War Fever by J.G. Ballard (1990)

This is Ballard’s last collection of short stories, some very short indeed.

  1. War Fever
  2. The Secret History of World War 3
  3. Dream Cargoes
  4. The Object of the Attack
  5. Love in a Colder Climate
  6. The Largest Theme Park in the World
  7. Answers to a Questionnaire
  8. The Air Disaster
  9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station
  10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  11. The Enormous Space
  12. Memories of the Space Age
  13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown
  14. The Index

************

1. War Fever (1989)

Through the eyes of young Ryan we learn about the endless war in Beirut between small numbers of warriors divided into four factions, the Nationalists, Christians, Fundamentalists and Royalists. Ryan lives with his Aunt Vera and sister in a tiny apartment in a ruined tower block overlooking the wartorn city.

He is helped out by the kindly Dr Edwards, a United Nations medical observer (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor). The story describes Ryan’s slow, faltering steps to bring about an end to the unending conflict, by asking everyone to adopt the blue hats of the UN peacekeepers, who man the main checkpoints but are forbidden from stepping in to stop the fighting for fear that outside powers will intervene.

Ryan’s scheme works surprisingly well and soon peace has broken out among a number of the factions. Ryan is just nervously approaching the formidable woman fighter Lieutenant Valentina when a series of colossal explosion occur across the ruined city. Ryan hares back to his apartment and discovers that Aunt Vera and his sister have been kidnapped!

Dr Edwards watches his face closely as he asks Ryan whether he’s going to rush back to his militia and resume the fighting. However, Ryan decides he is going to renew his determination to being about a truce. At which point Dr Edwards ties Ryan’s wrists together, pushes him into a jeep and drives him through umpteen checkpoints and right out of the ruined, smoke-filled city altogether.

Here, in a well-organised, clean depot and admin area packed with new guns and munitions, Dr Edwards explains to Ryan that Beirut is a huge scientific experiment. The whole of the rest of the world lives in complete peace: but they pay to support endless fighting in Beirut, supplying gun and ammo and orphans resulting from tragic accidents. Thus new generations of fighters are continually refreshing the depleted ranks of the four factions.

Why? In the same way that a handful of labs around the world keep supplies of smallpox which is otherwise eradicated: to study the war virus, to study what makes people fight, why they are motivated, how they organise and how far they will go.

It’s a version of The Truman Show with rocket grenades. Except that the exploding and the fighting gets perilously close. Dr Edwards rallies with the other UN behind the scenes staff and head back into the war zone. They drive to the wrecked sports stadium where Aunt Vera and his sister had been taken and should have been looked after. But Royalists managed to fight through the UN defences and kill everyone, the UN defenders, Aunt Vera and Ryan’s sister.

And it is then from the deep well of bitterness and anger at how and all of them have been played, that Ryan conceives his next Big Plan. He will unite the warring factions of Beirut. They will fight and overcome the UN forces. And then they will unleash the dormant virus of war and violence on an unsuspecting world!

2. The Secret History of World War 3 (1988)

A slight misnomer because this short squib is mostly a satire on American politics and the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The narrator is a physician (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) based in Washington DC, and this short story depicts a fictional future in which Reagan is replaced as president in 1989, but his successor is so lamentable that the American Constitution is amended so Ronnie can stand for president a third time and is, indeed, elected, at the ripe old age of 82. He’s so old that the media take to publishing regular updates on his health, the TV news starts having a President’s Health segment, and one day an ECG-type readout appears along the bottom of the screen. It’s Ronnie’s heartbeat. Soon half the TV screen is full of a panoply of readouts recording all aspects of the President’s health, and Ballard satirises the breathless commentary of TV hosts – the stereotypical craggy old guy and the glamourpuss blonde – and the way everyone in the country, including the narrator’s own wife, become more and more addicted to the second-by-second commentary which covers every burp and fart and bowel motion.

It is in the middle of this satirical vision of a celebrity president-addicted population, that mounting tensions between the superpowers (which have, satirically, only gotten the briefest of mentions on the news in between the analysis of what the President had for lunch) erupts into a sudden exchange of nuclear weapons which takes place on 27 January 1997 between 6.47 and 6.51pm. The Russians launch a handful of nukes which explode in Alaska, the Yanks launch a handful of nukes which explode in Siberia, then both sides come to their senses, end the war, and de-escalate the various tensions around the globe.

So the story isn’t really about World War Three in any way you might expect: it is a satire on the mediatisation of American politics, and the hopeless addiction to screens and an endless diet of celebrity news, bulletins and updates among the American public.

Thoughts

This story was published in 1988. Modern commentators think there is something new and unprecedented about twitter and so on, and of course smart phones and social media are new, in one sense: and yet here’s Ballard satirising a zombie president and the American public’s addiction to screens over thirty years ago. That’s why Trump and twitter just don’t seem that new to some of us: or are just the latest iteration of a very long-running issue.

3. Dream Cargoes (1990)

Johnson is thirty years old but comes across in this story as very simple minded. He’s the dogsbody on a decrepit cargo steamer named the Prospero. In the Far East its alcoholic captain, Galloway, lets himself be bribed into taking on board an extremely hazardous cargo of toxic chemicals and the steamer then chugs round South America and up the coast towards the Caribbean. But here a series of port authorities and customs officials forbid the Prospero from docking with a cargo which has slowly started leaking and discharging toxic fumes all over the ship as well as corroding its cargo hold and then the hull.

As the ship starts to list to one side and becomes wreathed in toxic fumes, Captain Galloway and the handful of crew decide to abandon the ship but Johnson stays on, deluded by dreams of being a ‘captain’. A day or so later he spots a small island somewhere off Puerto Rico and beaches the ship there.

Over the ensuing days the toxic waste spills everywhere and has a drastic effect on the local vegetation, which starts growing at a breakneck speed, while Johnson himself descends into the kind of malnourished-sick-fever-dream which is so familiar in Ballard’s fiction.

As new types of tropical plant burgeon all around him, Johnson realises the island is visited by a biologist, Dr Chambers (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). She becomes involved in his dreams of becoming one with the island, of becoming one of the hyper-evolved giant birds and flying towards the sun (as in so many other Ballard stories) and (as in so many other Ballard stories) the way time is slowing down for him, as he goes into more and more trance or fugue states, so that his perceptions superimpose multiple images of the same object, creating a fragmented or crystal effect.

He stared at Christine, aware that the colours were separating themselves from her skin and hair. Superimposed images of herself, each divided from the others by a fraction of a second, blurred the air around her, an exotic plumage that sprang from her arms and shoulders. The staid reality that had trapped them all was beginning to dissolve. Time had stopped and Christine was ready to rise into the air…. He would teach Christine and the child to fly.

On the final page an American ship arrives and the US Navy lieutenant who comes ashore finds them both in quite a state – finds also that the giant flora seems to have overgrown itself and is now dying off. As he helps them leave the island Johnson reflects that he has gotten Dr Chambers pregnant and that their child might well be the first of a new species of human, and how they would fight to protect it from ‘those who feared it might replace them.’

4. The Object of the Attack (1984)

Cast in the format of diary entries by Dr Richard Greville (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor), Chief Psychiatric Adviser to the Home Office.

His diary entries concern a young psychotic who built and flew a glider over Windsor Castle during a state visit by President Ronald Reagan. But he got tangled up in some aerials, fell to earth and the police found he had loads of gelignite strapped to his body, wired to a detonator. Thinking he planned to assassinate the president and his entourage, the Boy, as everyone refers to him, is locked up in a series of mental institutes, where Dr Griffiths visits him.

Griffiths gives us a profile of this boy, Matthew Young, a devoted psychopath, who’s suffered from epilepsy all his life. He’s been through a whole raft of careers including trainee pilot and video game designer. What is common to them all is a pathological obsession with space flight, with the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle.

This becomes entangled with the concept of an Ames Room. An Ames room is a space in which furniture and other elements have been carefully arranged so that, from one chosen perspective, likely a peephole, it creates a completely convincing optical illusion. The concept was invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1946.

Anyway, Young escapes from a mental institute in Daventry by insisting on going to the chapel and being left alone. being a psychotic genius, he creates an Ames Room optical illusion by arranging all the furniture in the room to look as if he’s kneeling at the altar praying, when in fact he had arranged the pews in a ladder up to the ceiling and was crouched forward undoing the screws of the ventilator.

So Young escapes and disappears, going underground. Here the content of this short story gets quite clotted. Because Griffiths has figured out, from meeting the Boy himself and reading his journals, that it was never Ronald Reagan he wanted to assassinate, it’s a figure called Colonel Stamford, one of the last Apollo astronauts, who went on to have a successful career in business, and has now turned into a major campaigner against the evils of Communism. That’s why he was accompanying Reagan on the state visit.

And now Colonel Stamford is due to return to the UK, to address big Billy Graham-style public meetings, hailed by Newsweek as ‘a space-age messiah’, the ‘founder of the first space-based religion’. So the story contains quite a lot of speculating about how the space programme has morphed into a popular religion!

Griffiths turns investigator and decides to revisit the locked-up garage in Highbury where Young had been living when he was arrested. There’s a policeman on guard who lets him through and Griffiths pokes through Young’s belongings, finding more evidence of the deranged young man’s obsession with space flight.

Then he remembers that behind the lockup is a disused Baptist chapel and goes through into this. Here he discovers a bizarre scene, for Young is not only here (just yards from the protecting policeman – how did he get past?) but has been hard at work creating another Ames room, using props and posters from Star Wars and Dr Who to create a bizarre illusionistic installation of an astronaut on the moon.

Except that it looks like the Boy had an epileptic fit while at the top of the ladder and has fallen to the ground, bruising his face, cracking some teeth. Around him are the disassembled parts of a stockless rifle which he had been oiling when the attack kicked in.

And here’s the thing: Griffiths leaves him be. He frees Young’s tongue and windpipe, then tiptoes out and strolls nonchalantly past the police guard. Cut to a few weeks later as Stamford arrives in the UK, addressing both Houses of Parliament calling for a crusade against the evil empire of the non-Christian world, for the creation of orbital nuclear bomb platforms, for the launching of laser weapons which can be targeted on Tehran, Moscow and Peking. the story ends with Griffiths quietly confident that Young will have recovered from his grand mal seizure, completed his preparations and will be attending that evening’s grand assembly at Earl’s Court where Colonel Stamford will be addressing a cheering audience and will, God willing, be shot down by his psychotic assassin.

Thoughts

As so often in a Ballard story, not just the subject but the construction, the shape of the narrative itself, seems slightly askew, off-kilter. What starts out as a fairly limited study of one epileptic psychopath morphs before our eyes into an increasingly garish fantasia about an ex-NASA astronaut who’s founded a New Age religion and is frothing at the mouth about destroying Communism and Islam. It’s quite an extreme trajectory in just ten or so pages and, as with so many Ballard stories, I couldn’t figure out whether it was brilliant or – as I was more inclined to think – ludicrous.

When he writes narratives about individuals – like the protagonists of Crash, Concrete Island or High Rise – Ballard well conveys a delirious sense of psychological dislocation or alienation, and attaches it very effectively indeed to the imagery of late-twentieth century life, mainly the brutalist architecture of concrete motorways, flyovers, multi-story car parks, airports and vertiginous high-rise blocks.

But as soon as he starts making generalisations about society at large, and going on about NATO and NASA and the Third World War and Ronald Reagan and the Queen… something ineluctably cartoonish enters the stories; they become silly and superficial.

5. Love in a Colder Climate (1988)

A sort of sci-fi spoof or satire.

It is 2010 and the spread of AIDS and related viruses has put everyone off sex or physical contact of any kind. Younger people have become celibate with the result that the population plummets. By the date of the story, 2010, the government introduces national service although, as Ballard would put it, of a very particular kind.

It is national procreation service. When they turn 21 young people are assigned partners by computer and have to report to the other person’s apartment – ideally dressed in one of the procreation-encouraging outfits – an Elvis Presley ‘Prince Valiant’ suit for men, a bunny girl, cheerleader or Miss America outfit for women – and are compelled to copulate. Satire. (Note how all these outfits are American. Born in 1930, America, American cars and movies and cigarettes and technology, represented The Future for Ballard from his boyhood on, as both volumes of his fictional autobiography – Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women – powerfully convey.)

Ballard lays on the satire with a trowel with the suggestion that each young person is monitored by a personal supervisor who is a priest – the religious thought to have the mentoring skills and moral subtlety required – while young women are mentored as to how to have sex, lots of sex, by nuns. Satire. Anyone who refuses to have sex goes through stages of rehabilitation, which starts with being forced to watch porn videos and progresses to chemotherapy.

Anyway, the protagonist, David Bradley, is himself super-reluctant and when he is sent round to the flat of a young woman, Lucille McCabe, discovers she doesn’t want to either. They fall in love on the spot, and during the following months Bradley makes elaborate precautions to become her protector, swapping shifts, hacking computers to remove appointments with other men, even faking her pregnancy with the help of a friendly lab technician.

All to no avail. Their ruse is discovered when another lover is sent round by the computer and Bradley can’t stand watching Lucille being bundled towards the bedroom, they fight, Bradley is arrested and brought before a tribunal.

Here he is convicted of believing ‘the Romantic fallacy’ and of having ‘an exalted and idealised view of women’ and sentenced to three years additional national service. The only way out of it is to refuse and force the authorities to implement the ultimate sanction, and castrate him. This he happily submits to if it means he can be with the woman he loves.

Thoughts

As a child of the 60s, well a widower who lived through the 60s and took full advantage of the Sexual Revolution, Ballard is clearly satirising the rightward and puritanical shift caused by Mrs Thatcher and AIDS. Is it a good story, or heavy-handed satire? It’s certainly not weird hard-core Ballard and can be categorised along with his other relatively ‘straight’ satirical stories.

6. The Largest Theme Park in the World (1989)

Another satire.

Set in the near future when Europe’s last remaining countries give in and join a United Federation of Europe. In that summer (of 1995) millions and millions of students, middle managers and workers go for their annual holidays on the 3,000-mile-long strip of beach which is the Mediterranean shore from the Costa Brava to Glyfada.

But this time they refuse to come back. They become full-time sun worshippers, they take to beach exercises and martial arts. They become trim and lean and fit. When the police of the Mediterranean nations come to turf them off the beach, there are pitched battles and the sun-worshippers win. The heady summer of 1996 rolls into the spring of 1997 and there is now an army of 30 million strong living on camps along this huge narrow territory, in effect a new nation.

So far, so like a vision of the social collapse envisioned in High Rise but applied to beach culture. Beaches have always fascinated Ballard. The Terminal Beach is one of his most famous stories, but the story in which the world’s population suddenly has some profound primal urge in our primitive minds activated by waves from outer space, and walks, as one man, into the sea, is the most haunting variation on the theme.

This story is much shallower story than that one and its satirical climax – which feels pretty forced – is that the armies of the beaches eventually arms up and marches back north into the so-called United Europe, determined to restore a Europe of nations, each jealous of its borders and customs and traditions.

So it turns into an oddly wonky satire on the EU.

7. Answers to a Questionnaire (1985)

A short and interesting format, this text consists of 100 answers to a questionnaire – in fact more like some kind of police interview – where we don’t see the questions, just the answers in a numbered list.

It’s surprising how much you can pack into a brief format like this. Without any of the questions, and just via the clipped answers, quite a complicated narrative emerges – in fragments and cryptic references – in which the narrator appears to have befriended a Middle-Eastern-looking down-and-out with severe injuries to his hands, who is obsessed with DNA and ice-skating, who is a whizz at hacking into cash machines and extracting large sums, which they seem to have spent on organising group sex sessions.

They spend some of the money setting up radio antennae on top of the Post Office Tower pointing towards the constellation Orion and the narrator appears to have heard the figure’s voice as transmitted from the star Betelgeuse some 2,000 years ago, and appears to know the secret of Eternal Life.

This leads to the figure becoming super-famous, selling out Wembley Stadium and attracting visits from all sorts of luminaries such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, with his claim to know the secret of Eternal Life by injecting new DNA into the human germplasm, extending life up to a million years!

The pound rises on exchange markets, a serum is created and millions of people queue up to be injected, in fact the injections became compulsory for everyone over the age of 11. The side effects were impotence and loss of libido, but this hardly mattered if everyone was going to live forever.

But the very intensive bond between the Christ figure and the ‘accused’, the man answering the questions, seems to have turned sour. The accused seems to have bought a handgun and shot him, from seven feet, with three shots.

It ends with a boom-boom punchline. Literally reading between the lines of the fragmented answers, it seems as if the injections which promised eternal life have not worked, that the ‘accused’, because he was in prison during the time of the mass vaccinations wasn’t given one – and so he is the only man in the UK, possibly the world, who still has functioning sex organs and so ‘the restoration of the birthrate is now his sole responsibility.’

A smart story and a snazzy format. My favourite answer was to question 71, where the accused reveals that the mystery figure ‘wanted me to become the warhead of a cruise missile’. Very Ballard.

8. The Air Disaster (1974)

One of the new 1,000-passenger jet airliners is reported as having crashed somewhere just off the coast of Mexico near Acapulco. The narrator is a not very successful journalist who’s covering a fashionable film festival. His editor, like everyone else’s editors, sends him off to cover the disaster, but there’s a chance encounter in the petrol station where he fills up with gas. Two other journalists are talking to the pump attendant and through the language barrier he appears to be telling them the plane didn’t crash out at sea at all but up in the nearby mountains. The other two hacks don’t believe him and head off for the coast, but the narrator is suddenly seized by an intuition that he’s right. It would only have taken a fractional difference of height and speed for it to have hit the mountains.

So he fills up with gas and heads in the opposite direction up into the hills. He passes through a series of peasant villages, each one more impoverished that the last, until the final one where he enters Ballard-land and becomes genuinely scared for his safety as he watches the dirt-poor illiterate peasants eyeing him, his car, his cameras and everything else about him which they could steal. Trying to impress the narrator addresses several of these toothless old men, waving a wad of cash about and asking if there’s been a crash BOOM in the mountains, and are there bodies, corpses, cadavers?

The primitive old men nod and smile and point up to the last peak, so the narrator clambers up to the final small canyon between the snowy mountain peaks and discovers… the thirty-year-old wreckage of some military jet which crashed up here a generation earlier and is thoroughly derelict and rusted, ‘a tattered deity over this barren mountain’.

The wrecked airplane is, of course, a central symbol in Ballard’s weird imaginarium, recalling the Cessna Sheppard crash lands Myths of the Near Future, the excavated Second World War planes in My Dream of Flying to Wake Island, the abandoned Japanese fighters Jim sits in in Empire of the Sun, or the still-going but decaying planes in Memories of the Space Age…

Anyway, we can imagine his disappointment and chagrin at having gone on this long wild goose chase. But the kicker is in the last page. As he returns down the hillside he goes through the last village he passed, the one where he had brandished wads of money and asked for cadavers. Only to realise that the villagers have dug up their dead relatives and lined their earth-covered, half-rotted corpses along the wall by the road, in the hope that they will pay them. Gruesome. Macabre.

9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station (1982)

A nice little brain teaser told in nine short snippets described as ‘surveys’.

A spaceship arrives at what its crew initially take to be a small space station, happy to find it as their ship needs repairs. They enter the station to find it contains concourses full of tables and chairs like a giant waiting space at an airport terminal. They walk along one of these concourses and slowly realise it goes on for some distance, giving out left and right onto further mezzanines and waiting spaces with tables and chairs. When they force open the doors of one of the lifts they can’t see a top or bottom to the shaft. They drop furniture down one of the lift shafts and hear no sound: there doesn’t appear to be a bottom.

Each of the reports updates us as they discover the larger and larger extent of the station. Then they notice the floor and ceiling has a slight curvature, lifting their hopes and making them think it might be circular and they might eventually circle round on themselves. But even this is an illusion. The station appears to curve very slowly, indefinitely, in all directions, as if it is expanding.

By the point of the final ‘survey’ the author has come to the conclusion that the space station is as big as the universe; in fact it might be bigger. The distance they travelled in their spaceship from the solar system might easily be incorporated within the confines of the space station. By the end of the text the author has gone reliably mad.

Our instruments confirm what we have long suspected, that the empty space across which we traveled from our own solar system in fact lies within the interior of the station, one of many vast lacunae set in its endlessly curving walls. Our solar system and its planets, the millions of other solar systems that constitute our galaxy, and the island universes themselves all lie within the boundaries of the station. The station is coeval with the cosmos, and constitutes the cosmos. Our duty is to travel across it on a journey whose departure point we have already begun to forget, and whose destination is the station itself, every floor and concourse within it. So we move on, sustained by our faith in the station, aware that every step we take thereby allows us to reach a small part of that destination. By its existence the station sustains us, and gives our lives their only meaning. We are so glad that in return we have begun to worship the station.

10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon (1985)

An eerie story. Part of what’s eerie is how totally Ballard thought the Space Age was over and done by the 1980s. There were six crewed U.S. Apollo landings on the moon between 1969 and 1972, and then that was it. I’m inclined to agree.

This story is set in Brazil. It’s a first person narrative. The narrator is a failed journalist, kicked off a succession of ever-smaller papers and forced into giving foreign language tuition. His wife and his mother, who lives with them, despise him, and virtually kick him out the house each morning to go and get a proper job.

Hanging round the cafes he get to learn about a sad, wasted figure, a certain Mr Scranton, who is introduced to tourists as ‘the astronaut’. He isn’t an astronaut and the waiters laugh at him, the American tourists have their photos taken by him in a jokey kind of way. Our narrator does some background research into him and discovers Scranton was a crop-dusting pilot in Miami during the moon landing era, but was never anywhere near NASA.

The story recounts the way our narrator is slowly slowly drawn into this impoverished, thin, wasted man’s weird delusory world. He jokily introduces himself and says he’s writing a piece about sci-fi movies and would like ‘the astronaut’s’ opinion. But slowly, over their next few encounters, he becomes haunted by Scranton’s faraway stare, his gaze through the people and buildings of this world, his other-planetary loneliness.

The narrator asks whether Scranton has proof of his experiences on the moon and Scranton nods slowly. He needs to be helped back to his squalid flat above a fleapit cinema, the Luxor. Here he shows the narrator his ‘photographs’, his ‘evidence’. It consists of pictures torn out of Life and Newsweek magazine (note, American magazines). He’s mad, delusional, and yet…

He has known the loneliness of utter separation from all other people. He has gazed at the empty perspectives of the planets. He sees through pedestrians and traffic as if they were fleeting tricks of the sun.

Sick and ill, Scranton, like so many Ballard figures, wastes away and dies. And hands on his mantle. The narrator takes his place at the seedy café. Without any effort he finds himself slowly erasing the memories of his family life, his wife and mother and failed carer in journalism slowly disappear, to be slowly replaced by an alternative past, one in which he trained hard as an astronaut, in which he remembers the coastline of Florida falling away beneath the giant rocket. A past in which he genuinely did walk on the moon.

11. The Enormous Space (1989)

The first-person narrator is a merchant banker named Geoffrey Ballantyne. His wife has divorced him and run off with her lover, he was recently in a car crash and is still recuperating. (This reminds us of another middle-class narrator who goes mental after recuperating from a car crash, Faulkner in The Overloaded Man).

The story begins as he takes the decision not to go out of his front door. Ever again. To use up all the resources within the house and then live on space and time. In the event, after reducing himself to the familiar Ballardian condition of hallucinating malnutrition, he takes to luring the neighbours’ dogs and cats into his garden, killing and cooking them. He becomes more and more detached from reality and the house appears to grow larger and larger, soon having as many rooms as the Palace of Versailles.

I have embarked on a long internal migration, following a route partly prescribed within my head and partly within this house, which is a far more complex structure than I had realised.

His wife, Margaret, pops in a couple of times, each time noticing the progressive degradation of both the house and the narrator, but each time he manages to bundle her out. His description of the house becoming steadily larger, until he can’t make it up the stairs any more, until he can’t eventually make it out of the kitchen and remains slumped against the powerless fridge, watching the horizons expand to infinity. Until his former secretary, Brenda, pops round worried about him. By this time we have accompanied Ballantyne so far on his trip into psychosis that it’s her who seems the odd one out, and we are utterly convinced of his psychotic point of view as he describes her stepping over him slumped in his kitchen.

She is walking towards me, but so slowly that the immense room seems to carry her away from me in its expanding dimensions. She approaches and recedes from me at the same time, and I am concerned that she will lose herself in the almost planetary vastness of this house. Catching her as she swerves past me, I protect her from the outward rush of time and space.

See, no exotic words or contrived sentences or purple prose. Fairly flat, functional prose which manages to convey a state of complete derangement.

Ballantyne kills her, chops up her body, eats some and puts her head in the freezer, reminding us of the genuinely horrific climax of High Rise. Christ, this is a terrifyingly delirious text.

12. Memories of the Space Age (1982)

To an extraordinary extent this is a rewrite of previous stories such as News From The Sun or an alternate version of the contemporaneous story Myths of the Near Future, from the premise of the story through to the narrative structure right down to the use of the name Anne for key figures in both stories.

Here again we meet a former NASA physician, Dr Edward Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who has travelled to the abandoned zone of Cape Kennedy from Canada where he specialised in treated Downs Syndrome and autistic children. He has come with his wife, Anne. They are both afflicted with the ‘space sickness’ which has been slowly spreading out from the old NASA launching centre. The space sickness is a disease of time; the victim experiences fugues or largos when their time completely stops and they’re stuck stationary.

So for the usual obscure reasons, Mallory has come to live amid the abandoned hotels and shopping precincts of the beach resorts opposite the old launch site, squatting in a derelict room on the firth floor of an abandoned hotel, and foraging for food in the dusty abandoned supermarkets.

And of course, as usual, there is an Antagonist – Hinton, a former astronaut and in fact, the first astronaut to commit a murder in space, when he locked his co-pilot Alan Shepley into the docking module and evacuated its air, live, in front of a global viewing audience of one billion viewers.

On landing, Hinton was sent to prison, to Alcatraz to be precise. Some twenty years later, as the space sickness slowly spread across America, Hinton escaped from Alcatraz using a home-made glider. Now Mallory discovers he is restoring and flying the vintage planes from a nearby airplane museum, very much as Olds restores defunct cars in The Ultimate City.

The same obsession with man-powered gliders, in this case a pedal-powered microlight with a huge wingspan is being flown by a woman, Gale (short for Nightingale) Shepley, who swoops over him one day on one of his forays from the hotel room while his wife sleeps.

She lands and introduces herself, a young blonde who is the daughter of the murdered astronaut, Shepley. She has come to the ruined zone because she is expecting her father’s space capsule to finally re-enter orbit and crash down here – just like all those other Ballard women who wait for their dead husbands or fathers to re-enter the atmosphere and crash land beside the ruined gantries e.g. Judith waiting for her dead lover’s capsule to crash back to earth in The Dead Astronaut.

Mallory has even brought a collection of ‘terminal documents’ like so many of these characters cart around, in his case:

  • a tape machine on which to record his steady decline
  • nude Polaroid photos of a woman doctor he had an affair with in Vancouver
  • his student copy of Gray’s Anatomy
  • a selection of Muybridge’s stop-frame photos
  • a psychoanalytic study of Simon Magus

Ballard’s gives a fuller, more explicit explanation of what exactly the space sickness is. It is the result of a crime against evolution. Human evolution has created a psychological aptitude to see Time as a stream with a past, present and future, a defence or coping mechanism which situates us within a dynamic timeframe.

The manned space flights cracked this continuum and now time is leaking away. Our perception of time is returning to its primeval one, an experience of all time in one continuous present, when Time – in the conventional sense – stops.

Mallory has a couple of encounters with Hinton who explains that the birds know about Time, they have never lost the primeval, reptile sense of Time. Which is why he’s trying to teach himself to fly by learning to fly each of the planes in the aviation museum in reverse chronological order, acclimatising his body to flight until, eventually, he can fly without machinery, and without wings.

In this context, Hinton’s ‘murder’ of Shepley was Hinton’s way of ‘freeing’ him from the tyranny of Time (exactly as the lunatic Sheppard in Myths of the Near Future appears to ‘free’ the birds by crushing them to death).

His wife is entering the end stage. Her fugues last nearly all day. In her few waking moments she begs to be taken up to the roof. She wants to see Hinton. She feels close to him because he is close to the secret. Eventually Hinton successfully kidnaps his wife. Mallory sees smoke coming from the old Space Shuttle gantry and takes a motorbike to ride there. He wakes up lying athwart it with his leg burning against the red hot engine. He had a fugue.

Gale arrives in her micro-glider to rescue Mallory and they travel on to the Space Shuttle gantry. Hinton has set fire to all the airplanes gathered at the bottom, and, as Mallory watches, Hinton and Mallory’s wife step off the platform and into thin air over the flames.

Maybe all shamans and primitive rituals, maybe all religions have been an attempt to escape from the prisonhouse of Time. Maybe the space sickness sheds light on why the Christian image of an afterlife isn’t an action-packed adventure holiday, but an eternal moment, an eternity of worship, stuck in stasis.

Gale keeps a menagerie by the swimming pool of the motel she’s camped in. Cheetahs, exotic birds and a tiger. As Mallory’s time winds down he hallucinates the tiger as a wall of flame. Gale is looking after him but, as always, there is a vast distance between Ballard characters and she is growing bored of him. She is only interested in the pending arrival of her father’s corpse as his space capsule finally re-enters earth’s orbit and comes streaming over their heads towards the space centre. One day soon Mallory will open the tiger’s cage and enter his wall of flame.

13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (1967)

This is a really interesting experiment which I think totally works. It is based on one sentence of eighteen words:

A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles ‘Notes towards a Mental Breakdown’, recalling his wife’s murder, his trial and exoneration

and then each one of these words has a numbered note next to it.

A1 discharged2 Broadmoor3 patient4 compiles‘Notes6 towards7 aMental9 Breakdown10, recalling11 his12 wife’s13 murder14, his15 trial16 and17 exoneration18

And each of the numbers refers to a numbered footnote. So the story is in eighteen short sections, each one of which unpacks, analyses, dissects the precise meaning of its word, in the context of psychiatric and criminal case.

Thus you get to discover the narrative, the plot, the series of events, but in a beguilingly chopped-up, fragmented manner. I found it extremely enjoyable. It concerns the psychopath Dr Robert Loughlin (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) who has murdered his wife.

Obsessed with man-powered flight, Loughlin drove round the Suffolk countryside with his lover Leonora Carrington (this name is a straight copy of the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, and the story references what appears to be one of Ballard’s favourite works of art, Garden Airplane Traps by Carrington’s lover Max Ernst; maybe at the time Ballard wrote the story she was so unknown he thought only a handful of cognoscenti would get the reference). Anyway he drives her round the Suffolk countryside from one abandoned USAF airbase to another, mesmerised by dreams of World War Three (exactly as Ballard describes his younger self doing in The Kindness of Women). As his psychosis intensifies, Loughlin rearranges furniture in his hotel rooms to create a notional flying machine and, only a few weeks before the muirder, makes a mad attempt to hire runway 2 at Heathrow.

His wife Judith was dying of pancreatic cancer and, tired of Loughlin’s erratic behaviour and alcoholism, absconded with her lover, Dr Douglas (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) to Gatwick airport. Loughlin tracked them down and somehow boarded a jet airliner which he ransacked for her, leading to a fight with a security guard who he shot. Then he made his way to Judith’s hotel room, broke into it, found the lovers out, ripped out the suitcase and proceeded to have a bath fully dressed and fuddled by alcohol and amphetamines.

When Judith returned she found the hotel room trashed and her psychotic husband passed out in the bath so she (presumably) decided to put him out of his misery and pushed his head under the water. But this revived him and psychotics are strong.

Louhglin murdered his wife, then dressed her in a flying suit with helmet and goggles, positioned her in front of him on the bed, as if they were in a plane and he was giving her flying lessons, and arranged all the furniture in the room to create the outline of a plane. Then he set the room on fire. (Just writing this out is making me feel like I’m losing touch with reality.)

14. The Index (1977)

This is a clever and, that rare thing for Ballard, very funny little text. It is what it says it is, the imaginary index to the imaginary biography of an imaginary figure, one Henry Rhodes Hamilton (presumably so named because his initials satirically spell HRH – His Royal Highness), supposedly a ‘physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion.

The first page – the only page of ordinary text – briefly explains who he was and, more teasingly, wonders aloud who compiled the index? Has the indexer included himself in the index? Did HRH ever in fact exist? Has the text of the biography, which the index is for, been suppressed because it revealed too many secrets? Or was it never written in the first place? Maybe the entire thing is the figment of some deranged lexicographer? Is the whole thing a hoax?

Reading this one page with its paragraph of teasing questions makes you realise that texts like this were purpose-written to go straight into academic English courses about metafiction and post-modernism and the Lacanian mirror phase and self-deconstructing texts, straight into the matrix of academic jargon without ever having to be read by non-academic readers.

Anyway the index itself is very funny, in  Zelig-type way HRH has known anyone who was anyone in the twentieth century and been present at pivotal moments. Karen Blixen proposes to him, Ernest Hemingway dedicates The Old Man and the Sea to him, T.S. Eliot dedicates Four Quartets to him, meets Gandhi, Freud et al, he is with Churchill at Yalta and suggests the famous Iron Curtain speech, he goes ashore on Juno Beach on D-Day (and wins a model), meets the Dalai Lama and Mao Tse-Tung…

And so it goes on, mingling HRH’s preposterous presence at key events and name-dropping key figures with the satirical narrative in which he founds a new religion and tries to set up an anti-papacy at Avignon. When Ballard addresses actual historical events and particularly when he starts making up religions etc, he quickly descends into childish cartoon mode (as described in the story about the American founder of a new religion in The Object of The Attack, but in this novel format it’s all very entertaining.

I laughed out loud when I read the index entry about Hitler:

Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgarten, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181.

Yes, as he rather did the entire German people. Hitler, Adolf, impresses German people 1939, disappoints German people 1945.

The last entry appears to refer to the indexer himself, and suggests his mysterious disappearance:

Zielinski, Bronislaw, suggests autobiography to HRH, 742; commissioned to prepare index, 748; warns of suppression threats, 752; disappears, 761

Thus, right at the end of the text, the indexer indexes himself out of existence. It was this which prompted the speculation in the one-page introduction that the whole thing might just be the products of ‘the over-wrought imagination of some deranged lexicographer’. Quite.

This may be the only really funny story in Ballard’s entire oeuvre, and it was a brainwave to close this final selection with it, helping to cleanse the reader’s mind, or at least control, many of the deeply disturbed, psychotic images which preceded it.

Thoughts

A little exhausted by Ballard-land and Ballardism, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to read this, his final collection of short stories, but I’m really glad I did. It contains good examples of several key types:

  • satire on contemporary society – The Secret History of World War 3, Love in a Colder Climate, The Largest Theme Park in the World
  • classic psychodrama about astronauts – The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  • portraits of psychotics – The Object of the Attack, Memories of the Space Age
  • descriptions of complete mental collapse – The Enormous Space
  • tales of the macabre – The Air Disaster
  • mind-bending science fiction – Report on an Unidentified Space Station

As stories go, the ones in this collection seemed to me as powerfully imagined as almost anything in his earlier career.

But what has obviously gone, long gone, is the extraordinary verbal lushness and purple prose of the earlier works. Somehow the almost Oscar Wilde, fin-de-siecle level of prose pyrotechnics which characterises the early novels and stories got thoroughly washed out of the system by the ‘urban disaster’ novels of the early and mid-70s and from that point onwards his prose becomes a lot more straightforward and serviceable. Instead of lush and exotic sentences, he comes increasingly to rely on the repetition of a handful of key words – overlit, to the sun, calm, over-excited, deranged, time and space.

In later Ballard, repetition takes the place of elaboration.

And arguably the distinctive thing about the collection is the three short stories with experimental formats – Answers to a Questionnaire, Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, and The Index, each one a clever, one-off idea which I think Ballard executes really well. They’re very short but very effective and, in some ways, the most successful pieces in the collection.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

The films of Woody Allen

Woody is 79 (b.1 December 1935), has made well over 40 films (as well as writing all those books and plays and TV scripts), and is still making them at a prodigious rate: last year Cate Blanchett won best actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine and he has two more films scheduled for release this year. Woody Allen filmography. His has been an extraordinary career, packed with amazing achievements in a range of forms – standup, TV, movies, theatre, books.

My kids bought me a big box set of Woody Allen movies, I bought a few more, and set out to watch as many as I could in chronological order:

1965 What’s New Pussycat? OK, it’s dated, and Allen wanted it removed from his oeuvre – but with loads of great scenes and with Peter Sellars and Peter O’Toole and that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Richard Burton, and Ursula Andress parachuting into a sports car, come on, it’s great! My son loved the climax at the go-kart chase. I loved Peter Sellars’ half hearted attempt to give himself a Viking suicide on the banks of the Seine until Woody turns up with a midnight feast.

‘Get a sports car!’
‘But I can’t drive.’
‘So you knock down a few people – but you’ll get the girl!’

  • 1966 What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
  • 1967 Casino Royale
  • 1969 Don’t Drink the Water
  • 1969 Take the Money and Run

1971 Bananas (Colour) A series of great sketches loosely tied round the story of chaotic nerd Fielding Melish who winds up helping guerrillas overthrow the dictator of a fictitious Latin American country. When he makes love to his girlfriend as Melish, she always says’There was something missing’. A lot later, he bumps into her on his US tour masquerading as the great Latin leader, they to go bed, he eventually reveals who he is and she says: ‘I knew there was something missing’. the film climaxes with an excruciatingly unfunny scene where they get married and go to bed and a real US boxing commentator commentates on their pantomime love-making. Amateurish, endearing. (82 minutes)

  • ‘I love leprosy, cholera, all the major infectious skin diseases.’
  • The spoof ad with the Catholic priest: ‘New Testament cigarettes. I smoke ’em. [points up to heaven] He smokes ’em.’

1972 Play It Again, Sam

1972 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) Every bit as cringeworthy as the title suggests, it’s a set of sketches cobbled together rather like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and just as uneven. The standout sketch is the one of Gene Wilder as a serious NY doctor who… falls in love with a sheep! (86 minutes)

1973 Sleeper (Colour) Very funny comedy about Miles Monroe who wakes up from a coma to discover it’s 200 years in the future and, as a reawakened sleeper, he is wanted by the Police State which now runs America. The giant banana skin, the orgasmotron. Diane Keaton with her kooky charm (or lack of it) plays the brainwashed woman who holds absurd art parties until she sees the light and becomes an ardent revolutionary. (88 minutes)

  • Face the fact that everyone you knew has been dead for nearly 200 years.’
    ‘But they all ate organic rice!’
  • ‘Hello I’m Rex. Woof woof woof.’

1975 Love and Death (Colour) Spoof on all those Russian novelists. Diane Keaton is the woman Boris Grushenko (Allen) loves but can never attain. Starts with hilarious satire on the doltish Russian family, mutates into what must have been very expensive battle scenes with thousands of extras in costume, before becoming a bedroom farce as they try to assassinate Napoleon. Bit painful. (85 minutes)

‘You remember how to have sex, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time practising, when I’m alone.’

1976 The Front Long one about a 1950s cashier (Howard Prince – Woody) who is approached by one of the scriptwriters blacklisted during the McCarthy era to act as a ‘front’ through which they can continue to sell their work to the TV networks. The film is in a worthy cause – ie reviving memories of this bitter time – and the credits mention that many of the producers and actors in it themselves experienced blacklisting only 25 years earlier. But the emotional core of the piece is (presumably) meant to be the Zero Mostel character who is hounded to his death by the McCarthites. Unfortunately, Zero is, alas, a poor or very stylised actor, whose predicament evoked embarrassment rather than sympathy in this viewer. Similarly, the love interest – Andrea Marcovicci – is (presumably) meant to represent a serious strand in the film: she falls in love with Woody the writer and is inspired by his integrity to resign her job from the network – only to discover he is a fraud. Unfortunately, she is acting opposite the essentially lightweight Allen and so these scenes, also, do not gel.

One of the rare Woody movies which he didn’t write; an interesting attempt to be a dramatic actor in someone else’s script – which doesn’t really come off. And the payoff line, where Woody tells the committee to go —- themselves? In the real world you don’t get the last laugh against people like that. And certainly not in a ‘serious’ movie. The film fails to convey the real sense of fear and helplessness which the memoirs of the period reek of. (95 minutes)

1977 Annie Hall (Colour) Apotheosis of Diane Keaton and a film which wonderfully balances inventive, funny sketches (the scene on the balcony where their nervous conversation is subtitled with their real thoughts) with something a little deeper about relationships and love. In retrospect, the whiny, needy Allen character (Alvy Singer) is becoming irritating. Nausheous, as he would say. (93 minutes)

  • ‘There’s an old joke: there’s two old ladies at a resort in the Catskills and one says, Isn’t the food here disgusting? and the other says, yes and such small portions!’
  • ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t do teach; and those who can’t teach, teach gym.’
  • ‘It’s OK I’ll walk to the kerb.’
  • ‘I’m due back on planet earth now, Dwayne.’
  • ‘Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I really love.’

1978 Interiors (Colour) Brave failure. Attempt to show a WASP family disintegrating, but the acting is strangely stylised. I don’t believe the paterfamilias at all, and much if not all of the dialogue is wooden. Maybe it’s meant to be as stylised as the empty, heartlessly immaculate interiors of the big family house by the sea where the intensely unhappy drama plays out. The father has abandoned his middle-aged wife who is breaking down as a result. Their three adult daughters struggle to cope and argue spitefully with each other. A deliberate attempt by Diane Keaton, and Allen, to shake off the kooky image of Annie Hall. (99 minutes)

1979 Manhattan (Black and white) Brilliant. The idea came from wanting to film Manhattan to the music of George Gershwin and it succeeds spectacularly. OK we’re back with Allen playing the needy, whiny, self-obsessed, amoral lead character, a man with no restraint or self-discipline who cruelly manipulates his 17 year-old lover. But it looks great. Meryl Streep is powerful as the venomous, humourless lesbian ex-wife who is writing a warts-and-all account of their marriage. (96 minutes)

1980 Stardust Memories (Black and white) Brilliant. The account of a famous film director at a weekend festival dedicated to his work in a faded holiday resort. He’s whiny, needy and wildly erratic in his pursuit of multiple women, who include his neurotic wife (Charlotte Rampling), a French woman, a foxy student. Those scenes highlight the rather tiresome Allen needy narcissism. What makes the film it visionary is the portrayal of the circus freaks who populate the rest of the film, his agents, the Hollywood producers, his fans, and the characters in his persuasive nightmares. And Rampling’s performance as the neurotic wife going mad has rare power. (88 minutes)

1982 A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (Colour) Brilliant. Touching, funny, beautifully shot in upstate New York countryside. The 1910s setting is great. The house in upstate New York is wonderfully picturesque. Jose Ferrer as the pompous professor is greatly funny. The use of Mendelssohn’s music throughout is inspired, the obvious counterpart to Gershwin in Manhattan. And the Allen character – for once not too whiny-needy – is a crackpot inventor who gives the movie a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feel, a real magical realism tone to what is at core a familiar story of characters all being in love with the wrong person. It’s the first of a run of 13 movies which feature Mia Farrow, his muse in the 1980s as Keaton had been in the 1970s. (88 minutes)

1983 Zelig – disappointing. Black and white spoof documentary about fictional character Zelig, an odd patient who turns into the people he’s with ie believes he’s a doctor among doctors, becomes black among blacks, Scottish among Scots and so on. The film tries to persuade us he became a phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s with songs and dances and movies about him. Allen persuaded Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe and Bruno Bettelheim to take part, giving interviews as if about a real man. But the central premise isn’t strong enough to carry any of this. ‘He just wanted to fit in.’ Is that it? I was hoping it would say something about the politics or society of the time. Instead it said nothing at all and dwindled down into the love affair between Zelig and his pretty doctor, played by Mia Farrow. (79 minutes)

1984 Broadway Danny Rose (Black and white) Love the setup of a tableful of middle-aged comics who get round to reminiscing about the heroic loser agent of the title played by Allen. Manages to be dramatic and very funny as the Allen character (Broadway Danny Rose) has to go to great lengths to get the trashy mistress of his one and only decent act to attend his breakthrough singing opportunity – but his efforts draw the attention of the Mafia. It’s worth it for the scene of the party sad Danny has in his crappy apartment with his terrible acts, the blind xylophonist, the bird act with one dead parrot etc. The role of Tina Vitale, the trashy tramp tied up with the mob is, maybe, Mia Farrow’s best performance, because so unlike her usual thoughtful, timid characters. (84 minutes)

  • ‘I don’t want to badmouth the kid – but he’s a horrible, dishonest, immoral louse, and I say that with all due respect.’
  • ‘Lou you’ve got a wife!’
    ‘Yeah, but this is different – I’m in love!’
  • ‘He’s cheating with you. He has integrity. He only cheats with one woman at a time.’

1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo Mia Farrow is married to a wife-beater in some crap industrial city during the Depression, whose only solace is going to the movies. Until one day the romantic lead steps down from the screen and woos her, leading to all kinds of comic scenarios. Eventually, the actor who plays the errant character flies out from Hollywood to confront his alter ego. Good example of an Allen movie which feels like an extended sketch and runs out of steam well before its (surprisingly downbeat) ending. ‘I’m married. I’ve met a wonderful man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.’ (82 minutes)

Some thoughts Many of these movies begin to flag about 40, 45 minutes in. I read he had trouble completing sketches for Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex and one or more of the others. It shows. So many of these films begin brightly with interesting setups and characters and the first few developments being funny or dramatic… but then run out of steam. Most of them struggle to last an hour and twenty minutes and that’s with numerous musical interludes. Take the music out and they’d be closer to an hour ten. At which point you wonder whether, with a bit of tighter editing, they’d make really punchy hour-long dramas…

1986 Hannah and Her Sisters (Colour) The first one which feels like an ensemble piece, with the dramatic plotlines shared among four or five characters, each given a fair share of development. And which features an English male actor. I remember liking this a lot in the cinema when it came out, it seemed like a breath of fresh air, tackling the real lives of realistic people. Now it feels dated. Michael Caine is not convincing as a financial advisor who develops a crush on his wife’s sister, inveigles her into an affair, and then is overcome with regret. His voiceover narrative is stifled and unnatural. Max von Sydow, who we revered in his Continental films, is wasted as Barbara Hershey’s older, artist, husband. (106 mins)

1987 Radio Days (Colour) Excellent. A reversion to comedy, a lovely memoir of childhood in Rockaway, New Jersey during the Depression in a big Jewish family full of characters and love and arguments, all neatly threaded round the theme of the radio programmes and songs they loved to listen to. The strand devoted to Dianne Wiest as ditzy Auntie Bea, always unlucky in her endless quest for a husband, is wonderful. Heart-warming. (85 minutes)

‘When I was a kid I didn’t know anything about classical music: I thought the Goldberg Variations were something Mr and Mrs Goldberg did on their wedding night.’

1987 September (Colour) Couldn’t be more unlike the above: it is shot almost exclusively inside one house in the country where Mia Farrow’s character has fled after a suicide attempt, with a would-be novelist for a lodger who she adores but who has fallen in love with her best friend, Dianne Wiest’s Steph. The film covers the long weekend when her overbearing mother, a former starlet (Elaine Strich), comes to stay with her current boyfriend. More like a Tennessee Williams drama with scenes of real intensity, and a wonderful performance by Dianne Wiest, miles away from ditzy Aunt Bea of its predecessor, showing real range and ability. The token English actor in this one is Denholm Elliott touchingly (but wildly improbably) in love with Mia Farrow. (82 minutes)

1987 King Lear – can’t get hold of.

1988 Another Woman (Colour) A wonderful study of Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) a successful philosophy professor who, through a freak of acoustics, can overhear the therapist next door from her workroom, and one particular patient (Mia Farrow) whose frank discussion of her failing marriage, worries about life etc strike an unexpected chord and, along with other revelations, lead Marion to reconsider her whole life. Not really an ensemble piece but all the other characters have real depth and development and it builds to a warm and glowing conclusion. Wonderful. Adult. Life-affirming. The token Brit is Ian Holm, more at home than Michael Caine was in this milieu, as Marion’s successful but distant cardiologist husband. (84 Minutes)

1989 New York Stories What a great idea: a story each by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody about the city that never sleeps.  What a stinker it turns out to be! The Scorsese one is sustained by Nick Nolte’s performance as a big shot, loudmouth artist, but suffers from typical Scorsese technical tricks and a whining performance by Rosanna Arquette as the tiresome Muse. The Coppola one is dire, presumably meant to be a charming tale of New York rich kids which hangs on the central performance of a 12 year-old girl who, unfortunately, proves Coppola’s gift for heroic miscasting. It was co-written with his daughter, and the music was provided by his wife. Uh-huh. Dire. The Woody Allen piece – Oedipus Wrecks – is the least bad, as Allen plays a middle-aged Jewish man harassed by his overbearing mother who, after a freak accident, becomes a vast figure in the sky telling the whole of New York about her son’s bedwetting. Genuinely funny and touching.

1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors (Colour) the tale of a successful ophthalmologist (Martin Landau), his brother the rabbi who is going blind, and his other brother, the no-goodnik who consorts with criminals. His mistress (Anjelica Huston) is threatening to tell his wife about their affair. When she threatens to also spill the beans about his embezzlements, Landau mentions his plight to his rough brother, who promptly arranges for Anjelica to be murdered. Threaded through is the comic strand of Woody as a failed arthouse documentary director, in the shadow of his super-successful brother-in-law, played by Alan Alda, sheepishly falling in love with Mia Farrow’s assistant producer. I remember liking this in the cinema. On the small screen it didn’t quite ring true. The scenes where Landau revisits his childhood home and sees himself as a child listening to the big family discussions about God and the Meaning of Life are clever and should be touching. But ultimately I didn’t believe it, any of it, didn’t believe Angelica Huston as the weepy vengeful mistress, didn’t believe Landau could seriously countenance her murder. It was too schematic, the actors felt too much like puppets being manipulated to bring out Woody’s familiar obsessions: is there a God or is it all just meaningless random suffering. There are quite a few, more sophisticated, less black-and-white, ways to look at the world… (104 minutes)

1990 Alice (Colour) Satire about an upper-class New York wife of a super-rich banker (Mia Farrow), their sterile, pampered life, and her awakening triggered by bumping into an attractive musician at her children’s prep school, this coinciding with her starting treatment with an unusual Chinese herbalist. In the end her conventional life falls to pieces and she has to confront her freedom, which she uses to become a ‘charriddy’ worker with foreign kids. Just as Mia Farrow has done in real life. (102 minutes)

Magical realism In Alice the heroine is given potions by her Chinese practitioner which make her invisible, let her see ghosts, and fly over New York. It’s undermentioned in the reviews – which always reference Woody’s gags, his Jewishness, New York, his love of jazz, the devotion to Ingmar Bergman etc – that there’s a transformative magic in many of these movies. It’s there in the earliest sketches, which are frequently fantastical or non-realist eg the scenes in Annie Hall where he talks to figures from the past. (This scene – the relived Jewish childhood – dominates Radio Days and features in even such a serious movie as Crimes and Misdemeanors.) Oedipus Wrecks is obviously light-hearted but the way his mother appears as a giant presence in the sky is magical, visionary. The entire premise of The Purple Rose of Cairo is that the characters in a film can climb down out of the movie screen, an entirely magical scenario. Zelig is magical in that Zelig changes anatomy to fit in with his contexts. And, charmingly and wonderfully, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy features not only Andrew the inventor’s flying machine but his strange device for seeing ectoplasm, for visualising ghosts and memories. In Mighty Aphrodite the Greek chorus punctuate the action, appearing in New York settings and having knock-down arguments with the Allen character, a dead man talks to him, fiction confusingly infects ‘real life’ as stories he’s written are dramatised and interact with the situations and people who inspired them. In Deconstructing Harry various characters the writer has created come to life and talk to him in a thorough interweaving of fact and fiction and, strangely, visionarily, Robin Williams’ character becomes blurred, soft, out-of-focus in real life. In Shadows and Fog Armstad the Magician drags Kleinman into the mirror before capturing the murderer in a magic cage. One character coments: ‘Everyone loves his illusions.’ ‘Loves them? They need them – like the air.’

Magical realism is a strong, wonderful, redemptive strand throughout Woody Allen’s movies.

1991 Scenes from a Mall (Colour) Poor. Woody only co-stars in this, the first film he hadn’t written, produced or directed since The Front. The screenplay is by Roger L. Simon and Paul Mazursky and directed by Mazursky, so we’re at liberty to find it much more conventional than a Woody movie. No magical realism, for example. Just a straight account of sports lawyer Woody married to relationship counsellor Bette Midler in LA, they see the kids off on a holiday, and go shopping to the mall on their 16th wedding anniversary where he confesses to having an affair – and the sheepdip hits the fan. This really isn’t funny. No laughs at all. Just a spoilt American couple behaving like fickle 12-year-olds and mistaking their callow superficiality for emotions, for life. (89 minutes)

1991 Shadows and Fog (Black and white) This is really odd. An hommage to the black and white Expressionist films of Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau, set one night in a fantasy Mitteleuropean city between the Wars – not unlike the Transylvania of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) – all set to the lively Weimar music of Kurt Weill. A murderer is on the loose and Kleinman (Woody) is woken from a deep sleep into a Kafkaesque nightmare where mobs of humourless vigilantes at first recruit him for their unspecified plan and then, inevitably, come to suspect him and then chase him. Why? And what is the subplot about Mia Farrow and John Malkovitch as performers in the circus who split up and have various adventures on this ill-fated night? The film is trying to be three different things: a hommage to intense European movies (fail); a nightmare of antisemitic Kafkaism (some moments of real menace); but throughout it the Woody character wisecracks as if in one of his earliest slapstick efforts (occasionally funny, sure, but mostly wildly out of place, badly undermining the previous two themes.) And, surreally, the pop star Madonna appears as the vamp at the circus. Random. Unsuccessful. (85 minutes)

  • ‘Misky is a craftsman. He performs wonderful circumcisions. I’ve seen a lot of his work.’
  • ‘They found me earlier in a whorehouse.’
    ‘Well, I’m not one to knock a person’s hobbies.’

1992 Husbands and Wives (Colour) Supposedly a serious look at two couples, played by Woody as a literature professor and wife Mia Farrow, and their best friends played by Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack. JD and SP having a trial separation during which they experiment with inappropriate partners (Liam Neeson and Blythe Danner) with lots of shouting at each other, before reconciling at the end; whereas Woody and Mia genuinely split up as he flirts with one his students and she falls in love with tall, dark, handsome Liam. The affairs aren’t even about life-enhancing sex, as all the characters experience some kind of sexual problem. The whole tedious farrago appears to be an unintended advert for how emotionally incontinent a certain kind of rich, American, East Coast liberal is. If I hear one more character say, ‘I’m so confused,’ I’m going to throw a brick at the screen. With adulthood come responsibilities, duties, and lots of work. These characters in gilded cages have pretend jobs which are window-dressing for the same endless, agonised dialogues of the deaf. ‘I think I still have feelings for Michael.’ ‘I think I have feelings for you/you have feelings for me/we all have feelings for the sofa/do you still have feelings for the shower-curtain?’ I couldn’t wait for it to end. Technique: shaky handheld camera throughout, copying its introduction into TV series in the late 1980s. (108 minutes)

Mia and Woody Vast amounts have been written about the breakdown of Woody and Mia’s relationship. This timeline establishes a few facts. For some people the revelations about Woody’s behaviour expose him as a bad guy, as fundamentally immoral. I am slow to condemn the artwork because of the ‘morality’ of the artist. Whose morality? If we systematically applied the ‘moral standards’ of 2014 (whatever they are) to artists of the past, who would escape a whipping, etc? Nonetheless, for me, in a more limited way, they undermine the claim so many of the movies make to be serious analyses of morality: even in the funny early ones the narrator is agonising about what is right, what is true, what should I do? The revelations about his private life which emerged at this period introduce the fatal doubt that Woody’s entire oeuvre is not about one auteur’s quest for wisdom, insight, moral certainty or whatever – it is in fact one long demonstration of the director’s inability to understand morality. Husbands and Wives, which was received as a peak of his mature style, now looks like the latest iteration of the tiresomely repetitive, self-centred, narcissistic inability of all most of his main characters to demonstrate any backbone, sense of duty or decency. Again and again the characters screw up their lives through a basic inability to think and behave like responsible adults. Eventually it gets tiresome.

1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery Not in the box set.

1994 Bullets Over Broadway (Colour) Very funny premise. Not quite such a funny movie, in practice. – It’s the 1920s, Prohibition and gangsters. John Cusack’s nerdy, angsty playwright (now who could that be based on?) is convinced he’s written a masterpiece. To get it performed his producer taps a gangster for funding, which comes with the string that the gangster’s useless girlfriend must be in the cast. Gangster assigns bodyguard Chazz Palminteri to chaperone her. Frustrated by the endless rehearsals he has to sit through, Chazz starts offering his own suggestions. To everyone’s amazement, they turn out to be really good. Meanwhile, Cusack is seduced by legendary Broadway actress (another great performance from Dianne Wiest) who persuades him to beef up her role. As the movie hurtles towards its violent climax, Cusack realises he’s not an artist after all, he is in love with his poor girlfriend, and he wants to return to the simpler countryside where they grew up.

1994 Don’t Drink the Water TV movie.

1995 Mighty Aphrodite (Colour) Woody is married to Helena Bonham Carter. The movie opens with them arguing about whether to have a child just like Woody and Mia argue about whether to have a child in Husbands and Wives. They adopt one, but Woody’s curiosity gets the better of him. He tracks down the birth mother, who turns out to be a sweet-natured, dim call girl (Mira Sorvinho). Woody wisecracks all the way through as if in one of his early films, while everyone else has to be stone cold straight –

‘Be more like the brave Achilles!’
‘Achilles only had an Achilles Ankle, I have a whole Achilles body.’

Poor Helena is thrown away in an underdeveloped sub-plot as she has a sort of fling with the rich backer of her new art gallery. Radiant Claire Bloom apears in a couple of scenes as the mother. Only Mira brings real warmth and depth to her role and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The magical realism/big concept is that from start to finish the movie is punctuated by a full-on Greek chorus who comment on the action, pop up in scenes in New York offices and apartments and, at key moments, burst into cheesy Broadway musical numbers. It’s sort of a good idea but, along with other elements, feels like it was made out of bits of earlier films. Comedy should be funny. This is schematic, a diagram of what should be funny but not funny in practice. And if I see one more married couple ruminating on why their marriage is no longer as passionate as the early days, or hear one more adulterous adult say, ‘I’m so confuuuused,’ I’m going to scream. (95 minutes)

1996 Everyone Says I Love You can’t get.

1997 Deconstructing Harry (Colour) American professional upper-middle class couples being unfaithful to each other. Who cares. As the content of these later films becomes more repetitive and who caresy, the casts become more and more starry: Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Mariel Hemingway, Julie Kavner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci and Robin Williams appear in this one! Harry Block the eponymous hero betrays every relationship by exploiting it in his fiction. More than once it’s crossed my mind to compare Allen to American supernovelist Philip Roth: both New York/New Jersey Jews, both famous for their neurotic/angsty/Jewish characters and milieu, both trying to escape their early reputation for comedy and aspiring to European seriousness, both staggeringly prolific (Woody 40 movies; Roth 28 novels and five or six story collections) and both getting into trouble for using their real-life relationships in their work. And with both, after reading/watching a few works consecutively, you feel like saying, “Can we open a window? Can we just get some fresh air and sunlight in here?”

‘Your life is nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.’
‘You know in France I could run on that slogan and win!’

A lot of scenes in this film feel reheated. The main plot is Harry’s roadtrip to his old college to get honoured, just as Woody travels to a weekend festival of his films in Stardust Memories. His therapist wife Kirsty Ally rages at him during a therapy session she is running – to the comic distress of the poor patient – just like Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives leaving the room to swear down the phone at Woody, before returning to her bewildered date. His roadtrip pal dies in the car and then reappears (dead) in the prison cell:

‘Is it better being dead?’
‘Is it better being dead? Well, you don’t have to do jury service.’

Wasn’t Love and Death full of lines like that? Admittedly, not all of them worked in those early movies, but now hardly any of them do – they seem strangely adrift. Most of these actors are good, serious dramatic actors who bring depth and power to their roles but Woody drifts among them wisecracking and undermining the plausibility and credibility of their scenes. He has a duet with Elizabeth Shue where she’s saying she doesn’t love him any more and is marrying his rival; she plays it straight; he is wisecracking and kvetching all over the place: it’s jarring. It makes you not believe the characters or their dilemmas. Which makes you not care. Which makes it boring.

The scene with Billy Crystal as the Devil in Hell is like a sketch rejected from Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex. They joke about the girls they’ve had sex with: ‘Blind girls, they’re so grateful.’ Ha ha if you’re 15. It’s tired. For a few minutes you’re watching Woody Allen – a man who writes lines which sound as if they’re funny but aren’t – trade gags with Billy Crystal – a man who looks as if he’s being funny, but isn’t.

Technical experiment: there are loads of jump cuts and the deliberate repetition of key shots eg the film opens with Judy Davis stumbling out of a taxi half a dozen times between titles. Presumably this is to emphasise the fictionality, the contrived and created nature of film. (96 minutes)

  • 1998 The Impostors
  • 1999 Sweet and Lowdown
  • 2000 Company Man
  • 2000 Small Time Crook
  • 2000 Picking Up the Pieces
  • 2001 The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
  • 2002 Hollywood Ending
  • 2003 Anything Else
  • 2004 Melinda and Melinda

2005 Match Point (Colour) Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ selfish tennis coach character kills his mistress played by Scarlett Johansson. Personally, I don’t find killing pregnant women an agreeable form of entertainment. It’s set in London. What happened to the whiny New York intellectuals locked in their claustrophobic apartments? The settings are bright and shiny and the characters repellent.

  • 2006 Scoop

2007 Cassandra’s Dream (Colour) Again in London. Did Match Point signal the end of Woody movies set in America? South London brothers Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor are persuaded by rich uncle Tom Wilkinson to kill an inconvenient business associate. They carry it off, but are racked with guilt. — The script is strangely thin: in particular the dialogue is oddly baroque and stilted. I love Ewan McGregor but found him, like all the other characters, thin and unbelievable. Hundreds of better films have been made about naive young men persuaded against their better judgement to commit murder and then unable to bear the guilt. Didn’t Hitchcock milk this to death in the 1940s and 50s? (110 minutes)

2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Colour) Spain. From interviews I gather Woody thinks American no longer appreciates or understands his films. They do better in Europe and he also finds it cheaper and more interesting to film in Europe. And so the thin story of Vicky and Cristina who come to spend two months on vacation in Barcelona, ‘finding themselves’, as so may gap year students before and since have set out to do. Though the main plot is meant to be about art and the artistic temperament, the film is solidly based in a world of very expensive hotels and investment bankers and in almost every scene the characters are drinking wine or cognac from enormous wine glasses. It reeks of luxury and money. Although some characters mention their jobs no-one is shown working – it is a fantasy dreamworld where people just talk about their emotions and feelings and failed marriages and agonise over what love is. As usual. Plot: Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) fly to stay with their super-rich friends in Barcelona and are almost immediately propositioned by manly Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). He beds the aloof rational Vicky, thus throwing into jeopardy her plans to marry solid, safe investment banker, Doug. He then beds the romantic Cristina which leads to an extended affair during which Juan’s estranged wife María Elena (Penélope Cruz) returns to stay in the house after a suicide attempt. Cristina brings peace to their relationship, both artists flourish, Cristina learns how to become a talented photographer (the directionless woman’s art form par excellence cf Annie Hall) and there are threesomes and lesbian scenes. Eventually Cristina realises this chaotic lifestyle is not for her and, in a climactic scene, Juan is seducing uptight Vicky again when Maria Elena bursts in and starts firing a gun. Both girls realise the error of their ways. The Americans return to their big, rich, stable country leaving the Europeans to their rackety lives.

Like EM Foster’s young ladies returning chastened from Florence or Henry James’s Americans recoiling stung from European imbroglios or any number of well-off people dabbling in Bohemia for thrills and then returning to their secure middle-class existences, this feels like a very old story. Beautifully shot, well acted and completely insubstantial. It won Allen and Cruz a clutch of prizes, critical plaudits and has become one of Allen’s most profitable films.

  • 2009 Whatever Works
  • 2010 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

2011 Midnight in Paris (Colour) France. Another promising conceit. Owen Wilson is in Paris with his spoiled fiancée, and her corporate executive father and wife. Luxury hotels. best of everything. American money. Owen is a successful Hollywood writer but, of course, believes he has a great novel in him. He goes wandering the streets of Paris and, at midnight, a piece of magical realism occurs: a vintage car from the 1920s appears and invites him in and drives off into 1920s Paris where he goes to parties and bars and the flats of his heroes: in a daze he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse, Salvador Dali and so on. It is 6th form reading list, it’s like the shelf of an undergraduate from the 1960s come to life. Except. When he meets his heroes – all Owen (the surrogate Woody figure) can talk or think about is – being unfaithful to his fiancée by falling in love with the beautiful young mistress of Picasso. He’s soooooo confuuused. Eventually he realises what was obvious to every viewer after the first few minutes – he’s not suited to his fiancée and they split up; and he meets the gorgeous young woman who owns a second-hand shop on a bridge over the Seine as it starts to rain and they walk off to start a love affair. Like a cliché of the American tourist, Allen has a check list of the artists and writers he has to ‘do’ – and here they all are, carefully chosen for their resemblance to their historic originals – but once he’s there, meeting them, er, what shall we talk about. Questions of technique, history, philosophy, art? Nope. My fiancée doesn’t understand me. I’m soooo confuuuuused.

  • 2012 To Rome with Love
  • 2013 Blue Jasmine
  • 2014 Fading Gigolo
  • 2014 Magic in the Moonlight

Personal favourites

Sleeper, Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days, Another Woman.

Thanks Woody

Despite the limitations and repetitions which a sustained look at his work tends to bring out, it’s worth paying tribute to an extraordinarily varied and ambitious body of work, and one which contains so many thousands of funny lines, so many powerful scenes, so many visionary flights of fantasy, so much imagination and creativity. Thank you, Woody.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: