Ballard makes a pile out of pile-ups

Ivan Waterman on a movie mix of sex and bad driving
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The story is perhaps apocryphal, but it is said that when Cape received the manuscript of J G Ballard's novel Crash, a staff reader wrote in the margin: "This author is beyond psychiatric help ... do not publish."

The publisher nevertheless went ahead and the book - an erotic fantasy about people sexually aroused by car crashes - duly came out in 1973. Inevitably, it was followed by intense literary controversy.

Now, 23 years later, a film adaptation of the novel - a "brilliantly provocative" celluloid essay on "technology and eroticism", according to the publicity - is set to cause another storm.

Though it received a special jury prize for "originality, daring and audacity" after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, many critics believe the British censor will be forced to ban it, or at least cut it heavily.

Alexander Walker, the London Evening Standard's film critic, has already described Crash as "movie pornography", a film that will "tax public tolerance to the limits, and maybe beyond them".

At Cannes, the screening was greeted with shrieks of horror, embarrassed laughter and walk-outs. The outrage is not just over the explicit sex - mainly in the front and back seats of cars - but over the apparent glamorisation of dangerous driving.

"There are scenes," said Anthony Crowley, the veteran Paris-based Film Review writer, "in which the death of James Dean is re-enacted by weirdos without seatbelts in quiet private roads with a specially invited audience of ghouls. You can see how the young might like to imitate this."

But Jim Ballard himself is taking the approaching storm very calmly. In the study of his home at Shepperton in Surrey, near the River Thames, he said: "I saw the script and was very, very happy with it ... Then I saw the movie ... and it's a knock-out."

Ballard, aged 65, is the author of the best-selling Empire of the Sun, later made into an Oscar-nominated film by Steven Spielberg. In Crash, he casts himself as the first-person narrator who joins the central character, Vaughan, in his quest for gratification through pain.

"Ballard" accidentally kills a man through his negligent driving and then forges a passionate bond with the dead man's widow. Vaughan's dream is to witness, if not cause, the death of the actress Elizabeth Taylor in such a pile-up.

The film has a similar plot, with James Spader cast as "Ballard" and the Oscar-winning actress, Holly Hunter, as the widow. However, the Fifties star Jayne Mansfield replaces Elizabeth Taylor as the subject of Vaughan's morbid obsession, and the location switches from Heathrow and the M4 motorway to Toronto in Canada, the home city of the director, David Cronenberg.

In America, the film has just been given a rating that bars it to anybody under 17. But the major distributors are giving it a wide berth, and when it opens in October it is likely to be shown in fewer than 200 cinemas.

In Britain, the executive producer, Jeremy Thomas (the maker of the award- winning The Last Emperor) has yet to find a company willing to promote it.

The industry is probably right to be nervous. The British film censor, James Ferman, has already been widely criticised for passing Kids with only a minimal cut. "It's a Catch-22 job," said a senior source at his office last week. "If we don't cut we're condemned. If we do we're anti- art and freedom. The problem seems to be that film-makers working under the heading of "art" expect more ... room, shall we say, for manoeuvre. They operate as if they are in a different world from the rest.

"But the flak comes our way, the buck stops here and quite frankly, the buck is getting just too hot to handle."

Quentin Falk, the editor of Flicks magazine, equates the row over Crash to that over A Clockwork Orange, which was also criticised for glamorising violence and thus encouraging imitators in real life.

"I am as anti-censorship as the next man," he says, "but film-makers should exercise self-censorship and perhaps act with more responsibility, or risk putting control of the industry into the hands of entirely the wrong people.

"Books like A Clockwork Orange were brilliant but visually they can present a very different image. There is a huge danger in this. The end product could be a Brave New World-type flood of bland rubbish. It seems certain people out there have lost the plot. The censor is being pushed into a corner."

In suburban Shepperton, Ballard is unperturbed, even defiant. "I think everyone who passes his driving test in the years to come should be given a video of this film," he said.

"Every new car should have this video with it, because this film is the best possible advertisement for wearing a seat-belt." He grinned. "And if you're going to have sex in a car, have it in the back seat.

"For me, sexuality is a human invention," he added. "It began as a biological necessity. But now we don't need sex to create. We don't need each other to create.

"The ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that comes more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape."

His own car, which he has driven for four years, is a Ford Granada. He has never been found guilty of a traffic offence and was only once in an accident, when his car rolled over on Chiswick Bridge in London after a blow-out.

"By some miracle I was completely uninjured," he says. "Since then I have always worn my safety belt. I find young drivers very dangerous. They go too fast. A modern scourge has been the arrival of highly aggressive young women drivers. God knows what they are like with their boyfriends in bed. Have I ever made love in a car? Of course, many times."

Even if the film is never released here, the row is likely to boost sales of the novel and that may be welcome to an author who has rather faded from the public eye. Indeed, since news of Cronenberg's film emerged from Cannes, the paperback has been all but wiped off the shelves. Foyle's in London had sold out last week.

A young assistant, however, pointed to shelves filled with Ballard's other novels - more than 20 since he moved out of the science-fiction genre in the 1960s. "He's not really popular," he said. "Hasn't been for a while. What's the fuss about?"