From The Sunday Times, 1996

Britain turns back on smash hit of Cannes

by John Harlow
Arts Correspondent

J G Ballard, whose war-time childhood was immortalised by Steven Spielberg in Empire of the Sun has casti-gated the British film establishment for “timidity and triviality” after turning its back on his anti-car epic, Crash.

The film, which stars Holly Hunter and James Spader, will he premiered at the Cannes film festival this week, where it is a contender for the coveted Palme D'Or prize. But its producers cannot find a British cinema chain willing to show it.

Film-makers fear a new timidity among British distributors, accusing them of being over-cautious about “difficult” films which fall between Hollywood blockbusters and the art-house circuit. They also point to the first wave of films to be aided by lottery money which, they claim, is dominated by period costume dramas at the expense of more controversial projects such as the life of Francis Bacon, the painter.

Ballard's 1973 novel was directed by David Cronenberg, who also made The Fly and Dead Ringers. Spader plays a psychopathic road-rager sexually attracted to Hunter, a crash victim with horrific injuries.

The film will have its first public performance on Friday, but insiders who have attended previews are divided between those who found it abhorrent and others who admired its cold view of modern life. Ballard thinks it is a stunning success.

“The Die Hard series and similar Hollywood action movies create glamour out of car crashes. I show the mutilation, pain and madness that car crashes really cause,” he said. “Our film producers have be-come terribly timid. They fear many things -- sex, violence, but, most of all, seriousness,” said the author.

Ballard's views will intensify the debate over screen violence. The move to “suppress” Crash follows controversies including the release on video of Natural Born Killers, which has been suspended, and Kids, which depicts under-age sex and has been refused distribution by the Warner chain of cinemas in Britain.

One Hollywood producer, trying to arrange distribution for about a dozen films at Cannes, said last week he had not bothered speaking to British cinema owners. “They have dropped to the end of my party list. They only want Dumb and Dumber. Your country is building a weird reputation for making smart films but only watching infantile rubbish.”

Simon Perry, chief executive of British Screen, a government agency which has invested in hit films such as The Crying Game, agrees with Ballard about the problem of “serious” films. “We do not have enough screens for them; they are often squeezed out,” he said.

Perry was involved in selecting the first tranche of British films to win lottery aid from the new Greenlight Fund. Most are set safely in the past, including Hardy's 19th-century Wessex, an Oscar Wilde biography and a 1970s holiday camp drama. Perry admitted that some British film financiers had been hypnotised by the success of Jane Austen and Shakespeare adaptations in Hollywood. “They may appear to be playing safe, but I suspect this wave will be followed by more contemporary films,” he said.

Critics of the new caution are incensed by the Arts Council, which administers Greenlight and has rejected Love is the Devil, a “biopic” of Bacon, one of Britain's greatest and most notorious modern artists.

A £360,000 aid application by the British Film Institute was rejected at the last minute -- reputedly by Lord Gowrie, chairman of the council, who felt it was “too soon” to make such a film. Bacon died in 1992 but many of his companions, some of whom shared his in-terest in rent-boys, flagellation and shoplifting, are still alive.

The decision has angered Sir David Puttnam, the film producer and member of the Arts Council's lottery board, who has threatened to quit. A friend said: “He is very upset at the censorship.”

Christopher Fowler, a Soho-based film consultant, said that the cinema-goer was being secretly “robbed” by the censors. “Large chunks are being quietly snipped out from films which do not cause a ripple in the United States or France.”