A Summary and Analysis of J. G. Ballard’s ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘The 60 Minute Zoom’, a 1976 short story by the British author J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), belongs to his middle period, when he was becoming more interested in the psychology of the camera eye and the relationship between sex and videotape (‘lies’ optional).

‘The 60 Minute Zoom’: plot summary

The narrator of the story lives in an apartment block in Spain with his wife, Helen. From the window of a rented apartment situated across the road from his own apartment, he uses a powerful camcorder to film his wife as she lounges around in their apartment, in full view of – but apparently oblivious to – the camera that is trained on her.

The narrator also uses the camera to film his neighbours in their apartments, as he tries to work out which of the men in the neighbouring suites is the one sleeping with the narrator’s wife. He eliminates a number of ‘suspects’ from the list, before Mr Lawrence, a married man from Manchester who lives above the narrator’s suite, is revealed as Helen’s paramour.

As he films his wife and Lawrence having sex, the narrator is both roused to jealousy and sexually aroused. He manages to overcome the momentary ‘affection’ he has for his wife when he observes her preparing for sex with Lawrence, and instead recovers the sense of ‘humiliation’ which being cuckolded arouses in him (and ‘arouses’ is once again the word: it clearly turns him on).

At the end of the story, Ballard has a twist for us: as Helen lies on the bed after her union with Lawrence, who has left, the narrator observes an intruder in the room. This man attacks Helen with some sort of weapon, presumably a knife, killing her in an orgy of blood and violence. This intruder is revealed to be none other than the narrator himself, who is rewatching the footage after the event, observing himself becoming a participant in, as well as director of, this erotic movie turned snuff film.

‘The 60 Minute Zoom’: analysis

Although it did not appear in the same collection as those stories, ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’ might be said to form a loose trilogy with two other Ballard stories from the late 1970s: ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ and ‘Motel Architecture’, both of which were published in the 1982 collection Myths of the Near Future.

In ‘The Intensive Care Unit’, the narrator describes his courtship of and marriage to his wife Margaret, conducted entirely via television cameras and screens in a near-future world where human beings never physically interact with each other. Everything, from conversation to sex to conceiving a child, is done remotely.

‘Motel Architecture’ similarly posits a not-too-distant prospect of human beings living isolated in ‘solariums’, with the protagonist, Pangborn, obsessively watching the shower scene from Psycho on his television screens. When his Edenic solitude is interrupted by his sexually alluring new cleaning lady, murder and suicide soon follow.

Both ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ and ‘Motel Architecture’ end in violent murder, as does ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’ – and all three are about the ways in which life, and specifically relationships and sexual desire, are mediated in some way via the camera lens or television screen.

This is more oblique in ‘Motel Architecture’, although Pangborn’s job as a television critic and the way he ends up recreating Hitchcock’s shower scene in his own shower invite us to consider the symbolic centrality of screens and films to destructive sexual desire, at least in Ballard’s world.

With ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’, the usual critical analysis would have it that the narrator’s emotional connection to his unfaithful wife is reduced by being filtered through the camera lens: cast as a detached observer of the sordid details that unfold, he is like a spectator watching a homemade dirty movie rather than a husband watching his wife cheating on him.

But this is only part of what Ballard’s story is getting at. The narrator’s mingled feelings of hate and lust, exhilaration and humiliation, both energise and stifle his emotional response, and it seems likely that he can only have the reaction he has (including the ‘erection’ he is given as he awaits his wife’s expected guest) because he is watching all this from the safety of behind the camera.

In other words, there is a certain emotional and sensual liberation that the camera can provide: in true Baudrillardian form, the film of his wife’s lovemaking is more ‘real’ to him, or at least of more erotic interest, than the actual physical actions being performed between Helen and Lawrence on that bed.

One wonders whether Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith were familiar with Ballard’s story when they wrote ‘The Devil of Christmas’, the 2016 episode of their anthology series in which each story contains a twist ending.

Certainly (spoiler alert!) the shock killing at the end of both narratives, and the sudden revelation that the narrator/director is watching back the footage and the events we have just read about have not occurred now but in the past, suggest that both stories, at any rate, are part of the same tradition.

There’s certainly much of the horror genre in Ballard, just as there is plenty of dark humour – seen here, perhaps most plainly, in the inflatable rubber sea-lion which Helen bought the narrator two years earlier as an ironic gift, which he has nurtured ever since.

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