Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Terminal Beach (1964) by J.G. Ballard and Dial 'M' for Murder (1954)

Dial 'M' for Murder: adapted by Frederick Knott from his own stage play; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Ray Milland (Tony Wendice); Grace Kelly (Margot Wendice), Robert Cummings (Mark Halliday), John Williams (Chief Inspector Hubbard), and Anthony Dawson (Swann) (1954): Mostly minor Hitchcock has the cast but lacks a top-rate script: if you didn't know it was based on a play, you'd figure it out by the second act. Ray Milland's cunning plan to kill wife Grace Kelly by proxy turns out to have too many moving parts -- or perhaps too few. It's a nice time waster, and all of the leads are fine, including John Williams as an increasingly Columbo-esque English policeman. Originally shown in 3-D, only the repeated establishment of an extreme foreground in most shots overtly acknowledges the process. Lightly recommended.

The Terminal Beach (1964) by J.G. Ballard, containing the following stories: A Question of Re-Entry  (1963); The Drowned Giant  (1964); End-Game  (1963); The Illuminated Man  (1964); The Reptile Enclosure  (1963); The Delta at Sunset  (1964); The Terminal Beach  (1964); Deep End  (1961); The Volcano Dances  (1964); Billennium  (1961); The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon  (1964); and The Lost Leonardo  (1964).

Icy, engaging collection of early 1960's short stories from J.G. Ballard. Many of the stories are at least nominally science fiction. All of them are Weird, though in several cases this Weirdness is entirely a question of tone: nothing overtly fantastic or science-fictional occurs in five of the twelve stories. Nonetheless, even those stories disturb one enough that they straddle the line between the strange and the horrific.

Ballard was only a couple of years away from his avant-garde, experimental period. None of the stories included here are challenging in a structural sense. Several challenge the reader's perceptions of genre, however, along with one's ability to navigate subjective narration and altered states of consciousness. Ballard's concern with the fragility of the human psyche manifests itself again and again in various ways. So, too, the apocalypse, always observed in a cool and somewhat detached manner by either his narrators or the third-person narrative voice. 

But as dry and cool a voice as Ballard can be, behind all those narrative masks exists the mind of an aesthete. The end of the world (if that's what it is) is a hauntingly beautiful place in "The Illuminated Man." Thoughts on art, and the art of Leonardo da Vinci, dominate the quietly horrifying "The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon" and the jolly fantasy "The Lost Leonardo."   And a description of the decay of the body of a mysterious giant takes up the bulk of "The Drowned Giant," a description that haunts and troubles even as the story questions the very nature of the fantastic and people's reactions to unusual events. 

One could call "The Drowned Giant" a horror story about familiarization and the ever-encroaching Un-fantastic. So too "The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon" and "The Delta at Sunset" with their mentally disturbed narrators seeking an escape into a fantastically distorted hallucination that surpasses the 'real' world in scope and beauty, the same 'real' world that reduces the drowned giant to a debased and dismantled normativity. In all, a fine collection. Highly recommended.

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