Sunday, July 26, 2015

Birthday Take: Stanley Kubrick in "A Clockwork Orange" (1971)

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Stanley Kubrick
Born: July 26, 1928
Died: March 7, 1999 (71 years old)
Nomination: Best Picture (nominated)

The Take

In the annals of film history, few directors are synonymous with greatness as Stanley Kubrick. While he is also a divisive figure, the average film fan recognizes his work as being some of the heights of cinema. He challenged the medium with cold and calculating characters that got under our skin. He may have not been the most prolific director of his time, but his filmography has one of the most consistently impressive groups out there. Among them is his early run with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, and A Clockwork Orange. All three consistently rank among the greatest films in history for differing reasons. They pushed genres and technique into new directions.

Yet here is the thing that probably seems more fascinating by today's standards: A Clockwork Orange was nominated for Best Picture. While Kubrick has always been acclaimed at the Oscars, it doesn't seem like a move that would be made today with even twice as many available Best Picture slots. Films that glorify violence and sexual proclivity tends to be films that cinephiles have the chance of enjoying, but end up having the caveat of knowing that the Oscars will largely ignore them. Speaking as A Clockwork Orange was banned for decades in various countries, it is even more of a shocking miracle that it was even nominated over tamer fare of the day.

If this sounds like unfair speculation, just recognize that the closest "morally questionable" film to get nominated in the past few years was The Wolf of Wall Street - which had legendary director Martin Scorsese at the helm. Otherwise, there's not much chance that a film with as much violence, rape, and questionable drug use would ever get nominated. While it does feature the director at the top of his game, mixing these subjects with an uncomfortable level of humor, it doesn't make sense to think that it would be embraced by modern audiences. Yes, the iconography is still prominent in satire, but I don't come away thinking that Kubrick would be as accepted today, even if this film is a beloved masterpiece nowadays.

So while I don't have much in the way of insight to say about it. It is a film that is highly entertaining and very objectionable. However, it does have a lot of strong moments and an interesting study of culture that was so influential that it was banned in Britain for what it would make youths do. Even then, its mixture of classical music and very odd art pieces made this such an oddball film. It is unnerving and features one of Malcolm McDowell's best performances as he is forced to face various aspects of torture. It may be shameless in its naughtiness, but that is more of an attribute to the director's ability to make this story come to life. 

It would be hard to do this piece without just echoing the praise of Kubrick. He is, after all, a giant in the film world. His technique is considered unsurpassed. He makes films of any speed feel meditative. He challenges the medium in ways that feel ahead of their time, even if he likely wouldn't be as respected today if he was working. However, it is still fascinating to look back on the Best Picture fields and see this film among the nominees. It isn't that it is a bad film. It isn't that the film should have necessarily won in that respected year. But it is just that it is so jarringly aggressive and unpleasant at times that it would be hard to see a film like it being nominated today.

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