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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Time for a little ultraviolence

Sunday, some friends and I got talking about A Clockwork Orange. I realize film snobs like me are supposed to have shrines to Kubrick in our basements, but can't stand this film. And not because it's not great. I mean, in the same way that the first World War was The Great War. It does what it sets out to do magnificently. I'm just not cool with what it set out to do.
Okay, so here's the background. 1963, Anthony Burgess writes A Clockwork Orange, a disturbingly thought-provoking book that raised new questions in a groundbreaking way. And it did it without sensationalizing or glorifying violence, especially impressive considering the story is told in first person by a dude who's whole world revolves around sensational, glorified violence. 
The book has the main character, Alex, undergo treatment in jail that's supposed to condition him to feel sick every time he even thinks of violence. They give him drugs that make him excruciatingly ill, then force him to watch scenes of graphic violence. The treatment's a total success, but its lasting impact on Alex is tantamount to torture. He can't defend himself, he can witness acts of violence, and because the films of violence were always accompanied by classical music, Alex can't even listen to the music he loves without growing ill. Burgess kind of makes you feel empathy for Alex, which is impressive considering Alex is pure evil. He does not, however, try to force a conclusion on you about it, which I think is the mark of a really effective narrative. 
The movie attempts to do something completely different. It attempts to do to its audience what was done to Alex. For instance, one of the early scenes has Alex and his friends torturing and raping a woman while Alex performs Singing in the Rain, and for a lot of people, hearing that song evokes a visceral reaction years after they saw the movie. 
The thing is, that's not really fair. It's not fair for Kubrick to pull that trick on an unsuspecting audience who, unlike Alex, are mostly not evil. And I don't feel like Kubrick ever really portrays the violence as a bad thing. Alex is a cool and charming badass with whom we're supposed to identify. And judging by the decor in half the dorm rooms I frequented in college, a lot of people do.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not sure that just because it can be done, it necessarily should be done. 
I'm not trying to say that Kubrick shouldn't have done it, or that he's a bad person for having done so. I don't think that people shouldn't watch it, or are bad people for doing so. I think art, even art that I find really disturbing and wrong, should never be censored other than by the conscience of the artist. I just didn't think conscience played into the creation of the film, and I find that irksome.
Also, what the hell was with the chorus line of dancing Jesi? 
Wow, there is no way to write this that doesn't come off as prudish and stodgy. Ah well. If the shoe fits.

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