Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990

Untitled (Joe)' by Robert Longo, 1981

Narrowing postmodernity to the twenty years between 1970 and 1990 fixes my childhood and teenage years at the apex of the movement. Visiting the V&A’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990 exhibition today was dropping in on my youth.

A 30-second clip of Bladerunner was irresistible and I could barely tear myself from Laurie Anderson performing a fragment of O Superman. That song made every mix tape I curated. Grace Jones: remember her? She terrified me. And architecture and design: Michael Graves, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, James Stirling, Philip Johnson and Rem Koolhaas, each one-time heroes of mine.

But where was the literature? Surely Ballard or Bret Easton Ellis, even DeLillo merited a section. Perhaps that is another exhibition.

Empire of the Sun and Literary Adaptations

From this discussion with Iain Sinclair about J. G. Ballard:

I saw Empire of the Sun again the other day, and it’s Spielberg more than Ballard though it’s reasonably close to the book.

I recently saw the film again and came to the same conclusion. It was a polished, Disneyfied interpretation, with overtones of Merchant Ivory. I’d love to see a Peter Greenaway rendering. Greenaway’s obsession with sex and death is well matched with Ballard’s themes. Ballard’s book Crash, interpreted faithfully (but ultimately disappointingly) by David Cronenberg is frequently juxtaposed with Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, as controversial films.

It is a cliché to discuss how a particular film is a disappointing adaptation of a particular book. Is there a film that has aesthetically advanced the original text? Perhaps Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire or The Great Gatsby, almost certainly The Third Man.

In Julien Gracq’s discerning book Reading Writing he offers this insight:

But the reader of a novel is not a performer following notes and tempo step by step: he is a director. And this suggests that, from one brain to another, the sets, cast, lighting, and motion of the performance become unrecognisable. Whatever the explicit precision of the text-and even against it, if he so desires-the reader decides (for example) on the acting of the characters and their physical appearance. And the best proof of this is that the interpretation of a film adapted from a familiar novel almost always jars us, not because of its arbitrary nature, but most often because of its fidelity to the formal indications of the text, with which, while reading it, we have taken the greatest liberties.

This, of course, must be correct. The conclusion is that one should never, never watch film adaptations of books that you love and know intimately. But, of course, it is always impossible to resist.

A Ballard Theme

Finishing JG Ballard’s The Kindness of Women completed the trilogy of autobiographical reading following the writer’s death in the spring. Reading it after The Miracle of Life: From Shanghai to Shepperton, and after watching Christian Bale play Jim Ballard in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, added to the understanding of this complex individual. It is hard to reconcile the recurrent themes that Ballard addressed in his fiction with the thoroughly nice, whiskey-swilling suburbanite of his autobiographies.

I read Ballard intensely in my twenties and kept up with each successive release. Before his death I was never drawn to his autobiographical work. I am pleased to have made the effort to comprehend the man, to the extent autobiography offers any insight.

Concrete Island , though a minor Ballard, is my personal favourite, surreal and utterly terrifying.

There is much devoted and some fanatic enthusiasm for Ballard. Is it inspired by the perennial influences in his stories or the sheer normality of the man that wrote them?