There is a theory, popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, that a movie can be finished in the mind of the director before a single foot of film is shot. All that's left after the imagining is logistics, the sometimes tedious waiting for the actors to perform in accordance with the director's vision.
While this Hitchcockian conceit isn't much more than a ploy to reflect all credit back to the director, Stanley Kubrick is one of those directors who makes auteur theory a convenient fiction to use when talking about a movie's authorship. Before his death in March 1999, he went a long way toward making actors obsolete by enforcing a clinical discipline on his films that begins -- but doesn't end -- with his usual third-person, omniscient narrative style.
His best film, A Clockwork Orange, is screening at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Riverdale 10 (2600 Cantrell Road, Little Rock, go to goo.gl/A8mRu5for tickets). If you haven't seen it, you should go.
Although I sometimes say the same thing about Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange is also my favorite Kubrick film, maybe because it came out in late 1971 when I was old enough to know about it yet too young to see it. It was originally rated X, which meant that it was verboten. To see Shaft, which came out in the summer of 1971, I'd have to ask my momma, but Kubrick's masterpiece was unavailable -- whether I had a signed note or not.
It's useful to consider that in November 1968, when the Motion Picture Association of America introduced the X-rating as part of its voluntary four-tier system for classifying films by suitability for viewing by young people (the original system was G for general audiences; M for mature audiences; R for no one under 16 admitted without an adult guardian; and no one under 17 admitted to an X-rated film), the X rating wasn't especially pejorative and didn't signal that a film necessarily contained sexually explicit material.
The rating did, however, exclude a key audience demographic -- namely most teenagers -- and figured into studios' decisions about how to allot their resources. Still, during the first year of the X rating, the major studios released 16 movies with the rating. While that might have reduced a film's box office potential, it didn't imply it was smutty or even titillating.
What happened was that the MPAA neglected to trademark the X rating, which gave the pornographic movie industry a marketing opportunity. They started splashing the X rating all over their marquees and movie posters, often tripling and quadrupling the Xs to suggest that their films were much more lascivious than the regular X. Which led critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel to, in 1987, propose the A (for adult rating), which would have simply switched out the letters in the code.
The MPAA finally gave up on the X in 1990 because the association with porn was too strong. They replaced it with the NC-17 rating, which originally meant exactly the same thing as the old X rating: those under 17 were not to be admitted. In 1996, this was amended to prohibit anyone 17 and under from attending these films, establishing 18 as the new age requirement.
Meanwhile, the genuine X-rated films were, as a class, pretty interesting. Despite its X rating, Midnight Cowboy (1969) was nominated for six Academy Awards and won three, including best picture. It was also the third-highest grossing movie of the year. (And it has long been rumored that United Artists self-applied the X rating over the R the MPAA decided upon, either as a marketing ploy or from genuine concern over the sexual content and depictions of drug use in the film.)
Yet by the time Clockwork Orange received its X, the rating was already becoming something of an albatross. Nowhere is this more evident than in the shrewd marketing campaign employed for Melvin Van Peebles' blaxploitation classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, released in April 1971. Posters for the film carried the tag line "rated X by an all-white jury." In fact, the film wasn't submitted to the ratings board until 1974, when it received an R.
Anyway, there's no question A Clockwork Orange is an adult film, maybe the most adult film, one that retains its power to shock nearly 50 years on. A few years ago when I mentioned in this space that it was one of the movies that had a profound effect on me, I got a letter from a pearl clutcher who told me my affection for the film was evidence of my depravity and the sickness of my soul and that she couldn't imagine a more perverse movie than Clockwork. I suggested she check out Ken Russell's The Devils (another X-rated movie released in 1971).
And there's reason to believe that some people probably shouldn't be subjected to Clockwork, and not just because they're easily offended. A year after its release Kubrick temporarily withdrew the film in Britain because it had allegedly spawned copycat violence.
Yet it is an indispensable movie that has contributed much to our common reservoir of images. The smirking visage of Malcolm McDowell's Alex De Large, with his jaunty bowler hat and single false eyelash, is one of those indelible images we might employ to explain the grip of cinema. Henry Purcell's Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary booms on the soundtrack and we are pulled into a world of milk bars and white combat clothes, of droogs with Russian names and "Nadsat," the curious jargon-riddled Russian-English hybrid language of the original Anthony Burgess novel.
Kubrick's 136-minute film is one of the most accomplished adaptations of a novel for the screen ever made. It sacrifices little of Burgess' flair for wordplay, and whatever compromises were necessary to bring the novel to the screen are invisible. It tackles the same philosophical questions as the book -- how does a civilized society attack evil without succumbing to evil measures? -- with the same ferocious mischief as the rascal Burgess.
Alex, and every name in the novel, is freighted with meaning. Alex not only evoked Alexander the Great, the man apart from and above society, but a lex, Latin for "without law." The film title derives from Cockney slang "queer as a clockwork orange," which means, surface appearances to the contrary, something very strange is going on here.
With due respect to the novel -- which in its way is every bit as entertaining and enthralling as the film -- A Clockwork Orange is the purest expression of Kubrick's method and style. It best demonstrates what we're talking about when we call a movie "a Stanley Kubrick film."
There is an icy formalism in Kubrick's films -- at least from Lolita onward -- a kind of signature that announces itself in even the most mundane moments. Kubrick has a genius for marrying moving images with music, for communicating visual information. He has always made beautiful films, replete with enigmatic images.
A Clockwork Orange, along with its predecessor 2001: A Space Odyssey and successor Barry Lyndon, are the Kubrick films in which the director's obsessive alertness to texture, light and color is most apparent.
The choreography of violence in Clockwork not only prefigures the work of the Hong Kong auteurs who influenced Quentin Tarantino (and his gang of imitators) but it cloaks -- and provides a bizarre comic relief from -- Kubrick's essential pessimism about the ability of humans to refrain from hurting each other.
Kubrick, one of the few directors one needn't be embarrassed to call an artist, stands as one of the most influential and intelligent filmmakers our world has yet produced. He was always engaged by the irreconcilable dissonance between fervency and reason. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than with A Clockwork Orange.
MovieStyle on 03/09/2018
Print Headline: Clockwork Orange is Kubrick at his best