Monday, February 04, 2008

Mondays With Stanley - Sex, Moogs, and Violence

If 2001 is all about the visual and aural aspects of film, to the expense of meaningful dialog, 1971's A Clockwork Orange is the complete opposite. How could it be otherwise? Any adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel would have to maintain the Nadsat dialect in which the humble narrator, Alex, addresses the audience and damn near everyone else. As a result, there is a nearly constant voice over from Malcom McDowell as Alex tells his sad tale.

And what a tale it is. Alex begins as a psychopathic teenager who revels in three things: the ultraviolence, the ol' in-out, and the music of Ludwig van (Beethoven), particularly his Ninth Symphony. Alex leads a pack of like minded hellions ("droogs") who get hopped up on drugged milk and commit various violent acts. A final violent act - a murder - along with betrayal by his droogs lands Alex in prison. He sidles up to the prison chaplain and eventually is selected to take part in an experimental therapy that will cure him of violent impulses.

After two weeks of conditioning, Alex can no longer act out violently, instead becoming seriously ill. As a side effect, he has the same reaction when he hear's the Ninth Symphony. Dumped back into society, thrown out of his home by his parents, Alex meets up with several of the people he's done wrong earlier in the film, who exact various types of revenge, both physical and musical. A failed suicide attempts lands Alex in the hospital and the Government in hot water. They come to an arrangement and Alex proclaims, insincerely, that he's been cured.

The telling of Alex's story is replete with, well, sex and violence. Roger Ebert's original (non-flattering) review notes an "X" rating, but the DVD calls it "R." There's lots of nudity, for example, but the only sex involved is a single scene that's so sped up (to the tune of the William Tell Overture, no less) that it's mostly a blur. A presumed rape happens off screen. And while there's copious violence, there's very little blood. It's nothing compared to what comes out these days. And it helps showcase not only the brutality of Alex's shallow world view, but the equally shallow world view of those that take their revenge on him.

As for the Moogs, they come courtesy of Wendy (then Walter) Carlos, who provides the film's original score. It's one of earliest films to feature lots of electronic music, both original compositions and reworkings of classical pieces. While it's fairly primitive and raw compared to what would come later (say, Vangelis's soundtrack for Blade Runner a decade later), it's very effective, particularly in invoking the right mood in the film's more surreal moments. Considering that even the most massive Moogs at the time were monophonic, it's pretty impressive.

Of course, the whole point of the story is to explore ideas of free will and morality. Alex's condition renders him incapable of being violent, but not by choice. As the prison chaplain points out, Alex acts only in his own self interest and thus, can't be said to acting as a moral agent. The irony of that observation really jumped out at me today, for the simple reason that the same could be said of Christianity or any religion premised on punishment in the afterlife for not acting in a moral (i.e., the way God wants) fashion. The treatment fails in other ways (it leaves Alex completely defenseless, for one thing), but that is it's central moral dilemma.

A Clockwork Orange is probably more dated that many other Kubrick flicks. The visual design and Moogy soundtrack scream "1970s." But the central question it poses is part of a timeless debate on what it means to be human. In that sense, it will outlive its era.

1 comment:

jedijawa said...

In the forward to the book there is some discussion of the concept of a "clockwork orange" and what it means. As the author puts it, if you take away the choice to choose good or bad then you become nothing more than a clockwork toy to be wound up for whatever purpose someone wants (whether it be good or bad). The human condition, therefor, lies in the active choice of good or evil.

I think that this point gets a little lost in the movie, though the movie is pretty good.