Bronson: Nietzsche, Wagner, Strauss, Loach, and Kubrick
(If you missed my previous essay on Refn’s career, check it out: Gambler)
There’s a ton to talk about in this movie, the sixth Nicolas Winding Refn’s career. To begin, Larry Smith reprised his role as cinematographer on the film after a five year break. He had previously provided the camera work for Fear X, while Refn’s other four films (two released before Fear X and two after) were provided by Morten Soborg. While the latter is an exceptionally good cinematographer, it makes sense that Refn went with Smith instead as he has the ability to create a more potent cinematic look within his film, whereas Soborg tends toward near-Dogme 95 levels of cinematic simplicity. My favorite scene of the film stylistically speaking is the opening one in which Bronson (Tom Hardy) paces his cell, covered with blood and excrement from head and toe. The scene is a deep red like the reds explored earlier in Fear X. The primal figure of Bronson broods and reminds one of a mid-show GG Allin. Then, the guards show up and let him out and the fight begins.
This was the first film that composer and artist Johnny Jewel would create for Refn’s filmography, as well as the beginning of the most lucrative period of work for Jewel as a cinematic composer. Later he would would provide the beautiful, pulse-pounding score for Drive, which would in turn inspire Drive star Ryan Gosling to hire him for his first feature Lost River, which was inspired by David Lynch and David Cronenberg amongst others. This interested David Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti to hire him for work on the new Twin Peaks series in 2017.
While the score of Bronson includes driving electronic and synthpop works previously written and performed by Jewel’s many bands like Glass Candy and friend’s bands, it also includes powerful classical works from the likes of Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Anton Bruckner, Richard Wagner, and Richard Strauss. The latter two composers being the most thematically important to the philosophical core of the film and the person of Bronson. The real Charlie Bronson depicted in the film, nee Michael Gordon Peterson, has always been a troubled figure who saw weakness in others and decided to exploit it whenever he wanted something like money or an adrenaline rush. He is beyond sociopathic, he is beyond good and evil and beyond real moral understanding. As a figure of near-Ubermensch-like qualities- though his choice to be as he is is notably absent from his personality thereby making him more of a mere brute than an enlightened one- makes him an intriguing figure to people who seem to recognize at a deep level that in a different time and place this man could have been a warlord or feudal king through sheer force of will and strength.
These concepts of being beyond good and evil, or even inexplicably morally ambiguous or amoral, as well as being something akin to an Ubermensch like figure, connect the figure of Bronson to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Siegfried’s Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods features prominently in the film score. this operatic work was later adapted into a book of aphorisms by Nietzsche known as Twilight of the Idols. Also featuring is Wagner’s The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold, a work that Nietzsche was not as fond of, but which still situates the score as appropriately Germanic and establishes Bronson more as a mythic figure populating a world of lesser “Last Men.”
The inclusion of Richard Strauss’s tone poem, An Alpine Symphony, further situates the film within the scope of Nietzschian philosophy and especially the text Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Strauss was a thorough-going Nietzschian who had previously adapted Zarathustra into a tone poem of the same name (and which figures prominently in 2001: A Space Odyssey as the apes overcome themselves to become men and at the end when Dave overcomes himself to become the child-God Ubermensch who will overcome homo sapiens). An Alpine Symphony was his last tone poem, but is in the spirit of overcoming oneself as it is meant to dramatize the journey of a mountain climber on his way up to an Alpine peak. The sun rises and the man has achieved something in the process both through strength and force of will, which have both grown more potent and directed through the journey. This piece is used twice in Bronson, but to especially powerful effect in the film’s last major scene when Bronson takes his art director hostage in jail and turns the entire encounter into a piece of performance art with the director dressed and painted as Bronson himself, but with a Cocteau-twist. All the while, Bronson is greased up and fully blackened whilst totally nude. He asks the warden to play music for him and then invites in the guards to fight. In a ten to one battle, Bronson is bound to lose, but he busts some heads and relieves some pent up aggression in the process, thereby figuring him as a Sisyphus who continues to fight and destroy even though he can never complete his nihilistic goal of total destruction.
A bit more on the violence. The film’s thematic connections to 2001 are apparent through the score and the theme of overcoming. However, in 2001, the Ubermensch arises through alien enigmatic connections. In Bronson, the Ubermensch arises naturally through genetic mutations. The Ubermensch here are claimed to already be in our midst, but generally locked up behind bars or in insane asylums where they cannot breed with the general population and proliferate their species. The film draws another parallel with the filmography of Stanley Kubrick through the connection with A Clockwork Orange. Both films explore the deviant lives of British youths born in suburbs. Both the Droogs and Bronson display an inexplicable tendency toward ultraviolence and acts of crime. Both are captured by a prison system that can do little to nothing for them, but still attempt to through medications (and subliminal techniques in the case of A Clockwork Orange). And in both cases, we the viewers feel a dis-ease at the thought of state apparatuses trying to modify behavior, and through this injustice are oddly and disturbingly identifying with our evil protagonists throughout their stories until the end when we champion the inability of the system to truly and unalterably change them for the good for good.
Finally, there are two short scenes situated towards the beginning and the end of the film, respectively, which show Bronson pacing in his cell. The word or letters ‘KES’ are written on the wall. Though seemingly innocuous, this word points to an influence on certain parts of the film: the 1969 British coming of age film Kes by Ken Loach. In that film, the young Billy Casper is a teenage boy in high school with behavioral problems. He steals, doesn’t pay attention to schoolwork, and often fights his fellow students. But Billy finds a bird’s nest near his home and takes a young kestrel from it to raise as his own. His connection to the bird helps Billy to grow and to find a reason to study falconry and borrow books from the local library. In a way, the bird turns the hopeless case of Billy into an attentive young man with a reason to live and a hope for what he may wish to do in the future. Bronson is also portrayed a youth who steals, fights his fellow students, doesn’t pay attention in class, and even assaults his teachers. But there is no kestrel to help reign in Bronson and keep him from becoming more and more criminal over time. Much of Kes is in these scenes and knowing about the film helps the viewer to better understand how Refn approached the subject of his film.
The film was artistically potent and dealt with a figure of intrigue. A real force of personality that helped to bring the $230,000 film to enough cinemas worldwide to rake in a box office of $2.3 million, ten times the budget. Refn was hot once more, but his periods of sturm und drang were far from over for good.
[Next up: Miss Marple: Nemesis]