Crash and House of Leaves

I was recently reminded of the controversy surrounding David Cronenberg’s film of JG Ballard’s novel, as an acquaintance indignantly forwarded a quotation from Ballard that "A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinaesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status – all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really: a liberation of human and machine libido." It is perhaps rather too easy to become indignant about such a quotation, stating as it does Ballard’s preoccupation with the malleability of human personality in a fractured technocracy, and of the resurgence of primeval instincts in such an environment. Nonetheless, it is equally worth noting that Ballard has a recurring habit of stating the opposite case to his own beliefs in the most extreme manner possible; as he put it himself, the novel is "a cautionary tale where the writer or the film maker plays devil’s advocate and adopts what seems to be an insane or perverse logic in order to make a larger point."

Moreover, it seems difficult to refute Ballard’s allegation that we do not generally appear to regard the car as an appliance but as an extension of our self. It is not difficult to infer from that that our perceptions of the automobile are, in part at least, sexualised. One thinks of the morbid mythology surrounding the deaths of Jayne Mansfield and James Dean; both of whom might well have been utterly forgotten had they died in their sleep. More recently, much of the hysteria that the sudden demise of Diana created, a hysteria that seemed to have a great deal to do with how she died. One also thinks of the importance of the car to hollywood, and to such films as Mad Max. Such a critique might be more lucidly penned by the author in question:

"I’ve been in a car crash and it did nothing for my libido. What I was saying was that the idea of the car crash is sexually exciting or intriguing. By sex I mean all those aggressive sexual energies that impel some young men to chase women drivers who dare to overtake them."

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, has been compared by Bret Easton Ellis to the likes of Joyce and Ballard, but the closest comparison seems to me to be with Lawrence Sterne. Wolfgang Iser has made the same kinds of claim
for Tristram Shandy, that Danielewski’s novel makes it for itself, whereby
the meaning of the text is something constructed by the reader. If anything, Danielewski overemphasises this point rather too much, and his novel starts
to seem formulaic (especially give the novel’s sub-plot wherein a commentary of Heidegger’s concept of the unheimlich postulates a particularly gothic interpretation on formalist ideas of defamiliarisation; an experience enforced on the reader through the concentric rings that make up the narration; firstly the recording of events by Zampano and their subsequent re-telling by another narrator, secondly the possibility that either narrator is unreliable and thirdly the labyrinthine amount of footnotes).

Both Tristram Shandy and House of Leaves approach this in a satirical fashion, and Danielewski includes a chapter wherein various luminaries, such as Douglas Hofstadter, Camille Paglia, and Jacques Derrida discuss the non-existent film that forms the meta-text of the novel. Although, the character given Paglia’s name sounds rather more like Andrea Dworkin than the author of Sexual Personae, the author is nonetheless keen to ensure that her lampooned interview accurately depicts the relationship between the two main characters of the film. The problem with this meta-commentary is that it does leave the text as bing exclusively self-referential; enough to make one sympathetic to the ideas of the New Puritan Manifesto.

I‘ve also recently watched Koyaanisquatsi, the collaboration between Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio. The title is derived from Hopi, and signifies life out of balance, a reference to the concerns in the film that our existence is out of balance with nature, as the film progresses from images of nature to those of humanity. I still find it difficult to find this a particularly apposite description of the film. I have always shared WH Auden’s view that factories and buildings were at least as beautiful as nature if not more so and this is certainly the case here, as the sun glints over the monolithic skyscrapers of Manhattan and a nuclear cloud rises above the Mojave desert.

More particularly, when the film shows time-lapse images of humans scurrying round like ants, it seems as much a commentary on stasis within change as the images of the sand blowing and continually resettling within the Sahara, a pattern continually subject to mutability and continually resettling itself.