"...I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way."

—J.G. Ballard, from the introduction
to the French edition of Crash



J.G. Ballard's novels and stories form a covert history of the last half of the 20th century. The 66-year-old author has made an art of alternately bringing radical psychological insight to the genre of science fiction and slicing and dicing raw medical and scientific texts into new, sinister fictions, thus revealing the pathologies inherent in the symbols of our age: the Bomb, wound trajectories in the Warren Commission report, the liquid realities presented by a shifting media landscape, the psycho-pathology of modern architecture and lonely motel rooms, the interface of technology and flesh inherent in auto crashes...

Ballard now lives in the U.K., but he didn't see England until he was sixteen, after World War II ended. Born in Shanghai in 1930 to British parents, he spent most of the war in a Japanese internment camp, and, as a result, avoided the traditional British educational and social systems. He has always been both an insider and an outsider— able to live within his culture, but also to bring a clinician's eye to the life around him. This gift of duality has defined his fiction. Almost 40 years after the war that formed him, he wrote the novel Empire of the Sun, which was nominated for a Booker Prize. By then he had already published several volumes of stories and ten novels.

One of those novels was Crash. Published in 1973, it is still his most controversial book. Crash is the deceptively simple story of a man (also named "Ballard") who finds himself strangely fascinated and aroused by a car crash he has recently experienced. He discovers that he's not alone in this new obsession; he is soon joined by his wife, as well as a small group of other crash devotees, in a series of increasingly violent psycho-sexual rituals based on smashing and smashed autos. Ballard describes Crash as his most autobiographical work, as it's the most unguarded map of his own imagination. This fall, outré film director David Cronenberg's stunning film version of Crash is to be released. The following conversation took place just before the premiere of the film at the Cannes film festival.




STIM:Were you involved in the making of CRASH?
JGB:No. But I've seen it and it's a masterpiece. No question about it.
STIM:You're happy with Cronenberg's interpretation?
JGB:Oh yes. It's a brilliant film.
STIM:Happier than with EMPIRE OF THE SUN?
JGB:I wouldn't say that, because they're so different. I was very happy with EMPIRE OF THE SUN, which is a much better film than most Americans realize. It's a shame that no one believed that Spielberg was capable of making a serious movie. EMPIRE OF THE SUN is superior to SCHINDLER'S LIST in many ways: because of its ambiguity, and because it's more imagined. EMPIRE OF THE SUN is a very, very fine film. But, of course, CRASH is a totally different kettle of fish. Cronenberg's done a wonderful film. I think it's his best film ever, actually.
STIM:He seemed like the perfect director. I couldn't imagine anyone better suited to the job.
JGB:I think that's true, though one might've expected, particularly looking at his earlier films, that there would be all sorts of biomorphic horrors— blinking instrument panels, exploding Buicks and the like—but it's totally naturalistic. Very impressive. It's really unsettling and disconcerting because the logic of CRASH is icy, but it's a very passionate film. Wonderful performances.

I also love that the car crashes are not spectacular Hollywood-style Bruce Willis-type slow-motion cars crashing though the air, landing on the top of busses and all that. The crashes are over in two seconds, like real crashes.
STIM:Like those little daily banal horrors.
JGB:Yes. You know if you've ever been involved in a car crash or watched one, they don't last for fifteen seconds. They're over in a second. I've been in a crash. My car rolled over across the central reservation on a divided highway. It was not, by the way, the inspiration for Crash. The book was already out when this happened.
STIM:Do you think Cronenberg's film will be well received?
JGB:I may be wrong—maybe America has changed a great deal in the years since I was last there, but I cannot imagine CRASH being shown in your mall multiplexes.
STIM:Which is too bad. That's where it should be, of course.
JGB:(Laughs) Yes, of course it should! Because that's where its biggest potential audience is. All those people who drive cars and unconsciously like crashing them. So it will probably be an art-theater film.
STIM:That's what NAKED LUNCH was when it played in the U.S.... It was just in art houses.
JGB:CRASH is much more accessible than Naked Lunch.
STIM:CRASH is seen in many ways as your seminal work, as your NAKED LUNCH. And Cronenberg filmed both works. Does it feel like a beginning of something, or an ending of something, to have Crash on film?
JGB:I don't know. It's a long time after the event. It's as long as NAKED LUNCH was.
STIM:That's true. It's been over twenty years since Crash was first published.
JGB:I forget when Naked Lunch was published in Paris for the very first time. Something like '58 or '59. Burroughs had a longer wait than me. He had the added problem, of course, that Naked Lunch was almost impossible to film. Late 20th-century film demands a story line. And Naked Lunch doesn't have that. Crash, (on the other hand), does actually have a strong narrative thrust.
STIM:Which is part of its power. You're working with a set of extraordinary ideas and images, but with a very straight narrative to pull the reader through.
JGB:It's also more exterior. NAKED LUNCH is a masterpiece of a book, there's no question about it. It's one of the top ten novels of the 20th century—but almost unfilmable. Almost all great novels are unfilmable, because they're so interiorized. Cronenberg has done a fabulous job on making CRASH even more exteriorized, and he got great performances from Holly Hunter and everyone else.
STIM:Hunter is an interesting choice, as is James Spader. Cronenberg managed to cast mainstream Hollywood actors—stars even—but ones without movie-star baggage attached. The actors give the film a very '90s feel without being precious or sending it off in some entirely new direction.
JGB:It's quite something for Holly Hunter, whom I hope to meet soon at Cannes. [Editor's note: they did meet and were present at the CRASH press conference; see Cronenberg's interview for more.] It's quite something for an actress on a very large rising curve to agree to make something like CRASH. It's pretty brave, if you ask me.

But it won't affect Holly Hunter even if Crash is a box office disaster. And I don't think it will be. I think it will be one of those films that will grow over time, because it says so much about the world we're living in. It's a pitiless searchlight playing over the secret and nasty spaces of the late 20th century. It's a remarkable film. You'll be profoundly unsettled by it.



Photo by Jerry Bauer