Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ben Wheatley's new film "High-Rise" at SIFF Cinema: May 13 - 18 & Grand Illusion Cinema: May 20 - 26 | Jonathan Lethem's "JG Ballard: Poet of Desolate Landscapes"

Ben Wheatley returned at Cannes last year with "High-Rise", after the 2011 genre-bending crime thriller "Kill List" and his unique and sinister vision of Olde Albion of a few years later set during the 17th Century Civil War. The smaller budget, yet highly successful "A Field in England" watched as an "Oblique, Ominous and Wickedly Idiosyncratic Barney through Old Weird England". His significantly more audacious new adaptation was announced as far back as 2013, "Ben Wheatley to Direct Adaptation of Ballard's High-Rise'", with producer Jeremy Thomas, "The Man Behind England’s Greatest Independent Films". Thomas himself the production infrastructure for David Cronenberg's adaptation of "Crash" some decades back as well, so there's a familiarity with the depth and potential difficulty involved in the handling of the source material. The director talks the significance of the setting and the trickiness of Ballardian heroes in his interview with Empire, "Ben Wheatley Talks High-Rise". The Paris Review offering a deeper examination in conversation with Wheatley, "Lost in Translation: Notes on Adapting Ballard" on not only the complexity of translating great prose to the screen, but the nature of when a literary work is adapted as a film, the specificity of the art must be translated. It may be about the very same subject, or literally translated in word and action to the screen, but to paraphrase Roger Ebert; "how it’s about, what it’s about, needs to be reconceived".

For many of us who know JG Ballard's work, the details of his life depicted in the BBC's "JG Ballard and the Alchemy of Memory" comes as less of a surprise. As his central motif has in some way always been the metaphor of the orderly living room inverted, flooded, in upheaval, spun in a dry-cycle; where modern life is just stage sets made to appear hollow, surreal and turned to ruin in their dishevelment. There is possibly no other work in his whole canon that explicitly tackles this premise than his 1975 novel, "High-Rise". Detailed in The Guardian, Oliver Wainwright's analysis of class through architecture, urban and social planning, "A Long Way Down: The Nightmare of JG Ballard's Towering Vision". As well as Chris Hall on both Ballard and Wheatley's explorations into the psychology of enclosed, brutal environments, this inner space is where, "High-Rise Takes Dystopian Science Fiction to a New Level". Ballard very much being of the mind that mid-late 20th Century sci-fi was ideally suited to address social issues through the vehicle of what's now come to be called "speculative fiction". At the time his work regarded to be equally in the company of postmodernist writers like William S. Burroughs, as it was the science fiction of contemporaries like Harlan Ellison. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry describes Ballard's work as being occupied with "eros, thanatos, mass media and emergent technologies", so it's elementary that his particular Dystopian modernity would be bedrock on which the Cyberpunk work of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson would be built decades later. Through these themes Ballard's exploration of modern western life and it's potential futures embraced the understanding that, "The Duty of the Satirist is to Go One Worse than Reality".

There is no better entry into that reality than the collected short works "The Complete Stories of JG Ballard" as Jonathan Lethem's review for the New York Times elucidates, it's a fully realized journey guided by a paradigmatic "Poet of Desolate Landscapes". "Each of Ballard’s 98 short stories is like a dream more perfectly realized than any of your own. His personal vocabulary of scenarios imprints itself from the very first, each image with the quality of a newly minted archetype. Ballard was the poet of desolate landscapes marked by signs of a withdrawn human presence: drained swimming pools, abandoned lots littered with consumer goods, empty space stations, sites of military or vehicular tragedies. Himself trained in medicine, Ballard frequently chose doctors or scientists as protagonists and narrators, yet expertise never spares them from the fates they see overtaking others. If Ballard’s view of the human presence in his landscapes is grimly diagnostic, his scalpel is wielded with tenderness, his bedside manner both dispassionate and abiding. Ultimately, Ballard is simply a master story writer — the maker of unforgettable artifacts in words, each as absolute and perplexing as sculptures unviewable from a single perspective. In this book of almost 100 stories, there are at least 30 you can spend a lifetime returning to, to wander and wonder around. I find myself recapitulating Ballardian patterns not for their beauty (though they are beautiful) but for their tremendous aptness in attempting to confront the dying world before me, and inside me. Consider this, then, a late-to-press elegy for perhaps the most cosmically elegiac writer in literature and like all who mourn, Ballard had first to love."