With this nonlinear epic, filmmaker Jonathan Reiss adapted what is certainly one of the most unfilmable books of all time: THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION by J.G. Ballard. Reiss accomplishes this impossible task about as well as can be expected, meaning potential viewers are in for an extremely demanding film.
J.G. Ballard’s 1969 THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION was packaged as a novel, but is in fact an anthology of interconnected short stories composed of single paragraph descriptions with bold-faced headings like “The Optimum Wound Profile.” Ballard was apparently trying to ape the dry, passionless prose and layout of scientific journals, but with a morbid concentration on sex and perversion—as one of the book’s characters claims: “science is the ultimate pornography, analytic activity whose main aim is to isolate objects or events from their contexts in time and space…one looks forward to the day when The General Theory of Relativity and the Principia will outsell the Kama Sutra in back street bookshops.” These characters spend their time doing things like recreating the assassination of JFK and fighting World War Three in a series of body gestures.
Filmmaker Jonathan Weiss’ adaptation of the book was shot over a two-year period in a number of disparate locations, from junkyards to abandoned military installations to the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art. It was initially completed in 1997, but reedited from a near two hour running time down to 105 minutes for screenings at the 1999 Slamdance and 2000 Seattle Film Festivals, as well as the ’05 PAL DVD release (which contains a commentary track with Ballard himself). Of TAE, Ballard has said, “it takes the logic of the book and translates it almost seamlessly into a very different medium.” It’s the third feature to be adapted from Ballard’s work, following Steven Spielberg’s EMPIRE OF THE SUN and David Cronenberg’s CRASH, and is easily the most obscure (in every sense of the word) of the three.
The story? Let’s see…there’s Dr. Nathan, the stuffy head of a distinguished neurological institute, who spends his days treating crazy patients with bizarre obsessions involving Marilyn Monroe, JFK and the erotic properties of the angles between walls. Travis, one of Nathan’s more vocal subjects, is planning an “atrocity exhibition” and has a thing for celebrity car crash victims like James Dean.
If you think any of this is going anywhere, think again. From the start, the “story” is little more than an impressionistic montage of vignettes and images, including a spacesuit wearing jogger, a woman with a Ronald Reagan photo tied around her head getting banged in the back seat of a car (inspired by the book’s story “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”) and a lady chased through an empty warehouse by a toy helicopter. It concludes with an attempt at restaging the assassination of JFK in a field that leaves a young Asian woman dead…or something.
J.G. Ballard’s THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION is NOT an easy read, and the film version doesn’t go down particularly easily, either. Viewing it frankly often feels like work. Jonathan Weiss’ approach exempts it from many of the criticisms we might assign a “normal” movie (an incoherent storyline, a lack of character development, etc.), but I can still gripe about the film’s obsessive concentration on late sixties events and icons (the Vietnam War, JFK, Marilyn Monroe), which seems totally inexplicable unless one has read the book, quite topical back in ‘69 but dated in many respects now (Ballard, it seems, was casting these elements as pawns in a future cataclysm that no longer feels imminent over thirty years later). I also found Weiss’ ending a bit overly subdued, in contrast to the book’s, which goes out with a bang (via the grotesquely comic piece “The Assassination of John F. Kennedy Reconsidered as a Downhill Motor Race”).
On the plus side, the film is superbly photographed and its locations extremely well utilized. The editing is artful and professional, even if it never attempts to convey a conventional narrative of any sort. Weiss’ cool, detached air vividly conveys Ballard’s concerns relating to the dehumanization engendered by a technological landscape. Of course, any such interpretation is entirely up to the individual viewer. You may find it “life changing” (as one imdb user reports) or just a lot of preening nonsense. I will, however, venture this: the film was obviously made with great care and represents a genuine labor of love on the part of its makers. Hopefully, with the long awaited DVD release, interested viewers will finally get a chance to see it.
THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION
Director: Jonathan Weiss
Producers: Jonathan Weiss, Robert Jason, Robert Kravitz, Alexander Lasky
Screenplay: Michael Kirby, Jonathan Weiss
(Based on a book by J.G. Ballard)
Cinematography: Bud Gardner
Editors: Jed Parker, Chad Sipkin, Ravi Subramanian
Cast: Victor Slezak, Anna Juvander, Michael Kirby, Mariko Takai, Robert Brink, Diane Grotke, Caroline McGee, Robert Morgan, Tom Constantine, Jeremy Graham