This is part 6 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise is basically that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 2 of my discussion on…
A Clockwork Orange
In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. My evidence thus far has been mathematical. I’ve added up the minutes spent on violence and sex, and on satire. There are more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter.
For convenience sake, I split the film into the following chapters.
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)
For more detail, please see my previous post Against Kubrick 5.
The second part of my argument is subjective: I argue that Stanley Kubrick is more inspired when someone is either doing harm to another or is about to do harm to another than he is when he is trying to be satirical. Further, in the satirical parts, he more often resorts to cheap tricks and shocking images. If I can prove this, then I think I can reasonably help strip away any notion that Kubrick is acting as some kind of humanist in A Clockwork Orange.
So to continue…
The first shot of the film is unforgettable. Alex, our anti-hero, staring into the camera at the Karova milk bar. Eerie synthesizer music. Then Kubrick slowly tracks back, revealing the futuristic setting. Everything here is laden with meaning, foreboding. You can’t take your eyes off it.
This is what I mean when I say profound cinematic idea. I’ll wager Kubrick didn’t consult any rules of direction or cinematography when devising this scene. Rather, he just knew. He knew that it would work because he saw it crystal clear in his mind’s eye before he shot a centimeter of film. This is talent. And odds are you can close your eyes and throw a marble at any scene prior to Alex’s incarceration and come up with something just as good. This is genius.
Here’s a presentation of a half dozen of these images, most from the first chapter of the film:
I love this image. The wide angle. The long shadows. The truncheon resting comfortably on Alex’s shoulders. It’s urban. It’s subterranean. You know something bad is about to happen, but the setting is so…inviting you can’t pull yourself away from it.
I can’t pull myself away from this scene either, but for entirely different reasons.
Now, we all should know what Alex is about to do with those scissors. He’s about to expose his victim’s breasts prior to gang-raping her. It’s horrifying partially because it’s entirely unnecessary. He uses the same pair of scissors to remove all of the woman’s clothes a few seconds later. What does he need to expose her breasts for? He does it because he can, you see. And because she’s a woman and has breasts that Alex the psychopath simply wants to take a gander at. All this and “Singin’ in the Rain”. Chilling cinema.
And who can forget the slow-motion bashing by the lake. Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” playing on the soundtrack. A real feast for the eyes. Notice also how Kubrick frames these last three examples in wide angle, with the boots of Alex and his droogs figuring prominently. For me, this brings to mind storm troopers and documentaries about Nazi Germany. I’m sure it would bring to mind something else for you, but whatever it brings, I’m sure it won’t be comforting. I would be shocked if this wasn’t Stanley Kubrick’s intent from the very beginning.
Then of course there’s this:
Hmm, I wonder Kubrick is up to here? And I mean that in a positive way. There is so much meaning in both of these screenshots that I’ll leave it up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions. Keep in mind that Kubrick filmed it so you could do exactly that.
By the way, the woman in this last screenshot is attacking Alex with a bust of Beethoven. Beethoven is Alex’s favorite composer, and Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” (Symphony #9) is Alex’s favorite composition. Of course, Alex’s self-serving hooliganism has no place in the peace and brotherhood promoted by Beethoven’s 9th, yet he loves Beethoven anyway. Beethoven also plays a very important role during the satirical scenes coming up in the film. So the levels of cinematic and narrative irony just keep piling on.
Perhaps my favorite shot in the entire film is this one, from chapter 4…
…which tracks back into this one:
So what’s going on here? After the Ludovico Technique, Alex is not only conditioned against violence, he is also conditioned against Beethoven’s 9th. That man in the middle is a writer known only as Mr. Alexander. He can be seen in the third screenshot above, about to watch Alex and his droogs gang rape his wife, the lady soon-not-to-be in red. Well, Alex stumbles into his home after being released from prison. To get revenge, Alexander locks him in a room and plays Beethoven’s 9th at full blast from the floor below, attempting to drive him mad. Alex screams in agony, but to Alexander it’s all sweet music.
But why is this sequence so mesmerizing, from the exaggerated schadenfreude on Alexander’s face to the apparent indifference of his co-conspirators? I don’t know. But I do know that it generates an emotional response in me that I cannot name. I also love the guy idly rolling billiard balls across the table.
So, I will ask you then, what do these all these scenes have in common? Well, yes, they are products of Kubrick’s stunning cinematic vision. But what else, my dear brother and only friends? What else do they have in common?
Answer: cruelty and violence. In all cases except the first, someone is in the process of getting beaten, raped, murdered, or tortured. And in the first, Alex reveals that whatever he and droogs decide to do that evening, it will involve “a bit of the old ultra-violence.” So if the violence ain’t happening, it’s certainly about to.
So, let’s compare all this great stuff with some of the conceits Kubrick comes up with during the other chapters in the film, namely 2, 3, and 5.
First, we have the chief guard of the prison.
With all his foot-stomping, order-barking, and anal retentive military etiquette, I never quite understood what Kubrick was going for here. And he must have been going for something since so much time is dedicated to this man. Is Kubrick lampooning the military? The British stiff upper lip? Not that it has anything to do with the story or anything, of course. I guess the prison chief is kind of amusing the first time you see him. After that, you’ll realize that Benny Hill did the schtick much better. So did Monty Python.
Then there are the moments that are just disgusting or placed in the movie for shock value. These are what I call cheap tricks, unworthy of their director. They command a person’s attention the same way a car wreck on the side of the road would. They require no sophistication to appreciate. They carry no meaning, present no vision. Here are some examples. See if you disagree.
So you have someone spitting in Malcolm McDowell’s face (Geez, I wonder how many takes it took to hit the lips like that), Michael Bates looking directly into Malcolm McDowell’s arse (Geez, I wonder if he really is pulling apart those arse cheeks), a close-up of Godfrey Quigley’s impossibly bad teeth (Geez, did Kubrick make him chew through a box of Oreos before shooting?), and a close up of Malcolm McDowell licking the sole of a shoe (Geez, I wonder if that’s a new shoe).
I use the actors’ names here and not their characters’ because what’s happening here is real. That’s not fake spit. That’s not a fake arse. That’s not a fake tongue. And if those are fake teeth, they’re real enough to convince. And I ask all those inane questions because they all relate to real life, in this case the act of filming, the very thing a director is supposed to hide unless his name is Jean Luc Goddard. Your reaction to these scenes would be almost identical to your reaction to them in real life. This is why I call these images cheap tricks. You can get them anywhere, and any director can come up with them. They require no craft, no art. Just competent lighting, acting, and camera work.
Now, what do these images all have in common? Little to no violence or cruelty, that’s what. The second and third images have none at all, the second being a routine prison inspection, and the latter being nothing more than a fire and brimstone sermon by the prison chaplain.
As for the first image, yes, spitting on someone isn’t nice. But is it cruel or violent? Hardly. And sure, Alex had just been roughed up by a pair of cops, but it was nothing compared to the ultra-violence he had been heaping upon Dystopian Britain throughout chapter 1. And that wound on his nose? Caused by one of his droogs hitting him square in the face with a loaded milk bottle, not the cops.
As for the last image, from chapter 3, it’s true that Alex gets slapped a couple times by a thug presumably paid to antagonize him on stage. The point of the scene is to show the public that Alex, being conditioned against violence by the Ludovico Technique, cannot retaliate. It is to show that he’d been cured and can thus regain his freedom. So when told to lick the thug’s shoe, Alex does it. Is this cruel? Well, if licking a man’s shoe is the price one pays for freedom, I doubt I’d call it cruel at all. Just the opposite, actually.
To be sure, there’s some good stuff in the satirical sections of the film. A straightjacketed Alex being forced to watch ultra-violent movies as part of the Ludovico Technique stands out, obviously.
And yes, that’s real physician, not an actor, making sure Malcolm McDowell’s eyes didn’t dry out during filming.
But as great as this image is, I wonder how much of it came from Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange the novel and how much originated from Kubrick?
Also, what images during chapters 3 and 5 aside from this one are particularly memorable? Maybe the final scene in which the government official feeds Alex while offering him a bribe. But what else? All the dormitory scenes during the Ludovico sequence are brief and used largely for exposition. What about Alex interrupting a hospital-room tryst when he wakes from his coma? Meh. His final rejection of his parents from his hospital bed? Nothing special there. The Rorschach’s test scene with the blue-haired psychiatrist?
While it was nice for Kubrick to have another woman in his film who doesn’t either get raped, murdered, or appear topless, this scene doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.
Overall, I would say that Kubrick is at his best here when depicting scenes of violence and cruelty. His vision is singular and mesmerizing, just like it is in many of his other films. Further, I think the evidence shows that he is less inspired in the sequences in which people aren’t being particularly cruel and violent to each other.
So what does this amount to? Simply that A Clockwork Orange is a film about violence and cruelty first and a satire second. In fact, I could argue that A Clockwork Orange is almost as much softcore porn as it is a satire considering how many naked breasts it contains. I, umm, counted, actually. There are 62 female breasts in A Clockwork Orange, by my count. 40 are fake or in paintings. The other 22 are unique. That is, eleven different women appear topless in A Clockwork Orange. What this has to do with “satire” is anybody’s guess.
This concludes part 2 of my polemic against A Clockwork Orange. Part 3 will address how the very satire of A Clockwork Orange is problematic, further underscoring the idea that satire takes a backseat to violence in this very un-humanistic film.
But before I close, my dear brothers and only friends, I would like to leave you with this awesome image.
This is the first shot of the film’s prison sequence, chapter 2. Alex has just been betrayed by his droogs after his murder of the Cat Lady. Here he is being stared at by a police detective, who never says a word throughout the scene. I do love this image, but perhaps for reasons other than what Kubrick had intended. I love the boredom and contempt on the man’s face, as if to say, “You think you’re hot stuff, don’t you punk? With all your sex and ultra-violence. You think youâ€™re so clever. But I see through you. I know what you really are, and it’s no big bargain.”
This is exactly how I feel about A Clockwork Orange.