Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.9: Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 97/A

With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick established himself as the finest filmmaker of his generation (and debatably of all time). He took an expensive, ambitious, difficult film and turned out a $190 million hit, an era-defining masterpiece, and the film that won him his only Academy Award (for Best Visual Effects, though Douglas Trumbell and others deserved credit as well). Kubrick then moved forward with his passion project Napoleon only to have MGM pull the plug at the last minute. Kubrick then migrated over to Warner Bros., who gave him complete creative control on his next project.

Kubrick, still mulling over the dicey financial prospects of Napoleon, chose to move forward on a film he felt would be a surefire hit: an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. The film would split critics and outdo just about any film-related controversy before and since with its shocking portrayal of violence, rape, sex, and a broken and corrupt society, not helped by the copycat crimes  and death threats towards Kubrick that followed in its wake (in an unprecedented move, Kubrick would withdraw the film from release in England, where he now lived). Some critics (notably Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael) hated the film for what they found to be a vindication of a violent creep of a protagonist and his venal view of violence, sex, and humanity.

But A Clockwork Orange is a much more complicated (and, conversely, a much simpler) film than that: a morality tale as performed by a demented funhouse carnival, showing the failures of the right wing, the left wing, and society in dealing with an absolute form of evil. Much like 2001, it is a futuristic tale, but it plays like 2001 turned upside its head: from the glories of the future to the horrors of the future, from a humanity capable of evolution to a humanity that devolves to monstrosity, from little dialogue to prolific but often impenetrable dialogue. A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick’s most pessimistic film (following his most optimistic), but it is also one of his most vital.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is a nasty little bastard indeed. He spends his nights with his gang (or “droogs”) beating up old bums, raping women, and starting fights with other gangs. Betrayed by his droogs when he pushes them too far, Alex winds up in prison on a murder charge. Alex plays by the rules as a way to gain favor, but he never truly considers the errors of his ways. When a revolutionary “cure” for the criminal mind called the Ludovico technique comes about, Alex jumps at the chance to volunteer for the program. The process works, making Alex sick to his stomach at the very thought of violent or sexual acts, but it doesn’t prepare him for a world where his victims are still out there, none too convinced that he’s been truly rehabilitated- ready to strike back at him.

Kubrick again splits the film into distinct non-submersible units, which can be broken up as follows:

1.     Droogs- Alex and his friends perpetrate horrible acts of violence until he’s betrayed.
2.     Prison- Alex learns “the false smile” as a way to get through prison without truly rehabilitating.
3.     Ludovico- Alex is tortured to the point where violent thoughts are sickening to him.
4.     Release- Alex is released into society, unwelcomed by his parents, hated by those he wronged, abused by the police (his former droogs).
5.     Mr. Alexander- Alex stumbles upon one last former victim, who has his own horrifying plans for him.
6.     Cure- Alex is cured of the horrifying results of his treatment…and now able to wrong again.

It’s a much simpler structure than his previous film had, but Kubrick is able to work wonders within it. He’s aided in part by Burgess’ wonderful use of language. A Clockwork Orange was inspired by an assault on Burgess and his wife by a group of young men, and as a way to widen the gap between generations Burgess invented a Russian/English-based slang called nasdat, which takes any other sort of teenage lingo and makes it seem clear as crystal by comparison. The surreal language can be disorienting, as can Kubrick’s bizarre images, but they make some sort of strange sense when combined, like a twisted, heightened version of reality.

Previous Kubrick films had flirted with Kubrick’s penchant for directing actors to give outsized performances (Dr. Strangelove, most notably), but here Kubrick truly goes for the gusto by instructing every actor to behave either as a hopeless milquetoast or as a demented lunatic. There are a number of memorable performances- Aubrey Morris as creepy probation officer Mr. Deltoid, Anthony Sharp as the chilly Minister of Interior, Philip Stone and Sheila Raynor as Alex’s pathetic parents, Warren Clarke as Alex’s aptly-named droog Dim, and Michael Bates as a fascistic chief prison guard. Patrick Magee’s performance as Mr. Alexander, a particularly unhinged victim of Alex’s, goes pretty far over the top, but to a large degree it’s necessary and effective: he’s been pushed past the brink of sanity and towards literal tongue-thrashing and face-twitching madness.

But the real ace in the hole, and likely the finest performance in any of Kubrick’s films, comes from McDowell’s career-defining role as Alex. McDowell had made an impression before with his brilliant debut performance in Lindsay Anderson’s if…, but Kubrick takes that sense of rebellion to a character as evil as Richard III and as charismatic as the nastiest of James Cagney characters. The first half of the film gives as a fascinating bundle of contradictions: brutal but intelligent; remorseless and disgusting but dynamic; given to both bizarre slang and borderline Shakespearean prose (“O Bliss, Bliss and Heaven…”); prone to violent acts, but with a refined taste for classical music, as opposed to his parents and contemporaries’ taste in horrible, horrible pop music (my ears start to bleed every time I hear “I Wanna Marry a Lighthouse Keeper”). And yet the second half turns him from a portrait of young evil to a boyish, helpless waif, still hateful for his past acts but strangely empathetic. It wouldn’t work with anyone else in the role…and McDowell would rank near the top of “Inexplicable Best Actor Snubs” in Oscar history.

Kubrick’s perfectionist streak is just as evident here as it was before: every shot is immaculately framed, whether he’s using a reverse-tracking shot to imply Alex’s dominance or marginalizing Alex in the latter parts of the film. When we first see Alex and company, he’s notably giving the infamous, terrifying Kubrick Glare while his disaffected cronies sit around expressionless. The camera zooms out, revealing some sort of a surreal world where young men sit about fetishized sculptures of women and wear cufflinks made of plastic bloody eyes. Kubrick’s use of a wide-angle lens is particularly indicative of where Kubrick’s head is at: this is a horrifying world, a place where a sex-and-violence based culture has gone way off the deep end and into insanity.

The way Kubrick uses crumbling London architecture to emphasize the terrible state futuristic London is in is clever, but not half as clever as his framing of acts of violence and sexual violence around classical or modernist architecture. Pauline Kael attacked Kubrick for titillating the audience with shots of women being stripped and tortured, but I’m convinced that you’d have to be a complete sociopath to relate to the monsters on screen. Sure, Kubrick uses most of the first section of the film to get a visceral charge out of the audience, not to mention to push the limits of black comedy by using the beloved “Singin’ in the Rain” in a rape scene, but he’s also toying with the audience as a way to get them to practically stand up and scream out, “Stop! For the love of god, stop!”. Kubrick has a sick sense of humor (as do I, to a large degree), but he’s not throwing morality to the wind. He’s playing the audience like a piano, setting us up to despise Alex only to watch us question the morality of throwing him to the dogs.

That sense of irony runs rampant throughout the film, arguably the blackest of Kubrick’s black comedies. Certainly there’s some humor to be found in Kubrick’s use of classical music in unconventional places (Alex using Beethoven to imagine wonderful pictures…of violence and sex, the William Tell Overture played way too fast over a particularly silly sex scene). The music informs the film’s rhythms as much as Strauss and Ligeti informed 2001, but here Kubrick makes gorgeous classical music alien and horrifying. Whether he’s enlisting composer Wendy Carlos to produce bizarre, creepy electronic orchestrations of Beethoven or he’s using Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie to orchestrate violence, Kubrick makes the image inseparable from the music, and vice versa. And there’s some sort of sick pleasure (then guilt) to be had after the sadistic protagonist, who has just made our view of Beethoven inextricable from violence, unable to listen to his favorite symphony.

But Kubrick also gets some guilty laughs over Alex’s disingenuous embrace of religion, complete with a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing routine around the chaplain. And even the film’s greatest detractors should be able to admire the sequence where Alex has a Bible fantasy: the “put-upon” protagonist’s daydream flashes to Christ, adorned with a crown of thorns, carrying the cross. Is Alex really comparing himself to Christ? Nope! He’s imagining himself as a Roman, whipping Christ as he moves forward. Come on, that’s hilarious.

Some have accused Clockwork of being pornographic, or of having a pornographic sensibility. They’re wrong there, but they’re not completely off-base: A Clockwork Orange takes place in a pornographic society. I’m not puritanical when it comes to sex (and I’m willing to bet that Kubrick wasn’t either), and I don’t much care either way what you watch online, but A Clockwork Orange takes the fetishization of body parts to an insane degree, as if pornography went beyond questionable taste and more towards dehumanization (there are some that might make that argument today, but I’m gonna step back here). The droogs wear outfits that emphasize their sexuality- codpieces over the pants, Alex wearing a mask with a phallic nose. When the droogs attack Mr. and Mrs. Alexander, it is important that Alex cuts out the breasts in her jumpsuit before tearing away the rest of her clothing: he doesn’t see her as a person.

But while Alex may be the most despicable character in the film, he’s hardly the only predator. Kubrick makes a point to turn every authority figure into a leering, drooling monster in their own right. Deltoid tut-tuts Alex’s violent tendencies and disgusting crimes, but there’s a reason Kubrick shoots him with the same wide-angle lens he shot the droogs with. Deltoid caresses Alex’s arm, slaps his thigh, lies back with his arm around his shoulder, and grabs his penis- if Alex weren’t a sadistic murderer, we’d feel positively afraid for him. Deltoid isn’t alone: the prison chaplain serves as a sort of spiritual guide towards Alex, but his presence around Alex doesn’t feel wholly innocent either.

A Clockwork Orange is not Kubrick’s finest film, but it might be his ultimate tale of dehumanization. Kubrick sets us up to enjoy Alex’s (deserved) comeuppance, but he’s less an aberration of society and more a product of a world gone mad. The film is set up as a twisted morality tale on how society handles the darkest souls- the right wing (the minister, the fascistic prison guard, the thugs turned policemen) as a group willing to push Alex into a horrific treatment in the film’s most iconic scene, the Ludovico treatment. Alex sits dead center, front row of an empty theatre, straitjacketed, nightmarish pincers holding his eyes open, bits of violence and rape playing on the screen. There is no empathy to their treatment, no thought given to the adverse affects on the patient (associating Beethoven with violence, for example), no concern for anything except that it works.

When Alex is thrown on a stage in front of an enraptured audience, no one stops to question whether we’d want him to be defenseless against an attacker (reinforced when Alex’s former droogs beat him half to death), or whether he should be automatically repulsed by the thought of sex with a creepily robotic, seemingly willing naked woman. Burgess’ title refers to how this kind of rehabilitation turns man from something organic and human to something mechanical and sterile. The chaplain’s gripe that Alex  “ceases to be a creature capable of moral choice” may put a fine point on it, but remember that this is, to a large degree, a twisted moral tale, filled with men less concerned about humanity and more concerned with whether “it works”.

The left wing isn’t much better, of course. When Alex arrives at Mr. Alexander’s house at the second time, Alexander and company are more interested in exploiting Alex for their own gains- see if you can watch Patrick Magee gibbering about how “it is providential that you, who are also another kind of victim, should come her!” without getting the willies. And that’s before Alexander realizes who Alex really is. Now he’s got an ulterior motive: where his colleagues are more than happy to torture Alex with Beethoven’s 9th to prove a point, Alexander proves that it’s just as easy for the left to be corrupted with hatred (even righteous hatred) as the right. The minister is even able to twist this shrewdly to his advantage: he’s not the bad guy! Of course not! It’s the lefties who caused him to attempt suicide, not my program that made their torture possible!

And yet, Kubrick jerks us back into fear of Alex by the end as well. Burgess was upset that Kubrick omitted the final chapter of his novel (not his fault, the American version of the novel had cut it), in which Alex decides on his own to become a moral human being. But I’ll go so far to say that Kubrick had it right anyway- Burgess’ attempt to understand wrongdoing as a youthful mistake to be outgrown is admirable, but there’s a difference between some kid who shoplifts and a total sociopath who murders and rapes to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain”.  It’s a glib reversal rather than the chilling ending of Kubricks’ film. Alex has returned to his more human state, complete with choices, but as he repeats an earlier phrase of understanding the minister as clear as “an unmuddied lake”, something seems a bit off. And while he’s reversed from his transformation of a mechanical man, he’s now back to his amoral self, ready to sin again. Kubrick doesn’t state outright what should be done with Alex, or which side is right, because he recognizes that there is no clear-cut answer. We can only watch in horror as we anticipate whatever monstrous act Alex will do when he has the chance. He’s back from clockwork to orange, but the fruit is rotten. “I was cured, alright…”

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