Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Clockwork Orange

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Also, the images in this post may be disturbing to some. DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

Director Stanley Kubrick withdrew this 1971 film from distribution in England for more than two decades because of the supposed negative influence some claimed it had on the youth of the time. He and his family were threatened by a few who condemned the film. It may seem tame in comparison to what we see on the screen today, but there is an attractive darkness in it that still seduces and shocks the audience even now. But, the story is not a glorification of violence; it is an attempt to explore the wide spectrum of human behavior which is the result of free will.
The movie is dominated by the amazing performance of Malcolm McDowell as the young hoodlum, Alex (a name author Anthony Burgess, from whose novel the film is based, said is to suggest a contorted version of Alexander the Great, slashing through and conquering all in his path). Before we even see an image, Kubrick presents a red background, suggesting that maybe instead of being baptized in cleansing water, we, and especially Alex, are bathed in blood from the onset. The first image is that of a close-up of an unblinking, slightly bowed Alex, staring menacingly at us. There is a false eyelash on his right eye, indicating that there is something strange about this fellow. As the camera pulls back, we see tables that are in the form of naked alabaster women, legs spread out, used to hold drinks. There are other sculptures in the Korova Milk Bar of voluptuous women which dispense drug-laced milk from plastic breasts. Alex and his droogs (members of his gang) are dressed in white outfits, wearing bowler hats, and have bulging athletic supporter pouches around their genitals, accentuating their fullness. From these images Kubrick tells us a great deal about this not-too-distant future time. Women are literally objectified in the bar, turned into degraded sexual decorations. The image of the innocence of a mother nurturing her young with her pure white breast milk is conjured up alongside this incestuous tableau of depraved imbibing of poisoned fluid. The whiteness of the mannequins and the gang’s clothes is also an ironic comment on how these boys, while still being young with life’s possibilities ahead of them, are far from unsullied. The bowler hats are a satiric comment as to the disdain these youths have for the established order of British proper gentlemen who let them live in squalor in their dilapidated neighborhood.

Alex narrates the story in a dialect, also spoken by other gang members, that Burgess made up that consists of various linguistic derivations, including Russian and Cockney. The language has a twofold purpose: on the one hand, it distances the reader from the atrocities presented; conversely, it is also musical, almost poetic, and this quality seduces us and draws us to the speaker. Kubrick, who at first found the language off-putting, uses it extensively in the screenplay. But, he goes beyond language here, to accomplish distancing, and more. When Alex and his "droogs" confront another gang, the violence looks like acrobatics, as the boys tumble and fly through the air, smashing into each other with objects and their bodies. The staged choreography of this violence contrasts with the destructive acts taking place. The fight even takes place at a defunct casino, where we first see the beauty of the upper part of the building contrasting with the ruins of the rest of the building as thugs try to rape a woman. It may be that Kubrick is commenting on the decay exerted on the historic by modern times. There is the use of slow motion, altering reality, when Alex attacks his fellow rebellious droogs in ballet style. We have the fast motion scene where Alex has sex with two girls in his bedroom, not allowing us to indulge in prurient observation, but still illustrating Alex’s proclivities. There is the song-and-dance sequence involving “Singing in the Rain” that Alex performs while assaulting the writer and his wife. The entertaining is diverting while the “horror show” that Alex and his gang pursue takes place.

But there is much more here than just attempting to distance the audience. Kubrick also uses visual art and classical music while the mayhem is on display. For instance, “The William Tell Overture” is used during the threesome sex scene, the quickness of the tempo matching the speed of the camera work. We also have a sculpture of a sleek looking penis and scrotum used as the murder weapon to kill the manager of a health farm (Miriam Karlin). Instead of actually showing the woman’s face as Alex slams her head with the sculpture, Kubrick gives us the image of a woman in a paining in the building who appears with an open mouth and looks like she is yelling. Alex loves Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This piece is later played during Alex’s behavioral modification while there are images of Hitler and Nazi Germany. By emphasizing the art of the cinema through this stylized, form of filmmaking, Kubrick seems to be saying that humans have the dual capacity for awesome creativity and extreme destructiveness. 
The character of Alex shows this complexity. There is no doubt that this guy is primarily evil. He steals, and beats, rapes (while wearing a mask with an extended phallic nose), and even kills a woman. When he reads the bible in jail, he enjoys imagining himself being the Roman soldier whipping Jesus. He enjoys Beethoven’s symphony, but while listening he envisions a hanging and explosions, and sees himself as a vampire with fangs dripping blood. He listens in the company of his pet snake, an obvious Satanic symbol. But, doesn’t great art draw on all our aspects, the baser ones as well as the uplifting? When inviting the girls over to his place to have sex, he talks about music containing, “angel trumpets and devil trombones.” Art mirrors what is inside of people, both the good and the bad. Alex is poetic when he describes what Beethoven’s music sounds like when he says, “Oh bliss! Bliss and Heaven! Oh, it was georgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now.” His sly and melodic speech seduces us, so we identify and vicariously participate with him in his exploits. We may even laugh when he sings “Singing in the Rain” and then feel guilty that we enjoy his vocalizing and dancing while he attacks people. His youth and attractiveness also draw us in, and we feel mixed feeling about his magnetic personality. It is something like how we appreciate Hannibal Lecter’s intelligence and style, but revile his brutality. In this way, Kubrick is like Hitchcock, who reveals how we implicate ourselves in vicariously identifying with transgressors, and thus indicts us for judging other sinners.
 Although the dangerous actions of the individual is a threat to society, the sanctioned institutionalized violence of the state is more frightening because of the extensive power it can exert on a mass scale, blotting out the humanity of the people. Alex’s probation officer, Mr. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), the name maybe suggesting the “muscle” the government can exert, is a sadistic pervert, who violently grabs Alex’s genitals as he lectures him. The police say they want to stop aggressors like Alex. But, when they get him in custody, they beat him while hypocritically acting civilized, asking politely about tea and paper towels to clean up his bloody mess. When he goes to prison, he is stripped of all his clothes and belongings, and symbolically of his individuality, having a number assigned as his identity instead of his name. At the end of the film, Alex’s former droogs become policemen, beating him and almost drowning him, thus signifying the state sometimes becomes what it says it is fighting.
The state wants to get rid of crime by conditioning criminals to avoid anti-social behavior. Alex volunteers for the program, thinking he can use it as a way out of jail after his conviction for the murder of the health farm manager. They put him in a straightjacket, clamp his eyelids open so he is forced to watch atrocities that he is supposed to avoid, and inject him with drugs so that he becomes violently ill to the point of suicide when even contemplating acts of transgression. While perpetrating violence on him to supposedly stop violence, they also destroy any sexual desire, and Alex can’t defend himself when the vagrants attack him out of revenge, not an activity the state should foster, after his release from prison, thus causing him to be a victim. While they do their behavior altering, Beethoven’s 9th is in the background. Thus, Alex also develops a sickening revulsion of great music. The theme here is that if you get rid of the free will to do evil, you also rid a person of the choice to appreciate and maybe create great art. The prison chaplain (Godfrey Quigley) is against the conditioning program, and basically annunciates the overriding theme of the movie. He says, “Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” When Alex is publicly humiliated as he is forced to lick the sole of a man’s shoe to prove he will not fight back, the chaplain says Alex, “ceases to be a creature of moral choice.” To be human means to freely use all those aspects of one’s makeup, those for worthy of greatness and condemnation. To turn a person into a programmed mechanism is as contrary an act as creating “a clockwork orange.” The two just don’t go together.
The government does not care about these philosophical or moral issues. They just know the technique “works.” Until it becomes a scandal, that is. Liberals are satirized here, too. Alex winds up at the house of the author, Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), who Alex beat so badly he now is in a wheelchair and whose wife he raped and who subsequently died due to pneumonia. He at first does not recognize Alex because he wore that phallic mask, and only recognizes him to be the subject of the behavior altering experiment. The writer says the loss of his wife was really due to being a victim of the modern age where the world has let down people like her and Alex.  He calls up his friends, who want to make an example of Alex as how the government has overstepped its moral bounds. However, once Alexander hears his guest vocalizing “Singing in the Rain,” he knows who he is. He learns that Beethoven’s 9th makes him ill. He drugs Alex, locks him in a room, and blares the symphony to the point where Alex jumps out the upper floor window. Alexander (notice how the name mirror Alex’s) also has free will do good and evil. It is significant that he is a writer, capable of artistic expression, but also willing to indulge in sadistic revenge. He wants to stop the state from brainwashing people by using Alex as the poster boy for a liberal cause, but also illustrates the danger of the freedom that allows individual violence which the state wants to eliminate.

Alex wakes up with many broken bones and bedridden after his fall. Through a conversation with a psychiatrist (Pauline Taylor), he says he remembers people messing with his mind. His answers to her questions shows that he has been deconditioned. After the press finds out that Alex’s condition almost caused him to lose his life, the government sends the Minister (Anthony Sharp) to smooth things over with Alex, making a deal that he will be taken care of as long as he doesn’t blame the state. The Minister spoon feeds Alex his dinner, in a kind of satiric repetition of the milk drinking at the beginning, where innocence and corruption exist together in one image. Alex’s last words are, “I was cured, all right.” He is what he was, and the last image is of properly dressed, civilized people standing in rows on either side of Alex who is writhing in the ground having sex with a naked woman as the others applaud. The image emphasizes the prison chaplain’s theme of the duality of human nature, and the freedom to choose between the two. 
At one point in the story Alex talks about the cinema, saying “It’s funny how the colors of the real world seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” This idea of art painting truer than what appears to be true in every day life, illuminating the complexities and ambiguities of what it is to be human, may be Kubrick’s guiding artistic principle.

Next week’s film is The Bedford Incident.

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