Skip to main content

It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.

A Clockwork Orange
(1971)

It would be reasonable to ask whether there’s anything left to be said about A Clockwork Orange, so embedded in cult film consciousness is it. And so raked over in debates on sex, violence, censorship, and whether the media is culpable in cases of alleged imitations of fictional events in the real world.


A Clockwork Orange is not a film I particularly venerate, but I most certainly recognise its enduring power (perhaps for reasons both positive and negative). The documentary Revisiting A Clockwork Orange, produced at the time of the film’s re-release in Britain after nearly 30 years absence, made a cogent argument that it came into being at a time when the boundaries of censorship were being pushed back and, as a result of that environment, it’s unlikely that a film of its ilk could be made today. Because, while it isn’t a particularly violent film, it remains a disturbing one. Identification with sociopathic Alex isn’t, per se, what marks it out (there’s been plenty of charismatic villainy since) but the heightened milieu continues to be utterly original and distinct (even if elements of its stylistic flourishes have been stolen wholesale by less creative filmmakers and artists).


I didn’t see the film for the first time until it had its UK rebirth, and I think I had a certain reaction to all that hype surrounding it; brilliant filmmaking, but is it really so in terms of content? Is it saying anything exceptional, that others haven’t said? Maybe not. I think it was Tony Kaye who commented that even if it does not, in terms of aesthetic it is nevertheless exceptionally exciting filmmaking. And it feels that Kubrick at times reveals a sensibility that, even if it very much reflects the character of the protagonist, is highly insensitive to his cast (and it’s certainly a fairly well recognised trait of the director that he puts his actors through the mill to achieve the results he wants). But that’s also what makes it endure; elements here continue to feel wrong, and again I don’t mean this in terms of approximation of the perspective of Alex but in the approach of a filmmaker willing to present material the way that he does.


Sam Mendes noted that the film’s landscape is one devoid of other people, besides Alex himself. So despite Alex’s jeering, mocking voice, in the absence of anyone else to identify with we are drawn to him. The intimate, confessional tone puts us, however unwillingly, on the side of the narrator. Kubrick employs this technique far more effectively than he does with Humbert in Lolita; this may be partly because we hear more of Alex’s narration. Despite Alex being shown to be more overtly culpable than Humbert, we identify with him more because he is less remote.



The stylisation of A Clockwork Orange serves to encourage the audience to swallow many of its more unpalatable aspects. This heightened sense is evident from the first shot of Alex and the Droogs in the milk bar; the set and costuming is almost cartoonish, and Walter (later Wendy) Carlos’ music, played on a Moog synthesiser, still sounds extraordinary (Carlos would later work on Tron).


The sense of heightened reality is encouraged by Kubrick’s use of wide-angle lenses throughout. He frequently shoots from low or high positions, which shows off his actors to exaggerated or cartoonish effect. Seemingly a consequence of a tight budget, he also works mostly with natural light (something he would do again with the decidedly more expensive Barry Lyndon) and real locations. So we are exposed to an environment that feels both starkly real and at once stylised, and it’s all the more unsettling for that.  The shot of Alex and his Droogs out on a joy ride draws attention to the artifice of its back projection and encourages the sense that we are privy to Alex’s world and point of view. While this works undeniably well at times, it also comes across as an excuse to justify some of the film’s more crass indulgences (most notably in its comedy content).



Then there’s the Russian/cockney mash-up of the Droogs’ slang; at once beckoning in its exotic distinctiveness and attractive because it is easy to grasp.


The rape scene has become a focal point for discussion of the film’s most troubling sensibilities. It has been noted that there is an absence of feeling on the part of the filmmaker, a disquietingly observant role that makes one question the attitude behind it (it can’t have been a particularly pleasant experience for Adrienne Corri, and apparently the first actress employed in the role dropped out; it’s not hard to understand why). The use of wide-angle lenses creates a cartoonishness that rubs uncomfortably against the overlit harshness of the house. There is an abstraction to the violence, through mannerism, the nightmarish masks worn by the Droogs, and the posing performances (“Singin’ in the Rain”) such that the scene lacks authenticity, but this has the effect of making it all the more disturbing (the cutting off of the wife’s clothing is especially wince-inducing).


The rape scene is shot very much from a male point of view. There is no dwelling on the effect on the victim; we experience more of the husband’s pain than we do his wife. Indeed, we learn later of her off screen death; it is her crippled husband who is given the opportunity to enact revenge, and then as a grotesque caricature.


Like many scenes in the film, it is protracted beyond the point we would normally expect, played out in almost real time. And as Mendes noted in the aforementioned documentary, sex in the film is either violent or comic. He referred to it as a position that was “strange and not entirely healthy”. It’s arguable that this reflects Alex himself; there is no emotional connection to others within him. But such a take can also be used to let a filmmaker off the hook for a multitude of choices that would otherwise be considered extremely dubious, if not altogether unhealthy. While Kubrick lingers on the rape scene, he later speeds up the sex that Alex has with two girls for comedy effect.


We have already witnessed a woman stripped and surrounded by groping, leering men in the earlier attempted rape on the stage by a rival gang.  The camera lingers on the group grabbing at her, the scene is allowed to play out, making us complicit as passive observers.


Kubrick surrounds the Droogs (not just the Droogs) with the paraphernalia of overt sexualisation; the pornographic plastic of the milk bar, the stylised posters and the crude graffiti daubed on every wall. One might argue that it is a precursor to today’s society, washed in easily accessible sexual imagery. Alternatively, it hearkens to the decadence of Rome (Spartacus, anyone?)


The attitude to sex in the film is that of an adolescent; it’s been said that Kubrick wanted to make a “youth” film in response to the prevailing winds of the era (Easy Rider and its ilk). What he delivers is an approximation of a youth film; it doesn’t feel as if it is made by a young filmmaker. It is too calculated for that. The only point in the film where the attitude to sex of the Droogs is mirrored is the scene with the cat lady. She surrounds herself with the same sort of fetishist material, but Alex’s reaction is to accuse her of deviancy. Embracement of sexuality is a young man’s indulgence, it seems. And for her sins, she is beaten to death with an ornamental ceramic phallus. Again, this is the kind of grotesque exaggeration that makes the film an often uncomfortable experience, searching about as it does for comedic mileage in sexual violence.


The overt comedy elements of the film are probably the ones most open to criticism of misjudgement of tone. Certainly, it’s arguable that Kubrick misjudged and indulged the comedic elements of Lolita. And if Dr Strangelove seems to be beautifully observed, let’s not forget that it was originally to have ended with a pie fight.


The broader slapstick elements of the film reinforce the notion that this is a comedy. I’d be more confident in suggesting this element mirrors the attitudes of its protagonist than defining its genre that way.  It’s certainly at its sharpest (satirically) when dealing with the wheels of bureaucracy that envelop Alex.


But much of the comedy is also fairly elementary slapstick. And, as discussed, the camera itself seems to actively encourage our appreciation of this as an exaggerated and distorted world, a world of tits and cocks and arses.


From Alex’s passing out into a plate of Bolognese, to his coming round in a hospital where a nurse with big knockers is shagging a doctor behind a curtain, to Deltoid’s drinking from a glass of water with false teeth in (raising the question of which of Alex’s parents left the house all gummy that morning), the lack of sophistication is writ large and grins inanely (like Alex himself).


Look at the timing in the prison induction; the staging has almost musical precision. McDowell is fearless (fortunate, as he would be called on to make Caligula before the decade was out) and the comedy is deftly performed, but it is also defiantly crude and lowbrow.


If one is disposed to make allowances for this, there are still choices that Kubrick makes that seem a bit on the nose. Alex’s pet snake nestled at the pudenda of the woman in the painting on his wall is the choice of a film maker who doesn’t know when to rein it in, who has allowed self-indulgence to get the better of him.


The less self-conscious comedy often works better; for example, the performer at the show of Alex’s who bows three times before she leaves stage hits just the right note of surreality.

Prison Chaplain: When a man cannot choose, he ceases to become a man.

It might seem as if debating the “message” of A Clockwork Orange is like asking to be beaten about the head unsubtly with the an enormous ceramic phallus. But as others (Mark Kermode, I think) have pointed out, there’s a strong sense here that any point is secondary to how it has been dressed up. Almost as if Kubrick said “Right, that’s obvious, now I can get on with the important stuff. Such as the presentation”.


So, yes, individuality versus the depersonalisation of the state forms a cornerstone. But how conscious of that are we when viewing most of the film through Alex’s eyes? Alex himself leads a band who are controlled and identified as one entity at the outset. Kubrick certainly gives significant time to the wheels of the system. From the comedy prison induction to the laborious signing of release forms for Alex’s treatment.


Then there is the identification of art as the saviour of the soul. It’s certainly the only part of the film where you sense it is informed by the filmmaker’s passionate views (although the scene itself, where Alex is being brainwashed, is fairly intense anyway). Beethoven is the one thing that raises Alex up, gives him inspiration. And it is that which will be destroyed completely in order to cure him.


I’m not sure how pervading that position is. Alex’s imaginings merely adapt the content of that great work of literature, The Bible, to his own predilections. Does that amount to a poke at the conflicting moral content of The Bible (and by association the state that upholds it as a creed), or is there an intimation that some art as more worthy than other art, as with the sexualised posters and statues?


It should be noted that the pastor who opposes Alex’s treatment is probably the only genuinely sympathetic character in the film, despite being associated with a rather ineffectual institution. It’s a surprise that he doesn’t have untoward designs on Alex, because we expect the entire world to be corrupted.


The plot symmetry of the cured Alex meeting up with those he has wronged is unsubtle, to put it mildly. Again, maybe this is intentional, playing up the stylisation and artifice of the film. So Alex is beaten up by the tramp (and friends) that he (and friends) laid into in the opening scenes. And his former Droogs, now officers of the law (not very subtle that, either) give Alex a water-boarding (a jaw-dropping scene, just for the amount of time McDowell appears to spend under water, although apparently there is a cut). And then we move on to the house where the rape took place; Alex is playing out a succession of encounters almost as in a fairy tale.


That scene serves to emphasise how Alex’s attitudes haven’t changed, just his capacity for action (although we have already seen this with his visit to his parents and attitude to the intrusion of Clive Francis – very amusing – as Joe). Kubrick is happy to mock all-comers politically, so the intellectual liberal pose of the husband collapses into furious rage on discovery that Alex is the aggressor who crippled him and sent his wife to en early grave. Kubrick has no real interest in dealing with the reality of what Alex has done, but then Alex is unable to perceive the reality either. So it is presented in a heightened form.


This heightened reality has led some to label the film as belonging to the horror genre. The atmosphere created by Kubrick has the closest parallels his actual horror film, The Shining. The way he sustains sequences, uncompromisingly, partly creates that effect. It’s unlikely that anyone would label 2001 a horror film, but he employs similar techniques there. And, while we have horror elements as experienced by Alex (I might say this works because he’s the only character we are really invited to empathise with, but it’s debatable how much of The Shining relies on audience identification with the characters to achieve its effect) during his brainwashing (both physically, with his eyes forced open, and emotionally) we also encounter the sketchy line between horror and comedy. The husband’s explosive rage at Alex is a precursor to Jack Torrance’s OTT theatrics a decade later.


As for the ending, with Alex contentedly restored to his old capabilities, the point has been made that this is diametrically different to the place that Anthony Burgess’ book arrives at. There, Alex makes the choice to change, a choice for “good”, having outgrown childish ways. In Kubrick’s film Alex is allowed to remain the eternal bad boy; the individual has won-out, Alex’s moral perspective being ultimately irrelevant to the society that wished to yoke him. 


One point I think Mendes makes astutely is his suggestion that the film displays a bravery of attitude on Kubrick’s part. That is, he has faith in his audience to be able to read A Clockwork Orange in an other than literal sense (ironically, it is just this faith that would end up seeing him make the choice to withdraw it from circulation in Britain).


While I admire the film, I’m not devoted to it. A Clockwork Orange both impresses and repels, which I’m sure Kubrick would appreciate being told, and it also rewards revisiting and reappraisal. I should also disclose that I never felt impelled to put the poster on my bedroom wall when I was a student.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ (or Zootopia as our American cousins refer to it; the European title change being nothing to do with U2, but down to a Danish zoo, it seems, which still doesn’t explain the German title, though) creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). It’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

So credit’s due to co-directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (of The Simpsons, Futurama, and latterly, the great until it kind of rests on its laurels Wreck-It-Ralph) and Jared Bush (presumably one of the th…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.