Monday, March 7, 2011

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

          Laced with some of the most haunting images in cinema history, A Clockwork Orange cemented director Stanley Kubrick’s reputation as a misanthropic genius, even though the film’s nauseating violence is delivered hand-in-hand with pitch-black humor. A polarizing movie that turns some people off Kubrick forever, A Clockwork Orange is also a cult favorite that devotees return to again and again, despite (or perhaps because of) its gleeful depiction of a sociopath’s inner life. Adapted by Kubrick from a novel by Anthony Burgess, the movie depicts a horrific near-future Britain plagued by a random violence, and the worst offenders belong to an anarchistic street gang led by Alex (Malcolm McDowell). In one notorious scene, Alex and his “droogs” beat an old man while warbling “Singin’ in the Rain,” and in another, they assault and rape a woman with, among other implements, a giant pop-art penis sculpture. Dressed in matching white uniforms and black bowler hats, Alex and his droogs are like a roving art installation moving through Kubrick’s harrowing vision of psychedelic future in which youths drink at “milk bars” in between bouts of “the old ultraviolence.”
          The first half of the movie, showing Alex running amok and cheerfully embracing his psychological demons in caustic voiceover, is filled with clever imagery and deft wordplay; the second half of the movie, in which Alex is captured, tortured, and “reformed” by sadists including doctors who use him as a guinea pig for inhumane experiments, presents the shocking thesis that Alex’s giddy malevolence is child’s play compared to the clinical evil of “civilized” society. Every frame of A Clockwork Orange is deliberately provocative, and Kubrick wasn’t above using controversy to goose ticket sales, although the strategy somewhat backfired when the movie encountered difficulties during its British release. (After troubled individuals claimed the picture influenced their violence, Kubrick had the picture yanked from UK screens.) But even taking into account Kubrick’s hucksterism, A Clockwork Orange is a meticulously rendered piece of cinematic art, its power derived as much from Kubrick’s craftsmanship as from the innate vigor of the lurid storyline. Masterfully orchestrating contributions from cinematographer John Alcott, electronic-music composer Wendy Carlos, film editor Bill Butler, and others, Kubrick presents an overwhelming phantasmagoria of angst, dissent, rebellion, and violence, which helps explain why so many disaffected people connect with the picture.
          Ultimately, the film rises and falls on McDowell’s fearless performance. With one strategically placed false eyelash, he’s a nightmarish image while rampaging through the first half of the movie, and with his eyes propped open by metal clamps, he’s a pathetic victim in the second half. A Clockwork Orange typecast McDowell as a villain, which indicates the power of the performance but doesn’t suggest how entertaining and weirdly sympathetic Alex becomes in McDowell’s skilled hands.
          Abrasive, cruel, rude, and vulgar, A Clockwork Orange is so excessive that watching the movie for the first time is like getting bludgeoned, but it’s also one of the few truly unique narrative features ever made. It exists almost completely in its own context.

A Clockwork Orange: FREAKY


Unknown said...

FREAKY? Really? You gave it your lowest rating? I get that the film is not everyone's cup of tea (no British pun intended) but a bottom-rung rating of FREAKY? You basically gave a Kubrick film the equality of a zero-stars review. I am in shock. In my opinion, Kubrick never made a wholly great film after "Barry Lyndon," but the three he made did manage to have impressive moments. For me, "Eyes Wide Shut" remains his weakest, least urgent work, but I wouldn't brand even that one with a FREAKY, let alone the riveting, never-boring "Clockwork." Oh well. A real head-scratcher this is, but I still love your site.

By Peter Hanson said...

"Freaky" is not the lowest rating, though its placement on the scale does give that impression. "Freaky" simply means "beyond classification."

Unknown said...

I guess, in a way, that could be complimentary.

Groggy Dundee said...

Freaky seems like a fair assessment. There's lots to appreciate in any Kubrick film, but this movie's on-the-nose gaucheness can be very off-putting. McDowell's performance is its biggest virtue.

John said...

A Clockwork Orange was not banned in any legal sense in the UK. Kubrick apparently asked Warner Bros to withdraw it from circulation (some time after its initial cinema release) after there had been supposed copy-cat crimes and threats made on his family.

By Peter Hanson said...

Of course you're right re: the UK release. Vaguely recall reading the details in a Kubrick bio eons ago, and the circumstances are easily confirmed. Must have written that particular remark hastily when I composed the review. The remark has been corrected. Thanks.