Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Clockwork Orange

OK, A Clockwork Orange (1971) might not be scary the same way a movie like Halloween is, but as a dystopian satire of crime and punishment and free will, it is, in turn, shocking, graphic, violent, and darkly funny. As played by Malcolm McDowell, main character Alex (I can't refer to him as the hero) is one of the nastiest, cruelest, and most devious of cinematic characters. Plus, he's a popular Halloween costume, so that's enough of a criteria for me to review the movie now.

The story is divided into three parts and is set in a near-future England. The first part shows Alex and his gang raping, pillaging, and fighting and ends with Alex's arrest for murder. Act two follows Alex's time in prison where he undergoes the Ludovico Technique, which basically instills in him a Pavlovian response to violence and sex that causes him to become violently ill. After Alex is "cured," he is released back into society and finds his past victims aren't so forgiving.

Director Stanley Kubrick (adapting the novel by Anthony Burgess) crafts one of the most visually distinctive and iconic films of all time with A Clockwork Orange. The outfits of Alex and his "droogs," the statues of submissive women, the shot of Alex strapped in a chair with his eyes forced open during the Ludovico Technique, and the wide-angle closeups of almost every major character glaring straight on at the camera are among the most memorable of movie images.

Kubrick gives the movie an off-kilter, distorted style, and the result is an alien, almost insane effect, something Terry Gilliam might have created if he wasn't trying to be funny or whimsical. This future Kubrick presents is deranged, from the government all the way down to the street punk Alex, and the way he films the movie reflects that. Kubrick utilizes long takes, slanted camera angles, random inserts (example: Alex imagines himself as a vampire while listening to music), hypnotic electronic music, and leering, menacing figures who stare directly into the camera, overwhelm the frame and seem to threaten the viewer. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, even without all the violence and uncomfortable nudity.

Yet, the film also contains some darkly funny moments and touches. Kubrick choreographs scenes of violence to classical music, and that has a peculiar effect. The film is also sly when Alex, in prison, makes nice with the chaplain by delving into the Bible, but instead of stories of love and redemption, Alex is attracted to the Old Testament stories of war, torture, and orgies. In a perverse but amazing fantasy, he imagines himself as one of Jesus's Roman torturers. Other moments are funny and horrifying, like when Alex reunites with his ex-droogs who have now become police officers.

As expected of a Kubrick film, there's a lot of to talk about, especially when it comes to meaning. It's certainly not out of the realm of plausibility to believe the government would use brainwashing to control its citizens if it could. By surrendering his free will (by volunteering for this behavior modification program), Alex loses the ability to choose, becoming neither good nor bad; he has no soul, as the prison chaplain declares. Alex is ultimately a pawn, used by both the government and anti-government groups to further their agendas. Eliminating violent urges isn't so much a matter of public safety as it is a matter of public control.

A controversial film, A Clockwork Orange raises the question: does it support Alex's antisocial behavior? Does the film glorify violence? I believe, in both cases, the answer is no. Alex is a fiendish and charismatic individual who enjoys "ultra-violence," but Kurbrick lays bare the hypocrisy of the society that created him. His parents offer no parenting, his caseworker tries to molest him, and the police beat him up, multiple times. Criminal thugs are recruited into the police, and even seemingly decent, upstanding citizens enjoy punishing and hurting others. A totalitarian government that keeps its foot on the throat of its people can't be surprised when its criminals are similarly violent.

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