Friday 26 July 2019

Kubism, Part 9:
A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick didn't have much time for heroes. You can probably count the number of traditionally heroic characters in his films on the fingers of one hand, and still have two fingers left to stick up to the world. Davey Gordon in Killer's Kiss goes out of his way to save his neighbour from a B-movie crime lord, Paths Of Glory's Colonel Dax moves heaven and earth to bring some semblance of humanity to World War I, and Spartacus is basically sexy Jesus, but that's about it. Everyone else is awful: the Kubrickian rogues' gallery boasts thieves, paedophiles, lunatics, incompetent politicians, murderous computers, wife-and-child-abusers, psychotic drill sergeants and Tom Cruise. Yet for some reason we like them even though we know they're twats, and we like watching them being twats. It's that dichotomy that Kubrick explores in A Clockwork Orange, with easily the most reprehensible protagonist of his entire canon. Apart from Tom Cruise.
Alex DeLarge is a smug, selfish shit who rules over his gang of dim-witted pals with a big stick and even bigger false eyelashes. After a long day spent tolchocking tramps, rival gangs and weird couples in retro-futuristic houses, Alex’s droogs turn on him. They abandon him to the police after he beats a woman to death with a big fat ceramic cock, and in prison he is subjected to a government-approved, chemically-enhanced form of behavioural therapy - known as The Ludovico Technique - to "cure" him of his criminal tendencies. Alex is released back into society as a law-abiding citizen, but when his past crimes violently catch up with him and he finds himself the victim, the authorities decide it was a bit mean to force him to be good, so let him be bad again. "What do you think about that?", asks Stanley Kubrick. Not literally, you understand. Subtext, innit.

So let’s not fuck about here. Alex is an actual rapist and an actual murderer: easily the best/worst example of the flawed masculinity with which Kubrick was so fascinated. He commits his crimes for fun and without remorse, and you would need to be the shittiest kind of anus not to feel at least a little uncomfortable watching him indulging in his beloved ultraviolence. So why would we identify with him at all? Well for a start, Alex - as indelibly stamped into pop culture by the jackboot of Malcolm McDowell's ebullient, irrepressible performance - is impossible to take your glazzies off. He's a clever, charismatic leader in an iconic costume who does what he wants, when he wants. He puts the id into idol for anyone who wishes they could just skip school, fuck a couple of girls in the style of Benny Hill and get into some scrapes with the lads if only it weren't for that bloody interfering super-ego.
To further muddy the psychological waters, Kubrick seems to be having as much fun directing the violence as he wants us to have watching it: he exuberantly operates the handheld camera himself in the phallus-based attack, shoots the gang fight with Hollywood-style panache, and lingers for an inordinate amount of time on the films' many naked women, most of whom are in the process of being horribly violated. He encourages you to laugh, despite yourself, at the irony of Alex singing a Gene Kelly show tune while beating people up, and at the comical, giant todger wielded as a murder weapon. Perhaps it all looks like a tremendous jape because we're seeing the world through Alex's eyes (literally, with the amount of POV shots we're forced into); certainly the continuous voiceover from "your friend and humble narrator" leaves us in little doubt that Kubrick wants us to sympathise with Alex's plight.

Tapping into our psyches a little deeper than we might be prepared to admit in order to get us to identify with Alex is crucial for Kubrick, because it then allows him to pose the central question of both the film and Anthony Burgess' book, on which it's based: to what extent is corrective punishment - specifically, behavioural conditioning - a successful method of reducing criminal behaviour? And by extension, how much state control is too much? (We’ve come a long way since Fear And Desire’s message that war is, like, totally bad, man.) If we hadn’t grown to "like" Alex there’d be no question of ever sympathising with him, but Kubrick has us by the moral yarbles now.

It’s this form of state control, Kubrick and Burgess argue, that’s as much a violation as anything Alex visited upon his victims. The Ludovico Technique doesn’t erase Alex’s ultraviolent urges, it just stops him acting on them; his soul is left tortured, torn between emotional desire and the physical inability to realise those desires."When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man," claims Alex's prison chaplain, and Kubrick reiterated the point, saying: "It is necessary for man to have the choice to be good or evil, even if he chooses evil. To deprive him of this choice is to make him something less than human - a clockwork orange." Post-Ludovico, Alex returns home to find his parents have not only replaced him with a lodger who's a better man (and son) than Alex ever was, but they've also got rid of his pet snake: a metaphorical castration on top of everything else.
The counter-argument, as represented by Mr. Alexander - the writer whose wife Alex raped - is pretty much "nope, fuck him, he deserves everything he gets." And there’s no denying that despite all the work that went into building sympathy for Alex, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in watching him get his comeuppance at the hands of the tramp, his droogs and Mr Alexander, all of whom felt his wrath earlier in the film. Unsurprisingly, Kubrick weighs the film more towards his side of the argument’s favour, but it’s to his credit that he poses the question at all, regardless of partiality.

So we're left with an impossible choice (of which, ironically, we'd probably rather be deprived): libertarianism that allows people the freedom to be selfish pricks, or totalitarianism that denies free will entirely and turns us all into mechanical citrus fruit. Neither option seems especially palatable, and A Clockwork Orange doesn’t seem interested in exploring a sensible middle ground: Kubrickologist David Hughes bemoans the film’s absence of apparently radical notions like education and rehabilitation. The only conclusion, then, is oh dear the world is fucked, and there's nothing we can do about it. It's the most pessimistic Kubrick's been since, ooh, two films ago, and a universe away from the arguably hopeful climax of 2001 just three years earlier. But it does make Clockwork one of the most fascinating of Kubrick's films to dissect and discuss; a moral and psychological conundrum to rival 2001's metaphysical and philosophical one.
Of course it doesn't hurt that A Clockwork Orange is one of the most stylish and evocative films ever made, thanks to Kubrick's unique vision. His famous one-point perspective shots are everywhere, with wide-angle lenses leading us down inescapable corridors and tunnels in formal counterpoint to the narrative themes of freedom of choice. It's also his sauciest so far, with almost everyone owning pornographic art, and contains the first appearances in his filmography of f-bombs. Kubrick even steps into a self-reflexive mode you'd imagine unthinkable from someone apparently not prone to such frivolity: the soundtrack album to 2001 can be seen in one scene, and there are shots of Alex that are almost indistinguishable from that film's equally instinct-driven apes.

The complete package is a deceptively dense and thought-provoking eyegasm that locks your lids open and bombards them with paradoxical images of modernism and futurism, anarchy and conformity, and crime and punishment. In a time of western social and cultural upheaval, it capitalised on an increasing fear of youth culture but did little to quell those fears. No wonder, then, that it cemented Kubrick's reputation as an unpredictable, controversial, innovative and experimental filmmaker out there making no appy polly loggies, and no wonder that he then - in the ultimate expression of free will - went and made a three-hour-long, almost catatonically sedate, whimsical period drama set in 18th century Ireland. The absolute bolshy yarbles on that chelloveck.

Join me again on Kubism for Barry Lyndon, in which I will spend c.1000 words investigating whether anyone in the mid-18th century was actually called Barry.

Friday 12 July 2019

Kubism, Part 8:
2OO1: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Dr. Strangelove had failed to successfully treat Stanley Kubrick's nuclear itch. The ointment of satire clearly wasn't strong enough to clear up Stan's rash of pessimism regarding the human race's inevitable freefall into self-destruction; stronger medication was required. Perhaps drawing on his abandoned idea of a framing device for Strangelove in which aliens passed pitiful judgement on mankind's stupidity, Kubrick filled a syringe with ideas about a cosmic intelligence leading humanity to existential perfection, plunged it into his veins and pumped himself full of sci-fi serum. The result was even more successful, if you can believe such a thing, than the metaphor that has infected this paragraph. The result was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the greatest film ever made.
People talk about the transformative power of 2001, and with good reason. It certainly transformed me when I first saw it at Telford UCI in 1994: where once squatted an uneducated apeman who thought James Bond films were the pinnacle of filmic achievement, there now hovered a glowing Star Child of profound movie wisdom, suddenly aware of the vastness of cinema's potential. I had transcended the boundaries of mediocrity and made the leap to the next stage of human evolution, which is something very few people can say about an evening in Telford.

Stanley Kubrick was transformed too, taking new approaches to many of his usual filmmaking techniques. Having worked from adaptations of novels for all but his first two features, he now sat down to bash out an original story with the help of British science fiction writer and general egghead Arthur C Clarke. He embraced colour film for the first time (he'd had no choice with Spartacus, having taken over directing it after shooting had begun), abandoned his usual, dialogue-heavy screenplay style and even - albeit at the last minute - ditched a lengthy voiceover. There's a small irony in the fact that the first Kubrick film not to feature an omniscient narrator is the one about all-seeing, all-knowing beings guiding us to a better understanding.

In place of the usual expository waffle is a twenty-minute prologue on the planet of the apes (spoiler: it was Earth all along), in which prehistoric man-monkeys live more or less peacefully with a bunch of tapirs, eating, sleeping and engaging in the odd territorial squabble over a casual drink. When they wake up one morning to discover that Alien Santa's been and left them a large, black cuboid, they gawp at it in confusion, hesitantly reach out to touch it, and their fate as the eventual dominant species on the planet is sealed. I for one would be interested to know how things would have gone if the tapirs had got to the monolith first, but Stanley Kubrick, it seems, was sadly not.
This sequence is introduced with the intertitle "The Dawn Of Man", leading you to believe that the hairy hominid phase was us at our most primitive, before we invented tools, weapons, digital watches and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. The next sequence is all spacey and futuristic with zero gravity toilets and velcro shoes, but look closely: there hasn't been another intertitle, and there won't be until after a bunch of ape descendants have gathered round another large, black cuboid on the moon, gawped at it in confusion and hesitantly reached out to touch it. The gist seems to be that despite all we’ve accomplished over the millennia (even Rumours), man is still dawning. Even in the Space Age we're just as backward and clueless as when we used to pick fleas off each other, except now when we discover something that challenges the very meaning of our existence, the first thing we do is take a selfie with it.

This bit of man's dawn sure is stunning though. Marvel at this Cinematic Universe, because space has never been represented on film with as much cosmic elegance as it is here: you could sit and watch planets float by and spacecraft drift past for hours. 2001's circular visual motif (planets, space stations, eyes, psychotic computer interfaces) is enhanced by its musical equivalent, the waltz, and Johann Strauss II could not have asked for a better video for his biggest hit. Kubrick signals his revolutionary use of music by removing all diegetic sound while Strauss, Ligeti, Khachaturian and the other Strauss do their thing, cutting his hypnotic images for as long as the pieces need to play out. The absence of dialogue allows Kubrick to bust out the visual storytelling he's been developing since he was a photojournalist, and 2001 arguably represents the zenith of that talent.
While casually tossing off accurate predictions about the future, like iPads, Skype calls and toddlers demanding phones for their birthdays (as well as less accurate ones, like BBC 12), Kubrick reinforces his theory that we’re not much further down the evolutionary road than we were four million years ago. Like our flea-picking predecessors we're still doing a lot of eating and sleeping, and a confrontation between American and Russian delegates on Space Station V is nothing more or less than a territorial squabble over a casual drink. But from beneath this anthropological pessism creeps something unexpected: 2001 is rarely - if ever - described as a horror, but its edgy sense of unease, teased earlier by the disturbing, unexplained appearance of the monolith, really starts to burrow under the skin at this point. It's not quite the merciless assault on your nerves that Kubrick would wreak with The Shining, but it's a not-too-distant ancestor of it.

US Astronautics Agent Dr Heywood Floyd's friendly but perfunctory chit-chat with his Russian counterpart (Reggei Perrinov) assumes a sinister air when he's questioned about mysterious goings-on at the Clavius moon base. Floyd's long, uncomfortable pauses and subtle shift in demeanour are the first clues to 2001's disquieting subplot about secret missions and paranoid self-preservation. It's a red herring in many ways, because a bureaucratic cover-up pales into insignificance next to the deconstruction and subsequent rebirth of humanity that comes later, but that anxious feeling never goes away. Later on Kubrick leans harder into psychological horror, not least when Floyd and his pals are investigating the moon monolith to the nightmarish, dissonant wailings of György Ligeti's Requiem. I can't imagine what Ligeti thought his music would be good for before Stanley Kubrick used it to put multiple willies up his audience; did he intend it to be played at the end of dinner parties when guests just wouldn't leave?

That scene is crowned by the uncomfortably shrill sound of the monolith's burglar alarm going off, and the very real possibility that Floyd and co are dying horribly from exposure to it, so it comes as some relief when we suddenly cut to 2001's second intertitle: "Jupiter Mission - 18 Months Later". The dawn of man is apparently over; time for him to haul his newly-woke ass out of the prehistoric bed and into the evolutionary shower. Don't forget to wash Uranus!
The USS Discovery One sails by like a single astronomical spermatozoa, which is an infinitely better and cleverer visual metaphor than anything from Dr. Strangelove, especially given its eventual role in the creation of new life. We meet astronauts Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, perhaps the least charismatic characters in a film full of soulless blanks. Frank can't even crack a smile when he gets a birthday video message from his parents, the miserable bugger: it's as if technology and modern living has left mankind emotionally stunted, hahaha imagine that. Fortunately they're accompanied on their mission by onboard computer HAL 9000, or 'Hal' to his mates / victims. Hal is deliberately the most emotionally rich personality in the entire film, and his calm, reassuring voice is a sign that everything is going to be just fine from now on. Just a moment... just a moment...

As it turns out, Hal is in fact dangerously paranoid, or completely mad, or straight up evil. Arthur C Clarke's novelisation confirms that he wigs out because he can't deal with lying to Dave and Frank about their mission, but Kubrick leaves it typically Stan-biguous, as if perhaps Hal might just be confused that there's a BBC 12. (I'm pretty sure Kubrick didn't invent the use of a news report as exposition, but he certainly pulls it off here given that it's now one of the laziest clichés in cinema.) Whatever Hal's beef is, his discovery that Frank and Dave plan to pull his plug is a blood-curdling scene. The cut from a close up of the mens' lips to Hal's unblinking eye is a chilling example of the Kuleshov effect: I swear I can see stone cold panic and boiling rage in that unblinking yellow pupil.

We're barely back in our seats, post-intermission, before Kubrick assails us with Hal's deeply unsettling attack on Frank. The pod silently turning in space, followed by those jump cuts into Hal's eye, are more pure horror, executed with eerie simplicity and heightened by the fear of what it might be like to asphyxiate in deep space. Anyone playing Kubrick Bingo can cross off "Man's plans violently undone by something he thought he was in total control of", and if you haven't already you may as well scribble out "Man discovers his own insignificance in the cosmic scale of things" too. The alien intelligence drags Dave through a psychotropic fallopian tube (still shots of his contorted face providing more spine-chilling dread) into the comfortable womb of a plush but incongruously decorated hotel room, where he undergoes unnervingly-soundtracked rapid physical development before being squeezed out into space, newly reborn as Human 2.0. The film is over but the questions have only just begun, the first of which is invariably "what the fuck?"
The answer, obviously, is irrelevant. 2001's magic lies in its indefinability, the wilful ambiguity that comes from its unconventional, insanely bold storytelling. It's a cosmological conundrum wrapped in an evolutionary enigma, tied up with a bonkers bow. Clarke explained a lot of it in his novel, but why would you want that? To quote Kubrick, casually and characteristically throwing shade at his writing partner's endeavours whether he meant to or not, "The feel of the experience is the important thing, not the ability to verbalise or analyse it." 2001 is all about the feel of the experience, drowning you in aural and visual wonder while confronting you with the deepest ideas about nothing less than the entire past, present and future of human existence. The decision to make it creepy as fuck adds another dimension to the experience, but also reflects our fear of progress: dragging ourselves out of the primordial soup must have been terrifying, and there's no reason why any further self-improvement should be any less distressing a process.

"Its origin and purpose [are] still a total mystery", Heywood Floyd tells Dave Bowman in the film's final words. He's referring to the monolith on the moon, but almost since 2001's release people have been using that line to describe the film itself, as if it appeared from nowhere and has no clear meaning. Maybe the latter is partly true, but there's plenty of information out there detailing the movie's genesis. However it's after watching that ending, in which each of Bowman's developmental leaps is preceded by him gazing at his advanced self until, finally, the Star Child he becomes turns and stares out of the screen at us, that I find the film's first words more appropriate and optimistic: "Here you are."

Next time on Kubism we chew on A Clockwork Orange, breaking our teeth on its cogs, springs and gears before taking it back to the greengrocer's for a full refund.

Monday 1 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home:
Peter Parker's Eurothwip


True believers rejoice: we are currently living in a golden age of Spider-Man. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 may have achieved the status of best superhero film ever in a recent highly-respected and influential poll, but that film was something of a one-off. We now find ourselves in the privileged position of being gifted five great films featuring Spidey since 2016's Captain America: Civil War, and it brings me unparalleled joy to report that the sixth extends that purple patch: Spider-Man: Far From Home is a ruddy blast from start to finish - and, indeed, beyond the finish.
Far From Home finds our hormone-addled hero Peter Parker (Tom Holland, as winningly lovable as ever) on a school trip to Europe, struggling to lock lips with the sassy af MJ (Zendaya, who gets to push her character slightly further than 'amusingly sardonic' this time). This unfortunate cock-blocking is due to the interference of a) fellow student Brad, a rival for MJ's affections, and b) a colossal threat to the existence of the planet which can only be addressed by Spider-Man. (Suspiciously, the remaining Avengers are tied up with other plot-convenient activities which are becoming less convincing to explain away with each standalone MCU entry.) So far, so classic Spidey - that balance between saving the world and getting on with being a teenager is maintained and respected here as part of Spider-lore.

But in the wider context of the MCU, Peter faces other problems. His mentor and father figure Tony Stark has inconveniently done an Uncle Ben on him, and he now finds himself in the spotlight (somewhat improbably, tbh) as the most likely replacement for Iron Man as Avenger-in-Chief. Having spent most of Spider-Man: Homecoming pestering Stark to let him join the supergang, Peter now finds himself totally unprepared for that responsibility. Metaphors for adulthood, anyone?
A possible Iron Man substitute for both Peter and a hero-hungry public appears in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal's Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio, who rocks up in a daft costume with a fishbowl on his head when Peter needs him most - during a breathless set-piece in Venice which, while spectacular, invokes troubling memories of Spider-Man 3's Sandman in its creature design. But if there's one thing I've learned about the MCU, it's that if you think something looks amiss, it's usually for a reason.

What follows is a typically classy, top-tier Marvelgasm that's as charming, funny and thrilling as you'd hope. Post-Endgame, and as the apparent final film of the MCU's Phase Three, Far From Home has a lot of super-plates to spin: positive and negative aspects of Tony Stark's legacy are raised, Spider-Man's role within the Avengers is a constant source of anxiety (an impatient Nick Fury providing little help), and the small matter of half the universe's population suddenly emerging from thin air after five years in "the blip" (as it's described in a hilarious early exposition dump) is casually but successfully glossed over.

But writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers and director Jon Watts never forget that this is, first and foremost, a Spider-Man film, and everything that makes the character unique - his age, his naivety, his awkwardness, his science smarts and his arachno-powers - serve the plot. Peter's relationships with MJ and Beck drive the film, and it's in these moments that the character of Peter Parker is allowed to breathe as much as Steve Rogers and Tony Stark were.
Amongst the deliberately hackneyed European road trip tropes (Venice = canals and St Mark's Square; Holland = windmills and tulip farms; London = Tower Bridge, red buses and black cabs), Far From Home boasts a smattering of clever fake-outs and twists, an extended psychedelic sequence that seems constructed to rival the kaleidoscopic visuals of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, and a couple of welcome motifs. The idea that knuckling down and using your brain is less impressive to a slack-jawed public than brightly costumed superheroes is toyed with, and in the era of fake news we get a lot of manipulation of the truth by dark forces, a theme which looks set to be expanded upon in future Spider-instalments.

The only gripe I have here is a strong whiff of character motivation pinched almost wholesale from an earlier MCU film, posing the very real threat that Marvel might just be running out of ideas, but any concerns are blindsided by the amount of sheer, eye-popping craft and value for money on display. Whatever direction the MCU heads in next, it's apparent from Far From Home's air-punchingly wonderful mid-credits scene that Spidey's future looks set to remain as respectful but irreverent as we've seen over his last six crowd-pleasing movies. Long may the golden age of Spider-Man continue.