The Atrocity Exhibition: A Director's Statement

By Jonathan Weiss

atrocity-exhibition-jonathan-weiss.jpgThe Atrocity Exhibition, 2000

I made The Atrocity Exhibition because I myself wanted to see a very different kind of film. I was interested in something that actually had to do with life, not filmed theater or entertainment. I suppose you might call that ‘art’, but at the time leading up to making The Atrocity Exhibition, I never thought of myself as an artist. I would watch the films of the American avant-garde filmmakers at places like Anthology Film Archives in New York in the late 1980s, short films primarily, which sometimes had moments of great power, and wonder why feature films couldn't be on such a level.

My other problem with most (read, nearly all) films was that they were really not about anything I found very interesting. If you are interested, for example, in what reality is, or why do we have this reality, and not another one, then social realism or a nice drama is just not going to get you there. I think that encountering the work of Tarkovsky was the turning point – I realised that it was possible to make something very powerful, with duration, which had something profound to say about the activity of living. Nonetheless, I felt that there was a great blank spot on the film map, an area of uncharted territory. And I knew that area was going to be non-narrative.

atrocity-exhibition-jonathan-weiss-2.jpgThe Atrocity Exhibition, 2000

I had many ideas that I wanted to explore within that blank space. In fact, I knew that the kind of film I wanted to do could only come from such a place of unfamiliarity. People seek the familiar in films (and other things as well). Whether it be a familiar genre, actors, or a specific kind of emotional gratification, films have become delivery systems for the feelings that people crave. You can’t expect, therefore, to do any serious damage to anybody's way of thinking by using such familiar devices. The calluses of perception are too thick, response too insulated.

atrocity-exhibition-jonathan-weiss-3.jpgThe Atrocity Exhibition, 2000

I also knew, however, that I needed a structure to hold everything together, and not some abstract principles or concepts, but a compelling and satisfying structure. When I came across J.G. Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, I knew instantly that I had found the text. The book was exactly what I had been looking for: it was non-narrative, more like a shooting script than a literary text, in fact. It was composed of highly visual scenes and scenarios, with a tantalising thread of narrative continuity, which constantly implodes upon itself. And it was about all the themes and ideas which I thought had been ignored by film (in fact, could not be dealt with at all by conventional, narrative film technique) – the nature of reality, insanity as an opening onto another reality, a kind of transcendentalism. It was a very beautiful, even spiritual book.

I ended up making the film with a very small sum of money. If you come up with something really different, it turns out there is no shortage of talented people who will help you just for the hell of it. (I think a lot of people who work in the film industry, which includes everything from the ‘independent’ film to commercials, are sick of the usual stuff they have to do to make a living.) Looking back on the process, which is now well past a decade in total, I feel certain that having little finances but a lot of time made this a very different film than the one which would have been produced in the usual way, i.e. producers, backers, a large crew, a production schedule measured in days and weeks, not months and years. When you have such financial constraints (but plenty of time, a contradiction for most, I am aware), you are forced to focus carefully on what you can do with what you have. If I had had more: more money, bigger actors, the possibility to do special effects and the like, I am certain I would have lost my way amongst all the possibilities.

atrocity-exhibition-jonathan-weiss-4.jpgThe Atrocity Exhibition, 2000

The greatest problem with The Atrocity Exhibition, I feel, is also its finest quality. By this I mean its ‘strangeness’. I am not talking about it being decipherable or indecipherable, which is to miss the point. It is so different from just about anything else, in style, technique and meaning that it simply fails to find a home in the ready made compartments of people’s minds. Exactly what I wanted. You either get it, which means you shelve the usual way of looking at things, especially films, and just watch the thing, or you balk at the differences between The Atrocity Exhibition and everything you've conditioned yourself to see as film. It is meant, for example, to be watched multiple times (DVD is perfect for this.) Perhaps it isn’t even a film, really, but then I don't know what else to call it.

The Atrocity Exhibition is available on dvd. The disc comes with audio commentaries by Weiss and Ballard. It is an extraordinary and singular work of cumulative force. Thanks to Ruth Timmermanns at Filmfreaks.