Sunday, March 15, 2009

Who's Afraid of A Clockwork Orange

As a movie fan, I am frequently compelled to reconsider films I recognize as "classics" but have resisted seeing. It took me years to finally get around to watching The Godfather. Personally, I blame the surge of bad low-level mob Tarrantino rip-offs for saturating the genre for me. But, I did finally see it and was blown away (no pun intended.)

Then there is a whole other list of films I am conflicted about because I suspect they have something to teach me, either about the filmmaking or storytelling or the human condition. But they scare me. These include - The Shining, The Exorcist, Scarface, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, Eraserhead and, well of course, A Clockwork Orange.

I'm not entirely sure when A Clockwork Orange first entered my consciousness. It was released in 1971, much too early to have figured into my early life at all. By college I was certainly familiar with the image of Malcom MacDowell's eyes forced open to a barrage of images. Still, I knew very little about the plot. One night, a friend told a group of us that a friend of hers at another college was walking home by herself, very late, and a group of college guys came up behind her. One was whistling Singing in the Rain.

"Oh my God," one of my friends listening to the story said, and the teller gave an I know, right?" look.

"What?" I said, jealous to be left out.

"That's how my friend reacted," said the storyteller, "like Lia, when the guys walked past her, she just looked at them because they were staring at her, waiting for a reaction."

For those of you who don't know, there is a scene in A Clockwork Orange where the main character and his group of thugs terrorize a couple - tie up and beat the man and rape the wife - while singing Singing in the Rain (or is it whistling, I can't remember and I'm not about to go digging just to get it right...although I'm certainly not above doing this to get something correct).

While I was highly engaged in the debate over whether this friend was "saved" by not eliciting a fear response to these guys who obviously tried to scare her, I vowed never to see this movie because I specifically did not want this image in my head. Fast forward a dozen or so years. I impulsively put a Kubrick documentary in my Net Flix cue and it arrived in my mailbox one day.

Of course, the thing was loaded with Clockwork Orange clips, including the Singing in the Rain scene. At first, I relieved that it was not nearly as devistating as I'd built up these past, oh, twenty years or so. I was drawn to the excellence of the filmmaking (there is a scene where one of the thugs pushes another into a pool of water and the lighting and composition are unbelievably gorgeous - especially considering the subject matter is someone pushing someone into some water.)

So I decided to go ahead and rent the movie. And I didn't love it. Once I got over the techincal excellence (of which it holds up) I realized something. I don't avoid movies because they are "difficult." There are any number of films that I have willingly put myself through that I knew would be challenging - Leaving Las Vegas, Thelma & Louise, JFK, The Fisher King, The House of Sand and Fog, Into the Wild to name a few, but I've gone in willingly, in the attempt to deepen my world view.

When I look back up at the list of those movies I supposed to admire but am "afraid" of, I have come to understand that many represent a "look how awful we humans can be to each other." I realize that I am hesitant to accept this without some sort of hint at solution. I understand that others may argue with me on this, and that's okay.

My point is to simply say, I am no longer scared of A Clockwork Orange, but this doesn't mean I find it worthy of my admiration. Except that pool scene... and maybe those shots of the record store. And a couple of times when he speeds and slows the camera to control and enhance the pacing... Maybe i will have to watch it again. But I will fast forward throught the Singing in the Rain scene.


  1. I should see it again, sometime (without you, I'm sure...). I have a recollection of loving it, in the same way that I loved really old Judas Priest records. Something to do with the artistic treatment of disturbing subjects. There is the undercurrent of constant aggression that I believe appeals to my primal side, being such an enlightened, evolved male, as I am. But I'm damned if I can think of any specifics.

    Perhaps it was just cool to like it, as an adolescent male. Perhaps it touched nerves that I no longer have, or at least no longer feel so strongly. It would certainly be interesting to find out, 20 years or so after my first viewing.

    In any case, I believe that there is a comfort to be gleaned from films of this ilk, including some of the others that you have mentioned. This is the comfort we can attain by patting ourselves on the back for being "better than that". We can believe that art imitates life, no matter how extreme, and be pleased with ourselves for being above it all. As long as we can employ our own internal spin machines, no eye clips are necessary.

  2. I rented Clockwork Orange in high school with my girlfriend, because you know. Expanding our minds. I was only vaguely aware there was violence and drugs involved. When we got to the rape scene, which was early on as I recall, we went ahead and stopped it. Never felt compelled to go back, and never really got into Kubrick - 2001 and Full Metal Jacket didn't do anything for me. I just figured he was a boomer icon.

  3. That is one movie that really scared the hell out of me...I had nightmares for 3 days after. It is compelling, although disturbing, to watch it for the "what humans can do to each other" aspect. Still makes me shudder.