What would Stanley Kubrick make of the unhinged social and political landscape of today? Would it inspire him to create another apocalyptic black comedy like “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), a savage satire like the dystopian “Clockwork Orange” (1971), or a mind-blowing parable of human destiny, as in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)?
Sadly, he never made it to the title year of that last named masterpiece, dying in 1999, at 70.
This devastating loss to cinema was mitigated slightly, because with his death Kubrick’s self-imposed ban in Britain of “A Clockwork Orange” expired also. He had withdrawn the film when it aroused vitriolic controversy in his adopted country, with alleged copycat crimes. Death threats were made against him and his family, who lived in Abbots Mead, a cozy but vulnerable mansion near London.
As is pointed out by one of the interviewees in “Still Tickin’: The Return of a Clockwork Orange” (2000), a documentary made to commemorate the film’s re-release, Kubrick’s home was not much different from that of the couple victimized by the sociopathic teenage delinquent Alex and his “droogs” in one of the film’s most shocking, divisive scenes (it’s the one with “Singin’ in the Rain”).
Other interviews confront the tone and content of the film. Directors Mary Harron (“American Psycho,” 2000) and Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” 1999) discuss the impact and ethics of combining entertainment, levity, and brutal violence. “I thought it was very cruel,” says Mendes about the film. “Dangerously on the edge of misogyny.” Harron is more forgiving. “There is a kind of ‘70s sexual liberation, old-fashioned sexism about it,” she says. “At the same time that’s counterbalanced by an incredible portrait of male bonding . . . through violence.”
They are joined in the discussion of this and other issues by cultural critic Camille Paglia (“Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson”) and artist Damien Hirst. Malcolm McDowell also chimes in about the character he plays in what might be his most famous role. “Alex is a bit of a charmer,” he says. “He lives life to the fullest. What he does you might not agree with, but at least he enjoys it.”
The British censor at the time also comments and he comes off as surprisingly reasonable and sympathetic. Censors would indeed have their challenges in the early 1970s – Kubrick’s film was not the only and maybe not the most transgressive film of that period. Others that challenged rating systems included Ken Russell’s “The Devils (1971), Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (1971), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” (1972).
Why so many edgy pictures during this time? No one says much about the historical period as a contributing factor. The films came out at a chaotic time when Vietnam, the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay liberation disrupted complacency and challenged the status quo.
Anthony Burgess wrote the novel the film is based on. He died in 1993, at 76. The story sprang up in response to the rape of his wife. It was a cathartic experience mitigated by an exercise in creating his own teenage argot, “nadsat” (”droog” is a nadsat term), and he was afraid Kubrick would not do justice to either the catharsis or the language. Though he supported and promoted the film, he was ambivalent about it. Kubrick did not include the book’s final chapter (it was also cut from editions published in the United States until 1986) in which Alex has reformed his ways — not by the Pavlovian “Ludovico” method that had been applied previously, but through genuine redemption. Kubrick is regarded as misanthropic and pessimistic, but Burgess apparently believed in essential human goodness.
“Still Tickin’: The Return of a Clockwork Orange” will stream on Arrow platforms on Jan. 13 to mark the 50th anniversary of the film. Go to bit.ly/3JVBP10.
Some call it treason
Because of the power of selfies and social media, the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol might be the most recorded six-hour event in the history of the world. Everyone had a cellphone or camera. There is no shortage of evidence, and more turns up every day.
Last April, PBS’s “Frontline,” along with ProPublica and the University of California Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program, produced “American Insurrection,” directed by Richard Rowley and with investigative journalist A.C. Thompson. They have since revised their report, with new revelations and more distressing images.
The film traces the roots of the insurrection back to the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., Unite the Right riot, which erupted into violence and in which a counter-protester was murdered. (President Trump, you might recall, declared that there were “very fine people, on both sides.”) Rebuffed by the backlash to this fiasco, white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Boogaloo Boyz, and other factions, many with military backgrounds, retreated and regrouped. They emerged in 2020 with the armed invasion of the Michigan State Capitol and a foiled plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Their latest and boldest operation was on January 6, but as the film suggests, it won’t be the last.
Though alarming and infuriating in showing the violence of the attack and by profiling some of the perpetrators, “American Insurrection” does not follow the chain of responsibility high enough. If another insurrection occurs it might be too late to try.
“American Insurrection (Update)” can be streamed on pbs.org/frontline, YouTube, and via the PBS Video App. Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/american-insurrection.
Don’t be LEF out!
The LEF Moving Image Fund once again offers grants to local documentary filmmakers (or filmmakers whose documentaries are set in New England) to complete their proposed or in-progress long-format film. Candidates can apply by sending in letters of inquiry for projects in production and post-production, which will receive grants of $15,000 and $25,000 respectively.
For eligibility guidelines go to lef-foundation.org/moving-image-fund/guideline.
The deadline for submissions is Jan. 21. From these initial inquiries, a smaller group of candidates will be notified in early March about whether they qualify to submit a full application.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.