that the film is SO very different from other films that to sell it you need to differentiate it from the rest of the stuff in the store. To do this the wonderful people at Filmfreak really went out on a limb and made a very risky investment to market Atrocity and, importantly, other films like it or in the same spirit. This includes very different material, like David Cronenberg’s first films. They had Atrocity subtitled in most languages necessary for a wider release and even had the master made for a NTSC DVD, which to date is waiting for the right distributor to take on the film for America. They’re a European company and not in a position to do distribution for the USA and Canada.
How do you feel about your home audience missing out?
Are you being sarcastic?
Wouldn’t you be sarcastic about the prospects of finding distribution for a tiny Ballard adaptation in the ultra-commercial, competitive American market if the main Ballard website thoroughly trounced your film? It’s like asking a thirsty man if he wants something to drink, whilst turning the spigot off. I was at an event a week ago that precipitated this — where someone asked if I had read Vaccari’s review of my film. It was clear from my conversation with them just how damaging this is to TAE in terms of finding a distributor. You may not think so, but you are not in the film business, to my knowledge.
You may not realize the irony of the situation, but having started TAE at the age of 25, (I turned 42 yesterday), I now find myself having to try and undo the damage that some two-bit clod has perpetrated, so that some people might still want to see my film. You talk about the “dire” situation of film in Australia, due to a lack of funding, you say.
[ NOTE: I mentioned to Weiss that I have interviewed many independent filmmakers here in Australia. I told him this mainly in an attempt to establish some kind of common ground -- also to express sympathy with him and with the concomitant plight of independent filmmakers working with extremely scarce resources. I needn't have bothered. Jonathan refused to meet me halfway, and my attempt was swiftly used against me. ]
Do you realize that the problems with film, on the level of something like my film, for example, are far more complex than getting the government to give you some cash? Imagine working for more than 15 years on a difficult, little film which one would expect at least Ballard fans to appreciate. Then having some ham-fisted moron who authoritatively pronounces Ballard to be “outmoded” in his thinking (on a “Ballardian” website, no less) trashing the film as being “dated” because it does not mention Britney Spears and Paris Hilton!
NOTE: Andrés mentioned Britney and Paris, in his comment after the review, as an example of how cultural icons become dated, not of how Weiss’s film is dated; he never calls for either woman’s inclusion in the film and to suggest otherwise is a clear misrepresentation. Also, Andrés never calls Ballard outmoded; rather he suggests that the one book, Atrocity, has not worn as well as some of JGB’s other works. I don’t agree with that, but it’s Andres’s opinion and he’s entitled to it.
Don’t you feel embarassed publishing that? Would you really want to have a drink with Jim after he read that? What would you say to him? Something like, “Sorry to publish that blather, but its not my opinion. Really.”
[ NOTE: That's 'Jim Ballard', in case you're wondering. ]
Put yourself in my shoes for a moment, Simon. Your website, and others like it, are about the only portal through which prospective audiences for TAE will likely travel. At the moment, the world walks the Google path and the first place they are going to start is yours, as far as this is concerned. Google “Atrocity Exhibition” and film and see where you go. For most people the first stop, with an authoritative name like Ballardian, is also going to be their last. How many people who read the review will go to the trouble of trying to see TAE? I would not waste my time, if I were the usual sort, having read such a cursory dismissal of not only the film but the book itself.
[ NOTE: I can't wear this charge. I never look at one review when deciding whether to see a film; I always like to gather a range of opinions, and as far as I can tell that's a pretty normal attitude... By this stage I was getting thoroughly tired of Jonathan’s attempts to bully us into giving him a favourable review, tired of him belittling my journalistic credentials, tired of him abusing my colleague despite repeated requests to stop, and tired of this website bearing the brunt of being the only site to review Weiss’s film. I suggested to him that he publish his own website devoted to the damned thing. Jonathan could then shape public opinion the way he wanted to shape it. As it is, Reel23’s graphics-intensive Atrocity page does him no favours — with no text, merely images of text, it is nowhere to be found on Google. In this day and age of instant access and instant publishing, Jonathan really has only himself to blame for Google searches returning at No. 1 anything other than the official, sanctioned Atrocity product. ]
In short, I think you have done a disservice to the only small, independent film ever made of one of Ballard’s works, and you worry about the “dire” condition of film? Rather ironic. I would be extremely suprised if either you or Mr Vaccari ever gave any thought whatsoever about the effects of your actions on a film like this. Mr Vaccari’s motivations seem clear — this is his little moment of authority and attention. Your motives escape me.
Reading what you have up now, you would never even know what Ballard himself (namesake of your site, remember) thought of the film, which is quite extraordinary. Most authors quietly hate what is done with their work on film.
I’m sorry the review played a part in your decision to not contact distributors, but neither I nor Andres should feel any responsibility or obligation to you in that regard. What if a major newspaper like the Guardian published a negative review in their online section? What then? You really need to get out of the trap of thinking that this site has some kind of obligation to publish a positive review of your film. I’m sorry to say, but I don’t run a Ballard ‘fan site’. I am as interested in publishing critical opinions of Ballard’s work and related products (like film versions) as I am in praising the man. The site is not hagiography.
Would you care to expand upon your responses to Andres’s criticisms? It would seem he is not alone in voicing some of these points. Other reviewers make similar claims, like this one.
Anyone who thinks that the world depicted in The Atrocity Exhibition has been rendered obsolete in anything but its decorative attributes is severely deluded. That review suggests I ‘made a grave error’ in thinking that the content of Atrocity is still relevant. So what is that content: that we DON’T live in a pervasive media landscape where reality checked out long ago? That we are not obsessed and consumed by psychopathologies that create and determine our relationships with ourselves, our family and friends, our celebrities, our governments? That our cars and other vehicles stopped having polyperverse identities, and are no longer sexualised fetish objects? Has sex itself receded from the flood plains of our time and gone back to its purely procreative origins?
The problem is that as subsequent generations are born into this upside-down world, they see it as normal and natural. It is not. They see the wardrobe, props and sets change and use these ephemera as a surveyor sets his stakes.
NOTE: Weiss originally emailed me the following ‘postscript’, which I missed the first time around, but which I recently discovered at the bottom of another message. I’m publishing it here, for completeness’ sake.
Mr Vaccari’s contention that the book, the film, or both, are “dated”, seems to be making two points. One is that the film belongs to a certain specific historical period (I assume the late 60s) and that is bad. It’s bad to be dated. Which means that all historical films, for example, anything that tries or simply does evoke a period is bad (TAE, by the way, does not do that as a matter of course). Bad meaning dated. Toss all Merchant Ivory, not because it’s sickly film culture, but because it’s historical, it’s dated, thus it’s bad. Toss Andrei Rublev, too, I would assume. Where we stop tossing, I don’t know.
The second point pertaining to this line of attack would be that the references themselves, being historic, are dated and getting old and grey. They don’t work anymore, don’t have the power they used to. Nobody can identify with Marilyn Monroe anymore (excepting yesterday’s Wall Street Journal dated April 10 06, discussing the economics of control over her image). Mr Vaccari must know this problem himself from rereading his own torturous attempt at recreating Ballardian fictional prose and style in “Chariots of Fire”, a delightful piece I found on his website, using Princess Di to “update” things a bit from Ballard’s “dated” original. Actually, if truth be told, Mr Vaccari has quite the hard on for Atrocity Exhibition, despite his professed disdain, as he copies it yet again in form and function in the wonderful short bit, “Why I Want to Fuck John Howard,” a real treat and topical to boot.
But back to Mr Vaccari’s major point of criticism — the point of referencing. References function in a myriad of ways, and no film, nor any work of art, can possibly be divorced from the culture and icons which comprise it. People have no problem watching films set in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, etc. Why? Because whether a film is good or not has nothing to do with the period in which it is set or the references it contains. If you needed a Rosetta Stone to watch the film, that would be another story.
There’s an interesting quote over at Senses of Cinema: ‘Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair have never done anything so vulgar as attempting to “adapt” a Ballard fiction. They understand too well that we now live in the landscape that Ballard has been faithfully anatomising and populating with characters since the 1960s. Why bother ‘adapting’ when you can hit the motorway and find all the sets, the actors, and the (CCTV) camera positions ready and waiting for you?’
Mr Petit and Mr Sinclair do not make feature films. They make arthouse installations, but call them ‘films’. Here’s an IMDB comment on their London Orbital: ‘Pompous, pretentious, meaningless and totally pointless’. Maybe they should try being vulgar next time. Since you bring up Mr Sinclair, please note that his BFI book on Cronenberg and Ballard [also called Crash] was so filled with fabrications and outright lies in its discussion of my film, still then a work in progress, that when I spoke to JGB about it he was as appalled as I was. That some of the self-appointed gatekeepers of ‘avant-garde’ culture in the UK, and, for that matter, Ballard’s work, have to invent things about The Atrocity Exhibition, as Sinclair did, suggests another agenda at work.
That shocks and surprises me. Do you want to set the record straight and point out exactly what Sinclair got wrong?
Sinclair invented erroneous figures for how much the film cost and where the money went — having NEVER having talked to me or communicated with me in any way. I even called Ballard as some of the errors were actually attributed to him. JGB assured me that these things were fabricated and indicated he had his own issues with the veracity of the book.
I can live with a so-called serious author trying to belittle my little film, in a book on a relatively big film by Cronenberg, by saying it cost a fraction of what it did, and that the money was spent in a trivial way, et cetera. What I cannot abide by was Sinclair’s central premise: that all filmic adaptations of serious literary work have to be divorced in spirit from their progenitors. If not, Sinclair insists, they have no integrity. Well, I consider Ballard to be a very good judge of things like integrity. Ballard loved the film and has been the film’s biggest support. But Sinclair could not mention that, because his premise and his pay check was to write a book praising Cronenberg’s take on Ballard, which compelled him, I assume, to denigrate my approach.
Why would Sinclair do that? Because you’re from outside the UK? I haven’t read the book; I’m just speculating…
The problem, well understood in academia and minor cultural zones like this, boils down to territoriality. The stakes, understood in terms of money or power, are miniscule. This breeds the worst kind of petty territorialism, where supposedly intelligent adults behave like spoiled children not wanting to share their sandbox. I assume Mr Sinclair, who later went on to try and make a Ballardian film with a small budget himself, was trying, like a dog pissing on a hedge, to mark off his own little fiefdom. The fact that some unknown American with no pedigree had actually made a full-length adaptation of the most difficult-to-adapt book Ballard ever wrote, and having Ballard LIKE the movie, may have pissed off some people in the UK, Sinclair included.
I also, in retrospect, now think the same of Mr Vaccari’s very strange dismissal of both the book and my film, as he has obviously been inspired enough by The Atrocity Exhibition to write his own undisguised copies of parts of the book.
NOTE: I have since read Sinclair’s book and I cannot see how it could have provoked such a reaction. As Tim Chapman mentions in the comments at the end of this interview, Weiss’s film is barely mentioned in Sinclair’s book, but even so Sinclair actually notes that Ballard praises the film. Tim has reproduced the relevant excerpts in the comments section: see it and decide.
Have you ever confronted Sinclair?
I would not know how to reach him let alone expect him to come clean. If you fabricate a bunch of garbage and someone confronts you with your malfeasance, would you expect contrition?
I had a similar thing happen at the same time with the BBC. They had requested a copy of my film to include in a program about adaptations of Ballard’s work. I was thrilled, of course. Imagine my shock when they used footage from my film as if the BBC had shot it, with no context and no proper acknowledgement of my film. They even used an actor to narrate OVER my film, from the book! No mention at all that I had made The Atrocity Exhibition. When I demanded an explanation and retraction, it was a month later and all I got was a curt letter admitting what they had done and removing my footage from their piece.
This is how even the BBC behaves with small films. It’s truly shameful, and no one cares.
Is a Ballardian aesthetic still needed in film and literature these days? Is Ballard’s worldview still relevant?
If it was not relevant, why operate a Ballard website? Nostalgia?
The question isn’t whether I think a Ballardian aesthetic is relevant today, but whether you do. Do you? I’m not attacking you; I’m genuinely interested in your answer.
Ballard’s work is essentially dystopic. Its subject is the world gone wrong, usually a slightly-in-the-future world which makes the whole thing easier for the reader to accept. In the last several decades, the Ballardian project has become centred on the decline of a value system which has held sway for Western Civilisation for centuries, even millennia. What is supplanting this value system — something extremely nihilistic — Ballard seems to see very clearly and be able to capture in his work. I felt that is true in The Atrocity Exhibition, and I feel it compelling his most recent work, perhaps even more strongly. Very few authors have the ability to both sense and capture this seismic change. He is a philosopher as much as an artist. Thus his aesthetic, his thinking, is more relevant than ever.
That does not even begin to come to terms with Ballard’s prescription for the malady, which is truly, majestically radical. It can be summarised, perhaps, by not rejecting or resisting the process of decline, but by abetting it.
Because your film deliberately subverts traditional narrative and contains some fairly disturbing imagery, people perceive it as ‘difficult’ viewing. Did that make it hard to market the film? How did audiences initially react to it?
The film has never had a theatrical release. And perhaps it should be that way, given the ‘vulgarity’ (to use the word properly) of film marketing and the realities of theatrical distribution today, worldwide. Where the hell is it supposed to play? At my local multiplex? I can count all of the theatres in New York City that play other films such as this on the fingers of one hand, with a few fingers left over. It’s not exactly March of the Penguins, now, is it? The film was never marketed because marketing requires money, hiring a publicist, et cetera. We never had the money to do that. I was hoping that a few influential critics or cultural figures (besides Ballard) would help the film in that regard, but I was mistaken. This website constitutes marketing, because the readers here are the core audience for the film, and look at how well that is going.
As for being difficult, if people call a film difficult, then it becomes so. I have had numerous instances of people showing up at private screenings with NO idea of what the film would be, dragged there by a friend, with no warning. At the end of a typical screening, it is usually very, very quiet. For some minutes. People are usually very still. They are in some kind of other state — maybe it’s shock, but I don’t think it’s that. Quite frequently, people who have nothing to do with the film business, or the culture world generally, are the best viewers, the ones who get the most from the film — the ones who understand the most, precisely because they THINK the least. The most difficult aspect of the film is actually seeing it.
Was the 1999 Slamdance screening the first?
The film first showed at Rotterdam in 1998, as a work in progress. As for festivals in general, they are not very good places to expect people to seriously watch films. They are essentially big parties, or rather disgusting, stupid, frenzied greed fests with people desperately running around, literally, looking for the next indie film that could make them a few million bucks. Considering that the problem with indie film (meaning everything save studio megaliths) today is the utter triumph of the worst kind of commerciality, it is really pathetic to see adults spend the kind of energy they do in the film world to make a few, paltry bucks. If you want to be a capitalist, it’s such small change.
You could, for example, be a hedge-fund manager and make in one year the total gross of all of those films. Then you could finance or even make yourself any films you wanted, and not give a shit how much money they made or lost. Obviously, the rewards are elsewhere.
You co-wrote the script with Michael Kirby [who also plays Dr Nathan in the film]. How did the working process between the two of you evolve?
Normally, a script is extremely important, as a film is about characters and you understand them through dialogue and action. The Atrocity Exhibition is very different. It is about places, space — meaning architectural space — time, events, unusual forms of consciousness, et cetera. There is no narrative. A non-narrative film. How do you make a ‘non-narrative’ film? They don’t teach you that in film school, which I had no interest in going to, anyway. You cannot read books or magazine articles on this subject. Michael, who was a very smart man, realised that the best approach for a book and a project like this is to create the illusion of a narrative.
People are so thoroughly conditioned in narrative, they will project it ANYWHERE they can. Everyone who watches The Atrocity Exhibition will construct a narrative of their own, and I have never heard two that were identical. Some viewers become quickly frustrated by the lack of narrative and think of it as a personal affront, an insult to their intelligence. Since they do not ‘get it’ because they are looking for ‘it’ in the wrong place, they become upset and dismiss the film. But others, who just let it flow over them, have reported experiences usually found during serious drug episodes, extended periods in isolation tanks or other attempts to get beyond the purview of quotidian consciousness. I guess that means Michael was on to something.
I wrote my part of the script visually, seeing the scenes happen. Michael did most of the dialogue, which is often lifted from the book. We were not looking for a ‘natural’ effect, but it might be worth noting that I spent most of my time directing the actors to stop acting, and deliver their few lines in as natural a way as possible. Michael did most of his writing for the Wooster Group, a very famous theatre company in SoHo, New York — funny how no one complains that the Wooster Group, people like Willem Dafoe, are doing non-narrative stuff.
The best way to look at dialogue in the film is like traffic signs for a motorist. They are there to keep you from getting lost — or worse.
Anna Juvander in The Atrocity Exhibition
The film is full of striking imagery — in parts it plays almost like a photo-roman. Do you have a photographic background? Is Chris Marker’s La Jetee an influence on your work?
I adore that film, and often wonder why so little came after it in the same vein. As for imagery, my issue with cinema is that it is not about film, it’s just filmed theatre — if you want to do film, it’s about the image. So if you make a non-narrative film, what is on the screen had better be compelling visually. Other than my sensibility, I have no photographic background and am a crap photographer.
Many people are surprised to learn that’s there’s a film version of The Atrocity Exhibition. How does it feel being the father of the ‘bastard child’ of JGB film adaptations? How do you see your film in relationship to David Cronenberg’s Crash and Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun?
I don’t see any relationship with those films.
Right, but what I’m getting at is this: do you feel your film has suffered unfavourably when Ballardian adaptations are discussed, considering you were up against the King of Hollywood on one side and the Indie King on the other?
It would be nice if people could just watch my film for what it is and not compare it to something as heterogeneous as the other Ballard films. But that does not usually happen, and considering the hostility to The Atrocity Exhibition, I have to wonder why? What is so threatening about this film? It has nothing in common with the other films — is that the issue? I truly do not know myself.
Victor Slezak as ‘T’ in The Atrocity Exhibition
I see some similarities. Just as the Atrocity book seems a prototype of Ballard’s novel Crash — a prequel in many ways — I wondered if you saw your film as serving that function to Cronenberg’s Crash. There seem to be similar stylistic choices: the blue light bathing some scenes; Victor’s acting as ‘T’, which seems to share mannerisms and tics with Elias Koteas in Crash; Anna’s Novotny, again sharing traits with Holly Hunter in Crash; the framing of scenes in car parks and so on. Or are such similarities merely functions of Ballard’s writing and its remarkable consistency?
Just to set the record straight, I shot The Atrocity Exhibition BEFORE Cronenberg shot Crash, so there is no possibility of influence from his film, nor would I copy his look, because I never liked Cronenberg’s cinematography, though I like some of his earlier films, like Videodrome. Anything shared between the two films is due to the books emerging one from the other, as Cronenberg, ‘parasite’ that he is (to use your fellow reviewer’s terminology) also lifted the exact same lines from Crash as I used in Atrocity. Ballard actually repeated material word for word in both books.
Cronenberg took a literal, ‘narrative’ approach to another supposedly ‘unfilmable’ book, Naked Lunch. Now, on the DVD’s commentary track you say you had no idea how to film Ballard’s ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ scene, and so you went for the most literal approach [in the film, T has sex in an automobile with Karen Novotny as she wears a Ronald Reagan mask]. But wouldn’t a literal approach have simulated some kind of mental therapy group, with patients masturbating over pictures of Ronald Reagan?
The issue, which keeps coming up in the comparisons with Cronenberg, is that I am literal in my adaptation of Ballard, but in fact Cronenberg is not. Just as he was not in Naked Lunch. Read that book and tell me that it is anything like the text. My problem is simple: Naked Lunch or The Atrocity Exhibition are essentially exceptional vehicles, which if read properly, will take you someplace very different from what is considered normal life. Cronenberg’s very style, which is extremely mainstream from a cinematographic and editing point of view, will always be at odds with his subject matter, at least when it comes to a book like Crash. To me, that is a fatal flaw. If you want to ride the vehicle to the end of the line, it has to be stylistically consistent or at least not fighting the material, the essence of what is being portrayed. I thus had to use a style as extreme as the book itself, something Cronenberg NEVER does. All his films look the same to me, visually speaking, the only difference being that over the years they got a bit slicker and better produced.
Anna Juvander as Karen Novotny in The Atrocity Exhibition
Regarding my ‘literal’ approach to the Reagan scene, I simply ask myself, ‘What is really happening here — in the text?’ People are in a constant sexual flux, consistent with the chaos of images we have created for ourselves, continuously overlaying images over objects and vice versa, often to sexual ends. In the film, there are scenes where ‘literally’ people are confused as to what is more ‘real’ — the image of a thing or the thing itself.
You’re keen for me to emphasise to our readers that Ballard was totally sold on your vision of the film. But Ballard was also keen on Empire of the Sun and Crash. So, it seems to me that Ballard would rubberstamp any filmed version of his work. Obviously, though, his reaction means a lot to you. Can you tell us a bit more about your relationship with Jim?
This is a tricky subject. As it is no mystery what I think of the films you mention, it may seem contradictory that I actually believe what JGB thought of my film. With Empire, Ballard was paid a lot of money and had access to a huge new audience for his work. If I were Ballard, I would not be complaining about Cronenberg, either. Ballard is certainly not biting the hand that feeds him. I honestly don’t know what Jim said about Crash. I know he was generally positive, but I never discussed the other films or directors with him. I thought that crass. I do not, however, see what Jim could possibly gain from spouting a bunch of goo about my film. He was very clear, for example, in those initial faxes, that he thought the film might fall irretrievably between the cracks. In private, he completely dismissed other attempts to film his work. So I believed him, and especially so since he did the DVD commentary, something to my knowledge he has not done for either of the other films. There is really no motivation, in this instance, for Ballard to fluff The Atrocity Exhibition. Unless you think he is some senile old geezer who just loves anyone making a film, however bizarre, of his work.
If I have to choose who, as an authority and a critic, to listen to regarding Atrocity, I will choose Ballard and not chimps like Vaccari and Sinclair. Since I gather your readers might follow my inclination, I noted the omission of Jim’s positive comments in the negative criticism of Vaccari and Sinclair, whose motives I find suspect on a host of counts — such as the fact that they are both guilty of trying to make really bad versions of Ballardian film or writing.
The two commentaries on the DVD (yours and Ballard’s) suggest there was a great deal of congruence between your interpretation of the book and Ballard’s views on his own text. Was there any area or aspect of the book where you found Ballard’s interpretation substantially at odds with your own?
I must be the most sheep-like of all possible interpreters of Ballard’s work, as I found no place I was at variance with the material I worked upon. Because of this, some reviewers enjoy using the term ‘parasitic’ in discussing my approach. A parasite, however, is defined by its negative effect on its host. JGB has yet to voice his objections.
My DVD copy is very grainy. Is that a deliberate effect?
You need a better TV set.
The set I have is just fine. The grainy texture merges the filmed footage with the archival film — it’s a good effect. So, is that a deliberate effect or a bad transfer?
I spent a great deal of time in pre-production choosing film stocks, lenses and exposure settings to create a very different film look, almost a vintage look, a bit like the visual texture of some of Tarkovsky’s films (I am only talking about the texture or grain here.) We used an Agfa stock, discontinued about when the film commenced shooting, which looks completely different from Kodak or Fuji, what everyone else uses. Same with the black and white, which was Ilford.
Would a bigger budget have changed the film? Would you have retained the archival footage?
I set out to make a film that I had never seen before. That much I accomplished. Having no money made it a much better, more interesting film than if I were better endowed. I moved out of Manhattan and found a large, industrial loft space in a very bad area of Brooklyn where I could shoot and live at the same time. That enabled a much different mode of production, where I could actually cook for my crew while a shot was being setup, for example. It was far more human, less hurried and stressed. It’s hard to work on a train when it’s doing 60mph, they say, and it’s true.
The archival footage was an interest of mine long before making the film. With the book, I found an ideal project to put such material to work. There is a very special psychological effect that comes from using decontextualised real footage, even after our little reality TV epidemic. When you view plastic surgery footage, or car crash simulations with dead bodies, outside the context of a documentary or program on that subject, the result is entirely different from watching the same material with a narrator droning on. The archival footage I used in Atrocity, which required months of searching in US government archives, brought another level to the film, one that could not have been achieved in any other manner. All the footage I used, by the way, was obtained gratis, contrary to what Mr Sinclair wrote in his book, where he asserts that my film’s budget was consumed by purchasing archival footage.
North American directors are all over Ballard film adaptations, but to me much of Ballard’s work is especially British. Obviously, much of his work is set in Britain, but there’s also a peculiar kind of British reserve regarding issues of class and sexuality that JGB appears to be sending up. Any thoughts on that?
I don’t see the book I adapted as having much to do with these issues. I actually went to University at London School of Economics, and understand what you mean in terms of British pomposity and sexual repression, but don’t find it relevant in this instance.
In your DVD commentary, you say that people watch narrative films to escape their ‘dull, boring’ lives? Isn’t that a little patronising?
Is it really patronising, or just true? Do you think I was talking about everyone else’s life whilst my own is so brimming full of excitement, sex, violence and generally interesting conflicts that culminate in highly satisfying denouements? Come on.
The modern world is replete with slaves: you have office slaves, factory slaves, agricultural slaves. The ones who have enough money to spend on two hours of escape go to the movies. That includes, of course, the rich, bored slaves, too, of which there are plenty. In fact, in 20th-century terms, just about everyone leads dull, boring lives, as seen relative to the lives of people like Tom, Brad and Angelina, whose real lives are mythologised on checkout-stand magazines so that the illusion is complete and pervasive.
Just go back to the film:
Traven: ‘Don’t you want to be in the movies, Karen?’
Karen Novotny: ‘We’re all in the movies’.
Are there any current directors at all whom you feel kinship with? Or do you feel that you’re at the vanguard of a new sensibility?
I would suggest that I am merely a leftover from an older sensibility, of directors inconceivable today. Unfortunately Tarkovsky died prematurely and all the other directors I admire, like Antonioni, Kubrick, Passolini, Teshigahara, Ozu, Kurosawa and the like, are long gone. Men who cared about what humanity is and what it is becoming. That especially is what I am interested in and is the sole concern of my filmmaking. Other people can make the entertaining stuff.
That would tie in with your DVD commentary, where you claim Atrocity is some kind of ‘nurturing’ film rather than a ‘junk food’ film.
‘Nurturing’ sounds like I made a granola bar into a film. Or that I’m some sort of wet nurse. At least the part about Atrocity not being the filmic equivalent of junk food is indeed correct. It’s not some empty crap that when consumed gives the illusion of fullness and satisfaction, if only for an instant. And then leaves you fat and sick.
I did not set out to make this or any other film as a stepping stone to a greater career in film, which was obviously my first, and perhaps my last, mistake. I’ve found that people in the film world, even the part of that world that pertains to my kind of films, really take you seriously only if they sense you are a ‘player’. They want to see where you are going. Lest you think I am kidding, Darren Aronofsky made PI around the same time I did Atrocity. It looked to me like a bad student film, but it was shrewdly marketed and now the guy is making Batman films.
That is the state of films today — it’s total sell-out land. So no, I don’t feel any kinships with people working today, not even people like Gaspar Noe, who I am sometimes compared with, because I am no fan of either gratuitous violence or doing anything in a film for the sake of effect or shock value.
Is it possible to change audience perception within a narrative-driven film industry? You must feel under siege from critics who see a non-narrative aesthetic as some kind of fault.
Go back a hundred years and look at the art world. How many artists were leaving traditional painting and representation for abstraction? What happened to them? Does that answer the question?
Not really — I’m not especially versed in the art world and its history.
My point is very simple: when abstraction arrived in the art world it was met with total derision, condemnation and refusal by the academy and the mainstream. Today, in a world where everyone is supposed to go to art museums, if only to catch the King Tut or Van Gogh megashow, we actually delude ourselves that we are culturally more astute than our forebearers, that a development like abstraction would immediately be greeted today with open arms, and/or that the avant garde has been subsumed into culture generally.
Cinema is the most comprehensive current art form, also the one uniquely of our time. Yet there is virtually no filmmaking being done that deserves the name of art. Film is entertainment, which is basically what art has become, as well. Abstraction, a bastard child of art which came to define modernism, is obviously kith and kin with the departure from narrative in film. And I can tell you from personal experience that you get the same reception making non-narrative films today as abstract painters or some poor bastard like Van Gogh got one hundred years ago.
Narrative film for me is pretty much dead. All the stories have been told, in their essence, to death. Every conceivable plot device has been done, every combination has been done, the only thing that changes is the time, place, etc. This is why there is a continuous progression towards ever greater violence and pornography in film (notice the ‘new’ movement in Asian cinema of ‘extreme’ violent film.) The elements of shock and titillation try to cover the banality and exhaustion of the form of what I call ‘filmed theatre’.
Anna Juvander in The Atrocity Exhibition
Beyond the narrative horizon lies this incredible territory of possible films, but no one is brave enough to go there. If you do go, the people in the industry, morons that they are, don’t get it. Ordinary people do, however. But for the film industry, ordinary people are like subatomic particles for quantum physicists. As soon as they are placed under observation, their true nature becomes suspect, impossible to ever verify. All their research and focus groups suggest remaking Mission Impossible until the Rapture. Or for the independent crowd, assuring that every gay, lesbian, minority and special interest group receive their just due on screen, albeit using the same stories traditionally reserved for the mainstream.
Given the criticism you’ve faced, and the lack of exposure the film has received, do you feel the whole experience has been worthwhile?
I cannot say whether making the film was worthwhile. I made a worthwhile film, yes. It cost me dearly. It may never be seen by many people, and if it were up to some of the so-called Ballard ‘authorities’ like Mr Vaccari, it would not even be seen by Ballard fans, which would truly be a shame. I still hold out hope that a few people will somehow see the film and realise that it is possible to make a different kind of cinema and be inspired to make better films themselves. That would be enough for me.
What do you think JG Ballard’s greatest contribution to the 20th century is?
Come on — let’s talk about Ballard. He deserves it. What do you appreciate about the great man?
I’ve basically spent my entire life trying to figure out why everything is so fucked up. Most people either don’t seem to know that this is the case, or pretend not to notice. When I discovered Ballard’s writing, it was obvious that he was one of those very few people who confront the world with astonishing honesty, insight and intelligence. The reason he is considered prophetic is simply his degree of awareness and his imaginative force. He sees around him, today, what others miss, understands the conflicting forces at work, and suggests probable or at least interesting outcomes that will occur in the future. It’s like watching balls go flying by. If you see the direction they are going, and their speed, you can predict fairly accurately when, where and what they will hit. Placing this process in the near future makes it appear prophetic.
Ballard is a new breed of philosopher, a far more interesting type, and maybe the only one to survive as the traditional ones are doomed to extinction. He is able to take very complex, subtle ideas and give them aesthetic form, give them import. This is so very rare.
The Atrocity Exhibition is your only feature film. Do you have plans to make more?
Given that Atrocity took all my energy and money for such a long time, and that the film world and the art world still don’t know what to do with the thing, I have been reconsidering making another film. As I have often said when people remark how wonderful it must be to be a film director — it’s a task I would not wish on my worst enemy.
…:: THE END
POSTSCRIPT: Since this interview was first published, a couple of positive reviews of the film have appeared online, notably from influential British film magazine Sight & Sound, which renders Weiss’s claims that North American distribution solely rests on what this site has to say in a very different light. I haven’t included everything in the interview, but rereading our email trail today, I am still as shocked and bewildered as I was at the time. The clincher, as far as my decision to tell the story of this encounter open and honestly, was in Jonathan’s very last email, where he branded me ‘journalistically corrupt’ for editing the interview down from over 10,000 words, and for slightly rewording some of my original questions to him. I just couldn’t win. Not only did I do this after Jonathan pointed out that some of my questions unnecessarily referred to negative reviews, which I agreed with, but also because the nature of email interviews means you throw everything in, as you might not have a chance to ask follow-up questions — then you edit down later. The changes to my questions were minor and I stand by them — the originals exist for anyone who wants to see them. It’s not like I was hiding anything, either — the reason Jonathan knew about this was because I showed him the transcript before it went online. I was also accused of altering the tone of the interview with this rewording, which is why I have expanded the interview to include replies from Jonathan that were originally left out. The tone was already confrontational, right from the start.
A repeated refrain in our correspondence was that we had done a grave disservice to Ballard fans; that because ‘Ballard’ is in the title of this website we should ‘behave’, fall in line, and praise the film to the skies. I certainly don’t agree with everything Andrés wrote but I do defend his right to say it because I think that critical debate is healthy. Thus I also acknowledge Jonathan’s right to defend his work and to respond to Andrés — but not to the level of personal attacks. I have left out the more libellous comments out of respect for my colleague. But what shocks me most of all is the fact that this review, which is hardly a hatchet job, has provoked such a reaction. Let’s face it: there are far more negative opinions of this film out there.
For the crime of expressing independent thought, Mr Weiss called Andrés a ‘chimp’, an ‘asshole’, a ‘petty intellectual’, a ‘ham-fisted moron’ and a ‘two-bit clod’. Our site was branded a ‘cult site’ and a ‘minor cultural zone’, but obviously major enough for Weiss to worry about whether we liked his film or not. As for me, I’m merely ‘journalistically corrupt’ — but I’m also the poor bastard who had to filter this constant stream of invective, deflect it, and defend the heavy charge that we have destroyed Weiss’s chances of finding North American distribution. Imagine that, a website attracting just 500 unique visitors a day influencing a nation of 250,000,000 people. If only we did have that power…
The silly thing is that I really appreciate Jonathan’s aesthetic and I also respect his achievement in completing Atrocity. Plus, all the touchstones he refers to — Marker, Antonioni, Kubrick, Ozu, Kurosawa –– are exactly the cornerstones of my own filmic interests and obsessions. I was even prepared to write my own sympathetic review of Atrocity, to counter Andres, after expecting to be fully engaged and convinced by a filmmaker eager to prove his point to me. Instead, I was blown away by the extremely chaotic signal-to-noise ration emanating from the other side of my computer screen. Quite simply, I was put off by the abuse and the bullying coming my way and that meant that I lost interest in ever writing that second review…I never had a chance.
Having said all that, I do wish Jonathan all the best for the future. I’m positive his film will find the audience it deserves. In the end, though, as far as he’s concerned, it probably doesn’t matter — a lot of people have taken quite an interest in this interview and have said to me that it’s made them even more determined to see the film. Some guy on a film forum even called it ‘superbly vitriolic’. So, ‘every cloud’, eh Jonathan?
+ Andrés Vaccari’s review of the DVD.
+ 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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