Tag Archives: Stanley Kubrick

4. A Clockwork Orange

Smiley Rating:

“VIOLENCE SPEAKS VIOLENCE,” and in A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) its voice belongs to Alex DeLarge— an articulate, manipulative, passionate, charismatic, uber-sexual, violent, sociopath— in other words, the spawn of a broken society perpetuated by a corrupt political system.  Or should I say, a violent society perpetuated by a violent political system.  Again, “violence speaks violence.”  An eye for an eye.  This circular logic lies at the heart of A Clockwork Orange, and it is most encapsulated by the notable character arc of Alex DeLarge (portrayed brilliantly by Malcolm McDowell).

And as far as violence goes, so goes the first section of the film, in which Alex DeLarge is… well… at large.  He, along with his three buddies (“droogs,” as they call themselves)— routinely and joyfully inflict horror upon the town.  The crimes inevitably grow more serious, until ultimately, Alex kills a woman with a giant penis sculpture (ouch).  This appalling murder, along with the betrayal of his so-called friends, ends the provocative first half of A Clockwork Orange, a first half that can be characterized simply as: the opposite of the Golden Rule.  That is, “do unto others that in which you would NEVER EVER do unto yourself.”  Like, kill a woman with a giant penis sculpture.

Speaking of killing women with giant penises, there are a noticeable amount of objectified representations of women in this film.  These incendiary images appear throughout, including the inert naked-woman-tables at the milk bar, as well as the tantalizing portraits of women that decorate the walls of the murder victim.  I’m not sure if these images are supposed to comment on the objectification of women or the sexual freedom of women or the oppression of women, or all at the same time.  Which raises an interesting question: What is the difference between sexism and sexuality?  In the dystopian world Kubrick creates, I’m not so sure.

Before I move on, I wanted to quickly point out an important line of dialogue, spoken by a Priest in the second act.  He says:  “When a man cannot choose, he seizes to be a man.”  In the context, he’s speaking to the morality of whether a choice is good even if you have no power to make that choice.  However— and I’m probably reading too much into this— but by that same rationale, wouldn’t it also be true that if a “woman cannot choose, she seizes to be a woman?”  I could be wrong, but perhaps this is a subtle Pro-Choice stance taken by Kubrick.

On the other hand, another recurring visual motif is that of the penis.  Especially throughout the first act (penis graffiti, penis sculpture, compositions where the pelvic region is in the dominant position of the frame)— but not so much in the second act, which brings us to the movement in the film which could be titled: “Alex’s Castration.”  The power of the penis is replaced by the power of the state… so to speak.  This is all captured in the iconic brainwashing scene (the scene we’ve all seen even if we haven’t seen the movie) in which Alex’s eyes are literally clamped open as the experiment unfolds.  It’s horrible and it is supposed to be horrible (“violence speaks violence”).

However, to me, there is a far more interesting scene buried in the second act.  It’s a scene that I think speaks to Alex’s character most.  In this scene, he reads about Jesus’ crucifixion, and while he’s currently incarcerated and is being oppressed (even tortured), he somehow sides with the Romans in the story.  He doesn’t empathize with the tortured Jesus, instead, he fancies himself as the guy beating Jesus himself.  This scene is both hilarious and frightening at the same time, which means it’s perfect satire.  And like all satire, it speaks to something truthful.  Perhaps the truth is that Alex’s point of view actually represents the majority of people, Christians in particular.  By this, I don’t mean that Christians (or anyone) consciously think of themselves as the Romans.  But the way people obsess over the violence in the bible, and the hating of the gays and the women— while glossing over the pacified teachings of Jesus— one might assume that they are more akin to the violent Roman than the peaceful Jesus.  I might be out of my mind, but I think a lot of Christians would adhere to an eye for an eye philosophy, rather than the turn the other cheek philosophy.  On a random side-note, I just realized that I dislike the term “turn the other cheek.”  Can we replace this with: “a hug for a hug?”

At any rate, Alex undergoes the groundbreaking experiment and is released back into society.  He’s cured!  Of course, he has fewer choices, and a lot less freedom.  Yes, he gets kicked out of his parents’ house, and is then harassed by a crowd of homeless people.  Sure, he’s tortured by the police, who happen to be his ex-buddies.  But he deserves it.  Right?  An eye for an eye?  Bad karma?  And as far as bad karma goes, the now vulnerable Alex ironically finds himself at the doorstep of one of his original victims.  The victim, characterized as a Liberal, reflexively invites Alex into his home.  At this point, he does not realize that Alex is the perpetrator who raped his wife and crippled him in the first act.  So, he proceeds to care for Alex— feed him, draw a bath for him, etc.  Until the man discovers that Alex is the bastard who ruined his life, and his reaction is the same as everyone else’s.  Revenge.  An eye for an eye.  So, despite the Liberal man’s pacifist ideology, he too tortures Alex, almost to the point of self-influenced death.

Which brings us to the final scene, where we learn that whatever the government had done to brainwash Alex, has been erased and he is back to his original sick self.  This pessimistic ending, which completes Alex’s circular character arc, implies many things.  On a political level, it states that Alex (who represents us) is a pawn for the differing political ideologies to use him in an attempt to make a point, regardless of its dehumanizing effects.  With its negative depiction of both Liberals and Conservatives (as well as all other people), A Clockwork Orange almost comes off as a Libertarian howl for freedom.  More importantly, though, this is a film showing the anti-Golden Rule.  That is, “violence speaks violence.”  Negativity begets negativity.  Hurt people hurt people.  It sounds simplistic and overly idealistic, but Kubrick is speaking to this self-sustaining, infinite cycle of violence.  I gather that if we are to avoid a dystopian future (or present), perhaps we should disturb this cycle of violence.  That is, to say, “LOVE SPEAKS LOVE.”  Not an eye for any eye, rather— a hug for a hug.


3. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Smiley Rating:

 

First, there is blackness.  Gradually, what sounds like an orchestra harmonizing, grows in intensity until it finally climaxes…  And then back to a calm.  Blackness…  I mention this moment, this overture to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), because it’s actually the first scene of the film, which in theory, should be one of the most important scenes of all.  And perhaps it’s simply meant to establish the mood of the film.  But maybe it’s more.  Maybe it represents the great void, the pre-let-their-be-light moment.  Maybe it represents our first contact with what will be known as the monolith.  Maybe it represents both.

What follows (after the opening credits) is an establishing shot of outer space, in particular, the sun, the moon, and the planet Earth (scored brilliantly to Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra).  This is an “establishing shot,” and just as all other “establishing shots” in this film, it’s more of an epic balletic sequence, than it is anything else.

The controversial preamble, entitled “the dawn of man,” comes next.  Here, Kubrick paints a desolate planet Earth.  It’s harsh.  It’s cold.  It’s unforgiving.  We’re introduced to what appear to be pre-human animals, Neanderthal-like creatures, and we watch them go about their daily routine, which consists mostly of angry grunting.  In other words, they are animals the way all other animals are, which, in Kubrick’s world tend to be desperate and brutal.

This all changes, however, when a strange monolith, alien-like structure appears seemingly from out of nowhere.  This inexplicable structure causes the Neanderthal’s to go wild, the way a dog might go wild in the presence of a vacuum cleaner.  This marks an important evolutionary step forward, toward dominance, which is demonstrated in one of the most memorable transitions of all time— when the Neanderthal tosses the bone through the air and we jump forward many thousands of years, and we match-cut the “bone” to what is now a “spaceship” flying through space.  This pithy transition does not neglect all the time between the scenes, but includes it.  The match-cut not only incorporates the bone and the ship, but comments on every step in between, from the agricultural revolution, to the scientific revolution, to the industrial revolution, and onward.

So, at this point, we’re twenty-five-some-odd minutes into 2001: A Space Odyssey, ten thousand years of human existence has been covered, and there hasn’t been a single word of dialogue.  What follows is another lucid, balletic type sequence that consists mostly of awe-inspiring establishing shots of really cool spaceships— spaceships flying, opening, closing, landing, etc.  In a regular movie, these establishing details would take just a few seconds of screen time, and then we’d cut to an expository dialogue scene between a couple of actors.  But with Kubrick, he deliberately dedicates an extreme amount of time to these sequences, to these technological marvels, more so than he dedicates to any human.  This, I believe, is because in this movie tools and technology are vastly more important than the humans, or at the very least, operate at a similar level.

Around this point in the film, we have our first dialogue scenes between modern day humans.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to gather much from these conversations because the traffic outside my window is too loud and I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying.  Regardless, one thing led to another, and eventually these astronauts land on the moon and discover another peculiar monolith-like structure.  As the astronauts approach the structure, similarly to the first encounter, a horrible sound emanates from it, a sound that can only be described as a smoke detector gone wrong.  This represents another leap forward.  This, an hour in to 2001: A Space Odyssey marks the end of the ambitious first act (one could argue that the tossing of the bone through the air is the end of the first act, but I think all elements up to this point have been setup for the meat of the movie, the mission to Jupiter).

The “mission to Jupiter” sequence begins by establishing the monotony and loneliness of everyday life between two astronauts aboard a massive spaceship.  Their journey to Jupiter is aided and supported by a super computer called the HAL 9000.  The HAL 9000 is fast, always perfect, and mimics the mind of a human.  Wow.   “Hal,” for short, has a somewhat off-putting, eloquent English voice and is embodied by a single red light that resembles an eye.  It is noteworthy, that the tone in this section gradually grows more and more sinister, scary even, until something really curious happens— Hal, the immaculate computer, seemingly makes a miscalculation that compromises the mission.  Baffled, the two astronauts discuss whether or not Hal can be trusted from here on out, and they decide that he cannot be trusted.  So, they agree to dismantle him, in order to take over the mission manually…

Cut to: Intermission.  Yes, Intermission.  This is perhaps a self-reflexive comment regarding the musical and theatrical nature of the film.  Or maybe it’s just a break in action, allowing us a moment to take a piss.

Anyway, after the surprising presence of the Intermission, we return to the film, and realize that Hal does not take too kindly to the idea of being dismantled.  His oddly human response, self-preservation, results in the catapulting of one of the astronauts into deep space.  This leads to an intense sequence where the main astronaut (Dr. Dave Bowman) tries to rescue the catapulted one… of course, to no avail.  Dr. Dave Bowman returns, determined, and is able to dismantle the HAL 9000, despite Hal’s desperate pleads otherwise.

This brings us to the third and final act, which goes by in what seems like a flash.  In this elusive sequence, Dr. Dave Bowman approaches Jupiter in his space pod, when he enters what can only be described as a time traveling space-time continuum type thing.  During this “descent,” a certain psychedelic effect arises, something like tripping acid in space, and there are several still shots of Dr. Dave Bowman reacting to what’s before his eyes.  These moments are haunting.

At the end of this psychedelic portal, he finds himself in what appears to be a pristine, well-decorated mansion.  It’s bright.  It’s quiet.  It’s eerie as hell.  Then, in maybe three or four consecutive shots, we witness Dr. Dave Bowman grow old and die alone.  After which, a fetus wrapped in a bubble emerges in his place— the “star-child.”  In the final frame, reminiscent of the opening shot of the moon, the sun, and the Earth, we see the “star-child” floating in space, looking directly at us.  Music swells.  The end.

I’ve just described the context of a plainly obvious sci-fi film wrapped between two bizarre sequences that raise the film to a whole new philosophical level.  In other words, instead of a neat, superficial movie about space and lasers, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a profound symbol, a strict cautionary tale about the dangers of progress and the tools that make progress possible.  In this way, the bone at the beginning represents not just the spaceships in the movie, but also the cell phone in your pocket.  It represents the laptop computer in your bag.  The pen on your desk.  But what is the point?  Is it that progress and evolution are bad?  Is it that humans are intrinsically awful?  Is Kubrick suggesting that while these tools can be used for great things, they can also be used for bad?

There are more questions that come to mind, but before I lose myself within the maze that is the subtext of this film, I’d like to point out a couple of technical elements that caught my eye.  First, of course, is the photography.  Like all Kubrick films, the compositions are ambitious, symmetrical, and excessively deliberate.  In a word, they are masterful.  On top of that, was the repetitious use of circles.  From the planets, to the buttons, to the spaceships, to the eyes, was the presence of circles.  These, I believe, represent perfection, infinity, and the circle of life, which also comments on the circular nature of the film (dawn of man, death of man, rebirth of man).   The final technical element I want to mention was the use of red.  Red appears throughout the film, sometimes as a light emanating from a spaceship, sometimes a button on a console, or of course, most memorably, the red eye of Hal.  The red is a little bit more ambiguous than the circles, but I think it represents temptation and danger.  Perhaps it is the forbidden apple from the Garden of Eden.

Either way, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film full of ideas and possible interpretations.  It’s approximately two and a half hours long— and on one hand, it seems like very little is actually happening, but on the other, it seems like Kubrick is taking on the entire history and nature of mankind.  At its essence, this is a sci-fi epic sandwiched in between a cautionary tale about the dangers technology presents to our humanity.  It’s bold.  It’s brilliant.  It’s precise.  It’s confounding.  It’s haunting.  It’s quintessential Kubrick.  In other words, it raises way more questions than it answers.  Questions like, what’s with the mismatching green helmet near the end?  And why is the mansion on Jupiter so immaculately decorated?  And what about those strange monoliths?  Are they a metaphor for God?  The universe?  And what about that creepy star-child?  Is it us?  Is it the next step in evolution?  Is it another planet unto itself?  Are we all planets unto ourselves?  Is it meant to be sinister or hopeful?  In the end, that’s up to you.