Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1971)

9. A Clockwork Orange

Now, Stanley Kubrick is widely regarded as one of the greatest visionaries in all of cinema. In his life time, his films received a far more polarizing reaction. None of his films generated a level of controversy like “A Clockwork Orange” did. While some immediately recognized the film's brilliance, others were critical of its transgressive content. Making a unrepentant sociopath the story's anti-hero offended some. The movie's violence was especially controversial. After a few copycat crimes in the U.K., Kubrick withdrew the movie from circulation himself. Forty-six years later, the movie has not lost its ability to generate debate.

Alex DeLarge is not your usual teenager. In a crumbling future London, he leads a gang of teenage delinquents. At night, they roam the city, stealing, beating, raping, and creating as much chaos as possible. During the day, Alex stays home from school, ignores his apathetic parents, and relishes the music of his idol, Ludwig van Beethoven.  Alex's fun is soon to end. His gang betrays him, leaving him at the home of a woman he just murdered. Alex is sentenced to fourteen years in prison. When he hears that an experimental new treatment leads to an early release, he leaps at it. The treatment conditions Alex's body to respond to any violence with intense sickness. Soon, he's a free man but his free will has been stolen from him.

The political and social intention of “A Clockwork Orange” is evident in the film and has been discussed so much over the years that there's no need to go too deeply into it. Alex is a psychopathic monster of the highest degrade, an unleashed id that steals, murders, beats, and rapes as it suits him. But “A Clockwork Orange” is ultimately more critical of a government that attempts to steal the individual's free will, stating that mankind should be allowed to be evil over having no choice at all. This is stated in the film itself, as the prison's chaplain more-or-less spells things out for the viewer. Yet Kubrick's focus on the brutal punishment Alex receives after his treatment allows a larger theme to emerge. DeLarge delivering carnage on random people is awful. So is the government robbing him of his freedom of choice. The film applies the anti-war concept Kubrick has explored in his earlier films to society in general, concluding that all violence – from the individual, from the state, regardless of ideology – is abhorrent.

“A Clockwork Orange” also sees Kubrick exploring other elements of the science-fiction genre. “2001” showed an orderly, very clean future. The quasi-futuristic setting of “A Clockwork Orange” is the complete opposite. The cities are filthy. Criminals and the homeless walk the streets. The fashion trends are gaudy, such as unflatteringly tight spandex and garish colored hair.  Tinny electronic music is often heard on the radio. It's a vulgar, run-down world. And it's nearly recognizable as our own. The world of “A Clockwork Orange” is a muddier reflection of our Earth, a science fiction future that only slightly exaggerates the problems that already exist.

All of Kubrick's films have cult followings to some degree, due to his influences and critical standing. Yet “A Clockwork Orange” seems to connect most passionately with the most people. You can attribute this following to a few elements: Its dark humor, deeper readings, and clueless teenagers missing the point. Overall, I think the film's visual touches are what attract people the most. The costume design has become rightly iconic. Alex's press-on eyelash, bowler hat, white suspenders, and codpiece are immediately recognizable. The buildings and interior rooms on display suggest a future setting while still seeming plausible. The Korovo Milk Bar is a unique set that lingers in the viewer's mind. Lastly, the Natsat dialect Alex and his droogs speak has garnered a following of its own. These touches not only affect the viewer but further sell the film's setting as fully thought-out and formed.

On his ninth motion picture, Stanley Kubrick's visual design has practically reached a point of parody. The film's visuals are constructed down to the tiniest detail, showing the filmmaker's upmost precision. Individual shots have become iconic. Such as the opening slow pan off of Alex's face, sitting in the milk bar. Or the droogs walking down the alley towards the old man, their silhouettes framed by a blue light. The often triangular framing of the shots subtly suggest the razor-sharp focus of the filmmaking. Less discussed is the looser shots Kubrick also incorporates. Such as the camera shifting around Alex attacking the author's wife or the cat lady, the camera bobbing over the character's shoulders. These moments establish the anarchic energy of the protagonist in a world that is cold to anyone's suffering.

The film's “ultra-violence” was a source of controversy at the time of release but strikes a modern viewer as surprisingly tame. The way the boys beat the homeless man, smash a rival gang through chairs or windows, or the slow-motion clubbing Alex delivers to his droogs are certainly brutal and ferocious. Yet gorier movies had existed before and would certainly flood theaters afterwards. I suspect it was not the beatings and slashings that upset moral guardians so much in 1971. Instead, the film's nihilistic atmosphere was more disconcerting. There is no moral safe zone in “A Clockwork Orange.” Alex DeLarge is the most despicable delinquent possible and he's the story's de-facto hero. The government performs unethical experiments on prisoners and suppresses political discontent. Every authority figure is clueless, hollow, or equally corrupt. This is a hopeless, vicious world and not one easily shaken off.

The movie's sexual violence was especially discussed at the time. The beating and rape of the author and his wife is still an unflinchingly intense sequence. “Singin' in the Rain” would forever be connected with this act of cinematic transgression, the song pinpointing Alex's complete lack of empathy. Recalling “Dr. Strangelove,” Kubrick peppers the film with phallic symbolism. Aside from the obvious stuff – like the codpiece – any elongated object drips with connotations. Alex's cane features a testicular shaped handle. He wears a mask with a phallic nose during the home invasion. He has a pet snake, which is killed while he's in prison, suggesting his psychic castration. By the time Alex is literally clobbering a woman to death with a penis sculpture, the intention is clear. The teenage protagonist is a raging, unfettered gonad, representing all the evils of human machismo, unleashed and unpoliced.

As I said above, at least a portion of “A Clockwork Orange's” fan base is composed of people who don't pick up on the film's clear anti-violence themes and get vicarious thrills out of Alex's bad behavior. That Kubrick isn't outwardly judgmental of the villain protagonist, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions, might've contributed to this. Yet it seems Anthony Burgess and Kubrick foresaw people misreading the text. While in prison, Alex is forced to read the Bible. He enjoys the scenes of sex and gore in the Old Testament, imagining himself whipping Christ and killing philistines. Imagine that: A teenager only noticing the surface details of a story and completely ignoring an obvious moral lesson. Teenagers liable to idolize Alex DeLarge as a cool dude will probably miss that criticism but Kubrick was clearly aware of the likelihood of that audience emerging.

That scene is one example of the dark humor the director uses to temper the story's more extreme elements. Alex's smart-ass reactions to his parole officer or the various prison officials are clearly meant to lighten the mood, depending on how you feel about the lead character. A genuinely funny moment is when the protagonist falls face-first, suddenly, into a plate of spaghetti. There's also something goofy and amusing about the sequence of Alex having sex with two girls, in sped-up footage, set to the William Tell Overture. (That's one of the few major changes from the book, where both girls are only ten years old and are drugged beforehand.) “A Clockwork Orange” doesn't provide the hilarity of “Dr. Strangelove,” which would probably be deeply inappropriate given the material, but there are some laughs here.

I don't know if audiences were meant to like Alex exactly, though we're clearly meant to emphasize with him to a certain degree. Yet Malcolm McDowell's performance is so charismatic that you have to admit the character is at least interesting. You can see why his droogs are so loyal to him. McDowell makes the character's humor evident, even if his actions are indefensible. His often sarcastic narration adds to that humor. McDowell's big blue eyes hide a cold indifference to other people. There's something fascinating about the contrast between his artistic love of Beethoven and the casual ways he beats and rapes others. It's no wonder that McDowell would become a cult star, still incredibly busy and bringing his unique presence to countless films today.

Building so much of “A Clockwork Orange” around classical music creates an interesting contrast with “2001.” The lush, orchestral arrangements of classical music in that film makes the often electronic versions of Beethoven and Rossini seem vulgar in comparison. This is intentional, commenting on the despair of the future setting and coarseness of Alex's personality. Of course, the music from Wendy Carlos and others would become iconic in their own right. Carlos' bleeping and blooping variations on the well-known pieces have an interesting energy in their right, halting and leaping in odd directions.

You don't need me to tell you that “A Clockwork Orange” is still a vital, darkly humorous, powerful, and intense motion picture. It's infamy has made it one of Kubrick's most discussed works, maybe only dwarfed by “2001” in that regard. The film is a challenging masterpiece, raising questions about the value of morality while forcing viewers to question their own assumptions. The meticulous performances, set designs, direction, and music only adds to the film's reputation as one of the great director's greatest efforts. [Grade: A]

No comments: