pop culture: August 2012 Archives

Liveblogging Ballard's Crash Chapter Six

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Ballard, it has been established, works for a TV studio that makes commercials. He uses their regular car rental service to try out all kinds of cars now. Then he drives around the various highways of the airport zone, taking in the flyovers, bland hotels, 24 hour supermarkets, traffic islands and new apartments. The cars seem alive to him with the previous drivers.

Like the other cars I had hired, this one was covered with scratches and heel marks, cigarette burns and scuffings, translated through the glamorous dimension of Detroit design. On the pink vinyl seat was a deep tear large enough to take a flagstaff or, conceivably, a penis.
Driving about the surreal artificial landscape by night, and experiencing the traffic around his crash site, proves too much. Ballard picks up an airport prostitute - who waits on a traffic island of all places - and takes her to the deserted open roof of a multi-storey carpark.

His blowjob is suddenly interrupted by a flash of light and then a noise and commotion below. An airport bus has rear-ended a taxi and the bloodied driver is being pulled out by the light of police headlamps. But Ballard turns to see the original flash was in fact from a camera. Vaughan has been stalking him again. This time he recognizes him as the famous TV scientist.

As he reached the balcony his face was lit by the headlamps of the police car. I realized that I had seen his pock-marked face many times before, projected from a dozen forgotten television programmes and news magazine profiles - this was Vaughan, Dr Robert Vaughan, a one-time computer specialist. As one of the first of the new-style TV scientists, Vaughan had combined a high degree of personal glamour - heavy black hair over a scarred face, an American combat jacket - with an aggressive lecture theatre manner and complete conviction in his subject matter, the application of computerized techniques to the control of all traffic systems. In the first programmes of his series three years earlier Vaughan had projected a potent image, almost that of the scientist as hoodlum.
Now it is Ballard's turn to follow him deeper down the rabbit hole.

Liveblogging Ballard's Crash Chapter Five

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The chapter starts with Ballard home after his discharge from hospital and ends with him driving again for the first time. He has become hyper-aware of psychogeography. He sits on the veranda of his house contemplating the motorway, the flyovers and the airport.

I realised that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity. The amiable saunter of Francis Waring, bored wife of my partner, through the turnstiles of the local supermarket, the domestic wrangles of our well to do neighbours in our apartment house, all the hopes and fantasies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.
He returns to his office and orders a rental car. After a brief and distracting meeting he takes his coworker Renata out for a drive. They clearly have had regular sexual encounters in the past. This time he drives back to the site of his accident, parks and starts to initiate the sex. Someone has been following them and taking photos. It is Vaughan.

At my feet lay a litter of dead leaves, cigarette cartons and glass crystals. These fragments of broken safety glass, brushed to one side by generations of ambulance attendants, lay in a small drift. I stared down at this dusty necklace, the debris of a thousand automobile accidents. Within fifty years, as more and more cars collided here, the glass fragments would form a sizable bar, within thirty years a beach of sharp crystal. A new race of beachcombers might appear, squatting on these heaps of fractured windshields, sifting them for cigarette butts, spent condoms and loose coins. Buried beneath this new geological layer laid down by the age of the automobile accident would be my own small death, as anonymous as a vitrified scar on a fossil tree.
Cometh the autogeddon.

Liveblogging Ballard's Crash Chapter Four

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Spurred into action by his first erection since the crash, James starts to get focused and active about recovery and by the end of the chapter he has left the hospital.

His mental awakening continues.

The crash was the only real experience I had been through for years. For the first time I was in physical confrontation with my own body, an inexhaustible encyclopedia of pains and discharges, with the hostile gaze of other people, and with the fact of the dead man. After being bombarded endlessly by road-safety propaganda it was almost a relief to find myself in an actual accident.
As he makes himself useful around the hospital he sees who we assume is Vaughan. A youngish looking man in a white doctor's coat going around the building confidently, consulting with staff and patients alike. There are some tell-tale details: he is bare chested under the coat, his face is criss-crossed with scar tissue and he carries a briefcase of photographs. Ballard imagines he is pedaling pornographic x-rays, or maybe he is one of the new doctors who is fashionably aggressive to his patients.

James briefly meets the widowed Helen Remington, whose husband was killed in the crash, and, of course, fantasizes about her. Finally, the saga of the erectile awakening closes when Catherine, his wife, masturbates him in the ward.

Did Catherine respond to the image of these which had been caught, like a photographic plate or a still from a newsreel, in the dark bruises of my body and the physical outline of the steering wheel? In my left knee the scars above my fractured patella exactly replicated the protruding switches of the windshield wipers and parking lights. As I moved towards my orgasm she began to soap her hand every ten seconds, her cigarette forgotten, concentrating her attention on this orifice of my body like the nurses who attended me in the first hours after my accident.

Liveblogging Ballard's Crash Chapter Three

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Now James Ballard is recovering in a hospital ward next to the airport. In a wonderful turn of detail, it is a special ward kept open for the survivors of airplane crashes and he is the only resident. 

Every detail is filtered through the juxtaposition of sexuality and death, violence ... the crash. We also meet his wife Catherine and learn about their complex sexual and emotional relationship. In another satisfying Ballardian turn, we discover that James works in television commercials. This is also how he comes across Elizabeth Taylor.

Ballard is mesmerized by the new landscape of his body. His injuries map out both the physical interior of the car, the action of the crash and the symbolic meaning of the event. Even what he thought of as the complex, perverse and dark games he played with his wife pale before his new reality. After musing on dreams where her breasts shoot out faecal matter, he finds all other matters to be trivial and annoying.

I stared pointedly at the clock over the door, hoping that she would soon leave. This bogus commiseration over the dead man irritated me, merely an excuse for an exercise in moral gymnastics. The brusqueness of the young nurses was part of the same pantomime of regret. I had thought for hours about the dead man, visualising the effects of his death on his wife and family. I had thought of his last moments alive, frantic milliseconds of pain and violence in which he had been catapulted from a pleasant domestic interlude into a concertina of metalized death. These feeling existed within my relationship with the dead man, within the reality of the wounds on my chest and legs, and within the unforgettable collision between my own body and the interior of my car. By comparison, Catherine's mock grief was a mere stylization of a gesture - I waited for her to break into song, tap her forehead, touch every second temperature chart around the ward, switch on every fourth set of radio headphones.
Finally, he is spurred into recovery and motivation by the rumbling of his first erection since the accident.

Liveblogging Ballard's Crash Chapter Two

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I think my psyche is bruising.

I began to understand the real excitements of the car crash after my first meeting with Vaughan. Propelled on a pair of scarred and uneven legs repeatedly injured in one or other vehicle collision, the harsh and unsettling figure of this hoodlum scientist came into my life at a time when his obsessions were self-evidently those of a madman.
Chapter two is taken up wholly by James Ballard describing a car accident he had in great detail. 

He skids in the rain, blows out a tyre and then goes hurtling the wrong way up an off-ramp at sixty miles per hour. He hits the third oncoming car head on. The other driver is thrown through the windshield and half through Ballard's too - and killed, splattering Ballard with blood. Ballard and the other man's wife are partially injured and left staring at each other.

As he witnesses the bizarre ritual of the crowds and the rescue, in a daze, he can't help but focus on details such as the woman's thighs and the fact she is involuntarily urinating. His mind muses that the ambulance man could take out his penis and jam it into his bloody armpit and it wouldn't seem out of place in this headlight soaked surreal scene.

I sat there, dressed in another man's blood while the urine of his young widow formed rainbows around my rescuers' feet. By this same nightmare logic the firemen racing towards the burning wrecks of crashed airliners might trace obscene or humorous slogans on the scalding concrete with their carbon dioxide sprays, executioners could dress their victims in grotesque costumes. In return, victims would stylize the entrances to their deaths with ironic gestures ...
Ballard has seen the horrific and surreal inside of the crash and he won't look upon the world the same way again. 

Liveblogging Ballard's Crash Chapter One

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Where can I begin? Chapter one introduces Vaughan and his obsession with the intersection of sexual pleasure and car crashes. Every paragraph is brutal poetry and every sentence burrowed its way into my mind. It is even more explicit than the hyperbolic reports suggest.

the retired prostitute crashing into a concrete motorway parapet, her overweight body propelled through the fractured windshield, menopausal loins torn on the chromium bonnet mascot.
Vaughan and Ballard cruise the highways around London Airport at night photographing accidents, imbibing all the details. Then Vaughan walks erect around his apartment going over over the videos and photos as he imagines and creates myriad violent and sexual possibilities. It is only when recounting the details of his planned death with Taylor that Vaughan can achieve calm.

Vaughan was obsessed by many wounds and impacts - by the dying chromium and collapsing bulkheads of their two cars meeting head-on in complex collisions endlessly repeated in slow motion films, by the identical wounds inflicted on their bodies, by the image of windshield glass frosting around her face as she broke its tinted surface like a death-born Aphrodite, by the compound fractures of their thighs impacted against their handbrake mountings and above all by the wounds to their genitalia, her uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer's medallion, his semen emptying across the luminescent dials that registered for ever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine.
Hail, the dark poet of the autogeddon.

By the way, you may want to do a brief check into the stats for car accidents, injuries and deaths in countries like the U.K. and the U.S.A. to remind yourself how it is basically a 'fact of life.'

Liveblogging Ballard's Crash Intro

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Crash is J. G. Ballard's landmark novel published in 1973. In it, he looks at our worship of technology through the sexual fetishisation of cars. He does this brutally and without flinching, combining sexual fetish with death and injury in car accidents. 

The result is to uncover some harsh truths about ourselves and our deep psychology and to get at the often absurd and destructive meanings in our society. It famously led one reader at his publisher to note "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!"

I'm going to push out a post after every chapter. There's 24 chapters. This is the intro so lets start at the beginning:

Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash. During our friendship he had rehearsed his death in many crashes, but this was his only true accident. Driven on a collision course towards the limousine of the film actress, his car jumped the rails of the London Airport flyover and plunged through the roof of a bus filled with airline passengers. The crushed bodies of package tourists, like a haemorrhage of the sun, still lay across the vinyl seats when I pushed my way through the police engineers an hour later. Holding the arm of her chauffeur, the film actress Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Vaughan had dreamed of dying for so many months, stood alone under the revolving ambulance lights. As I knelt over Vaughan's body she placed a gloved hand to her throat.
The narrator, a fictionalized version of the author called James Ballard is going to recount his friendship with Vaughan, whose ultimate fantasy was to die in a head on car crash with Elizabeth Taylor. See you after chapter one.

Blake's 7 introduction

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Blake's 7 was a British sci-fi TV show first broadcast from 1978 and 1981 during which it ran for four thirteen-episode seasons. It was the creation of Terry Nation.

I watched the last two seasons as they came out. I was only nine years old and used to beg my dad to let me stay up after A Question Of Sport to watch it. I recently rewatched it and realised how formative they were to my tastes and worldview. I also saw how ahead of its time it was.

In 1978, it had a consistent universe with continuity. Things that changed stayed changed and characters developed. Each season had a proper arc as well as standalone missions. The action was as much driven and shaped by the characters as it was by the arc. Also, no one was safe. The seven change across the story and name roles are killed off. When I first watched the later seasons as a kid a big part of the arc was that Blake was gone/lost and they were searching for him, a journey that eventually leads to their downfall in one of the bleakest endings in TV history up to and including today. 

It was made on a micro-budget and many modern viewers will find that too distracting, but I found myself once more compelled by the excellent story and central characters. 

Earth is home to the Terran Federation whose trading and diplomacy empire spreads through the known galaxy. Those who do not wish to join in are then faced with the federation's authoritarian regime who use brutal troops, brainwashing and drugs to suppress opposition. Blake is a dissident leader who was brainwashed and turned into a model citizen. At the start, a rebel group extract him and wake his memories. They are caught and massacred and Blake is sent off to a penal colony on another planet, the regime still wary to martyr a popular figure.

On the journey he meets other criminals and prisoners. Jenna is a pilot arrested for smuggling, Vila a cowardly thief who is too good at his job, Avon is a sardonic computer genius arrested for taking five million credits from a fed account and Gan is a strongman who has been fitted with a restraining chip in his brain. The prison ship stops to investigate an abandoned ship of alien design and this perfect rogue team take the opportunity to escape and steal it. Renaming it The Liberator, they are now armed with the fastest ship in the known galaxy with remarkable technology including a teleport system - that no one else in the galaxy has yet perfected. 

Under Blake's impassioned and often reckless leadership they set about waging a guerrilla war on the federation. This leads them on many encounters that often ask more questions than they answer, show up the characters' complicated motivations and conflicting moral ideas, and are rewardingly adult in theme.

Robert Westall's Futuretrack5

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Robert Westall was a British author most famous for his story The Machine Gunners. I knew his name after seeing the BBC adaptation of that book on T.V. That was in 1983. To quote the Wiki entry, "Many of his novels aimed at a teenage audience deal with complex, dark and adult themes." Futuretrack 5 was published the same year, I probably came across it a year or two after that, when I was around thirteen or fourteen. 

Despite being a teenager, I consciously avoided what is now known as YA or Young Adult fiction. I found the whole concept insulting. I was getting to grips with Elric of Melnibone and Nancy Drew didn't bear well by comparison. But I was browsing my local library in Neston, Wirral, one day and Futuretrack 5 caught my eye as I was ironically scanning the YA section and feeling all pompous and superior.

What I found was a thoughtful and bleak dystopian vision that pulled no punches and asked more questions than it answered. And, as with all the classics of the genre, no matter how some parts get dated the key concepts are icily familiar today. Strange that I should revisit it it now, the action is dated by the hospital death certificate of dystopia architect Charles Scott-Asbury - 26th September 2012 - who they "had missed him by four days."

The story follows Henry Kitson a young British lad coming out of the education system at twenty. To his knowledge, the country is split into two parts now, the unnems and the ests. The unnems are an underclass who live in large city-based fenced ghettos and are placated by entertainment complexes called Futuretracks that naturally attract then destroy leader types. The ests are a perpetual yuppie class enjoying the best of everything. The problem is that the ests breed too fast in their prosperity so come exam day, any students failing the tough tests are sent 'behind the wire' to the ghettos, on that very day.

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