by Iain Sinclair

Published by The British Film Institute

128 pages, 1999

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Media Crash

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière


J.G. Ballard's oeuvre is a map of the late 20th-century Western unconscious. Each story and novel describes in clinical and incisive detail a new territory of that surreal inner landscape. The most important continent on this Ballardian map is Crash, a 1972 stream-of-consciousness novel that deals with the impact of our culture's obsessions -- with celebrity, automobiles, progress, body image, pornography, social conformity -- on a fictionalized James Ballard's rapport with his environment, his sexuality, his relationships, his identity. The text careers down its collision-filled path at a breakneck pace, its dry wit, memorable phrases, and shockingly resonant scenes crashing full-speed into the reader's nauseated and/or amused mind.

When I learned of David Cronenberg's project of turning Crash into a feature film, I was wary. True, Cronenberg had adapted William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (another "unfilmable" novel) into a great film, and, also true, Ballard and Burroughs are close literary kin (Burroughs prefaced the Re/Search edition of Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition and Ballard has always been a vocal admirer of Burroughs'). Nevertheless, I felt that Cronenberg would enjoy the material too much and thus lose some of the deadpan wit and clinical distance so essential to the impact of this story. I was also wary because I knew so many more people would see this film than would ever read the book, and, should the film betray or trivialize the novel, Ballard's text would forever be tainted, in the public's perceptions, by Cronenberg's reading of it.

It's important to keep Cronenberg's Crash in proper perspective and consider it a reading of Ballard's text -- and not Crash's ultimate incarnation. Iain Sinclair's Crash, a volume in the British Film Institute's series of "Modern Classics," takes just this approach. Ostensibly about the Cronenberg film, it traces the history of Ballard's text, the different ways in which it has been previously filmed (overtly or covertly) and presents previous, unrealized attempts at turning it into a feature film.

Sinclair convincingly communicates and shares his passion for Ballard and for Crash. He briefly discusses Ballard's fictional oeuvre and one chapter is given to the exploration of Ballard's use of himself as the central character of Crash. Interviews, conducted by the author, with Ballard and some of his associates enrich Sinclair's text. The bibliography includes a reference to J.G. Ballard, published by Re/Search in 1984. This Re/Search book is the definitive reference work on Ballard and any reader whose curiosity is piqued by Sinclair's succinct primer will find therein much to satisfy it.

Sinclair does not ignore Cronenberg. He illustrates how the director's successful and visionary adaptation of Naked Lunch paved the way for his work on Crash. He devotes two full chapters to Cronenberg's Crash itself, as well as interspersing other details about it throughout. And he quotes Cronenberg from several previously published sources.

This book is nevertheless an odd entry into the BFI Modern Classics series. It treats as a "Modern Classic" not Cronenberg's film but Ballard's text, its place in our modern media culture and Ballard himself. Sinclair is unabashedly critical of the film and even of Ballard's endorsement of it. This volume has fewer of the juicy behind-the-scenes filmmaking anecdotes which make others in the series (such as Blade Runner, Blue Velvet and Seven) so fascinating to the avid film enthusiast. However, it is this very shift in focus from Cronenberg's superficial film to Ballard himself that makes this book engaging.

Cronenberg's Crash may have accurately depicted many of the scenes in Ballard's Crash, but it betrayed the text's meaning by contextualizing them differently. As Sinclair so aptly states: "But [Cronenberg], by carrying his faithful adaptation so far from its source, from the assassinations and excesses of television and mass media, depoliticizes Ballard's frenzied satire. He makes the pornography safe and elegant." Nevertheless, Sinclair does praise Cronenberg for his honest effort at bringing this difficult text -- which is neither safe nor elegant -- to the screen and for succeeding in creating the Crash of his own imagination.

I find nothing to admire in Cronenberg's posturing, safe, elegant, depoliticized, de-intellectualized and coldly humorless reading of Crash. Iain Sinclair's essay of the same name, however, is a delightfully intelligent romp through the media travails of Ballard's subversive and dangerous text. | February 2000


Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays and articles can be found on his Web site.