May 25, 2010

#70: A Clockwork Orange

All right, friends, I'm back. The blog has fallen by the wayside for many reasons, the most hindering of which were a) a fantastic family vacation to New Zealand where my sister got married, and b) a broken computer leading me to be without blog for some time. But I have three movies down that I need to catch up on, and hopefully this morning latte will help.

All right, so. A Clockwork Orange is Stanley Kubrick's 1971 dystopian masterpiece, and perhaps the film for which he will be most remembered (along with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove). Kubrick's filmography is as diverse as any modern director, and his hand on the camera is (or at least was at this point in his career, coming off two well-received master strokes) a blessing.

Company: alone this time, on Sheena's computer -- bless her heart for the loan.

Cuisine: a spinach salad. I can see the beach from here, and my body must follow.

The film opens with an ominous synthesizer and a close shot of our anti-hero, Alex DeLarge (played with complete arrogant abandon by a young Malcolm McDowell), hanging out at a seedy watering hole and drinking drugged milk with his fellow "droogs" (or gang members).

The four young men are near-terrorists in their neighborhood, beating old homeless men within an inch of their lives, breaking and entering into homes and, most famously, violently raping a woman while forcing her injured husband to watch.

A defining feature of this type of terror that the droogs inflict on their victims (and their audience) is the juxtaposition of extreme violence with beauty. As Alex prepares to rape the woman he sings "Singin' in the Rain" (reportedly because this was a song whose words McDowell knew), a song that the audience, still to this day, had associated with happiness and that blissful image of Gene Kelly with his umbrella. It happens so many times throughout the film, both visually and aurally, and if nothing else it certainly provokes a strong, even simultaneously violent response in the viewer. This dichotomy becomes a strong theme in the rest of the film.

After several evenings like this one (loftily referred to by Alex as "an evening of some small energy expenditure"), dissent spreads through the droogs, and when they confront Alex about his leadership, he makes it extremely clear that he is their one true leader, and nobody but nobody better betray him. Naturally, after a botched assault on a woman with penis statues and way too many cats, they do, smashing a milk bottle on Alex's face, temporarily blinding him and leaving him to the mercy of the police.

You know in futuristic films like this one that if the police get a hold of you, you're in for it (see also: ... yeah, pretty much every science fiction film ever). The police have no mercy, expressing their collective hope that prison will "torture you to madness." He's sent to prison for a fourteen-year sentence, and feigns an interest in the Bible to gain favor with the prison staff (although mostly he just likes imagining himself as Christ's torturer on his walk to Golgotha).

I just love this image of the prisoners getting their daily exercise by walking in a circle. Sometimes an image works to say several things at once -- I recently had this discussion with my roommate about the opening water-sprinkler image in Election (don't get me started, I love that movie) -- and this one shot comments on the dull nature of prison life as well as the cycle of torture inflicted on prisoners by making their need for exercise seem pointless.

Alex finally finds a way to escape this drudge when he overhears talk of a new experimental procedure that cures criminals of violent urges, and immediately volunteers, even without any idea of what's in store. Essentially he's trained through a sort of torture to associate violent imagery with sickness, to feel ill every time he's confronted with violence or even his own violent urges.

He has now been made the spectacle, the criminal as an experiment. The argument made is that it's unnatural for a human being to be stripped of moral choice, suggesting that human urges are incurable and beyond the understanding of modern science. But wouldn't it be nice if we could cure people of their meanness? Wouldn't that just solve our problems?

I'd seen the film once before and that's as far as I remember getting, but there's still another act, which I won't describe in detail here for the sake of convincing you to see it for yourself. Needless to say, everything comes full circle.

Alex is "cured" of his illness and released back into a society that fears and loathes him, although now he's not as quick to understand why. His past betrays him at every turn.

"I was cured all right."

The film, based on a 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess, works as a criticism of modern science, government, torture and the judicial system, and speaks to us today still about the fate of criminals and the flaws in human nature. Although the haircuts, fashions and nearly Shakespearean delivery of the dialogue (peppered with vernacular created by Burgess for the novel) set the film securely in the early 70s, it broke boundaries and still feels like it could have been made today. Or does it? Could a movie like this still be made? Has one been made?

Would that every film on this list made you think the way A Clockwork Orange does.

Still playing catch-up with all the blogs to write. The next is slightly more light-hearted: Sydney Pollack's textbook example of romantic comedy, 1982's Tootsie.

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