Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

17 April, 2008

A Real Horrorshow

Yesterday evening I headed over to Westgate Cinemas and caught a matinee of A Clockwork Orange by one of my favorite directors, Stanley Kubrick. The film was only one of two that I hadn't seen on the big screen (the other being Barry Lyndon) so I just had to go. I will admit to being disappointed when the screen lit up and a commentary track started playing. Alas, we would be watching the DVD projected instead of an actual print of the film. Like David Bordwell, I am a bit of a purist and like the grain of film. In addition, a DVD just can't match the resolution and contrast ratio of film. Despite this, it was nice to see the movie on the big screen.

I believe that I first saw it when I was 12 or so and it was interesting to watch it through the eyes of a 35-year old. Although my conscience is supposed to be dulled by having grown up watching violent television, I can honestly tell you that there are scenes in A Clockwork Orange which still send a shiver down my spine. For instance, there's the bit where Alex and his droogs beat the homeless guy (or vagrant, if you're David Blaska). But even more moving is the home invasion scene where they beat author Frank Alexander and rape his wife. Unlike the scene in the theatre where a woman is about to be raped by Billy Boy and his gang, there is no playful non-diagetic music (Rossini's La Gazza Ladra) to take the edge off of things. Instead, the events in the Alexander's home are stark and raw. Alex's singing and the thuds of his boots landing on Frank's body mix with Mrs. Alexander's muffled screams and Dim's mindless repeating of Alex's words to create chaos and a truly disturbing scene. Plus we get Frank's POV shots as he lay on the floor helpless which help put the viewer into his shoes.

As a 12-year old, I think the film was more about the visceral thrill of the violence and titillation of seeing naked women. But watching it yesterday it yielded more nuanced reactions. I thought of how Alex and his droogs, however exaggerated their characters were, really do stand-in for the male teenage experience. There's the pack mentality with its leader, the disregard for authority as well as for one's own safety, and the preoccupation with sex.

Regarding the last of these, sex, naked bodies, and representations of genitalia are everywhere in the film. There are female mannequins serving as tables and drink dispensers at the Korova Milk Bar, the Catlady's yoga room is adorned with paintings of the naked body, the painting in the lobby of Alex's apartment complex has penises spray-painted on it, etc. The scene where Alex hits the Catlady with a wobbly sculpture of a penis is probably the most telling image of the whole film. Watching ACO for the umpteenth time, I now interpret the pervasive nudity and phallic symbols in the set decoration as serving a similar role as the sets in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari did, i.e. - they represent Alex's inner life. Or, at the very least, they serve to reinforce Alex's preoccupation with sex just as much as they might serve to depict the futuristic society portrayed in the film. When Mr. Deltoid pays a visit to Alex at home on a day when he skips school, Deltoid ends his lecture by punching Alex in the yarbles which are quite arguably the well-spring of the behavior of teenage boys. This is also emphasized by the costumers which have Alex and his droogs wearing codpieces.

Seeing ACO on the big screen also led me to appreciate the cinematography more than I had in the past. The scene in the tunnel where the boys beat the homeless drunk features stark contrasts and long shadows, for instance.

Kubrick became enamored of tracking shots early in his career (see The Killing from 1956) and we have them here as well such as when the camera backs away from Alex and his droogs as they sit in the Korova Milk Bar. There's also hand-held work which perhaps prefigures the Steadi-cam work of The Shining. This is used well in the scene where Alex fends off the Catlady with the phallic statue. Plus we have the aforementioned use of wide-angle lenses in low angle shots which draw the actors and the action to the camera. To top things off, John Alcott, the cinematographer, even does what students are taught to avoid in their Intro to Film classes – he zooms. He slowly zooms out from the drunkard in the tunnel and, in the following scene, he zooms out again from a bit of adornment above the stage at the theatre to reveal the action on the stage. Add in a bit of both slow- and fast-motion and you have a film with a great variety of camera movement and shot staging. Alcott would go on to work with Kubrick on his next two films - Barry Lyndon and The Shining.

Between what Kubrick put into the film and what I read into it, ACO, like all of his films, provides a visceral experience with plenty of food for thought.

|| Palmer, 5:56 PM


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