Thursday, July 14, 2011

Gorgeousness and Gorgeosity Made Flesh: A Review of A Clockwork Orange

From my username, Kurosawa_Lover, it should be very clear that my favorite director of all time is Akira Kurosawa. However, my second favorite director, and also my favorite English-Language director, is the great Stanley Kubrick. Except for his first three films, every film he made from Paths of Glory (1957) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999), ten films over 42 years, has been in The Book. No other director can claim a record like that of consecutive entries in The Book, and only Hitchcock and Bunuel can match those years of his making great films. I have seen all of these films except the last and absolutely loved each and every one of them. However, there is no doubt in my mind that this film, A Clockwork Orange, is his finest film. It could easily fit in my top ten favorite films of all time, and it showcases everything that is great about Kubrick films.

Firstly, this film clearly has one of the greatest opening scenes in the history of film. The reveal of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) in a facial closeup is perfect. Everything about the character is revealed in his sinister smirk, in his mischievous eyes. As the camera pulls away, it is slowly revealed that we are viewing some perverse future bar, with naked statues dispensing bottles of milk. As Alex literally toasts the audience to welcome us into the fantastic world, we hear his voice explaining to us that this bar gives patrons milk filled with futuristic drugs, and that he and his "droogs" are drinking up for "a night of the old ultra-violence." For you see, Alex is not giving us a typical narration in plain English, he is speaking to us in Nadsat, a language created by the write of the novel, Anthony Burgess, that is a mix of Russian, Yiddish, cockney slang, and pure imagination.

Never has a man wearing a Bowler and too much mascara been so terrifying.

This opening scene truly shows the brilliance of Kubrick's directing, the kind of directing that makes you say, "wow, if this director had not directed this film, no one could have." Firstly, the only thing in the scene that really moves is the camera as it goes backwards to give the reveal. So many scenes are like this, resembling photographs more that motion pictures, and this is due to the fact that Kubrick started as a photographer. Many directors have these quirks, where their work before film colors the way their films are made (for example, Kurosawa was an accomplished painter, and painted nearly all of his storyboards, and this influence can be seen especially in his later color films). Secondly, it is a major achievement that the Nasdat language actually sounds completely awesome in this film. Obviously the language was created by Burgess and was fantastic in the novel. However, things that are brilliant in novels do not always translate well onto film. The language might sound good in a book, but when you see people actually speaking it it could appear ridiculous. But, thanks to Kubrick's directing (and McDowell's acting) the use of the language both in the narration and on screen creates this atmosphere of oddity and perverse delight that perfectly fits the mood of the film. Thirdly, it needs to be acknowledge that this scene could have appeared completely ridiculous, but not in a purposeful or good way. Back in the early 70s when this film was made, before CGI and many special effects technology, physical props had to be created more often for scenes. So many exploitation films looked ridiculous with the lameness of their props. A shot with a bunch of naked statues and men standing around in white leotards could have been to silly to be taken seriously. However, something about the way Kubrick creates this scene stops it from being ridiculous and makes it fascinating.

Essentially every scene of this film is brilliant. Alex and his droogs beating up the old man. The gang of would-be rapists interrupted so they can face Alex and "come and get it in the yarbles." Alex killing a woman by shoving a giant phallus down her throat. Alex bending over to have his anus examined by a stuck-up prison guard. On top of all those scenes and many more, this film contains one of the most disturbing scenes in film: Alex and his droogs raping a woman and beating an old man while Alex sings "Singing in the Rain." This scene is perverse on two levels. Firstly, it is perverse within the context of the film, because hearing someone sing while they rape someone brutally, clearly enjoying it with so much abandon, is just deeply disturbing (and the creepiness is heightened by the droog Dim repeating after Alex is his thick, stupid drawl with an animal-like expectation). Secondly, it is perverse on a meta level, outside of the film, because it takes one of the most cheerful and innocent songs in the history of film and irrevocably corrupts it. For lovers of film, seeing this innocent song used in this perverse setting must either be perceived as brilliance or sacrilege.

"Thank you, thank you, and now, as an encore, I will sing Over The Rainbow while kicking a puppy."

Another fantastic touch to this film which is pure Kubrick is the incredible use of classical music. His score to his previous film 2001: A Space Odyssey is very acclaimed for adding great atmosphere by using old classical music in a futuristic setting, and this film continues this trend (his next film, Barry Lyndon, would put classical music in its contemporary setting, also to great effect). However, this score has a bit of a twist. The score takes classical music but occasionally puts a futuristic twist on it thanks to composer Wendy Carlos. For example, perhaps my favorite scene in the film is when Alex takes two devotchkas back to his place and gives them the old in-out in-out in a scene that took 28 minutes to film, but is sped up to about 30x its speed while a sped up version of "William Tell Overture" plays.

Dick-shaped lollipops and classical music. Geez, kids these days have weird tastes.
In the end, however, above all the style and grace, the thing that makes this film great is its fantastic, biting, darkly comical social commentary. This is a film about freedom of choice. There is nothing more inhuman than taking away a person's individual autonomy. The film in the end is not primarily attacking Alex for his evil ways. Alex at least is honest about his desires. No, the film is attacking the system around all of us, for being just as self serving as Alex is, but without his honesty. Every single authority figure Alex encounters directly abuses him to fulfill their own desires. Firstly, there is his juvenile parole office Mr. Deltoid (stealing his two short scenes thanks to superb acting by Aubrey Morris). Mr. Deltoid is supposed to watch over Alex to help him learn the error of his way, but it is clear that his only concern in that Alex stay in line so he does not get a "black mark," and he clearly enjoys sadistically causing Alex pain when he whacks him in the yarbles unexpectedly.

Mmm yeeeees, I certainly do love a nice game of Rochambeau, don't you? I think I'll go first, mmmmmmm yeeeeeessssss

Then there are Alex's parents, who are always touted as being wonderful, but clearly are neglectful. Oh sure, they feed and clothe him, but there is clearly no true emotional connection. They know nothing about him and try their best not to know. How, could he continue murdering and raping and bringing home stolen goods, how could he have even got the way he is, without emotional neglect. Clearly, when they effectively throw him out upon his return from jail in favor of a surrogate "good son" who is now their lodger, its clear their care for him is skin deep. Then at the jail he is given a number and has orders barked at him by the Chief Guard (another fantastic performance by Michael Bates). The Chief clearly has no expectation that Alex or any of the other prisoners can reform, loves to call them scum and in a later scene when Alex is forced to lick a man's boot he clearly enjoys his suffering.

Somebody should look up his ass and pull out the big stick he has stuck up there.

Alex learns to lie and act good and put on fake smiles and crocodile tears to get the other authority figures to like him. This gives him the opportunity to be part of a radical new treatment where criminals are "cured" of their desire to commit crimes with drugs and aversion therapy (just how rapists are "cured" of their lust by chemical castration). This gives the Minister of the Interior and several doctors the chance to abuse Alex to advance their own political and scientific goals by forcing him to watch films of sex and violence while taking chemicals so that these scenes make him sick, which will late make him sick when he trick to rape or attack people.

Ben Stein: For dry, red eyes, try Clear Eyes, now with a free promotional Eyepopper Headset for easy administration.

When the now "cured" Alex released back into the world, we get to see just how hypocritical society really is. For, as much as members of society decried Alex for attacking people, now that Alex can no longer defend himself, society at large has no problem abusing him to their hearts content. His parents kick him out. A bunch of old bums beat him up, partly out of revenge and partly out of bitterness against youth in general. In perhaps the greatest attack on "proper society," we see that Alex's old droogs, the ones who attacked him and let him go to jail while they got off scott free, are now actually police officers, little better than thugs hired on the cheap to rough up the riff raff. Hey, as long as it keeps those hoodlums off my street, who cares what happens to them, right?

"Guys, why are you beating me up now? Is it because of the whole kicking your asses into the water and slicing up your hand thing? I thought we were past that!"
For a while you think this film might only be attacking conservative society. However, in a cruel twist of fate, after Alex has been beaten by the police, he stumbles upon the home where he raped that poor woman. She killed herself afterwards, but the old man is still there, albeit in a wheel chair. This guy is a very liberal writer. He sympathizes with Alex, and wants to use his story to attack the conservative government for hiring thugs and taking away a man's ability to defend himself. His purpose is good. Sure, he says something ominous about the "common people" needing to be led so that they do not give up essential liberties for the feeling of security under a tyrant, but heck, that statement is kind of true. However, once he discovers that Alex is the one who raped his wife, he loses all thought of doing good, and merely wants to take revenge on Alex by forcing him to kill himself. All of us, even the supposedly high minded, are in the end driven by our personal desires, even at the cost of the suffering of others.
Ever seen a man get possessed by Satan and then take a huge dump right above you? This is about as close as you will get to that image.
That's what is truly great about this film: it conveys its message not by making us feel bad for the suffering of some morally perfect character, but for a clearly evil character. This sadistic, murdering, selfish, violent, awful rapist who fantasizes about beating Jesus Christ is actually the victim in this story!  As evil as he is, the greatest evil is the system he lives in. It is this system that teaches him that all that is worth having in life is fun and money. It is this system that uses and abuses people for its own benefit. In an attempt to make others feel safe, the system is willing to take away the most human aspect of all of us, our free will. The system has no concern for right over wrong, just order over chaos. Even then, it all boils down to achieving the desires of those with power. The leaders of the government are perfectly happy to let Alex return to his "normal" violent rapist state and set him free on the streets, so long as he does a publicity stunt for the party in power first. Alex clearly learned all of his violent ways as a way to survive and get ahead in the society that surrounds him, just as he learned how to lie and deceive to survive in jail, and as soon as he cannot defend himself, society is perfectly happy to crush him to fulfill its own desires.
Why do I say this film is Kubrick's greatest film? Because it has all of the style and brilliance of his classics like 2001 and The Shining, but it is also less emotionally detached than those films, because it actually has a moral message and deep character development (like his earlier Paths of Glory and Lolita), as well as much of the dark humor that Dr. Strangelove had. In short, it is a collection of the best of everything Kubrick has to offer as a director. I love this movie. It is one of the greatest films ever made, with every scene, every actor, being spot on at all times. I give this Essential film an official grade of 10/10

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that this is Kubrick really at his finest--it may not be my favorite Kubrick film, but it really is his best in many, many ways. Evidence is how iconic Alex became not as a character, but as a look--at least part of that was Kubrick's invention. I tend to gravitate to others of his films more, but from a purely "how well-made is this film" question, he never got better than this one.

    Kubrick's inclusion on the list starts, as you mention, with Paths of Glory. For my money, The Killing could have been added just as easily.