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Essay on 'A Clockwork Orange': Aesthetic Analysis

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In this paper, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ will be analyzed through several baroque elements that are present and developed further in neo-baroque aesthetics. Antirealism, point of view, spectacle, and violence are among the most common ones, and represent the core of the neo-baroque peculiarity that defines this film. All these elements have a common origin in baroque forms and manifestations. Taken together, these different strands of expression and signification add up to ‘baroque scopic regime’. In what follows, these elements will be further explained through an aesthetic analysis of the film material. The question that arises when trying to establish a relationship between neo-baroque and film is inevitably one concerning reality and artifice. Although it can be said that every film is an artifice, I am particularly interested in the intentionally constructed artifice, the space of the film deliberately devised to be at odds with the reality in which we are living.

One of the characteristics of the neo-baroque film is the promotion of diegetic spaces or worlds (Cubitt, 2004). The actors, as agents of narrative, move through a space that is not grounded in a reference to everyday lived reality. This type of representation is related to imitation, a concept from the 16th century denoting the pleasure created by formal excellence rather than by the real similitude of an artwork to nature. The artist arranges elements of his work so as to convey ideas and values; a straightforward referentiality to the world outside the work is not necessary (Cubitt, 2004).

‘A Clockwork Orange’ is devised as film-theatre. The space created inside it does not necessarily follow a narrative structure, but plays out its theatricality, its obtrusion of narrative-space coherence, in order to disjoint itself from any notion of realism. Theatre, as a medium which is both similar to and vastly different from film, possesses these characteristics. It has a stage, draws borders and deliberately displays its distinction from the auditorium. Kubrick’s film is evaluated by Mario Falsetto (2001) as one with an extremely pronounced theatrical quality. Theatricality is defined as comprising of theatrical space and time, frontality, choreography of movement, stylization and exaggeration (Falsetto, 2001). Exaggeration comes from both the liveliness and the mutation of the scenery in order to achieve opulent, artificial effects, and also from specific uses of the camera and editing. An example of exaggeration and theatricality in the film’s scenography is Alex’s house. Blaring colors, shining surfaces, and the plastic, artificial effect of the whole space, convey stylistic and emotional detachment from reality. The effect is so flamboyant that it crosses the limits of plausibility. The home is playfully at odds with the possibility of a real home; everything in it is just too pronounced, too colorfully aggressive. This applies to Alex’s mother as well. Depicted mostly inside this space, she is a grotesque caricature of a motherly figure, with her fluorescent wigs, nylon clothes, and general disregard for her son’s well-being. She takes pills in order not to hear him when he comes back home at night, and only knows that he is helping, like here and there, as it might be. The father, on the other hand, is rendered implausible through his plainness and conservative attire, which is at odds with the exaggerated space of their home. The other place that draws attention is the milk bar ‘Korova’. It seems, as Randy Rasmussen (2001) contends, that it is tailored for Alex. Naked, white plastic female figures comprise most of the furniture and decoration in the bar. They also serve as beverage dispensers. Their whiteness complements the whiteness of Alex and his droogs’ costumes in the opening shot of the film. The effect is one of a theatrically devised stage with the main actors positioned on it, not of a public bar where members of a gang sit and wait to intoxicate themselves before a night of ultraviolence.

The theatrical subtext of the film is further exemplified in several other scenes, including the first exercise in ultraviolence by Alex and his droogs. The scene takes place in a narrow concrete underpass. The sequence starts with a shot showing a bottle on the ground. Then, the camera zooms out to show the person holding it. It is an old beggar in a clean, empty space. Elements normally associated with underpasses, such as dirt, graffiti and garbage, are limited or non-existent. Kubrick does not allow for any additional elements of scenography to render this scene more realistic than it is. He keeps qualifying elements within the mise-en-scène to a minimum, preserving the image in a Caravaggio’s form of baroque aesthetics, with a dark background and complete focus on the main actors in the scene. The beating of the beggar is shot from an angle which places the entrance of the underpass in the background. The pale, cold light that spreads from it creates a strong contrast and forms a sort of aureole around the scene of violence. Alex and his droogs, dressed in white, complement the pale, clean and cold depiction of the brutal act. They are almost dematerialized into shadows by the use of light and colors.

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The neo-baroque artificiality of diegetic space, devised in order to demonstrate formal excellence and conveyed through interventions in the decor, scenery, and costumes, is also conveyed through playing with the possibilities of the filmic medium. Editing, camera movement and fast or slow-motion cinematography all function as tools in communicating artifice and exposing the medium itself. Several scenes are especially contrived in this manner, including the sex scene in Alex’s room and the fight between Alex and his droogs on the riverbank. The sex scene has no romantic connotations. The shot is taken with a fixed camera and was subsequently sped up during the editing process. Alex and his partners “make sex look mechanical, like a slapstick chase from a silent movie” (Rasmussen, 2001). The whole scene gains a grotesque character through the use of an accelerated and synthesized version of Rossini’s William Tell overture.

In Kubrick’s films, the grotesque is devised through the ways actors use their bodies and through play with film’s technical possibilities. As a director preoccupied with the human body, Kubrick ties different emotional opposites into it, provoking disparate responses. The grotesqueness of the body in Kubrick’s film is achieved with make-up, masks and costumes. Several of these aspects have already been explained, such as the costumes of Alex’s parents: they are grotesque in relation to the space they inhabit. The costumes and phallic masks of Alex and his droogs evoke a similar estrangement from reality. The framing, the positioning of the body inside the frames, and the play with the shot duration, also reach grotesque effects at times. A small sequence in the scene, where Alex is listening to a bit of the ‘old Ludwig Van’ in his room after the night of ultraviolence is one of the best examples of grotesqueness. Four statuettes of the crucified Christ are linked together on Alex’s table, resembling a group of Can-Can dancers. The fast jump-cut editing following the rhythm of the music breaks down the Christs’ bodies into pieces, showing each part separately in consecutive shots. This editing strategy develops movement out of static objects, and layers that movement with music for the grotesque effect of the whole sequence. It pronounces the artificiality of the diegetic world and the medium itself: this is one of the neo-baroque’s traits, as “the diegesis of neo-baroque is not only self– enclosed but also self– referential” (Cubitt, 2004).

Ruthlessness, violence and cruelty shaped many of the European works of the Baroque period and the same concepts also shape some art today as well. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ engages with violence in a specific neo-baroque mode, in which spectacle is nothing more than visual pleasure. The violent scenes in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ are delivered in the spirit of pure visual pleasure common to the traditional baroque unity of architecture, sculpture and painting. Three scenes from the film are the most prominent carriers of this sort of spectacle. These scenes aestheticize violence in order to develop the level of artifice necessary for the concept of spectacle. The first scene takes place in the derelict casino where Alex and his droogs meet Billy Boy’s gang. The scene starts with a zoom-out shot from the top of the stage moving downwards, where Billy Boy and his gang are trying to rape one young devotchka. A baroque trompe l’oeil depiction of a landscape with a balcony and flowers covers the ceiling above the scene. With one shot, Kubrick unifies them into one space, the space of a theatre. Art and primitive, violent action are fraternized and aesthetically equalized. The viewer is led to admire the spectacle that is put on for him, without placing moral judgments – it is a beautiful, spectacular theatre of violence. The technical excellence in conveying this shot is coupled with excellence in the decor and choreography. While Billy Boy’s gang performs its carefully choreographed ‘rape ballet’ on the stage, Alex and his droogs observe it from the shadows of the auditorium. The classical differentiation of the stage and the audience is first breached by the music, in this case the overture to Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’, which is persistent throughout the sequence and brings the two spaces together. The music creates a new immersive space which will physically engage Alex and his droogs in the violent performance with the stage actors, Billy Boy’s gang. The created effect is brawling violence choreographed in such a way as to avoid any realistic depiction. Jumping, hitting, breaking furniture and twisting and turning comprise a disorderly sequence formed of bits and pieces. The speed of the editing, which quickens with the speed of the music, again turns the sequence into a pure aesthetic depiction, scuttling with its speed any possibility of moral observation. The sequence is cartoonish: the matching of the music and the movements testifies to its artificiality and formal excellence (McQuiston, 2008).

The second scene is the fight between Alex and his droogs. The scene is shot with the group walking along a marina. As the other members of the group want to remove Alex from his leadership position, he starts a fight in order to re-establish his dominance. The representation of the fight is in slow-motion. The sequence of punches, pushes and cuttings is slowed down so that the viewer can take in every movement and facial expression. This slowing down ensures that every detail is fully comprehended. Directing the attention of the viewer with detail, balletic choreography and facial expressions, the scene neutralizes any deeper emotional or ethical engagement. Admiration of the technical excellence of the ‘strangely beautiful attack’ is sufficient to grant enjoyment. The acts of violence culminate in the killing of Cat Lady. The brutal act of murder, too serious to be just ‘balletized’ as in the previous scenes, engages the viewer more closely. As Alex breaks into Cat Lady’s house, he finds himself in a more familiar setting than in previous scenes. Cat Lady’s artistic taste has transformed her living space into one similar to Alex’s bedroom, with images of naked woman in submissive poses on the walls. Bewildered at first, and appalled by Cat Lady’s attitude towards him, Alex grabs the large plastic phallus lying on the table besides the door and starts to taunt her. In contrast, and in order to protect herself and respond in a similar manner, she grabs a bust of Beethoven. The following fight sequence is a grotesque dance with a doubled phallus (the sculpture and Alex’s mask) on one side and an old, skinny lady with a Beethoven bust on the other. As if especially devised to provoke laughter and to undermine the effect of the upcoming murder, the scene is followed by a sympathetic use of the camera, which shifts between two points of view, giving each of the characters enough time to establish agency. The resolution of this dance is filmed in extreme closeup and with considerable editing speed. The act of murder is not elaborated on in detail; instead, the camera lingers over a painting of a mouth, which takes the place of Cat Lady’s crushed head. This cartoonish and static ending to the scene introduces another medium into the film. The scene of killing is cut with a static image of a painting on which the camera zooms in and out. The detachment from a realistic depiction of the murder is thus complete. The cartoonish ending and the richness of the used motifs and strategies conveys the spectacular effect. Complete enjoyment in the scene is not hampered by the brutality of the killing. There is no blood, no shots showing the body. Instead, Kubrick decides to show only the playful and colorful foreplay of the murder. The violence, with overtly choreographed movements, Rossini’s music and ‘choreographed’ editing, establishes the scene as a spectacle detached from any moral burden, a rather recurrent phenomenon in this film. The viewer is invited to enjoy the scene; it functions within the baroque’s mission of simply delighting the spectator, with no regard to education.

In ‘A Clockwork Orange’, violence is simply a spectacle, established for enjoyment and with none of the rhetorical pretensions of its classical counterparts. The wholeness of the devised space in the film, assisted by the technical possibilities of the media, creates a neo-baroque image replete with different concepts. Diegetic space in the film is created as overtly artificial. It is not mimetic, but represents a form of reality that drifts away from its formal replication. This is achieved on several levels, from specificities in mise-en-scène to specific use of filmic tools, such as camera work and editing. The creation of this type of space is a necessary precondition for the creation of the spectacle. In the case of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, spectacle is most closely tied to acts of violence. The role of the spectator in this case becomes prominent, since spectacle loses its function without a referential other, in this case the observer in the cinema. Lingering on the baroque concept of spectacularity, the purpose of this violent spectacle is not to draw any moral conclusions. Rather, its main goal is the seduction of the observer’s senses. However, these elements are not self-sufficient; only through their mutual interaction in relation to the observer is the more holistic image of the film’s neo-baroque aesthetic world created.

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