Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Clockwork Orange

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2010)

I recently watched Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange again for the first time in six years. I don’t remember when I initially saw it, but it was relatively late in my cinema education, because the film wasn’t available in the UK when I was growing up; Kubrick kept it out of distribution for years, reportedly afraid he’d gone too far. When I did eventually see it (by virtue of crossing the Atlantic) I remember being shocked and rather repelled…so naturally, I went back a few more times after that. I think I’ve appreciated it more each time, and I now think I’d ungrudgingly call it a masterpiece. It’s not my favourite kind of masterpiece – I’m more your Eric Rohmer sort, which is just about the other end of the spectrum. But as I get more depressed about things, I wonder if we collectively even deserve a cinema as pure and lightly cerebral as Rohmer’s. Kubrick’s film is enormously prophetic, and provokes utter despair: it’s a tidal wave of breakdown, drowning many, converting others into sharks, or into plankton.

Lust For Stylishness

Based on Anthony Burgess’ novel, the film follows Alex, a vicious young delinquent, initially the leader of a gang of equally violent thugs (or droogs as he calls them), later a prisoner, and then a willing participant in a brain-altering rehabilitation experiment. The film seems to be set more or less in the 1970’s, based on how most things look (I think the only specific date reference is to a 1960 bottle of wine); it’s the recognizably brain-dead Britain of Lindsay Anderson’s films of the period (an unavoidable resonance if only because of Malcolm McDowell), with all its plummy accents and knee-jerk attitudes. But some of it –the fashionable bars and record stores where Alex hangs out, and the high-toned houses of some of his victims – exhibit a deranged futuristic design, reflecting a highly warped sexuality (he kills one woman by striking her with a sculpture of a giant penis). It’s impossible to t2001: A Space Odysseyell from the film how these two worlds reconcile. It was possible to see , for all its cautionary notes (the malfunctioning computer) as “the ultimate trip”: the world of A Clockwork Orange is just as trippy, but incoherently so, extending Britain’s inherent fragmentation to a crazy degree. As they always have, the upper-class imagine they can preserve their historical entitlements while mastering all that’s new and fashionable, but the only one who ultimately really straddles the two worlds is Alex, through his relentless violence and amorality.

I think my initial views of A Clockwork Orange, as of many other things, were overly influenced by David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema. No Kubrick fan, Thomson called the film “grindingly tedious, uncertain of how to develop narrative and pusillanimous in its attitude to violence,” criticizing its exacting art direction and photography as embodying “the erroneous lust for stylishness that besets so many contemporary arts.” The criticism seems less biting with the passage of time – “erroneous lust for stylishness” remains a perfect term for the inane digital firestorms of current mainstream cinema, but those films reek of disposability and interchangeability. A Clockwork Orange feels as if Kubrick wanted to preclude any possibility of imitation, homage, or even vague thematic linkage; and he did – the film is as extreme, astonishing and scary now (to me anyway) as it ever was. It doesn’t feel quite human – for example, its use of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ In The Rain” is so brutally callous, somehow such an unfair stunt, that it would make you viscerally hate many films, and their makers.

Terrifying Relevance

If that doesn’t happen with Kubrick, it’s because the film remains terrifyingly relevant. I’ve written numerous times (because, frankly, all roads seem to lead me back there) about how the deranged state of our popular culture and discourse and politics increasingly (well, maybe it’s not increasing, maybe it just matters more as our problems get worse, I don’t know) precludes our mature engagement with real issues and problems: we’re not able to talk rationally about how to live. A Clockwork Orange seems eerily relevant to this unraveling. No one in the film tries to understand Alex: he first hits the media as a symbol of youth violence and tool of the government’s law and order efforts, then later as a cause célèbre and malleable symbol of whatever different factions might desire him to be. None of this is remotely adequate: the first position is narrowly reactive, the second deluded. The prison chaplain worries about his soul, but in McDowell’s terrifying performance, it’s entirely plausible he lacks one altogether, while retaining a quicksilver manipulative empathy.

Alex esteems Beethoven, whose music he listens to after his violent outings: it’s the perfect symbol of sociopathic displacement – his respect appears real and deeply felt, but he places his aesthetic experience in a context that makes a mockery of our hopes for art and expression. When he loses his ability to listen to that music, because of associations introduced by the treatment, his dejection seems truer than at any other point; and at this point Kubrick achieves the unimaginable reversal of making Alex’s use of Beethoven seem more sympathetic and valid than that of the scientists. In the end, the government essentially endorses his viewpoint, culture becoming merely a pawn of political self-interest and Alex’s ravenous desire for self-gratification. And as I said, the film itself then extends the devastation by playing Gene Kelly over the closing titles.

In-Out In-Out

Extending the breakdown, the film withholds any fixed points or stable structuring elements. When Alex comes out of prison, his parents have a lodger who appears to function as a substitute son. Two of his former droogs later turn up as policemen (seemingly with minimal adjustment to their social philosophy). A former victim of Alex’s becomes, briefly anyway, an ally. Alex talks in a highly expressive slang, shot through with a sense of alienation: referring to his own actions as “the old ultra-violence” and to sex as “the in-out in-out,” but as I mentioned, the voice of the establishment is that of Britain at the time. And this film is the most extreme example of Kubrick’s non-natural use of actors, twisting them into bizarre facial expressions and line readings, rendering any normal psychological readings of behavior even more inadequate than usual. McDowell, again, is frighteningly well suited to this project; it’s one of the most chilling performances in all of cinema.

It’s amazing to have access to A Clockwork Orange, and yet a film like this shouldn’t live blandly among one’s other DVDs. Selecting it from the others always takes an effort, as if embarking on a pilgrimage without water. In a way, I’d be happy never to see it again. It would be so much easier to look at something else.

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