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A Rumpus Orange: Where The Wild Things Are & Bronson (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 18, 2009 10:28pm | Post a Comment

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up. My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me. It took quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on the tree. At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger, and went to sleep again.
-- Sergei Pankejeff, the Wolf Man

          

I caught what might be called a double-feature of the Id this weekend: Spike Jonze's long-awaited adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are (co-written with Dave Eggers) and Nicholas Refn's adaptation of the long-waiting life of Michael Peterson, Bronson (co-written with Brock Norman Brock). If little Max hadn't eventually come back to the comforting constraints of familial order, then he would've found out as Peterson (aka Charlie Bronson) did that society is always ready to force that order on him.

Maurice Sendak's tale is about as perfect as could be imagined, and Jonze hews closely to the book's essential truth, while detailing more of Max's home life, adding neurotic personalities to each of his mental chimeras and marketing his despair towards the type who's always pushing the bangs from the eyes and wearing a hood indoors (the hoodie being a more socially acceptable way of getting a few more years out of that wolf suit). Sendak probably did as much for making Freudians of us all as Freud himself, but we needn't consult Herr Doktor to get his point. As Jonze has it, Max drifts off to Lidsville after trying to eat his mother up by literally biting her. Seeing mom make googly eyes at her boyfriend was more than Max could stand. This event comes at the end of an already shitty day which began with his sister siding with her friends when they accidentally destroyed an igloo that he had built. Loneliness here results from feeling cut-off from the locus of control, of feeling ineffectual in his ability to curry favor with those more (emotionally) powerful than he (in desperation he jumps on a counter and cries, "feed me, woman!"). His mother calls him wild, so off he escapes to a land of feral desires. If the movie does anything more effectively than the book, it's in making the Puffinstuff menagerie grotesquely cuddly and fearsome, like keeping a panther for a loving pet provided you can throw it a leg of lamb fast enough. Max is king of the fuzzy-wuzzies so long as he can provide for their emotional needs -- not all that different from the maternal order he fled. Going wild turns out to be pretty similar to desiring absolute control -- a childish / bureaucratic / fascistic fantasy, take your pick. As he loses control over his wild things, Max comes to the adult realization that power is everywhere and nowhere, and begins to miss his mom. With a tearful goodbye to his imaginary friends, back he sails to his family where he can become a productive member of society. 

And daddy doesn’t understand it
He always said she was good as gold
And he can see no reasons
'Cos there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown?
-- Bob Geldof

      

At age 22, Britain's "most violent criminal" Charles Bronson (who initially took the name for his short-lived boxing career and then had it legally changed) began serving a 7-year sentence for armed robbery. The year was 1974, less than 2 years after Stanley Kubrick pulled his movie Clockwork Orange from the theaters due to death threats. With the exception of just over 4 months, Bronson has spent the last 35 years as a ward of the state, all but 4 of them in solitary confinement. This extended sentence has to do with his seeming love of violence for violence's sake, something like the performance art of an evil Andy Kaufman. As such, he's a child of Alex de Large, or an Agent Orange, that is, one whose real life lends itself to Kubrick's satire. Or, at least, that's how Bronson's director Refn takes it (some of Bronson's victims tend to approach his nature a little less abstractly). Therefore, Refn gives us Clockwork Orange's malevolent juxtapositions of barbarity and high-toned culture, gravitas and cornball pop tunes, with a comic book color palette and told through the wide-angled, symmetrical perspective of a demented narrator in clown makeup. Not exactly original, but like Cape Fear was to Hitchcock, livelier than most other films that don't steal from only one source. In fact, there are enough parallels between Alex and Bronson that telling the latter's life as a remake of Kubrick's film becomes an artistic statement: they share a vocation for ultraviolence; they come from solid, conservative and loving middle class parents; the State has tried penal, psychiatric and even artistic means to correct their moral deficiency; they both show a fondness for art, Alex with his beloved Ludwig van, and Bronson with his writing and drawing; and they were released back into civilian life despite the questionable success of those corrective procedures only to rediscover their true calling.

Kubrick's adaptation ends on a downer that Anthony Burgess' original does not because Chapter 21 was excised from the American version that the former had read, the age of 21 being that of adulthood in which Alex was to have sought redemption for his youthful sins. That doesn't sound like an ending the cynical Kubrick would've used even had he known about it, and it finds a counterexample in Refn's protagonist. Despite his size, Bronson never reaches Max's realization, much less Chapter 21. In demanding complete freedom for his base desires, he achieves it internally (as he periodically demonstrates to a mental audience) while being socially isolated through the most punitive means society can offer, a smaller and smaller box. Thus, his repeated demands for harsher imprisonment are shown to be paradoxically a dream of absolute power, a radicalization that doesn't look all that different from complete submission to authoritarian control. Imagine that.

Art! What Is It Good For? More on The Lives of Others Vis a Vis Clockwork Orange

Posted by Charles Reece, January 10, 2008 09:44pm | Post a Comment
Regarding what I wrote about the the transformative power of music in THE LIVES OF OTHERS being a lie, a pal of mine, K, suggested the possible counter-example of the Nazi being moved by piano music in Polanski's THE PIANIST.  I still haven't seen that film due to its starring Adrian Brody, but I suppose if a digitized giant ape can get me to put aside my aversion for 2 and half hours, the name 'Polanski' ought to, as well, even if it's later Polanski.   So maybe I'll get around to that film at some later date. 

A film that does approach what I was talking about from a truer perspective than Donnersmarck's is Kubrick's CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  The film was based on Burgess's novel, which was a rejection of the panglossian futurism of B. F. Skinner's behaviorism, most notably his sci-fi novel, WALDEN TWO, where the happiness of individuals is derived from the outside-in, every aspect of culture being a stimulus which, if functioning properly, keeps the whole community flowing along in prosperity, promoting the desired actions/"responses" -- the providence of which is defined by the organizers.  Things like art have value insofar as they help shape the "proper" behavior, value being defined top-down.  If that strikes you as totalitarian, that's because it is.  And Kubrick's film is an all-out satirical attack against the reifying tendency of the bureaucratically minded whereby value obtains as a place within the system, never for the thing itself.

Contrary to the story Donnersmarck tells of the incommensurability of violence and art, the love of both happily co-exist in CLOCKWORK ORANGE's protagonist Alex.  As it was with Lenin, he loves smashing heads, but unlike with Lenin, he does so to the accompaniment of Beethoven.  It's not until Alex undergoes reconditioning at the Ludovico lab that Beethoven becomes associated with nonviolence.  Getting a dose of some noxious serum while being forced to watch acts of violence and hearing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony results in just the sort of transformative effect Donnersmarck associates with art.  Donnersmarck might argue that his Stasi Captain gives up his ideology in favor of the intrinsic qualities of the piano piece he hears while spying through headphones, whereas the effects of the Ninth on Alex are due to its extrinsic associations with negative stimuli (via Pavlovian, not Skinnerian, conditioning, but the point remains the same).  This potential distinction, however, rests on the shaky notion that such music has ideological content internal to its nature as art-object, rather than associated with it as a social object.

I'm reminded here of a story Ligeti tells of composing his Musica Ricercata No. 2 where every stroke of the piano was intended as a stab into the heart of the communist regime in Hungary.  Stabbing is a good visceral description of the sound, but is there really anything intrinsic to the music about who's doing the stabbing and who's getting stabbed?  If it weren't for the aesthetically conservative Hungarian apparatchiks defining the piece as decadent, it could've (a la Reagan's attempted appropriation of Born in the USA)  inspired quashing anti-communist resistance.  Furthermore, the violence Ligeti associates with his piece suggests that art can most definitely be linked to ideology with violent intent -- albeit, in his case, a morally defensible position -- and even serve to justify it.  The social effects have more to do with the ideological lens through which the music is refracted than any inherent ideology of the music itself.

Thus, it's as a conditioned stimulus that music comes to support or oppose one ideology over another.  By having a committed Stasi captain give up his ideology after hearing a committed communist playwright play a piano piece that has no anti-communist ideological stance associated with it, Donnersmarck does little more than create a narratively convenient lie.  The danger of this lie is that it shares with the prominent management regimes the view that art is inherently ideological, another object whose value is determined by the function it assigns to humans operating within the social order.  As the bureaucrats in CLOCKWORK ORANGE suggest, who cares what happens to the Ninth so long as Alex is no longer committing acts of violence?  What's forgotten here is the aesthetic value of art where any human interacts with art on its own terms, rather than those mandated from the top down.  Thus, the problem with the LIVES OF OTHERS isn't that a communist or Nazi or any other totalitarian functionary might have exquisite taste in art (many do), but its unwitting perpetuation of the value of art as utility, even when its instrumentalist function is what most of us would call socially beneficial.  It's the horror of losing the aesthetic value of art -- which can only come about through a free interaction with art that hasn't been precategorized -- that is central to the terror Alex feels when he makes the leap out the window, no longer able to stand having his love of the Ninth so violated as a byproduct of ideological reconditioning.  The celebratory ending to Kubrick's film isn't the result of some thuggish desensitization to violence, but is one of an individualist aestheticism managing to slip through the cracks of an overdetermined utopia, even if it's under the sign of brutality.

San Francisco Is Still Doomed (Still)

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, September 13, 2007 04:47pm | Post a Comment
San Francisco’s legendary early punk band Crime is back and Amoeba is hosting the unveiling of their new LP (vinyl only folks!) Exalted Masters with an in-store performance and signing on Friday, September 21st at 7:00pm. But wait, there’s more! Frontman Johnny Strike will also be signing and his new book A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above, published by Rudos and Rubes.

Crime was formed in 1976 by Johnny Strike, Frankie Fix, Ron "The Ripper" Greco (ex-Chosen Few/Flamin' Groovies), and Ricky James. They ripped post-hippie San Francisco a metaphorical new one when they released their first (and many say Punk’s first) single “Hot Wire My Heart / Baby You're So Repulsive.” There was no mistaking these guys for mere rockers; they mixed a rebellious and sexually-charged image (they were most often seen flaunting their vampiric, just-outta-rehab good looks in tight leather, regulation police uniforms, or old-time gangster duds) with their unique blend of intellectual and furious lo-fi rock and roll. Crime found local refuge at the now legendary Mabuhay Gardens, but became nationally notorious after playing a gig at San Quentin Penitentiary in full police uniforms (of course).

In 1977 Hank Rank joined the ranks, but left in 1979. The band split in 1982 when Strike quit Crime to focus on writing. Frankie Fix attempted a Crime reunion in the early 90’s, but Strike elected not join in. In 1996 Frankie Fix passed away.

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