Steven Spielberg directing Empire of the Sun

Here’s a fascinating clip (not my note at the front, I should add) from the making of Spielberg’s masterly Empire of the Sun, which shows the director at work with Christian Bale in his first major role. The voiceover interview is with J.G.Ballard, who wrote the novel and its deeply affecting sequel, The Kindness of Women. Incidentally, Bale is now exactly the right age to play the adult Ballard, so if you’re reading this, Steven … please?

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J.G.Ballard

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J.G.Ballard is where it all began for me. When I was 13 I was auditioned for the film of Empire of the Sun, his autobiographical novel about his years in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. Over a month or so of train rides to interviews and camera tests I devoured most of his fiction. Then a year or so later, on a chilly Sunday morning, I went to the London cast and crew screening of the movie, and for two hours was transported from London 1987 to Shanghai 1945. To one degree or another, I’m not sure I ever left. To a kid brought up on Octopussy and The Goonies, the movie was a revelation: gorgeous and brutal, epic and personal, funny and tragic, all wrapped in the soaring music of John Williams.

It’s brilliantly acted too: John Malkovich prefigures Dangerous Liaisons as the seductive, scheming Basie, and Leslie Philips and Nigel Havers reach far beyond their comfort zones to show depths we’d never seen before. And of course there’s Batman: Christian Bale, unforgettable as Jim, the pampered choirboy turned hard-eyed cynic, stealing the shoes from a still-warm corpse. Looked at from this distance, Empire of the Sun seems like a curious prequel to many of his later films: who, with such a childhood, would not grow up to be a Dark Knight, or an American Psycho? The most bizarre example is Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, in which Bale plays a fighter pilot — that childhood obsession with planes! — shot down in Vietnam: when he ends up as a prisoner you can’t help thinking, “well, he’ll know how to get along”.

Ballard loved the movie: when I interviewed him some years later he defended it fiercely against critics who’d attacked Spielberg for sanitising life in the camp. The film, said Ballard, like the book, was a portrayal of how it had seemed to him as a child: so yes there were games to be played in the ruins, beauty in the bombs that fell. Looking at the film today, it still seems startling, and one of Spielberg’s most creatively daring. Here’s a sequence early in the movie, where young Jim, obsessed with aeroplanes, takes his model aircraft to a fancy dress party, a scene that Spielberg turns into boyish fantasy, then sobering fact. You also have to love the irony of Leslie Philips’ final line:

This sequence in particular is almost an encapsulation of the movie. It’s both pure Spielberg and pure Ballard, beautiful and shocking all at once:

But Ballard, of course, was far more than Empire of the Sun and its tender, under-rated sequel, The Kindness of Women. Along with Harold Pinter he was the only contemporary British author whose name became an adjective; an adjective that seemed increasingly to apply not just to his world, but our own. The landscapes of his fiction — airports, motorways and shopping malls – and the themes of his work — sexuality, celebrity, consumerism and surveillance — feel ever more relevant, and his best work, far from feeling dated, feels like a guidebook to the future, not the past.

Along with John le Carre, Ballard in his seventies was writing books that felt more engaged, more passionate and more contemporary than those of writers half his age. His cool, clear, amused pessimism shone from his books, reviews and interviews, and you can’t read his work without hearing his voice. In a week whose news is dominated by police brutality, popular rage, climate disaster and the crisis of capitalism, it feels as if we need him more than ever, just as he is snatched away.

Acting and Reality

Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday is one of the great screwball comedies, full of smart one-liners, snappy put-downs and mistaken identities. But one moment that particularly stands out is when Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is briefing the police to look out for his ex-wife’s fiancee Bruce Baldwin. “He looks like the actor Ralph Bellamy,” he says. This is, of course, hardly surprising — because Baldwin is played by the actor Ralph Bellamy. 

While they certainly play with the unspoken rules of film-viewing, such in-jokes are generally in comedies, where we’re less required to believe what we’re watching. There’s not a lot of post-modern cheekiness in There Will Be Blood. But they do raise the issue of reality in performance; and of whether too much reality can actually break the spell. David Mamet, in Bambi vs Godzilla, discusses the role of musicians in the movies. In the old days, he points out, when a character in a film played the piano, you showed him sitting at the piano; then his face, looking soulful as he played; then perhaps some hands at the keyboard. What you very rarely saw was any concrete proof that the actor was actually playing the piano, because he very rarely could. Today, on the other hand, a great deal is made of showing the actor actually playing the instrument, or singing his own songs. But does this really add to the credibility of the character? Mamet argues that it doesn’t; that it more often breaks the movie’s spell by making us think “oh, look, XYZ can play the piano”. It is, in other words, an act of vanity on behalf of the actor that actually undermines the story that it’s trying to tell. 

Another example of this in contemporary Hollywood is the insistence that an actor “did all his own stunts”. Now: is this to the benefit of the movie, or the benefit of the actor? If the former, all well and good, but it’s hard not to think that it’s more often the latter. Think of the opening shot of Mission: Impossible 2, which goes to enormous lengths to prove that “Ethan Hunt” is really hanging off a cliff face in the Outback, but in doing so serves only as an advertisement for Tom Cruise. More complicated, because so artistically well intentioned, are the ordeals that Christian Bale endured for Werner Herzog in making Rescue Dawn. In this film, which feels like an almost-sequel to his breakthrough picture Empire of the Sun, Bale plays a German-American pilot shot down over Laos and then tortured and imprisoned in terrible surroundings. In classic Herzog style, as much of the story as possible was filmed for real, with the actors scarily underweight and Bale tucking into writhing maggots with apparent hunger. But does this add to the credibility of the story, or have the oppposite effect? In an Indiana Jones movie, we can laugh and squirm when actors eat chilled monkey brains, knowing that they’re a Hollywood prop, and it doesn’t break the story. But Herzog’s determination to prove the reality of what Bale is doing has the opposite effect: “Wow!” we think, “Christian Bale is eating maggots!”. Movies, to misquote T.S.Eliot, cannot bear very much reality.