Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind (1998)

‘Well, I wouldn’t want to fuck her. And if I don’t want to fuck her, she shouldn’t be in the movie’ (Don Simpson, President of Worldwide Production, Paramount Pictures, after seeing a showreel of Shelley Duvall, quoted on page 370)

Turns out lots of the senior people in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the early 1970s were know-nothing scumbags.

Also turns out the movie business is first and foremost a business i.e. even the most ‘radical’ far-out types in the late ’60s-early ’70s were concerned to make a profit – lots and lots of profit – win prizes, gain respect, engaged in extremely serious, dog-eat-dog competition with their peers and rivals. Basically, same old same old.

And it turns out that these young New Hollywood types were into awesome amounts of sex, adultery, free love, were ‘pussy addicts’, ‘pussy struck’ (p.212) and ‘pussy hounds’ (p.208), propositioning any girl who walked by, had multiple mistresses, girlfriends, even ordering up partners from modelling catalogues (a technique pioneered by Brian de Palma who recommended it to Steven Spielberg).

And that they ingested a whole heap of drugs – at first everyone smoked pot, riskier types took acid, and then in about 1971, the whole town discovered cocaine. By 1980 Hollywood was a winter wonderland of white powder. Martin Scorsese alone seems to have been a one-man pharmaceuticals factory (p.377).

None of these things are, by themselves, that much of a revelation. What makes this book such an epic read is the awesome amount of detail that Biskind goes into on all these and many other topics, and the amazing eye-witness testimony he appears to have coaxed out of everyone who was there.

Easy riders

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a big, intensely researched and hugely absorbing book, turning in at just over 500 pages of smallish print, including the index and ‘Cast of characters’.

The idea is simple. The later 1960s saw the final collapse of the Old Hollywood which had dominated from the 1920s, with its rigid studio systems, production quotas, stars under strict contracts, subject to carefully managed images and appearing in movies with, by and large, squeaky clean subject matter (Doris Day & Rock Hudson) or, if a bit more gritty (gangster movies, Westerns), nonetheless featuring clear heroes, baddies and well-upholstered love interests.

In this Old World, directors were simply hired hands who took pride in subsuming their own style to the requirements of the studio and the project (mostly – though you could still tell a Howard Hawks movie from a John Ford movie etc).

The late 1960s saw the arrival of a Completely Different Approach, with writers and directors and actors determined to tear down all the old restrictions, to portray more explicit violence and sex and controversial political and social themes in their movies, and to have a lot more say about the kinds of movies they wrote and directed. They wanted to be auteurs, not just directors but film-makers, free to convey their special visions in their own personal ways.

The new young generation of writers, directors and actors who came through at the end of the 1960s created a Golden Age of Independent Cinema in a new kind of Hollywood, which slowly adapted to more grown-up, controversial and ‘difficult’ themes.

The audiences were younger, too, and better educated, college kids who wanted to see the unsettling reality of the world they lived in – the endless carnage in Vietnam and student protests and Black Power and drugs and free love – portrayed up on the screen.

All of this is fairly well known, as is the list of New Hollywood directors:

  • Robert Altman (b.1925) M*A*S*H*, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville
  • Mike Nichols (b.1931) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Teach Me!, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge
  • Roman Polanski (b.1933) Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown, Tess
  • William Friedkin (b.1935) The French Connection, The Exorcist
  • Woody Allen (b.1935) Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall,  Manhattan, Stardust Memories
  • Peter Bogdanovitch (b.1939) The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, Daisy Miller, Nickelodeon
  • Francis Ford Coppola (b.1939) The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now
  • Brian de Palma (b.1940) Carrie, Scarface
  • Martin Scorcese (b.1942) Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, New York New York, Raging Bull
  • Terence Malick (b.1943) Badlands, Days of Heaven
  • George Lucas (b.1944) THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars,The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • John Milius (b.1944)
  • Steven Spielberg (b.1946) Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The key New Hollywood actors:

  •  Warren Beatty, James Caan, Robert de Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Jon Voigt, Ryan O’Neal, George Segal

New Hollywood movies

And the movies themselves. In this list I’ve 1. highlighted in bold the movies Biskind treats in real detail 2. and indicated their directors. The others are included as context. And I’ve included the movies which won Best Picture Oscar for each of the years. The idea is that there a few forerunners in 67 and 68:

1967 – Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn), The Graduate (Mike Nichols), Cool Hand Luke – Best Picture Oscar: In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)

1968 – Bullitt (Peter Yates), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski): Best Picture – Oliver! (Vernon Harris)

But 1969 was the year of the Big Breakthrough:

1969 – Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper), The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Best Picture – Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger)

1970 – M*A*S*H (Robert Altman), Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson), Catch-22, Little Big Man (Arthur Penn), Woodstock: Best Picture – Patton (Franklin Schaffner)

1971 – The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovitch), Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby), Dirty Harry, Klute, THX 1138 (George Lucas): Best Picture – The French Connection (William Friedkin)

1972 – The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson), Cabaret, Deliverance, Jeremiah Johnson: Best picture – The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola),

1973 – American Graffiti (George Lucas), The Exorcist (William Friedkin), The Last Detail (Hal Ashby), The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman), Mean Streets (Martin Scorcese), Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovitch), Badlands, Sleeper: Best Picture – The Sting (George Roy Hill)

1974 – Chinatown (Polanski), The Conversation (Coppola), Daisy Miller (Bogdanovitch), The Parallax View, The Taking of Pelham 123: Best picture – The Godfather part II

1975 – Nashville, Shampoo, Love and Death, Jaws, Three Days of the Condor: Best picture – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Foreman)

1976 – All The President’s Men, Bound For Glory (Hal Ashby), Marathon Man, The Omen, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Taxi Driver: Best picture – Rocky (John G. Avildson)

1977 – Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Best picture – Annie Hall (Woody Allen)

1978 – Coming Home (Ashby), Days of Heaven (Malick), Blue Collar (Schrader): Best picture – The Deer Hunter (Cimino)

1979 – Apocalypse Now (Coppola), 1941 (Spielberg): Best picture – Kramer v Kramer

1980 – Popeye, Heaven’s Gate (Cimono), American Gigolo (Schrader), Raging Bull (Scorsese), Tess, The Elephant Man: Best picture – Ordinary People

1981 – Reds (Beatty), Raiders of the Lost Ark: Best picture – Chariots of Fire

Qualities of New Hollywood movies

To summarise: the ‘New Hollywood’ was a brief historical window when a new generation of writers and directors, unfettered by Hollywood traditions, felt empowered to tackle challenging new subject matter, shot more cheaply on location (away from the technical and stylistic limitations of studios), starring attractive young actors (Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway), with more graphic treatments of violence and sex.

And a troubled, haunting tone. The best New Hollywood films capture a wistful sense of the loss of shared values and social certainties besetting late-60s America, exacerbated by the catastrophe of the Vietnam War and the general disillusionment with politicians and the ‘old’.

Matching this disillusionment, many New Hollywood films specialise in an atmosphere of uncertainty – uncertainty about plots and characters and values.

The demographics are interesting. In the 1950s and into the 1960s movie-going audiences tended to be middle-aged, high school-educated i.e. not too intellectual. The Sound of Music suited them just fine. But the arrival of the New Hollywood period coincided with a marked shift in the movie-going public, which changed to a younger, more affluent, college-educated demographic. By the mid-1970s, 76% of all movie-goers were under 30, 64% of whom had gone to college. Radical students. Peace, man. Don’t bogart that joint, my friend.

It was a more studenty audience ready to lap up more extreme violence and full-frontal nudity undreamed of by the Hollywood of the 1950s. The old studio heads couldn’t understand these pot-smoking hippies at all and the New Hollywood period can be seen as a hiatus while the Old Guard gave unprecedented autonomy (and money) to a bunch of new, young, wannabe directors.

In reality it only took 4 or 5 years (Martin Scorsese says the period lasted from 1971 to 1976 ‘because we were just starting out’, p.233) before a new generation of studio executives figured out new ways to cater to / exploit the new audience, new genres, subjects, and approaches to marketing and releasing movies, which would restore big money profits and revenue streams to the studios, and the era of happy-go-lucky experimentation ended (see below).

The stories

Gossip Biskind loves gossip. His book is basically a gossip fest. Donna Greenberg has a rich husband and lives in a big beach house in Malibu. She knows Julie Payne, daughter of John Payne and child actress Ann Shirley. Julie has a perfect American body. She is fierce and wild, chainsmokes and drinks, is liable to turn up at Donna’s house at one in the morning, screaming: ‘I want to use your swimming pool to have a fuck.’

There’s lots of stuff like that. If you find that kind of thing interesting or entertaining, then this is the book for you.

Wanna know about the time Dennis Hopper threatened to pull a knife on Rip Torn in a bar? Or ordered 50 nubile young women up to his apartment for an orgy he could film (p.134)? Or beat his wife, who eventually ran away with the kids, terrified he was going to kill her? Or was married for six days to a gorgeous dollybird he met on the location of his second movie – but that once he got her home he took to roaming round the house, off his face on drugs, firing live ammunition, slapping her about, and handcuffing her to the bed so she couldn’t get away… until after six days of this, at a moment when the cuffs were off, she fled?

It’s all here, plus hundreds and hundreds of other stories of the same ilk. The way Warren Beatty’s Winebago on location was besieged by nymphets and spent hours rocking up and down, day and night, as he screwed them? Studio execs lounging by the pool giving all the bikini-ed nubiles who passed by numbers out of ten, Bert Schneider trying to persuade his wife to screw all his friends so he’d feel less bad about his flings, powerful men thinking it run-of-the-mill to say things like ‘Nice tits, honey’ to every woman they met.

The hundreds of outrageous stories behind the bloated, disaster-struck production of Apocalypse Now (the drugs, the no script, Brando’s refusal to act, Martin Sheen’s heart attack, the typhoon which destroyed the set, Coppola’s nervous breakdown), the extraordinary drug intake of Martin Scorsese which almost killed him (pp.386-7), the overdose which saw Hal Ashby being stretchered off to hospital after a hard night partying with the Rolling Stones (p.353).

Sex Biskind loves this stuff and loves describing the sex lives of the directors and executives and stars. Once Peter Bogdanovitch arrives in Hollywood, he and his wife do a good job inveigling their way into the highest Old Hollywood circles.

When their friends went away, they house-sat. Like X-rated Goldilockses they went through the closets of Beverly Hills mansions trying on clothes and fucking in every bedroom. (p.115)

Yes, ‘fucking’. The book starts with everyone being foul-mouthed as you can imagine, and then goes downhill. Everyone was fucking everyone else. Well, to be more precise, pretty much every male in the book is unfaithful to whatever partner they have (wife, mistress, girlfriend). Some, like Beatty, are natural babe magnets. Others set out to systematically screw the wives and girlfriends of all their friends.

A whole lot of women are interviewed who give a lamentable collective portrait of a generation of ‘pussy addicts’. Ted Ashley, chairman of the Warner Brothers film studio from 1969 to 1980 was, according to producer Don Simpson, ‘the pussy freak of all time’ (p.82). Peter Bogdanovich casts his girlfriend Cybill Shepherd in flop after flop because he is ‘pussy struck’.

Once Francis Ford Coppola made it big (very big) with The Godfather he bought a huge house with a pool in San Francisco, gave big parties, as soon as his wife went to bed, he was touching up all the nubiles in the pool. ‘It was no secret that Francis was a major pussy hound,’ says Marcia Lucas (p.208).

Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson emerge as particularly colourful characters. As Biskind puts it, ‘Bert [was] a man for whom the term ‘mindfucker’ was invented…’ (p.130) and he screwed his way through an armada of women, a highlight of whom was the beautiful actress Candice Bergen. He tried to get his wife, Judy, to sleep around too, so he wouldn’t feel so guilty about his affairs, and encouraged his friends to hit on her (p.129). He drove Candice (Candy) mad by his incessant lecturing her about life, how to behave etc, acting Svengali to her Trilby.

Bob Rafelson directed one of my all-time favourite movies, Five Easy Pieces, but is bluntly described as a ‘bully’, raving, shouting, blustering and browbeating everyone around him (p.119).

Drugs And the drugs. Obviously drugs of one sort or another had been around for a long time but mostly on a tiny marginal fringe. The success of Easy Rider made every young producer, director, actor or executive worth his salt feel like he had to be au fait with hash and pot, and the radical ones tried acid. Biskind describes some of the small independent production houses where the secretaries had the task of rolling the joints in preparation for big meetings.

Drugs were even involved in the actual production of the films. Bob Rafelson controlled the pacing of Jack Nicholson’s performance in Five Easy Pieces by managing his drug intake. He and the producer would discuss whether it was best to give Jack some hash or some grass before each scene, depending on the acting requirements (p.119).

Everyone knew Dennis Hopper would scarf down any pharmaceuticals from anywhere within reach. During his acting career, some directors never used him after lunch, when he would be trolleyed; another director sent Hopper calls sheets which included annotations suggesting which drugs he should use before which scenes (p.136).

Then cocaine came in. It went from being a secret vice to a social norm. Bowls of cocaine were laid out at the best parties. Wearing a little gold coke spoon on a necklace became a fashion statement. ‘Cokey’ becomes an adjective. The movie Personal Best is powdered with the stuff.

It was a cokey set. A production designer referred to [the movie’s writer-director] as ‘old write-a-line, snort-a-line Towne’. (p.395)

Scorsese at the Cannes Film Festival had good coke flown in from Paris for himself and his entourage. When studio executive Robert Evans flew out to visit the set of Robert Altman’s movie, Popeye, shooting in Malta in 1980, his luggage contained large consignments of coke for the director and crew, which made it embarrassing when his luggage got lost and opened by customs. Biskind tells a wild story of a panic-stricken Evans ringing studio head Don Simpson in the middle of the night, making him realise the stakes were that a senior exec and a major film could go down in a drugs scandal, and telling him to get no less a personage than Henry Kissinger on the case! (p.370).

Business All this sex and drugs stuff is initially entertaining, but after a hundred pages has got a bit oppressive. More interesting is the insight into the movie business as a business. We are told about umpteen ‘business meetings’ where decisions are made about greenlighting numerous projects, or where Old Hollywood executives are persuaded to fund risky experimental new ventures, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios. That said, they’re not like the meetings I used to go to at government departments, which go on for one, two or three hours with an agenda, minutes and action logs. In Biskind’s hands most of these ‘meetings’ quickly turn into shouting matches, where executives and directors shout and swear at each other.

It wasn’t exactly a meeting, but it gives you a flavour of the business relationships to learn that whenever super-producer Robert Evans phoned Francis Ford Coppola with yet more criticism about the Godfather project, Coppola invariably ended up yelling obscenities, slamming the phone down, and kept a hammer nearby so he could smash the phone to pieces (p.153). After which a secretary replaced it with a new one.

When producer Stanley Jaffe, at a pre-production meeting for The Godfather, was so insistent that Marlon Brando wouldn’t be in the movie that he slammed his fist on the table, Coppola feigned having an epileptic fit, and fell to the floor in spasms, to convey just how imbecilic the suggestion was (p.153).

Money And there’s a lot of talk about money, about how much a project will cost, how much the studio will put in, the shape of the deal i.e. will director and stars get cash up front or a percentage of the profits, and how those profits could be calculated differently, taking into account all kinds of overheads, what John Landis calls ‘numbers and deals and phone calls’ (p.245).

Warner Bros exec John Calley pays $125,000 up-front to direct the screwball comedy, What’s Up, Doc? Brando gets $50,000 for appearing in The Godfather while Coppola only got $110,000 (plus 6% of the take, which ended up making him a multi-millionaire). Robert Towne was paid $250,000 to write Chinatown plus 5% of the gross. Lots and lots and lots of financial detail like that.

The process So, putting to one side the sex and drugs gossip, it’s interesting to get really embedded into the way the whole system worked: the way producers, directors, actors and execs were constantly having business meetings and/or social gatherings, hanging out in bars, discussing books or plays which have the potential to become movies, discussing who would be right to develop it, to turn it into a treatment or a script, who to offer the parts to, and the complexity of schedules and commitments, which meant your first choice of director or star actor or whoever, were continually being changed, adjusted, projects dropped, projects revived and so on. Like spinning plates. Like moving between multiple stages where multiple producers, directors, writers and actors are all spinning multiple systems of plates, an awful lot of which crashed and shattered, often very expensively.

And Biskind seems to have staggering access to it all. He seems to have carried out interviews and garnered eye-witness accounts from everyone present at all the key moments, parties, meetings, phone calls and sets. Some critics have complained that Biskind distorted evidence and stories and accounts in order to fit his wildly cynical and jaded narrative, but he indicates where accounts conflict and anyway, who cares? The point is rarely in the detail, it’s in the overall atmosphere of grotesquely appalling behaviour at every level, in every way.

As a small example of how it works – legendary cinéaste and would-be director Peter Bogdanovitch – before he’d directed anything – and his wife production designer Polly Platt, were sent by a magazine to write a feature about the making of what turned out to be John Ford’s last movie, 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn. They got friendly with young actor Sal Mineo, the only person on the set their age. Sal gave Polly a dog-eared copy of a trashy paperback titled The Last Picture Show and said it would make a good movie and he’d love to be in it.

Thus began the long process which led to the eventual production of the movie, The Last Picture Show, released in 1971, one of the defining movies of the New Hollywood, Bogdanovitch’s first and arguably greatest film. During filming he fell in love with the female lead, Cybill Shepherd, aged 20 at the time, and left his wife who – the book emphasises – had played a key role in not only adapting the book, but even on set, helping to direct it. Biskind describes in excruciating detail the torment Polly went through as she helped her husband with every aspect of the day’s filming, only to go back to their apartment alone as he spent every night with pneumatic young Cybill.

None of which stops The Last Picture Show being a masterpiece and one of my favourite movies.

So from the hundreds of examples in the book, you get a good sense of the very extended series of accidents, insights, conversations, commissions, scripts, hirings and firings which are all involved in the convoluted processes which lead up to the production of any movie.

Networks And you get a good sense of the extended network or matrix which all this takes place in. Parties mattered. As a small example, Peter Fonda’s agent, Sue Mengers, had parties where people hooked up and did deals: Ann-Margret met director Mike Nichols and got a part in Carnal Knowledge; Burt Reynolds met director Alan Pakula and got a part in Starting Over; Lauren Hutton got chatting to director Paul Schrader and got a part in American Gigolo (p.132).

The socialising was important. Anything could happen at tonight’s party, someone could tip you off to the script going round, or that so-and-so’s looking for a director or actor for some project they’re considering… and it could be the Big Break. You never knew.

‘I went to every party, talked to everybody I could to get a picture made. I looked at people in terms of whether they could help me.’ (Scorsese, quoted page 238)

So this is why personal relationships really mattered. This is where the gossip comes in. Information about who was up and who was down, who was friends with who or had fallen out with who, who was looking to take revenge or sabotage someone else – all this was potentially vital business information as it made the landscape of opportunities much clearer.

That said, almost all the friendships, marriages and relationships in the book sooner or later turn sour, and often toxic. Because of the nature of the business.

Beatty and Towne had been friends since the ’60s. They were as close as two men could be, but it is hard to maintain friendships in Hollywood where the stakes are so high, where there are vast disparities of money and power, where the lines between affection and business are blurred, and people never know whether their success is earned or accidental. Enough is never enough, and the poison of envy eats away at the fibre of friendships. (p.305)

Types of director

The dark, yellowy feel of The Godfather derives almost entirely from the Director of Photography, Gordon Willis. I was surprised to read Biskin stating that Francis Ford Coppola’s strengths were not really visual – he was good at story-telling, writing dialogue and getting on with actors. Willis gave The Godfather that unparalleled look.

Obviously there are different kinds of directors, but I hadn’t quite realised just how different. Whereas Coppola loved actors and working with them, Polanski hated them and behaved like a dictator, like Napoleon. ‘Who gives a fuck about your motivation, your paycheck is your motivation, just say the fucking words’, he shouted at Faye Dunaway on the set of Chinatown (p.189). On on occasion she was sitting in a car holding a coffee cup while Polanski yelled at her, until she finally flung it in his face, at which point he realised it was full of pee. Hers, or co-star Jack Nicholson’s, sitting grinning next to her?

Hal Ashby, by contrast again, was immensely easy-going with his actors, one of the greatest ‘non-directors’ of all time according to Nicholson, but the downside was scenes often lacked bite and intensity so that the script got washed out (p.179).

Robert Altman created a ‘wonderful atmosphere’ on his sets, where he worked alongside the actors to get at the ‘truth’ of a scene (p.215). But he also ‘fucked everybody over’, limited other people’s pay but made sure he got the full rate, sacked crew members arbitrarily and was, of course, a womanising s.o.b.

William Friedkin was a very technical kind of director, very involved with the lenses and the technical effects, but he didn’t like actors, he went on record as saying he’d rather direct tree stumps (p.218). And we hear about the time he permanently injured Ellen Birstyn’s spine, during a special effect for The Exorcist.

And Terrence Malick (Badlands) was so notoriously indecisive that he took two years (!) to edit Days of Heaven (finally released in 1978), after which he retired from the business for decades.

One of the best bits of the book, I thought, was the one-page biographies of all the key directors.

  • Hal Ashby was raised on a farm and one day found his dad in the barn who’d put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger; he never recovered, bottled it up, but it came out in titanic rages.
  • Coppola was stricken with polio when he was eight-years-old, and spent a year in bed, all friends and most family forbidden from visiting him, lonely and isolated, a sense of loneliness and victimhood he carried into adult life.
  • Scorsese was a short, skinny, sickly momma’s boy with allergies to everything and bad asthma, ‘filled with phobias and anxieties’ (p.238). He was timid, bordering on cowardly, hated confrontation, always smiling. But he bottled up the rage from being a short skinny kid in a rough neighbourhood – he was a wall puncher, a phone thrower (p.239) – and projected his anger into his films – which is why I’ve never liked them (p.227).

He was not very confrontational. Which is one of the reasons I think he gets so confrontational in the films, he’s just letting all that out. All the stuff he can’t do in his day-to-day life. (Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver)

  • William Friedkin grew up in a tough neighbourhood of Chicago and was arrested for armed robbery (!). After the success of French Connection and The Exorcist, he thought he was a genius and behaved intolerably to everyone, many enemies being thrilled when his next movie, Sorcerer, shot on location in the Dominican Republic, was a catastrophe.
  • Paul Schrader’s upbringing was one of religious terror and beatings by his pious mother and father. The God-fearing upbringing of screenwriter Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard, with its parental beatings and hellfire terrors, is itself the stuff of fiction (or nightmares). His obsession with suicide, with always having a loaded gun by his bedside, the fantasies of mass violence, all this was to spill onto the screen in the script of Taxi Driver.
  • Steven Spielberg was the nemesis of the counter-culture, immune to politics, never took drugs, shared his parents’ values, wanted to do good business and entertain.
  • George Lucas very similar, brought up in provincial nowheresville by philistine parents, small, frail and ill (he had diabetes cf. Scorsese’s asthma and Coppola’s polio). On his arrival in LA he initially thought he wanted to be a rebel like the swaggering cool dudes, de Palma and John Milius and Paul Schrader – till he had a eureka moment when he realised he wanted to make people happy, he wanted to entertain them – which led to the good-time American Graffiti (1974) and then the epoch-making, childish simplicities of Star Wars.

Lucas and Spielberg were in the vanguard of the counterattack by small-town and suburban values that were to reclaim Hollywood as their own. (p.343)

This is partly because it sheds light on the individuals. But also because they’re one of the few places where you get a bit of depth and variety, and an insight into other lives, other American settings and contexts, outside the pussy-grabbing, dope-smoking, egomaniac film world.

The end of an era

The very same ‘film school brats’ who helped to pioneer the new age, unwittingly brought about its demise.

The air of artistic freedom which had come in with Easy Rider (1969) began to reverse itself when the commercial success of Jaws (1975) and then the epic Star Wars (1977) led the studios to realise the potential of a new kind of blockbuster, whose profits could be amplified by careful control of production, marketing and merchandising. Slowly that heady air of half-amateur experimentalism and freedom of subject and tone drained away.

Films like Alien (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) incorporated all the technical innovations pioneered in the previous decade, but had somehow morphed them into a slick new professional look. The moral and stylistic ambivalences of the best New Hollywood movies of the very early 70s had been turned into slick product which went on, as we all know, to become highly profitable franchises, complete with TV spinoffs and a world of merchandising.

Alongside the invention of a new type of blockbuster, went a further change in the demographic of people consuming movies. If 60s radicals had applauded the change in demographic from middle-aged to student-aged audiences, they were not so happy when this downward trend continued towards actual children.

By the mid-1970s 50% of the American movie-going public was aged 12–20. The thing about actual children is they tend to be as socially conservative as their parents, and so the downward trend in the age of the movie-going public was accompanied by a move away from the brief political radicalism of the early 70s towards a reborn conservatism of subjects and approach.

George Lucas understood this extremely well. He is quoted as saying American Graffiti was targeted at 16-year-olds, Star Wars at ten to 12-year-olds (p.318) and that is the basically childish demographic where most movies have stuck ever since.

The Indiana Jones series, like the never-ending Star Wars series, are, basically, films for children, and they were the future, the grandparents of today’s endless X-Men and Marvel Superhero franchises.

Film critic Pauline Kael realised this at the time and wrote essays warning about the trend towards juvenile feelgood movies, not least in an essay titled ‘Fear of Movies’ (p.342). Biskind quotes Spielberg himself as saying he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind entirely to conjure up that child’s sense of wonder, and goes on to point out how the movie’s protagonist abandons his adult responsibilities to his wife and son, regresses to childhood enshtusiasms and then, by entering the alien mothership, effectively goes right back to the womb, relinquishing all adult worries.

It’s hard to think of a more infantilising vision. (p.363)

Biskind’s analyses

Biskind provides fascinating accounts of the random conceptions and lengthy travails of all the key movies of the 1970s, accounts which are drenched, as I’ve said in gossip about personalities, sex and drugs, along with the intricate wheeler-dealing between directors, stars agents and studio executives, that more often than not continued right the way through the shooting, editing and preview stage of the films, sometimes even after they’d been officially released.

But at the point where the narrative reaches the actual release of each of the signature movies of the movement, he also subjects the key movies to interesting ‘criticism’ and ‘analysis’.

Thus he as a very insightful (to me, at any rate) page about The Exorcist which he sees entirely as ‘a male nightmare of female puberty’, drenched in fear of emergent female sexuality, which is why the movie can be seen as a conspiracy of all the male characters to torture and torment the pubescent girl, Regan, back to her pre-sexual innocence (p.223).

Biskind is good on how the unique visual look of The Godfather owes everything to director of photographer Gordon Willis (pp.156-157) but he goes on to give an insightful interpretation of how the movie as a whole, despite its status as the masterpiece of the New Hollywood’s leading figure, Coppola, is in fact a profoundly conservative if not reactionary movie, in its psychological and cultural tendency – promoting the huge importance of family and loyalty at a time when the counter-culture was busy trying to undermine The Family as a bourgeois, sexist construct (p.164).

To bring this out Biskind usefully contrasts the scene where Michael and the Don acknowledge their love for each other with the comparable scene in Five Easy Pieces where Jack Nicolson’s character completely fails to communicate with his stroke-bound father.

The Godfather embodies a type of blockbuster sentimentality which points towards the neo-conservative values of the Reagan era, whereas Five Easy Pieces embodies the low-key, on-location, moral and psychological ambiguity and frustration which was the signature note of the New Hollywood. Which is why, although I can acknowledge that The Godfather is a masterpiece, I prefer the low-key, realistic ‘truths’ and perplexities of Five Easy Pieces more.

On another level, Biskind discusses the role of genres. He details the struggles Coppola had to get the movie made, not least the scepticism of every studio exec that gangster movies were passé, and so brings out how its unexpected success marked the beginning of the rehabilitation of old genres in a new blockbuster style.

This reinvention of worn-out genres would turn out to be the modus operandi of Spielberg and Lucas, reinventing scarey (Jaws), science fiction (Star Wars) and adventure (Indiana Jones) in the new blockbuster idiom.

Biskind neatly calls their achievement ‘genre gentrification’, and that captures the way a rough, edgy, arty neighbourhood (New Hollywood) ended up being taken over by smooth-talking young urban professionals (Spielberg, Lucas) and how the tired old Hollywood genres were made over, given a technological lick of paint, and resold at vast profits (p.342).

When you read Biskind’s very useful potted biographies of Spielberg and Lucas, what comes over is what utterly conventional personalities they are, coming from bland provincial backgrounds, completely lacking in political edge, timid and unworldly, who knew about life mainly from TV, who arrived in the Sodom and Gomorrah of 70s Hollywood but didn’t sleep around and didn’t take drugs, just wanted to make movies.

Their lack of rock’n’roll behaviour should have warned all the other bullshitting blowhards of the movement (de Palma and Schrader and Friedkin and Rafelson spring to mind) that here was something new, and quiet and understated, which was going to steal the carpet from under their feet.

Biskind sees this triumph of the homely, the popular, the regular guy and the mass popcorn-eating audience embodied in the story of Jaws itself. In it the rough, tough, right-wing macho man Quint gets eaten. ‘The intellectual Jew of the left’ (Biskind’s words, p.279), despite all his college talk, is ineffectual and runs (or swims) away. It is the unreflective, unflashy, everyman cop, Brody, who saves the day. The movie’s representative of precisely the kind of ‘familymanregularguy’ who Spielberg would aim his following movies at (with such dazzling success).

Politics and society

I warmed to lots of Biskind’s analyses because he relates the movies to their social, cultural and political context, which is much the same way as I think and write about art and literature in this blog.

1969 was the high point of the Vietnam War, protests against the war, and the hippy counter-culture, Woodstock etc. Easy Rider provided images, characters and a popular soundtrack which crystallised that cultural moment. But by spring 1975 it was over. In fact the Paris Peace Accords ended the war in January 1973 and by March 1973 all US forces had been withdrawn. There followed two more years of conflict before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army in April 1975, but the entire raison d’etre of the anti-war movement evaporated in 1973. Alongside it, the enmity of all right-thinking left-wingers and liberals to Richard Nixon’s presidency were vindicated when Nixon resigned in August 1974, rather than face impeachment over the Watergate scandal.

So by 1974 the main bogeyman and the central issue of the counterculture had both disappeared, depriving the movement of its focal points and energy. Instead, America had a whole new set of worries. The country was stricken with an energy crisis from the autumn of 1973 which brought to a juddering halt the run of economic growth which had fuelled increasing affluence ever since the end of the Second World War.

A huge middle ground of public opinion, which had been prepared to let the hippies get away with the benefit of the doubt, who had let themselves be persuaded that America was an evil imperialist power or had dabbled with pot, now found themselves unemployed and scrabbling for work.

George Lucas is quoted several times as saying ordinary people were fed up of being told by New Hollywood directors that they were wicked racist imperialist pigs exploiting the workers. They wanted to see movies which would leave them feeling happier as they walked out the cinema than when they went in, not wretched and depressed (pp.363)

Hence American Graffiti, a feelgood movie deliberately set in the early 60s before the whole shitstorm of Vietnam and the counterculture kicked in. And then Star Wars, the ultimate in apolitical escapism, set in a universe long ago and far away, where the good guys wear white and the bad guys dress in black.

You can hear it in the rock music, too. In 1969 hipsters listened to the hairy ugly dudes in Steppenwolf, singing their signature track Born To Be Wild which runs through Easy Rider, ‘head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure’. Young film studio executives were taking pot, even acid, experimenting with open marriages and free love.

Just four years later (in 1973) The Eagles released Tequila Sunrise, laden with slick worldweariness, and the young studio execs were now wearing carefully ironed jeans and cheesecloth shirts, everyone was snorting cocaine and looking for the next Godfather.

By the late 70s Bert Schneider, the buccaneering executive behind BBS Productions which funded a lot of the early New Hollywood productions, now felt tired and old. The BBS building on La Brea, once the headquarters of everything hip and happening, now felt like a dilapidated old ‘head’ shop, covered in yellowing posters from the hippy era, relics from a different age (p.299).

When Barry Diller, who came from heading TV channel ABC arrived as new CEO of Paramount, he sacked a lot of the old staff and installed a young Michael Eisner as President.

When Eisner came in as president, the atmosphere at Paramount changed completely. They wanted to do what they had done at the [TV] network, manufacture product aimed at your knees. (Richard Sylbert, Head of Production at Paramount at the time, quoted on p.297)

Biskind explains that it was the ‘TV regime’ at Paramount that ‘helped to put the New Hollywood in its grave’ (p.397).

New ways of doing business

The era of experimentation came to an end when Hollywood discovered new ways of making big, big money from blockbusters. Frankly, I didn’t understand the minutiae of the new ways of funding projects which Biskind describes, but I did understand the three other key elements which were ‘new’:

1. Breaks Previously movies had been released in a relatively limited number of cinemas round the country, and in waves or ‘breaks’ – alpha cinemas first, then, when the first wave of popularity had passed, in beta cinemas – all in a bid to stretch out a movie’s paying life. With Godfather, the studio opened it across a much larger number of cinemas right at the start – and made a ton of money (total box office something like $280 million). Having seen this work so well, Universal Pictures copied the tactic with Jaws – its first weekend it opened in 409 cinemas and made a huge profit – the total take ended up being $470 million. So mass openings right across the country became part of a new ‘blockbuster’ strategy.

2. TV promotion Conventional wisdom throughout the 1960s was that television was the rival, the competitor, which was slaying the film industry, taking ads away from the screen, but much more importantly, allowing people to slump on their sofas after dinner and watch high-grade entertainment without having to schlepp through bad weather and wait in line to get into a movie which may, or may not, be any good.

It was a business strategy breakthrough when marketing departments realised that heavy investment in TV commercials could make a massive difference to box office. Seems obvious to us now, nearly 50 years later, but it was a revolutionary breakthrough at the time. Thus Universal spent $700,000, an unprecedented amount, on half-minute ads during prime time TV slots to promote Jaws and the results were spectacular.

Jaws change the business forever, as the studios discovered the value of wide breaks – the number of theatres would rise to one thousand, two thousand, and more by the next decade – and massive TV advertising, both of which increased the costs of marketing and distribution, diminishing the importance of print reviews, making it virtually impossible for a film to build slowly, finding its audience by dint of mere quality. As costs mounted, the willingness to take risks diminished proportionately. Moreover, Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws. (p.278)

3. Merchandising The third aspect of the ‘blockbuster revolution’ was merchandising. There’d always been book tie-ins and cheap trinkets, but they had never been commercially important. Once again it was Jaws that began the process, with toys and t-shirts, but Star Wars which took it to a whole new level. What’s fascinating to learn is that George Lucas knew this from the start.

Until Star Wars, merchandising was a relatively trivial cash centre. Lucas understood its importance (p.320)

Lucas was fascinated by money, studied the bottom line, analysed the sources of profit and realised from the start the immense potential of Star Wars merchandising. After all, from the get-go he conceived it as a movie for kids, and you sell kids toys, right? He aimed to make ‘the most conventional kind of movie I can possibly make’ (p.321), and recoup the money on the toys.

Star Wars drove home the lesson of Jaws, that kids and young adults would come back again and again to a movie without stars… It woke up the studios to the potential of merchandising, showed that the sale of books, T-shirts, and action figures could be a significant profit centre. Star Wars‘s merchandising efforts, instead of merely promoting the movie, as had been the case in the past, took on a life of their own and sucked up well over $3 billion in licensing fees as of the re-release of the Star Wars trilogy in 1997, adding an incentive to replace complex characters with simple figures that could be turned into toys. (p.341)

Taken together, massive ‘breaks’, TV advertising and mass merchandising (combined with the more obvious element of ‘popular’, mass-audience-pleasing subject matter) provide a good working definition of the ‘blockbuster’ phenomenon and are, quite clearly, the exact opposite of the low-budget, improvised, ambiguous art movies that New Hollywood directors got to make in their brief window of opportunity.

Which is why critics and insiders date the New Hollywood era from 1969’s Easy Rider, which seemed to blow the film world right open, to 1975’s Jaws when the window for interesting art movies began to close, and then 1977, when Star Wars slammed it shut.

Star Wars was the film that ate the heart and soul of Hollywood. It created the big budget, comic-book mentality. (Screenwriter Paul Schrader, p.316)

Star Wars swept all the chips off the table. What happened with Star Wars is like when MacDonalds got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared. (Director William Friedkin, p.344)

Dennis Jakob coined the term ‘twerp cinema’ for the movies of Lucas and Spielberg.

No-one knows

One of the most fascinating things about the book, is no-one knows when a movie is going to be a hit or a flop. I found it riveting to read about the disasters which plagued the production of Jaws, I had no idea it was such a screwup all the way through the filming and editing, and right up to the last minute Spielberg and a lot of the suits thought it was a disaster. Even more amazingly, Lucas was at moments suicidal about Star Wars which he thought was a piece of junk, incoherent twaddle, and so did many of his friends and family!

It’s fascinating to see just how contingent so many of the films were. Nobody knew, not even the makers, whether they would, by the time of the final edit and the final sound mix, be Oscar winners or humiliating failures.

This helps explain the relentless anxiety, the uncertainty, paranoia and angst of the leading directors. As the budgets got bigger, the pressure on them, and the producers and studio execs, became unbearable. Here’s one snapshot from hundreds:

Scorsese went into Raging Bull twisted into a knot of bitterness, defiance and self-doubt. He was overwhelmed by a sense of fatality… Scorsese was edgy and irritable as ever, prone to sudden outbursts of anger… Scorsese had such a severe anxiety attack on the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo that he couldn’t catch his breath and was convinced he was having a coronary… (pp.391-2)

One consequence was the drugs, which were easily available and were the easiest way to escape the crushing anxiety of each day. But it also explains the prevalence of adoring groupies and yes-men which Biskin describes the uber-directors as surrounding themselves with (Friedkin, Ashby, Bogdanovich, but especially Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese). Because the closed-shop of adulatory groupies was like the drugs – a vital prop, a psychological survival strategy for men who came under immense pressure, not only to deliver big budget hits, but from their own inner demons telling them they ought to have been making the artistic masterpieces they’d come into the business dreaming about.

It was a recipe for endless malaise, anxiety, anger, frustration and depression. And masses of drugs. And the terrible treatment of women.


Jews in Hollywood

I don’t particularly care whether there are or have been lots of Jews in senior positions in Hollywood. It’s well known that some of the most prominent executives who set up the first studios in the 1920s were Jews who’d moved out from New York (Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg), but a lot weren’t. Similarly, a number of key players in the New Hollywood movement were Jewish… and a lot weren’t.

But it does appear to matter to at least some of the characters themselves, and it palpably matters to Biskind. He consistently note a person’s Jewishness, and quotes their own remarks about their Jewishness:

  • [Robert] Towne’s melancholic, hangdog expression and pale, feverish eyes, along with the Talmudic slope of his shoulders gave him a rabbinical cast he would never entirely shake. (p.30)
  • [Robert Towne] was a born kibitzer. (p.50)
  • [For The Graduate, director Mike] Nichols turned the [originally Gentile] families into Beverly Hills Jews and gave the part to Dustin Hoffman. (p.34)
  • [Bob Rafelson] was handsome in the Jewish way, a shock of dark brown hair over a high forehead, rosebud lips frozen in a permanent pout under a fighter’s battered nose. (p.53)
  • Director Henry Jaglom remembers [Bert Schneider] from Camp Kohut, for Jewish kids, in Oxford Maine…(p.55)
  • Bert and his princess Judy [Feinberg] were truly Jewish royalty. (p.56)
  • ‘These were people who didn’t feel authentic,’ says Toby [Carr]. ‘Artists suffer and upper-middle-class Jewish boys from New York didn’t feel they had…’ (p.58)
  • Evans, according to his number two, Peter Bart, ‘idolised gangsters, but he was fascinated by Jewish gangsters – Bugsy Siegel – not Italian ones’. (p.142)
  • Evans and Bart screened mob movies, realised they had all been written and directed by Jews (p.142)
  • Everyone who worked for [Charlie Bludhorn] was certain he was Jewish, but if so he took great pains to conceal it. (p.144)
  • Bart recalls, ‘We were in London together, going out for dinner. I picked Frank [Yablans] up in his room. He was finished dressing, looking at himself in the mirror, and he said, “You know, I’m a really ugly man, I’m a homely fat Jewish man.”‘ (p.145)
  • [Robert Towne and Roman Polanski bickering over Chinatown] ‘What’s her name?’ ‘No, it can’t be that, it’s too Jewish.’ ‘Who says it’s Jewish?’ (p.166)
  • [Transamerica bought the struggling studio United Artists.] ‘There was a lot of resentment because UA had had twelve, fifteen years of success, then the Jews had taken the goys for a fortune…’ (p.214)
  • According to Jennifer Nairn-Smith, ‘William [Friedkin] denied his whole background…He hated being Jewish. Think Yiddish, dress British.’ (p.220)
  • Says Friedkin, ‘If The Exorcist had previewed it would never have come out ’cause people would have written on their cards, “This is terrible, you have a little girl masturbating with a crucifix, you dirty Jewish bastard.”‘. (p.222)
  • [Verna Fields] was a large, warm lady with short brown hair and half glasses, hung on a string, perched on the tip of her nose. She was like a Jewish aunt, except that instead of talking gefilte fish recipes, she talked editing. (p.237)
  • Spielberg’s mother opened a kosher dairy restaurant in Beverly Hills, but her son avoided it. He disliked his stepfather, who was an Orthodox Jew.Some of his more Jewish-identified friends regarded him as a self-hating Jew. (p.331)
  • ‘Can you imagine Walt Disney turning over in his grave, just thinking about opening his doors to do business with a Jew!’ (p.371)

And Biskind also sprinkles the text with Jewish or Yiddish vocabulary. I had to look up terms like:

  • meshuggah (craziness, or a crazy person)
  • a macher = big shot, important person (p.39)
  • a gonif = a thief or dishonest person or scoundrel (p.101)
  • tsuris = aggravating troubles (p.111)
  • zoftig = [of a woman] a full, rounded figure, plump (p.132)
  • a pisher = a neophyte, somebody new to a job (p.152)
  • a mensch = a person of integrity and honour
  • a nebbish = pitiful, ineffectual man (p.239)
  • a shiksa = a Gentile woman, often blonde and bosomy
  • kibitzing = chatting informally (p.284)
  • shtick = a person’s routine, talent or area of interest (p.287)
  • mishegoss = craziness; senseless behaviour or activity (p.319)
  • alter cockers = older generation, granddads (p.413)

Why does Biskind dwell on the Jewish origins of his characters, and litter the text with Yiddish idioms? I don’t know and I don’t much care, but I found it a persistent and intriguing aspect of the book.

And it added piquancy to one of the promotional quotes on the back cover, from the critic of the Spectator magazine who described Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as having ‘the most dislikeable cast of characters since William S. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’.

That’s a brilliantly insulting quote, but it’s given added – and, I assume, unwitting – undertones by the Jewish flavour of a lot of the text.


Women in Hollywood

1. Husbands dumping their wives

  • Director William Friedkin lived as man and wife with partner Jennifer Nairns-Smith for three years until she announced she was pregnant. When she had the baby, in November 1976, he dumped her (p.311)
  • Martin Scorsese had a relationship with writer Julia Cameron and got her pregnant. During the filming of his musical New York, New York Scorsese started an affair with star Lisa Minnelli. When Cameron had his baby, he dumped her (p.326)

Just a few flagrant examples of the way these powerful, egotistical men treated their women. And the hundreds of examples of the everyday sexist attitudes of all the men on display are far too many to quote.

#metoo

This book was published in 1998, almost twenty years before the outing of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in the #metoo social media campaign.

What puzzled me about #metoo was that it seemed to come as a shock and a surprise to so many people. Hadn’t they read this book – which catalogues the appalling way most women were treated by powerful men in Hollywood throughout the 1970s (and into the 1980s)? Or its sequel, Down and Dirty Pictures, published in 2004, which chronicles the appalling behaviour of, yes, the exact same Harvey Weinstein? Or any of the hundreds of other exposés of Hollywood’s ‘dark underbelly’? Wasn’t the exploitation of a lot of the women who worked there a core part of most people’s vague impression of Hollywood?

When I was a kid I read books about the silent movie starts which chronicled the ‘scandalous’ sexual behaviour of the likes of Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks and the outrageous incident of Fatty Arbuckle and the wine bottle. When I was only 12 or 13 I read David Niven’s memoirs of Hollywood, which revolved around sex, especially when he shared a house with Errol Flynn.

From hundreds of references, articles, jokes, on TV, in novels and biographies, I acquired a solid impression of Hollywood as a Sodom and Gomorrah of know-nothing executives ranting, of preening stars making impossible demands, and dictatorial directors reducing their leading ladies to tears; of wild parties, booze and drugs and shameful, disgraceful behaviour.

And a key part of this lurid mythology was the widespread cliché about ‘the casting couch’ and how generations of leading ladies had had to screw or give blow jobs to all manner of directors and execs in order to get jobs. Hadn’t people read about the sexual humiliations Marilyn Monroe had to put herself through before she ended up killing herself, stories which have been repeated in umpteen documentaries and sensationalising biographies.

My point being, I thought that the sexual harassment and abuse of women in Hollywood was common knowledge and one of the most basic aspects of anyone’s mental image of Tinseltown.

‘In Hollywood men put enormous pressure on women to fuck them, even if it’s only once. It’s like the dog that pisses on the lamppost, even if it’s only once. They want that kind of connection and then maybe they can relax.’ (Actress Beverley Walker, quoted on p.234)

It seems that the #metoo revelations about Harvey Weinstein took place when a handful of brave women decided to finally stand up to the climate of fear which Weinstein and others like him were able to exert over Hollywood’s female population. And it struck such a nerve because it turned out that millions of women in not just film but all kinds of other industries, and not just in America, but around the world, had had to, and were continuing to have to, put up with outrageously exploitative, bullying behaviour from men in power.

All well and good. I wholeheartedly support the #metoo movement and all its goals. I’m just bemused by the way so much of this information was already out there. It suggests something about books like Biskind’s – that they can be bestsellers, widely read and reviewed and yet… somehow, not change anything.

It points towards the difference between static channels like books, and even magazine or newspaper reports – and the much more dynamic medium of twitter, where what are, in essence, the same kind of accusations, could go viral very quickly and create momentum, create a movement.

There’s a lot more to be said on these issues, #metoo and the (in)effectiveness of books to change anything, but I thought it was worth recording a few thoughts here.

3. Strong women

Meanwhile, Biskind does make the point that not all the women are downtrodden wives and bimbo girlfriends; that there were some very strong, achieveful women in the Hollywood of the time. One of the most striking gossip-type facts to emerge was the important role played by their partners in both Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson’s early successes.

Bogdanovich’s wife, Polly Platt, was a production designer but all accounts have her intimately involved with the actual directing of his masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, sitting beside his director’s chair, discussing shots. He dumped her to begin his infatuated affair with Cybill Shepherd, and never made such a good film again.

Similarly, Bob Rafelson’s wife, Toby Rafelson was also a production designer, and had a big impact on his early masterpiece, Five Easy Pieces. After his womanising and drug-taking drove her away, Rafelson never made a good movie again (a point made by actress Ellen Burstyn, quoted on page 273).

There were also a number of notable women film editors.

Verna Fields edited Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon and What’s Up, Doc? but really made her reputation co-editing American Graffiti and then almost single-handedly saving Jaws, whose rushes were an epic mess (and for which she won an Oscar).

Marcia Lucas, George’s wife, also had an editing role on American Graffiti,then cut Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More, New York New York and – seismically – Star Wars.

(It’s worth noting that Woody Allen – who doesn’t feature much in the book, being neither a New Hollywood rebel or a New Blockbuster mogul – has always used woman editors, Susan E. Morse 1977-98, Alisa Lepselter from then to the present.)

I don’t want to just repeat the outrageous attitude of most of the men in the Hollywood of that era, but also want to put on record the achievement of strong, talented women who managed to survive and thrive in it.

A craft, not an art

I use the term ‘movies’ throughout this blog to describe the way American films are, ultimately, products of American hyper-consumer capitalism and not works of art.

I myself have worked as a television producer/director, directing about a dozen commercial videos, and have also hired and employed very talented TV directors for a period of six years (1994 to 2000). I’ve worked very closely with producers, directors and editors (in television).

Granted, TV is not the same as film. But these experience are the basis of my opinion that film is a craft and not an art. Some people in these areas really are amazing, genius craftsmen and women. But, in my opinion, to call it an ‘art form’ is ludicrous – specially when you read scene after scene of blustering, know-nothing executives shouting and yelling about who or what they insist is in the movie, when you read how many ‘great’ movies were in fact bodged and botched and stitched together out of ramshackle compromises, deals, bankruptcies, disagreements, technical and logistical disasters.

As a small example, I was struck by the fact that producer Philip D’Antoni told William Friedkin, director of 1971’s The French Connection, that part of what had made Steve McQueen’s 1968 classic, Bullitt, so great was the epic car chase, so he should put a car chase into Connection. So Friedkin did (p.204). It’s a great car chase, a really brilliant car chase. But it’s not ‘art’.

Similarly, I hadn’t realised that the actual filming of Jaws had been such an epic catastrophe, taking three times as long, and costing three times as much, as budgeted. The script wasn’t finished when they began filming, so many of the scenes were improvised in the evening in Spielberg’s hotel room, with the scriptwriter, Carl Gottlieb, jotting down the best bits – and then filming these ad-libbed scenes the next day.

They made three giant plastic model sharks, but one sank and the others looked terrible, and so it was only because of the accidental fact of their ridiculous look and impact in the early filming that led Spielberg (or others, depends whose story you believe) to completely rethink the script and re-edit the movie so that the shark rarely appears until the end – thus you don’t see it in the first half of the film, which, combined with the brilliant music by John Williams, makes its unseen menace infinitely more threatening and scarey.

Most of the movies described here involved similar amounts of chaos, bad planning, script crises, changes of mind or emphasis, random elements chucked in at the last minute, the studio insisting on reshoots or re-editing the whole thing, and so on and so on.

That’s not art. It’s a shambles. It comes as a shock to learn that Spielberg, at one point, suggested that, at the climax of Jaws, after Chief Brody has blown up the shark and been reunited with Dreyfuss and as they paddle towards the shore, that, in a black joke, they see a fleet of shark’s fins appear on the horizon heading towards them!

‘Art’ is an excuse

Here’s another way of thinking about the ‘Is film an art?’ question.

It’s an excuse. A lot of these people behaved appallingly, not so much the obvious sexism and getting drunk and hitting people, but the shouting at everyone, the bullying coercive behaviour, the exploitation of young women, ripping everyone off, sacking people arbitrarily, using people’s life stories without crediting them, using their ideas, scripts and stories without credit, stabbing their business partners in the back – the book is an awesome catalogue of despicable behaviour.

And their justification? “It’s art. I’m making great art. I am a great artist.”

So all this ‘art’ talk can easily be reinterpreted as an excuse, which justifies monstrous egotism and abusive behaviour. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls contains more than enough examples of the jaw-dropping egotism, selfishness and the brutal mistreatment of women by some of cinema’s greatest ‘artists’ to wither and kill your opinions of them forever.

(It also kills your respect for ‘film critics’, people employed to suck up to monsters and overlook their abusive behaviour in the name of promoting their ‘art’ — and for ‘film studies’ academics, trying to persuade their students that these hugely compromised products of consumer capitalism are some kind of ‘art form’. Films can be very well crafted – having produced and directed broadcast TV I understand that very well, and how you can take to pieces all aspects of a script, of direction, framing, lighting, editing and sound mixing, yes. But that doesn’t make Jaws or Star Wars, let alone Rocky or Finding Nemo or Home Alone 2, works of art. They’re just very well-crafted products designed to be consumed by a mass audience and as nakedly intended to generate profits for their investors as MacDonalds chicken nuggets or a Dyson hoover.)

Pictures, not movies

I use the term ‘movies’ to indicate the blunt fact that movies’ are products of American hyper-capitalism, and deliberately don’t talk about ‘film’ or ‘films’ as this is what pretentious ‘film studies’ people say when they start talking about auteurs and ‘artistic vision’.

So it was interesting to realise that everyone in this book, including Biskind, refers to movies as ‘pictures’ – as in the title of the memoirs of über-producer, Robert Evans, The Kid Stays In The Picture, or the obvious fact that the Academy Award each year goes to ‘Best Picture’. Everyone in the business, including Biskind, seems to call them ‘pictures’, not films or movies. Pictures.

And that reminds me of a story which Oscar-winning producer Sam Spiegel tells in his autobiography about an earlier era, about the time when director Elia Kazan had made his first Hollywood movie, and the studio liked it but, after the screening, a studio executive took Kazan aside and told him he had to change his name to something less ethnic. ‘How about Cézanne?’

Kazan was appalled. ‘But Cézanne was a great artist, I couldn’t possibly compete.’

‘Nah,’ says the executive. ‘You make one good picture, everyone’ll forget the other guy.’

Credit

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind was published in 1998 in America by Simon & Schuster. All references are to the 1999 Bloomsbury paperback edition.

The idea of performance in the later fiction of J.G. Ballard

This essay suggests that a focus on Ballard’s interest in television and the unreal effects which TV or film cameras have on anyone they’re pointed at, obscures the fact that TV and film are only part of a much wider sense, demonstrated throughout Ballard’s work, that we are all self consciously playing roles, most of the time.

1. The ubiquity of television in the fiction of J.G. Ballard

It’s common to observe that a lot of J.G. Ballard’s fiction is aware of, or focuses on, the role of television in modern life. From his novels we can deduce several central ideas:

TV desensitises The idea that television news with its relentless images of war atrocities desensitises its viewers, numbs them, and that therefore denizens of the TV Age need waking up by evermore outlandish, transgressive behaviour. This is a central premise of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in particular, where the idea is that the jaded sexual taste of the adult protagonists need exposure to a whole new range of fetishes. But the same idea runs through Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes where the central protagonists are taught the lesson that violence and crime energise communities, which otherwise tend to spend their evenings slumped in front of their tellies like zombies.

Making telly is addictive The addiction to making TV, or films, is portrayed in a succession of characters, starting with Richard Wilder, the TV documentary-maker in High Rise, who insists on taking his ciné-camera with him on his epic quest to climb the high rise tower. There’s the similarly obsessive scientist-turned-TV star Sangar in The Day of Creation who keeps talking about his documentary, and surrounds himself with camera and monitors and editing machines even as he slowly dies of malnutrition.

Academic turned TV star The dashing academic who transforms himself into a media star-science populariser-TV presenter is another repeated figure featuring at least three times:

  • Dr. Robert Vaughan, ‘former TV-scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways’, who is the lead pervert in Crash
  • Richard Sutherland, the Cambridge professor of psychology, who turns himself into a star presenter of TV documentaries in The Kindness of Women
  • Sangar in The Day of Creation

Of all the novels, television is probably most important in Rushing To Paradise (1994) where the importance of filming environmental activism and broadcasting it to a worldwide audience is central (at least in the first half of the book), where the characters sail on their environmentalist quest aboard a ship fitted with an editing suite and satellite dishes, where the death of one of the characters is broadcast live, and the lead character gives countless interviews to the world’s TV news channels about her work. Each of these recurring incidents triggering authorial comment about the power and importance of TV.

The purpose of this essay is simply to point out that it is easy to think about the concept of performance in Ballard’s fiction solely in terms of this very high-profile obsession with TV and TV news and TV footage and TV presenters, and how these characters are continually getting people to pose and perform for the camera…

But that performing for the cameras is only really a sub-set of Ballard’s much broader interest in performance as a whole – in the way modern human beings routinely conceive of themselves as acting parts, playing roles – sometimes in settings which obviously call for a degree of performance, such as the workplace, the courthouse, in the bedroom – but a lot of the rest of the time catching themselves dressing for a part, adopting a persona, playing a role, working to a script.

2. Key words

All this becomes very clear if we ignore the references to TV and television and film in his books (numerous though they are) and look instead for key words which denote theatre and theatricality, performance and roles, words such as:

  • Actor
  • Drama
  • Performance
  • Play
  • Role
  • Scene
  • Script
  • Set
  • Stage
  • Theatre

Running Wild (1988)

  • The camera fixes on him, and like a badly trained actor he steps forward to the gatehouse, a tic jumping across his sallow cheek.
  • Perhaps the planned documentary was the last straw – the children knew they’d have to play their parts for the cameras, doing all the interviews, acting out their ‘happiness’ under the eyes of their doting parents
  • Just as the older children required Marion to play her part willingly in the murder of her parents, so they need her now to believe in the rightness of their cause.
  • I had ample time to replay in my mind that terrifying scene at the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.
  • ‘Let me set the stage, Sergeant.” I pulled open the shower curtain and turned on the bath taps.
  • The camera tracked to and fro, as if searching for a fallen leaf, tirelessly hunting a panorama as silent as a stage set

The Kindness of Women (1991)

  • Olga and my school friends, my mother and father on their evening visits, were like actors in the old silent films that David Hunter’s father screened for us
  • I was happy to be with them, but we were like actors playing parts presented to us at short notice.
  • More like a film actor than a Cambridge don, he was a handsome Scotsman with a shock of red hair…
  • Richard watched me with his friendly actor’s smile.
  • He had moved around the podium like an actor delivering Hamlet’s soliloquy
  • ‘When I visit Mother and Dad in Cambridge I look around the house and can’t believe I was ever a child there. It’s like a film set with these two old actors… even they can’t remember the script.’
  • Rio was filled with old actor-managers trapped within their images of themselves
  • The medium of film had turned us all into minor actors in an endlessly running daytime serial.
  • Dick had side-stepped all these, accepting that the electronic image of himself was the real one, and that his off-screen self was an ambitious but modest actor who had successfully auditioned for a far more glamorous role
  • I had never consciously manipulated them, but they had accepted their assigned roles like actors recruited to play their parts in a drama whose script they had never seen.
  • Dons with their faux-eccentric manners posed outside the chapel with the self-consciousness of minor character actors, waiting as a Spanish TV crew set up its lights.
  • Watching them, I was struck by their self-conscious pose, like dancers arrested in an audience-catching flourish at the end of their performance
  • They seemed almost to be rehearsing themselves for a performance to come, some even more elaborately staged collision.
  • His performance seemed oddly subdued, as if he were trying to shrug off the repertory of television mannerisms he had cultivated so carefully since the Cambridge days.
  • Despite playing the role of her father, I felt surprisingly dependent on her and hoped that I could give her the happy childhood that she was helping to give to my own children
  • I was impressed by his easy command of his situation – he had found a role for himself
  • Together we gazed at this scene, the ladies fanning away the flies, their husbands murmuring to each other, like a group of investors visiting the stage set of an uncompleted war film.
  • As we put away the scattered toys and clothes I had the sense that we were scene-shifters changing a set of props.
  • Even Dorothy’s resemblances to her sister, the echo of Miriam’s broad cheekbones and small hands, strong walk and determined hips, made me feel that we were extras rehearsing a scene to be played by others.
  • They look like film extras ready to play a party scene.
  • I sometimes felt that Miriam and I were playing our parts in some happily chaotic sitcom whose script we extemporised as we went along.
  • He caught my eye in the mirror, as if aware that a dimension had entered the script for which all his years in television had never prepared him
  • Beyond the bedroom door I could hear Dick laughing as he chased Fortunata around the workroom and the women in the corridor shouting to the straying child. By comparison, the bedroom was a stage set.

Rushing to Paradise (1994)

  • Overnight Saint-Esprit had become a stage-set whose cast had disappeared in mid-drama, carrying away every copy of the prompt-script.
  • Surrounded by the pregnant women, he uneasily sank his teeth into the meat and returned their approving smiles, aware that his real part in this intense drama had yet to be assigned to him.
  • An elaborate air-and-sea ballet was taking place, an over-rehearsed performance that rarely deviated from its agreed scenario
  • Neil stood on the foredeck of the Dugong, shielded from the cold spray by the white bowl of the satellite dish, at that moment transmitting the afternoon’s first performance to the watching world.
  • ‘Take lots of film of the island,’ she told him, now directing the documentary of which she was already star and scriptwriter
  • He sensed that he and Carline were reading from an old script.
  • Neil had been unsettled by the fate of the huge birds, but he already realized that he was filming a well-rehearsed scene in the theatre of protest.
  • Trying to forget the botanist, whose little body had impressed its contours into the sodden mattress beneath Neil’s shoulders, he listened to his widow’s tantrums as she supervised the re-hanging of the banner. This mini-drama she staged at least twice a day, as if keeping alive some archaic form of Japanese theatre with its repertoire of grunts and rages.
  • Meanwhile, a single volley of shots from the Champlain would sink the inflatables and put them out of action for good. Yet so far, for whatever political and diplomatic reasons, the French had been sticking to the script. They allowed the Dugong to approach the island, and waited patiently as the inflatables performed their water-borne pas de deux. In the late afternoon the corvette Sagittaire would arrive and escort the trawler to the perimeter of the thirty-mile exclusion zone, its signal lamp signing off with a choice obscenity that sent Monique enraged to her cabin. The arrangement suited everyone, and provided the maximum of national dignity and TV coverage at the minimum of risk. But now there would be a radical change to the script, and the French had not been consulted
  • His forced good cheer depressed Neil, as did his self-appointed role as second-in-command to Dr Barbara
  • Carline was sitting in the radio-cabin, head-phones over his pale hair, enjoying his new role as air-traffic controller.
  • For the first time Neil realized that he too had played a modest role in giving the expedition members their sense of purpose.
  • Aware that he had been ruthlessly milked, but accepting his real role on Saint-Esprit, Neil walked past the silent tents towards the runway
  • Sometimes he suspected that he had completed his role for Dr Barbara, and that his successor had already been appointed. Their words no longer matched the reality of Saint-Esprit. He spoke truthfully to his mother, saying that the mosquitoes and sand-flies bothered him, that he was working hard, ate well and had not been ill, and that the bullet wound on his foot had healed completely. But he sensed that he and Carline were reading from an old script.
  • Ten minutes later, as he replayed the sound-track to a critical Dr Barbara, Neil became aware that he was not the only person to film this contrived scene.
  • Lying in his bed on the sixth floor of the Nimitz Memorial Hospital, Neil watched the familiar scene on his television set.
  • The Hawaiian had hidden for a few last moments among the waist-deep ferns, and had filmed Neil being shot down by the sergeant, a scene endlessly replayed on television across the world.
  • Standing in the shadow of the prayer-shack, the captain of the Sagittaire and two his officers waited while the camera-men from the American news agencies recorded the sombre scene
  • Watching the scene from the steps of the clinic, Neil sensed that he was witnessing a shrewd but cruel experiment.
  • Sea, sun and sky could not have been arranged more skilfully had Dr Barbara herself been in charge of the mise en scene.
  • The American’s eyes were closed in a frown, nervous of the soil that covered his cheeks, and his hands were clasped around the Swedes’ video-camera. Neil could imagine him standing by the graves, unsure whether to film the macabre scene for Dr Barbara and never realizing that he was about to become part of it.

Cocaine nights (1996)

  • The scene last night was bizarre, I wish I’d filmed it. The whole waterfront came to life. People were sexually charged, like spectators after a bloody bull-fight.’

In the ex-pat colony where the book is set there are constant references to the thriving theatre scene with its endless revivals of plays by Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter and Joe Orton.

  • They played their roles like members of an amateur theatrical group taking part in a bawdy Restoration farce
  • I frequently played bridge with Betty Shand and the Hennessys, reluctant though I was to leave the Residencia for Estrella de Mar and its baleful memories of the Hollinger fire, and had even been tempted to play a small part in a forthcoming production of Orton’s What the Butler Saw.

The narrator discovers that some of the posh wives like dressing up as hookers, and that other couples – including his brother’s lover – liked role-playing rapes and rough sex play. Slowly the narrator comes to realise that the entire place is a sort of set for numerous staged dramas.

  • The grooves in the sitting-room rugs indicated where the sofa, easy chairs and desk had stood before the police search. Pushing them back into place, I felt like a props man on a darkened stage, preparing the scene for the next day’s performance.

The narrator discovers a porn film in which the actors play very clichéd roles… up until one of them is genuinely raped.

  • The lesbian porno-film had been a set-up, designed to lure her to this anonymous apartment, the mise-en-scene for a real rape for which the bridesmaids, but not the heroine, had been prepared.
  • As I watched this parodic lesbian scene, I was sure that none of the women was a professional actress.

Being an actor.

  • His voice had sounded sincere but curiously distant, lines from a previous week’s play spoken by a distracted actor.
  • With his dark shades, he resembled a likeable young actor in his James Dean phase, chewing a knuckle as he pondered his next film role
  • As he spoke he watched himself in the mirror, touching his eyebrows and adjusting his hair like an actor in his dressing room.

Playing a part.

  • The empty rooms lay around us, their white walls enclosing nothing, ready for dramas of boredom and ennui
  • Together they seemed like figures in a dream-play, trying to remind me of memories I could never recover.
  • Then Frank, for some weird reason of his own, begins to play Joseph K.
  • He’s one of those psychiatrists with a knack of forming little ménages around themselves.’ ‘Ménages of vulnerable young women?’ ‘Exactly. He enjoys playing Svengali to them.’
  • ‘I’m trying to play the older brother, without any success.’
  • ‘Paula, stop playing the head girl.’
  • ‘He’s a shy, rather sad man.’ ‘With a taste for playing the guru to young women.’
  • ‘And who played the villain? Or the hero, I should say?’

Adopting roles

  • I had imagined myself in Frank’s role, and Paula playing his lover
  • ‘Charles, I don’t think I can play your mother.’
  • Already we were assuming our familiar roles first set out in childhood. He was the imaginative and wayward spirit, and I was the stolid older brother
  • He took no part in the proceedings, but listened intently to his translator, emphasizing for the magistrate’s benefit his central role in the events described.
  • As Bobby Crawford had said, behind the professional poise she presented to the world she seemed distracted and vulnerable, like an intelligent teenaged girl unable to decide who she really was, perhaps suspecting that the role of efficient and capable doctor was something of a pose.
  • Enjoying his new role as stately home tour guide, Cabrera led us around the house

3. Reflections

Focusing on these key words highlights the extent to which everyone in Ballardland is playing a role or thinking about playing a role or adopting a pose.

The TV thing is just a sub-set of a much larger vision in which all of Ballard’s characters play roles almost all the time. Within a family they play the parts of mother, father, elder or younger children. In relationships they play the role of solid chap or flustered girlfriend (or whichever roles they want to adopt). In their professional lives they dress up smart, put on their best smile and try to impress. In the bedroom people adopt all kinds of roles and fantasies, dressing up in costumes like the women in the porn film in Cocaine Nights or wearing teenage hooker gear like Jane in Super-Cannes.

As I watched her through the mirror I had the sense that we were still inside a film, and that everything taking place between us in the bedroom had been prefigured in a master script that Paula had read.

Before going out the house, his characters dress for the roles they are going to play. And at any moment events can happen in the street which suddenly cast them in roles – the Victim, the Bystander, the First Aider, and so on.

  • She was doing her best to play the whore, fleshing out her mouth and rolling her hips, and I wondered if this was all the whim of some avant-garde theatre director staging a street production of Mahagonny or Irma la Douce.
  • ‘It was a piece of night-theatre, a water-borne spectacular to perk up the restaurant trade. A party of Middle East tourists played the clowns, with a chorus line of French good-time girls. Brutal, but great fun.’
  • I assumed that the thief would be swimming towards the rocks below the watch-tower, to a rendezvous previously arranged with the car’s driver, who waited for him like a chauffeur outside a stage-door after the evening’s performance.
  • ‘It was a show, David. Whoever stole the speedboat was putting on a performance. Someone with a taste for fire . . .’ ‘

In encounters with the police, Ballard’s characters tend to smarten up and become hyper-aware of their stance and expressions and words, trying to calculate the effect they’re having, even more so when dealing with a lawyer or in a court of law, where everyone is on their mettle and playing pre-assigned roles.

  • [Inspector] Cabrera had unnerved me, as if he had read the secret script that Crawford had written and was aware of the role assigned to me
  • [Inspector] Cabrera was watching me in his thoughtful way, as if expecting that I, in turn, would admit my role in the crime
  • ‘Your retired stockbrokers and accountants are remarkably adept in the role of small-town criminals…’

At particular moments the sense of playing a role can become vertiginous, dizzying, prompting the characters to try to regain control of the scene. The presence of the police or security guards will do that to you. Make everyone fantastically self conscious:

I placed my hands on the desk, trying to steady the scene.

If there’s any conclusion it’s that Ballard’s sense that modern people are continually acting versions of themselves extends far beyond his interest in television and film. TV and film are just the most obvious and stylised peaks of a worldview in which all of us are acting roles – either ones we’ve chosen for ourselves or ones other people have allotted to us – almost all of the time.


Reviews of J.G. Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard (1991)

The Kindness of Women was marketed as the ‘sequel’ to Ballard’s bestselling autobiographical memoir, Empire of the Sun, his long and gruelling account of the harrowing years he spent in a Japanese internment camp, having been captured and separated from his parents in war-torn Shanghai, but a careful reading suggests it is anything but an ‘autobiography’ and in fact much more like an extremely carefully composed novel which simply incorporates some themes from his life.

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun had a tremendous unity of subject, time and location – starting in Shanghai just at the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, devoting most of its text to the harrowing experiences and degradations of the prison camp, and ending with a section about the strangeness of the war’s abrupt end – after the two atom bombs were dropped on Japan – and the dreamlike unreality of returning to his pukka, middle-class home at their comfortable home in Shanghai’s International Settlement.

It ends with Jim and his mother leaving Shanghai on a boat with other British mothers and children, bound for an England he had never seen, and so covers his life from just the ages of 11 to 15.

One of the many striking things about Empire of the Sun for seasoned Ballard fans was that… it wasn’t science fiction. It felt like a complete break with the past, with his previous dozen or so novels and scores of short stories, in being based on actual, sensible, real world events.

And yet, in another way, it was of a piece with his previous work in that it gave away or revealed the sources of, his entire worldview.

In the first part of the book the narrator, young Jim, describes the exotic phantasmagoria which was 1940s Shanghai, with its foreign people, food, smells, behaviour and casual brutality (public stranglings) in which he is a permanent outsider, where he is the spectator at wonderful and strange scenes – just as the protagonists of so many of his stories are.

And then, of course, the main part of the text, the description of life in the internment camp, is a prolonged portrait of nominally polite well-educated chaps and chapesses going to pieces, reverting to utter torpor or feral behaviour, while young Jim is permanently starved, covered in sores, feverish and over-excited

That more or less describes the behaviour of the protagonists of the key, hard-core Ballard stories and novels, from The Drowned World to High Rise, especially in the novels which almost all describe the same narrative trajectory – the decline and fall of an individual, or a small group of people, into malnutrition and madness.

In its final scenes Empire of the Sun reaches a hallucinatory intensity as Jim accompanies the other dying internees on a long death march across the Chinese countryside towards another internment camp up country, in which scores of exhausted, ill and dying Brits fall away at each rest stop.

Eventually they arrive at the bizarre setting of an abandoned Olympic sports stadium which has been packed with loot from Shanghai by the conquering Japanese and it is here, more dead than alive, that Jim sees a strange light cover the sky which, he later learns, was the atom bomb exploding over Nagasaki which brought the war in the Pacific to an end, and saved the lives of the remaining internees.

So then, it is a very focused narrative, written with delirious intensity.

The Kindness of Women

The Kindness of Women has many of the same qualities of its predecessor, but is much more diffuse. Basically it’s much broader and wider, covering the whole of the rest of Jim’s life, starting a little before the events described in Empire of the Sun (in starts in 1937, the year the Japanese first attacked China, as opposed to Empire which starts in 1941) and then proceeds up until more or less the time of its writing, in the late 1980s.

No autobiographer can simply describe everything they’ve said and seen and done. Instead you have to choose what to describe, and The Kindness of Women takes this very much to heart. It is very episodic. Each of the seventeen chapters zeroes in on a particular period or moment, on key incidents in Ballard’s life, and gives us a good 15- or 20-page tour of it, before moving briskly on to the next key moment or period.

Thus it has far less unity of time and place, and is therefore less focused and intense than Empire of the Sun. That book was seen entirely from young Jim’s point of view, and he was weak and malnourished even before he entered the camp thanks to spending several months on the run – so it is characterised by a) being seen just from Jim’s point of view and b) Jim being almost continuously feverish and hallucinatory.

By contrast, in most of The Kindness of Women a) the narrator is not just about to faint from exhaustion and malnutrition, and b) it features other people, normal people, people who weren’t locked up during the war, who aren’t suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and so who ground the story, contextualise and normalise it, as we follow Jim becoming a medical student, learning to fly in Canada, getting married, having children, going on holidays to Spain, and so on.

That said, the trauma of those years, and how the narrator copes with it, remains a central theme, in fact, as the narrative unfolds, you it is increasingly drummed home that the narrator has never really been able to get away from his early trauma. In this respect, as several others, it’s a less melodramatic but more moving narrative than Empire.

It is also episodic in the sense that the chapters really feel like episodes. Each one has the depth and artistic arrangement of short story. Each chapter or section features a central theme, with several sub-themes arranged around it to counterpoint each other, like a piece of classical music.

The same goes for the recurring characters. When we first meet his boyhood friend in Shanghai, David Hunter or the teenage girl, Peggy, who looks after him in the internment camp – or a little later, at Cambridge, Dr Sutherland and his sixth form assistant Miriam – little do we suspect that these characters will recur throughout the rest of the book, popping up at key moments and coming to assume larger-than-life roles, becoming almost allegorical figures which represent certain types of human experience and behaviour.

The more you read on, the more carefully and artfully contrived you realise the book is, a selection of representative scenes, each composed and arranged very carefully, featuring representative types, so that it becomes not just the retelling of a life, but something much more elaborately wrought: something like the explanation or rationalisation or justification of Ballard’s complex and bizarre worldview.

Not only do key events explain his attitudes and beliefs, but they also justify his aesthetic strategies towards them. I realised this in the chapter about car crashes which is centred on the exhibition of crashed cars Ballard put on in 1969, when I noticed that the vocabulary and phrasing of the chapter was suddenly echoing the phrases he used with such intensity in the novel Crash.

So you not only pass through episodes in his life which are relevant to the fiction, it’s as if elements of his prose style change and alter to incorporate the phraseology of the stories and especially novels which he wrote during that period. If the Crash chapters reads like an excerpt from Crash, with all its references to raked dashboards and jutting binnacles, so the chapter in which he takes LSD reads like the novel The Unlimited Dream Company in its images of light, super-colour, and so on.

I’m suggesting that the book not only takes you through the episodes which inspired many of his stories, it also (subtly, not blatantly) takes you through the many styles he has used.

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is that it contains next to nothing about how he wrote his books, where the ideas came from, about his struggles as an unpublished author, the first short stories, the commission for the first novel, pride at being published, the critics, his involvement in what was quickly called the New Science Fiction, his manifesto about exploring Inner Space and so on.

There is nothing about any of that, or the craft of writing, or how many hours a day he puts in, or meetings with other writers, or writer or artist friends, his ideas about what science fiction is, or fiction in general, or art – nothing.

Writing that, I suddenly realise how narrow the book is, narrow and very focused. It only really features a handful of other characters – the ones mentioned above – and insofar as they keep bumping into each other at various stages of their lives, I realise that are, in a sense, walking embodiments of how to cope with trauma and troubled childhoods.

It’s as if Ballard is arranging and positioning the same characters into different painterly compositions, or posing the same half dozen people for the same sort of group photo which they take every couple of years over a forty year period.

By the end I wondered whether anything in this book actually happened, and whether any of these handily emblematic ‘characters’ ever existed.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that The Kindness of Women is much, much more like a novel in conception and execution, than any kind of autobiography. And it is a novel about the lifelong impact of childhood trauma.


Part I – A Season For Assassins

Chapter 1. Bloody Sunday

The narrator is seven years old. He describes a 7-year-old’s eye view of Shanghai, a great deranged city of the future. His nanny is 17-year-old White Russian refugee Olga. His best friend is David Hunter. They both like making model airplanes and along with other boys engage in epic games of hide and seek across the vast metropolis. Jim loves seeing the Hell-Drivers, American dare-devils who crash their Fords and Chevrolets through flaming wooden barricades. Every morning municipal trucks collect the bodies of the hundreds of Chinese who have died during the night.

The Japanese invade China and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek makes Shanghai – or the country just around it – one of his battlefields. Chinese planes fly overhead bombing the Japanese military barracks and the Japanese ships in the harbour.

One of them panics and drops a bomb just by the Great World Amusement Park, which kills just over a thousand civilians, mostly Chinese refugees. Shanghai natives are proud of the fact that this is the biggest death toll from one bomb in the history of human warfare.

Jim is caught in the bomb raid, he hears someone shouting his name, it is the Australian nanny of his rich friend David, calling from their chauffeur-driven car. More bombs fall, he is pulled to safety in a doorway by a British soldier. When he re-emerges and goes over to the car he sees the nanny slumped forward in the front seat of the car, young David in the background staring traumatised into space.

Violent death in cars, trauma, staring blankly, psychotic states of mental withdrawal from traumatic events – it all starts here.

Later the Europeans organise an outing to one of the battlefields outside the city, once the fighting has moved far away. Ladies with parasols walk among the wrecked trenches, among the equipment and ammunition and corpses littered everywhere. Jim hears David tittering to himself, a peculiarly disturbed sound, and sees his ‘jarred eyes’ beneath his fringe.

Chapter 2. Escape Attempts

Jump forward to Jim’s experiences in the Lunghua internment camp described so extensively in Empire of the Sun. It would be tempting to think Ballard is rehashing old ground but having finished the whole book, I realise now that these scenes are vital to his artistic purpose – which is to show the unerasable impact of early-life trauma.

We are introduced to other internees, especially 14-year-old Peggy Gardner, taller than Jim, thin, sensible, who tries to calm Jim’s permanent state of over-excitedness. He often slips into ‘hunger reveries’. He is often feverishly over-excited. Pretty much the whole of his subsequent writing career will be devoted to obsessively repeating and re-examining these extreme mental states.

His relations with Japanese soldiers Private Kimura and Sergeant Nagata.

His obsession with planes and flying, expanding on the model airplanes he and David built, his admiration of the American Flying Tigers who fought for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, but his equal admiration for the Japanese pilots he sees taking off through the camp fence from nearby Lunghua airport.

The reversal of values by which young Jim admires the Japanese soldiers for their discipline and efficiency and also, somehow, for their unpredictable violence. He admires the American prisoners in the camp for their laid-back, can-do spirit, their glossy American magazines, their confidence that America will win the war and they’ll soon be released.

Jim reserves his contempt for the British, mostly sunk in torpor and indifference, slow to make anything happen, but quick to scold and nag. The narrator repeats the insight from Empire of the Sun that the authority of the British Empire was irreparably damaged when the British forces at Singapore surrendered. Every colonised people in Asia immediately realised the British Empire’s days were numbered.

One night Jim is breaking into the brick-built food store, slowly scratching away at the mortar and removing one brick at a time, when the Jap guards send up a flare and reveal half a dozen Brits amid the camp wire trying to escape. Jim gets caught up in the roundup of the escapees. One of them is his boyhood friend David Hunter.  They are taken to the Jap barracks to be interrogated by camp commander Mr Hyashi, a former diplomat. Jim watches brutal Sergeant Nagata slapping and punching the escapees, sees the blood on David’s blonde hair and the bruises forming on his face.

Jim escapes severe punishment because he knows how to immediately kowtow to the Japs and say the right thing, namely that he likes it in Lunghua camp and wouldn’t dream of escaping, which is in fact true.

Chapter 3. The Japanese Soldiers

The war ends. Rumours sweep the camp of an American superbomb. The Japanese guards disappear. Jim walks out the open doors of the prison camp and describes the flat, waste lands around it, rice paddies and canals stretching for miles.

15-year-old Jim plans to walk back to Shanghai and the home of his parents. The eeriness of the empty landscape, apart from a few dead bodies, is brilliantly captured. Over it all hangs a strange uncanny light, which Jim associates with the light from the bomb. Ballard’s obsession with nuclear weapons starts here. Later he was to learn that the Japs had planned to march them inland to a death camp where they would have been liquidated. This didn’t happen because the Americans dropped the bomb.

In other words, J.G. Ballard owed his life to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so when anxiety about the atom bomb and then the hydrogen bomb steadily grew through the 1950s and 60s he was utterly conflicted: on the one hand sharing the acute anxiety of everyone else that the world might be ended by a nuclear holocaust; at the same time owing his actual existence to the very technology which might at any second wipe out mankind.

You can see why the protagonists of so many of his stories are obsessed with the bomb and with the nuclear test sites at places like Enewatak atoll, epitomised by the extremely disturbing story The Terminal Beach. It’s because they all seek to resolve the contradiction of Ballard’s experience, but never can.

Jim stumbles up to an isolated rural station on the railway line and before he can stop realises it is occupied by four Japanese soldiers. Jim knows about Japanese soldiers. Show respect. Never run. Never show fear. Never argue or disagree.

While three of them potter about or lie with their backs against the wooden station building, one of the Japanese soldiers is slowly tying a Chinese peasant to one of the pillars holding up the roof. Slowly coiling him in telegraph wire they’ve cut down from nearby posts. Jim is forced to watch as the Chinese man is slowly bound and garrotted to death, and every second of his agony, and his imploring eyes, and his gargled noises are imprinted on Jim’s mind, in the hot noonday sun, and the complete silence of this abandoned station.

Time has stopped. This action means nothing. The Japanese know that they are dead and so nothing they do matters.

This scene, this moment and this event, the meaningless death of an unknown citizen which he is forced to watch in silence and stillness for over an hour, under a strange white sky, in an alien landscape – the memory of this scene recurs again and again later in the novel as a symbol for the nexus of inarticulable traumas Jim, and the other camp inhabitants and, by extension, millions of victims of the war, suffered.

For no particular reason, the Jap soldiers let him go and Jim stumbles along the railway lines finally reaching Shanghai and stumbling towards his boyhood home where he is reunited with his parents, who have survived the war at a different camp.

Things are restored to ‘normality’. Jim goes cruising the city with David Hunter who, he discovers, has developed a precocious taste for picking up Eurasian prostitutes and somehow making them so furious that they attack him in a mad frenzy. That’s the bit he wants. Replaying endlessly the beating he got in the camp from Sergeant Nagata.

Then Jim and his mother sail back to England. Even at the last moment, on the last page of the China section, Jim witnesses atrocity. The steamer they’re on passes an American landing craft and the homebound passengers see it is full of Japanese soldiers on their knees, wrists tied behind them, and they are being chivvied onto the beach by armed American soldiers towards a line of Chinese soldiers who have bayonets attached to their rifles and are waiting to bayonet the Japanese to death.

Part II – The Craze Years

I was marooned in a small, grey country where the sun rarely rose above the rooftops, a labyrinth of class and caste forever enlarging itself from within. The English talked as if they had won the war, but behaved as if they had lost it.

Chapter 4. The Queen of the Night

Ballard is a medical student at Cambridge and his work there is epitomised by the Dissection Room. Groups of students are allotted a cadaver and Ballard’s group is the only one to get a woman. Everything else that happens in this chapter is counterpointed by Ballard’s poetic descriptions of how this woman’s body is slowly flayed, the layers peeled back to reveal fat, muscle, tendons and then the vital organs, and he nicknames her the Queen of the Night, and is aware of a sort of psychological hold she has over him.

Ballard doesn’t like Cambridge, he certainly despises everything about his college (King’s College, the oldest and grandest college in Cambridge), disliking the daily madrigal singing in the chapel, seeing the whole place as a kind of flea-ridden tourist attraction.

‘It’s a glorified academic gift shop for American universities, where they can buy some quaint little professor for a few dollars. You need to be a tourist or an au pair girl top get the best out of it.’ (p.104)

That was in the early 1950s. Later, in 1978, he thinks:

Cambridge had expanded into a complex of industrial and science parks, ringed by monotonous housing estates and shopping precincts. At its centre, like the casbah in Tangier, was the antique heart of the university, a stopover for well-disciplined parties of Japanese tourists stepping from their TV-equipped German buses. As an undergraduate I had prayed for a new Thomas Cromwell who would launch the dissolution of the universities, but mass tourism had accomplished this, overwhelming the older European universities as it would soon destroy Rome, Florence, and Venice.

The narrator is desperate to escape the confines of college and get out to see the American bombers at the vast new airfields built across East Anglia for the fleets of bombers carrying nuclear weapons, and is hypnotised by the sight of rich American USAAF officers driving round in their huge shiny American cars, Chryslers and Oldsmobiles.

Again, this theme is reprised towards the end of the book in a way which sheds light on his lifelong obsession:

I parked in a narrow lane and stared through the perimeter fence at the worn concrete beside the nuclear weapons silos. The unsung and unremembered cement was more venerable than all the primped and polished stone of the university. The runways were aisles that led to a more meaningful world, gateways of memory and promise.

Jim sees Peggy, the scrawny teenage girl who helped him so much in the camp, came home on the same ship, and blossomed at her girls boarding school in Sussex. She pops up to Cambridge where the carries on being an older sister, chiding him about his scruffiness, his anti-Cambridge attitude, his obsession with Americans and the bomb. They discuss all this in terms of their experiences at Lunghua camp.

He meets an academic, a psychology professor Dr Richard Sutherland, who studied in America, has an American car, he has a pilot’s license and at weekends flies a gypsy moth, it’s even rumoured he’s been on television! He is ‘fast’, meaning trendy, before the word or concept had been invented.

One of his assistants is a girl still in the 6th form of her school, but knowing and sexy, Miriam who wears stylish American underwear and, he thinks, is probably sleeping with the Prof.

Nonetheless, Miriam seduces young student Jim into an affair and we have one of the first of what will be many, many coolly clinical anatomically precise descriptions of sex which includes what you might call unusual features, him placing his penis against her breast, kissing her armpit, her steering his fingers towards her anus.

Something about their combination of extreme sexuality and extreme clarity and calculation makes them very erotic, but the way that he describes with every one of the women in the book in the same clinical and geometric style made me wonder whether the sex scenes, like possibly everything else in the book, is stylised and contrived and completely untrue.

They make an odd trio: the trendy psychology professor, the haunted student and the sexy schoolgirl, driving out to the American air force bases to watch the nuclear bombers taking off and landing. Characters from an archetypal Ballard story, while the English around them seem remote and alien, p.94.

Chapter 5. The Nato Boys

Jump forward a few years and we learn that Jim has quit medical school and enrolled in the RAF. Still, as we readers know, Ballard will remain obsessed with the role and character and social position of The Doctor throughout his fiction, which is packed with doctor protagonists.

Jim enrolled because he wants to fly the big bombers which will start World War Three. But instead of learning to fly in tense divided Germany, Jim and his other volunteers are packed off to the frozen tundra of Canada, to Sakatchewan, to be precise. The whole chapter is underpinned by the sense that, in the overlit fields around the Lunghua camp, in the inexplicable silence and eeriness of the landscape, Jim realised that World War 2 had ended but World War 3 had begun, except that nobody else had noticed it. (p.106)

This perceptive but deranged conviction also underpins much of his later fiction – the name-changing central figure in The Atrocity Exhibition is trying to start World War 3, except not as we know it. As a kind of display of psychological extremes.

Also I hadn’t really understood the significance for his fiction of the fact that Ballard actually trained as a pilot. Manned flight is one of the central obsessions which recurs again and again throughout his works.

Jim describes the camaraderie in the mess, the national characteristics of the different Nato pilots training there. The Turks find it hardest because of the heavy North American food (waffles, turkey and milk).

Oh and David has accompanied him, the same David Hunter we met in Shanghai, he is going to haunt the novel like Jim’s alter ego. There is a prolonged section where David Hunter takes Jim to a brothel, they get completely hammered, so drunk we find Jim reeling on a bed before throwing up into his trousers which are lying on the floor, while two prostitutes take it in turns to suck David’s penis. David always insists on watching and being watched. Later he takes one of the whores into the bathroom and somehow makes her so angry that she attacks David, really beating and slapping him around the face. Jim simply points out it’s the nearest he can come to the times Sergeant Nagata slapped him round the face. Jim meanwhile tries to tenderly stroke and caress ‘his’ whore who, he realises, is pregnant.

One of the Turks, Captain Artvin, goes missing on a training flight in the Harvard planes they use. A few days later Jim, ignoring regulations and flying freely across the frozen tundra, see what he thinks might be the cabin of a drowned plane in a lake.

Jim tells David. He goes out on a second trip, taking so long to relocate the lake that, on the way back, he runs out of fuel and crash lands his plane on a road half buried under blizzard snow. There’s a funny moment when a mink farmer drives by, eyes the half crashed plane with Jim sitting stunned in the cockpit, then drives on.

The mink farmers hate the pilots who deliberately dive and scare their animals. No love lost on the bleak Canadian tundra. Jim is disciplined at an enquiry, and realises the air force is not for him. Miriam had written him a letter saying she’d got a job on a Fleet Street paper. He wants to return to England and explore her amazing American underwear.

Chapter 6. Magic World

Jump forward and Jim has married Miriam and they have two small children. He is now living in a modest suburban house in Shepperton. He explains some of the mystique of Shepperton, surrounded by water, the River Thames and the gravel quarries.

He takes his small children to a piece of rough ground behind Shepperton Studios where there are disused props to play with and which they call Magic World.

This chapter contains very beautiful descriptions of domestic intimacy, of them making love, but it is mixed up with her first pregnancy and giving birth in the hospital which Miriam found so alienating she insisted the second one was delivered at home, a process Ballard describes with a wonderful evocation of intimacy.

They watch Prof Richard Sutherland from Cambridge, who is now a TV academic and pundit, reporting from Cape Canavarel, one of the new generation of media academics whose role, Ballard perceptively suggests, is to teach ‘the world to feel more at ease with itself’ (p.127).

David Hunter pops by. He carried on the Canadian training, served in Kenya, then flew nuclear-armed Vulcans, drifted along the fringes of private aviation, then bought an aerial photography company (p.128). He has the air of a man scared the past is going to creep up and tap him on the shoulder. Long-term post-traumatic stress. They sit up late over whiskey. David reminds Jim of his experience at the railway station. He’s going back to Shanghai, does Jim want to come with?

Jim says ‘No’. Later in bed with Miriam they discuss it. They touch and fondle and caress and discuss. It is a beautiful evocation of married life. Then her third labour begins and there is a vivid, intimate description of labour, complete with farts and piles, and then the arrival of their third child who Ballard describes with eerie precision, like a visitor from an era millions of years old.

Chapter 7. The Island

Miriam and Jim and their three small children are on holiday in Spain, a place called Ampiabravura. Jim foolishly tries to swim round the headland but is nearly run over by a ferry and ends up clambering ashore on a long isolated sandbank.

Miriam motorboats out with the kids and they discover a remote half-abandoned building, which seems to be occupied by a group of half naked hippies.

Miriam explains he’s been back in England for eighteen years and it’s become clear he’ll never feel at home here. (So if he returned in 1945 this must be 1963. He says they’ve been married for 8 years i.e. married in 1955 when Ballard – born 1930 – was 25)

There’s an extended passage describing the new sun-worshipping beach culture which was being established along the 3,000 mile littoral of the Mediterranean (a feature, a mindset of many of his story, not least The Largest Theme Park in the World from 1989). He and Miriam have very clinical sex in hotel bedrooms and bathrooms, her adopting gymnastic poses against mirrors, watching his reflection. Maybe this happened but it feels very… male.

When they return to the secret house on the sandbank, other people are there, a tall blonde man with long hair, women swimming naked. Early hippies. The man is Peter Lykiard, teaches at Regent Street Poly, there’s another couple, and a young American student, Sally Mumford. They smoke joints, they have copies of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. Groovy.

Jim and Miriam’s little kids love them. Sally is very good with the kids, calls them pixies. Her father is a millionaire, owner of a Boston department store. Miriam feels like a square.

They are all now a big gang and drive to a nearby town to watch a bullfight. Predictably this triggers primeval urges of blood and violence but it triggers Sally to an outburst of insane violence, she goes into the ring at the climax of the fight, tries to ride the bull, gets lots in a melee, they later find her in the compound for bullfighters and their followers being pushed around, her clothes torn, in a daze.

Next day, back at their special beach, the kids are playing supervised by Miriam, Lykiard and the other couple are in the house, Sally comes and lies by Jim, hands him a joint and makes it clear that she is sexually available, resting her breast against his arm. When he doesn’t respond or rise to the bait she simply stands up, not insulted or aggrieved and strolls off.

On page 157 Miriam us skipping down the steps of the villa, when she stumbles and hits her head on the stone edge. The crack is so loud everyone turns. Jim runs over to her as she looks up dazed. They help her into the inflatable dinghy they use to get to and from the sandbank, she struggles to get out at the main beach, they help her to the hotel where Jim calls a doctor. A practicante arrives and at first says they’ll keep her under observation, but only minutes later calls for an ambulance, as Miriam drifts in and out of consciousness, increasingly confused. Jim accompanies her, massaging her legs as she struggles to breathe with an oxygen mask. By the time they reach the hospital she is dead, p.160.

Chapter 8. The Kindness of Women

Miriam is buried in the Protestant cemetery at Fuigueras. All his friends find it hard to look at him. He has the feeling all the women in the world are withdrawing. He packs up their stuff and drives all the way back across Spain and France with a bottle of whiskey between his thighs.

All the past he had tried to reject – all the dead of China and the war, and especially the young Chinese he saw being strangled to death – race up to stare him in the face.

Miriam’s sister, Dorothy and her husband, are waiting to greet them at the Shepperton home. He clears out Miriam’s drawer, underwear and contraceptives. Slowly he reorientates his perspectives to ready himself for a life raising three small children by himself.

In a scene of intense eroticism a hug with Miriam’s sister Dorothy turns into sex as she makes a conscious decision to console him, and partakes of very Ballardian geometric sex in which people position themselves at angles, move penises around, dangle breasts, rearrange thighs and generally come across as pornographic meccano.

Everything I’ve ever experienced of mature English women tells me a) she’d never have done it b) she’d certainly never have had the rather theoretical architectural sex Ballard describes. Can’t help thinking this is utter fantasy.

Ballard describes the everyday misandry of pretty much everyone they know, plus the school and the authorities, all of whom think a father is not capable of bringing up small children. As a househusband who brought up my small children, I encountered exactly the same prejudices in the 2000s.

‘For God’s sake, men are capable of loving their children.’ (p.171)

Peggy drops by for another one of the conversations in which she reviews his life which are a feature of the book. She is now a very self-possessed pediatrician at Guy’s Hospital. They embrace and Jim feels a stirring but Peggy pulls away. She is the sensible older sister in their relationship.

Friends and colleagues are polite, supportive, David Hunter invites him to parties and navigates him towards eligible women, but at the same time there is a conspiracy of silence: none of his friends can bring themselves to mention his dead wife.

The narrator says he almost envies JFK’s widow, at least nobody can try and sweep her grief under the carpet and, in a flash, I realise the vast psychological importance the JFK assassination must have had for Ballard. It happened in the same year his lost his wife – it was a vast public, global outpouring of grief inextricably linked to Ballard’s own domestic private grief.

An English publisher based in New York takes Ballard out to strip clubs in Soho. This gives Ballard an opportunity to mock the explicit but utterly bored, passionless routines of the porno dancers, as formalised as the routines of air hostesses running you through the emergency drill before take-off.

A friend of Miriam’s pops round while the kids are at school and in a mature, open, unembarrassed way persuades Jim to have sex with her while she’s perched on the edge of the spindryer, the vibrations, you see.

Chapter 9. Craze People

It is now the mid-60s and these are represented for Ballard by Prof Lykiard, pipe smoking, running an arts laboratory, exhibitions of Vietnam atrocities, theatre of Cruelty, Burroughs and so on. Invites Ballard to write notes for an exhibition of images based round the JFK assassination. And Sally, who drops by to play with the pixies and is at the epicentre of the 60s maelstrom, high on amphetamines, editing documentaries about warzones, attending spiritualist events, rock concerts.

Ballard is invited to read some of his works at a massive music festival in Sussex. They take the kids, Sally looks after them but she is disconcerted to discover Lykiard having it off with one of the performance artists backstage. Ballard finds her later, beyond the festival boundaries, playing with some horses in a field. Later she insists they drive to the Sussex coast and, while the children watch, she wades out dangerously far into the water, is knocked off her feet and gets into danger of drowning, until Ballard wades out and rescues her. Blankets and the sense that she is a casualty, infinitely vulnerable, psychic damage.

Later that evening, back in Shepperton, the put the pixies to bed, she is bathed and changed and their sitting on the sofa, she snuggles up to him and makes it clear she is available for sex but when it comes to it, asking to be sodomised, turning her buttocks to him, forcing her face into the pillows, offering her hands behind her back so he can grab her wrists and push them upwards, pinning her, hurting her, as she calls out: ‘Bugger me, Daddy! Beat me! Pixie wants to be buggered!’

I found this whole sequence of events intensely erotic, and at the same time you are obviously intended to realise the depth of her psychological damage, her unloving possibly abusive father, her drug addiction, her manic throwing herself into all the hectic art events of the swinging 60s.

And you also wonder, here as in so many other places, whether any of this happened, or it is entirely fictional.

Sally becomes his guide to the heady swirl of the 1960s, and to sexual liberation. He introduces her to Dick Sutherland, the TV scientist, and this allows Ballard to describe his version of the 60s, not a time of utopian hope, but an era when endless images of violence and atrocity blared from TV screens and sex was so blasted in everyone’s faces that emotion and feeling were exterminated.

This, we realise, is the milieu which produced the intense and weird texts which go to make up what I consider to be Ballard’s masterpiece, The Atrocity Exhibition for example he describes Dick Sutherland carrying out trendy psychology experiments such as submitting subjects to intense footage of war atrocities (Vietnam, Congo) and asking questionnaires about its impact on their sex lives.

Well that is exactly the subject of one of the last chapters in The Atrocity Exhibition.

Then one night she is hosting a party at her ramshackle Bayswater digs, packed with performance artists and film-makers, Dick Sutherland and Lykiard are there. But none of them can prevent Ballard stumbling into a spare bedroom where he finds Sally on her back on the quilted top of the laundry basket, her legs hoiked up round the shoulders of a young Spanish photographer whose trousers are round his hips as he steadily, strongly fucks her. Sally stares past the Spaniard at Jim, smiling happily.

That, also, is a lesson about a decade which Ballard sees entirely in terms of its psychic damage and louring threat, atrocity, nuclear war, Vietnam, theatre of cruelty, drugs and betrayal.

Chapter 10. Kingdom of Light

17 June 1967. Under the supervision of long-time friend, TV pundit and psychologist Richard Sutherland, Ballard has an acid trip, described in terms almost identical to the prolonged fantasia which is his novel, The Unlimited Dream Company. He realises that

Shepperton was a solar garden, a sleeping paradise waiting to be woken from every stone and leaf. (p.206)

which is very much the subject of The Unlimited Dream Company.

The kids are taken out by Cleo Churchill, a childrens book editor Jim’s met at one of Sutherland’s many swinging parties who turns out to live locally and be happy to babysit sometimes, and takes them to Shepperton Park by the river. In fact, later on and well into the acid trip, Sutherland takes a phone call in Ballard’s study, taking his eye off his ward, who gets up and sleepwalks, staggers through prisms of light, as far as Shepperton Park where he sees his children, but especially Chloe Churchill, transformed into a Gustave Moreau archangel, sheathed in multi-coloured lights.

By now I doubt whether anything like this happened, but it is convenient because it means whenever Chloe pops up in the rest of the book, Ballard can have acid flashbacks of her as a rainbow angel of glory.

Sutherland had pitched filming Ballard taking the acid as a programme proposal to the head of documentaries at the BBC. This brings out Sutherland’s popularity but he’s not actually a part of the machine. And the text repeats his justification of acid, namely that the world most of us perceive, made up of discrete objects, with their correct places, governed by laws of gravity and geometry and, above all, by a sense of consecutive Time, are entirely artefacts of the central nervous system and brain which we have evolved to help us cope and manage the objects, other people and other animals around us. But they aren’t the truth. Taking acid isn’t like getting drunk or stoned. It goes far deeper than that, it reveals the world the human nervous system spends most of its time hiding us from.

Having taken acid a dozen or so times I couldn’t agree more. One trip is enough to show you the absolute wonder and amazement of what the human senses are actually perceiving every second of every day – but which are repressed, turned off, ignored so we can get on with being the instrumental, purposive, time-focused animals we are.

Delete all those repressive mechanisms and you experience the central nervous system without its locks and gates, you experience ‘reality’ unleashed. More accurately, you experience the overwhelming flood of sensations which are bodies are receiving all the time, but which the evolved CNS suppresses.

From a literary point of view it’s interesting to see that Ballard uses a lot of the phraseology and imagery which made such an impact in The Crystal World i.e. everyday objects are invested with multiple-angled shards of light, as if embedded in jewels.

My arms and legs were dressed in light, sheathes of mother-of-pearl that formed a coronation armour. (p.203)

In the aftermath, everything seems grey and drab. Shepperton has exhausted itself. A few days later Peggy Gardner drops by. She is more than ever the prim, respectable, professional spinster. Predictably she disapproves of the acid trip and especially the way Sutherland uses Jim in his psychological-TV-media experiments.

But Ballard links it back to Shanghai, Lunghua and the primal scene in chapter three, the four Japanese soldiers torturing a Chinese to death while Jim looks on in terror in an alien landscape. Now, when Ballard repeats his characteristically Ballard ideas, we have a much deeper sense of where they come from.

When he speculates that war is how nations escape from time it sort of makes sense. Certainly if you’ve read British war memoirs, it’s striking how many men were drifting or unhappy, and the call-up in August 1914 liberated many of them from the sense of inevitability and duty and failure implicit in the idea of having to get a career, get on in the world etc. For the duration of the war all those worriers were suspended.

But Ballard means something deeper and expresses it with a surreal logic which is distinctively his, the notion that the Japanese soldiers wanted were waiting for the next war, and that their torture of the Chinese was an attempt to provoke the next war into starting, so they could be free again. It’s only as irrational as thousands of other religious rites and rituals and invocations and calls on the gods or the world to do what we want.

If you fully enter Ballard’s imaginative world, if you buy into his premises, if you experience his experiences – then this kind of claim makes complete sense. Otherwise, you remain on the outside.

All that said, a few weeks later Sutherland is due to pop round with another dose of acid. Jim is at the door seeing off Cleo who has, again, obligingly agreed to take the kids to Magic World, she calmly disapproves, the kids run up to Jim shouting, ‘Come on Daddy, come with us’ and… He does. Once was enough. He turns his back on Dick Sutherland’s dubious psych experiments. As they say in Trainspotting – Choose life.

Chapter 11. The Exhibition

Sally Mumford is back. She’s progressed from speed to heroin and her arms are covered in needle marks and sores, but she still lovers the kids. For Ballard she represents all the toxic hysteria of the 1960s (or Ballard has invented her as a symbol of the same):

Like so many others at the end of the 60s, that ten-year pharmaceutical trial, she thought of the media landscape as a life-support system, force feeding a diet of violence and sensation into her numbed brain. (p.215)

In fact reading that quote at the start of this chapter makes me realise that Ballard is artfully introducing his key theme. As I’ve explained in my reviews of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, those books contain fairly straightforward explanations of his obsession with extreme pornography and car crashes, which is that a diet of super-violent war images and atrocities (epitomised by the endless replaying of the JFK assassination) has numbed and desensitised people, so only extremes of sex and sensation can reconnect them.

Reinforcing the mood of hysteria, we are reintroduced to David Hunter who is becoming more deranged. As the years pass he seems to blame Ballard more and more for Miriam’s death. He’s never read any of Ballard’s books, pointing out that he knows the key, the master plot, already. David gives him a lift back from London and goes and parks his car outside a posh Belgravia house out of which emerges a smart little man who David then menaces with his car. It is the Japanese ambassador. And so on.

By this stage I had realised that The Kindness of Women is a kind of handbook, or set of case studies, in post-traumatic stress survivors.

David now flies vintage cars in displays. He invites Ballard and Sally and the kids to one. Although his real passion is saloon car racing at Brands Hatch. He has twice been cautioned for dangerous driving. The reader who knows their Ballard knows where this is all heading.

David is driving Sally back from the air display when they crash, near the approach to Chertsey Road. Ballard follows on later and so is slowed down by the police who are managing the traffic flow past the wrecked cars. David and Sally are both fine, unscathed, but Ballard gets a look of them posed in driving seat and back seat, both frozen in time, staring into space, covered in broken windscreen glass, described in exactly the same phrases which fill Crash.

I was struck by their self-conscious pose, like dancers arrested in an audience-catching flourish at the end of their performance…the postures they assumed within the cabin of the Jaguar, as if they were memorising for future use the exact geometry of Sally’s exposed thighs and the ribbed leather of the upholstery, the precise angle between David’s crutch and the jut and rake of the steering wheel. (p.219)

Did this ever happen? Or is it an entirely fictional recreation of the scenes and phraseology of Crash? Ballard notices the number of people who’ve stopped to gawp at the crashed cars, some of them have got cine cameras out to film the scene. It is, he realises, a new type of street theatre, hypnotic attraction to a pile-up of technology which is somehow linked to the television and its relentless diet of violence and atrocity.

Subsequently David and Sally make complete recoveries, the latter driving Jim back up to London in her dangerous MG while explaining that the thrill of driving dangerously with the ever-present risk of a crash is identical to the motivation of the bullfight (remember the bullfighting scene back in chapter 7, aha, that’s why that was there: to prepare us for this speech), updated to the late 20th century.

Sally is lost in the maze of streets in Marylebone when a sports car surges out of a side street, nearly crashes into them, and hurtles off. Ballard had just had time to grab the wheel and steer the MG out of its path, while Sally did an emergency brake.

It was David. Sally explains that he follows her around, then she follows him. They pretend to crash into each other. This is the plot of Crash. Really rammed home when Sally takes Jim’s hand, puts is between her legs so he can feel how wet she is, and they proceed to have typically clinical Ballard sex amid the clutter of steering wheels and handbrakes, while both of them are aware of David Hunter (aha! his name! was his bland name chosen to lead up to this scene all along) roams the streets of London in his fast car, hunting for prey.

Hunter is, in fact, recreating the endless games of hide and seek which Ballard described them both playing through the vast metropolis of Shanghai, back in their innocent boyhoods. Or is he? Are both fictional inventions?

Cut to the exhibition of crashed cars which Ballard staged at Dick Sutherland’s experimental Arts Theatre Laboratory for four weeks in 1969. Ballard quotes the program notes which claim the car crash is a vector focusing all the violence and anxieties of the age (not least of thermonuclear war) into an event which happens daily, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands each year, and yet which is celebrated on TV and in movies, is presented as a form of entertainment (p.226).

At the opening night the guests behave appallingly, getting drunk, throwing up on the cars, urinating on and in them, fights break out and Sally is nearly raped in the back seat of the smashed-up Lincoln, until rescued by Ballard and Chloe Churchill, who has come along to be a voice of reason amid the madness, although Ballard, typically listens to her sensible comments but sees her reincarnated as the angle of light he saw during his acid trip.

Driving back from that party, Ballard is following Sally in her MG when he becomes entranced in their game and, accidentally-on-purpose, clips the rear fender of her car. This sends her into a zig zag but Ballard loses control of his own car which, as he brakes, veers into the fast lane, one of its tyres explodes, it crashes against the central reservation, turned onto its side and then upside down, skids at speed on its roof, Ballard hanging upside down from his safety belt, into the oncoming traffic.

The emergency services soon arrive, drag him out onto the grass verge, a figure pushes through the quickly assembling crowd and flicks a cigarette lighter lowering it to his face. It is Sally, forensically fascinated to examine his expression, as clinical as Ballard had been when he flayed and unpeeled the dead carcass back at medical school.

There’s a coda: in the last days of the 1960s Ballard attends a demolition derby held at a disused football ground in the East End, as the drivers crash into each other, one of whom is David Hunter who, after he’s crashed out of the competition lies back in his shattered cabin while Sally Mumford in white jeans and crimson jacket yells at him.

Did any of this happen? It feels very very pat, just so, and when Ballard references the Hell Drivers of Shanghai which he had described in chapter one, the reader wonders whether anyone’s actual life could be so wonderfully choreographed and thematically linked.

Chapter 12. In The Camera Lens

Jim is at a film festival in Brazil with Dick Sutherland, who he first met at Cambridge in the early 1950s and have watched morph into an early example of that new social type, the media don, the science presenter. Dick and Jim are attending a film festival in Copacabana.

This chapter neatly captures the way a lot of the behaviours which (apparently) seemed so liberating in the 1960s when they broke through the grey carapace of austerity Britain, somehow came to seem corrupt and tacky and embarrassing in the 1970s e.g. casual sex, drugs (specifically cocaine), flares, long hair, experimental films, TV and foreign jollies

The festival mainly consists of ogling the stunningly sexy Brazilian women taking part in various parades, and attending endless parties. In two brief surreal scenes he finds himself being introduced to the cast of Star Trek, already grey-haired and uncomfortably acting the roles they’ll be famous for till they die, who look like ‘venerable morticians’ (p.238) and to the legendary film director Fritz Lang.

Both encounters add to Ballard’s sense that we all live in a sort of heightened reality TV show. The centrepiece of the festival is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which, in fact, a glance at Wikipedia tells me was released in May 1968. (Elsewhere in this blog I’ve reviewed the Arthur C. Clarke novel and sequels)

Characteristically, Sutherland is said to be running an alternative festival of science documentaries, and some of these are right up Ballard’s alley. They include a film documenting the treatment of extreme sex offenders, which included varieties of aversion therapy i.e. showing them images of children or vulnerable women and then giving them electric shocks or emetics. Ballard didn’t watch the film, he stood and watched the audience, mainly made up of documentary filmmakers and psychologists who sit entranced, occasionally oohing with appreciation as the patients are given electric shocks or vomit, exactly – says Ballard waspishly – as the devotees in a Soho sex theatre sit entranced, occasionally murmuring their approval at a particularly graphic sex scene.

This leads up to the kind of gnomic remark you suspect Ballard is proud of: ‘In the future everyone will need to be a film critic to make sense of anything’ (p.241). I can see this emblazoned in huge letters over the entrance to the hundreds of Media Studies courses now taught all across the UK and beyond. It sounds good, but it’s not really true. It’s a very dated idea. Nowadays being a data analyst would be more help. As far as I can tell, media studies like gender studies and queer studies and all the rest are stuck in a time warp, still reading Marxist, psycho-analytical, structuralist, post-structuralist and feminist theory, while the world we inhabit has moved on.

A leading film critic on a Rio newspaper introduces our two middle-aged Englishmen to two Rio hookers, Carmen and Fortunata. This is the beginning of Dick and Jim’s ‘odyssey’ which the reader immediately spots is a kind of satirical counterpoint to what Ballard thought was Kubrick and Clarke’s overblown space fantasy.

The Rio hookers take our heroes back to their knocking shop which is two rooms adjacent to a sweatshop in which lots of other poor women manufacture mementos of the film festival, stapling together posters of Robert Redford or Jane Fonda, amid the din of the printworks. The scene also counterpoints the scene in chapter five where David and Jim spent the night with two Canadian whores in a double bedroom.

The general idea is to show the ubiquity of prostitution, and the surprising light it sheds on modern sexuality. There’s a striking moment when Jim’s hooker, Carmen, asks if he wants to film them having sex – a camera and tripod are set up in the corner, obviously it’ll cost extra. That’s not the jolt. The jolt comes when she says, maybe he’d like film of it so he can show his girlfriend. Or his wife. The fact that the equipment is set up and she knows about it, demonstrates that this is common enough to be a commercial venture i.e. it sheds light on modern marriage. Well, some modern marriages.

Dick had (wisely) refused to even enter the ‘bedroom’ of his hooker, Fortunata, it was so filthy, dishevelled, the sheets stained with mucus and lubricant and spermicidal jelly like the car bay at a garage. Instead, when Jim finally finishes fucking Carmen, and she professionally scoops his leaking semen into a succession of tissues, Jim slowly dresses and opens the door back into the workshop to find Richard and Fortunata running round it throwing tatty tourist mementos at each other. A sort of comic counterpoint to the end of the Canada prostitute story in which David provoked his hooker into smacking his face, in memory of Sergeant Nagata.

In a kind of coda, or punchline scene, the Rio film critic hosts a massive party at his mansion, where Jim, sauntering around, comes across a room which has been sealed off, which turns out to be full of lights and technicians and cameramen etc where Carmen is on hands and knees, doggy fashion, and a vexed dog handler is fondling the genitals of a German shepherd. They are trying to get the dog to get an erection and to penetrate Carmen from behind, while she flicks back her hair and looks behind her in boredom, and the host ans various other guests stand around holding their wine glasses and chatting.

Ballard describes all this as if this level of intense pornography is the future, tied to the rise and rise of desensitising TV. But I disagree. I think that vision of a world totally corrupted by TV and pornography is itself very dated, very 70s, dragging on into the 80s, and ended up being a misleading guide to what actually happened.

And now, in 2020, we live in a world where unlimited hard-core pornography is available to anyone at the click of a mouse and yet, the interesting thing about the vast parallel universe of porn on the internet is not that it exists – it’s that so many people choose not to watch it most of the time.

Chapter 13. The Casualty Station

David Hunter has been sent to a mental institute, Summerfield Hospital in south London. Here Ballard visits him, reflecting on the sequence of events that brought them there, and noting the behaviour of the other insane patients. David is pretty compos mentis as mental cases go. Ballard takes a chessboard, they play chess, and David always palms a piece before the end of the game so Ballard will have to come back.

They chat about old times. We are informed that Sally has decamped to Scotland, staying with a friend of her rich father’s trying out the then-new methadone treatment for heroin addiction. This follows her turning up at Shepperton a few months earlier, utterly string out on heroin, refusing to talk or be touched, striding up and down the kids empty bedrooms, ransacking the cupboards for their old toys. Jim takes her to his GP who recommends a specialist who recommends a nursing home on the Thames, and then onto Scotland.

David went back to Shanghai, something Jim says he can’t do, David hunted for the isolated railway station which is the recurrent image of the novel, but couldn’t find it. (The reader suspects this is because it never existed, but was a fictional symbol invented by Ballard.) David points out the car crash exhibition was simply Ballard’s way of re-enacting the atrocity he witness. ‘At a few removes’.

It was car crashing that brought him to the asylum. He and Sally developed a cult of driving up one-way streets the wrong way and one night in London had a head-on collision with a woman cellist who was killed instantly. It was only his demented gibbering at the scene and his RAF record in Kenya which saved him from a manslaughter charge. Instead he was sent to Repton mental home and now here.

In Ballard’s view, David had tried to recreate the cruelty he experienced in China, not realising that the psychopathic, TV-addicted, atrocity newsreel footage-driven 60s was egging him on. He’s just one among tens of thousands of casualties of the 1960s.

The third of Ballard’s representative trio is the TV don, Dick Sutherland and he emerged from the 60s with flying colours, making a series of pop science documentaries, notably one which used the latest fibre-optic technology to film inside the body especially, of course inside the uterus during sex etc, as well as setting up an Institute for Sexual Research, funded by a New York publisher.

It’s a funny thing, but the more Ballard talks about sex and the sex studies and practices of his characters, the more dated the book feels, reminding you that these events happened almost 50 years ago, in a very different time and place, where simply filming sex acts between humans to appear in ‘scientific’ documentaries appeared revolutionary.

When Professor Sutherland sounds off, in one of their stage-managed conversations, telling Jim that there’s going to be more and more sex in the future, so much so that it is going to create ‘new forms of social structure’ – it sounds as dated and, in its way, as childish as Space 1999 or UFO or Joe 90 or all those other TV series for kids which predicted colonies on the moon and everyone wearing zip-up plastic suits by 1999.

Didn’t turn out like that, did it.

We learn that Sally let herself be persuaded to take part in some of Dick’s experiments, let fibre-optic cables be inserted in her vagina while she had sex with a laboratory volunteer, as well as close-ups of every erogenous zone of her body. Slowly she came to think of herself as a set of dismembered parts, eventually expecting to see huge blow-ups of her nipples or clitoris on roadside billboards or upholstering the banquettes of trendy 70s nightclubs. Thus she went to pieces, almost literally.

Peggy Gardner is the last of the set of recurring characters (what David sardonically refers to as ‘the old Shanghai firm’, p.274) which, the reader realises, structure the narrative and allow Ballard to meditate on the fate of his contemporaries.

She turns up for drinks in Shepperton, and they have a couple of pages chatting about how things have turned out. Into her mouth Ballard puts quite severe criticisms of his (Ballard’s) attitude, how he manipulated everyone around him (Dick, Sally, David) to act out his nightmares, how the exhibitions, the drugs, the weird sex and the intense stories are all part of the same indictment. He patronises her a bit, telling her how she’s always looked after her so well and she slaps him in the face, drawing blood.

Rather disappointingly, this leads to sex, described with the same clinical detachment as all the other acts of coitus, and the strange angles of thighs and vulvas and penises as all the other descriptions.

Now this chapter returns to its opening scene, with Jim sitting at a table in Summerfield Hospital playing chess with David. The entire text has been very carefully crafted and arranged as a description of both what happened at the end of the 1960s and how the Shanghai firm had managed.

One of the other patients, a deranged old lady who had been taking daffodils from all the vases in the communal area and laying them carefully in a line at the entrance to a window alcove, has a fit and turns her brimming cup of tea. This is, in a way, a key scene. Jim had observed the woman unable to reconcile the light shining off the brimming meniscus of tea in her cup with the polished glare of the hard floor. Eventually she thinks her way through the problem to the solution and upends her cup, sending tea splashing all over the table and the skirt of the woman handing it out. Who promptly gets furious, grabs the feeble old woman’s wrist and gives her such a push, she sends her collapsing onto the floor.

Ballard is up out of her seat, and goes to her protection, taking her in his arms and then lifting her off the floor, she is so thing and wasted, and taking her down the corridor to the safety of her room. As he carries her, she repeats pitifully, ‘Jesus told me to.’ The point is, if you’ve read enough Ballard, you understand her. You feel, as she did, the mental pain of these conflicting geometries (shimmering liquid v. hard tabletop) and you grasp the Einsteinian brilliance of her solution. To marry hard and soft by spilling the tea, by trying to integrate these conflicting realities.

Jim says goodbye to David, promising to be back in a fortnight and making a mental note to bring daffodils for the mad old lady, and… we understand why.

Part III – After The War

Chapter 14. Into The Daylight

As the 1970s progressed, Sally had disappeared back to America to address her drug habit and other addictions. One day, to his surprise, four years after she left (eight years after the decade’s end so, presumably, 1978), Ballard gets a call and it’s Sally, not only back in the UK, but married! with a child! and living in rural contentment in Norfolk!

Ballard drives out to see Sally, stopping off at Cambridge en route to discover it is now a land of business parks and Japanese tourists. Chez Sally he discovers her little girl, Jackie, is mentally disabled, but is touched by the way Sally is madly in love with her and, when her husband returns from work, with him too.

[Jackie] stared at her father with her trusting, fixed smile, as if she were crossing the world at a slight angle to the rest of us.

The chapter has a second theme, like a piece of classical music, which is that Sally’s husband, Edward, is an amateur archaeologist and along with friends has undertaken a programme of excavating old World War Two airplanes from the mud of Norfolk estuaries where they’ve crashed.

David turns up. He’s been released from the mental home. He’s married an Asian woman and is running an airfreight company in Brussels. The presence of these two leads to nostalgic conversations, with an autumnal feeling.

Then there is the gruesome event at the heart of the chapter. Edward and his hearty beer-drinking team of enthusiasts have hired a hoist which they use to lift their latest find clear of the river mud. It is a spitfire. But as it rises the narrator realises its cockpit glass is unshattered and unopened. The pilot is still inside. Or what’s left of him. Jim and Sally are suddenly stiff with concern as David makes his way over to it and insists on helping to open the cockpit and inspect the insides, which, as they spray cleaning water into it, reveals a rotted uniform, straps and, slowly emerging, a skull and bones.

A week or so later there is an official burial service. Jim attends along with David and is impressed that his old buddy wears his official RAF uniform and stands to attention. In a weird touch, he brings along a Korean he only half knows. Jim realises the Korean is the closest he could find to a Japanese. He needed an Asiatic to bear witness ‘to the interment of all his resentments of the past forty years.’ I found this intensely moving.

Chapter 15. The Final Programme

After a career pursuing TV fame, Dick Sutherland has been diagnosed with cancer and is dying. This gives Ballard the opportunity to put into his mouth a series of witty paradoxes and insights about modern medicine, and the treatment of cancer in particular.

But, trooper to the last, Sutherland has persuaded a TV company to make a documentary filming his last months and persuaded them to take Jim, by now a famous novelist and old pal, to be his interviewer. The idea is that Jim will go to his home, or hospital bed, and interview Dick as he declines.

As you might expect it’s a bumpy ride, with Dick and Jim initially chewing over their glory days in the 1960s, the space programme, adventures in science, but with each successive interview these reassuring totems of the past disappear and the final interview is cancelled. Jim arrives but after a brief conversation Dick dismisses him, the film crew and the outside world and shuts his bedroom door. Two weeks later Jim turns up just in time to see him being wheeled on a gurney into an ambulance, his face sucked into the oxygen mask, his body coiled with plastic tubes like the young Chinese man the boy Jim watched being garrotted to death.

Chapter 16. The Impossible Palace

Paradoxically, Dick’s death exhilarates Jim. He feels liberated, released, energised to pursue his work, It as if the whole of the past has been burned along with Dick’s body at the crematorium. In a sentence which is important for critics or fans of his work, he writes:

 By demystifying his own death he had freed me from any fears of my own. For the first time since the birth of my children I felt that I was wholly done with the past and free to construct a new world from the materials of the present and future.

So was it writing Empire of the Sun which liberated Ballard from the past and left him much more interested in writing stories about the present day? Or was it the death of this old friend which liberated him from his obsessions, set him free to write about the strangeness of the present day? Or are both blinds to something else which happened?

Anyway, in this chapter Ballard walks down to the fair on Shepperton Green. The chapter is written in the style of The Unlimited Dream Company, full of images of light, and beauty, and time suspended. Cleo Churchill, the friend of his wife’s who was such a good friend to Jim and babysat his kids on countless occasions, is with him as he goes through mementos of Dick Sutherland’s life, sent him by Dick’s sister.

This mood of sensitive elegy moves seamlessly into their holding each other, then embracing, then going up to the bedroom and slowly undressing. Ballard has, by now, perfected a peculiarly detached and clinical way of describing sex, which, nonetheless, manages to be touching and affectionate. Maybe because of the complete honesty and openness it implies between the lovers.

I held Cleo’s breasts in my hands, touching the blue veins that ran past her broad nipples, and caressed away the pink grooves left by the wiring of her brassiere. I kissed a small scar in her armpit, relic of a childhood I had never known, and ran my lips through the shoal of silver stretch marks, like seeds of time spilled across her abdomen by Ceres herself as she sowed her fields. She held my penis in her hands, rolling it gently between her palms, her fingers drawing on my scrotum. Phallic corridors receded from us, an erotic labyrinth in an impossible palace. When I kissed Cleo’s nipples a battalion of lovers bent their heads. I sat on the bed as she knelt on the carpet between my knees, her forearms resting on my thighs. She took the head of my penis in her mouth, touching the tip of my urethra with her tongue, then sank deeper to hold the shaft between her teeth, biting lightly on the swollen muscle.

They become lovers or partners or whatever the correct terminology is. Thus on the day that the documentary about Dick’s death is broadcast they decide to go outside and celebrate life by hiring a boat and cruising down the Thames to Runnymede. (Many of the chapters have this structure, of two major themes or events juxtaposed.)

They cruise as far as the Kennedy Memorial (which I have visited and photographed) and which, inevitably gives rise to reflections from Ballard, absolutely obsessed with the Kennedy assassination as his fiction is.

I thought of the role that Kennedy and his assassination had played in my own life, and how his televised images had shaped the imagination of the 1960s. Stills from the Zapruder film had seemed more poignant than a Grünewald crucifixion.

Now they are accidental bystanders of a death and a resurrection. It’s a sunny day beside the Thames and a wife is reversing their car to push the trailer for a speed boat across a narrow beach into the river so that the husband can man-handle the boat, in the water, onto the just-submerged trailer. There is a little girl in the back seat and as the wife loses control of the trailer it drags the car into the river where the tide takes it. The girl is screaming and beating on the closed windows as the car sinks under the water level. Ballard bounds forward and tries to open the back door but the car skews away from him, as the husband leaves go of the boat which drifts across the river, hitting another cruiser, while two or three men steady the car and push it back up onto the shallow beach, no sign of the girl.

When they open the back door the river water rushes out and they find the girl’s body curled up on the floor, lifeless and limp. Cleo is clutching Ballard’s shirt and crying her eyes out, when a bare-kneed, red-eyed, bearded hiker approaches along the Thames-side path (one I’ve walked many times) suddenly grasps the meaning of the scene in front of him, pushes through the crowd, takes the girl, snicks an obstruction out of her throat and pulls forward her tongue, and on one movement, slicks down his beard, covers her nose and mouth in his mouth and breathes out, takes his mouth away, and pushes her diaphragm. She chokes up the water in her lungs, coughs and splutters and her hysterical mothers clutches her, as the hiker clambers to his feet, reclaims his backpack from a nearby couple and walks on along the path while people are still coping with the sudden turnaround in events.

Who was he?

Chapter 17. Dream’s Ransom

The narrator takes part in the filming of a scene from Empire of the Sun on location in a mansion in Sunningdale, fifteen minutes drive from his long-time home in Shepperton. Many of his friends and neighbours in Shepperton have always worked as extras in the films made at the massive studios there, and now, surreally, he finds many of them playing bit parts in a scene from his own boyhood. Is this why he and Miriam chose to live there all those years ago? Did he have a premonition of how are and life would link up? He even meets a bright-eyed twelve-year-old wearing his old school uniform who steps up and brightly says: ‘Hello, I’m you’. It must be the boy Christian Bale who plays him in the Steven Spielberg film version of Empire.

Then (so many of these chapters come in two parts or themes) he and Cleo (who is obviously now his partner) fly to Hollywood to attend the premiere of the film about his boyhood. He has all kinds of mixed feelings.

‘I think the actors felt that I was the odd man out, the only one who wasn’t real. Most of them had been back to Shanghai.’
‘You could have gone with them.’
‘I know, but I hadn’t the nerve. I wasn’t ready to face everything again—I’ve spent my whole life trying to sort it out. This is the right way to go back to Shanghai, inside a film…’

They check into a hotel and drive around Hollywood which, of course, confirms all his fantasies of Americana which he has been besotted by since he was a boy. He is dazzled and bewildered by the forty-foot-high billboards advertising the film version of his own boyhood back at him.

One afternoon Cleo is out shopping when there’s a ring at the room doorbell and a sophisticated lady waltzes in. It is Olga, who was his superior and impoverished nanny all those years ago, back in Shanghai. Now she is married to a rich American ear and nose surgeon (Mr Edward R. Weinstock). She is brisk and businesslike as they review her struggle to survive in wartorn China, he takes her to lunch, back at their apartment she briskly strips him and they make love.

As at other moments in the book, and quite often at moments when he has sex with the various women, you can’t help feeling contrived, just so and pat the patterns he’s making are. It is an artful ending to the book, rounding things out, finally living out the sexual fantasies about his 17-year-old nanny when he had been a pubertal 12-year-old. And he describes it with a bit of gee-whizz Ballard style:

The film of our life rushed backwards through the projector, devouring itself as it hunted for some discarded moment that held the key to our earliest selves.

In the very last scene, a week after the premiere of Empire, Jim and Cleo make their way down to the Pacific at Venice Beach. And as they watch bronzed Californians launch a replica of Thor Heyerdahl’s papyrus ship, Ra, looking at happy people enjoying the free ocean, Jim realises he is healed.

The time of desperate stratagems was over, the car crashes and hallucinogens, the deviant sex ransacked like a library of extreme metaphors. Miriam and all the murdered dead of a world war had made their peace. The happiness I had found had been waiting for me within the modest reach of my own arms, in my children and the women I had loved, and in the friends who had made their own way through the craze years.

It is an immensely satisfying, carefully arranged and moving conclusion to what is probably his best, most wide-ranging, honest and humane book.

CONCLUSION

By the end I suspected that none of these people ever existed (except for his wife and three children, that much is documentary fact) and quite possibly none of these events ever happened (except the car crash exhibition, that much is on the public record.) Apart from those handful of facts, everything else seems just too pat and contrived and perfectly poised to have anything to do with the chaotic sequence of events known as ‘life’.

Anyway, much bigger than the artfulness of its construction, what makes it a really beautiful book, in my opinion, is the breadth of its COMPASSION.

I was in the operating theatre when my wife had our second child and Ballard’s description of assisting at the birth of his daughter is one of the most moving things I’ve read, because of the way it captures complete intimacy between husband and wife.

The portrait of the excitable young woman, Sally, and the sequence of discovering her boyfriend with someone else, then trying to drown herself off the Sussex coast, and then of Ballard rescuing her, bringing her home, bathing and dressing her and then, slowly, making love to her in the stylised way she needs, is full of complexities of compassion and feeling you don’t often read in novels. It is a kind of compromised compassion, a compassion which knows there is something self-serving in its motives but cares and loves nonetheless.

And the on-again, off-again relationship with his best friend and rival and damaged alter ego, David Hunter, this rises to several moments of deep compassion and love.

And it’s worth rereading the passages where Ballard has sex with two prostitutes, one in Canada, one in Brazil, to really process the tenderness which informs his approach. He ends up stroking the small of the back of the hooker in Canada because he discovers she is pregnant and, after their weird Ballardian clinical sex is over, he carries on being interested in her and her life and soothes and strokes her in a companionate, non-sexual way.

And when he goes to the rescue of the stricken old mad lady, Doreen, in David’s asylum, that is a kind of quintessence of compassion, helping the helpless elderly.

In other words, this book contains scenes of horror and atrocity – notably the central event of the young Chinese being garrotted – and it deliberately contains scenes of lucid and detached sexuality which some might find fetishly exciting and some might find cold and repellent…

But, for me, the enduring legacy of the book is an overwhelming feeling of love and compassion, all the more amazing for way these rare plants managed to survive and flourish in a world containing so much violence and atrocity and numbing stimulations and cheap (or expensive) thrills.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican

Barbican Art does things big – exhaustively and exhaustingly BIG. To quote the press release:

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a major group exhibition that explores how masculinity is experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works by over 50 pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annette Messager and Catherine Opie to show how photography and film have been central to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

300 works! I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the optimum number of works which should be included in an exhibition. Or the optimum number of contributors.

The Piranesi exhibition I went to last week contained 60 images and that was too many to process: I ended up studying about ten of the best. But 300 images! And over 50 contributors! Each with a long and detailed explanatory wall label explaining their career and motivation and the genesis and point of their particular exhibit.

It’s less like an exhibition than a degree course!

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

A degree course in Gender Studies. because Masculinities: Liberation through Photography tends to confirm my sense that, for many modern artists and for most modern art curators, gender and sexual identity are the only important subjects in the world. Thus, according to Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican:

‘In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men’s rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become the subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity.’

In fact quoting this much makes me think it might be most effective simply to quote the entire press release, so you can see exactly where the Barbican Art curators are coming from, without any editorial comment by me. So here it is:

With ideas around masculinity undergoing a global crisis and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity. Presented across six sections by over 50 international artists to explore the expansive nature of the subject, the exhibition touches on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family. The works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces.

Seeking to disrupt and destabilise the myths surrounding modern masculinity, highlights include the work of artists who have consistently challenged stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity, including Collier Schorr, Adi Nes, Akram Zaatari and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs, 2018 draws on the mythology of the American West and the rugged cowboy. Contis spent four years immersed in an all-male liberal arts college north of Death Valley meditating on the
intimacy and violence that coexists in male-only spaces.

Untitled (Neck), 2015 by Sam Contis © Sam Contis

Complicating the conventional image of the fighter, Thomas Dworzak’s acclaimed series Taliban consists of portraits found in photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these vibrant portraits depict Taliban fighters posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Trans masculine artist Cassils’ series Time Lapse, 2011, documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training programme reflecting on ideas of masculinity without men.

Elsewhere, artists Jeremy Deller, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra dismantle preconceptions of subjects such as the wrestler, the bodybuilder and the athlete and offer an alternative view of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.

The exhibition examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Toxic masculinity is further explored in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual which weaves together archival photographs of former US Presidents and Supreme Court Justices who all belonged to the fraternity system, alongside images depicting the initiation ceremonies and parties that characterise these male-only organisations.

With the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement through the 1960s followed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the exhibition showcases artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz, who increasingly began to disrupt traditional representations of gender and sexuality.

Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977, classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco and Sunil Gupta’s street photographs captured the performance of gay public life as played out on New York’s Christopher Street, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

Street Fashion: Jock from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016 by Hal Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London

Other artists exploring the performative aspects of queer identity include Catherine Opie’s seminal series Being and Having, 1991, showing her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community sporting false moustaches, tattoos and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Bo from Being and Having by Catherine Opie (1991) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Elle Pérez’s luminous and tender photographs explore the representation of gender non-conformity and vulnerability, whilst Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented portraits explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.

During the 1970s women artists from the second wave feminist movement objectified male sexuality in a bid to subvert and expose the invasive and uncomfortable nature of the male gaze. In the exhibition, Laurie Anderson’s seminal work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, documents the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side, while Annette Messager’s series The Approaches (1972) covertly captures men’s trousered crotches with a long-lens camera.

German artist Marianne Wex’s encyclopaedic project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1977) presents a detailed analysis of male and female body language, and Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) portrays male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits…

Thus the press release for this huge exhibition. I’ve quoted it at length so you can:

  • get an overview of the exhibition’s contents
  • get a sense of the thinking behind the exhibition
  • get familiar with the dated sociological jargon which is used throughout – ‘interrogate’, ‘challenge’, ‘disrupt’, ‘heteronormative’, ‘male gaze’, ‘patriarchy’

So you can see the curators’ point of view and intentions before I start critiquing them.


The complete irrelevance of any of these ‘masculinities’ to my own life and experience

Almost none of the art or artists in this exhibition bore any relation to my experiences as a boy, teenager, young man, adult man, working man, husband, and then father of my own son. I thought it was quite an achievement to feature so much work by so many artists claiming to speak for or about ‘masculinity’ or men, but which managed to touch on so little of my own personal life experiences of ‘masculinity’.

I took photos of the wall captions as I went round the exhibition and so, as a sample, here are the subjects of the first 15 or so displays, with the exact subject matter of the sets of photographs highlighted in bold:

  1. Taliban warriors by Thomas Dworzak
  2. Beirut fighters by Fouad Elkoury
  3. Israeli soldiers by Adi Nes
  4. a video of a close-up of the trousers of a man who urinates in his pants and trousers, so you see the wet patch spreading by Knut Asadam (Pissing by Knut Asdam)
  5. American, German and British soldiers by Wolfgang Tillmans
  6. American cowboys by Collier Schorr
  7. a film by Isaac Julien about American cowboys, The Long Road to Mazatlan
  8. American photographer Sam Contis’s photos of a liberal arts college in the mid-West
  9. American photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of American footballers
  10. American artist Andy Warhol’s movies of male fashion models
  11. American photographer Herb Ritt’s photos of buff Hollywood garage attendants
  12. American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon
  13. Akram Zaatari’s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters
  14. 100 black and white photos of himself wearing y-fronts taken from all angles by Canadian transmasculine performance artist and bodybuilder Cassils
  15. a series of photos by a British photographer of London Fire Brigade firefighters at work and in the showers

Men I know

Down the road from me lives my neighbour Nigel. He regularly goes folk dancing with his wife. At weekends they go for long cycle rides in the country. I helped him with a bit of guerrilla gardening last autumn when we planted daffodils on a patch of waste ground at the end of our road, which are now flowering. Nigel tended one of the allotments at the end of our road, and we’d have lengthy chats about the best plants I could put in my back garden to encourage more birds and butterflies.

Occasionally, we see old Richard go slouching along the road to his allotment where he tends his bee hives and chain smokes. A few years ago he was in the papers, in a photo showing him wearing full beekeeping rig and handing a letter into Number 10 asking for more government help to protect bees.

I shared a house with two friends in my last year at university who did science subjects: Nowadays Tony works for the Worldwide Fund For Nature trying to save the rainforests, and David is a microbiologist who helps develop micro-devices which can be installed within the human body to secrete medicine at regular or required intervals, for example in diabetics.

My boyhood friend Jonathan runs a puppet theatre for schools. Tom works for a seaman’s charity in the East End. Adam works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, monitoring bird populations, nesting habits, tagging birds to follow their migration patterns.

My son is studying biology at university. He’s considering doing a PhD into plant biology with a view to developing more sustainable crops. We play chess when he comes home at the holidays, although I’m always nagging him for frittering away so much of his time playing online video games.

These are ‘masculinities’, aren’t they? These are ways of being male? At least I think Nigel and Richard and Tom and Jonathan and Tony and David, Adam and Luke and I are men. Aren’t we?

But there was nobody like us in this exhibition, what you could call ‘normal’ people. Not a hint of men who like birdwatching, or gardening, or keeping bees, or study plant science, or like folk dancing, or are helping the environment.

Instead this exhibition’s view of masculinity is almost deliriously narrow: alternating between ridiculous American stereotypes of huge steroid-grown athletes or shouting fraternity members, and equally stereotyped images of flamboyant, make-up wearing gays working in nightclubs or part of the uber-gay communities of downtown New York or San Francisco’s Castro district. It is an exhibition of extremes and stereotypes.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Paul, who I worked with for all those years in TV, wasn’t camp or flamboyant, he was just a guy who liked a beer and a laugh and happened to be gay. As was his boyfriend. As was Edwin, the Viking-looking giant with a beard who I worked with at a government agency, who also just happened to be gay, it was no big deal, and really hated the way everyone expected him to conform to ‘gay’ stereotypes.

Exactly the kind of dated gay stereotypes which exhibitions like this promote and propagate.

Slavish worship of American culture

Once again I find it weirdly unself-aware that an exhibition which so smugly uses words like ‘transgressive’, ‘interrogate’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘subvert’ about its exhibits, is itself so completely and slavishly in thrall to American photographers and American subject matter and so utterly kowtows to the cultural dominance of The Greatest City in the World (if you’re an art curator) – which is, of course, New York.

The Barbican is in London. Which is in England. Not in New York or San Francisco. And yet only one of the first fifteen or so of the featured photographers was British, and I can only remember two or three other Brits among the remaining 35 or so exhibitors.

The art élite

So by about half way through the exhibition it had dawned on me that there is a very strong political element to this show, just not the one the curators intend. It is that:

Once again an exhibition about gender and race and identity proves beyond doubt the existence of a transnational art élite, made up of international-minded, jet-setting artists and photographers and film-makers, and their entourage of agents and gallery curators, who have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the populations of their host countries.

What I mean is that the curators and critics who’ve selected the works and written the catalogue of a show like this have much more in common with their counterparts in the art worlds of New York or Berlin or Shanghai than they do with the men or women in the streets of their own cities. They speak the same art language, use the same art theory buzz words and jargon, all agree on the wonderfulness of New York, and all share the same supremely woke and politically correct attitudes to LGBT+ and transgender and BAME rights which, the exhibition strongly implies, are the most important political or social issues anywhere in the world.

They liberally throw around words like ‘elite’ and criticise pretty much all white men for their ‘privilege’. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that being part of the jetsetting, international circuit of artists and art curators is also to belong to a privileged élite.

As a small symbol of this, after having read a host of wall labels castigating élite, men-only, members-only clubs and fraternities – which had the result of hyper-sensitising me to the the wickedness of these restrictive organisations – I couldn’t help smiling when I read on the Barbican website about an ‘exclusive Members’ talk’ which is available to Barbican members only.

Preaching to the converted

And so when I watched the curator of the exhibition speaking to the assembled journalists, critics and reviewers about #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and watched the approving nods and murmurs of her audience, I realised she was praising the values and priorities of the art world and its ferociously politically correct denizens, to exactly the kinds of journalists and critics who inhabit that world and attend these kinds of launches. And it crossed my mind that I had rarely in my life seen a purer example of ‘preaching to the choir’ and reinforcing entrenched groupthink.

Horseshoe Buckle, 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger

Initial summary

To summarise so far:

  • It felt to me that the exhibition is wildly, almost hallucinatorily partial, misleading and inaccurate about its purported subject matter – masculinity. It simply ignores and neglects almost everything I think about when I think about my own and other men’s masculinity.
  • But what it undoubtedly is, is a handy survey of the deeply entrenched anti-heterosexual, anti-male, anti-white, pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-queer attitudes which now dominate universities, colleges, the art world and art galleries. So the exhibition has this additional layer of interest which is as a fascinating sociological specimen of the current attitudes and terminology of the über-woke.

I’m not against or opposed to those positions and views, in fact I broadly support them (pro-feminism, pro-LGBT+, anti-racism etc). I’m just modestly suggesting that there’s more to the world of men than this polemical and extremely limited exhibition – either American footballers or street queens of New York – gets anywhere near suggesting. In fact there is much more to culture, and politics, and the world, than a relentless obsession with ‘gender’.

Highlights

Having got all that off my chest, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this exhibition. There’s so much stuff on show they can’t help having lots of really good and interesting art here, and – as usual with the Barbican – it is presented in a series of beautifully designed and arranged spaces. So:

I loved Herb Ritts‘ pinup-style black-and-white photos of incredibly buff and sexy (male) garage hands, stripped to the waist.

What’s not to love about Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lisa Lyon in their bodybuilding prime?

I really liked Akram Zaatari‘s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters: he found a trove of badly degraded, faded, marked and damaged photos, then blew them up to wall size, warts and all. The weightlifters are dressed in loose loincloths, a world away from the slick professionalism of Schwarzenegger et al, and then further removed by the spotty blotchy finish of the damaged negatives. I like all art which shows the marks of industrial processes, decay, found objects, Arte Povera etc, art which records its own struggle to emerge from a world of chaos and war.

Bodybuilders Printed From A Damaged Negative by Akram Zaatari (2011)

I liked the work of German feminist photographer Marianne Wex. In the 1970s she made a whole set of collages where she cut out magazine images of men sitting with their legs wide apart and juxtaposed these with magazine images of women sitting primly with their legs tight together. This was funny for all sorts of reason, but also had multiple levels of nostalgia: for the black and white world of 1960s and 70s magazines (and fashions – look at the hair and the flares on the men).

There was a room on the ground floor which I nicknamed ‘The Grid Room’ which contained three massive sets of images laid out as grids, and which I liked simply because I like big grids and matrices, geometric and mathematical designs, in the same way as I like Carl Andre’s bricks. The grids are:

1. German-American photographer Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, consists of 26 black-and-white photographs taken inside men-only, private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from conversations Knorr claims to have overheard.

a) they’re strikingly composed and arranged photos
b) the overheard conversations are amusingly arrogant and pompous, if a little too pat to be totally plausible
c) but what makes this funniest of all is that Knorr is surprised that the inhabitants of expensive, members-only private clubs will be a bit, you know, pompous

2. Back in the 1990s Polish-American photographer Piotr Uklański created a vast, super-wall-sized collage of A4-sized publicity photos of Hollywood actors dressed as Nazis from a host of movies.

It is 18 columns by 9 rows, which means it shows the images of 162 actors playing Nazi. The wall label suggested that the work is an indictment of Hollywood and its trivialisation of atrocity and, in the context of this exhibition, it is also meant to be an indictment of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hyper-masculinity promoted by the Nazis.

But look at it. It isn’t really either of those things. What it obviously is, is an invitation to identify the actors and the movies they’re in, lots of fun in a Where’s Wally kind of way. Can you spot Clint Eastwood from Where Eagles Dare, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Leonard Nimoy from the spisode of Star Trek where they beam down to some planet which is having a Nazi phase?

And then, for me, any serious intention was undermined when I noticed that two of the belong to Monty Python actors Michael Palin and Eric Idle dressed as Nazis (6 rows down, 10 and 11 across). And when I noticed the face of Norman Wisdom (from his 1959 movie, The Square Peg, where Norman is asked to impersonate a Nazi general he happens to look like), I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

(Having googled this artwork and studied the results, I realise that Uklański changes the arrangement of the photos from site to site, with the order of the faces different in each iteration. The version below gives you an immediate impression of the work’s overall impact – imagine this spread across an entire wall, a big art gallery wall – but in this version Norman’s photo, alas, is absent.)

The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski (1998)

3. The third big grid is a set of 69 black-and-white photos taken by American photographer Richard Avedon and ironically titled The Family, each one depicting key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who held the reins of power in America in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The overt aim is to shock and appal the modern social justice warrior with the fact that almost all the movers and shakers are white men (though I did, in fact, count six women in the grid and two or three black people). But it just didn’t seem too much of a surprise to me that nearly fifty years ago the make-up of the ruling class was different from now or, to put it another way, over the past fifty years the representation of women and black people at the highest levels of American power have changed and improved.

Anyway, any political message was, for me, eclipsed by the hazy memories of the 1970s which these photos evoked – the era when Gerald Ford hastily replaced that excellent American president, Richard Nixon and when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973). There’s a youthful Jimmy Carter (elected Prez in 1977), a serious-faced Ronald Reagan (another most excellent American President), and gorgeously handsome Teddy Kennedy, for so long the poster boy for liberal Democrats.

Americana

As you can see from the three works in The Grid Room, even when I was trying to overlook it, I couldn’t help noticing the American subject matter or the American provenance of most of the photographers.

The America worship continues into the next room, which is devoted to the American tradition of the college fraternity, and the secret initiation rituals they apparently hold.

Thus artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Is it, though? I’d have thought it was a highly contrived set-up, Mosse bribing the men to act out a certain kind of behaviour which he then turned round and criticised using his modish sociological jargon.

Also note how the word ‘white’ in sentences like that is slowly becoming a term of abuse. Mosse is, of course, himself ‘white’, but he’s the OK sort of ‘white’. He’s artist white.

Next to it is a work by American photographer Andrew Moisey, who spent seven years studying college fraternities and putting together The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual. This, you won’t be very surprised to learn,

explores the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the toxic culture of American fraternities.

Toxic men. Toxic masculinity. White male rage.

The gay American photographer Duane Michals is represented by a series of photos depicting a grandfather and grandson with an eerie, surrealist vibe.

There’s a sequence of photos by American-based Indian photographer Sunil Gupta, who recorded New York’s gay scene in the 1970s.

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Reclaiming the black body

Upstairs, in the section devoted to Reclaiming the Black Body, there’s a series by American photographer Kalen Na’il Roach which are described as explorations of ‘the construction of the African-American family and the absent father’.

Nearby is a set of brilliant photos by black American photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who arranged human bodies in all manner of creative and interesting poses, all shot as clear and crisply as anything by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was a really beautiful, crystal clear and vivid and intimidating and erotic photo of a black man holding a pair of large scissors against his thigh, wow.

Untitled, 1985 by Rotimi Fani-Kayode © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Queering masculinity

There’s an entire section of the exhibition devoted to gay masculinity titled Queering Masculinity. Among many others, this contains a set of photos by American photographer George Dureau, ‘a prominent figure in the queer and non-conformist communities in New Orleans’s French Quarter’, which included some disturbing images of a handsome young man with a hippy hairdo who had had both legs amputated right at the top of the thighs, images which didn’t make me think about masculinity at all, but about disability.

A corner is given to the technicolour experimental underground film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) by rebel film-maker Kenneth Anger, which explores the fetishist role of hot rod cars among young American men, and whose soundtrack – Dream Lover by Bobby Darin – wafted gently through the galleries as the visitors sauntered around, looking at these collections of cool, gay and black American photography.

And also upstairs was a fabulous series of black and white shots by American photographer David Wojnarowicz, who got his friends to wear a face mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and pose in unlikely locations around New York.

And there’s work by Peter Hujar, ‘a leading figure in New York‘s downtown cultural scene throughout the 1970s’ who photographed its various gay subcultures.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II) 1982 by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

There’s photos by Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer from who explores ‘the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire’.

And photos by Elle Pérez from America which are concerned with ‘the artist’s relationship with their own body, their queerness and how their sexual, gender and cultural identities intersect and coalesce through photography’.

While ‘in her meticulously staged photos, American artist Deanna Lawson (b.1979) explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality.’

Then there’s American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director Laurie Anderson who is represented by her 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which records the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side.

One of my favourite sections was black American Hank Willis Thomas’s ironic and funny collages, Unbranded: Reflections In Black by Corporate America which cut and paste together tacky old adverts featuring black people from the 70s, 80s and 90s. As the wall label explains:

Thomas sheds light on how corporate America continues to reproduce problematic notions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the white male gaze.

(Note: ‘the white male gaze’. The male gaze is bad enough but, God, it’s twice as bad when it’s the white male gaze. Just as male rage is bad, but white male rage, my God, that’s unforgiveable. You don’t have to read many of these wall labels to realise that everything is so much worse when it’s white.)

There are photographers and artists from other countries – from the Lebanon, Cameroon, Holland, Ghana, Norway and so on. Even, mirabile dictu, some British artists. But in every room there are American artists and wherever you look there are images of New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, while an American pop song drifts over the images of American cowboys and American bodybuilders and New York gays.

It is a very America-dominated exhibition.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the woke, LGBT+-friendly, feminist, anti-patriarchal and anti-white curators are willing to disrupt, subvert, interrogate and question every received opinion, stereotype and shibboleth about the world today except for one – except for America’s stranglehold on global art and photography, except for America’s cultural imperialism, which goes unquestioned and uncommented-on.

Before this form of imperialism, British art curators bow down and worship.

Second summary

Well, if you’re a white man and you enjoy the experience of being made to feel like a privileged, white racist, elitist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist pig by lots of righteous black, gay and women photographers, this exhibition will be right up your street.

But having said all that, I did, ultimately, and despite everything, really enjoy it. In fact I might go back for seconds. There is a huge amount of visually interesting and varied work in it and, as I’ve explained – to take the whole thing on a completely different level – it is a fascinating sociological study of up-to-date, woke and politically correct attitudes and sociological terminology.

And also because the picture of Norman Wisdom dressed as a Nazi was so utterly unexpected, so surreally incongruous among the rest of the po-faced, super-serious and angry feminist rhetoric that I was still smiling broadly as I walked out the door.

Norman Wisdom as General-major Otto Schreiber in the hit movie, The Square Peg (1959), subverting seriousness


Dated

Not only does the exhibition mostly deal in types and stereotypes, but so many of them are really dated.

The concept of the male gaze was invented in a 1975 essay by film critic film critic Laura Mulvey. Not one but two quotes from it are printed in large letters across the walls of feminist section of the exhibition, rather like the Ten Commandments used to be in a church.

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos of leather-clad rebels date from the early 1960s.

Kenneth Anger’s film Kustom Kar Kommandos is from 1965.

Annette Messager’s series The Approaches is from 1972.

Laurie Anderson’s piece is from 1973.

Richard Avedon’s set, The Family, was shot in 1976.

Sunil Gupta’s street photographs of gay New Yorkers are from the mid-1970s

Hal Fischer’s amusing photos of gay street fashion are from 1977.

Marianne Wex’s project ‘Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ dates from 1977.

David Wojnarowicz’s briliant series ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was taken between 1977 and 1979.

Andy Warhol’s film about Male Models is from 1979.

Hank Willis Thomas’s funny collages use magazine photos from the 70s and 80s

Karen Knorr’s series about knobs at posh clubs were shot from 1981 to 1983.

Herb Ritts photos of stunning hunky men date from 1984.

Now of course a lot of the other pieces are from more recently, from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and I am deliberately cherry-picking my evidence, but you get my point.

If the whole issue of gender and masculinity is as hot and urgent and topical as the curators insist, why are they going back to the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate it? My answer would be that, although many of its details have been subsequently elaborated and extended, the basis of the curators (and most of the artists’) liberate worldview date back to the late 60s and early 70s, the era which saw the real breakthroughs for modern feminism, gay rights, and a more ambitious form of black civil rights.

In other words, when you go to a contemporary exhibition of feminist art or gay art or lesbian art or politically motivated black art, you are in fact tapping into movements which have been around for about fifty years. This what gives them a curiously dated, almost nostalgic feeling. The artists and the curators may try to dress these tried-and-tested approaches up in the latest buzzwords or drum up some fake outrage by mentioning the magic words ‘Donald Trump’, but I remember going to exhibitions by gay and lesbian and feminist and black artists in the 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s, and 2010s which all said more or less what this one does: Blacks are oppressed, women are oppressed, gays and lesbians are oppressed.

For an exhibition which is claiming to address one of the burning issues of our time it seemed curiously… dated. All these carefully printed photographs and films, how very retro, how very 1970s they seem. It’s as if the internet, digital art and social media have never happened. I described the exhibition to my daughter (18, feminist, studied sociology, instagram and social media addict) and she said it sounded boring and preachy.


Counting the countries of origin

It’s good to count. Actually counting and analysing the data about almost any subject almost always proves your subjective impressions to be wrong, because all of our unconscious biases are so strong.

Thus when I looked up the countries of origin of all the photographers represented in this exhibition, I realised the raw facts prove me wrong in thinking that most of the exhibitors are American. Out of 54 exhibitors, some 23 were born in the States and another 3 or 4 emigrated there, so the number of ‘American’ photographers is only just about half of those included.

This exercise also highlighted the true range of other nationalities represented, which I had tended to underestimate. There are, for example, seven Brits, double the number I initially remembered.

However, these figures don’t quite tell the full story, since a number of contributors might not be from the USA, but are represented by their images of the USA. Thus Sunil Gupta is from India but is represented by a suite of photos from 1970s New York (as well as a second series of photos about gay life in India).

Isaac Julien is a British artist but is represented by two movies, one about American cowboys and one – a big one which has one of the Barbican’s entire alcoves devoted to it – a black-and-white movie set in a glamorous American cocktail bar, and set to evocative American cocktail jazz.

To really establish the facts on this one issue of American influence, I suppose you’d have to itemise every single one of the images or films on show and indicate whether they were American in origin or subject matter – which is a little beyond the scope of the present review, and possibly a little mad.

Here’s the complete list of photographers represented in this exhibition with their country of origin, which can be roughly summarised as: the exhibition includes as many American, American-based, or America-covering photographers as those from the rest of the world put together.

  1. Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)
  2. Laurie Anderson (USA)
  3. Kenneth Anger (USA)
  4. Liz Johnson Artur (Ghanaian-Russian)
  5. Knut Åsdam (Norway)
  6. Richard Avedon (USA)
  7. Aneta Bartos (Polish-American)
  8. Richard Billingham (UK)
  9. Cassils (Canada)
  10. Sam Contis (USA)
  11. John Coplans (UK emigrated to USA)
  12. Jeremy Deller (UK)
  13. Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)
  14. George Dureau (USA)
  15. Thomas Dworzak (Germany)
  16. Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)
  17. Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)
  18. Hal Fischer (USA)
  19. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  20. Anna Fox (UK)
  21. Masahisa Fukase (Japan)
  22. Sunil Gupta (India)
  23. Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)
  24. Peter Hujar (USA)
  25. Isaac Julien (UK)
  26. Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  27. Karen Knorr (German-American)
  28. Deana Lawson (USA)
  29. Hilary Lloyd (UK)
  30. Robert Mapplethorpe (USA)
  31. Peter Marlow (UK)
  32. Ana Mendieta (Cuba, moved to New York)
  33. Annette Messager (France)
  34. Duane Michals (USA)
  35. Tracey Moffatt (Australia)
  36. Andrew Moisey (USA)
  37. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
  38. Adi Nes (Israeli)
  39. Catherine Opie (USA)
  40. Elle Pérez (USA)
  41. Herb Ritts (USA)
  42. Kalen Na’il Roach (USA)
  43. Paul Mpagi Sepuya (USA)
  44. Collier Schorr (USA)
  45. Clare Strand (UK)
  46. Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)
  47. Larry Sultan (USA)
  48. Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)
  49. Hank Willis Thomas (USA)
  50. Piotr Uklański (Polish-American)
  51. Andy Warhol (USA)
  52. Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)
  53. Marianne Wex (Germany)
  54. David Wojnarowicz (USA)

Third summary – why American influence is so malign

The reliance on exaggerated American stereotypes of masculinity explains why the exhibition simply omits the vast majority of male experience

American attitudes to masculinity – American images of masculinity – are grossly exaggerated, hyper-commercialised, and do not represent the experience of masculinity of men from other countries.

(Possibly they don’t even represent the experience of most men in America itself: just on the curators’ favourite subject of ethnic minorities, about 18% of Americans are Latino, compared to only 12% or so who are black. But I don’t think I saw any images of Latinos, or the names of any Latino photographers or artists anywhere in the show. To adopt the curators’ own values of diversity: Why not?)

So one way to sum up this exhibition (it’s so huge I’m aware that there are, potentially, lots of ways to do this – a feminist take, a view which focused more on the gay or black or non-western perspectives) is to posit that the Americanness of half the exhibition, photos and photographers – and the overall sense you have of the exhibition’s cultural narrowness and exaggeration – are intimately connected.

Reading my way carefully around the exhibition reminded me all over again – as hundreds of documentaries and articles and news reports have over the past few decades –

  1. just how polarised American society has become
  2. how a great deal of this polarisation is in the realm of culture
  3. and how exhibitions like this tend to emphasise, exaggerate and exacerbate that atmosphere of poisonous polarisation

The relentless criticism of toxic masculinity and the male gaze and manspreading and men-only organisations, along with the continual suggestion that being white is a crime, have their ultimate source in the turbo-charged feminism, political correctness and woke culture of American universities, art schools and liberal media.

My point is that the the poisonous cultural politics of America are deeply rooted in the extremes images of masculinity which America developed since the Second World War – and that these extremes, along with the anger and vilification they prompt on both sides of the political and cultural divide – are just not applicable outside America.

Does Norway have a massive film industry devoted to promoting impossibly buff and hunky images of super-tough men? Is French culture dominated by the ideal of the gunslinging cowboy? Is Czech sporting life dominated by huge, testosterone-charged American footballers? In 1950s did Greek husbands throw open the doors to their suburban houses and shout, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’

No. Since the war many European countries, led by France, have vehemently resisted the bubblegum stereotypes and crass vulgarity of American culture. The American example just doesn’t apply to Swiss watchmakers and French winegrowers and Greek hotel owners and Italian waiters.

Obviously accusations of patriarchy and sexism and toxic masculinity and the male gaze and white anger can be, and routinely are, levelled at all men in any Western society, but my suggestion is that the level of anger and rancour which politically correct and woke culture have reached in America is unique.

America has morphed during my lifetime into a violently aggressive and angry society which stands apart from all other industrialised countries (look at the levels of gun crime, or the number of its citizens which America locks up, 2.2 million adults, more than all the other OECD nations put together).

The anger of American liberals against Trump has to be witnessed to be believed, but so does the anger of American conservatives and the mid-West against the tide of immigrants and liberals who they think are ruining their country. America has become a swamp of hatreds, and it is an American civil war, it is not mine.

And here’s my point – an exhibition which defines ‘masculinity’ very heavily through the lens of such an unhealthy, sick and decadent society is giving a wildly twisted, biased, partial and inaccurate impression of what the word ‘masculine’ even means because it is deriving it very heavily from a culture which is tearing itself apart. We are not all American footballers or New York gay pioneers.

So although only half the exhibition is made up of American photographers and American subjects, nonetheless the poisonous rhetoric of the American cultural civil war (‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white rage’, ‘the male gaze’) infects the conception, selection and discourse of the exhibition so thoroughly from start to finish, that it helps explain why the vast majority of much more humdrum, down-to-earth types of non-American, everyday masculinity – the kinds you or I encounter among our families and friends and at work, the kind I experience when I help Nigel plant the daffodil bulbs in the waste ground at the end of our road – are so utterly absent from this blinkered and biased exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Pornography, simile and surrealism in The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash

WARNING: This review contains quotations and images of an extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit nature.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) is packed with deviant sexual activity, described with a cold clinical detachment, and Crash (1973) is notorious for being one of the most pornographic ‘serious’ novels of the post-war period, not just pornographic but deliberately and studiedly perverse, in that the story is about how the lead characters – both men and women – become fixated on the erotic potential of car crashes.

All this can easily appear gratuitous, designed purely to shock, or to generate publicity and sales.

But apart from all the external arguments we can invoke to defend Ballard, there are arguments in the works themselves which go some way to explaining their extremity.

In particular, one of the recurring characters in The Atrocity Exhibition, the psychiatrist Dr Nathan, is given several speeches where he explains the reason behind the lead character’s obsession with sex – and with extreme, fetishistic sex of the kind Ballard describes in these two books. These two or three speeches explain Ballard’s motivation, contain interesting insights about modern society, and unwittingly shed light on Ballard’s broader approach and technique.

1. Perverse sex resists the trivialisation & commercialisation of sexuality

During the 1960s sex came out of the closet and into all forms of art and media, advertising, music and movies, the mini-skirt, the pill. Ballard’s shock novels both became possible because of this swift liberalisation of social attitudes, but they are also in some measure a reaction against the modern ubiquity of sex:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

The argument is that, as the imagery of sex becomes more ubiquitous in advertising and popular culture, our personal enactments of it unavoidably repeat images, positions, postures, maybe even words and phrases, which we have all seen in the tide of increasingly ‘liberated’ movies and TV dramas. So how can we escape from the sense of simply going through motions done much better on the silver screen by glamorous movie stars, or detailed in a thousand ‘How To Have Better Sex’ books and magazine articles, or in the highly sexualised fiction that we can now read? How can we escape from the nagging feeling that our sex lives have been colonised and occupied by the mass media?

By doing things ‘normal people’ would never dream of.

Thus, at a basic level – level 1 – the characters’ obsession with perverse sex is to some extent justifiable as a rejection of the safe, tame, commercially packaged and sanitised sex lives which are increasingly pushed on us from all directions.

(The irony of David Cronenberg making a glossy movie out of Crash was that he was incorporating into film a glaring example of a work which was trying to rebel against being incorporated into film. Hollywood eats everything. Turns everything into two-hour glamorisation and trivialisation, converts the weird and uncanny into a tried and trusted set of gestural and facial clichés. Which is why I loathe film as a medium.)

2. Car crashes are sexually liberating

But not only is extreme fetishistic sex a way of escaping the stifling ‘norms’ of how-to guides in magazines and on daytime TV – Dr Nathan goes on to assert that there is something specifically exciting and arousing about car crashes.

‘Talbot’s belief – and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario – is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event – a liberation of sexual energy – mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President.’

Think how vital car crashes are to Hollywood movies, both comedies and catastrophes. Think of the orgasmic pleasure it gave hundreds of millions of cinema-goers to watch the whole world blow up in an orgy of crashing cars, airplanes and tube trains in the blockbuster Armageddon movie 2012, and all the many others like it.

Disaster movies are just a shallow, celluloid re-enactment of something much darker and fiercer in human nature: that we revel in destruction. Ballard is just taking this meme – embedded in countless examples of the most popular popular culture – and pushing it to one absolute limit.

The notion that witnessing car crashes allows the release of sexual energy among onlookers lies behind the semi-satirical ‘survey’s which make up the last sections of The Atrocity Exhibition. These assure us, in the po-faced language of questionnaires and social science, that witnesses of car crashes experience a sharp increase in their libido and report marked increases of sexual activity with their partners in the weeks that follow. Car crashes are hot!

3. Car crash sex is one way into a new form of sexuality

If you combine the two ideas above – 1. that fetishistic sex is a way of avoiding the commercialisation of our own sex lives, and 2. that car crashes are exciting – then you move towards a conclusion, a third idea: that car crash sexual fetishisation may be the gateway into a brand new form of human sexuality.

The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.

This view is repeated again and again in Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, that humans are evolving new relationships with their brutal built environment and with each other, and that the combination of the two – of concrete motorways and shopping precincts and multi-story car parks – is creating a new, dissociated, alienated psychology which is giving rise to a new, hard-edge psychology of sex.

4. Car crashes are telling us something

But then there is a fourth level of meaning: beneath the (normally forbidden and repressed) sexual elements which are liberated (in Ballard’s view) by car crashes, there is another, much deeper level of significance. For while we consciously deplore the loss of life etc, we are nonetheless attracted, compulsively attracted, to the scene of car crashes and to re-enact them over and over again. Why?

For Ballard, the assassination of President Kennedy forms a kind of religious apotheosis of the theme: and God knows American culture, from Oliver Stone to Don DeLillo, has been compelled to replay that moment in Dealey Plaza over and over again, picking at the scar, endlessly hoping the psychological devastation of that one fateful moment can be forced to reveal its true secret, to unfold the real conspiracy which led to the president’s death.

The fruitless investigations and countless personal obsessions with the Kennedy assassination are all trying to do the same thing – to get to the bottom, to find the truth about the world. For it all to make sense.

This is a fourth way of interpreting the meaning of car crashes: they are a weird and perverse emblem of humanity’s obsessive need to make sense of the world.

Dr Nathan, in The Atrocity Exhibition, describes one of the other characters as attempting to restage the Kennedy assassination but this time ‘so it makes sense’, and in the annotations he later wrote for the book, Ballard is (as usual) totally candid about the importance of the JFK assassination to the entire book.

Kennedy’s assassination presides over The Atrocity Exhibition, and in many ways the book is directly inspired by his death, and represents a desperate attempt to make sense of the tragedy, with its huge hidden agenda. The mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.

For all the characters in Crash, the crashes they’ve been involved and the systems of scars and scar tissue left woven into their bodies are telling them something, are codes whose code books have been lost, ciphers of some meaning trembling just beyond reach.

If you think this sounds eccentric or exaggerated, just cast your mind back to the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death in a car crash: it was epic, it was awesome, the entire nation came to a halt, vast crowds gathered outside Kensington Palace and queued for days to sign the book of condolence. And then her funeral. Every commentator at the time highlighted the sense of excess, that the nation seemed to be traumatised far more than the facts of the matter seemed to justify. My own interpretation was that it was us we were grieving for, for all our lost illusions, dreams and hopes which this fairytale princess had come to symbolise.

And then consider the conspiracy theories about the role of the driver, and the pursuing cars, and the role of MI6 or the Royal Family in ‘assassinating’ her, or was it the Russians or… or… Anything, no matter how far-fetched, in order to give meaning, purpose, shape and coherence to what was, in fact, just a stupid pointless car crash, like so many hundreds of thousands of others.

Well, it is the same forlorn, doomed quest for the elusive meaning at the heart of the violent confrontation between man and machine, for the sense of any meaning at the heart of our lives, which the characters of Crash are condemned to pursue, right up to the book’s logical and senseless climax.

5. Car crashes are examples of Ballard’s obsession with junctures and juxtapositions

But these four interpretations of car crash sex – the sexual and the psychological and the ontological  – themselves overlay an even deeper level of meaning: for in The Atrocity Exhibition in particular we come to realise that the protagonist’s obsession with sex is in fact a sub-set of a much deeper obsession – an obsession with the way things are put together – with the modern world of junctions and conjunctions.

Seen from this perspective, sex is just the most garish and compelling avatar of a far deeper and more abstract structure which exists throughout the world as we know it, which is the joining together of disparate parts.

The Primary Act. As they entered the cinema, Dr Nathan confided to Captain Webster, ‘Talbert has accepted in absolute terms the logic of the sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings, are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space. In the multiplied body of the film actress – one of the few valid landscapes of our age – he finds what seems to be a neutral ground. For the most part the phenomenology of the world is a nightmarish excrescence. Our bodies, for example, are for him monstrous extensions of puffy tissue he can barely tolerate. The inventory of the young woman is in reality a death kit.’ Webster watched the images of the young woman on the screen, sections of her body intercut with pieces of modern architecture. All these buildings. What did Talbert want to do – sodomize the Festival Hall?

This passage explains in a flash the bizarre linkage of sex and architecture which runs throughout The Atrocity Exhibition and recurs in Crash, in its fetishisation of concrete motorways and multi-story car parks.

Modern brutalist architecture reveals the junctions of floors and ceilings, uprights and flats, struts and pillars, with crushing candour – and it is not altogether irrational to see the brutal slotting of concrete floors into concrete stanchions, stark geometric arrangements of prefabricated parts slotted together to create complicated cantilevered structures – with even the most basic sexual positions; even the missionary position, seen from outside, is quite an unwieldy network of limbs arranged in funny and strikingly geometric angles, four arms, four legs, bearing weights or bent at strange angles – all to arrange for the slotting of a vertical member into an oval orifice.

Seen – just seen – actually observed with no moral or sentimental framework whatsoever – sex is a complicated assemblage of moving parts for dubious ends.

Above all, the interest in angles, angles of entry or penetration, the rectilinear arrangements and poses of the human body, can be quite easily made to seem half-abstract.

The identification of splayed human bodies with the splayed metal plates of cars which have been in catastrophic crashes is not, in the end, that far-fetched.


Modern art and angles

This fetishistic approach seems less exceptional when taken out of the context of novels and literature altogether, and placed in the tradition of modern art.

Remember Ballard was very interested indeed in modern art, confessed in interviews to wanting to have been an artist, and litters his stories with art references. In these respects – exploring sexual perversion, and the geometric aspect of the human body – art was waaaaay ahead of written literature, having discovered the geometry beneath the skin of human beings fifty years before Ballard was writing his rude books.

Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Indeed, Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase is directly referenced in The Atrocity Exhibition, in The Great American Nude chapter:

Koester parked the car outside the empty production offices. They walked through into the stage. An enormous geometric construction filled the hangar-like building, a maze of white plastic convolutions. Two painters were spraying pink lacquer over the bulbous curves. ‘What is this?’ Koester asked with irritation. ‘A model of A/ 3 1 ?’ Dr Nathan hummed to himself. ‘Almost,’ he replied coolly. ‘In fact, you’re looking at a famous face and body, an extension of Miss Taylor into a private dimension. The most tender act of love will take place in this bridal suite, the celebration of a unique nuptial occasion. And why not? Duchamp’s nude shivered her way downstairs, far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus, and for good reason.’

‘Far more desirable to us than the Rokeby Venus’? Discuss.

Bellmer and fetish dolls

Ballard was particularly attracted by the Surrealists, and The Atrocity Exhibition references a dozen or so Surrealist paintings and artists, and the idea of bodies regarded as weird fragments, taken to pieces and reassembled to make bizarre new biologies, was one of Surrealism’s basic strategies.

This is most crudely obvious in the obscene and disturbing mannequins made by the German Surrealist artist and photographer Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). Bellmer made his first recombined ‘dolls’ in 1933, was forced to flee to the Nazis, was welcomed to France by the Surrealists, and after the war continued to produce a stream of erotic drawings, etchings, sexually explicit photographs, paintings and prints, often – the transgressive little tinker – of pubescent girls.

Plate from La Poupée (1936) by Hans Bellmer

This is not just like Ballard, it virtually is the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, in which men fetishise parts of the female body, pose women in awkward and anti-romantic positions, imagine women’s bodies as multiple fragments or as specific zones blown up to the size of billboard hoardings.

Bellmer explained his thinking thus:

What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up … They constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.

This could be Ballard talking.

Or take the surprise final work by Marcel Duchamp, the notorious (for the tiny number of people who have heard of it) Étant donnés, which Duchamp laboured over (allegedly) from 1946 to 1966 in his Greenwich Village studio, and which was only discovered after his death.

It consists of a common-or-garden wooden door which contains a peephole through which you see a brutal photo of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, legs spread, and one hand holding a gas lamp against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) by Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)

Shocked? You’re meant to be. Puzzled? Ditto.

Ballard and the French tradition of épatant la bourgeoisie

In fact, the more you think about it, the more ‘traditional’ Ballard’s two extreme books seem – just not in the well-mannered English tradition.

The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash have nothing in common with the polite and subtle novels about upper-middle-class life of an Anthony Powell from this period, or the works of the so-called Angry Young Men (Osborne, Amis), or the kitchen-sink dramas which came in in the early 60s (Saturday Night and Sunday morning et al).

But they are entirely in the tradition, the very long tradition, of French literary attempts to ‘épater la bourgeoisie’ or shock the middle classes.

This French tradition goes back at least as far as the self-consciously decadent poets and writers of the 1890s, or further back to Arthur Rimbaud writing in the 1870s or further back to Baudelaire’s poems about hashish and prostitutes, Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, or maybe all the way back to the Marquis de Sade and works like The Hundred Days of Sodom (1785) which set out to scientifically catalogue every kind of sexual position and perversion conceivable to the mind of man.

By 1924 when André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto France had had seventy years or so of ‘radical’ artists determined to use sex and obscenity to disrupt what they saw as the placid banality of bourgeois life.

Courbet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his Realism, Flaubert with the ‘immorality’ of Madame Bovary. Monet scandalised the bourgeoisie with his naked women at a picnic, the Impressionists with their shapeless ‘daubs’. Zola scandalised the bourgeoisie with his blunt Naturalism and frank depictions of Paris prostitutes (in Nana). The Decadents scandalised the bourgeoisie with their over-ripe dreams of drugs and unmentionable perversions. The Cubists scandalised the bourgeoisie with their collages and geometric shapes. The Surrealists shocked the bourgeoisie with their revelation of the sexual perversions lurking just beneath the surface of human consciousness. And so on…

In other words, in France, there is a very well-established and totally assimilated tradition of artists, novelists and playwrights doing their best to shock the bourgeoisie. Seen from this perspective Ballard is hardly a pioneer, more of a late-comer which, I think, sometimes explains the rather bloodless and placid feel of even his most ‘scandalous’ novels. Even when I first read them in the 1970s I had the sense that I’d somehow already read them and now, 40 years later, I think that’s because he was in fact channelling well-established tropes and notions (albeit from the Continental tradition) and simply updating them for the age of helicopters, napalm and multi-story car parks.

Surrealism, the art of juxtaposition and Ballard

At the core of Surrealist practice was the idea of the jarring juxtaposition of completely disparate elements.

It was while reading Les Chants de Maldoror, published in 1869 by Isidore-Lucien Ducasse under the pseudonym the Comte de Lautréamont, that the godfather of the French surrealists, André Breton, discovered the phrase that became foundational to the surrealist doctrine of objective chance:

as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.

Striking juxtapositions are a core element of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Thus when Ballard makes systematic, obsessive and repeated comparisons between the splayed bodies of naked women and a) the hard angles of brutalist concrete architecture, and b) the splayed metal and shattered windscreens of car crashes, he is following the Surrealist aesthetic to a T.

Although our imaginations are bombarded with adverts, films and novels encouraging us to think of sex as a smooth and sensual affair, not very different from eating a Cadburys Flake, anybody who’s actually had sex knows that it can also be quite energetic and brutal, that it contains elements of aggression and domination, compliance and submission which are hovering on the brink of possibility, waiting to be isolated and encouraged.

Since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling novel of all time, we as a culture have become much more open about aspects of bondage or BDSM as it is now known and marketed in High Street sex shops, leading to a great deal more sexual experimentation of the kind Ballard describes in his books.

The identification of sex with car crashes was deeply shocking in the repressed 1960s, and upsets the simple-minded to this day, but both visually and conceptually, I am persuaded by Ballard that it is born of a deep, latent similarity between the two events.

Similes and Surreal juxtapositions

This gesture, the idea of the unexpected linking together of disparate elements, echoes some of the points I made in my essay about the importance of similes in Ballard’s writing.

Ballard uses similes a lot. So do other writers, but from his earliest novels Ballard as a writer is notable for the striking and outré comparisons he makes: a woman’s eyes are like dragonflies, wrecked cars look like Saurian lizards, high rise buildings tower overhead like glass coffins.

Ballard’s mind is always making comparisons and correlations, moving from the real concrete thing being described to often wild and unlikely analogies so that when you read a Ballard text you are not only reading about things themselves but are continually projected or flung into the full flood of his uncanny imaginarium.

This is another way to understand the obsession with geometry, planes and angles in The Atrocity Exhibition. It is like the technique of simile but converted into the language of geometry. You can think of all the references to angles and geometry as like being structural containers for similes, but without the actual content. Lines from the draft of a painting waiting to be filled in.

Looked at from this point of view, the linkage of porno sex to car crashes, and the various angles and shapes made by women’s bodies to the architectural shapes of concrete flyovers or modernist hotels, is in a sense only taking the metaphor-making tendency intrinsic in all Ballard’s fiction to extremes.

Ballard himself acknowledges the weirdness and extremity of some of his analogies at various points in the text:

This can be carried to remarkable lengths – for example, the jutting balconies of the Hilton Hotel have become identified with the lost gill-slits of the dying film actress, Elizabeth Taylor.

Extremes of disgust, in some critics’ minds; but extremes of delirious insight and extraordinary beauty, in my opinion. I am particularly haunted by his obsessive use of the idea that human faces contain implicit lines and planes which project outwards, forming complex three-dimensional geometries.

His eyes stared at Travis, their focus sustained only by a continuous effort. For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.

The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.

For English readers in 1970 this was weird and revolutionary stuff and it still has the power to stun and disorient today. But deep down, is it anything more than a putting into words of the visual effects created by about ten thousand cubist portraits from fifty years earlier?

Young Man in a Gray Sweater (1914) by Diego Rivera

Ballard’s fundamental strategy in these two shattering books is to contrast the soft and (for most people) precious and sentimental idea of the human body, especially its most sensitive, erogenous and private zones – breast and pubis, penis and vulva – and juxtapose them with the most public, hard-edged, angular and manufactured objects of the modern world – cars, roads, brutalist buildings.

Although the books contain hundreds of individually brilliant similes and metaphors, I couldn’t help thinking that underlying most of them and the deeper structures of the books’ themes and ideas, were the profoundly disruptive and innovative strategies of early 20th century Modernist art.


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Exhibitions

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Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art @ Barbican

This is a fabulous exhibition, packed with wonderful paintings, photos, films, drawings, posters and all kinds of memorabilia connected with a dozen or so avant-garde and trend-setting nightclubs around the world from the 1880s to the 1960s, And as well as all the lovely works and ideas and stories, it raises a number of questions, which I’ll address at the end of this review…

First the clubs and their stories. The Barbican exhibition space is laid out not as ‘rooms’ but as successive alcoves or spaces running off the first floor gallery, from which you look down onto the ground floor which can be divided up into various areas, or opened up to make one through-space (as they did for the Lee Krasner exhibition).

There are eight of these room-sized alcoves upstairs, and in this exhibition each one tells the story of one or two famous nightclubs which became a focus for artists, or was designed and decorated by artists, in various countries from the 1880s onwards…

Paris

The Chat Noir nightclub was the most famous of the new generation of nightclubs which opened in the Montmartre region of Paris in the 1880s. The darkened interior combined Gothic, Neo-Classical and Japanese features, in fact it contained so many artworks some people nicknamed it the Louvre of Montmartre.

Reopening of the Chat Noir Cabaret by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1896) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1885 a shadow theatre was installed on the Chat Noir’s third floor in a room hung with drawings by Edgar Degas, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Here artist Henri Riviere and collaborators staged what ended up being a series of 40 increasingly elaborate shadow plays. The exhibition features photos and drawings of the Chat Noir, along with some fabulous posters, and a big display case of some of the elaborately designed zinc silhouettes used in the plays, explaining how they were made, what characters they represent, along with some of the books, kind of novelisations of the plays they staged, including music and illustrations

The shadow theatre’s owner Rodolphe Salis took it on an international tour in the 1890s, inspiring a generation if avant-garde artists.

Meanwhile, the strange and dramatic dances of Loïe Fuller staged at the Folies Bergère in the 1890s were trail-blazing experiments in costume, light and movement. Fuller held long sticks attached to swathes of fabric to enormously increase the swirling effects of her dances. She was a real innovator who set up a laboratory to experiment with spectacular effects.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured her performances in a series of delicately hand-coloured lithographs, she inspired early film-makers like Edison and Lumiere brothers, and the alcove devoted to her also has a set of huge and very evocative posters by the great poster-maker of the era, Jules Chéret.

Folies Bergers by Jules Chéret

Vienna

The Cabaret Fledermaus was opened in Vienna in 1907 by the Wiener Werkstätte. It is a total art work in which every element – chairs, tables, light hanging, stairs and the brightly coloured tiled walls – each tile featuring a unique fantastical motif – were designed to create an overwhelming effect. Joseph Hoffmann designed the overall concept and commissioned the Wiener Keramik workshop to produce the tiles.  The club hosted satirical plays, poetry readings, avant-garde dance and a variety of musical events, including a performance of The Speckled Egg by the 21-year-old Oskar Kokoschka, a puppet show based on an Indian folk tale – the exhibition includes the fragile, original hand-made puppets.

Postcard showing the Interior view of the bar at the Cabaret Fledermaus (1907) Collection of Leonard A. Lauder

London

Not to be left behind, some London artists banded together to set up The Cave of the Golden Calf in 1912, an underground haunt in Soho set up by Frida Uhl Strindberg. It was located in ‘a dingy basement below a cloth merchant’s warehouse just off Regent Street, where her artist friends Spencer Gore, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, and Eric Gill contributed to the futurist and Russian ballet-inspired art that covered the club’s interiors. It was also, apparently, possibly the first ‘gay bar’ in the modern sense and was certainly conceived by its creator, as an avant-garde and artistic venture.

This section included designs for the interior by British artists Spencer Gore and Eric Gill, as well as Wyndham Lewis’s highly stylised programmes for the eclectic performance evenings. I came across Wyndham Lewis at school and have never stopped loving his savage angular art, either satirising English society or brutally conveying the reality of the Great War, which he saw from the front as a bombardier. For me his programme designs were the best thing in this section.

Study for a mural decoration for the Cave of the Golden Calf by Spencer Gore (1912) © Tate, London 2019

Zurich

Zurich during the war is famous as the birthplace of the Cabaret Voltaire (1916), which in its short existence (February to July 1916) hosted far-out Dada events and happenings in a deliberately absurdist environment. The exhibition includes samples of absurdist sound poetry and fantastical masks that deconstruct body and language, as used in the anarchic performances of original Dadaists Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings and Marcel Janco. Later Jean Arp recalled ‘pandemonium in an overcrowded, flamboyant room’ with works by Picasso or Arp hanging on the wall while Hennings sang anti-war songs there were puppet shows, improvised dances, African drums, and booming ‘poetry without words’ was yelled through a megaphone by people wearing silly costumes. This is a 1960s reconstruction:

Rome

The curators select two clubs from the post-war period in Rome which demonstrated the hold of the dynamic new art movement of Futurism in Italy in the 1920s.

In 1921 Futurist artist Giacomo Balla was commissioned by Ugo Paladini to create a Futurist nightclub and the result was Bal Tic Tac, which used Futurist angular design to create a wonderfully colour-saturated designs for the club’s interior. The exterior of the building was sensible neo-classical, the interior deliberately undermined this with brightly coloured interlacing shapes meant to capture the movement of dancers. It was one of the first places in Rome to promote the new American jazz music. A sign on the door read, ‘If you don’t drink champagne – go away!’

Also in the same room is a display devoted to drawings and furnishings for Fortunato Depero’s spectacular inferno-inspired Cabaret del Diavolo (1922) which occupied three floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell. Depero’s flamboyant tapestry writhes with dancing demons, expressing the club’s motto ‘Tutti all’inferno!!! (Everyone to hell!!!)’.

Black and White Little Devils: Dance of the Devils by Fortunato Depero (1922) © DACS 2019. Archivo Depero, Rovereto. Courtesy Mart – Archivio Fotografico e Mediateca

Weimar Germany

After Paris in the Belle Epoque, probably the most famous era of nightclubs was in Weimar Germany between the wars, the exhibition doesn’t disappoint, with a selection of paintings and drawings of decadent German nightclubs by the likes of George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, Grosz – as usual – for me at any rate, emerging as the star among the men.

But, living in the era when we do, the exhibition goes out of its way to promote the work of ‘often overlooked female artists’, such as Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler.

Jeanne Mammen is really good. Her drawings and paintings are recognisably from the same time and place as the guys, but feel a little softer, more rounded, her figures are a little more like humans and less like the porcine animals of Grosz or Dix. Also her use of colour, particularly watercolour, the colours washing or dribbling or spilling over to create colour and life and action and depth. She depicted almost only women, many set in overtly lesbian nightclubs, in fact some of the wonderful pictures here were illustrations to a 1931 book titled A Guide To Depraved Berlin.

She Represents by Jenna Mammen (1928) published in Simplicissimus magazine Volume 32, Number 47

One of the most purely beautiful paintings in the exhibition is Karl Hofer’s iconic portrait of a couple of Tiller Girls, the Tiller Girls being dancers who did high-precision, high-kicking routines.

Tiller Girls by Karl Hofer (before 1927) Kunsthalle Emden – Stiftung Henri und Eske Nannen © Elke Walford, Fotowerkstatt Hamburg

Interestingly, a social theorist write in the same year this was painted, 1927, that the uncanny precision and interchangeability of the girls mirrored the large-scale mechanical methods of manufacturing which were then coming in and capturing people’s imaginations: ‘the hands of the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls’.

Strasbourg

Meanwhile in Strasbourg, Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp worked together to create the L’Aubette (1926–28), conceived as the ultimate ‘deconstruction of architecture’, a highly modernist, strict, functional design, with bold geometric abstraction as its guiding principle. The vast building housed a cinema-ballroom, bar, tearoom, billiards room, restaurant and more, each designed as immersive environments.

The Ciné-bal at Café L’Aubette, Strasbourg, designed by Theo van Doesburg (1926-28) Image: Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut

Harlem

During World War One a Great Migration began of African-Americans from the Deep South to escape segregation, poverty and violent racism. They came north, to northern cities like Chicago and New York, and brought with them new music and sounds, specifically jazz. In New York many settled in the uptown Harlem district which underwent a great artistic flowering of music, poetry, dance, art and more, which eventually became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition includes a fascinating street map of Harlem (by E. Simms Campbell) which shows all the different nightclubs and the types of jazz to be found there. The most evocative thing here is the movie made around Duke Ellington’s jazz suite, Symphony In Black, which was intended to convey a panorama of African-American life.

All the static artefacts struggle to compete with the evocativeness of a) the music and b) some of the scenes from the movie. But what comes close is the fabulous silhouette art of Aaron Douglas who is represented by paintings and prints and illustrations to a book of blues lyrics by Langston Hughes. Vivid, beautifully crisp and rhythmic, it’s no wonder the curators chose one of his images as the exhibition poster.

Dance by Aaron Douglas (1930) © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

I’d like to know a lot more about Douglas, every one of the half dozen or so images on show here are excellent. They also made me realise the black and white silhouette art of Kara Walker, the contemporary Afro-American artists, is not as original as I thought it was.

So far all these settings and stories and artists have been European and American, part of a familiar narrative of Euro-American modernism which most of us are pretty familiar with. But this huge exhibition has a few surprises in store. First, the non-Western subjects.

Mexico City

Two and a half thousand miles south of New York City is Mexico City. Here, in the aftermath of the prolonged Mexican Revolution, in the early 1920s, a radical new art movement emerged named Estridentismo which sought to overthrow established bourgeois modes and create a new poetry which combined the folk fiction of the peasants with the reality of urban life in the big cities. How to unite rural peasants and urban workers – it was Lenin’s problem, Mao’s problem, Guevara’s problem, and the founders of the movement – Ramón Alva de la Canal, Manuel Maples Arce and Germán Cueto – discussed this and much more at the Café de Nadie (Nobody’s Café) in Mexico City.

One of them came up with the characteristically inane motto: ‘Chopin to the electric chair!’ (characteristic for the post-war era of anti-bourgeois rhetoric)

Well, the twentieth century was to send many poets, painters, composers and musicians to the gulag, to the death camp and the execution cell, so in a roundabout way they got their wish.

El Café de Nadie by Ramón Alva de la Canal (c. 1970) © DACS, 2019. Courtesy Private Collection

Later in the 1920s, some of the group plus new members set up the ¡30-30! group (named after a popular rifle cartridge) with a socialist agenda of bringing art to the masses, and they organised lots of exhibitions and events in 1928 to 30. In January 1929 they staged an ambitious interactive exhibition-cum-event in a large carpa or low-cost tent used for travelling circuses. The Carpa Amaro event featured many woodprints, a deliberately cheap, affordable form.

The exhibition includes photos of these young firebrands, alongside a case of handmade masks made by German Cueto, and then a wall of thirty or so of the woodcuts which featured in the carpa exhibition by artists such as Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma and Fermin Revueltas Sanchez, ranging in subject matter from revolutionary leaders to suckling pigs via many portraits of working people.

Viva el 30-30 by Fernando Leal (1928)

Nigeria

Then to my surprise there is a whole section about Nigeria, specifically about the highly influential Mbari Artists and Writers Club, founded in the early 1960s in Nigeria.

The exhibition focuses on two of the club’s key locations, in Ibadan and Osogbo, describing how they were founded as laboratories for postcolonial artistic experimentation, providing a platform for a dazzling range of activities – including open-air dance and theatre performances, featuring ground breaking Yoruba operas by Duro Ladipo and Fela Kuti’s Afro-jazz; poetry and literature readings; experimental art workshops; and pioneering exhibitions by African and international artists such as Colette Omogbai, Twins Seven-Seven, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Uche Okeke.

There were some striking paintings here, I appreciated the swirling designs of Twins Seven-Seven but was drawn to the three works by Ibrahim (later discovering these are talismanic pieces of post-colonial African art).

Self-Portrait of Suffering by Ibrahim El-Salahi (1961) Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany © Ibrahim El-Salahi

There was a very interesting film playing, Art In A Changing Society made back in 1964 by Francis Speed and Ulli Beier, which was a TV documentary-style introduction to the art and architecture, design and dance and music of post-colonial Nigeria but which I cannot, alas, find on the internet.

Tehran

Lastly, and most unexpected of all, we come to Tehran in 1966 where the club Rasht 29 emerged as a creative space for avant-garde painters, poets, musicians and filmmakers to meet and discuss. There were spontaneous performances and works by artists like Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram hung in the lounge while a soundtrack including Led Zeppelin and the Beatles played constantly.

Best of the works here were the three or four works by Parviz Tanalovi, who incorporated industrial leftovers and detritus into picture sculptures i.e picture sized and shaped objects, which hang on a wall, but which come out of the picture frame into three dimensions. Apparently many of his works incorporate a grille which looks to me like the symbol of a prison but apparently refers to the traditional design of a saqqakhaneh, the ‘sacred commemorative water fountains’ which gave their name to the artistic movement they all belonged to Saqqakhaneh.

Heech and Hands by Parviz Tanavoli (1964) Collection Parviz Tanavoli © Parviz Tanavoli


1. Including the non-Western clubs

As you can see, it’s a lot to take in. I find it hard to keep in mind all of the aspects of Modernism across Europe and the States – bringing in new non-Western countries is a brave and admirable move – it is good to  learn about Ibrahim El-Salahi and Parviz Tanalovi, in particular.

But it begs quite a few questions:

1. Why do we get to see so very little non-Western art in all our major art galleries. Mexico, Nigeria, Iran – these are all major countries with huge populations and long cultural heritages. Yet you only rarely hear anything about them.

2. Do they really fit into this exhibition? Not only was the Western stuff unified by coming from a common European artistic heritage, but it was unified in date as well, showing the flow of thought from the late-nineteenth century through the Great War and into the inter-war period: it covers the period roughly described as Modernism. Whereas the Nigeria and Tehran stuff suddenly leaps into the 1960s, a completely different period with a completely different vibe.

So not only do I know next to nothing about Nigerian or Persian traditional art, but I am not told anything about Nigerian or Iranian art of the 1900s, 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s to help put the sudden focus in the clubs of the 1960s in focus.

2. Recreating the nightclub vibe

There is one massive aspect of the show I haven’t mentioned yet – which is that, having processed through the historical exhibition and display up on the balcony, the visitor then goes back down to the ground floor and discovers that, in the central gallery space, the curators have recreated some of the art clubs which we’ve been reading about. Specifically, there is:

  • Chat Noir a white room with 7 or 8 of the big metal stencils fromt he Chat Noir hanging from the ceiling and slowly rotating in the mild breeze and throwing shadows on the wall, all to the contemporaneous music of Debussy and Satie – a very calm, peaceful, meditative room
  • Cabaret Fledermaus a striking reconstruction of the Viennese nightclub in which the walls and bar are studded with brightly coloured tiles

Recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, Vienna, 1907

  • L’Aubette a reconstruction of L’Aubette, the semi-industrial, architectural complex in Strasbourg, complete with cinema projection running a series of contemporary films, including Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin and Metropolis

Recreation of the cinema-ballroom L’Aubette by Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp

  • Mbari Clubs and a nice space set off from the corridor by a barrier or wall made out of sculpted patterns in a Nigerian style, inside which was playing a video of Nigerian youths dancing

You can see that a great deal or time, trouble and expense has gone into recreating each of these ‘zones’. But.. The most obvious thing about most nightclubs is, or was, that they were traditionally subterranean, smoky, often very noisy and very cramped and packed environments, in which people are drinking too much and laughing and joking and often having to shout over the very loud music, and laughing and going off to the bogs or stopping for a snog on the stars or chatting up the barmaid or barman, and asking someone for a light. They are/were places of intense hectic human interaction.

It was an ambitious, maybe quixotic notion, to try and recreate all that human bustle, noise, sweat and booziness in… the uniquely silent, white, perfectly scrubbed and essentially sterile environment of the modern art gallery. Nothing could really have been more dead than the Mbari Clubs little zone, completely empty when I walked in, admired the Yoruba wall paintings, and walked out again. Or the loving recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, beautiful coloured tiles and all, and utterly empty and utterly silent when I walked through it.

Conclusions

This is a fascinating insight into an enduringly interesting subject, a subject which has inspired all manner of artists across numerous countries and periods.

In fact, maybe you could think of The Nightclub as being an entire genre, a very twentieth century genre, as The Nude or The Landscape were for previous centuries.

And I admire the way the curators have made it so multinational, showing the same impulse at work across multiple cultures and continents.

Like previous Barbican shows it is so packed as to be overwhelming, bringing together over 350 works rarely seen in the UK, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, films and archival material.

And yet I was really perplexed by the recreations. The young woman who took my ticket explained that they have been having music evenings, with live bands playing. Maybe that helps, maybe that lifts it a bit. But it was eerie walking through perfect recreations of places which were meant to be temples to human interaction in all its smelly, sweaty, boozy, smoke-ridden, music-drowned glory but were now empty and silent – turned, quite literally, into museum pieces.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Cindy Sherman @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release, Cindy Sherman is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. This is a massive retrospective of Sherman’s entire career, from the mid-1970s to the present day. It includes over 190 works from international public and private collections, some of them never seen in public before, some of them reunited after decades apart.

What is Sherman famous for? For dressing up as fictional characters and types, and taking photos of herself.

She stumbled across the idea as an art student in the mid-1970s and – in an impressive example of an artist hitting a style, establishing a brand, and then sticking to it through thick and thin – she has followed the same practice for the past 45 years.

Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chronological order

The exhibition is arranged in a straightforward chronological order allowing you to see how Sherman’s art has evolved and developed from the mid-1970s to today. It opens with rarely exhibited photographs and films created while she was still an art student at the State University College at Buffalo from 1972 to 1976.

One early set, from 1976, is titled Unhappy Hooker where Sherman depicts herself as a prostitute waiting for a client.

In Murder Mystery (also 1976) she made a series of black-and-white photos of herself, in each one dressed up in the outfit of a character from a fictional murder mystery play (which she herself wrote) – the butler, the waitress, the rich old lady, the detective etc. Note the stereotyping of the characters.

In November 1976, shortly after she graduated from art school, Sherman created a series titled Cover Girl, in which she takes the covers of five fashion or ‘women’s’ magazines (CosmopolitanVogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle), and transposes her own face (generally pulling a yucky, silly expression) onto the face of the glamour model on the cover. Each work accomplishes the transformation from sensible to satirical in three images, and the five sets of three images are displayed here together for the first time since that heady summer of 76!

In Line-Up (1977) made just after she graduated and just before she moved to New York City, there are thirty-five black and white photos, in each of which Sherman appears, on her own, dressed in costume with make-up, playing thirty-five different characters.

So right from the beginning we can see the patterns emerging in Sherman’s work which will hold true for the rest of her career:

  1. She works in projects or series, all addressing a particular theme or taking a similar approach
  2. All the photos are of herself. There is never anyone else in the photos. But she is always ‘in character’, playing a role.
  3. None of her photos has ever had a title. They are all called Untitled and then given a number. Thus the final photo in the exhibition is named Untitled #549. (They may have brackets added after the number indicating the particular series the image belongs to.) One of the intentions of this is to ‘universalize the particular’, and leave the images open to the widest possible range of interpretations by the viewer.

Untitled Film Stills

Her breakthrough piece was Untitled Film Stills. Building on the previous series but going one big aesthetic step further, Untitled Film Stills is a series of 70 black-and-white photos which Sherman started creating soon after she arrived in New York City in 1977, and which, when they were exhibited, made her reputation. They are also – to give away the plot – in my opinion, by far and away the best thing in the exhibition.

They’re fairly small, portrait-shaped prints, about 18 inches high by a foot wide. In each of them Sherman dresses and poses as a completely different character. So that’s 70 female characters going about their business in the big bad city. Each of the figures is caught in different setting, in apartments, out on the street, in a suburban garden, several appear to be set in a swimming pool.

If there’s a consistent ‘look’ to the photos it derives from 1950s and 60s Hollywood – from film noir, B-movies and, maybe, from European art-house films. Some could be papparazzi shots of unknown celebs. The most obvious vibe they emit is a sense of suppressed anxiety or, in some of the long lens photos of blurred figures, a sense of mystery. Though all that makes them sounds too dark and indoors-y. Many of the best ones are outdoors or in full sunlight.

Untitled Film Still #7 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

A number of things make them great. As compositions, they are all top quality, imaginatively posed, full of detail and interest.

But the really obvious thing is how dramatic they are. They are like stills from a wider drama. You feel the presence of other people just out of the shot, who are about to walk in and say or do something, or else have just left the frame after saying something explosive. They suggest all kinds of possible backstories – who where what why how? – and prompt an incredibly rich response in the viewer, making you imagine all kinds of films and stories and plots of which these are decisive moments and fragments. Each one is like a short story in itself.

The Untitled Film Stills are given a room to themselves early on in the show and – in my humble opinion – it is by far the best room, the one I came back to at the end, once I’d reviewed the entire exhibition, and sat on the bench conveniently provided for visitors, and let my eye wander over the images and my mind – not exactly work out a complete story for each image – but respond to the mood and vibe and possibilities contained in each one.

This idea, of a kind of photo pregnant with meaning, struck me as a wonderful achievement. And doing them as a set hugely contributes to the cumulative effect, creating the sense of an entire world set in this one but, because of the demonstrably false and made-up actor Cindy Sherman featuring centre stage in each photo, both this world and vividly artificial, fake and created.

Bigger

From this point onwards, the remaining eight or so rooms show three things happening to Sherman’s work over the succeeding decades:

  1. the photos go from black and white to colour
  2. they get bigger and bigger until, soon they are four or five foor tall, in the work from the 1990s they are horribly, oppressively huge and, in the final room, have become photo-murals covering entire walls
  3. and, as a result, I felt that – as the photos became more technically adroit in colour and saturation, and evermore grandiose in size – the viewer, and the viewer’s imagination, gets progressively more and more squeezed out of the photos and, eventually, instead of leaning forward and entering her imaginative world, I felt I was cowering backwards and being harangued

Later series

Each of the remaining rooms hangs samples from Sherman’s major series, namely:

Rear Screen Projections (1980-1)

The first series she made in colour, the Rear Screen Projections are also noticeably larger than the Film Stills, about five times bigger. The camera is closer up to her face, which is more subtly made-up to create different characters. The commentary says this greater close-up creates more psychological depth, but I felt there was more imaginative depth in the Untitled Film Stills.

Centrefolds (1981)

In the new larger size, and in the new full colour, Centrefolds are cast in a wide, landscape format which is deliberately reminiscent of the centrefolds of men’s magazines i.e. soft porn. But instead of scantily-clad women arranged to titillate ‘the male gaze’, Sherman’s personas look ill at ease and troubled, women in trouble or some kind of extreme situation. Though referencing magazine culture, some of the images very clearly derive from the aesthetic of film posters or the kind of dramatic stills used to promote movies.

Untitled #92 by Cindy Sherman (1981) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Pink Robes (1982)

A series of big colour photos in which Sherman dresses as an artist’s or photographer’s model, who wraps herself in a pink robe between shots. So the idea is these are off-the-cuff casual moments in a photographer’s studio, with Sherman posing as the bored model.

For the first time in these photos Sherman stares directly at the camera, which led some critics to get over-excited about how we were ‘seeing the real Cindy Sherman for the first time’! This strikes me as taking a strikingly naive view of what constitutes ‘reality’.

Fashion (1983)

In 1983 Sherman was commissioned by New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce advertising images to promote clothes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Sherman responded with photos of herself – in different personas – wearing the clothes alright, but in characters which are obviously abject and neurotic. This was intended as a satirical critique of the shallow superficiality of the fashion world.

The trouble is you cannot satirise fashion. There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which the inhabitants of the fashion world are not completely aware of, but still love. Thus the client loved the photos, so new, so original daaahling.

Vogue Paris (1984)

Sherman received another fashion commission from a French fashion house to provide photos for a shoot for Vogue Paris. She created images of herself made-up to be the models, again wearing the designer clothes alright, but again shooting them in a subversive style, making her look deliberately gawky, clumsy and unhappy. The client loved them. And a glance at her Wikipedia article shows that she has had a long and extensive engagement with the world of fashion, receiving numerous further commissions, designing jewellery and other accessories etc. ‘There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which…’

Fairy Tales (1985)

In this series Sherman dresses up as ‘types’ from fairy tales, in enormous colour photos, heavily made-up to create some really aggressive, scary images. The lighting is (inevitably) more dark and in most of these shots, the settings looking like the forests and gravelly soil of the Germanic Grimm stories – a visual departure for Sherman most of whose photos – you realise – have been set in city streets or urban interiors. In some of them the Sherman personas looking like they’re undergoing real physical ordeals.

Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman (1985) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

History Portraits (1988-90)

the fairy tale series represents a conscious departure from the urban setting of most of her photos hitherto,

At the end of the 1980s Sherman took a conscious break from dissecting / analysing / subverting contemporary culture and immersed herself in the world of Old Master paintings, including a trip to Rome to see the real thing.

The result was a series of thirty elaborately staged, huge, richly coloured photos in which Sherman appears in a range of costumes and uses prosthetic noses, breasts and other accessories to drastically change her appearance and parody the appearance of male and female royalty and aristocrats, even a madonna and child.

Untitled Film Still #216 by Cindy Sherman, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

I didn’t like these at all. I thought they were a bad joke in poor taste. I thought they showed a complete lack of empathy with the Middle Ages, Renaissance or Old Master painting. You can’t really dress them up as a feminist ‘reclamation’ of the images as – unusually – half the images are of Sherman dressing up as late medieval men.

Sex Pictures (1992)

In a room by themselves – with a warning that it contains ‘adult content’ – is a set of huge, garishly coloured and disturbing photos of what look like plastic mannequins, cut up and reassembled to emphasise their (generally female) genitals, which – presumably – were specially created for these photos. The general aim is to produce disturbingly transgressive rewrites of porn tropes, and the handful of massive images here certainly are disgusting, showing cobbled-together bits and pieces of fake plastic human bodies, featuring not only vulvas but anuses, penises made of plastic, in one image a string of sausage-like turds proceeding from what looks like a vulva.

As far as I can see, these are the only series in which she does not appear. A very great deal has been written about these pictures, by critics who, apparently, do not understand what pornography is or who it is for. By which I mean they imagine that disassembling the human body into surreal conglomerates of chopped up pieces will act as a once and for all, decisive ‘subversion’ and undermining of the male gaze and pornographic imagery.

How pitifully, it seems to me, they underestimate the baseness of human nature, and woefully underestimate the ubiquitous power of pornography. A few repellent art photos change nothing, nothing at all.

Office Killer (1997)

In the later 1990s Sherman got involved in making films, directing an art movie titled Office Killer released in 1997. One critic called it ‘sadly inept’, others ‘crude’ and ‘laugh-free’. Having produced and directed TV myself, I know there is a world of difference between taking one inspired photo and creating a plausible and effective series of moving shots.

Clowns (2003-4)

Sherman dresses up as a variety of clown types. Obviously all looking miserable and forlorn. The sad reality behind the clown strikes me as being one of the more exhausted, clichéd tropes of all time.

Society Portraits (2008)

A series satirising rich women in high society. The ageing female characters created in these huge colour photos are all using make-up and cosmetics to try and mask the ageing process and, failing in that, emphasise their wealth via fashionable dresses, expensive accessories and to-die-for houses.

Untitled #466 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Presumably these are meaningful if you in any way read about, or are aware of, rich American society ladies – from magazines and high society and gossip columns in newspapers, or from the publicity surrounding fashion houses, or at the openings of new operas or plays or art exhibitions at the Met or New York’s fashionable art galleries. Not engaging with any of this content or people, I saw them less as satire than fictionalised portraits of a social type I’ve been aware of for decades – the swank American millionaire wife – who has been lampooned and satirised for centuries, going back to the so-called Gilded Age (1870s to 1900) and before.

Balenciaga (2008)

Balenciaga is a luxury fashion house, originally from Spain. Echoing her repeated engagement with the world of fashion, and mixing it with the ageing heroines of Society Portraits, Sherman created a series of six enormous, colour digital photos of herself playing the character of an ageing fashion doyenne, a bit like Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Like I say, this is maybe hilarious or relevant if you give a damn about the world of high fashion or rich-bitch society women – but I don’t.

Untitled #462 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chanel (2012)

Sherman was then commissioned by the perfumier Chanel to record some of their dresses and outfits. Sherman chose to create her biggest works to date, a set of absolutely enormous, wall-sized photos depicting more-than-life-sized women standing alone in enormous landscapes. On closer inspection these landscapes appear to have been either painted in, or digitally altered to have a painterly feel. The landscapes were from both Iceland and the isle of Capri, and I found them, artistically, the most interesting part of the compositions.

Flappers (2016-18)

Sherman dresses up as flappers from the 1920s.

Untitled #574 by Cindy Sherman (2016) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

For completists

If you are a Sherman completist then I can imagine you will be thrilled by the digital version on display here of A Cindy Book, a private album of family photographs that Sherman began compiling when she was eight or nine-years-old, which has never been seen before, and which reveals an early fascination with her own changing appearance.

Similarly, one whole room (in fact it’s the ‘transition’ space between the galleries at the front and the galleries at the back of the building) has been given over to a recreation of Sherman’s studio in New York, with wall-sized photos of her bookshelves, posters and collections of photos torn from glamour magazines and pinned to the wall, and shelves and cupboards full of masks and make-up and prosthetic attachments – all designed to provide ‘an unprecedented insight into the artist’s working processes.’

During the recent big exhibition at the NPG of photos by Martin Parr (which I found much more interesting and fun than Sherman) this space was converted into a working model of a transport caff which actually sold hot tea and cake. It would be funny if, for every exhibition they hold in these galleries, the National Portrait Gallery created a themed eaterie. A Giacometti pizzeria would have been good – imagine how thin the crusts would have been! Or a Cézanne café, with French peasants smoking pipes and playing cards, and a view of Mont Saint Victoire in the distance…

Thoughts

First of all, it is a striking achievement to have made a career out of what is basically one idea.

This is because Sherman has been able to come up with a succession of subjects and topics to each of which she can apply her distinctive, dressing-up approach and each of which are susceptible to rich and stimulating critical interpretation.

Then there’s the quality of the photographs themselves. The wall labels don’t go into as much detail about this as I’d like, but you get the impression that, as digital photography has evolved over the past forty years, Sherman has kept well abreast of all the developments and been able to incorporate each new wave of technology into her trademark concept. The sheer size of prints which modern digital photography enables, with pinpoint focus at every part of the image, becoming the most obvious one, as the exhibition progresses.

To keep mining the same vein and consistently coming up with apparently new and innovative variations on more or less the same theme deserves respect, especially in the shark pool which is the New York art scene.

However, at about this point questions of personal taste begin to intrude. All of the series certainly contained at least several highly impactful and striking photographs. And, unlike me, readers of this post may well like the fairy tale or Old Master or Flapper photos more than the earlier ones. Different people will have different responses.

All I can say is that, as the exhibition advanced through the decades and series, I was less and less engaged and attracted, and slowly became repelled by the sheer size and garish colouring of some of the photos. Way before the porn room I was actively shrinking from these big, shouty images, and I had certainly had enough by the end, and was relieved when I got to the final room with its overpowering wall-sized murals of vague landscapes with a modern woman plonked in front of them. Phew. Duty done, I could stroll back to the early room and enjoy again the marvelous Untitled Film Stills.

As well as feeling more and more repelled by the images, I also quickly disliked the ideas and subjects. Satirising the world of New York fashion, while making a lot of money from working within the world of New York fashion, just struck me as hypocritical and typically… American. If you are American, an American artist or photographer or film-maker, it appears to be very difficult to escape from the vast money-making machine which is American culture.

When it came to the society photos, taking the mickey out of vain, rich, wrinkly old American millionairesses is something I grew up watching the great Alan Whicker do on his TV documentaries back in the 1970s. It just seemed such a very…. old idea.

And lampooning Old Master paintings seemed to me a rather pointless thing to do, particularly when it’s done in such a grim and humourless way. Strapping on a fake plastic boob and spending hours dressing up to look like a madonna and child seemed a peculiarly futile exercise. If you’re going to mock them at least be funny, in the manner of Monty Python or the Horrible Histories. Just pointing out that the real-life kings and queens of that time were probably not as smooth-skinned and luminously handsome as their portraitists depicted them strikes me as being, well, not the most original or interesting idea.

The notes to the porn room made the point for me that her photos heavily referenced the disturbing sexualised mannequins the Surrealist sculptor Hans Bellmer was making back in the 1930s. Well, quite.

The curators suggest that Sherman’s work has never been more relevant than here and now, in the age of the selfie and the internet and Instagram and social media – but I disagree.

Watching my teenage kids and their friends has shown me that all my ideas about images and how they should and shouldn’t be used, assessed and consumed, belong in the Stone Age. The speed and sophistication of modern teenagers’ attitudes to movies, TV shows, stills, photos, ads and selfies is light years ahead of the kind of mainstream, dad culture represented by this exhibition.

For this exhibition – like most of the exhibitions I go to – was mostly populated by mums and dads, mostly filled, as usual, with grey-haired, older, white people, the majority of them women. No doubt some of the visitors have done courses in Critical Theory and Feminist Studies and are conversant with the numberless theories of gender and identity and performance which have been generated over the past fifty years, all of which can be liberally applied to Sherman’s work.

But a) Cindy Sherman’s basic idea – dressing up as ‘characters’ contemporary or historical or from fairy tales, and photographing herself – seems so old-fashioned, so pre-digital, as to be sweet and naive.

And b) I didn’t really believe anything I read in the wall labels about gender and identity and subverting this or that stereotype. In most of the photos she looks like a woman. When she was a young woman, she looks like a young woman, sometimes dressed and posed as a noticeably attractive young woman, pink towel about to fall off her lissom body as in a Kenny Everett sketch.

As she’s grown older, Sherman’s subjects have changed and, for example, the series of photos depicting fictional American women using cosmetics to appear younger than they are… well… that’s actually what millions of ageing American women do, isn’t it? I didn’t see that it was subverting any stereotypes. On the contrary, I thought almost all of her images reinforced the stereotypes so actively produced and disseminated by the mainstream American bubblegum culture which she so constantly refers to (all those compositions which look like scenes from movies) or which she has herself, personally, contributed to (all those fashion shoots).

For me the Untitled Film Stills series was the best series. It was the most modest in aim and so, somehow, the most effective. It had the most mystery and each one of the shots created an imaginative space for the viewer to inhabit and populate as they wished.

You may well disagree and find her later work funny or disturbing or inspiring or bitingly satirical, and I can see how different people – old and young, gay and straight, men or women – might get very different things from her work.

The one thing which is unquestionably true is that this is as definitive and complete an overview of a figure many critics refer to as ‘one of the most important and influential artists of our time’ (the Observer) as we are likely to see in our lifetimes.

So if you want to find out for yourself whether you like some, all, or none of Cindy Sherman’s work, you should definitely go along and check it out for yourself.

Video

This short video by Divento.com gives a good feel for the variety and layout of the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is the world’s largest open submission exhibition, running every year since 1769. This, the 251st exhibition, was curated by Jock McFadyen RA, he has overall responsibility for its look and layout – although it’s worth noting that most of the fourteen or so individual rooms were allotted to other artists to sub-curate.

1,583 works

Over 15,000 works were submitted by artists professional, super-famous, or utterly amateur. From these the curators have chosen 1,583 pieces to be displayed in the Academy’s fourteen massive exhibition rooms, in the courtyard outside, and even spilling over into a street display in nearby Bond Street – ‘a colourful installation of flags featuring work by Michael Craig-Martin’.

Large walking figure by Thomas Houseago, in the Royal Academy courtyard (not for sale)

Variety of media

Over 1,583 works in every imaginable medium – prints and paintings, film, photography, sculpture, architectural models and much more – making it the largest Summer Exhibition in over a century. How on earth can the visitor be expected to make sense of process such a vast over-abundance of artistic objects?

Well, the answer is that everyone does it in their own way. My son and I always have a competition to find the cheapest – and the most expensive – works on offer (see the winner at the end of this review). He also likes comic or quirky pieces so he loved this sculpture of a tiger covered in Tunnock teacake wrappers.

Easy Tiger by David Mach (£57,600)

The architecture room

Some people come to see the room of architectural models and blueprints. Usually I call the architecture room the Room of Shame, from a lifetime’s experience of growing up close to an appalling New Town in my teens, and then starting my working life in the poorer parts of London amid slums and rundown housing estates. The planners and architects who designed those places should be ashamed at the barren, soul-destroying environments they condemned other people to live their lives in.

But to my surprise, I quite liked the Room of Shame this year. If you think of all the elaborate models on display as sets from science fiction movies, utterly unrelated to the actual world we all live in, then I found a lot of them entertaining fantasies. And there were some quirky and genuinely inspiring buildings, from the model of an enormous concrete grain silo which has actually been converted into an art gallery in China, to a pyramid of recycled plastic bottles built on a hypothetical beach somewhere.

‘Bottlehouse’, in the architecture room

I couldn’t help sniggering that a lot of architects – from the evidence here – appear to have just discovered something called The Environment, and are making bold little wooden models of cities which will be environmentally friendly and carbon neutral and made from recyclable materials. Well done, chaps. About fifty years too late, but it’s a nice thought. The army of cranes I see around Battersea Power Station don’t seem to be putting up anything beautiful or sustainable, and when I recently visited Stratford East I had a panic attack at the sheer amount of concrete that has been poured to make vast walled sterile walkways and esplanades without a tree in sight.

Amaravati Masterplan Model (1:1000) by Spencer de Grey RA (not for sale)

Photography

Some visitors like photography, and I noticed what I thought was a higher proportion of photos than usual though, as always, that may be a purely subjective impression. They give you a handy pocket-sized catalogue of all the works as part of the entrance price, and I’ve kept the ones from the last five or six years, so I suppose I could go through and do a precise analysis of how many photos have been included in previous years compared to this year…

For me, a lot of art (and certainly a lot of writing about art) is very samey, covering the same sort of subject matter, often small and set indoors. I really liked this photo because it was one of the few images which conveyed the sense that it is a big world with lots and lots, and lots, of people in it, people who live in worlds and conditions we can’t imagine, whose day-to-day existence is as different from our comfortable Western lives as Martians. (It’s a bloody big photo, too, at 1.5 by 2 metres.)

Saw Mills #2, Lagos, Nigeria by Edward Burtynsky (£47,000)

Big names

Some come looking for the works by big-name international artists like Wim Wenders or Anselm Kiefer or Richard Long. There was a huge muddy oil painting by Anselm Kiefer (2.8 metres by 3.8 metres), a turbulent thick impasto of brown tones, over which he had scored lines and patterns and writing. Sounds pretentious but it had real presence, it knocked most of the other paintings in its gallery out of the park. This reproduction is useless at conveying its huge, looming, disturbing, and very physical presence.

Fünf Jahre Lebte Vainamoinen Auf Der Unbekannten Insel Auf Dem Baumlosen Land by Anselm Kiefer

Modest works

Size isn’t everything. All the rooms were packed to overflowing and it was often only on the second or third go-round that I noticed small, shy and retiring works, such as a pair of lovely photos of small songbirds which, on close inspection, appear to be attached to their perches next to brightly coloured brickwork by tiny golden chains.

Gasconades (Letsdothis) by Mat Collishaw (£685)

The Wohl Central Hall where this photo was, is themed around animals, who appear in all shapes and sizes, in paintings and photos and sculptures. Other strong themes were concerns for the environment and recycling in the Room of Shame, and ideas of immigration and identity, particularly in Gallery I which was sub-curated by Jane and Louise Wilson.

Identity

As soon as you see the world ‘identity’ you know there’s going to be images of black people, and gays and lesbians, and probably refugees and immigrants. It’s a stock theme usually accompanied by stock images, and sure enough there’s paintings of a black couple and group of ladies (by Arthur Timothy), a video of a black girl dancing in her front room (by Sophie Perceval), a photo of a black mother and daughter (by Pepukai Makoni). There’s a painting of two men kissing by Ksenija Vucinic.

A Portrait of a Couple by Ksenija Vucinic (£750)

[In fact I completely misinterpreted this painting, thinking it depicted a gay couple – not least because of the word ‘couple’ in the title – when it is a much more complicated image. See the comment below this review, from the artist, explaining her motivation.]

The room is dominated by a big blue hanging fabric by Jeremy Deller with the motto: ‘We are all immigrant scum.’ This made my son quite cross. He thought it was patronising its audience, as if a) wall hangings will have the slightest impact on one of the great social and political issues of our time and b) as if absolutely all the nice, middle-class white people who attend an exhibition at the Royal Academy are not already bien-pensant, cosmopolitan liberals.

We are all immigrant scum by Jeremy Deller (not for sale)

‘Preaching to the converted,’ is the term he used.

Wolfgang Tilmans

Dodging the woke messages, I liked this photo best of anything in the PC room. Possibly the two guys are gay and so shoehorned into the ‘identity’ theme. But the image is caught so vividly, I could almost feel the wet sand giving way under my own feet, evoking memories of when I’ve done this kind of thing.

And, to be honest, I fancied the two blokes. Fit-looking young men, aren’t they?

It was only when I looked it up in the catalogue that I realised it’s by the über-famous Wolfgang Tilmans (who had a big retrospective at Tate Modern not so long ago). And that it’s on sale for the not inconsiderable sum of £72,000.

Liam and Tm jumping up the cliff by Wolfgang Tillmans (£72,000)

Most of us, I suspect, just like pottering around this vast gallimaufrey of every style of contemporary art work you can imagine, letting ourselves be surprised and sometimes astonished at the big, the small, the political, the personal – the world of animals (beautiful prints of whales, photos of dogs) and world of men (a number of works depicting brutalist high-rises), the world of woke (gays and blacks) and the world of weird.

The Scarred One by Benedict Byrne (not for sale)

It doesn’t come over at all in this photo, but you know all the little fuses and bits of wire and coloured components you find inside transistor radios? Well, this work is actually a three-dimensional piece made up of a hundred or so of those wires and coloured components all attached to a black background to make this design.

Technological Echnological Mandala by Leonardo Ulian (£9,000)

From patterns made by man to the incredibly beautiful patterns of nature, he also liked this 3-D rendered giclée print on cotton rag depicting in vibrant super-colour a beehive.

The Language of Bees by Richard Devonshire (£500)

For my part, I liked this screenprint, unsure whether it’s a photo or a painting, or a graphically altered photo. Whatever the precise nature, on a hot summer day, it spoke to me of cool water. I could feel the ozone breeze blowing off the splashing water into my face.

Falling Water II by John Mackechnie (£1,100)

There are about 1,500 other examples I could give, but maybe that’s enough…

For the last couple of years we have been a little disappointed by the Summer Exhibition. This year, maybe it was the weather or my hormones, but I felt it was a return to form, I thought there was a really massive variety of works on display and, for some reason, lots of it really clicked with me.

For sale

As always, most of the artworks are for sale with proceeds helping to fund the Academy’s non-profit-making activities, including educating the next generation of artists in the RA Schools. The free catalogue I mentioned earlier lists all 1,583 works, their titles, artists and prices, if for sale.

It’s always part of the fun to try and figure out the cheapest and the most expensive works on display, and, as you wander round and different pieces take your eye, having a bet with your friends or family about how much each piece costs. As far as I could tell, this is the most expensive piece, an untitled bronze sculpture of an androgynous woman with a branch on her head and coils of wire round her hands with a couple of metal numbers thrown in, by Mimmo Paladino, which will set you back a cool £337,000.

Untitled by Mimmo Paladino (£337,000)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle (1963)

Extraordinary the impact this book had. First a series of five movies 1968-73, then a TV series (1974-5). In recent years the movie franchise rebooted, first with Tim Burton’s 2001 version and then again, with a new sequence of films (Rise of the Planet of the Apes 2011, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 2014, War for the Planet of the Apes in 2017). Just these three movies alone have grossed over $2 billion.

And ever since the original movie there’s been an impressive array of comic books and graphic novels, computer games, toys and theme park rides (!).

Why is the story so powerful? What is its hold?

Frame story – Jinn and Phyllis

It is thousands of years in the future. The planets have been colonised and interstellar travel is common. Many travel on business in fast rockets. Jinn and Phyllis are more like tourists in space, dallying in a sealed sphere whose sails can be set larger or smaller to catch the solar winds coming from the stars and drift around the universe. One day they see an object flying by, change course to collect it, and find it is a message in a bottle, a glass bottle. Inside it are sheafs of paper with a long narrative scrawled on them.

Jinn reads out this narrative which makes up the main body of the text.

The narrative of Ulysse Mérou

This text is written by the journalist Ulysse Mérou in the year 2500. He has been invited to join the space expedition led by Professor Antelle, and accompanied by his assistant Arthur Levain, which is travelling to the nearest star, the mega-star Betelgeuse.

(Although published in 1963 everything about the space trip reminds me of H.G. Wells. We are not told anything about the design of the ship or nature of the propulsion system (always the snag in space travel sci-fi). Antelle is travelling in a ship he designed and built himself, almost as if he’d done it in a shed at the bottom of the garden. And they choose Mérou to accompany them because he is good at chess. In other words the whole story has the charming amateurism of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories or Well’s earlier science fantasies, many light years remote from the reality of the vast army of technicians backed up by the state, which would be required just to take a man to the moon later the same decade.)

It takes two years to travel to Betelgeuse, one year to accelerate to nearly the speed of light, a few days travelling at phenomenal speed, then a year slowing back down. As any reader of science fiction should have picked up, the closer to the speed of light you travel, the more time slows down relative to objects and people travelling at normal speeds i.e. people on Earth. Thus, while the trip to Betelgeuse will only take the trio two years, something like 350 years will have passed on Earth. Everyone they know and everything they know will have died and changed utterly.

Arrival on Soror

When they get to Betelgeuse, they discover there are four planets circling the super-star, and one of them, surprise surprise, is the same distance from the big star as Earth from the sun, and appears to have the same gravity and atmosphere as our home planet.

Our trio takes to one of the space ‘launches’ built into the main spaceship (no description whatsoever of what it looks like or how it works) and shuttle down to the planet, skimming over what appear to be cities, with buildings laid out along streets, before landing in a clearing in a ‘jungle’.

Once again, it comes as no surprise that the air on the planet is breathable – made of oxygen and nitrogen pretty much the same ratio as on Earth.

(This is as wildly improbable as when Cavor and Bedford unscrew the door of their sphere in First Men In The Moon and discover that the moon has a breathable atmosphere, if rather thin. Monkey Planet is not hard science fiction of the heavily factual Arthur C. Clarke variety. We are more in the realm of science fable.)

They christen the planet Soror, sister to our Earth.

So the three Frenchmen get out, stretch, wander around, see birds flying overhead, are struck by how similar the trees and flower are and discover a waterfall, so they strip off and swim and wash. It feels like a film already. You can imagine the tropical sunlight dappling through exotic leaves onto the sun-kissed bodies of our three hunky heroes.

Nova

At which point there is a Robinson Crusoe moment, as they spot a human footprint in the sand. A woman’s footprint by the shape of it. And then she appears.

Being a man, Boulle casts this first alien human as a woman, and being a Frenchman he imagines her a naked woman – and the whole thing veers towards the crudest pulp sci-fi when he describes her as a golden-skinned, physically perfect woman, a goddess perfect in form and feature etc.

I shall never forget the impression her appearance made on me. I held my breath at the marvellous beauty of this creature from Soror, who revealed herself to us, dripping with spray, illuminated by the blood-red beams of Betelgeuse. it was a woman – a young girl, rather, unless was a goddess. She boldly asserted her femininity in the light of this monstrous sun, completely naked and without any ornament other than her hair which hung down to her shoulders…Standing upright, leaning forwards, her breasts thrust out towards us, her arms raised slightly backwards in the attitude of a diver…It was plain to see that the woman, who stood motionless on the ledge like a statue on a pedestal, possessed the most perfect body that could be conceived on earth. (p.23)

Mérou christens her Nova, and she strikes this reader as being the oldest pulp fiction trope in the world – the pure, innocent, scantily-dressed (in fact, naked) damsel, who will, later on in the book, be threatened by great big hairy apes – with only our gallant narrator to protect her.

But, puzzlingly, it quickly becomes clear that Nova cannot talk and is scared when they laugh or talk. She can only make quick grunting noises, almost like an ape. In fact the three Frenchmen’s smiles and laughter scare her off.

Next day they go frolic in the waterfall again, and the perfect woman returns, with a man, fine figured but also mute. More mute humans assemble. When our trio put on their clothes, the humans recoil in fear and disgust. Walking back to the spaceship our heroes are attacked from all sides by quite a crowd of humanoids, as many as a hundred, who rip and tear their clothes off. Then the mob of animal-humans proceeds to break into the space launch and destroy, rip and tear apart everything they can get their hands on. But not like human vandals working systematically. More like animals, tearing and worrying and biting at something they don’t understand.

Destruction of the ship

Having trashed the ship, the savage humans drag our heroes back to their village. Except it doesn’t even have huts, is more a random scattering of makeshift shelters, a few branches leaning against trees, just as the great apes make. Nova, as you might have guessed, has formed a bond with our gallant narrator and comes and snuggles up against him, again more like an animal seeking warmth than an intelligent partner.

The manhunt

The next morning they are all woken by alarming sounds, ululations and shouts, yes shouts, language, as of humans. The humanoids run round in a panic and set off in the opposite direction, Mérou fleeing with them.

He begins to realise the people coming behind are beaters and the humanoids are being driven – and then he hears shots, gunshots. They are being driven towards hunters out for some sport.

Mérou comes to a break in the tall grass and is flabbergasted to see an enormous gorilla wearing clothes and wielding a shot gun, taking shots at the terrified humans as they emerge from the long grass into this break.

Mérou watches a human burst out of the grass into the open area and the gorilla carefully take aim and shoot him. He hands his gun to a smaller chimpanzee, behind him, also dressed, who recharges it with cartridges and returns it to the gorilla. Mérou’s head is spinning at what this seems to say about the planet they’ve arrived on – the traditional roles of ape and man appear to have been completely reversed.

Mérou waits till the gorilla fires (hitting another human) and hands the gun over to be reloaded, and then takes his chance. He runs across the break of open ground and into the long grass on the other side. But it is only to stumble into a trap of mesh netting which scoops him and other humans up into a huge struggling bundle, waiting for the master apes to come.

Cover of an audiobook of Monkey Planet which captures the terror of the hunt, artwork by Harry Schaare

Cover of an audiobook of Monkey Planet which captures the terror of the hunt, artwork by Harry Schaare (1964)

The human laboratory

Mérou is thrown into a cage along with other naked humans. He watches in disbelief as the gorillas return from the hunt and lay out the killed humans neatly and artistically, smoothing down ruffled hair as a human hunter would smooth down an animal’s fur or feathers, arranging the corpses in aesthetic poses.

Mérou is still reeling from the way the gorillas are wearing clothes, normal clothes, hunting clothes. One sneezes and brings a handkerchief out of his breeches to blow his nose. The cages are on wheels and are pulled by a sort of tractor back to a sort of hunting lodge where the female gorillas are waiting, wearing dresses and hats. A photographer turns up and snaps the hunter gorillas posing by their kills, with their proud womenfolk on their arms. Mérou feels as if he’s going mad.

Finally the hunters clamber onto some of the tractors, and along with those pulling cages full of human captives, they set off some distance to arrive at a town. Mérou observes a grocer pulling down his blind as he opens up shop. They have motor cars, banks, shops. It all sounds like a French provincial town except… populated by apes!

Mérou is unloaded at a hospital-like building and ushered down a corridor into a cage, one of many containing single or pairs of humans bedded on straw. Over the weeks it becomes clear that they are lab animals, kept to be experimented on. The experiments are mostly behavioural i.e. the Pavlov experiment of ringing a bell and offering food to make the animals salivate, eventually just ringing the bell to produce the same reaction.

The warders – two gorillas named Zoram and Zanam – hang fruit from the roof of a cage, then put four cubes in the cage. Only Mérou has the intelligence to realise that if you stack the four boxes on top of each other you can simply step up them and reclaim the fruit. The other humans watch him with complete incomprehension. By now he has realised that the humans really are animals without the slightest flicker of intelligence, let alone intellectual ability.

Then there is observation of mating rituals. The apes place male and female subjects in the same cage and observe their mating ritual – which amounts to the male circling round the female with ornate steps… before eventually pouncing on his hypnotised prey.

Mérou swears he won’t sink to the same level when they place Nova in his cage (yes, Nova has miraculously survived the manhunt and was thrown into a tractor cage and was transported to the same ‘hospital’ and has, by happy coincidence, now been thrown into Mérou’s cage). But when he fails to perform and they take her away and replace her with an old crone, and he sees another hulking male preparing to mate with Nova, Mérou changes his mind, makes a fuss and Nova is restored to him, at which point… well… when on Soror, do as the Sororians do.

(The fact that Mérou mates with Nova fulfils the soft porn, pulpy sexual promise which has been latent in the story ever since the trio sighted her splendid naked body by the waterfall. It is as inevitable as falling off a log.)

(Incidentally, Mérou saw the body of the professor’s assistant, Arthur Levain, stretched out in the array of ‘kill’ at the hunting lodge. Of the professor, he has seen no sign.)

Befriending Zira

But it isn’t just the gorillas who conduct these experiments. A female chimpanzee attends with a pen and notebook. Over the course of her visits, Mérou manages to impress on her his intelligence, first of all parroting back to her some of the simian language, which he has begun to pick up. But then, in a decisive move, Mérou seizes her pen and notebook and draws a sequence of geometric shapes, hands it back to her and she draws some more, and gives it back to him who draws some more.

She is deeply shaken, but begins – when the gorillas’ attention is distracted by other prisoners – to talk to him. She is Zira. Her fiancé is Cornelius. She poo-poos the pompous orangutan, Dr Zaius, who has come to visit the lab several times, obviously the head of the institute who orders around the gorillas and ignores Zira’s comments.

Zira lends Mérou some books which he hides and reads at night. He is making progress in the simian language and is nearly fluent. He learns that Soror has only one world government, divided into three chambers, one each for the chimps, orangs and gorillas. The gorillas are still the most physical among the apes, a legacy from the days when they ruled, and they’re the ones who implement and carry out discoveries. The orangutans are the ’embodiment of science’ and wisdom except that, in Zira’s opinion, it is a hidebound, out-of-date science. According to Zira all the important discoveries have been made by the chimps.

(We know from our own planet that the human race is split into thousands of cultures and languages, with wildly different levels of technical achievement; and yet so many science fiction stories fly in the face of all this evidence and land on planets where this is just one World Government, or one Ruler, and one language, which the human arrivals quickly pick up. it’s one of the most flagrant ways in which science fiction is so disappointingly simple-minded and simplistic.)

Zira gets permission one day to take Mérou for a walk (obviously on the end of a leash and naked – he is a pet after all) to a park where she introduces him to her fiancé, Cornelius. by this stage Mérou has used drawings to persuade Zira that he is in fact from a different planet in a different solar system, and now his explanation in fluent simian persuades Cornelius as well.

But, the chimps explain, the orangutans are resistant to all change, they still teach that Soror is the centre of the universe and Zaius refuses to accept that Mérou is anything more than a performing pet. And Mérou is in danger. They have extensive labs in which they conduct experiments on the brains of humans, sometimes while they’re conscious – something to be avoided.

Mérou addresses the conference and wins his freedom

Cornelius and Zira come up with a plan: there is soon to be a scientific conference. Dr Zaius wants to present Mérou as an example of man’s mimetic abilities, as a kind of performing pet. There will be an immense convocation of scientists, and journalists, and members of the public. It will be a perfect opportunity for Mérou to step forward and address public opinion directly.

And this is exactly what he does. Mérou is brought onstage as a specimen for Zaius to put through his paces but astonishes everyone by taking the microphone, bowing, making polite reference to the chair of the meeting and proceeding to make a long, pompous and respectful speech to the members of the academy explaining that he is an astronaut from the planet Earth (drawing a map of Earth’s location). Now not even Zaius can deny the fact that Mérou is an intelligent, autonomous human being, something which defies all their science.

This understandably causes an uproar and, over the next few days, Mérou is released from his captivity, allowed to get dressed and meets other scientists to discuss his story.

Mérou can now be taken on a tour of simian society and discovers it to be in almost every respect identical to human: there are theatres, athletic games and sports contests. He is taken to the zoo and, unwisely, asks to see the human cages. There he is horrified to discover Professor Antelle, naked and dishevelled like the other human-animals, begging for food from the child apes who throw bits of cake through the bars.

Mérou begs for a personal meeting with the professor. Cornelius uses Mérou’s new-found celebrity to persuade the director of the zoo to allow Mérou a meeting with the professor, but we are horrified to see that Antelle really has descended to the level of the animals. There is nothing behind his eyes. There isn’t a flicker of recognition as Mérou talks to him. In fact this section ends, hauntingly, with Antelle lifting his head and letting out a prolonged animal howl.

The archaeological site on the other side of the world

Mérou now comes to learn more about Cornelius’s research and to share his investigation into the origins of ape society. The most salient fact about it is the way it appears to have stagnated at the same technological level for centuries, indeed millennia. Ape records stretch back some 10,000 years but then there is a complete blank. Mérou himself has spent hours speculating about how the situation came about – why are the apes in charge and humans voiceless, unintelligent animals? Is it fluke? Accident? At some point of evolution could it have gone either way and, on Earth went one way, and here went another?

Their speculations are brought to a climax by two incidents:

1. He is invited to an archaeological site on the other side of the world. (He flies there in a jet, a detail which is swiftly glossed over but gives you an indication of how different Boulle’s vision of ape society is from the ape society depicted in all the movies: in the movies it is a society reduced to medieval level, everyone rides on horses, the townships are little more than mud huts; in Boulle’s vision, ape society is exactly like human society, with cars driving along busy city streets lined with shops and, as here, jet planes taking off from airports.) Cornelius’s colleagues are excavating a settlement which appears to date from before the apes’ earliest records of 10,000 years ago. And they have found something seismic – a doll, a human doll, which is wearing not only the vestiges of clothes, but which, when pressed, says the word ‘Papa’. It is a fragment, but a fragment which confirms Cornelius and Mérou’s suspicions. The humans came first.

2. The second incident is when Cornelius takes Mérou to see the brain experiments the apes conduct on humans. The first set of these are genuinely horrifying, sticking electrodes in human brains to observe the flexing of various muscles or to bring on epileptic fits. This sequence is the clearest example of the way Boulle uses his fable to argue against cruelty to animals. Mérou is sickened and eventually cries out in anger at the torture he’s seeing his fellow humans subjected to.

The voices of history

But then there is an extraordinary scene where Cornelius takes us to nother room where electrodes have been applied to the brains of two humans. This operation makes the male patient talk, although only broken fragments of phrases he’s obviously overheard in the lab and cages. Still, it is empirical proof that humans can talk.

But it’s the woman specimen who is the real prize. Applying electrodes to her brain unlocks the collective memory of the race.

In a wildly unscientific and implausible manner which is, nonetheless, fantastically imaginatively powerful, through this woman as via a clairvoyant, we hear the voices of the humans from that long-ago era, before 10,000 years ago, who one by one record the fateful sequence of events which led to the downfall of mankind and the rise of the apes.

Various voices dramatise and comment on the way the human race became lazy and unmotivated, while the apes they had trained to be servants banded together, learned to communicate and speak simple phrases, were heard muttering together at nights. A woman tearfully admits she has handed over her house to the gorilla who used to be the maid and cleaner, and has come to the ‘camp’ of humans outside the city. Another laments the passivity and lassitude of humans. A final one describes in terror hearing the approach of a hunt of apes who don’t even bother to chase them with guns any more, but simply use whips! The woman’s story ends.

Cornelius and Mérou look at each other. So, it is as they thought. Ape culture has stayed more or less the same for millennia because it is a copy of the human culture which preceded it.

The moral of the story

If there is a moral to the story it is here, and it is about the peril to the human race of losing its drive and purpose and will to live. This kind of thing routinely crops up in mid-century science fiction although it is, I think, incomprehensible to us now. I think it was a warning frequently issued by ‘prophets’ in the West (America and Europe) against succumbing to materialism, consumerism and losing our souls, losing our thirst for the higher, intellectual life.

In fact Planet of the Apes taps into the anxiety about the Degeneration of the West which goes back at least as far Max Nordau’s bestseller, titled simply Degeneration, which was published in 1892 and which took French art and morality as demonstrating the degeneration and decline of the West. The notion that humanity got slaves (in this case, apes) to do their work for them, and became too lazy to maintain their place at the top of the tree, has a long lineage.

As far as I can see, the West has utterly succumbed to consumer capitalism, everyone in the West is addicted to their phone and its apps and gadgets and wastes hours on endless social mediatisation. And yet the apocalypse has not followed: art is still created, more books and poems and plays than ever before are produced.

The ‘collapse of civilisation’ which Boulle appears to be warning about never came.

Nova has a baby and they escape

Several scenes earlier Zira had told Mérou that Nova is pregnant with his child.

Other episodes intervene, such as the flight to the archaeological site, seeing the vivisection experiments on the humans, trying to get through to Professor Antelle whose purpose is to make the nine months fly past until Nova has her baby. Mérou christens the baby boy Sirius.

At this point things become really dangerous for Mérou, Nova and the baby. Zira and Cornelius tell him that Dr Zaius and the orangutans are winning the argument at a senior level. They are arguing that Mérou and Sirius represent an existential threat to ape rule. Already the humans in the cages where Mérou was first kept are noticeably respectful of him when he makes occasional visits back there, despite wearing clothes, something which made them shriek with horror when they first saw him. As if he is in the early stages of becoming their leader.

Similarly, Nova, after all this time in contact with Mérou, has learned to make a few sounds and the first tentative attempts to smile, to make facial expressions, something which was unthinkable when we first met her.

And, as the months go past, the infant Sirius begins to make articulate noise, not just animal cries. Cornelius warns Mérou that the orangs are persuading the gorillas to eliminate all three of them, carry out brain experiments on them, remove their frontal lobes, anything to eliminate the threat.

The pace of the narrative speeds up here, maybe because it’s becoming so wildly implausible, and Mérou writes increasingly in the present tense, drawing the reader directly into the fast-moving sequence of events.

Cornelius now tells Mérou that the apes are about to launch a manned probe into space, literally ‘manned’ with a man, a woman and a child, who will be trained to carry out basic tasks, so the apes can study the impact of them of space radiation, weightlessness etc.

Cornelius knows the chimpanzee running the programme. He’s persuaded him to do a switch.

And so it unfolds. In half a page Mérou describes how he, Nova and Sirius are smuggled aboard the ape probe, how it is launched into space, how he is able to navigate it to the master spaceship in which the three men originally travelled from Earth over a year earlier, manoeuvres it into the ‘bay’ from which the ‘launch’ had departed, the air doors closed, robots take over, and then he steers the spaceship out of orbit round Soror, and back to Earth at nearly light speed.

The punchline

And here comes the part of the book which, if you’re open and receptive and young enough, packs a killer punch.

Mérou steers the spaceship into earth orbit, round the earth towards Europe, then down through the clouds towards France, and finally brings it gently to land on the airfield at Orly airport.

Turns the engines off and sits in silence. Then all three clamber out and watch as a fire engine heads across the runway towards this unexpected arrival.

As explained at the start of the book, and reprised on the flight home, travelling at near light speeds means that while only two years pass for Mérou, Nova and Sirius, something like seven hundred years have passed back on Earth. Given this immense passage of time Mérou is surprised there seem to have been so few changes. As they flew over Paris he noticed the Eiffel Tower was still there. Now he notices that the airfield is in fact a bit rusty and dotted with patches of grass, as if rundown.

And he’s surprised that the fire engine that comes wailing towards them is a model familiar from his own time. Has nothing changed? Surprising.

As the engine draws up fifty yards from them the setting sun is reflected in its windscreen so Mérou can only dimly make out the two figures inside. They climb down with their backs towards him, also obscured by the long grass here at the edge of the airstrip. Finally one emerges from the long grass. Nova screams, picks up Sirius and sets off running back towards the ship.

The fireman is… a gorilla!

In a flash Mérou – and the reader – grasps the situation: here, as on Soror, humans cultivated the apes, made them servants, taught them the basics of language, then got lazier and more dependent on their servants who, at some stage, overthrew their human masters, reducing them to voiceless slaves, though themselves proving incapable of improving on human technology – this terrible fate has happened on Earth, too!

Frame story Jinn and Phyllis

Well. This is how the narrative in a bottle ends and Jinn stops reading to Phyllis. They are both silent for a long time. Then they both break out in agreement. Humans! Capable of speech and thought! It was a good yarn but, on this point, too far-fetched.

Humans talking! What a ridiculous idea. And Jinn uses his four hands to trim the sails of their cosy little space-sphere, and Phyllis applies some make-up to her cute little chimpanzee muzzle. We now realise that they, too, are apes. Mérou’s narrative was from the last intelligent human on either planet. The triumph of the apes is complete.

Reasons for success

I think it is the thoroughness of the fable which makes it so enduring. Boulle has really thought through the implications of his reversal, of the world turned upside down.

Details of the spaceship and its advanced rockets are trivia compared with the archetypal power of the story. What if… What if the entire human race is overthrown and reduced to a state, not even of savagery, but lower than that, dragged right back to brute animality?

I think the fable addresses a deep anxiety among thinking humans that the condition of reason and intellect and mentation are so fragile and provisional. And at the same time sparks the familiar thrill which apparently resonates with so many readers and cinema goers, at witnessing the overthrow and end of the human race. In my (Freudian) interpretation, reflecting a profound, mostly unconscious death wish, which many many people thrill to see depicted in gruesome detail on the screen and then, primitive urges sated, return to our humdrum workaday lives.

Style and worldview

It has gone down in pop culture lore that the first words the astronaut hero of the first Planet of the Apes movie (played by Charlton Heston) utters to an ape is, ‘Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!’

Whereas the first words Ulysse Mérou addresses to an ape, are spoken to one of the gorilla wardens feeding him and supervising him once he has arrived at the human laboratory-cages: ‘How do you do? I am a man from Earth. I’ve had a long journey.’

Obviously, one is a movie, an American movie, and the other is a novel, a French novel, but the two moments can be taken as symbolic of the differing worldviews of the two cultural artefacts. The French novel is full of high-flown sentiments about the nature of humanity and the human spirit. Like Olaf Stapledon back in the 1930s, Boulle considers human intelligence to be a kind of peak of creation, something of special importance and significance, hence his shock at finding the humans mute animals is all the greater. His sense of the unparalleled importance of humanity is tied to his sense of his own importance, self-love, a concept so French that we have imported their phrase for it – amour propre – ‘a sense of one’s own worth; self-respect’. This is wryly expressed in the scene where he finds himself having to copy the mating ritual of the animal-humans:

Yes, I, one of the kings of creation, started circling round my beauty; I, the ultimate product of millenary evolution, I, a man… I, Ulysse Mérou, embarked like a peacock round the gorgeous Nova. (p.76)

Nowadays, I take it there is a much more realistic and widespread feeling that humans are not particularly important, that plenty of other species turn out to be ‘intelligent’ and communicate among themselves, and many people share my view that humans are, in fact, a kind of pestilential plague on the planet, which we are quite obviously destroying.

But this book, from 55 years ago, although it is about man’s fall into a bestial condition, nevertheless is full of rhetoric about the special, privileged position of intelligence in the universe, and is full of a very old-fashioned kind of triumphalist rhetoric about the ongoing march of intelligence.

Here is Cornelius arguing with Mérou, arguing that the rise of the apes was inevitable because they have a loftier destiny:

‘Believe me, the day will come when we shall surpass men in every field. It is not by accident, as you might imagine, that we have come to succeed him. This eventuality was inscribed in the normal course of evolution. Rational man having had his time, a superior being was bound to succeed him, preserve the essential results of his conquests and assimilate them during a period of apparent stagnation before soaring up to greater heights.’ (p.148)

The idea of a Great Chain of Being, a hierarchy of intelligence which you can imagine as a sort of ladder whose occupants become increasingly intelligent as you climb up it, is a basic element of the Renaissance worldview, going back through medieval texts, deriving from the systematising of late classical followers of Plato. In the Middle Ages it became the ladder which led up through the Natural World, to man, then the angels, then to God himself.

When science came along in the 19th century the idea of there being an up and a down to life on earth, of a forwards and upwards drive in evolution, was taken over by positivists and lingered long into twentieth century political, social and fictional rhetoric.

It’s gone now. It was associated with the notion of a hierarchy of races (wise whites at the top), of genders (wise men at the top), and class (the wise Oxbridge-educated at the top), all of which began to be questioned and undermined soon after Boulle’s book was published.

Also, in biology and evolution, there is now no sense at all that humans are somehow ‘superior’ to all other animals because (in the tired old trope) we produced a Shakespeare or a Mozart. Watch any David Attenborough nature documentary and you’ll see that biology, for some decades now, assumes that everything is highly evolved, where highly evolved means that the organism fits perfectly into the niche it occupies.

The notion that ‘evolution’ means some vague, half-religious drive ‘upwards’ towards greater and greater intelligence has been replaced by a notion of ‘evolution’ which is a computer-aided understanding of the myriad complexities of DNA and genetics, and how they act on organisms to ensure survival. There is no ‘onwards and upwards’. There is merely change and adaptation, and that change and adaptation has no innate moral or spiritual meaning whatsoever.

Thus reading Monkey Planet is, like reading most science fiction, not to be transported forwards into a plausible future, but the opposite – to travel backwards in time, to the completely outdated social and intellectual assumptions of the 1940s and 50s.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Purple by John Akomfrah @ The Curve, The Barbican

The Curve is the long, narrow, curving, dark, subterranean exhibition space at the Barbican. It is currently hosting several works by British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah.

The first thing you see on walking down the steps, is a massive pile of car tyres reaching to the ceiling. This gave me a warm feeling as I grew up in a petrol station which did tyre repairs and had a huge shed with stacks of every kind of car tyre then on the market. Us kids used to play hide and seek in it.

Preliminal Rites

The first pictorial display is Preliminal Rites, two enormous triptychs i.e. sets of three very big stunningly detailed photos taken in a beautifully unspoilt hilly landscape (the Peaks, the Lake District?) in which a handful of humans stand in model-like poses, wearing old-fashioned dress, and dotted around at their feet are incongruous objects, most strikingly a big old-fashioned clock face. Time. Tempus fugitSic transit gloria mundi. An old idea, but conveyed in a striking composition in stunning digital clarity.

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

A world of plastic

As you continue walking along the dark, rather intimidating space, you come to a section entirely made up of scores of old, heavy-duty, white plastic canisters hanging upside down from the ceiling, with white lights above them. The effect is of a heaven of plastic shining down, pushing down, illuminatingly or threateningly, down on all of us. I stood beneath this junk firmament and reached up my arms to pray to the universe of synthetic polymers.

Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Purple

After plastic heaven you walk through a sort of doorway into the final section where a row of comfortable benches is lined up facing an array of six enormous screens on which is playing the one-hour long video, which gives the show its overall title – Purple.

Akomfrah has ransacked hundreds of hours of archive footage from numerous sources to edit together this vast portrait of man’s impact on the natural world. The images on each screen are all different, cut from scene to scene at different moments, and sequences on one screen jump to other screens then back again, and so forth – so on one level it is quite disorientating. But on another, quite hypnotic.

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Broadly speaking there are two types of image or sequence: the archive footage, mostly in black and white, showing society from 50, 60, 70 years ago, faces, streets, cars, factories, power stations, coal mines, and so on — and a series of brand spanking new, up-to-date sequences which Akomfrah shot himself in a dozen or so locations around the world.

The aim of the whole thing is to convey the depth and reach of man’s impact on the natural world. I’ve written about this in other blog posts, the idea is simple: humanity is destroying the natural environment and wiping out our fellow species at a phenomenal speed, at a rate only matched by the previous big five extinction events in the history of life on earth.

The sixth extinction

As such we are responsible for what geologists are now widely referring to as the Anthropocene Age and biologists refer to as the Sixth Extinction.

The archive footage Akomfrah has selected is fascinating. I sat enraptured watching old black-and-white footage of coal miners working underground, of old geezers in muffled up coats walking the grim streets of some Northern town, then old men in doctors’ clinics having lung capacity tests, cut-away views of a human lung under a microscope – presumably damaged by coal dust inhalation and general pollution – a scientist kneeling down to scoop up some of the black filth lying in a gutter with a spoon to put in a sample bag. You get the idea. No commentary. No sub-titles. No explanation. Just the footage. You draw your own conclusions and make your own connections.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Beautiful world

But what lifts the film onto a completely different visual level is the astonishing, haunting beauty of the footage Akomfrah himself has shot, positioning solitary human figures in remote and stunning landscapes around the world.

These range from the vast open landscapes of Alaska and Arctic Greenland to the volcanic Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Apparently, they were all chosen as sites demonstrating climate change or acute pollution or environmental degradation – but they are shot with breath-taking, super-digital clarity which slightly overawes the ostensible purpose.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

The benches facing the screens were packed. Nobody moved. Everyone was transfixed by the haunting beauty of these truly dazzling sequences.

Ambient soundtrack

The impact is increased by the soundtrack. The music was composed by Tandis Jenhudson and David Julyan. Waves of very slow, ambient sound, sometimes rising to distinct piano melodies then fading back into washes of electronic sounds, designed to be assimilable, haunting, moody, sad and reminiscent (to me) of the slow sad music of Twin Peaks.

You can see the images, hear the sounds and listen to the man himself explaining it all in this Barbican video.

And…?

Are we meant to be happy or sad? I, personally, realised we are destroying the current environment when I read Silent Spring back in the 1970s – obviously new patterns and balances will eventually arise, new equilibriums be established, with or without humanity – but in our little lifetimes it is hugely distressing to realise how many beautiful, intricate species and life forms we are devastating and driving extinct, now, as you read this.

But what can you do? Everyone wants a mobile phone, a car, a colour TV, a home with running water and fresh food shipped in from around the world. More people want more stuff, and there’s more and more of these people – 3 billion when I was born, 7.6 billion now, 9 billion by the time my son will be my age.

I try to live modestly, avoid driving, flying, recycle my trash, cycle everywhere, but… well… I know it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. My life is an insignificant drop, a minuscule fraction of the vast pullulating population of locusts which is stripping the planet. We really are a plague on the earth.

Maybe you disagree. Either way, Purple is a really beautiful, haunting show about a vastly important topic, and it’s completely FREE!

So if you’re passing anywhere near the Barbican, set aside half an hour to drop in and be enraptured, inspired, maybe depressed, certainly affected.

Still frame from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions at the Barbican

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