Saturday, October 29, 2016

Getting It Wrong -- A Clockwork Orange

Photo: from the MSN article linked below. You've got to see this movie. A disturbing masterpiece.

I recently read an MSN photoslide article of 40 movies that critics got completely wrong. (Click that to read it.) Some made me so upset that I had to vent--I mean, blog--about them. For example:

“Stanley Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' is an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning. It pretends to oppose the police state and forced mind control, but all it really does is celebrate the nastiness of its hero, Alex.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Of all the movie critics I've read over the years, I agreed with Roger Ebert most. (Though I am most frustrated with his review of Dead Poet's Society, but that wasn't one of MSN's 40 here, so that's a blog for another day.)

But he got this one wrong. (See the movie if you haven't.) A Clockwork Orange is not paranoid right-wing fantasy. That's Trump-land, a country that Kubrick would never consider visiting. Though he had his share of really out-there thoughts (and don't we all), Kubrick did not feel Britian's (which is where he lived, let's not forget) police force was in danger of dominating his country with a tight fist.

It is an Orwellian warning, in a way, but not as criticized here. Certainly Orwell's lesson of "beware of who you elect to control you," and, for that matter, "beware of those who you let control you" is in play here--but that's not what the movie is really about.

A Clockwork Orange says to beware of a totalitarian police state (with the emphasis on the police), but it also says that we do need a large and controlling police presence, because human nature sucks, and left to our own devices, chaos will reign. That's the irony Kubrick was trying to show. Kubrick was all about irony, all the time. And so it is here.

Alex isn't the criminal, the movie says. His society is criminalizing, and he is a criminal as a byproduct. Though Alex is individually responsible for his own actions, the bureaucracy that tries to "civilize" him just makes him worse. This movie is definitely an attack of that bureaucracy. Remember the scenes of the guard transferring Alex? Remember the bureaucratic forms that had to be filled out? Remember how long that took, especially that ingenious shot of the guard separating the perforated portion after that's signed? Who wouldn't be driven to anger or mindlessness in that nihilistic setting of dominant mindlessness? When the bureaucracy is all that matters, we're all lost.

The insinuation here is that we are all Alex, or at least potentially so. So the movie doesn't pretend to oppose the police state. It does oppose the police state--as depicted as a mindless bureaucracy. It's not paranoid at all--often, human nature does suck, and at our core, no matter how much we think we're civilized, we're all still baseless and base. (That was the point of 2001, too. Remember the million-year flashforward bone-flip? Despite all our technology, all our civilizations--on Earth and on the moon--we're still just a base, bone-loving species. Some of us are okay with that, but some of us strive to be more than that, a new species, maybe, capable of so much more.) Burgess's novel somewhat says the same thing, and this movie beats it over our heads.

Since we're all capable of being Alex--some more so than others--we do need a heavy police presence. But too large a police presence (and it's mind control) is just as bad, if not worse, as having too many criminals. So it's bad to have, but we do need it, to some degree. What degree is that? Well, in the movie, it was too much. In the beginning of the movie, it wasn't enough. So where's the line? Kubrick didn't know, and he's saying we don't know, either. Recent events in America since Ferguson show we still don't know. (Art imitates life, right?)

And so the movie doesn't celebrate the nastiness of Alex as much as it uses that behavior to prove its point. In very broad strokes, written large, the movie showcases the all-too-human negative "celebration" of the nastiness in us all. Kubrick (and Burgess) say: We're all potentially that nasty. Which is why mind control and a police body politick aren't the answers. The answer has to come from within us, individually. In only that way can we create a "civilized society," which is a Nietzschean umbrella term that really doesn't exist--another point that Kubrick makes here. The movie is all about that irony, painted with very broad strokes to the point of satire and farce--but, let's face it: Isn't civilization, society, and other umbrella terms all a farce anyway?

Look around you. Look at American politics right now. Look at what we call our civilized society--a culture that actually does celebrate the dehumanization of women, minorities, LGBTs and, really, anyone else who is not a self-satisfied, arrogant, pompous, self-loving rich white male. (We don't seem to understand the difference between self-serving "facts" and actual facts, either.) And, by the way, our American society is still one of the best, most stable ones out there in the whole world.

That's the reality right now. It's that million-year bone flip in 2001: Despite our technology, despite what we call our civilized society, we're all still a bunch of bone-wielding, power-wielding, blood-loving savages. And no matter how we're trying to control ourselves--with prisons, politics or mind-control (and those last two are often the same thing, by the way) we're always going to be like that.

Because we're human, and that's our human nature.

That's not a very negative, twisted farce?

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