Sunday, 19 June 2011

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - and Zombies!

A scene in George Romero's (1985) Day of the Dead in which we see the zombie affectionately nicknamed 'Bub' grasp his own reflection in a mirrored surface and mime the act of shaving offers both a symbol of Bub's dawning subjectivity and a hint that this third in the sextet is the most Lacanian entry in Romero's career-long attempt to rewrite Sigmund Freud's essay on 'Infantile Sexuality' (from the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality) for zombies.

A later moment in his awakening sees Bub listening, on headphones, to a tape of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He is clearly caught up short by the music, suddenly rapt, becoming visibly less hunched, less slavering - could we say more refined? Even more human?

Genre cinema, loosely defined, has had a curious relationship to the symphony that Wagner saw as the gateway to the future. The "glorious ninth" is an oft-repeated refrain in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Walter Carlos's day-glo rendition accompanying, and in some ways, in its different articulations, summing up, each stage of Alex's progress. In Dusan Makavayev's (1974) Sweet Movie, we see the Vienna Actionists delightedly singing the 'An Die Freude' as they engage in an orgy of coprophagia. It crops up also in the final scene of Tarkovsky's (1979) Stalker, masked by the noise of a running train, in which, according to Tobias Pontara, it functions simultaneously as the master signifier of rational scientific progress, and a satiric swipe at the very same.

The Ninth is used fairly rarely in cinema compared to the Fifth, or even the Sixth and Seventh - especially if you exclude documentaries and TV movies. And it may be because this quality is never quite absent - of a strident pomposity that can't quite help deflating itself. The Ninth has baggage which, like Alex after his treatment, inevitably makes us a little queasy. But does this self-parodic reflex mean the end of the era - and not just in music - inaugurated by it; or might it still be possible, like Bub, to hear the piece once more with fresh ears?