1971: A Clockwork Orange
Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick
“Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!”
A Clockwork Orange wasn’t the first Stanley Kubrick film I ever saw. That honor went to 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if I had no earthly — or unearthly — idea what the hell was going on with that ending. But it was my post-Star Wars “must see every space movie” phase, and I got enough out of the “Blue Danube” sequence and the trippy-ness of the finale that it became a favorite despite missing the larger subtext. For a long time though, A Clockwork Orange was this mysterious cult film hinted at by the promo trailer for AMC’s Midnight Movie Express, which is where the film lived in my mind for most of my teen years.
But the double-whammy of college and Blockbuster Video did a lot to cure me of my cinematic deficiencies. Looking back, A Clockwork Orange seems like the perfect movie to have seen for the first time crowded around a TV in a darkened dorm lounge with a bunch of 18- and 19-year olds. While we weren’t running around in gangs raping and pillaging, we were for the most part bereft of adult supervision for the first time in our lives. We were ready to have our minds opened, artistically, philosophically, and, in some cases, pharmaceutically. We tore through films like Brazil and if…. and O Lucky Man! With the Malcolm McDowell connection, A Clockwork Orange certainly fit the bill.
Kubrick has this reputation for being cold and sterile, but A Clockwork Orange doesn’t really match up with that stereotype. Granted, it’s filled with dystopian violence and dehumanization, and the future it depicts does have a certain stagnancy to it, but it’s impossible to watch McDowell storm through this movie and feel kept at arm’s length. If we don’t have a grudging like Alex — if all we see is the thug — the film is absolutely dead in the water. But McDowell is so damn charismatic that even after watching the despicable acts he commits, we’re on his side when he howls, “It’s a sin!” in response to Beethoven’s 9th playing as part of his conditioning. What Alex feels might be anti-social rage, but at least he feels something, that’s eventually taken away by a government that sees him as a project, not a person. Of course, Alex doesn’t necessarily see his victims as people either, but there’s a sort of purity to his anarchy. He sincerely believes in what he’s doing. To paraphrase The Big Lebowski, say what you like about the tenets of ultra-violence, at least it’s an ethos.
And for a film containing so many ugly acts — not the least of which is making “Singin’ in the Rain” never sound the same again — it’s got such an odd beauty to it. The fight in the abandoned theater between Alex’s droogs and a rival gang unfurls with an balletic grace, as does the slow-motion beat-down Alex applies to George and Dim to reassert his authority in the gang. The use of Rossini to score these scenes of violence, and the ever-present music of Beethoven, lends a lyrical quality to the film. It’s this juxtaposition of violence and beauty that’s at the heart of Alex, and the film itself.
A Clockwork Orange remains my favorite Kubrick film. I know some will go with the apocalyptic absurdity of Dr. Strangelove or the isolated paranoia of The Shining or the sterile grandeur of 2001, but I’ll take the ferocity of this film over all of them. Certainly on its artistic merits, but also as a reminder of the time when the world of film really started opening up to me, both in what was out there to see and how I could think about them. Thanks to that awakening, I too would see such lovely pictures.