DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Weiss
FEATURING: Victor Slezak, Anna Juvander, Michael Kirby, Rob Brink, Diane Grotke, Caroline McGee, Robert Morgan, Mariko Takai
PLOT: In a mental institution, a doctor has enticed patients and staff into staging bizarre microdramas and recording them on film. Is he recording his own mental breakdown, or the larger ills of society?
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Inasmuch as cult author J.G. Ballard can still be called “weird” nowadays, the film perfectly captures the clinical nature of his themes and uneasy alliances. One scene is a fashion shoot in the midst of a surgical operation. Another memorable sequence has Traven emerging from a 1950s black sedan on an airport runway shouting “Marilyn Monroe” and breaking into a run with the sound of helicopters on the soundtrack; he inexplicably ends up back at the sedan, vomiting over the front hood.
COMMENTS: The Atrocity Exhibition is another one of the many “unfilmable” novels that some filmmaker, at some point, takes on as a challenge. first took the plunge, being the first to adapt Ballard’s other “unfilmable” novel, Crash, in the mid-90’s, and largely succeeding. “The Atrocity Exhibition“, however, was slightly more challenging for an adapter: there’s no real plot, just linked incidents; the main character is undergoing a mental breakdown affected by mass media; each chapter represents an aspect of the protagonist’s psychosis (his name changes in each segment); and most of the action is psychological. The book is a collection of themes and ideas showing up in Ballard’s work at the time (the mid to late 1960’s), some of which would be fleshed out/explored further in works like “Crash” and “High Rise,” and is much more fragmentary than most novels.
Jonathan Weiss’s approach in adapting Ballard’s work is geared to the experimental film work in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Using stock-film sequences interspersed with new footage, the film is presented as the artifact from Dr. Traven’s project, staged mini-dramas reflecting his obsessions (assassinations, war, celebrity, plastic surgery, the Space Race) which document his—and by extension, society’s—surrender to psychosis. But is it a surrender, or merely an adaptation to the new order?
Exhibition is perhaps the purest adaption of Ballard’s work to date. The low-budget, as well as the unusual nature of the main role, excluded any casting of name stars, and the movie was shot over the period of several years. It’s not as polished or sexy as Cronenberg’s Crash, but it’s even more intellectually rewarding.
DVD INFO: The Atrocity Exhibition had limited festival screenings in the early ’00’s, but no true theatrical release. It seemed it would languish in obscurity until its release on DVD in 2006 by Reel 23, a European company—Region 0, but on the PAL system—now a pricey import, if you do some hard looking. You get a good transfer of the film in picture and sound, highlighting the score by J.G. Thirwell (“The Venture Bros.”, “Foetus”), subtitles in French, Spanish, German and Dutch, and an informative commentary track by the director. But what makes this release special is a second commentary track with the director and J.G. Ballard together. Ballard doesn’t stick around for the last 20 minutes of the film, pretty much having said whatever he needed to.
Oswalds Mill Audio (OMA), selling high-quality and high-end audio equipment, is Jonathan Weiss’ current venture.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Weiss works superbly with the material here, creating the most Ballard-like visual representation of the author’s work on the screen… They are all meaningfully integrated into the screenplay – if not in any immediately comprehensible way, at least in a way that is true to how Ballard envisioned it in his writing – and thankfully not in any pretentious rapid-fire montage.”–Noel Megahy, The Digital Fix