Poking the Invited Eye: Stanley Kubrick in the 70s
Many images come to mind with the name Stanley Kubrick: a war room, a spinning spacecraft set to Strauss, a pair of Malcolm McDowell’s gaping eyeballs. The Oxford Dictionary added “Kubrickian,” along with other film-related terms, to its collection in 2018. The word applies to any film that expresses “meticulous perfectionism, mastery of the technical aspects of film-making, and atmospheric visual style across a range of genres.” Classify and label as we may, we’ve never quite gotten a handle on the elusive, enigmatic director. By the late 1960s, he had solidified himself as one of the great modern filmmakers. He produced a string of wildly successful films, including the controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971), a hot streak that would end with Barry Lyndon (1975). It was a time where Hollywood seemed to either keep their door open, or the public would peer through the windows—a cinematic climate that persists today. When filmmakers like Kubrick went against the tide and kept quiet about their pictures, it seemed they had abandoned the public in pursuit of self-interest.
Kubrick’s years spent as a photographer for Look magazine informed his ability to frame an image from an early age. Stories of fifty-, sixty-take shots would later ruminate off his film sets, with set design always masterfully precise, and yet the director often denied being a perfectionist. Four-time cinematographic collaborator John Alcott called Kubrick “a human computer” (LoBrutto 408). “There is a notion,” Robert Kolker adds, “that Kubrick calculated his narrative and its effects, perhaps even viewer response” (108). Kubrick would likely refute any such foresight. He did however consider himself very lucky that, for the better half of his career, he was able to work on projects that interested him and at his own pace (with the exception of 1960′s Spartacus, of which he had little control, resulting in his move to Europe). The 1970s were a particularly special period in the immediate years after 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). “The success of [the film] allowed him a margin of financial independence” (Kolker 106). This stability allowed Kubrick to consider a variety of avenues for his next project. For a number of years he was knee-deep in research for a film about Napoleon Bonaparte, to the point of cataloging the emperor’s daily life. Much work had been done, including a working script, but the production would eventually collapse in light of another Napoleon film’s failure, Waterloo (1970). His next two projects in the ’70s would bear the fruit of his timeless foray into the galaxy, 2001, beginning with an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.
Anthony Burgess’ novel was originally published in 1962. It was written in light of a terminal diagnosis, along with four other books. Burgess is said to have written A Clockwork Orange while mostly drunk, on and off, using his own wife’s assault as a narrative foundation and coping mechanism. “It was the most painful thing I’ve ever written, that damn book,” Burgess said. “I can’t stand violence ... And one feels so responsible putting an act of violence down on paper ... You might as well have done it!” (LoBrutto 336). These feelings toward violence would evidently foreshadow the critical response to the novel’s film adaptation. Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove co-screenwriter) had given Kubrick a copy of A Clockwork Orange while he was working on 2001, but it went unread for two and a half years (LoBrutto 338). The first draft of the script was completed on May 15, 1970. It marked the first time Kubrick had written a screenplay alone. Atypical of script format, he centered scene descriptions and ran character dialogue from the left margin. The result is something that resembles poetry, attention being drawn to the center page’s efficiently-worded scene descriptions (He would follow suit with the formatting of Barry Lyndon‘s script). “Burgess clearly knew that Stanley Kubrick was turning his novel into a film when the director began sending the writer a series of urgent cables asking to meet in London over the script. Burgess’ worst fears came to fruition—the film would feature frontal nudity and rape ... Burgess’ ideas were so clearly presented in the novella that [Kubrick] didn’t have to involve him in the screenwriting process and only called on occasion to say ‘hello’” (LoBrutto 339, 341). Not unlike the outcry that followed the film’s release, Burgess was unhappy with the visualization of his material, filing a lawsuit under the pretense that the production had defamatory intentions. With time and distance, enough for legitimate analysis isolated from the reactionary impulse, the film has since been widely considered a masterwork.
A Clockwork Orange was the fastest film to be produced by Kubrick, released just after 2001, themes of which were still ruminating. Alex and his droogs encounter a homeless old man early in the film, who rambles about the changing times. “Men on the moon. And men spinning around the earth. And there’s not no attention paid to earthly law and order no more.” It’s interesting to imagine David and HAL’s troubled relations up in space while Alex is down on earth, where the the pillars of law have crumbled in light of the new frontier. The sheer violence portrayed in A Clockwork Orange is the logical escalation begun by the apes in 2001. “When Alex beats up his own gang, his slow-motion antics are similar to those of the ape with his bone” (Kolker 158). “Our interest in violence,” Kubrick said, “in part reflects the fact that on the subconscious level we are very little different from our primitive ancestors” (LoBrutto 339). Similar themes are carried over from 2001, but so is furniture—the writer’s home has chairs that are essentially fur-padded space pods. Although A Clockwork Orange saw similar success to 2001, its reception was mixed and in some circles rather heated.
It was difficult to see A Clockwork Orange as anything other than a depiction of anarchic glories. The film was in part perceived as “an incitement to adolescent violence ... a hollow pandering to audience desires for more and more violence” (Kolker 108, 157). Critical reception was only made worse by copycat crimes that took place. All throughout England, incidents that directly mirrored the film’s events began to pop up. Different assailants were seen wearing the droogs’ overall get-up or chanting Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” “We must stamp out this horrible trend which has been inspired by this wretched film,” one judge said (LoBrutto 368). Another called it “an evil in itself” (Kolker 162). Less than a month before Arthur Bremer attempted to assassinate George Wallace, he wrote this passage in his diary: “April 24, Milwaukee, I had to get rid of my thoughts. I went down to the zoo, down by the river, but that did not help. I saw Clockwork Orange and thought about getting Wallace all through the picture” (LoBrutto 368). Kubrick and Warner Bros. subsequently pulled the film from British theaters in fear of impending lawsuits. “Perhaps A Clockwork Orange ... does not allow the viewer to escape the initial power and attraction of its images and main character, even their deviousness” (Kolker 162). Or had viewers and critics gravely misunderstood what Kubrick hoped to achieve?
What muddies the thematic or moral takeaway from A Clockwork Orange is the artistic intentions of Kubrick. “My intention with A Clockwork Orange was to be faithful to the novel and to try to see the violence from Alex’s point of view,” Kubrick explained. “The ironic counterpoint of the music is certainly one way of achieving this” (LoBrutto 338). Several devices are utilized to get Alex on our side, including his vulnerable voice-over. The viewer perspective is locked to him through this narration and his centered presence in nearly every scene. “One cannot help being fond of [Alex’s] vitality and verbal dexterity, and Kubrick manipulates viewer response accordingly ... The film gives every indication that the audience must admire Alex with little hesitation ... The viewer is given little option but to sympathize with a vicious character” (Kolker 159, 160). Kubrick’s intent is to get the audience to like a deplorable character, on the basis that his animosity is a part of us all, if but subconsciously. “There appear to be no responsible answers to the problems the film poses within its narrative,” writes Kolker. “One has to think carefully around its edges, and into its symmetries, to understand what Kubrick is getting at. It is a seductive work, rhythmically dynamic and carefully structured in a perfectly symmetrical form” (157). Much like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), sympathy is garnered through moments of perceived vulnerability, in an act of seduction making the viewer root for the main character even when their actions are questionable.
One of the first scenes in A Clockwork Orange portrays Alex and his droogs as some sort of vigilante group, swooping to the rescue when a rival gang attempts to rape a woman. This scene is directly followed by Alex’s gang breaking into a writer’s home and raping his wife. Their intentions here were misconstrued: it was not an act of rescue, but merely a desire for “ultra-violence.” Further complicating the viewer’s relationship with him, Alex will at times refer to himself as the viewer’s “humble,” “faithful,” or “long-suffering narrator.” The film itself plays into Alex’s hand, using the same somber music in his most dire times (i.e. going to jail, returning home to find he’s been replaced). “With the stage performance that demonstrates the success of the treatment, Alex’s humiliation and the spectator’s sympathies for him are complete ... By the time Alex is reborn to his former self, response is so thoroughly on his side that it is hard to tell whether Kubrick is amused at his own powers of manipulation or agreeing with the admirability and good fortune of his character” (Kolker 159). Malcolm McDowell, Alex’s vessel, has his own optimistic views on the character. “Alex is free at the end; and that’s hopeful,” he said. “If his ‘Ludwig van’ can speak to him, perhaps others can” (LoBrutto 340). An early scene in the film speaks to this idea, when a television executive begins to sing Ludwig van’s “9th Symphony” in the Korova Milk Bar. Fellow droog Dim (Warren Clarke) makes a fart noise at the performance and Alex strikes him with his cane. “What’d you do that for?” Dim asks. “For being a bastard with no manners,” Alex replies, explaining that Dim has no idea how to “contort himself public-wise.” A lesson on manners from the immoral Alex—ironic or foreshadowing?
The original edition of Burgess’ book has an additional chapter, one that depicts an Alex who’s put ultra-violence behind him. Kubrick was unaware of this ending at the time of writing his script, but deemed the chapter “completely out of tone with the rest of the book” (LoBrutto 341). Alex’s redemption does seem ill-founded. The world up until that point has been shown on a decline, proposing that we have a choice but are perhaps incapable of proper reform. Those like Alex who succumb to their animalistic urges can’t return to civility, as if by fate. ”A Clockwork Orange is a curiously elating cyclic vision that seems unable to do anything but celebrate the violence it portrays, because it portrays only that as being alive” (Kolker 158). Alex feigns reform with the prison chaplain, meanwhile daydreaming about lashing Jesus Christ as a Roman soldier and having lustful fantasies of naked women feeding him grapes.
The chaplain is one of the few outspoken advocates against the Ludovico treatment, arguing that it removes the patient’s will to choose good over bad, therefore making them less than a person. “Passivity and a lack of human, communal integrity ... results first in a mindless and then a mindful brutality, a violence of one individual against another and the state against all” (Kolker 157). Alex’s droogs are later integrated into the state when they become police officers while Alex is in prison. They use their authoritative rank to assault him in the woods. Each time Georgie’s (James Marcus) club makes contact with Alex, a reverberating synth snakes out, making the impact seem more severe and furthering this notion of viewer sympathy. “Violence has become realized and ritualized, a force no longer to be examined or understood but to be used, either anarchically or under the control of the state” (Kolker 158). The droogs committed acts of violence in the name of anarchy, but in two years time, enact harm freely under police oath. Alex, affected by the Ludovico treatment, no longer possesses the will to defend himself. “The story has two levels,” said Kubrick. “There are the sociological implications of whether it’s a worse immorality to deprive a man of his freedom, by imprisoning him, or his free will, by turning him into a clockwork orange, a robot being. And the power of the story is in the character of Alex who wins you over somehow ... He represents the id, the savage repressed side of our nature” (LoBrutto 338). For Kubrick, Alex’s simultaneous enjoyment of rape and Beethoven “suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society” (Ciment N.P.). Whether or not the public agreed, or accepted the film on any moral grounds, it was an undeniable smash hit. “[W]ith the success of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick entered into an arrangement with Warner Bros., which allowed him to develop, write or co-author, produce, and edit his films without much consultation with the studio and with guaranteed distribution” (Kolker 106). Kubrick’s following venture planned to go against the grain and was shrouded in secrecy for much of its production, which would factor into the eventual audience reaction.
Kubrick had both studio backing and the public’s attention by the time A Clockwork Orange made its rounds, fueled by its surrounding controversy. He next set out to adapt a serialized novel by William Thackeray titled The Luck of Barry of Lyndon (1844), a film he projected to a be a real hit. The studio imparted much faith in the production, allowing the director to dream up wild sets, costumes, and innovative filming techniques. To produce the great mass of costumes needed for the one-hundred-and-seventy actors involved, “[t]he production operated a factory in Radlet ... Fifteen wigs were made for Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon) alone” (LoBrutto 381, 382). Kubrick had decided early on that he would film Barry Lyndon with a focus on natural light. Practical lighting equipment was sparsely used in its photography, leaning heavily on candle light like contemporary people. Problems arose with this approach, however. “Shooting at such low-light levels made it impossible to see the image through a conventional viewfinder equipped with a prism” (LoBrutto 387). Kubrick and his cinematographer John Alcott, who had returned after A Clockwork Orange, found that using an older viewfinder solved any issue of visibility. The camera itself had been slightly reconstructed to equip an incompatible 50mm lens, recently developed by NASA, in aid of their candlelit photography. This lens was “used for virtually all the medium and close shots” (LoBrutto 387). Additionally, candelabra were specially designed for the interior locations, and “heat shields were put in place to protect the ceilings, walls, and precious oil paintings from the intense heat” (LoBrutto 381).
One can imagine the ambition and struggle of such grandiose sets and compositions. Kubrick had requested a bell that he would ring in response to any production managers expressing concern, non-verbally asking that the issue be dropped, if but temporarily (LoBrutto 383). Continuity had become something of a nightmare as well. “Kubrick had to keep track of the conglomeration of locations that he was using to portray a single home in the film” (LoBrutto 383). Separate interior locations were filmed, miles apart, as to create the illusion of a massive estate that would have existed in the target era. Some of the music selections, though, postdate the period of the film. Producer and brother-in-law Jan Harlan insists this was not an oversight, but a simple act of indulgence. The selected music fit the images, and oh do they fit them marvelously. The film’s soundtrack is evidently scarce, but reoccurring themes seem to be placed with delicacy, as though each use bears new meaning. Former racecar driver and Kubrick’s assistant, Emilio D’Alessandro, recalls a moment from those days in his book Stanley Kubrick and Me. “The music being chosen for the soundtrack filled the air at Abbots Mead. Stanley listened to it in his office on the first floor when he was having a break ... The walls shook, quite literally ... Like every other aspect of Barry Lyndon, the choice of music was the result of lengthy research” (D’Alessandro 62). D’Alessandro’s first task as production driver was to, humorously, transport the white sculpted phallus seen in A Clockwork Orange.
With Barry Lyndon, it was as though Kubrick directly responded to the messy reception of his last film. From a chaotic setting and shockingly likable antihero to the calm of nature and the subdued Barry, who flows through life with flagrant humanity. The violence here is dulled and spoon-fed, presented in the form of three gun duels, a fist fight, and a military mow down. Each duel has a particularly exciting sense of suspense where each armed man slowly loads their pistol, steps slowly apart, and it truly feels that either one of them could cease to exist in the following minute, no matter their rank. The character of Redmond Barry ascends from humble beginnings and proves to be corrupted by the glitter and glam of royalty. “Thackeray referred to [The Luck of Barry Lyndon] as a ‘novel without a hero,’” Kubrick said. “He is driven by a relentless ambition for wealth and social position ... it is impossible not to like him despite his vanity, his insensitivity and his weakness. He is a very real character who is neither a conventional hero nor a conventional villain” (Ciment N.P.). It can be argued that, like his greed-stricken pursuit, the viewer is never quite able to grasp or understand the distant Barry.
Due to the film’s lack of dialogue, its technique and shot compositions play heavily into how the story is told, each decision adding to a distinct feeling of objective observation and non-participation. “This dialectic of attraction and distance is carefully structured by the way the images are composed ... [the zoom lens is used to] entice and then distance the viewer ... Kubrick generates a frustration and a longing that parallels the experience of Barry Lyndon himself, who wishes to enter the world of grand society and is rendered impotent by its formal rituals” (Kolker 164). Robert Kolker speaks to the effect of the natural light photography. “The yellow light and hideous makeup create a vision of the dead come to life ... The candlelit shots diminish the human figure ... they replace intimacy with distance” (165). The zoom lens is used frequently, either layered with music, narration, or both. At one moment we’ll be inches from a loading gun barrel, and the next we’ll be a mile away with a simple zoom. “Each [use of the zoom lens], it became an image in itself,” said John Alcott, “so each shot was a composition ... The zoom also meant that we did not depend too much on editing and so gave the whole film a kind of softness and fluidity” (LoBrutto 390). These shot set-ups were especially time-consuming because of what each frame had to convey in a ten- to twenty-second span. Kolker remarks on an instance that cuts to a wide rather than utilizing the zoom. “The rapid change isolates [the characters] and isolates the viewer from them, reasserting the refusal to permit any intimacy with [them], to give any hope that isolation can be overcome” (165). Zooming out or in this case using a rapid cut to wide during a moment of intimate quiet is as though the viewer is being physically pushed away after curiosity has been peaked. As we garner information in these incredible close shots, we are drawn away to a distance that resembles the spectatorial position undertaken in an art museum.
Rather than directly mimic existing paintings, Kubrick assumes “a painterly aesthetic to set his characters within a design, to recreate the form and formalities of the past as rituals and to keep the viewer continually aware of the external and internal rigidities of the images ... One comes to painting to observe static design. One comes to film prepared to see motion, drama, and narrative. Barry Lyndon continually threatens to deny drama and narrative by emphasizing rigid composition” (Kolker 167). One can be caught distracted by the expanding and retracting images via zoom lens, failing to hear some of the film’s voice-over narration. Both this and A Clockwork Orange rely in part on this narrative device to inform or manipulate the viewer’s understanding of the depicted events. Alex’s narration develops the viewer’s connection to him, appearing vulnerable and honest in his commentary. Barry Lyndon’s all-knowing narrator is not relied on as much, but adds something to every scene in which he speaks. For instance, there is a very sweet scene between Barry and a lonely German mother whose husband has gone to war, of which Barry has deserted. The encounter seems unexpectedly genuine, a spur of the moment connection between two lonely people. After Barry’s stay at her home for several days, the narrator informs us that he is one of many partners the mother has taken in the absence of her soldier husband.
On a couple of occasions, the narrator will even give away a future event in Barry’s life. “What is important is not what is going to happen,” Kubrick responded on the topic of this voice-over, “but how it will happen. Being told in advance of the impending disaster gives away surprise but creates suspense” (Ciment N.P.). It is the classic “bomb under the table” scenario told by Hitchcock. Informing the audience of information unknown to the characters at stake brews nail-biting moments. An aforementioned scene in A Clockwork Orange, the encounter with the homeless drunk man, is a similar case of informative narration. Alex and his droogs clap for the singing drunkard while Alex’s narration speaks of how disgusted he is by the man. This contradiction creates a feeling of unpredictability, and therefore suspense. The two films also bear similarity in narrative structure. A Clockwork Orange is a set of events told twice with different end results, once when Alex is a dominant gang leader and again when he is reduced to a defenseless Ludovico patient. Symmetry can also be found in Barry Lyndon, beginning with the death of Barry’s father in a gun duel, and ending with the exile of Barry himself after being bested in another duel, with his step-son no less. Similar as they may be, Barry Lyndon was not met with the same financial success as A Clockwork Orange, but it was steeped in tabloid journalism.
The security of Barry Lyndon’s set made for mystic preconceptions. Kubrick had even changed names in the script in his original pitch to Warner Bros., in an effort to throw them off the source material’s trail. At the time, “Variety speculated [it was a project] previously announced by Warners, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novel Traumnovelle" (LoBrutto 384), which would later become Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. Rumors also began to circulate that Kubrick was shooting the battle scenes for his reported Napoleon project while working on Barry Lyndon. The seclusion of the set caused a heated journalistic lead-up to the film’s release, not unlike Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and the stories that surrounded the bloated Heaven’s Gate (Cimino, 1980). “The press was unhappy with the lack of copy fodder surrounding Barry Lyndon and used the occasion to take potshots at the hermitlike, reclusive, and increasingly secretive director” (LoBrutto 384). Richard Schickel, a film historian, was granted select admittance. “[H]is four-hour interview was conducted under Kubrick’s strictures, in the middle of the night in a fog-shrouded studio” (LoBrutto 384). A publicized production delay also played into the myth of the film’s making. “Jerry Oster, writing for the New York Daily News, who admitted he was put off that he saw the film later than Schnickel said, ′Barry Lyndon is an egocentric film, made by a man who has lost touch with his peers, his critics, and his audience.′ Michael Billington of the London Illustrated News said, ‘[It is] a series of still pictures which will please the retina while denying our hunger for drama’” (LoBrutto 406).
Due to lackluster critical response, the film was ill-distributed, “and many of those who did see it were bored or baffled, a fate that befell Kubrick’s last film as well” (Kolker 109). Barry Lyndon’s own composer, Leonard Rosenman, spoke poorly of the film: “When I saw this incredibly boring film with all the music I had picked out going over and over again, I thought, ‘My God, what a mess!’ I was going to refuse the Oscar” (LoBrutto 405). “[T]he public didn’t seem drawn to Barry Lyndon in America,” Emilio D’Alessandro remembers. “Stanley couldn’t understand why and hounded Julian [Senior, head of advertising at Warner Bros.]” (64). Kubrick, the so-called “human calculator,” had wrongly predicted major profits from the production. Perhaps the ballooning excitement had built up far too much over the course of production, caused by an intense secrecy, and disappointed audiences. Robert Kolker suggests something different. “One can speculate,” he writes, “that with Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, which was also a commercial failure, it was not Kubrick who failed but his audience” (109).
Contemporary responses to the films of Kubrick are fascinating—especially during this most-interesting 70s decade with A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon—but his work has proven as timeless as the classical music he was oh so fond of. Such a celebrated filmmaker being met with outcry and dismay seems unthinkable, but with time art will often garner new appreciation or even meaning. It’s important to recognize that an artist by the likes of Kubrick was not immediately considered so crucial. “He created twice-seen films, complex, reflexive, demanding, yet at the same time available to a variety of viewers” (Kolker 106). His themes were concentrated on the human element and the ways in which we interact, with the ability to express these ideas through a vast blend of genres and with technical prowess unseen at the time, and unreplicated since. “By showing how [our own] bad choices are made and the prices to be paid,” writes Kolker, “[Kubrick’s films] are both corrosive and corrective. They are exciting and taunting, inviting and intimidating; they invite our gaze and sometimes poke us in the eye” (184).
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Kolker, Robert. A Cinema of Loneliness. Oxford University Press, 2011.
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