Sunday, February 22, 2015

AFI Top 100: #70 "A Clockwork Orange"

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Before pressing "play" on our AFI Top 100 movie this week, I made a point to tell myself that no matter how I felt about it after this viewing, my feelings would be decidedly different than the first time I saw it. There is something about the #70 movie, A Clockwork Orange, that demands multiple viewings. It's hard and traumatizing while still being thoughtful and sarcastic. Director Stanley Kubrick creates motifs of brutality, teen boredom, and a perverse future in this film adaptation of Anthony Burgess' dystopian novel. It is also a vibrant experiment in language.

Set in London in an unknown future (one that seems to be a hybrid of British and Russian idiosyncrasies), Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his collection of brutal friends, or droogs, spend their days cutting school and their nights wandering the streets, battling other gangs, each other, and innocent victims unlucky enough to cross their paths. They steal, rape, and torture, all while waxing philosophically as if they're in a Shakespearean comedy. Alex and the droogs lack any notion of compassion for anyone or anything, other than themselves of course. Our story takes a shift when Alex is apprehended and imprisoned, before being transitioned into a rehabilitation program meant to strip him of the ability to do bad things.

McDowell plays Alex with a freakish subtlety that makes us despise and love him. Such a talent is almost hard to describe. It can really only exist in this strange world created by Kubrick and Burgess. Perhaps Alex is a victim of this society that dismisses its youth in order to enjoy useless frivolities... that is, of course, until the youth rise up and invade their homes.

When I first saw this film over 12 years ago, it was difficult for me to understand how I felt about it. That confusion, ultimately, led me to hate it. It was just easier that way, to attribute how terrible I felt to A Clockwork Orange just being a piss-poor movie with nothing important to say. As a result, I avoided watching it again until being challenged to by my AFI journey. Sometimes you have to just take a deep breath and dive in head first, without trying to explain everything away. The extreme violence, the perversity, and the nonchalance of rape by sociopathic youths... it all leaves you with a pit in your stomach of disgust and terror. But that's the brilliance of Kubrick's film. It is a horror film without any of the classic horror tropes. Our monsters are human, and moreover, they're also our heroes.

Our perspectives are forced to skew in Alex' favor, even though we never identify with he or his droogs. They're repulsive, and Alex as their leader the most repulsive of all. Yet he is charming, like many sociopaths, and more often than not, he's also side-splittingly funny. The unique script and art direction simultaneously distract us from the horror being played out on screen, while still highlighting it. The home invasion sequences are frightening in concept alone, but over-saturating the scene with sexual art and exaggerated furnishings pull our attention, often necessarily, away from the brutality.

I still have a hard time enduring much of this movie. Even Alex's satirical rehabilitation sponsored by the government leads to even more traumatizing excursions... but it also leads to more comedy. I still can't get McDowell's expression out of my head while he's being spoon fed his meal in the hospital. This guy is sheer brilliance, and I can't shake how impressive it is to have a character so depraved and so unsympathetic capture our sympathies. Alex' poetic narration and Kubrick's classic film-making style (long, dragging takes) also add uneasiness and power to every moment.

This is not an easy film to watch. Likely, it will make the viewer want to turn away from itor turn it off. But it has so many qualities that are worth fighting those feelings in order to witness. Fans of Kubrick argue this to be his finest masterpiece in a sea of masterpieces. I don't consider myself to be a Kubrick fan, at least, not an unadulterated one, so I don't feel that same compulsion towards hyperbole.

Yet I do ascribe to the fact that this movie, maybe more than any other, is so layered with complexity and emotions, it deserves such accolades. This is our second Kubrick film on the AFI list (if you don't remember, he also directed [most of] Spartacus at #81), and there are two more to come. I'm going to reserve speaking about Kubrick's level of directorial brilliance until we watch them all, but I feel that A Clockwork Orange deserves a boost in the next incarnation of the Top 100. It is simply unforgettable.

Rating:  ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Warner Brothers]

Check back in two weeks (tonight's movie postponed for the Oscars!) for #69 on the list, Tootsie — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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