RV!: A Clockwork Orange (1971) Dir: Stanley Kubrick Date Released: February 2, 1972 Date Seen: August 17, 2012 Rating: 4.5/5
I hadn't rewatched Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange since reading Burgess's book in high school. I fell in love with the novel but I also seem to recall thinking that Kubrick's film was fine but unfulfilling. I, admittedly, had a relatively unrefined sense of taste when I saw Kubrick's adaptation (there's a reason I jokingly call my adolescence, "My Pre-Taste Period."). So greatly preferred Burgess's novel to the film that Kubrick made by the same name. This is partly because because I had seen the film first and then devoured the book. Last week, I rewatched Kubrick's film projected at the AFI Silver's biggest screen with my friend Victor Morton. Victor is a big fan of Kubrick's film; it's his #1 film of all time. Now, I can certainly understand why.
Kubrick's film has the kind of flinty cynicism I originally admired in Burgess's story, but it also has the subtle grace to deflate its character's sociopathic perspective. As Victor and I discussed after the film, A Clockwork Orange's narrative appears to be predominantly told from the perspective of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), right down to the voiceover narration that drove me up a wall in the first few scenes (mainly due to McDowell's performance). Where Victor and I disagree, I think, is just how deeply embedded we, as viewers, are in Alex's POV. I maintain that the film's world cannot just be read as Alex's subjective view of events.
The deceptively broad strokes that Kubrick paints with are all a function of how objectively screwy his film's vision of the future is. The film's prison system, for instance, is both typified by the complacence of Alex's fellow inmates and Michael Gover's slap-happy martinet Prison Governor. The same is true of the multi-faceted characterization of the prison's chaplain, who is ridiculous in his militant beliefs and too quickly overlooks Alex's problems, but is also the lone voice of reason at the end of the Ludovico presentation (more on this shortly). Tonally, these examples are portrayed just as they were written in Burgess's novel. But, once Kubrick starts to show us that the absurd behavior that Alex projects onto authority figures is actually happening in a quasi-objective reality, that's where Kubrick starts to really assert his personality by deflating Alex's perspective. A prime example of this is be the black armband Alex wears when he sucks up to the prison's chaplain. The use of this loaded accessory is, as I understand it, not Alex's way of making fun of the chaplain or Alex's way of calling the chaplain a fascist. Instead, it's Kubrick's way of showing how fascistic the system Alex is now, to some degree, worming his way into (he wants to be one of the Christians that flayed Christ on his way to Golgotha!), is.
That in turn is because, as Victor articulated better than I did in our post-screening discussion, the crux of A Clockwork Orange is its bleakly funny understanding of moral relativism. Meaning: oftentimes, characters that are defined by terrible actions and decisions usually start off with good intentions. Even Alex abhors vice: for example, we see him suspiciously eyeing the bottle of booze that the old bum clings to in the film's opening beating/scene. Alex is, in other words, the monster that the schizophrenically compartmentalized future deserves. He wants to do the right thing but he does it the wrong way and for all the wrong reasons.
In that sense, I respect and understand why Kubrick did not stick to the ending of Burgess's novel. I'd like to re-read Burgess's book sometime soon. But in the meantime, I'm not exactly sure what I think of his proposed redemption of Alex by story's end. I do however know that I like Kubrick's conclusion. The film suggest that people can't really change their personalities so drastically unless they're under Draconian duress. After his suicide attempt, Alex is back to his old wily self, but now he is embraced for the same Reptilian qualities he was originally punished for. He's a poster child now, and that's pretty funny. For Kubrick, that's a sufficient punchline unto itself. He sticks the film's new ending so well that I can't help but be impressed with what he did with Burgess's original material.
Victor and I did however also run into some interesting debate when it came to the film's depiction of sex and violence. I think that one of the more subtle ways that Kubrick deflates the seeming omniscience of Alex's perspective is in a single POV shot of a nearly-naked woman during Ludovico's demonstration. This is the scene where the Ludovico Technique is proven to work. So now, the very thought of ravaging this, uh, solicitous volunteer Alex makes him ill. The POV shot I'm thinking of shows Alex lifting his hands up to cop a feel, as if in supplication. I think there is something genuine sensuous in the domineering, downcast look of the woman that's throwing herself at Alex. The rape scene from early on in the film is very hard to watch, shot from a distance and just generally anti-sensational. But the girl that Ludovico sics on Alex is, in this singular moment, tempting. And she is made to look tempting: the way her belly undulates as she breathes in and out is not just a projection of Alex's (or even my!) desire, I think.
Given the greater context of the scene, I would even say that the fact that this woman looks attractive in that one moment (when she's dismissed, she's skittish and even a little doltish) shows you what Ludovico took away from Alex. Pleasure, as in the pleasure Alex gets from listening to Beethoven, is not necessarily bad, nor is vice necessarily inhuman, as we see in that one scene where Alex and his droogs sullenly have an alcoholic drink at a pub (after he thrashes them). It's only natural to want things, in other words. Maybe that makes the seduction portion of the demonstration scene that I've highlighted sound a lot like what Alex might be wanting, too.
But again, all things considered, I feel Kubrick is allowing the self-evident beauty of Beethoven's music, pervasive as it is on the film's soundtrack, and the alluring, mysterious and yes, sexual, nature of this dominant woman, to speak for themselves. Maybe some people see this is a weakness of the film, but Kubrick trusts his audience to empathically take such truths at face value. Kubrick was such a hyper-intelligent filmmaker that he, perhaps more than 90% of other American filmmakers, trusted his audience to understand that if something is ambiguous, it is meant to be ambiguous. I love that he trusted me enough to see the film's pitch-black ending was earned through the subtle ways he establishes the film's ethical stakes. A Clockwork Orange is a great film--who cares if it's not a great adaptation?