Monday, December 19, 2011

A Clockwork Orange

Alex (Malcolm McDowell): It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.

Here's a little–known fact about "A Clockwork Orange."

Malcolm McDowell was 27 when he made that movie, but his character was 15.

I knew he was older than the character he played — but I never realized he was nearly twice as old — until recently.

Well, anyway ...

Director Stanley Kubrick said "A Clockwork Orange," which premiered 40 years ago today, was a "social satire," and I suppose that is true. By definition, I guess, a satire is something that is obviously exaggerated, and "A Clockwork Orange" was grossly exaggerated in parts.

But it was also a very disturbing movie — disturbing precisely because there was just enough truth in it to make it plausible — in addition to the fact that it featured a lot of violence, including a rape, whether they were plausibly presented or not.

I guess it was no surprise it got mixed reviews. As much as modern folks are inclined to complain about violence in movies and on TV, I'm sure it would get negative reviews if it was released today.

And that is kind of ironic, considering that many of the people in today's audiences were brought up on films like "Natural Born Killers," "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2."

"A Clockwork Orange" still inspires strong feelings from viewers, even after four decades. Earlier this month, NPR published a list of cult classics and asked its audience to "weigh in on what was there and what was missing."

It should have come as no real surprise that several readers pointed out that "A Clockwork Orange" was missing. In the words of one reader, "Without that, the list is illegitimate."

No doubt, many people — including myself — would agree.

I guess a lot of that has to do with the utterly repugnant nature of the depravity depicted in the movie — the rape scenes, the savage beatings, the generally brutish activity of Alex (McDowell) and his Droogs. It simply wasn't acceptable, no matter how one might try to excuse it.

You could try to rationalize the violence — as some people did — by saying it was the inevitable result of life in a socialist state, one that was clearly modeled after the Soviet Union or perhaps one of its satellites.

Or you could rationalize it in several other ways.

But, eventually, you had to come back to the realization that Alex and his Droogs deliberately inflicted pain and suffering on those who were weak and vulnerable.

And that is clearly contrary to (at the very least) the implied guidelines of a civilized society — which must have come as something of a shock to audiences of that day. Their most recent exposure to Kubrick had been a few years earlier, in "2001: A Space Odyssey," which had some violence but, in general, offered an uplifting vision of the future with its fantastic glimpses of technological advances and human nature.

Alex's incarceration — and the experimental effort at behavior modification — went awry almost from the start. In an effort to make violence and forced sex unpleasant, the doctors who sought to rehabilitate Alex inadvertently conditioned him to have the same response upon hearing the music of his beloved Ludwig van Beethoven.
Alex: No. No! NO! Stop it! Stop it, please! I beg you! This is sin! This is sin! This is sin! It's a sin, it's a sin, it's a sin!

Dr. Brodsky: Sin? What's all this about sin?

Alex: That! Using Ludwig van like that! He did no harm to anyone. Beethoven just wrote music!

Dr. Branom: Are you referring to the background score?

Alex: Yes.

Dr. Branom: You've heard Beethoven before?

Alex: Yes!

Dr. Brodsky: So, you're keen on music?

Alex: YES!

Dr. Brodsky: Can't be helped. Here's the punishment element perhaps.

Then, in what was a delicious twist of fate, the rehabilitated Alex, whose physical well being depended upon maintaining harmonious relationships with those around him, was released to the not–so–tender mercies of the outside world.

"A Clockwork Orange" was controversial at the time, and Kubrick voluntarily withdrew it from British theaters after learning that it was being blamed for copycat crimes.

Kubrick is often mentioned as a primary influence on film directors even though he only directed about a dozen films in his lifetime, and each was quite different from the rest, but there are some generalizations that can be made about his directorial career, the most significant of which (I believe) is this:

Before "A Clockwork Orange," it could fairly be said that most of his movies offered a more upbeat presentation of humanity; the general mood of his films (if not the themes themselves) grew much darker after "A Clockwork Orange."

But if one must find similarities between a film and its director's other works, then I would have to say this about "A Clockwork Orange." Of all the films Kubrick made, it probably had the most in common with "Dr. Strangelove," which was made nearly a decade earlier.

It's hard to pick a favorite from Kubrick's films. His body of work was diverse and included the first attempt to bring "Lolita" to the screen, "Dr. Strangelove," "2001," "The Shining," and "Full Metal Jacket."

Being asked to choose a favorite Kubrick film — as far as I am concerned — isn't even like being asked to pick between peaches and apples. It's more like being asked to pick between But I think I would choose "Dr. Strangelove" as my favorite, and "Clockwork." much like "Strangelove," was a fascinating tap dance between really terrifying violence and ethical ambiguity.

In fact, if he had been considerably younger when "Clockwork" was made, I could see Peter Sellers (a star of both "Strangelove" and "Lolita") in McDowell's role. But, by 1971, he was too old (45) to plausibly play a teenager.

One could argue, I guess, that "Clockwork" was the logical next step in Kubrick's departure from comedy. But I don't think he ever left comedy. His comedy just took on a darker edge that could be seen in his later films.

I guess there were times when you really had to look for it, but it was always there.