A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Stanley Kubrick


Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess—which I sadly have not read—the film follows sociopath Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) in his crime spree, capture, imprisonment, and attempted “cure” through the Ludovico technique.

For a film about violence and rape, it is surprisingly beautifully shot.  Kubrick takes his time telling the story, and there are a lot of slow, patient pullbacks and pans.  It’s an interesting contrast to the gruesome content.

Throughout the film, the violence and rape that occurs is presented in a curious way.  There is almost always some sort of music (usually Beethoven) that is incongruous to the events taking place—a lighthearted, beautiful classical score over a woman being gang-raped, or a jolly rendition of “Singing in the Rain” as Alex and his three “droogs” assault a couple in their home.  Additionally, at times the violence itself is portrayed as a kind of art form.  When Alex and his droogs encounter another gang in a deserted theater, the hand-to-hand combat that follows is almost a stylized, choreographed dance.  Later, Alex’s violence against his droogs by the canal is filmed in slow motion, like a bizarre and beautiful performance.

Overall, there is an unsettling dark humor in these violent scenes.  Alex’s final act of violence, bludgeoning a woman to death with an enormous phallic sculpture, is probably the height of this comedy.  Alex taunts the woman by hitting the sculpture and causing it to wobble.  She is infuriated, telling him not to touch it because “it’s a very important work of art!”  They circle each other, flailing wildly, exchanging witty comments—until the scene ends abruptly with her horrifying death.



I saw this unsettling tone as a disturbing glimpse into Alex’s perspective.  As viewers we are faced with the dissonance of sympathizing with the victims of Alex’s violence, and also being soothed and almost amused both by the music and by Alex’s blasé attitude.  It also gives the impression that perhaps events like this are happening every day—that this is a world where gang-rape and breaking-and-entering are the norm.

The use of music is of course significant, not only for the way it alters the tone of the scenes, but also for the way it introduces a juxtaposition of high and low culture.  Here we have Alex, a clearly uncultured sociopath, who has a great love of Beethoven.  This love for classical music is an unexpected quality in someone who is otherwise uncouth and destructive.  This juxtaposition can also be seen in Alex’s dialect, which appears to be some combination of Cockney English, Elizabethan English, and gibberish.  At any point in the film Alex can be seen to say something as childish as “Eggy weggs!  I would like… to smash ‘em” or something that would not be out of place in the sixteenth-century: “What then didst thou in thy mind have?”  There is an unsettling meshing of classes in this futuristic world, and Alex’s curious combination of influences is unsettling to the viewer.  He cannot be pegged as one particular type of person,  but almost avoids characterization: is he dim-witted or a genius?  Is he sensitive or a brute?

Throughout the film I noticed a strange homoerotic quality to Alex’s relationships with most of the male authority figures he encounters.  When the probation officer Mr. Deltoid appears in Alex’s apartment, Alex is very notably in his underwear.  Mr. Deltoid holds Alex close to him, and even hits Alex’s penis for emphasis as he lectures about the “nastiness” that Alex has been up to.


The instances of homoeroticism become only more explicit after Alex is arrested.  In the police station, one of the cops leans close to Alex’s face and says, “Nasty cut you’ve got there, little Alex. Shame it spoils all your beauty.”  Later, in his narration, Alex describes prison as being full of “leering criminals and perverts ready to dribble all over a luscious young malchick like your storyteller”.  Here, the camera shows us another inmate puckering up in Alex’s direction.  And when Alex requests that he be able to ask the chaplain a question in private, the chaplain tells him to speak up and not to be shy: “I know all the urges that can trouble young men deprived of the society of women.”  (“It’s nothing like that, Father,” Alex says, calmly brushing past this idea.  Alex is very relaxed about these homoerotic actions—again, giving one the sense that perhaps, in this society, this is the norm.)

Sex is certainly an instrument of power throughout the film.  Alex rapes women almost as a recreational sport, and he exercises power and control in doing so.  (It is no coincidence that he ultimately kills the woman with a huge statue of a penis.)  But after he is arrested, it is oddly as though the authority figures have a sexual power over him.  He becomes the objectified one, and it is remarkable to see how helpless he becomes.  It’s an interesting concept because, in a way, it links these supposedly moral authority figures to the very crimes for which they have arrested and imprisoned Alex.

This sense of moral ambiguity is another theme that the film explores.  That is the question behind Alex’s “cure”: is he really cured if, as the chaplain points out, he is only avoiding sex and violence in order to also avoid pain and nausea?

Additionally, there do not seem to be any characters who are wholly good or evil—just a lot of self-interested, morally ambiguous characters.  Even the writer, whom Alex attacks and whose wife Alex rapes at the beginning of the film, is not likeable when we encounter him again at the end of the film.  In fact, he comes across as unstable and maybe even sadistic, and I found myself sympathizing instead with Alex as the writer tortures him!

After his “cure”, Alex becomes helpless and pathetic, and despite the horrific things that we have watched him do for the first hour of the film, we eventually feel sorry for him.  In this way, the film toys with our sense of morality—a character who is so clearly “bad” can easily switch to “good” if we see some vulnerability, and vice versa.

This film is horrific and beautiful at the same time.  It’s a little slow-paced, but I didn’t mind.  It has a lot of richness and depth—it probably merits a couple more viewings—and in the end I think it is Alex’s enigmatic charisma that carries the viewer through all the almost un-stomachable scenes of rape, beatings, and freaky eye specula.


The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick


This is my second time watching this movie in the past couple weeks.  I can’t get enough.  I generally really hate scary movies, but my fascination with the way this whole movie was put together overrode my fear.  Because it is terrifying.  But it’s also a pretty amazing work of cinema.

Premise: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd) move into the large, empty, and isolated Overlook Hotel to look after it during the winter months.  Supernatural forces within the hotel begin to drive Jack into madness, while his son Danny experiences visions of the hotel’s violent past and future.

One of the first things that stood out to me upon my second watching of the film was the use of mirrors.  There are several significant scenes that involve mirrors throughout the film: Danny’s “imaginary friend” Tony shows Danny his first vision of the hotel while Danny is at home looking in the mirror.  Jack’s glance in the bathroom mirror in room 237 transforms the slender, beautiful woman he is kissing into a decaying old woman.  Wendy, Jack’s wife, does not realize that Danny’s chanting of “Red Rum” is actually “Murder” backwards until she sees his lipstick graffiti reflected in the bedroom mirror.

In one scene in particular, Wendy brings Jack breakfast in bed.  Instead of following Wendy as she walks out of the frame towards her husband, the camera zooms in on Jack’s reflection in the bedroom mirror as he talks and eats his breakfast.  The camera then cuts to a close up on Wendy’s face, and when it cuts back to Jack, it has switched to real-life Jack, flipping the image for the viewer.  It’s a subtle trick, and I didn’t even notice the flip the first time I watched it—but once you pick up on it, it’s profoundly disorienting.

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On a related note, there are a few scenes where the camera crosses the axis of action.  Generally in films the camera will not cross a 180 degree line when shooting a scene of dialogue, so the whole scene is shown from the same general perspective.  However, when Jack and Delbert Grady meet for the first time in the bathroom, for instance, the camera arbitrarily crosses this line, cutting to shoot the scene from the opposite end of the bathroom and then switching back.

I saw all of these choices as connected.  There’s a sense that we’re stepping into the mirror world, where everything is backwards and uncanny, and where none of the ordinary rules hold.  These visual tricks—focusing on reflections, crossing the axis of action—are cues of this shift, and I think it’s significant that many of the moments of discovering truth and gaining information (Danny’s vision, Jack’s grotesque realization, Wendy’s comprehension of “red rum”) occur only when the character looks into the mirror.

The descent into chaos is certainly a theme of the film, if not the theme of the film. The structure of the film seems to rip apart at the seams as we go deeper and deeper into the chaotic and terrifying world of the hotel.

The film is divided into sections by title pages that show up intermittently.  We start off with “The Interview”, which prefaces Jack’s interview with the owners of the Overlook Hotel.  Next is “Closing Day”, in which the Torrances move into the hotel and all the workers move out.  The story then jumps to “One Month Later”.  As the film progresses, these time markers become more and more vague and arbitrary.  Next we have “Tuesday”, “Thursday”, “Saturday”, “Monday”, and “Wednesday”, and finally “8 AM” and “4 PM”.  By the end, the title pages are more disorienting than they are helpful, because the time periods that they mark hold no bearing over the events of the story.  Why give us the days of the week in a story where every day is the same?  Why tell us the time of day when significant things are happening all day?

These title pages end up providing a mock sense of structure in the film.  Kubrick is giving us time markers as if the story is progressing in a structured and organized way, but these time markers hold no bearing on the story that is spinning out of control.

And I would argue that in general, any semblance of structure and stability in the film has an insincere quality to it.  There is always a sense of chaos lurking just below the surface, even in the early scenes before the Torrances settle into the hotel.  We are never really comfortable with Jack as a sane man from the first time we see him.  And indeed, the film is incredibly heavy-handed in priming us for his ultimate breakdown.  The owner of the hotel tells Jack that the “tremendous sense of isolation” in the hotel might be troublesome (“Not for me,” says Jack, smiling), and he recounts the story of the caretaker in 1970 who killed his family with an ax (“You can rest assured, that’s not going to happen with me,” says Jack, still smiling).  The plot is essentially laid out for us in those few lines of dialogue, in a way that makes it feel frighteningly inevitable.  It’s as if Jack already knows everything that is going to happen.

Another thing that stood out to me was the use of visual symmetry and patterns throughout the film.  The hotel is full of symmetrical hallways, rooms, patterned rugs and furniture, and Kubrick’s cinematography works to emphasize that symmetry.  I saw this as another nod to a pointless sense of order and meaning—this symmetry seemed to me to be not a comforting sense of order, but rather a manic patterning or repetition (not unlike the manic repetition of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”).  I think this visual symmetry also connects to the idea of the mirror world, and a sense of the uncanny.

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Perhaps the strangest part of the film is the bizarre use of comedy that Kubrick throws at us every once in a while.  There are several scenes with haunting, suspenseful music that builds and builds, until reaching a climax at a new title page (“Tuesday”) or at Jack pulling a sheet of paper out of the typewriter. Jack also has his moments of comedy.  There is an insincerity to him and a subtle sarcasm.  “Cozy!” he says, pressing down on the bed and beaming at the hotel owners.  “It was almost as if I knew what would be around every corner… whooooo,” he says to Wendy, describing his first moments in the hotel.  Even when he is chasing his family around with an ax, he is dropping one liners (“Wendy? I’m home!” and “Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in!” and “Here’s Johnny!”).  It’s almost as though in making the film, Kubrick is also mocking the horror genre.  Or maybe he is mocking us, the viewers.  We don’t know whether to laugh or scream.  I find myself doing both.

It’s certainly not a perfect movie.  There is a little too much going on.  There is the ESP plotline with Danny.  There is Jack’s burgeoning insanity.  There is the actual supernatural presence in the hotel.  There is the idea of Jack’s reincarnation as the caretaker of the hotel over the years.  I think the film is a little bogged down by all of these aspects, and the viewer isn’t sure what to focus on—but I haven’t read the Stephen King novel, and perhaps this is a fault of the novel itself.

I think for me the appeal lies in the fact that something as base and gruesome as a horror movie can also be beautiful and intelligent and complex.  It is beautifully shot, the characters are rich, and I’ve found that after watching it twice I still have questions.

I love this movie. The end.

Atonement (2007) – Joe Wright

ImageWhat a beautiful, stressful film.  Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious 13-year-old, witnesses her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and her lover Robbie (James McAvoy) together, and her response has long-lasting impacts on all three of their lives.

There were some things that I really liked about this film.  I liked the way the story unfolds.  Several scenes are shown twice, from two different perspectives.  Through the window Briony sees Cecilia furiously taking off most of her clothes and climbing into the fountain, then emerging and staring at Robbie, and then storming off.  The next cut takes us back through Cecilia’s point of view, and we see the scene in more detail.  We experience the tense dialogue between Cecilia and Robbie as they walk to the fountain.  We see Cecilia’s anger when Robbie accidentally breaks the vase, and we watch her impulsively dive into the fountain to retrieve the missing piece.  We sense the sexual tension when she emerges, soaking wet, and becomes suddenly self-conscious.

This is a clever trick that is used several times, and it has the effect of both aligning us with Briony’s point of view, and also separating us from it.  We see the world through her eyes first: the confusing interaction at the fountain, the sexual scene that she intrudes on in the library, Robbie’s arrest as she sees it from an upstairs window.  We, briefly, know only as much as Briony knows, and we identify with her point of view.  But we are subsequently provided with more information as we see those scenes in full, and Briony’s perspective is reduced to that of a confused child when we know what is really going on.  Since this is a story about what a child saw and how she reacted to it, I thought that this method of conveying the story was both clever and appropriate.

I also liked the way diegetic and nondiegetic sound were used throughout the film.  The score was peppered with the percussive sound of typewriter keys—a choice that I appreciated especially at the end of the film, when we discover that everything we have seen so far has been a part of Briony’s novel.  She has literally typed out everything that we are experiencing, so I thought it was brilliant to have the sound of typing be a part of the score.

At other points the diegetic and nondiegetic sound coalesced: Cecilia reaches down to pluck a string of the piano, and the note she plucks is in perfect pitch and time with the score.  When Robbie’s mother slams repeatedly on the hood of the police car as they take Robbie away, her thudding becomes rhythmically incorporated into the score.  Moments like this were interesting to me because they emphasized the idea of the entire world of the film—the score, the actions of the characters—being contained in Briony’s novel.  Rather than giving us the impression that we are watching real events, we are constantly reminded that everything in the film is a construction, a story being told to us.

On the other hand, something that I did not like about this film was how completely unlikeable I found all the characters to be.  Robbie has a little bit of depth, at least at the beginning of the movie.  There is a sweetness and a childishness about him.  He laughs inappropriately when he breaks Cecilia’s vase in the fountain—laughs even in the face of her obvious outrage.  He types out a crude, sexual line to Cecilia in a letter and makes himself laugh out loud, with no intention of ever sending it to her.  (Alas…)  And there is the other side to him, the more serious and sincere side.

Unfortunately it seems that all of Robbie’s likeable qualities evaporate once he is sent to prison and then the army.  (Understandably.  His life is miserable.)  He is transformed into this sad, hollow, aching man, and he seems suddenly two-dimensional.

Cecilia is utterly cold throughout the film.  Keira Knightley is beautiful (although bony, my god!) but otherwise impenetrable.  Even the way she walks struck me as inhuman, with her shoulders pulled up and her arms out behind her.  I found her relationship with Briony to be lacking in affection, and her relationship with Robbie to be stiff and awkward.  I suppose a lot of what I interpreted as awkwardness is supposed to be sexual tension and suppressed passion, but it just didn’t read for me.  I found it hard to really invest myself in Cecilia and Robbie’s love story when I didn’t particularly care for them as characters.  Their story was passionate, certainly, and it was sexy, but they were both just so miserable that I didn’t want to root for them.


Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie is a flashback in which Robbie recalls Briony jumping into a lake so that he will save her.  She is delighted when he does, beaming as he drags her out of the water, and we suddenly realize that Briony has feelings of her own for Robbie.  She thanks him for saving her life, and he calls her a “stupid child”—which is perfect, because not only is he furious and oblivious to her feelings, but he also infantilizes her.  A child is exactly the opposite of what Briony wants to be in Robbie’s eyes.  Briony is also wearing a swimsuit and cap, just as Cecilia wears earlier in the film, and she looks particularly childlike in comparison to her glamorous older sister.  This scene really changed the lens through which I saw the whole story.  To think that Briony is motivated by her own crush on Robbie modifies everything that we have seen so far.  It is also the most humanizing moment for Briony up until this point.  For the first time in the film, I actually felt sorry for her.

Overall, an overwhelmingly British movie.  A lot of tea.  A lot of quick, quippy dialogue, tempered with scenes of quiet, contained angst and meaningful eye contact.  The whole film was a little depressing for my taste—it was so pessimistic that I ended up with a “so what” feeling at the end.  This, unfortunately, I think had to do with the lack of connection that I felt with the characters.

Things I will say for the film: it was sexy.  And beautifully shot.  But my god, what on earth kind of a name is Briony?