Thursday, November 19, 2009

Empire of the Sun and Tideland

The other day I wrote about Terry Gilliam's Tideland, and said a number of unpraising things about it. STB thought it was a little unfair – he said, "I think Gilliam did absolutely nail it – seeing the world through an eight year old's eyes. But…there's a reason why eight year olds don't direct movies."

I came across this quote from JG Ballard yesterday. As many people know, JGB was interned in a Japanese labor camp during World War II, an experience which informed his novel Empire of the Sun (and the very different Spielberg movie of the same name supposedly based on it). But even before the internment, he'd been having what the audience member in this interview calls "an unusual childhood".
Audience: When you were in China, I was wondering, just how much fear you actually felt?

JGB:I never remember feeling any fear, either during or before the war. This is something which has absolutely baffled me. I brought up three children of my own. I live in one of the most tranquil suburbs in the western world, Shepperton in West London. I used to get nervous every time my kiddies ran out to buy a Crunchie [candy], I thought they would fall into the hands of some childhood rapist or get run over or I'd never see them again. Whereas, I as a child was living in one of the most dangerous cities the world has ever seen. Even before the Japanese invaded in 1937, I was only seven years old, before then it was an extremely dangerous place to be. The Guomindang forces under General Chiang-Kai-Shek even then was battling with the Chinese communists led by Mao and Chou Enlai who made their start in Shanghai. There were terrorist bombings and atrocities, the city was full of gangsters of the most ruthless kind. Yet I used to pedal my little bike all over the place, some sort of magic preserved me. I went back for the first time about two months ago. The streets were extremely narrow, how I survived, these vast American cars would roar everywhere, and there were violent gangsters who would just kick anyone out of their way, me included, giant French trams were screaming all over the place. This was a place widespread with kidnapping and God knows what. But some magic preserved me. I don't know why I'm here at all.

Audience: Were you aware at the time you were having an unusual childhood?

JGB: No, of course not, it was the only one I knew. I assumed that the whole world was like that, it was quite a shock to come here, I must say.

Twice he says "some magic preserved me". Not actual magic, of course – JGB was not known for his fuzzy pagan philosophies – but his adult self looked back and saw something strange about his own preservation.

That's the magic Terry Gilliam was aiming for in Tideland, I think, and yes, he did nail it.

Possibly one reason for my reaction to the movie was the magic. I was expecting something like Alice in Wonderland, and of the course the beauty and surrealism of Alice is based on the tension between the rabbit hole creatures and the little girl. Alice is a proper Victorian girl who has studied grammar, spelling, poetry, French and the proper forms of address between people of different status. The rabbit hole creatures are constantly violating these rules. Humpty Dumpty cheerfully states that words mean what he wants them to mean, nothing more, nothing less. This must have thrilled the real Alice – how transgressive! and of course intrigued if not irritated the fictional Alice as she has to listen to him and a parade of weird living things from walruses through carpenters mangling the poems she knows by heart and generally acting like they don't have to care about authority. But Jeliza-Rose is not coming from the same place. She's apparently never had discipline, and the only thing she seems to have learned by heart is how to cook up a fix. Bizarre creatures and the strangest things, like stuffing your relatives, are completely normal to her since she has no frame of reference.

She's more like JG Ballard than Alice.

I still can't bring myself to like Tideland. The little boy, Jim, in Empire of the Sun may be in the same circumstances as Jeliza-Rose, but his story is told by an adult. Not a writer who prides himself on plots and macguffins and chase sequences – JG Ballard never cared about any of those. But apart from the non-caricature characters of Empire, there's an adult sensibility that looks at the magic surrounding the boy without getting woolly-headed. The Spielberg movie drifts off its anchor a couple of times, but never approaches the indulgence of Tideland. There's a reason eight year olds don't make movies.

Mike Holliday of the JG Ballard Mailing List on Yahoo kindly provided a transcript of the 1992 interview with Hardcore magazine.

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