I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“Always Crashing in the Same Car”: JG Ballard’s 1971 Crash!

by Anthony Galli
Aug. 23, 2018

The finest works of science fiction or horror are always nothing more than a reflection of the society from which they spring. They do not rely on imaginary monsters to produce fear in their viewers, but instead are resonant and prescient in their ability to subscribe to the inner tensions percolating just below the surface. Rod Serling knew this, which is probably why The Twilight Zone still finds a captive audience generation after generation. Serling would take an ordinary situation with ordinary people and expose the undercurrents of anxiety that motivate individuals to perform irrationally. As more fear and panic infect individuals like a virus, seismic societal shifts result, breeding widespread movements enacted to protect the status quo against unforeseen danger. George A. Romero knew this when he created Night of the Living Dead in 1968.

Author JG Ballard has traversed the intersection of science fiction and psychology since the 1950’s, and with Crash!, in 1969, he created a multimedia work that would eventually combine the aesthetics of advertisement, performance art, and literature. Crash! was initially conceived in 1968, as Crash, a play that would feature a crashed car on stage with actors portraying blood-soaked crash victims, and filmed footage of actual car crashes projected behind the stage. This didn’t happen; Ballard found no backers for his controversial proposal. A year later, the gallery installation “Jim Ballard: Crashed Cars,” which incorporated not one but three salvaged foreign and domestic wrecked autos, premiered at the New Arts Lab in London. “Each of these sculptures is a memorial to a unique collision between man and his technology,” Ballard wrote in the program for the installation, concluding, “The car crash is the most dramatic event we are likely to experience in our entire lives apart from our own deaths.” At the exhibition’s opening, the drunken gallery patrons were subjected to a topless woman who interviewed them for a live closed-circuit television broadcast that further confused and angered them, provoking violent acts upon the crashed cars at the center of the performance. Obviously, Ballard was operating outside of the constraints of traditional “literature,” edging into the realm of perceptible human behavior, with all of its attendant motivations and manifestiations.

In 1970 Ballard published a collection of short works as an experimental novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, with a forward by Beat icon William S. Burroughs and a draft of Crash! that, Ballard claims, was written a year before his “Crashed Cars” exhibition in London. The Atrocity Exhibition’s Crash! was also the inspiration for his 1973 novel Crash. Subsequently, David Cronenberg adapted the 1973 novel for his 1996 film Crash, which should not be confused with 2004’s Best Picture winning feel-good “conversation” on racism, Paul Haggis’ Crash. This was not that; it was something entirely else. The Atrocity Exhibition examined the influence of popular culture and its packaging on an unsuspecting public, wondering, say, what effect space travel has on the psyche of society at large, or, perhaps, if the juxtaposition of disparate images on television produces a psychologically confused populace. Is it possible, Ballard muses, that the consumer’s mind will eventually become irreparably confused after a lifetime of media bombardment where depictions of actual human suffering and tragedy are strategically interrupted by happy shiny commercial breaks intending to sell you beer and fun and an airbrushed magazine lifestyle.

Is there a point when our fragile powers of reason will eventually break down, and these “staccato signals of constant information,” as Paul Simon called them, will no longer compartmentalize themselves, until the horror and the desire will merge into an incomprehensible whole? One might wonder how a generation growing up subjected to nightly news reports of murderous drone strikes on civilian populations interspersed with the sexually charged station breaks of beer and automobile advertisements will internalize its manufactured reality in the coming years. Lately, it seems like there is always somebody willing to point the finger at somebody else and blame him, whoever it may be, for society’s misfortunes in a sort of “scapegoat of the day” straw man frenzy. Occasionally, rock music lyrics will be held responsible for teenage pregnancies and suicide, or rap music lyrics will be the inspiration for widespread violence, or video games will be the new scourge of the earth. Talking points and deflection all. As noted American Composer Frank Zappa was fond of saying, "There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make you do something we'd all love one another." Zappa also noted that he had once written a song about dental floss, but didn’t notice that anybody’s teeth got any cleaner.

As JG Ballard was working on incarnations of his various Crash texts, he was struck by the incongruity of having filmed footage of the Marshall Islands nuclear tests repeatedly broadcast on television throughout the 1960’s, as if the explosions held some entertainment value. Ballard characterized the repetition of the nuclear footage as having a sort of “carnival air,” while media network exploitation of this footage as ratings generating popular entertainment seemed to hide the formal function of the hydrogen bomb as an agent of unbridled annihilation. The assorted permutations of Crash! that Ballard has constructed over time examine mass media’s complicity in developing a consumer culture that has become desensitized and indifferent to unspeakable atrocity, while at the same time desirous of a future reality that simply can not exist. “Buy our stuff, and you can be fabulous, too,” advertisements seem to snicker into our living rooms. “Sleek…sexy…now.” With Crash!, JG Ballard seems to suggest that the consumerist narrative has already been established and accepted and absorbed into our collective unconscious, and we are obliged to remake/remodel our torpid realities as we see fit.

But…don’t get caught…

The 1971 BBC production of JG Ballard’s Crash! is great in the way that all 1970’s British productions are; there’s just something about the soundtracks and the visuals of these films that screams “1970’s England!” The film features JG Ballard as, well, JG Ballard, I guess, and singer/songwriter Nick Drake’s sister Gabrielle, as, um…the female? There are no actual production credits attached to the film, which only adds to the mystery of the whole enterprise. If one were to accidentally stumble upon Crash! without knowing its history, or who JG Ballard is, it would be easy to mistake the film for an industrial documentary on the psychopathology of sexual desire and car crashes. Ballard’s unaffected matter-of-fact narration pulls us into an objective, almost deliberately scientific, psychological landscape to explore “The Complex Relationships between ourselves and the objects around us.” Ballard’s prose, not to mention his on-screen countenance, combined with the documentary-style direction of Harley Cokliss, and the distant, isolated presence of Gabrielle Drake as the object of desire, coalesce to create a sinister, alien world out of ordinary circumstances. The portrait of a society bereft of emotion and drifting in uncertain inner space.

Drive, he said.

Works Cited

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

J. G. Ballard, The Art of Fiction No. 85

Frank Zappa on "Crossfire" - censorship (1986)

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.