Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Day 95 :1971(Part 3)

I first saw A Clockwork Orange in one of my previous excursions at the U.D. library(see my M*A*S*H entry circa 1970). I don’t know how it caught my attention, but I’d heard of it. I saw it again not long after at the same theater I saw The Last Picture Show at, probably for a midnight show. In the interim, I bought the video, watched it probably a couple of times, then again at the Film Forum in New York City, probably in, I don’t know, 2000 or 2001. I guess my point is, I was born in 1968 and I somehow managed to see this 1971 film on the big screen at least three times. It’s clearly one of my favorites. On top of that, I’ve read the book, wrote a paper(in high school) on the use of language in it. So I needed fresh eyes. Fortunately, Lynne joined me for this one as well. Whether she added any new and relevant perspective remains to be seen. A Clockwork Orange was directed by Stanley Kubrick, adapted from the novel by Anthony Burgess, and stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex, who’s in every scene and narrates throughout in a futuristic teenage slang invented for the novel known as Nadsat, a combination of a number of influences including, but not limited to, Russian and Cockney rhyming. Alex and his droogs(slang for friends) roam the night, stealing, raping, pillaging, and wreaking mayhem in general. There’s tension in the ranks, one of them betrays him, and he’s sent to prison for murder. While there, he volunteers for a special program that will garner him early release. In this view of the not too distant future, prisons are being overcrowded by political prisoners(a subtlety I just gleaned from this viewing). As such, a controversial new technique has emerged, wherein a criminal can be deprived of his ability to commit crime by rendering him paralyzed with nausea at the mere thought of violence. This way, the, in effect, neutered inmates can be turned loose in order to accommodate the true enemies of the state. Alex submits to the technique, is set free, and finds himself helpless in a world where all his victims are able to enact revenge on him, leaving him unable to defend himself. A Clockwork Orange was and still is a controversial work for a number of reasons. Of course, the graphic and stylized rape and violence is a major reason. If any film warranted the X rating, this was it. Some couldn’t get past it. In addition, the film, albeit subtly, invites us to sympathize with Alex and his droogs. Well, not the film in general as much as Alex specifically. He’s very charming, charismatic, and speaks to us directly, in effect making us co-conspirators in what unspools before us. While viewing it this time, I found myself equally conscious of my memories as I was self conscious about the woman on the couch next to me and that she might be horrified and disgusted. For the record, she wasn’t. Or if she was, not enough to turn her off the film. I think some of the outrage over the film is angry at Kubrick not just for asking us to sympathize with Alex, but more so for succeeding. I must confess that I, as a teenage boy, eager to get any glimpse of the unclothed female form, was somewhat titillated by these scenes. The focus on these scenes, though, ignores the larger and harsher political point. The film equally indicts those on the far right and on the far left and offers no solution. The “reformers” want to artificially psychologically and perhaps even physically alter criminals, taking away part of their humanity. The liberals, on the other hand, want to defeat those on the other side, even if it means martyring someone they’re ostensibly trying to protect. Suffering from the effects of his “treatment,” Alex is found by a writer, a former victim of his. The writer is part of a group agitating to take down the conservative government. They deliberately drive him to a suicide attempt, he survives, and then is bought off by the conservatives not to speak ill of them. With all the sniping between the two groups, does it really matter which side wins? The people lose because amid all this, a sociopath is let back on the streets, his pockets filled with cash. Many of the films on this list show the reflection of the time directly, though in his typically timeless way, Kubrick shows a parallel. Much has been said, here and elsewhere about the antiauthoritarian thread running through this era. Much of it is portrayed as benign, and indeed much of it is. Those who wore the hippie uniform were all about free expression and doing your own thing. A laudable tenet to be sure and worthy of praise. But in 1969, some wearing this very uniform were responsible for a horrifying mass murder in southern California. I certainly don’t think this film is, in any way, speaking against the peace movement. But it is, perhaps, telling, that in the rise of challenging the norms, a great deal of violent imagery came to the surface, even if some of it was merely skewed as propaganda to demonize the counter culture. The dark side of antiauthority is anarchy. There’s certainly an element of class warfare in this film. Alex lives in what is clearly a version of the projects and his gang’s uniforms are a parody of upper crust formal wear and, though there’s a brutal scene where the droogs assault a homeless man, their main targets are the obscenely wealthy. All this theorizing aside however, there are many elements that make this a brilliant and entertaining film in addition to being intellectually challenging. There’s the usual Kubrickian attention to detail. Everything’s beautifully, perfectly, and meticulously shot. If Altman makes me feel like I’m eavesdropping on a hypernaturalistic version of the real world, Kubrick always makes me feel like I’m entering his world. Each film, whether it’s in the past, present, or future, is a world distinctly of his own making. All of it comes together with Malcolm McDowell. Kubrick himself reportedly said, “If Malcolm McDowell hadn't been available I probably wouldn't have made the film.” His voice as well as his presence, guide us through, in some ways seducing us into sympathizing with a horrible sociopath. We celebrate his triumphs, mourn his troubles, and at the end we see the workings of his mind as the treatment has been expunged from his system. As visions of future mayhem go through his head, a look of ecstasy appears on his face, and he tells us, “I was cured all right,” we feel his triumph. At least I did.

Harold and Maude brings us back to the more pleasant and quirky signposts of this era. I first saw this in the late ‘80’s on a big screen in Dayton and have seen it at least twice since then, most recently little more than a year ago with Maureen and Justin, who have also joined me for some of the titles in this series. Harold(Bud Cort) is a rich eccentric 20 year old living with his mother. He’s obsessed with death and is constantly staging mock suicides, drives a hearse, and goes to funerals in his copious spare time. Maude(Ruth Gordon) is an 80 year old force of nature, attacking everything she does in life with great gusto, wringing every bit of feeling out of experience. They meet at a funeral and fall in love. Over the course of a week, Maude essentially teaches Harold many things, but mostly how to live. And then she kills herself. Maude seems so sure of herself in everything she does, it doesn’t seem like a contradiction. This is the debut of director Hal Ashby on the list as a director. His work as an editor for Norman Jewison is credited as making Jewison’s work better, represented here by In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair. Ashby directed five films in this period. Four of them are on this list. Though similar on a superficial level to The Graduate in the fact that it’s about an alienated youth of privilege and scored by pop music of one artist, it’s as different in tone as Five Easy Pieces is. It is at once dark, obsessed with death, and life affirming. Maude teaches Harold how to appreciate life, in large part by not being afraid to march to your own drummer, something he’s already been exploring, but she helps him to find joy in it. This is also definitely a time capsule film, with a clear anti Vietnam message, though more expressed in peripheral subplots with protestors and Harold’s insanely hawkish military uncle. And, of course, when we see Maude’s house, there’s more than a little of the aging flower child thing there. In a very different way from A Clockwork Orange, Harold and Maude essentially creates its own world as well, which is why I was able to forgive and indeed revel in some of Maude’s outrageous actions that would be unacceptable in a more realistic depiction, like stealing cars and of course, her suicide. It’s almost a fable of sorts, taking place in a less realistic parallel universe where Maude is sort of a mythical being, swooping in to open Harold’s eyes and then swooping away when her work is done. Sort of a Mary Poppins for young adults? It’s a very difficult tone to maintain and did not resonate well with audiences or critics upon its release. But it always makes me smile. I would be remiss if I did not mention my favorite scene in the film, one I’ve quoted for years. Harold presents Maude with a ring. Maude says, “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen” and throws it into the ocean. As Harold looks on incredulously, Maude says, “So I’ll always know where it is.” I was recently imparting this story to a young man, perhaps in his early 20’s. I didn’t get to the end of the story. Because when I said she threw the ring in the ocean, he said, “I’d throw her in!” I tried to finish, but he couldn’t get over the disregard for the precious rock. I don’t mean this to be a tirade against the materialism of today’s generation. But it did make me a little sad. I should also mention the great score of Cat Stevens songs. I mentioned at the beginning of this blog about the emergence of jazz scores and more vague underscoring of films. But I haven’t yet addressed on a greater level the use of pop songs. There are songs created for the films that don’t necessarily seem to fit, like The Windmills of Your Mind in The Thomas Crown Affair and Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But what seems to work much better is films set in the period they’re made, of the period they’re made, using popular songs of the time. There are a number of these, but Easy Rider really pioneered this. Then there’s the sub genre of using pop songs primarily of one artist to essentially score the film, such as The Graduate, McCabe and Mrs. Miller(though a western, the music still fit), and Harold and Maude. The music of Cat Stevens is almost its own character in the film, and it would be something else entirely without it. Well, that does it at long last for 1971. 1972 looks promising and is coming soon.

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