I wonder what imagined slight led John Baxter to write such an insidious biography on J G Ballard? Does Baxter, a failed science fiction writer, who started his short-lived career around the same time as Ballard, have some deep-seated grudge against the guru of suburbia that his new biography The Inner Man - The Life of J G Ballard was aimed to settle? From its opening introduction, which begins with Baxter describing Ballard soliciting ‘automobile porn’ from his Danish translator, one wonders what exactly is Baxter’s intention, other than to diminish Ballard’s talent and originality.
If we are to believe Baxter then Ballard was an ad-man who got lucky, a psychopath scarred by childhood experiences as a prisoner of war, his whole life and career merely an exercise in skillful “image management”.
While in person Ballard had “the voice of a born advertiser, paradoxically preaching a jihad against commerce: the contradiction at the heart of Jim’s life”. Even his ambition to become a science-fiction writer could be seen as “an aspect of his psychopathology, for it echoes the hostility of someone trying to hide a physical or psychological dysfunction - epilepsy, dyslexia, illiteracy”.
In person, Jim presented a veneer of good-fellowship, slick as Formica and just as impermeable…
...This reflexive affability disguised a troubled personality that sometimes expressed itself in physical violence…
...Jim never denied that his psychology bordered on the psychopathic.
Really? But he never admitted it either. And as for the “physical violence” Baxter supplies no evidence, no eye-witnesseses, other than a now refuted quote from author Michael Moorcock. So what are we to make of Baxter’s book?
There is something interesting going on here, Baxter has created a fictional biography filled with factoids - things that look like facts, sound like facts, but are in truth fictions. It’s the kind of technique mastered by the likes of Adam Curtis or the Daily Mail, where unrelated facts are linked to support strange or spurious arguments. Sadly, The Inner Man is riddled with such factoids, with Baxter concluding:
Jim’s skill was to speculate and fantasize, evade and lie. ‘Truth’ was not a word he regarded with much respect, least of all in describing and explaining his life. In its stead, he deployed the psychopath’s reverence for the instant present, for frenzy, for the divine, and for those forces, natural and unnatural, that are forever slipping beyond our control.
The whole biography is like an ident-i-kit photograph constructed by a man suffering from the worst affects of a bad acid trip - the image may contain likenesses of eyes, nose and mouth, but the whole is disturbingly inhuman.
There is no warmth to his vision of Ballard, everything is seen as a cynical ploy by a man who is cast as an “intellectual thug”, and whose “paramount skill was his ad man’s ability to remarket himself.” There is no explanation as to how he coped with bringing up 3 children after his wife’s tragic death while on family holiday in Spain. How he buried her in a little Spanish cemetery, then drove home with the children, having to “pull over to weep uncontrollably.”
Not surprisingly, Ballard’s children, and his partner Claire Walsh, did not take part in Baxter’s cut and paste assemblage. Moreover, there are no quotes from any of Ballard’s books, only brief synopses, which only reminded me of Terry Johnson’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe from his play Insignificance, where the glamorous star can recite Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but hasn’t a clue what it means. Baxter can sub Ballard’s novels, but he has no real understanding of what they are about.
There are also some glaring mistakes - Eduardo Paolozzi was not a “burly Glaswegian” but was born in Leith, Edinburgh. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you,” and not H. G. Wells. If Baxter (and his editors) can’t get the verifiable facts correct, why should we believe him on any of his unsubstantiated assertions?
This is why Baxter’s biography fails.
He also fails to see Ballard and his work within a wider cultural perspective. Before Ballard and his family were imprisoned at the camp in the Lunghua, George Orwell predicted the world that Ballard was to write about and make his home for most of his life, in his 1941 essay “England Your England”:
The place to look for the germs of the future England is in the light-industry areas along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes - everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns - the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labor-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centering round tinned food Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely of the modern world, the technicians and higher paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.
Orwell could have been describing Ballard’s future vision of Shepperton - a world of swimming pools, airmen, film producers, industrial chemists, who live on the arterial roads, on the outskirts of a great town.
I find it difficult to watch Adam Curtis‘s various acclaimed documentaries without thinking: how much has he taken from Bruce Conner?
Indeed without Conner, would Curtis have developed his magpie, collagist-style of documentary making?
I doubt it, but you (and Curtis) may disagree.
The late Bruce Conner is the real talent here - an artist and film-maker whose work devised new ways of working and presciently anticipated techniques which are now ubiquitously found on the web, television and film-making.
Conner was “a heroic oppositional artist, whose career went against the staid and artificially created stasis of the art world”. Which is academic poohbah for saying Conner kept to his own vision: a Beat life, which channeled his energies into art - with a hint of Dada, Surrealism and Duchamp.
Conner was cantankerous and one-of-a-kind. He would wear an American flag pin. When asked why, he said, “I’m not going to let those bastards take it away from me.”
He kicked against fame and celebrity, seeing art as something separate from individual who created it.
“I’ve always been uneasy about being identified with the art I’ve made. Art takes on a power all its own and it’s frightening to have things floating around the world with my name on them that people are free to interpret and use however they choose.”
Born in McPherson, Kansas, Conner attended Witchita University, before receiving his degree in Fine Art from Nebraska University. At university he met and married Jean Sandstedt in 1957. He won a scholarship to art school in Brooklyn, but quickly moved to University of Colorado, where he spent one semester studying art. The couple then moved to San Francisco and became part of the Beat scene. Here Conner began to produce sculptures and ready-mades that critiqued the consumerist society of late 1950’s. His work anticipated Pop Art, but Conner never focussed solely on one discipline, refusing to be pigeon-holed, and quickly moved on to to film-making.
Having been advised to make films by Stan Brakhage, Conner made A MOVIE in 1958, by editing together found footage from newsreels- B-movies, porn reels and short films. This single film changed the whole language of cinema and underground film-making with its collagist technique and editing.
The Conners moved to Mexico (“it was cheap”), where he discovered magic mushrooms and formed a life-long friendship with a still to be turned-on, Timothy Leary. When the money ran out, they returned to San Francisco and the life of film-maker and artist.
In 1961, Conner made COSMIC RAY, a 4-minute film of 2,000 images (A-bombs, Mickey Mouse, nudes, fireworks) to Ray Charles’ song “What I Say”. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, Conner produced a series of films that were “precursors, for better or worse, of the pop video and MTV,” as his obituary reported:
EASTER MORNING RAGA (1966) was designed to be run forward or backward at any speed, or even in a loop to a background of sitar music. Breakaway (1966) showed a dancer, Antonia Christina Basilotta, in rapid rhythmic montage. REPORT (1967) dwells on the assassination of John F Kennedy. The found footage exists of repetitions, jump cuts and broken images of the motorcade, and disintegrates at the crucial moment while we hear a frenzied television commentator saying that “something has happened”. The fatal gun shots are intercut with other shots: TV commercials, clips from James Whale’s Frankenstein and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The film has both a kinetic and emotional effect.
REPORT “perfectly captures Conner’s anger over the commercialization of Kennedy’s death” while also examining the media’s mythic construction of JFK and Jackie — a hunger for images that “guaranteed that they would be transformed into idols, myths, Gods.”
Conner’s work is almost a visual counterpart to J G Ballard’s writing, using the same cultural references that inspired Ballard’s books - Kennedy, Monroe, the atom bomb. His film CROSSROADS presented the 1952 atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in extreme slow motion from twenty-seven different angles.
His editing techniques influenced Dennis Hopper in making Easy Rider, and said:
“much of the editing of Easy Rider came directly from watching Bruce’s films”
The pair became friends and Hopper famously photographed Conner alongside Toni Basil, Teri Garr and Ann Mitchell.
Always moving, always progressing, having “no half way house in which to rest”, Conner became part of the San Francisco Punk scene, after Toni Basil told Conner to go check out the band Devo in 1977. He became so inspired when he saw the band at the Mabuhay Gardens that he started going there four night a week, taking photographs of Punk bands, which eventually led to his job as staff photographer with Search ‘n’ Destroy magazine. It was a career change that came at some personal cost.
“I lost a lot of brain cells at the Mabuhay. What are you gonna do listening to hours of incomprehensible rock’n’roll but drink? I became an alcoholic, and it took me a few years to deal with that.”
Conner continued with his art work and films, even making short films for Devo, David Byrne and Brian Eno. In his later years, Conner returned to the many themes of his early life and work, but still kept himself once removed from greater success and fame. He died in 2008.
Towards the end of his life he withdrew his films from circulation, as he was “disgusted” when he saw badly pixelated films bootlegged and uploaded on YouTube. Conner was prescriptive in how his work should be displayed and screened. All of which is frustrating for those who want to see Conner’s films outside of the gallery, museum or film festival, and especially now, when so much of his originality and vision as a film-maker and artist has been copied by others.
‘Mea Culpa’ - David Byrne and Brian Eno. Directed by Bruce Conner
These two short films from Rank’s classic Look at Life, hint at two of J G Ballard’s preoccupations - high rises and cars.
“Rising to High Office”, made in 1963, examines the development of high rise corporate life; while “Goodbye Piccadilly” looks at the planned redevelopment of the famous London landmark at the start of the sixties that intended to create a “double-decker” Piccadilly Circus, with a new pedestrian concourse above the ground-level traffic. The plans were lasted for most of the decade, but were killed off in 1972 when it was discovered the plans would not help the required increase in traffic flow.
Amazing quality and in fabulous color, they capture a little seen aspect of the changing face of London during its most famous decade.