Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

I still intend to see the new Funny Games if it's not hustled out of theaters too quickly, but in the meantime I revisited the original home invasion movie (alongside Straw Dogs).

A Clockwork Orange is a 'statement' movie, but Kubrick's cinematic argument is complex and multifaceted. He presents his scenes of violence in ways that are both cinematically exciting and entertaining, as with the movie's opening fight scene with another gang, and then the film makes a sharp turn to gives us the same characters in a brutal assault on a quiet country home. This is the fine line that Kubrick is constantly walking - we're entertained and charmed by Malcolm McDowell's Alex, but we never forget that he's a dangerous sociopath motivated by nothing beyond his own narcissism, and the thought hovers in our minds through all of Alex's ups and downs. And I think this is a key to the movie's success, because Kubrick gets us to see ourselves in Alex, thrilled and horrified alternately.

Ultimately, though, Alex is only a figure in Kubrick's landscape, because his larger point has to do with how violent individuals function within a modern society, and the nature of punitive measures vs. free will. Alex receives the Ludovico treatment, which makes him nauseated in the presence of sex or violence (and Beethoven), and his prison chaplain argues that his now-'cured' actions are not motivated by free will, but merely by simple self-interest. But this treatment is merely an exagerrated version of every punitive system, from 'scared straight' programs all the way up to the promise that if you sin, you go to Hell.

On top of all that, I realized that the original Funny Games is Haneke's own version of the Ludovico treatment, a form of cinematic Pavlovian conditioning.

These days, I think that A Clockwork Orange is one of Kubrick's weaker films, a film motivated by snarky anger as opposed to his real masterpieces (for me, 2001 and Barry Lyndon), which tend to have a greater degree of compassion and spiritual reflection. In addition, it's probably the most dated of all of Kubrick's movies in terms of production and costume design, and I've never really understood the ending - that final shot of a crowd of people applauding copulation in the middle of some freakshow desert? But this is all relative, and even a 'weak' film from Kubrick is better than most filmmakers can manage in their careers.



K. Bowen said...

Lyndon is the Rosetta Stone of Kubrick's work. If you think about it, read about it, learn about it, you will eventually start to see the rest of his work translated through that film.

What I remember about seeing Clockwork on the big screen was the way that by the time of the Ludovico treatment, I was feeling desensitized to the violence on screen, and it wasn't a pleasant revelation.

Jeff McMahon said...

Interesting comment re: Barry Lyndon, and I'll keep that in mind next time I watch it. It's really a film that grows on you.

I'm interested to hear more about what you say about 'desensitized' because it's an important topic, especially regarding this film.

One other thing that I want to add is that watching this film right now has served as an important reaffirmation for me about how I think cinema should work and what I look for in films - this is very specifically personal, but my own USC thesis film, "Sleep in Heavenly Peace" was made with a very similar mindset and strategy that I think was on Kubrick's mind, and reading about its critical reaction, especially from Alexander Walker's writings, has reaffirmed that what I did was valid and worth doing.

K. Bowen said...

As far as desensitization .... when watching it on a big screen, by the time I reached the attacks that they're showing Alex during his "treatment," the violence was just washing over me. IT was the strangest feeling, watching something that should make yo uwince, but kinda sitting there and watching it without feeling.

I have a hard time putting Kubrick's ultimate goal into words. I think most people would put out one-word answers like "technology." I would say something like "He's concerned about the dim fate of human passion and individuality within authoritarian social structures that are looking to keep a lid on it for the sake of order." It comes up differently in different films. In Clockwork, it's free will under assault. In 2001, it's basic emotions. In Eyes Wide Shut, it's marriage trying to keep a lid on Dionysian lust. In Lyndon, you see all of these things, in a society that goes so far as to de-passion and ritualize murder. That's what I mean by Lyndon being a Rosetta Stone. It has a bit of all these things. There's more to Kubrick than that, but that idea is a good starting point to his work.

Have you seen The Invasion? It's imperfect, and the re-shoots don't help. But it reminds me of Kubrick. The whole idea is a sort of Ludovico Method in a convenient nicotine-patch form. Too many people are stuck in the knee-jerk "Iraq metaphor" mode to see it through the Kubrick lens.