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.

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