Beethoven, Rossini, “Singin’ in the Rain”… Fifty years ago, the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s film, apparently totally out of step with the atrocities shown, was nauseatingly overwhelming. An aestheticization of violence that is anything but gratuitous.
Fifty years after its release, Clockwork Orange still remains as uncomfortable, unfriendly and… reassuring. Not only because his carefully choreographed rapes and fights may seem less terrifying than the central image of the gaping-eyed spectator, our horrified, tortured double, but also because anything to do with colors, music, ballet, finally art, will only serve to aestheticize sadism and predation, when the dehumanizing activity of the police, judicial and medical force will be accomplished rather in the shadows and silence. A film that therefore questions our ability to find a form of enjoyment in the representation of the worst forms of violence, as long as they are organized with harmony and flatter our individualism. And which, insidiously, with the discomfort of trapped guinea pigs, tells us that art can be used to stupefy, to fanaticize, when it embraces fascist processes.
Like Alex, the narrator of the fable, the Nazis wept as they listened to the 9e Symphony of Beethoven at the same time as they systematized the most pitiless of cruelties. If Beethoven occupies an important place in Clockwork Orange, it will therefore only be caricatured, become stupidly, horribly pop. Before De Palma and Phantom of the Paradise, before the analogy between rock star and dictator operated by Pink Floyd in The Wall, Stanley Kubrick crafted the first pop movie that made people hate pop.
It is not certain that Wendy Carlos – who, at the time, was still called Walter, before her transition in 1973 – took the measure of these issues when, on the strength of the success of her first album, Switched-On Bach, she offered Kubrick to work on the soundtrack of the film. Composer of electronic music, she interpreted Bach on the synthesizer, thinking to propel the baroque fugue into the future. There is no doubt that Kubrick was less sensitive to the supposed avant-gardism of the approach than to the grotesque regressions to which it led, and must have perceived the advantage that a film would derive from it, the aesthetics of which promised to be outrageous, grimacing, a kitsch to vomit.
Behind the art, fascism
If the grotesque represents the tragic without transcendence, what remains of it, vile buffoonery, has nothing to envy for despair to the heroic sublime. We will therefore not cry, we will sneer, but always from the bottom of the hole. Travesty theOverture to William Tell, which becomes a kind of cavalcade of mosquitoes half dilapidated; robotized the second movement of the 9e phased; psychedelic the Day of wrath of the Christian liturgy. Disfigured Beauty, violated by Alex’s degenerated senses. When, conversely, the themes of Rossini and Beethoven retain their orchestrations, they accompany even more brutal scenes. The height of abjection being reached during the rape accomplished to the sound of Singin’ in the Rain.
The aestheticization of violence produces a fascination which is so difficult to get rid of that the final sequence will seem almost a happy end and that, if we were not careful, we would rejoice with Alex at his return to business, relieved to see the spectacle, and with him Beethoven, regain all their rights. Such is the power of fascination, a term derived from the Latin fascinate (“to make charms, to enchant”) whose root we find in that of fascism. This fascination, Kubrick has repeatedly warned us, is musical. Just as he’s about to tear down his own tape, doesn’t Alex declare « For now it was lovely music that came to my aid »(“So far it’s beautiful music that’s helped me.”)? And isn’t it to the sound of The Ode to Joy that, finally, “cured”, he will dream of new orgies?
Morality appears, clearer than ever: behind art degraded into a permanent puke of colors, images and music, behind pop and its petty-bourgeois, infantilizing hedonism, we discover the old fascism, simply out of place, of the theater from war to consumer society. It is certainly not a question of being nauseated listening to “Ludwig van”. Even less to succumb to a reactionary instinct – more austere in its form, the violence of society is no less appalling than that of the drougs. Kubrick, as we have said, is uncomfortable. As a good anti-fascist, he refrains from simplistic answers and, rather than imposing them on us, first invites us to reflect by looking beyond appearances. So that Beethoven, finally, will never again be disguised or misguided.
Y Clockwork Orange, Saturday January 15 at 8:50 p.m., followed by the documentary orange prohibited at 11:05 p.m. on TCM Cinema.
Box Stanley Kubrick. Clockwork Orange (book and DVD), of Alison Castle, ed. Bags.