Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee.
In a Nutshell: A teenage hoodlum is brainwashed into rejecting immorality.

A directorial career rife with controversy, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ satire may stand as one of his most contentiously debated. Branding it Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange seems adequate for the crucial variation on Burgess’ thesis. Violence and sexual deviancy are not just youthful sins that time’s passage shall erode but traits ingrained within our very being (just as the apes evolved into violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey). We can choose to obey such instincts; the film argues that the ability to retain that choice is far more crucial than leading a chosen life of compassion. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) has made the wrong choice, beating, stealing and raping the denizens of dystopian London. Far from acting out of desperation, Alex feels an unexplainable zeal for his actions, matched only by his appreciation for Beethoven. An accidental murder lands him in jail where he volunteers for an experiment that would “cure” him of sin. Alex’s treatment is a success, but due to an unintended side effect, listening Beethoven brings on crippling sickness. A hollowed-out soul, Alex must face a future eager for his suffering.

There is a lot to love in this film including McDowell’s magnetic performance and Wendy Carlos’ bizarre score. Its thematic presentation can be a difficult experience to detach from, if only from Kubrick’s brazen manipulation of his audience. Alex is our first-person perspective, and the entire film is shaped in his morally repugnant mind. Scenes of violence and rape are distinguished by inappropriate soundtrack cues (typically classical music for an air of faux-refinement). Many of those scenes burst with vitality while several post-incarceration scenes drag from thematic repetition and over-attention to detail. Supporting performances are grotesque caricatures, with authority figures characterized as corrupt and self-interested.

All of this seems destined to elevate Alex into the only true sympathetic character. One can only ascertain Kubrick’s intentions from these elements. Alex may find joy in the pain of others, but those restricting that choice seem just as immoral (or in this context, worse). The film seems to thumb its nose at those angling to reform “instinct” but seems more willing towards juvenile condemnation than anything too probing. Its subject matter may be too polarizing to be viewed without one’s biases providing its own interpretation. But it is still admirable how Kubrick never falters in his devil’s advocacy. If you do not agree, who is he to make up your mind?

1 comment:

  1. A very good nutshell review Trey. I have always been a great admirer of this film and Burgess’ novel. Stanley Kubrick has a way of adapting renowned literature unlike any other screenwriter/director. The fact that Kubrick has written basically every movie he has directed is a quality that has always sparked debate and controversy, and there is nothing different with ‘A Clockwork Orange.’

    While changes, embellishments, and trimmings are expected when a writer convert’s a novel to the screen, one cannot ignore the fact that Kubrick almost completely disregards the original ending of Burgess’ story. In the end of the book, McDowell’s character Alex’s suicide attempt not only fails, but allows for the retrieval of recently of his suppressed sinful nature. This can be directly paralleled in the final scene of the film, but in the final chapter of the novel although Alex regains the ability to be evil, he does in fact change and become a good and decent everyday man. The book ends with Alex being much older and having a family and a normal job, reiterating that true transformation and growth requires choice.

    However, this change is not depicted in Kubrick’s ending. In the final scene of the film Alex is in a hospital bed being shown a serious of open-ended pictures and asked how they make him feel, to which he answers crudely and violently showing somewhat of a return to his old sadistic self. The closing shot of the movie is a vision Alex has of himself and a random woman having sex on some polar icecap surrounded by bystanders applauding him with the scathing voiceover, ‘I was cured alright.’ I would understand it if Kubrick had tried to be ambiguous with Alex’s true nature in the end of the film, which already would have strayed from Burgess’ original ending, but it seems like one could make the argument that he goes the completely different way.

    While I have always pondered the ending of the film, the fact that it makes you think is still a great achievement in writing/directing, one that most directors today fail to achieve (i.e. McG, Michael Bay etc.). What I think must be pointed out in this film though, besides Kubrick’s vision, is McDowell’s intoxicating portrayal of Alex. When it comes to great performances, there is nothing more impressive than when an actor is truly willing to sacrifice his well being for the good of the film. The physical toll McDowell took throughout this film is shocking: broken ribs, drowning, and of course scratched corneas to the point where he went temporarily blind. And when it comes to mental pain, the character Alex’s snake was not originally in the book or script, but when Kubrick found out that McDowell had a serious phobia of snakes, he forced a python’s entry into the film.

    And on a final note, before Heath Ledger died he had revealed that his portrayal of the Joker was significantly based on McDowell's portrayal of Alex, further reiterating that in this film McDowell undoubtedly set the standard for Maniacal performances.