Last year, I had the chance to catch a midnight showing of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange at the IFC Center in Manhattan. It’s my favorite Kubrick, and I’d seen it plenty of times in the past, but I’d never seen it on the big screen before.
As a teenager, I tended to walk away from the film with two main thoughts: a dizzy appreciation of the film’s transgressive visual style and ponderings about whether you’re truly good if you only follow the rules because you’re afraid to be punished. The first is obvious. Even in his weakest narratives, Kubrick has a gift for transcending reality with his imagery. And the second is the also obvious, explicit text of Anthony Burgess’s novel which forms the basis for the film. But that midnight screening was the first viewing in ages that let new thoughts begin to ping-pong around my brain.
A Clockwork Orange is a fundamentally ugly tale. Alex is a thug. He’s a rapist. He abuses friend and stranger alike. When he goes to prison after murdering a woman with a ceramic dildo, it is well-deserved. In prison, he fetishizes the violence of the Bible’s Old Testament, and, later, he volunteers for the Ludovico Technique therapy not out of any remorse for his crimes but because he believes it represents an easy way for him to get out of prison. And, at the film’s end as the Ludovico Technique begins to wear off, Alex convalesces in a hospital bed indulging in his violent sexual fantasies anew.
Roger Ebert was an infamous critic of the film, and although I respectfully disagree with the late legend’s take on A Clockwork Orange, it’s not difficult to understand why he was so viscerally disgusted by Kubrick/Burgess’s seemingly nihilistic take on morality and violence. And if the only thing A Clockwork Orange had to say was that “morality means nothing without free will” or “it is as amoral to utterly constrain free will as it is to commit an amoral act” then A Clockwork Orange would be a parable for teenagers at best… and a parable that revels in an unseemly amount of sex and violence for that sort of audience. But Kubrick was rarely that facile.
Alex fancies himself to be an aesthete. He collects Beethoven records. He and his droogs drink their drug-laced milk from the nipples of erotic, Hellenic sculptures. When he commits the film’s most shocking act of violence — an armed robbery/rape of a crippled man and his wife (who eventually commits suicide) — he sings the title tune of Singin’ in the Rain. And Alex isn’t alone in his consumption of fashionable culture. Alex’s parents live in an apartment that is a grotesque parody of bourgeois contentment. The woman that Alex murders lives in a home that is full of obscene sexual sculptures attempting to pass itself off as high art. And at the film’s end, when Alex unwittingly crawls to the home of the man whose life he ruined, Beethoven is weaponized into sonic torture one final time.
A Clockwork Orange‘s biting satire lies in the corruption of art and its detachment from any context or humanity that gives it true beauty (and how that circles back to the main plot of whether or not Alex’s post-“rehabilitation” actions genuinely mean anything). Kubrick took his peerless skills for composition and and his ear for classical music and turns A Clockwork Orange‘s universe into a carnival-house perversion of sophistication. And in doing so, he asks the question, “does great art mean anything when its consumed by people that have no frame of reference for beauty and warmth outside of established aesthetics.”
Alex loves “a wee bit of the old Ludwig Van,” as he’s fond of saying. But why? Does he love the beauty of Beethoven’s compositions? If so, then why does he leave nothing but destruction and pain in all other facets of his life? Is he attracted to the technical complexity of it all? Perhaps although that doesn’t explain his attraction to the vulgar simplicity of drinking from the “elegant” sculpture’s tits when he gets high. And when he begins to study the Bible, he doesn’t find meaning or significance in the love and forgiveness of the New Testament but the plundering and raping and pillaging of the great wars of the Old Testament in the Holy Land.
Everyone in A Clockwork Orange lives in a world of expectations. You have to behave a certain way. You have to like certain types of art. You have to uphold certain British traditions. And all of these people are living their lives and very few of them stop to ask “why.”
I kept thinking about A Clockwork Orange as I watched Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s Academy Award winning film The Revenant. Thanks to the breathtaking cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who has now rightfully earned three straight Best Cinematography Oscars… an Academy first), Iñarritu’s recent films could almost be mistaken for a Terrence Malick picture based purely on their visuals. With a technical mastery that is beyond question, Iñarritu has crafted films with the formal construction and formal ambition of the best of European art-house and avant-garde cinema. But their interiors are soulless husks at best and loathsome, narcissistic screeds at their worst.
The Revenant is the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio in arguably one of the least deserving Best Actor Oscar winning performances in recent memory), a fur trapper in the 1700s who goes on a quest of revenge and survival after his son is murdered by one of his former colleagues (a ferocious Tom Hardy). What other plot exists in the film is exposition setting up the motivation for Glass and the Native Americans that are hounding Glass’s fur company.
In all fairness to The Revenant, if it were simply a revenge tale content to be the pulp-y melodrama that its plot dictates it is, I’d probably have enjoyed it. I like Westerns and although The Revenant isn’t quite a Western, it has enough of the genre’s blood flowing through it. But it’s Iñarritu’s dogged insistence to pair the markings of high cinema with his soulless narratives that marks him as a cinematic appropriator of the lowest order.
The Revenant, fortunately, wasn’t the loathsome Birdman which found Iñarritu distorting the artistic bildungsroman (ala Louie or the ouevre of Woody Allen) as a self-pitying, hateful attack against anyone who dare to question the validity of your art (while wrapping it in a faux-egalitarian philosophy that believes appealing to the lowest common denominator is the most authentic art). And for about five seconds, it engages with the futility of Glass’s search for revenge in the film’s climax (with Leo’s film-closing glare directly into the camera so laughable that my eyes nearly rolled out of my head), but the human experience at the center of all essential art is nowhere to be found despite the gorgeous wrapping in which Lubezki’s cinematography ensconces the film.
Where Kubrick uses the ugliness of Alex and A Clockwork Orange‘s world to make a point about art and its potential detachment from meaning, Iñarritu’s films are simply ugly and detached. If the point of The Revenant is that Glass and the rest of the film’s cast lived in a world subjected to the cruel whims of nature (ala the gruesome bear attack that kicks the film’s plot into action), then The Revenant is low-rent Herzog at best. But unlike Herzog films like Fitzcarraldo, Stroszek, or Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Iñarritu doesn’t pair his bleak portrait of the natural turn of things with why it matters to who we are as people (see: megalomania in the rain forest in Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre and the crushing realities of the American dream in the bleak wastelands of Minnesota in Stroszek).
Unlike Herzog who earns his bleak worldview by dissecting how destruction is written into the marrow of so many folks who try to conquer nature or their place in the world, The Revenant finds Iñarritu mistaking suffering itself for art (and clearly the Academy made the same mistake when it awarded the Best Actor Oscar to Leo for a performance that is more “pretending to be in a state of near rictus for half the film” than actual acting).
The Revenant is a film that manages to be bereft of life despite being shot in such natural splendor. And there are commentaries that could be made there: social isolation, the darkness inherent in many parts of the human spirit, or the emptiness of Hugh’s quest for revenge. But The Revenant is instead an empty film that only tips its hat at any themes it might want to engage in.
The Revenant (and the rest of Iñarritu’s filmography including the vacuous Babel) is the film for anyone who wants the beauty and complexity of great cinema without any of the actual challenge of great cinema. Iñarritu fashions himself to be Godard with his editing without Godard’s Marxism or social commentary. He fashions himself to be Herzog with his bleakness without any of Herzog’s underlying philosophy and sense for who people are. But he’s proven himself to be nothing more than a bargain bin David Lean… the majesty and spectacle of larger than life imagery without the poetic soul of the great British master.
And considering the accolades Iñarritu’s films continue to garner, it frightens me to think that we may already be living in A Clockwork Orange‘s world already… except instead of a wee bit of the old Ludwig Van, it’s a wee bit of the old Sven Nykvist instead.