By Alan Wall.
The nude on the canvas isn’t entirely naked: at least it is covered in paint. Not so the nude on celluloid. Film is thinner than canvas. You can see through it. With celluloid, they shine the lights right through your body and out the other side. How does that make a naked body feel? Positively two-dimensional? Like an X-ray? The painted nude can shiver, certainly. Anyone who doubts that should take a hard look at Egon Schiele and Chaim Soutine. But the transparency of the celluloid nude is something else. Now you can float in the light. Now you can be an angel or a mote of dust. Now you can be a configuration of flesh, light as a feather. Now you can weigh nothing at all, except what the director wants you to weigh.
Nudes come and go throughout Kubrick’s films. Primarily breasts. They play a prominent part in his iconography. Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut, whatever else they are, are mammary movies. In the former, Alex’s interest in the other sex is indistinguishable from violence; the two are ineluctably intertwined. There is no place in Alex’s psyche where a peaceable eroticism might flourish. Sex is not loving; it is taking and thrusting. And a large part of the taking is gazing first upon the female breast that provokes the wanting. There might well be an inverted Freudian relationship here. But Alex refers to relations with women in one way only: the old in-out.
Aby Warburg fretted that the onset of sound and vision in broadcasting would overwhelm the mind; that the combination of the visual, the auditory and the musical would represent such a massive assault on the senses that the critical faculties would be overwhelmed. We would have no means of judging what was coming our way. We would simply give in to the sensory onslaught. One wonders what Warburg would have made of Clockwork Orange. In the film itself Alex rapes to the stirring beat of Beethoven; later on he attempts to commit suicide to the thunderous sound of the Ninth Symphony. And violence throughout is orchestrated by music. At one point we are provided with a balletic encounter between Alex and his droogs and Billy-Boy and his gang, while the music razzles us on. Kubrick seems to be rubbing our noses in the fact that cinematic orchestration can seduce us to swallow anything. Leni Riefensthal had prepared the way here, but then so had John Ford. And in the middle of it all is a young woman, breasts akimbo, who starts off as booty, and ends up as refugee from the gang warfare. They nearly had her, but then the violence proved more enticing than she was. Ultra-violence won out over the old in-out.
The Ludovico Treatment halts Alex’s violence. He volunteers for the treatment, which is associative. Any hint of violence or sex now produces nausea in Alex. The male gaze is actively interrupted by a mechanism of revulsion. The looking naturally provokes a reaching, and the reaching provokes a retching. Here looking as desire is put into reverse even as we look and desire. Those breasts now operate as triggers to psychic destruction. Some of the darker passages in Beethoven roll on. It was an unfortunate accident of the treatment that Alex became allergic to the music of his beloved Ludwig Van as well as violence and sex; that just happened to be on the soundtrack as he was witnessing some footage of the Third Reich. There you go.
At the end of the film Alex’s Ludovico Treatment is reversed, and he is restored to his state of rude health, so that he can go back to being a futuristic lad, up for it all once more, the old in-out included. This is for purely political purposes in a contrived state even more depressing than our own, and the film confirms Kubrick’s profound pessimism regarding the human condition. He was explicit on the subject: humanity is the most effective and ruthless predator that has ever walked the face of the earth, a creature who stands a pretty fair chance of wiping himself out. Writes excellent music, though, on a good day. The state in the film proves the adage that it is not averse to violence; it simply wishes to monopolise it. Two of Alex’s droogs slip over effortlessly to being murderous agents of the state, i.e., policemen. They come close to killing Alex.
The painter’s naked muse must normally sit still; the director’s moves about, and often has to talk as well. She talks and murmurs and cries and whimpers and shouts. We should say here that nudity is what stands between nakedness and the painter or director. Nakedness is what you are born with. But nudity is a front. It is a pose. It is what you put on, even when you have nothing else to put on at all. Nudity is the way nakedness contrives itself, when it knows it is being looked at. If you simply have no clothes on then you are naked, but when you decide you would like to look a certain way with no clothes on, then you have become a nude. A nude is always come-hitherish. You can cease being a nude as soon as the eyes stop looking, though certain people contrive to be nude even when no one is looking at them but themselves. They have converted nakedness into nudity; it is now a permanent condition. They even sleep nude. They have translated their own eyes into the eyes of others. They have turned themselves into audiences, and their walls into mirrors.
It is near-impossible to locate happy sexual moments in the films of Kubrick. There is one night in Barry Lyndon when the young man is off at war and stays with a nameless young woman and her child. That looks pretty idyllic, but it lasts for one night only. Otherwise the nearest we get (and this is pretty troubling) is the period after Lolita’s mother’s death, when Humbert Humbert and the young girl travel about and he is her servant, and lots of other things besides, before the powers that be start to bear down on them both. The marriage in Eyes Wide Shut soon shows itself to be illusory. Otherwise no one has happy sex in any of his films. There is plenty of sex, that’s for sure. But it is certainly not happy. In fact, in 2001 there is no sex at all, unless HAL has managed to contrive some form of cybernetic self-pleasuring for himself. We end up with a cosmic child at the end of the film, but I think we must assume it has been cloned. The cosmonauts, it should be said, all appear remarkably sexless, and entirely untroubled by the absence.
There is a lot of rubbish in Clockwork Orange, but it is all clean. Scrubbed rubbish. Hygenic detritus. How Kubrick controlled his cinematic world. Even the debris is manufactured to his immaculate standard. All spontaneities are ordered and controlled. This is spontaneity to order. This is the spontaneity of the ant-world — regimented spontaneity.
Alex represents a major step back from primitive man. Primitive man procreated. He destroyed only for a purpose: to eat, to live, to survive conflict. Alex has no wish to procreate, he lives for the sake of conflict, and his sex goes nowhere and produces nothing. His sole form of collegiality is with his droogs. His sole form of worship is his identification with violence and sex in the passages from the Bible where it occurs. His relationship with his own parents turns out to be contingent. If he has any genuine emotions, he appears to share them with his snake. His sole form of creativity is expressed through language — Nadsat. He’s good at that. He becomes ecstatic while listening to Beethoven. What does Alex’s devotion to this music mean? It doesn’t mean anything, except the fact that we can adore great music while perpetrating acts of barbarism. Heydrich, plotter of the Final Solution, was apparently a very fine violinist, who could reduce people to tears with his renditions. His favourite was Schubert rather than Beethoven, but then it wouldn’t do for us all to be alike.
Music in Kubrick’s films is integral to the texture of the filming in a way that it had never been before in anybody’s films. The images and the music dialectically engage. Kubrick appears to listen to the music with the same intensity that he sees the images. So that the Strauss waltz is resurrected. That tired old favourite, accompaniment to a myriad ancient couples shuffling their amiable way towards senility in countless seaside ballrooms, suddenly comes alive. It is the orchestration to planets and spacecraft, and appears to have been scripted specifically for that purpose. The next real development in film and music takes place when Scorsese integrates rock music into a different rhythm of filmic movement. Mean Streets rocks in a way no movie had ever done before. The images jolt into action as the band kicks in.
In Doctor Strangelove General Jack D. Ripper (geddit?) reads like a prolepsis of our current conspiracy theories. He would slip easily into QAnon. He believes that the fluoridisation of water is a communist-inspired plot to dilute our essential bodily fluids, and so weaken the fighting spirit of western man. He himself drinks only grain alcohol and rainwater, and though he does not avoid women (they sense his natural power and are inevitably drawn to him) he does deny them his essential bodily fluids. General Ripper is in charge of nuclear weapons and has decided to unleash a fair number of them on the Soviet Union, thus provoking the Third World War. He knows that the US has superiority of air and missile power and will therefore win such a conflict, though there will be, unfortunately (but there we are) a fair few million casualties. There is a logic to General Ripper’s argument, just as there was a logic to the strategy of MAD (mutually assured destruction), which in effect powered the post-war arms race. General Ripper might well be the greatest portrayal of OCD in cinema. He is obsessed with the forces of impurity assaulting his body, and determined to expunge them, at all costs. All costs here turns out to be pretty seriously costly. In fact, because of the Doomsday Machine, recently installed by the Soviets, the price to be paid happens to be the end of the world.
It is arguable that Kubrick can sympathise with Ripper’s dictatorial mind for a very simple reason: he had a dictatorial mind himself. No detail was too small to escape his attention, and it soon dawned on the film company that the best way to achieve superb publicity material for a Kubrick film was to let Kubrick himself get on and do it all himself. We now have a film showing how Kubrick’s astonishingly devoted assistant Leon Vitali effectively gave his life over to Kubrick, in a way hardly any spouse ever would. He reckoned this was the best way he could spend his time on this earth. Sometimes he was thanked for it; often he wasn’t. For days he barely slept while pursuing some endeavour of perfection on behalf of his unforgiving master. His family came to think of his employer as a jealous god, who always took priority. It was Kirk Douglas who insisted that Kubrick be brought in to direct Spartacus, but it soon became apparent that the two monomaniacs could not cohabit easily on the same film-set. So fierce did the rivalry become that Kubrick’s wife Christianne suggested marriage counselling sessions. These took place, but the rivalry continued as fiercely as before. Had it actually been a marriage it would surely have been dissolved.
We should be able to sympathise with the darkness in General Ripper’s mind, if not with his solutions. He believes that he lives in apocalyptic times. Many of us share his beliefs. QAanon certainly does. Sixty-six million years ago an asteroid hit this planet. A vast amount of the life on earth rapidly vanished including, famously, the dinosaurs. We can see the iridium traces in the geological record. Should we survive another 66 million years they will be able to see the plastic traces we are depositing now, as we make our way swiftly from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, which is to say the first man-made geological epoch. The Mediterranean is aflame as I write. Climate change is announcing itself, even to the sceptics. Nigel Lawson, most famous of all the sceptics, has just made the wise career-move of dying. So no one can bring him to book any more.
Kubrick was good on dementedness. In Paths of Glory he so brilliantly captured the dementedness of war — an actual war, and the actual events in it — that the French banned the film for over twenty years. Altogether too near the bone. Kubrick is always dubious about authority. When he was reading up for Strangelove, he discovered with astonishment that some scientists believed that triggering the nuclear reaction could start a chain reaction that might never stop. In other words, that the nuclear reaction could bring about the end of the world. It was only a minority of scientists who believed this, but even so, if even a minority believed it… We now know that a substantial number of people in authority knew long before the end of the Vietnam War that the conflict could not be won militarily. The war was continued, year after year, for political not military reasons. But the soldiers still died, day after day, month after month, year after year. So why should one give one’s faith to authority? What precisely is it that authority gives back? A chestful of medals and a body bag? In Lolita, once the mother has been gotten out of the way (handy, that) the only authority for most of the action is Humbert himself, played with unctuous ceremony by James Mason. He is the educational boss who is now in loco parentis, and is also the illegal husband of the underage child. For a while he cannot believe his luck, but then those other darker authorities begin to bear down on the doomed couple. The curious and twisted fact is, as both Nabokov and Kubrick are darkly aware, Lolita will never again be loved in the manner she has been by the adoring Humbert Humbert, however inappropriate, and indeed illegal, his love might be. So where exactly does that leave us?
Well, Kubrick left us with Eyes Wide Shut. The jury still seems to be out on this one. I must confess, the movie didn’t move me at all when I saw it. It seemed to be all contrivance. All smoke and mirrors. I can almost hear Kubrick saying that that is precisely its subject, and its point. And in terms of nudity, the director surely excels himself. So many naked bodies. And yet, I would be hard put to think of a more sexless movie. There is more sexual dynamic in one minute of a Howard Hawks movie, with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart wearing all their clothes, buttoned up to the neck, than whole roomfuls of naked women in Eyes Wide Shut. I could find more arousal staring hard at a banana. Let’s face it: Kubrick does sex on screen sexlessly. He renders it methodical. The epitome of his method is the scene in Clockwork Orange when Alex picks up two young women in a record store and takes them home. He has sex with the pair of them, while a jazzed-up electronic version of the Overture to William Tell is playing. The scene is speeded-up. It is actually funny, but all the eros vanishes, assuming it was ever there. I think the single most seductive scene in the director’s work is at the end of Paths of Glory when the young German woman sings to the French troops, under duress. That young woman was shortly to become Kubrick’s wife. He had fallen in love with her. Somehow he makes the camera yearn. And the end of the film opens into a question-mark. It is asking how it is, when human beings can kill so relentlessly, they can also show such tenderness so readily?
ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.