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Thursday, November 2, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Atrocity': For Weiss, it's a gutsy debut

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review

XXX "The Atrocity Exhibition," with Victor Slezak, Michael Kirby, Anna Juvander. Directed by Jonathan Weiss. Written by Michael Kirby and Jonathan Weiss. Based on the novel by J.G. Ballard. 105 minutes. Little Theatre. No rating - Contains graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, strong language, graphic depictions of medical procedures.

The most disturbing thing about Jonathan Weiss' adaptation of J.G. Ballard's experimental novel, "The Atrocity Exhibition," is how contemporary it feels. Written by Ballard in 1970 - during the Vietnam War - the novel asked whether society had become numb to the horrors that the media bombarded us with every day. How detached had we become to extreme events?

Thirty years later, as the barrages of daily broadcasting have become more explicit and technology more intrusive, Weiss asks these same questions again in his ambitious directorial debut.

For a first-time director, taking on Ballard as source material is hardly a recipe for success. It took David Cronenberg 20 years to work up to filming Ballard's dense, hallucinatory masterpiece, "Crash" - and compared with "The Atrocity Exhibition," that controversial work feels mainstream.

The filmmaker shot the movie over the course of four years, and it comes with Ballard's enthusiastic stamp of approval. Weiss eschews a logical, cause-and-effect narrative, as he charts the collapse of the modern psyche. Cold, clinical and as detached as a science experiment, the film climbs inside the brain of doctor Travis Talbert (Victor Slezak), a man suffering from a nervous breakdown while working at a mental-research institution. As his psychiatrist (played by co-writer Michael Kirby) puts it, Talbert views humanity as an atrocity exhibition.

Like the book - which Ballard organized as 15 thematically interlocking short stories - the film is structured nonlinearly, suggesting a cinematic Rorschach test. Images such as the space shuttle Challenger exploding, the Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination, close-ups of explicit cosmetic surgery, Hiroshima victims, pornography and Marilyn Monroe all collide inside Talbert's disturbed, free-associative newsreel of a brain.

Attempting to find his sanity, Talbert spends the majority of the film casting himself in a number of blurred roles - sexual psychopath, bomber pilot, astronaut, car-crash victim (the seeds of what Ballard explores in "Crash" can be found here). Still, these fragmented personalities just push him further into psychosis.

There's much to admire here. Weiss' mixture of archival footage and unsettling locations (abandoned structures, military bases) is an impressive feat of evocative editing and cinematography (Sergei Eisenstein would be proud), though it often swings wildly from enlightening to pretentious. Better yet, the mesmerizing soundtrack - courtesy of J.G. Thirwell, a k a Foetus - is downright creepy, a mixture of squawks, beeps, scraping metal that digs under your skin and makes you feel like you're going a bit nuts.

Like it or loathe it - and unless you're an avant-garde cinema aficionado or a Ballard admirer, you'll probably fall into the latter group - Weiss' debut is still a radical, gutsy calling card.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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