A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1972)

Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Stanley Kubrick (from the novel by Anthony Burgess)

Starring: Malcolm McDowell

 

Some months ago, when writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey, I indicated that Kubrick had been my favorite filmmaker throughout my teens and early twenties. Some recent reexamination and rumination on other major films from that time in my life has probably revealed that though he may have seemed to stand head and shoulders above all other filmmakers in my formative years, it’s likely truer that he was one among a handful of filmmakers that have come to make up my personal pantheon. Regardless, the influence of Stanley Kubrick on my early film viewership is undeniable. I was an instant fan of 2001, and came to hold Full Metal Jacket and The Shining in equally high regard. I became familiar with his earlier work, including masterpieces such as Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory, after I came to college. I was a full devotee, and I sought out all of Kubrick’s films in my first couple of years of college, learning to appreciate each one of its own merit. Some I enjoyed more than others, but overall my opinion of Kubrick as perhaps the greatest master filmmaker was more or less cemented. It is probably a bit ironic, then, that the only film of his that still resides in my collection, besides 2001, is one of the few that I truly feel ambivalently about: A Clockwork Orange.

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Set in a not-quite-dystopian future London, A Clockwork Orange is a look into a world defined by violence and nihilism, where street gangs are free to brutalize the public. Our window into that world is Alex (McDowell), teenaged leader of a gang of droogs, whose favorite pastimes include rape, murder, and listening to Ludwig van Beethoven. Alex wields his authority over the gang through physical intimidation and takes advantage of the crumbling societal structures to wreak havoc. When the droogs get sick of Alex’s mistreatment, they decide to set him up, leading him to break into the home of a wealthy woman whom he subsequently clubs to death. When he tries to make his escape, the droogs turn on him, smashing a bottle over his head and leaving him to be caught by the police. Alex is charged with murder and sentenced to prison, where he learns of an experimental psychiatric treatment that might reduce his sentence. Alex submits to the Ludovico treatment, in which his eyes are held open by a machine, and he’s forced to watch video of horrific acts of violence and warfare. The treatment leads to a physical and psychological change in Alex wherein he becomes physically ill at the thought of engaging in any of his previous behaviors. Finally deemed sufficiently neutered and reprogrammed, Alex is released back into society. The world that he had left just two years ago seems as different as Alex is after his Ludovico treatment, but have either really changed that much?

Though it is probably one of my least favorite Kubrick film, I can’t deny that A Clockwork Orange is a cinematic work of art. As is every Kubrick film, this is a beautifully rendered and thoughtful film. Its art direction might be my favorite in his whole filmography, with vibrant color splashed across the screen and set designs that are both retro and futuristic at the same time. When I picture the swinging 70s of London, it’s really the design of A Clockwork Orange that I’m envisioning. Kubrick is at the height of powers, using striking visuals to set the tone of his film and also to imply subtle narrative details about the characters and the world.  Early on, the film’s visuals evoke its mood so perfectly, the setting of the Korova Milk Bar oozing sinister dread when we first meet Alex and his gang. The bar’s stark black and white color pattern signify a world that is broken down into dualities: black and white, good and evil, peace and chaos, rule and anarchy. Alex’s worldview, too, is dominated by a duality, chiefly that of the hunter and the hunted. Of course these simplistic visual and narrative points of view belie a layered examination of power dynamics and the inherent role of violence in human nature.

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This examination is at the heart of A Clockwork Orange, as we see domination played out in three different ways: initially, individually through Alex’s physical intimidation and domination of his gang, his family, and those around him, subsequently, domination by the State after Alex is imprisoned and subjected to a mind altering experiment, and lastly, a reactionary sort of violence from the townsfolk who exact revenge on the newly humbled Alex. This is an important and continuously prescient line of inquiry for a piece of art to make, but I feel that the ideology of the film gets a bit muddled. Its attempts to be critical of violence as an institution are undercut by the fact that Alex is the film’s ostensible hero, and the fact that the audience is often led to sympathize with and even root for the murderous, rapacious Alex. Malcom McLaren has often claimed that the film was not better received upon its release because people weren’t able to understand that it was intended as a dark comedy, and I can understand where he’s coming from with that comment, because there are certainly elements of satire to the film, but I can’t say that I agree that A Clockwork Orange should be read as a comedy. The film’s gleeful sadism should be repulsive and horrifying, not amusing. I think presenting A Clockwork Orange as a comedy of any sort is a dangerous proposition. I have defended violent, bleak films in my writing before, but I find A Clockwork Orange difficult to defend, its obvious artistry notwithstanding, due to the misconstrued fandom of the film that I have observed, and to the cult of personality that has sprung up around its hero, Alex.

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I’ve noticed that most of the fandom surrounding A Clockwork Orange seems to be driven by young men who are enamored with the film’s violence. To these men, Alex has become a counterculture icon, snubbing his nose in the face of authority and daring to live out his most extreme fantasies. I personally find this fandom disturbing, and, unfortunately, I can’t separate the film from its fandom because it seems as if the film does very little to avoid glorifying Alex and the deplorable behavior that he displays throughout. I’m often able to separate art from its creator, or from its fan base, but I have always had a difficult time reconciling my love for Stanley Kubrick with this particular film. I recognize that A Clockwork Orange is an important cinematic work of art, and I appreciate its sumptuous visual palate and its attempts at social critique, but I can’t bring myself to really enjoy the film. Kubrick was never a filmmaker who seemed interested in creating relatable, sympathetic characters, but his characterization of Alex is an anomaly even in a filmography peopled by depraved, morally empty figures. Alex’s entire raison d’etre is violence. He has little depth as a character, and even as a symbol or a metaphor for youth gone wild, he falls entirely flat. Kubrick attempts to make up for this lack of character depth with an emphasis on style and superficial details, but they don’t ring true and Alex is ultimately proven to be hollow. I work for an independently owned craft brewery and we offer a seasonal beer called Milk+, which features tap handle and label artwork inspired by A Clockwork Orange, and any time I have the beer on tap I invariably have customers who order it simply based on the name and artwork because A Clockwork Orange is “their favorite movie.” Sometimes I really wonder if they’ve thought about the implications of the film’s mixed messages.

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Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but I feel that A Clockwork Orange is a film that tries overly hard to make its audience sympathize with a totally abhorrent protagonist. More than simply asking its audience to consider the ramifications of Alex’s actions, by not wholly critiquing these actions the film tacitly approves of them. Although all forms of dominative violence seem to be viewed equally in the film, whether they be State sanctioned or individualistic, Alex is clearly presented as the film’s hero and, as a result, his actions are championed, and even justified by the severity of the trauma that is inflicted upon him during the Ludovico treatment. The film masquerades as a critique of violence and authority, but in actuality it seems to be a reactionary fantasy, with Alex’s final rapacious daydream supplying an orgasmic triumph over the film’s moralizing forces. A Clockwork Orange is a film that I wish I could enjoy more thoroughly because it contains some of my favorite moments of Kubrick’s visual genius, but I just can’t get over the hump of the film’s treatment of its subject matter. There’s a reason that the copy of the film that I currently own was still in its shrink wrap when I took it off the shelf for this post, nearly four years after picking it out of a BestBuy bargain bin: A Clockwork Orange is an impressively beautiful film, but I almost never want to watch it.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke

Starring: Keir Dullea

 

I’m not sure what I can say about 2001: A Space Odyssey that hasn’t already been said. Universally considered one of the best films ever made, 2001’s place in the pantheon of cinema isn’t in question. 2001 is Stanley Kubrick’s meditation on human progress, and his first (and possibly only) foray into the realm of the cinematically sublime. The film, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, charts the history of the development of human intelligence, beginning with the spark of human intelligence in a group of our simian ancestors, and jumping forward into the (then) far future, where human minds had outgrown their earthly concerns and turned their gaze to the stars. The film’s speculative and visionary subject matter is reflected in Kubrick’s grandiose imagery and sublime visual poetry.

2001 opens with a segment titled “The Dawn of Man,” in which we see a group of apes begin their evolutionary journey, as they learn to use tools and wage war. Their leap in intelligence is sparked by the appearance of a vibrating black monolith, which seems to bestow knowledge upon those who encounter it. Fast forwarding millennia, the film then shows us a speculative year 2001, in which space travel has become commonplace, and in which a second monolith has been discovered in a crater on the moon. This monolith is transmitting signals in the direction of Jupiter, and the quest to find its source informs the primary plot of 2001. The film’s more narrative middle section shows us life aboard the space ship Discovery, where astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), along with their on-board computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain) have taken on the quest of finding the source of the monolith’s transmission. What they find, both on Discovery, and beyond Jupiter brings into question the nature of humanity, and humanity’s role in the larger universe.

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I first encountered 2001 right around the year 2001, when I was about 16 years old, and I was wholly unprepared to digest the film’s dense, philosophical themes. It was, however, the first time that I can remember being completely in awe of a film. I had never experienced a film whose visuals so greatly impacted and enchanted me, and in so many different ways. The early portions of the film perfectly capture the mundane minutiae of space travel in the year 2001, where our journey to the stars has been commodified and coopted by corporate sponsorship. The film’s final segment, in which astronaut Dave Bowman encounters the source of human intelligence, and is able to experience the evolution of man into his next form, are visually spectacular by contrast. Bowman’s journey beyond Jupiter is presented as a psychedelic blur of color and shape, assaulting the senses and jarring the viewer after experiencing the first two hours of the film which are meditative and defined by their restraint and glacial pacing. I was hooked.

Over roughly the next five years of my life, 2001 was my favorite film, and Kubrick was undoubtedly my favorite filmmaker. I shared the film with anyone who would allow me, attempting to tease out its mysteries through shared viewership and late night dorm room conversations. It wasn’t for everyone. I can remember bringing the VHS home from the public library for the first time and my father telling me the story of when he went to see 2001 in 1969. The film’s pacing, length, and lack of dialogue turned him off. He said that he walked out during the film’s famous docking sequence set to Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz”, thinking, “What did I just pay money to see?” But for me, the esoteric nature of the film was a part of its appeal. Not only had I never before seen a film that posed such deep philosophical questions, I had never seen a film that felt as if it were a question that needed to be answered itself. I felt rewarded with each repeat viewing as I started to formulate my own answers to the film’s internal riddles, and the beauty of the film began to reveal itself to me with each subsequent trip beyond Jupiter.

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After some time, though, I no longer felt the need to continue to revisit this classic. My familiarity with its structure, its classic shots, and its cerebral questing was total. However, as I moved on from 2001 in my early 20s, and began to revisit Kubrick’s other films, I gained a new appreciation for 2001 and began to regard it in a different light. I began to appreciate what I referred to earlier as the sublime visual poetry on display in the film. When I watched the film after having read Michel Ciment’s Kubrick, an in-depth examination of the director’s films and visual style, and after fully experiencing the director’s entire body of work, I began to be interested in 2001 less for its inherent mysteries than in its ability to elevate the cold and the artificial to a place of warmth and emotion through its visual style. 2001 may be the Kubrick film least interested in human-centered narratives, but ironically, I find it to be his most emotionally in depth work, and it is certainly the Kubrick film that elicits the most emotional response from me.

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The grandeur of the Blue Danube sequence, when we are first given a glimpse of Earth from space, and introduced to the realities of space travel in the year 2001, is a perfect marriage of sound and image and an introduction to what I have been referring to as the film’s sublime visual poetry. The sequence, which is free of any dialogue, links human artistic achievement in Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” with human technological achievement and prowess in the impressive space ships. Following immediately after the “Dawn of Man” segment that opens the film and which is linked visually to that sequence through the famous graphic match of a bone with a space ship, the “Blue Danube” sequence underscores the progress that humanity has made, while also serving as a reminder that despite our technological and cultural achievements, man and his creations are still dwarfed by the awesome void of outer space. The juxtaposition of the mundane (a man falling asleep in his chair while watching television) with the fantastical or awe-inspiring (that man’s chair being on a spacecraft, where a flight attendant casually retrieves his pen before it floats away in the zero gravity environment), are at the heart of the film’s exploration of the sublime. It is a dichotomy that Kubrick returns to again and again, underscoring the insignificance of man’s activities on the Universal scale, while at the same time acknowledging man’s destiny and deserved place among the stars.

The film’s final scene returns to this juxtaposition, as Bowman goes beyond Jupiter, and is confronted with both his mortality, and evidence of man’s ultimate evolutionary destiny. At the end of his journey, Bowman finds himself in a lavishly decorated apartment where he watches himself live and age, eventually becoming a bedridden old man. The scene gives the impression that Bowman understands that he is on display, much like an animal in a zoo, as he goes through the end of his life alone,  eating meals quietly. Just before he is going to die, Bowman is presented with the monolith, and as he reaches out for it, accepting both its knowledge and his place in the Universe, he is reincarnated as the Star Child. Bowman becomes the next step in man’s evolutionary development, a being of pure energy, seemingly possessive of the answers to the mysteries of the Universe. In the final shot of the film, the Star Child returns to Earth, accompanied by the strains of Wagner’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Again Kubrick is juxtaposing his beautiful images with established classical music to indicate the presence of the sublime. While there is some debate on the role of the Star Child, I believe that he returned to Earth as an ambassador, not a warrior or a weapon. His role is to elevate mankind and show the ultimate potential of humans to ascend to a higher plane among the stars.

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Upon this rewatch, I was instantly reminded of the awe I felt that first time I watched 2001 as a teenager. I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety in at least five years, but as I mentioned, its rhythms feel like they’re a part of my unconscious, always playing in the background of my dreams. Watching it again, on a new Bluray disc that I purchased about three years ago after realizing that I no longer had my DVD copy, I was immediately taken in by the film’s beauty. The transfer was great, and I was able to watch the film with more visual clarity than I ever had before. The sterile white of the film’s space ship interiors seemed to pop off the screen when contrasted with the vast blackness of the outer space exteriors. The colors in the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence at the film’s end were hallucinogenic and brighter than I remembered them being. I was taken in by the films rhythms, which were still so familiar, but which I hadn’t experienced in so long. Everything about the pacing is perfect, from the tense, episodic structure of the “Dawn of Man” segment, to the fluid, yet precise construction of the “Blue Danube” sequence, the film is a master work in editing. Although the only real narrative tension doesn’t appear until very late in the film’s second act, it is propelled forward by its beautiful imagery and excellent craftsmanship. I was again left with the feeling that the film was being presented as a question, or maybe as a challenge. I thought nearly a decade ago that I had unraveled all of this film’s secrets, but I’m sure now that I never really will. It should probably work its way back into my yearly rotation, though.