Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange at 40

May 23, 2011

Here’s a slide show prepared by Warner Home Video in anticipation of the May 31st release of A Clockwork Orange: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition and the Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection.

A Clockwork Orange is probably my favorite Kubrick film — though I sometimes say that about Dr. Strangelove — and most people probably think of it as the director’s “ultra-violent” masterpiece, a harbinger of the blood shock of later films. It was rated X when it was released in 1971, and its impact was such that a year after its release Kubrick withdrew the film in Britain because it had allegedly spawned some copycat violence.

It was a seminal film for my wife Karen, who saw it in college and loved it — and was amazed that there were people who didn’t share her enthusiasm for it. It changed her mind about the way the world worked; for the first time, she says she realized that not everyone perceived art the same way.

It retains its power to outrage and divide 40 years on. 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. 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 137-minute film is one of the most accomplished adaptations of a novel for the screen. 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.

I once read that the name “Alex,” like every name in the novel, was freighted with meaning. Alex not only evoked Alexander the Great, the man apart from and above society, but “a lex” literally translated from Latin means “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 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 — making a movie is a collaborative effort, and Kubrick himself has said that without the participation of McDowell, A Clockwork Orange probably would never have been made — Kubrick was one of those directors who make 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, to enforcing a clinical discipline on his films that begins — but doesn’t end — with his usual third-person, omniscient narrative style.

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 immediate predecessor 2001: A Space Odyssey and its immediate 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 band 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 this country has produced. He was always engaged by the irreconcilable dissonance between fervency and reason. I wouldn’t hesitate to call A Clockwork Orange his masterpiece.

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