Monday, Jan. 14, 2013

Empire of Miracles

J.G. Ballard on Movies and Life

By David Luhrssen
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  J.G. Ballard attracted avid readers with the publication of his first novel, The Drowned World (1962), a story of global warming long before the topic was hot, but the general public knows him best for Empire of the Sun. Steven Spielberg turned Ballard’s mostly autobiographical novel into the 1987 film that introduced Christian Bale, standing in for the author as an adolescent. Unlike many novelists whose work was the basis for movies, Ballard is unfailingly gracious toward the project. In his memoir, Miracles of Life (Liveright/W.W. Norton), Ballard recalls that he was immediately impressed by Spielberg’s “thoughtfulness and his commitment to the novel,” along with his “unique gift for drawing superb performances from child actors.”

One hastens to attribute that graciousness to his English breeding, but Ballard was always conflicted about his national identity. Like the child protagonist in Empire of the Sun, Ballard grew up in the British enclave of pre-World War II Shanghai. Memories of those times occupying roughly half of Miracles of Life and, by his own admission, provided the formative imaginative material for his entire career. The Shanghai of Ballard’s childhood sounds no less fantastic than any fiction. It was a world metropolis with dozens of radio stations blaring in many languages, where enormous and often ill-gotten wealth bumped against destitution. “There was always something odd and incongruous to see,” he recalls—like the 50 Chinese hunchbacks assembled for the opening of the Hunchback of Notre Dame at a local cinema. “Anything was possible and everything could be bought and sold,” Ballard adds.

After war’s end, Ballard returned with his mother to the far country he had never known, England, a damp rainy land still in ruins from the continual German bombardment. Even in Shanghai, Buck Rodgers and Superman comic books had turned his dreams toward America. The reality of the U.S., which he eventually discovered in adulthood, draws appreciative if mixed marks in Miracles of Life, but those comic books may also have planted the seeds for his imagination.

Aside from Spielberg, Ballard’s reminiscences include many references to film. “Hope itself was rationed,” he recalls of postwar Britain. “The only hope came from Hollywood films”; long queues formed in the rain for “an hour or two of American glamour.” Ballard fell in with the angry young artists of the era and discovered European art house cinema. “I saw virtually the entire repertory of French, Italian, Swedish and German films screened in England after the war,” but reserved many memories for film noir, relishing “the hard-edged American thrillers with their expressive black and white photography and brooding atmosphere, their tales of alienation and emotional betrayal.” Some of this spirit would also infiltrate Ballard’s fiction.

The author had several brushes with the film industry before and after Empire of the Sun, including an off-the-cuff story idea transformed into an idiotic Hammer studio flick (Ballard is glad they misspelled his name in the credits) and David Cronenberg’s controversial Crash, based on his novelistic exploration of sex and car crashes, a “deviant thesis” that gave new definition to auto-eroticism. The film was largely kept from circulation in the U.S. and U.K.

Ballard wrote Miracles of Life under the sentence of death from cancer; the end was near and his memoir is a calm, forgiving reflection on a life that brought him from the exotic climes of Shanghai to an often-prophetic perspective on the present and the future.

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