Born in New Zealand, Graeme Revell founded the pioneering ‘Industrial’ music group SPK in the Seventies (see RE/Search #6/7). In 1989 he composed the groundbreaking, genre-crossing soundtrack for Dead Calm. Since then he has composed over sixty soundtracks to date, besides working on projects such as television’s C.S.I. Miami. Graeme interviewed J.G. Ballard by phone on Nov. 7, 2003–20 years after he interviewed Ballard in Shepperton, England for RE/Search #8/9. Topics ranged from the death of cinema, the colonizing of our existence, the end of the Age of Reason, the infantilizing of America, the Internet, and the ascendance of ‘machine morality.’ What follows is a largely unedited transcript.
GRAEME REVELL: I’ve read almost everything you’ve written; you observe almost from the outside all these different kinds of communities and lifestyles. For some reason I’ve ended up practically living within them all! So in a way my questions were, ‘Well, James has taught me how to live–‘
J.G. BALLARD: –reality from the inside!
GR: You’ve certainly taught me how my life was going to go for the last twenty years; I desperately wanted you to tell me how it was going to be for the next twenty–
JGB: I think I’ll pass on that. America is quite a difficult place to ‘read’ now.
GR: Oh, very.
JGB: I felt I sort of had a handle on it back in the Sixties, but now–I haven’t been there for twelve years or something.
GR: Well, I’m actually calling you from Las Vegas this morning–
GR: –which is definitely the heart of the beast, isn’t it?
JGB: From what I hear that’s sort of ‘Phase Three.’ Vegas is now a family resort; the gangsters have gone.
GR: The gangsters are very much gone. But they also gave up on the ‘family’ demographic about three years ago when they found that–
JGB: –they weren’t spending any money!
GR: Right. They had what they called a ‘Demographic Split’ in the marketing–they worked very hard to target the parents and the children at the same time. Then they gave up on that and now it’s just the ‘young people’ demographic they’re after. You find that everywhere in the culture. There isn’t a single adult movie that can even compete against the Kill Bills of Quentin Tarantino and the remakes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and so on–all those films aimed at eighteen-year-olds.
JGB: It’s a shame, in a way, that your rise to domination in the film music business coincided with–I hate to say it; maybe I’m showing my age–but a real decline in movie making–
GR: Oh, it’s extraordinary. You’re not showing your age at all; it really is in decline.
JGB: There’s almost a sense that cinema is over. What we have is a kind of afterlife expressed through entertainment movies. They’re just cash tills in an amusement park urging you to jam your coins in, awarding you with a lot of bright lights and god knows what. There aren’t that many interesting films around . . . but there we are.
GR: Well, the extraordinary thing with the medium, having experienced it from the inside, is: there’s almost nobody who understands, or cares at least, about the function of cinema. They have an extreme inability to analyze what it is that they’re doing–let alone all the broader social implications of becoming a cultural hegemony for the entire world. There are no Godards, or anybody even a millionth as close as him, who understand what they’re doing–it’s just a job. It’s the big billboard, the big signpost of culture in general.
JGB: I think so, absolutely. It’s difficult. As long as you’re targeting not just American teenagers but European and Asian teenagers; as long as you keep the dialogue down so you don’t have comprehension difficulties when the movie is screened in Manila, you’re never going to be able to escape from the cinema of pure spectacle. You’re not going to get something like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard or Godard’s Pierrot le Fou occurring. We’ll see. Maybe you’ll lead a renaissance!
GR: I have some films in mind, but it’s very difficult to make a film at all, especially something that’s not one of those ones you just referred to.
JGB: One of the interesting little films I saw recently was called Ivans xtc. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. It was made by a British director in America, Bernard Rose. He did–oh god, I can’t remember the other films he made. But Ivans xtc had Danny Huston in the lead and was about an L.A. agent and his world. It was an interesting film. Anyway–
GR: I was re-reading the BBC Radio 3 interview you did in 1998. It was very interesting to me because you used phrases like ‘the colonizing of existence.’ You said, ‘I think people are beginning to wonder what does life really offer us in terms of its possibilities?’ And you don’t think that they touch the truth. One of the things about your writing that really interests me is that in the background there is, in the way that we’re talking now, a sense of disappointment that there isn’t a truth there somewhere, or that there ought to be. Do you still think that? So much of your writing could indicate that maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe it’s all over, maybe there isn’t any. I’m not sure which way you come down on that–
JGB: I can’t remember the context in which I said that, to be honest. It might have been in connection with a novel called Super-Cannes, or maybe the previous one, Cocaine Nights.
GR: I think Cocaine Nights–right.
JGB: I do think we’re living in very uncertain times; there’s no doubt about that. In some ways this is good to see, because the main pillars that used to prop up society (in this country, anyway)–the monarchy, religion and politics–have all been knocked aside.
I don’t know about America, but here the era of television is over. Television created the British national consciousness in the ’70s and ’80s. It defined people’s sense of civic responsibility: what you should do about single mothers and the poor and all the rest of it. TV doesn’t do that anymore. All people have got left now is the consumer culture: buying things. Going around to big shopping malls here is quite a depressing experience.
GR: You mean ‘entertainment resorts’–they’re redefining the name now!
JGB: Yeah. One sees a terrible boredom coming in. There’s a limit as to how much time you can worry about what sort of trainers you should buy, or how you’re going to redecorate your kitchen for the tenth time. Out of boredom comes a need for change. The status quo now, thanks to the vast consumerist culture, is very difficult to shift. It takes real violence of 9-11 proportions, practically, to shift the status quo.
I see a future of deepening boredom interspersed with random acts of violence. I think, going back to what you’re saying: people do feel that there’s some sort of core identity which they haven’t quite been able to get hold of. That’s common to everybody in all the eras, but now there’s so little to get hold of. As I was saying to Vale a few months ago, we’re living in an era when nothing is true and nothing is untrue.
I think the Gulf War, whose end George Bush proclaimed in his ‘Top Gun’ gear on the aircraft carrier (proclaimed ‘over,’ but it’s still running) . . . I think the Gulf War slipped through the normal cordons that we erect to protect us from our politicians, to restrain them from doing anything too dangerous. It was almost a sort of virtual war. I don’t mean in the Baudrillard sense of it not taking place at all, as I think he said of the first Gulf War–because we simply weren’t given enough information about it–but because it was a virtual war that, thanks to the brilliance of the American military machine, was over in no time at all, militarily.
The virtual war was . . . confused by all the PR and mob-speak poured out, and the very confused psychology of Bush and Blair. They needed a war for evangelical reasons, so they created a war with their huge military toy. But nobody feels that it was fully real . . .