Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Clockwork Orange ***1/2 (1971)

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange remains potent and essential cinema. Made as a follow up to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the two films make for a perfect double bill.  If 2001 asked how humanity will survive as technology comes to dominate it, A Clockwork Orange asks how far governments should go in "curing" those it deems evil.  Kubrick's acidic satire leaves a bitter taste, contemporary reviews attest that the movie left some critics angry. Roger Ebert dismissed the film as "a paranoid right wing fantasy." Pauline Kael called Kubrick "a thick skulled German professor" who enjoyed shocking good and decent people.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) may very well be the most unorthodox protagonist in movie history.  He narrates his story in a joyful, ironic tone.  We witness him commit atrocities in the first third of the movie, including rapes, assaults, and joyfully ingest hard drugs. Alex leads a gang of teenage "Droogs" who terrorize residents of a vaguely futuristic London. Law and order appears to have broken down and young men amuse themselves through nights of "ultraviolence." When his crimes catch up with him, Alex finds himself in prison.

While in prison Alex agrees to undergo the "Ludovico Treatmeant" to cure him of his violent nature.  In an iconic image his is strapped to a chair and forced to watch one violent movie after another until the mere thought of getting violent makes him physically sick.  The state releases him, but Alex becomes a victim  of violence since he can no longer defend himself, often at the hands of people he victimized earlier in the film.
Alex undergoes the Ludovico Treatmeant

2001: A Space Odyssey famously began with a tribe of primates who discover tools and use them to create civilization. The tools bring out their aggressive sides, but also foster creativity.  Several shots of Alex and the Droogs resemble the primates in their behavior and facial expressions.  They act on their desires without regard for the consequences.  Alex also loves Beethoven.  When he listens to the "Ludwig Van" he transcends his existence. A walking contradiction, lives like a beast and yet appreciates beauty.

Kubrick's films always deal with the dualism of humanity: to live for the betterment of the future or to live strictly to satisfy ego.  There's a deep anti-establishment theme in A Clockwork Orange, appropriate for its time as well.  What is true evil? The society that creates it, or the perpetrator of the evil.  Kubrick suggests power structures limit human potential.

Critics at the time saw a "Fascist" message in the film, the argument being Alex's rediscovery of his true self symbolized his victory over the state, thus perversely maneuvering audiences to cheer for a violent criminal. 

One does find an anti-liberal and anti-academic tone in films of the early 70s.  The onslaught of vigilante films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish as screeds against liberal minded sociologists remain popular.  But Kubrick poses questions that went beyond politics.  How can humanity resolve its contradictions?  How do we handle the problem of evil?  What does it mean to be free?  

Whatever the politics, and they are ambiguous, the shifting tone of the film also stands out.  The first act is very exciting, violent, and provocative. The pace slows down in the second act when Alex adjusts to prison life. The third act's an intriguing remix of the first as the tone grows more satirical. The odd symmetry to the movie adds to its power.

Malcolm McDowell's performance continues to resonate.  In an age of anti-heroes, I think McDowell's acting looms above them all for its virtuosity, compensating for some of Kubrick's more self-indulgent moments.

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