Adrian Gargett (PhD)
Echoing the spirit of the times, Don Corleone told Sonny, “Don’t ever let anyone outside the family know what you’re thinking”. Yet by 1974, when Francis Ford Coppola made part two of the Godfather saga, even the family had turned on itself. It was theme recurrent in most genres of the 1970’s: Horror (The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween). War films (Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Twilight’s Last Gleaming,) Satire (Network, Shampoo), Melodrama (The Great Santini, Looking for Mr. Goodbar) Crime thrillers and Detective films (Dirty Harry, Deliverance, Taxi Driver, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown) and Westerns (The Missouri Breaks, McCabe and Mrs Miller).
A nightmare still shelters in the public psyche. A long, national nightmare to be precise. Gerald Ford claimed the nightmare was over when Nixon resigned, but maybe this was premature. The Kennedy assassination, MIA’s, radiation experiments on terminal patients, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Roswell. Where will it end?
Where exactly the nightmare began, is a more definable notion: 1947. That year saw the beginning of the cold war, Nixon first took office in Congress, the House of Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC) began “investigating” communist “infiltration” in the media, and the apparition of the ‘Roswell crash‘.
If there is a ghost animating the machinery of conspiracy, it is most likely Richard Nixon, the icon of paranoia whose career virtually defined the golden age of American conspiracy theory. The Watergate-era films make no secret of the inspiration drawn from Nixon’s political demise. All the President’s Men, of course, is the most prominent. Woodward and Bernstein thrown together on a project nobody else will credit, forced to summon ‘Deep Throat’ by arcane means and to meet him in inconspicuous Washington locations The Corleones quote “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer” resonates throughout. Dealing with drugs, cops, and corruption Serpico (1973, Sidney Lumet); Dirty Harry (1971, Don Siegel); and The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin); characterise a condition where all moral certainties have gone, leaving instead a can of worms where questions of friendship, loyalty and honesty are redefined in the ambiguous light of institutional corruption. Inspired by an indefinable mixture of reformist zeal, guilty self-loathing and a sheer delight for headline exploits, these films turn “informer” on behalf of a commission of enquiry. Meanwhile Harry Caul in The Conversation (1974, Francis Coppola) tears up his apartment looking for surveillance devices. A covert government agency attempts to assassinate the CIA worker played by Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor (1975, Sydney Pollack). The animated spectre of possession in an Exorcist-like fashion manifests, reflecting the “loss of faith” that infected public consciousness. The “lone gunman” theory of political assassination is resolutely mocked in The Parallax View (1974) , and a Nixon-clone murderer ominously stalks the urban-noir Klute (1971). Ultimately it is Nixon’s cartoon-like visage that emerges, complete with bubbled caption….. “I am not a crook”.
As many people who lived through those times recount, the Kennedy assassination signalled the beginning of the end. To a mainstream audience obsessed with post-war conformity, deconstructing Americana had been an act of political rebellion. A flagrant airing of the “deep background” that was inevitability deleted from the national cover story. Audiences saw only the wilful attempt to make chaos out of order. However real-life social chaos consistently upstaged fictional examples throughout the 1960s.No fictional scenario could compete with the historical spectacle.
One director managed to translate the paranoia of the era into a look (thanks to cinematographer Gordon Willis) and a genre of its own. Joining “film noir” and horror in a new “conspiracy” style, Alan Pakula directed a series of thrillers that show moral sickness insinuating itself into the deepest levels of American society: the family (Klute), business (The Parallax View) and finally the government itself (All the President’s Men). In Klute, a corporate executive terrorises and murders prostitutes while away from home, pinning the blame on his best employee. He even tape-records the murders. At the time, few critics found it strange that the criminal looked like Richard Nixon. But if Pakula’s self-incriminating executive was oddly prescient - the film was released in 1971 - the agents, double-agents and triple-agents of The Parallax View (1974) appeared to be cast straight from the front pages. After the Kennedy and King assassinations of 1968, the attempted assassination of George Wallace in 1972, the Allende coup, The Pentagon Papers, the ITT scandal, the Watergate Trials and impeachment proceedings, the growing allegations of FBI and CIA misconduct, Pakula’s assassination corporation seemed plausible to many. That these professional assassins would evade detection seemed even more plausible after a decade of “lone gunmen” theories by government investigators. Oswald, Sirhan, Ray, Bremer: how could so many anti-social misfits, “acting alone”, orchestrate a political agenda that to many could only point in one direction (Nixon)?
Pakula’s film said they couldn’t. It was the business of the Parallax Corporation, in fact, to maintain public belief in unconnected events; fall guys - (“nobodies”) - could always be found to provide cover for its systematic murders. Those who dared to penetrate the mysteries of the monolithic corporation, like the reporter portrayed by Warren Beatty, played right into its hands and became fall guys themselves. In centrally-controlled corporate America, “acting alone” was suicidal. Where Klute was an exploration of claustrophobic anxiety, The Parallax View is inexorably agoraphobic. Its visual organisation is stunning as Beatty is drawn into an increasingly nightmarish world characterised by impenetrably opaque structures, a screen whited out from time to time, or meshed over with visually deceptive patterns. It is some indication of the area the film explores that in place of the self-revealing session with the analyst in Klute, The Parallax View presents us with the more insecurity-inducing questionnaire used by the mysterious Parallax Corporation for personality-testing prospective employees.
These films express an atmosphere of critical/scepticism - every detailing from the noir/style cinematography to the unstable psychological states of the characters reflects/projects (depending on view-point) the contemporary consciousness.
Pakula, however, backed away from this thesis the following year when he agreed to direct the film version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s best selling tribute to investigative journalism, All the President’s Men. As America approached it’s Bicentennial with its government intact - despite yet another assassination attempt on a president - the saga of a crusade into, and out of, the national heart of darkness seemed tailor made for the Zeitgeist. If The Parallax View, by its very title acknowledged situational distortions in any point of view, All the President’s Men placed full confidence in its investigator’s intuitions; if the investigator in the former film never cracked the cover of his story - instead “his” cover was cracked - the investigators in the latter relentlessly penetrated deep into the background.
Watergate was, after all, a story about depths: the story seeped through “leaks”, “plumbers” were caught trying to create or plug leaks, depending on which version of the event one adheres to, significant information issued from “Deep Throat”, whose words were spoken only in dark parking garages, and who, in the Pakula film, appears and disappears magically after issuing, guru-like admonitions to “follow the money”. Hidden tape recorders caught illegal plans forming in the Oval Office, and eighteen minutes were then found “missing” from the tapes. All of it was known simply as a ”cover-up”. Pakula’s visual set-ups are often extraordinary, contrasting the light of the “Washington Post” newsroom with the shadows in which star informant “Deep Throat” is hiding. Meanwhile Hoffman and Redford are dramatically engulfed in monumental buildings to stress the enormity of their task.
Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) thrived on the tension between hypocrisy and truth, denial and confession, manifest cover and latent content, like psychoanalysts. What better subject than a president who had publicly displayed his inner demons for decades, made countless Freudian slips, and, in an abysmal urge to self-destruct, documented his crimes with his own hidden tape recorders? In fact the nation learned of the existence of Nixon’s office and phone tapes almost by accident - a lower-level administration source let it “slip-out” at the Watergate hearings. By the time the president was finally ordered to turn over the tapes, suspense had built to fever pitch. Surely the “smoking gun”, undeniable evidence of Nixon’s direct involvement in an illegal cover-up, would finally surface. The tapes, however, were all smoke - smoke, that is, swirling about an eighteen-and-a-half minute vortex. Crucial dialogue between Nixon and his aides had “mysteriously” disappeared - mistakenly erased, he said, by his secretary during transcription of the tapes. Front-page photographs of Rosemary Woods demonstrating the contortions necessary for such a miss-hap fooled no one, but that didn’t matter. Nixon’s secret had vanished, as it were into thin air.
It was probably inevitable that someone would revisit this moment in history - the moment when America almost came face to face with the repressed demons of post war politics, the moment when decisions were made to bury the monsters and “deny everything”. Oliver Stone did so in 1991 with his film JFK.
Oliver Stone was 17 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, and it affected him profoundly: “The Kennedy murder was one of the single events of the post-war generation, my generation”, he says “Vietnam followed, then the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, the Pentagon Papers, the Chile affair, Watergate, going up to Iran-Contra in the Eighties. We’ve had a series of major shocks. I think the American public smells a rat that’s been chewing on the innards of the government for years”.
It was somehow inevitable that Stone’s curiosity and penchant for real-life intrigue would have led him to the Kennedy assassination sooner or later. Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins provided the trigger. But Stone’s vision for the film was never simply the Jim Garrison story - it was the story of the conspiracy to murder John F Kennedy. He didn’t just buy the right to Garrisons’s book, he also purchased Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy (1989) by Jim Marrs and hired his own researchers Stone aimed to write a film, which examined the efforts of dozens of investigators into the assassination. Though the plot would centre on Garrison’s case against Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman he tried for conspiracy to assassinate the President, it would also encompass other theories in an effort to discredit the official findings of the Warren Commission.
Believing the Warren Commission report to be a great myth, Stone aimed to fight it by creating a counter-myth. Nobody really knows what exactly happened on November 22, 1963 or who was responsible, but there appear an abundance of flaws in the official investigation. Stone used Garrison as a vehicle for a larger perspective; a metaphoric protagonist who would stand in for dozens of researchers, in order to communicate same truth in an area that had been obscured by lies for nearly thirty years. Stone constructs his own “mythology” which he believes is grounded in a truth, to counter the injustice and hypocrisy he sees infecting government.
JFK is a film about the problem of covert parallel government and deep political corruption. Stone is primarily a classicist in his approach to narrative structure, and essentially relates Garrison’s story to the arc of a tragedy: “When I first read Jim Garrison’s book on the Kennedy assassination, very clearly imprinted was a soul of a gem. You have a prosecutor, an honest man who had served his country in WWII and in Korea, with a family who believes in the American way. And there’s something fishy going on in his backyard in New Orleans, so he does his job, its his duty. And doing his job takes him into stranger, more bizarre circumstances again and again. Eventually he’s accused, pandered, ridiculed and humiliated, then defeated. That is a good story, if you believe what he was after was right”.
Combining On the Trial of the Assassins with Jim Marrs’ book together with extensive additional new research, Stone with Zachary Sklar constructed a script, which aimed not only to reveal the conspiracy theories and challenge the Warren Commission but also to produce a film that ran like a detective movie. Four key elements form the architecture of JFK’s narrative: the Jim Garrison story, the Lee Harvey Oswald history, the Dealey Plaza action and a “Mr X”/"Deep Throat” in Washington. In the completed form the film successfully weaves these key themes of the conspiracy into a coherent pattern.
The most controversial and pivotal sequence concerns a composite character Mr “X” who meets Garrison on a park bench in Washington D.C., and spells out the grand theory of the CIA and military intelligence as a secret government. Garrison did meet potential witnesses in this manner and Stone combined them with a retired Air Force Colonel named Fletcher Prouty, a former Pentagon liaison to the CIA, whom he met in Washington while writing the script.
As a filmmaker Stone views his “mission” to communicate what he believes is the “spiritual” truth of a story. In this he justifies distorting factual truth for the “good” of his ultimate goal. However JFK encompasses not only Stone’s personal conspiracy theories but several others in addition.The question - Who actually fired the shot that killed the President? - is answered by Joe Pesci as the deranged David Ferrie with the line, “You just don’t get it do you? Even the shooters don’t know.” We learn that there may have been riflemen in as many as three locations, but we never learn who was where and who missed and who fired the killing shot. Later Garrison makes a reference to the President being executed in true firing-squad fashion. The issue is left open-ended and becomes almost Zen-like. JFK unfolds in a Rashomon style after the Japanese classic that juxtaposes different scenarios of the same event. The vital question of who was behind Kennedy’s murder is left open. Stone suggests the CIA in collusion with the military Black-Ops division and hints at several possible allies to this coup d’etat including both pro-and anti-Castro forces and the Mafia.
The conclusion never actually states all these parties acted in conspiracy together, nor does it suggest that the media overtly participated in a cover-up. The film implies President Johnson may have been involved in the concealment of the crime, but it doesn’t detail how his influence may have been exerted. Jim Garrison was certainly denied key evidence in prosecuting Clay Shaw, but Stone never maintains that those who denied it were consciously participating in an elaborate scheme. Indeed, one of his key points is that powerful organisations can orchestrate events without having to justify their actions or offer reason for their requests. Rather than illuminating or endorsing a specific theory, JFK focuses more on countering the Warren Commission’s Oswald-as-lone-gunman theory. One of the sub-themes of the film is the abstract nature of reality. Stone adopts different film stocks and formats to question the levels of reality. To a degree JFK is not a political film. Its philosophical. It shows how the truth is fractured until one cannot interpret stable reality. This is synonymous with the general crisis of “faith” reflected in the postmodern condition.
The idea is for the viewer to follow Jim Garrison as he uncovers mystery after mystery. We watch him quiz witnesses and gather evidence. We also hear him speculate. Sometimes there is a sepia-tone insert shot to illustrate these speculations as hypothetical images and sometimes not, There is a clear differentiation between fact and theory in the film. The cut to Ruby picking up a bullet in the hospital in black and white is a hypothecation - referring to levels of truth /ideas and suppositions. When Garrison’s talking about the bullet being placed on a stretcher and there is a cut to a hand putting the bullet on the stretcher, the technique employed articulates that this is conjecture. The question is whether or not such speculations can be clearly differentiated from the assembled facts. The dialogue is more precise in this respect. When describing the contents of a missing note Lee Harvey Oswald wrote to an FBI agent in Dallas, Garrison says, “Just speculation, people, but what if the note was describing the assassination attempt on JFK?” Near the end of the film, in Garrison’s final summation, he says, “So what really happened that day? Let’s just for a moment speculate shall we?” He than goes on to relate his theory on the events of November 22 1963. The summation is filled with terms that imply speculation, and close to the end Garrison says, “There is a very simple way to determine if I am being paranoid here”, and he asks for the release of fifty-one secret CIA documents on Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby.
The Warren Commission Report was “accepted”
at the time of its release for its soothing conclusion that a lone protagonist
committed the murder. Principally JFK constructs a counter-myth:
that larger political forces killed the President, with more nefarious
and sinister objectives.
If strains of paranoia are overtly manifest in 1970’s conspiracy film, the “soul” is located in the science fiction films of the 1950’s onwards.
Science fiction often seeks to anticipate the unknown, to shape a vision of the future from a changed or improved present (discovering frequently in the process that improvements do not necessarily result in better states, nor a utopian ideal form of existence). If perfection is constantly elusive, since consent regarding the perfect is variable, science -fiction often points the way by describing a society that cries out for change - a society not dissimilar from any that one may perceive existing in the World today.
A real terror: the moment when mass fantasy and history conjoin...the moment when one is permanently “alienated” from social reality, haunted by political acts in which the imaginary “them” becomes the surreal “us”. It was this scenario that began being played out in the public forum from 1947. On the domestic front of the cold war the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) opened its “investigations” in Hollywood, but by the time of the McCarthy hearings, communist infiltration had been “discovered” at all levels of American society and government. The central question of the era- “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” - was unanswerable. Whatever one answered (or didn’t answer) was proof of one’s un-Americaness, one’s status as the most undesirable of “aliens”. As the Wagons circled tighter, the “Wilderness” became populated by political phantoms, people who were not then and maybe never had been who they said they were.
This is a “fantastic” tale, a national shape-shifting. Clearly “we” were not alone; alter-egos seemed to exist “out there” in infinite supply, at least in film. Martians pod-people and blobs invaded from the skies; giant ants, zombies and prehistoric creatures came up from beneath the earth. Whether the product of cosmic collectivism or scientific hubris, earthy and unearthly monsters alike operated according to one principle: infiltration. Once inside the system, take-over was almost inevitable.
Cinema reflects what is contemporary in the popular mind. The mood is drawn from the headlines of the immediate past, the images that have burnt into public consciousness and been constructed into a pattern of mythologies and conjectures before being cast into narrative form.
The experiences of the past are controllable, available for shuffling and rearrangement. The future, by contrast, is an area of the (un)controllable, rushing towards us with new unimagined possibilities, or feared and long-avoided events, accidents, or oblivions.
Although, in many respects, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) looks like a host of other science fiction films - the small-town setting, the undistinguished cast, the “possession” theme (from Invaders from Mars (1953) or It Came from Outer Space (1953)) it strands out for the many brilliantly horrific moments. Kevin McCarthy discovers his own nearly completed double growing in the greenhouse, and destroys it with a garden fork. Aliens are taking over by growing imitation people in pods, and absorbing the minds and memories of the originals while they sleep, they offer an untroubled world: “No love, no emotion, desire, ambition, or faith - without them, life is so simple”. But McCarthy refuses this “simple” life: “In my practice I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away . . .all of us, we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is.” At the end when his girlfriend has been converted into an unfeeling automaton, he screams impotently on the highway crowded with impersonal vehicles, spreading pods across the country. Don Siegel’s film is a classic sci-fi allegory on ‘50s paranoia, focusing on the sole survivor of an alien attack on small-town America which, aiming at conformism the world over, turns humans into cold, emotionless replicas of themselves.
In 1962 John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod produced The Manchurian Candidate. Intelligent, funny, superbly written, beautifully played and brilliantly directed, it was a study of the all-embracing fantasy in everyday social, emotional and political existence.
In this film, Korean War veteran Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) is troubled by a recurring nightmare in which Congressional Medal of Honor hero Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) carries out Communist instructions to shoot fellow American POW’s. Working for Intelligence, Marco unravels an enigmatic Red plot to brainwash his old platoon and to turn Shaw into an assassin. Shaw’s father-in-law is a ranting McCarthyite, Senator Iselin (James Gregory) a mouthpiece for Shaw’s ambitious mother (Angela Lansbury) a political background which gives the killer access to the highest power figures. Who is Shaw’s American control? When and where are they going to aim him?
Frankenheimer’s vision of Richard Condon’s tragically prophetic novel greatest virtue lies in its brilliant balancing acts - political satire and taut thriller, the twin lunacies of Left and Right, and the outrageously funny dialogue during the parallel courtship set against the sadness of the unlovable Shaw’s predicament. However, it is the assassination sequence that gives the film its resonance, appearing, as events unfolded, to be an uncanny forecast of the death of a President.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1967) is a magnificent visual experience, from the emerald lake at the beginning to the ominous sea-shore at the close. The settings are wonderfully outlandish and Schaffner makes superb use of them as a long-shot hauntingly establishes the isolation of the crashed astronauts, as exploration brings alarming intimations of life (pelts staked out on the skyline like crucified scarecrows), and as discovery of a tribe of frightened humans is followed by an eruption of apes, black and shining like storm-troopers. The enigma of the planet’s history, filtered through Heston’s degrading experience of being studied as a laboratory specimen by his ape captors to his startling “rediscovery” of civilisation is beautifully sustained. Planet of the Apes remains chillingly precisent not merely for its vision of a society of talking monkeys but as a forward-looking outer-space adventure that apparently occurs in a distant corner of the universe before revealing to shattering effect, that Charlton Heston’s spacecraft has in fact travelled full-circle and returned to an Earth more primitive than the one he left, populated not by advanced descendants of a forward-thinking society but by weapon-wielding apes.In concluding with the ruin of the Statue of Liberty what Planet of the Apes denies is a “future”.
Planet of the Apes is among the first in a cycle of high-budget ideologically apocalyptic films-based on science-fiction novels by respected figures that included The Omega Man (1971) based on Richard Matheson’s vampire novel “I am Legend” and the overpopulation drama “Soylent Green”(1973) from Harry Harrison’s “Make room! Make Room!” running through to “Blade Runner”(1982) from Philip.K.Dick.
The actions of governments, interpreted on screen, customarily depict bureaucracy built upon a compounded framework of mistakes and cover-ups, violently administered. The symbolic aliens of the 1950’s were replaced by the savage authoritarians of the 1960’s trampling on freedom, spirit and love.
In a dazzling amalgam of film noir and science fiction, Jean-Luc Godard created the ultra-modern Alphaville, Capital of Pain in 1965. The film was made in the hotels, offices and streets of Paris, without sets, gadgets or the traditional mechanics of science fiction - but it looked unearthly, it looked solid and it looked amazingly real. Raoul Coutard’s camera turns the contemporary setting into an icily dehumanized city of the future. Superficially Alphaville is a detective narrative in which “inter-galactic agent “ Lemmy Caution is sent to locate a missing agent and to eradicate a dangerous scientist in a city-state ruled by the computer Alpha 60. Re-enacting the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and outwitting the computer by behaving illogically, Caution completes his mission and leaves the place in chaos, taking with him Natasha von Braun (as usual with Godard, the name is selected with care), a girl he has rescued from Alpha 60’s control. Godard’s purpose with the plot is to comment on the stranglehold maintained by both political and scientific machinery on the social mind causing confusion and atrophy. Yet the film is also his most “Hitchcockian” work, in its use of violence, its use of the journey as a structural and symbolic pivot, and its concern with the rescue of a girl against her will from the forces which are imprisoning her. Above all, it is a study of words and meanings: such terms as “conscience” and “tenderness” are being outlawed, since they have no sense in a computer’s programming, and if they cannot be expressed there’s a good chance that they will cease to exist as human qualities.
In Godard’s subsequent films, the importance of language continues to be argued. Characters clearly act as the voice of Godard, angrily watching the world go to hell in its own way and aware of the persistent futility of using mere words to try and stop it. Increasingly, from 1967 onwards his films feature extremes of bloodshed as a desperate visual argument.In the same year, he made Weekend in which large sections of dialogue are obscured completely- by monotonous music, by heavily amplified traffic noises, or by the Wellesian device of getting everybody to talk at once. With this brutal piling of noise upon noise, Godard forces the audience to realize a double tragedy - first, that his characters can’t get through to one another, and second, that if they could their speech would still be worthless. Mireille Darc sits on a table in her underwear telling a long story about what seems to have been an orgy including the unorthodox use of eggs (later we see an egg put explicitly to unconventional use in a bizarre sacrificial rite), and her voice is increasingly drowned by random noises. Later as the film goes on a nightmare outing through weekend roads littered with crushed vehicles, glass blood and sprawled bodies, Godard’s horror at the imbecility of the human memory - recalling an orgy in immense detail while shrugging off everyday corpses as no more than a driving hazard - becomes our own. Weekend is a film of grim fury, itself almost inarticulate with the frustrations of existing in a world that makes no sense. In many respects science fiction can be regarded as the necessary language for dealing with the “unspeakable”.
In George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) victims of the government’s carelessness (a space-probe has tainted the atmosphere) are hunting the uninfected. With its radical re-appraisal of a genre in which good had always triumphed over evil, Romero’s first feature shattered conventions and paved the way for subversive new visions. The films opening sequence immediately signals a unique perspective. In broad daylight, a brother and sister visit their father’s grave - a tall man lumbers towards them, Johnny tries to frighten Barbara with an exaggerated Boris Karloff impersonation: suddenly the figure lurches forward and kills him. With the presumed hero dead in the opening minutes, the inexorable logic of the modern “nightmare-film” is established and from this moment the terror is relentless. Together with a small group of fellow survivors Barbara retreats to a country farmhouse, besieged by an ever-increasing tide of zombies. Trapped inside the house they fight for their lives, but nothing works out as it should: the invaders turn up inside the house as well, and there are recurrent scenes of cannibalism in the cellar - flashing implements, piercing shrieks and splashing gore; whenever it seems there might be a glimmer of hope, Romero cruelly reverses expectations. In the final sequence, help arrives, but unable to distinguish between “zombies” and “normals”, mass extermination is prosecuted. The savage nature of Night of the Living Dead is intensified by the non-professional cast and rough-hewn photography and editing - the accumulative effect is intolerable, forcing the nihilistic agenda with sheer ferocity. The world has gone beyond reason.
Coming from Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studio, George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1969) is stunningly designed, not because it glitters with hardware but because it frequently disposes of sets completely and encases its characters in plain white. Condemned to prison Thex (Robert Duvall) becomes one of a small number of criminals adrift in a bleached vacuum where the only colour is the flesh of face and hands; distances are incalculable and darkness is unknown. With its futile physical actions and impotent speeches endlessly repeated, the sequence echoes the existential absurdity of Samuel Beckett. The film encapsulates a bleak-humour; the android police are the “happiest” invention of this computer-controlled world, their heads glowing chromium, their voices mellow with reassurance. Apparently oblivious to any hostile intentions, they offer “help” and “rescue” at all times, even when breaking down doors and applying nite-stick type weapons that paralyse the senses. In the background, a bland cheerful commentary assesses tolerance levels of men being “conditioned”, genially relates the statistics of the latest disaster, and answers a steady stream of calls for advice with the phrase “What is wrong?” spoken almost quizzically. When Thex goes to his daily confessional, to dispose of any worries he may have, he is interrupted by words of encouragement and sympathy in a meaningless flow.
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) affirms that totalitarianism is a state of mind, not a state of nature - nor even a state of grace. The film explores the limits of power and freedom and the difficulties of reconciling the conflict between individual freedom and social order. Alex exercises his freedom to be a vicious thug until the state turns him into a harmless zombie, no longer consciously able to choose between good and evil. One of the conclusions of the film is that there are limits to which society should go in maintaining law and order.
“The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen” Having satirized his theme in this manner, Anthony Burgess felt free to expound it in a fresh and thoroughly unconventional disguise in his book. It’s the story of Alex who, in a future no great distance from now, is imprisoned for murder, rehabilitated by aversion therapy and then restored hastily to his former self when the side effects of his treatment drive him to attempt suicide and the popular press rushes to his support. His reign of terror given new respectability, he is even more potent than before.
Criminality/violence is a concept that Science has never been able to entirely comprehend, as there are no formulas or hard evidence that can be used in its analysis. So, instead of regarding crime as a moral issue it sees it as a disease, and like all diseases it can be cured with the right treatment. This treatment would essentially involve eliminating a person’s ability to do wrong. However since there is no actual sense of morality, wrong is simply seen as that which is socially undesirable. This poses severe limitation on the range of actions of the individual, and it may even be suggested that it destroys the ability to choose, to have free will. It is from this notion that Stanley Kubrick questions whether goodness is a matter of action or of choice. Apparently he believes the latter, as the film demonstrates, that without the ability to decide oneself how to act one becomes a “clockwork orange”, an organic machine on a pre-determined trajectory.
A Clockwork Orange is an incendiary mixture of Jacobean revenge drama, 18thcentury picaresque novel, sci-fi, porn and horror comic. From the first shot of the charismatic wraith, Alex smirking in close-up at the camera, we are immersed in the disquieting narrative of the leader of a menacing gang of costumed “droogs”.
Against miraculous background settings - the exteriors are glassy, box-like and cluttered with rubbish; the interiors are lurid inelegant and messily angular with contemporary furniture that looks like tomorrow’s suburban left-overs - A Clockwork Orange bursts with energy; movement is a vital component in each scene, Kubrick edits his material ruthlessly to achieve a relentless pace. A dramatic fight sequence quickly establishes the mood, as the gangs confront each other gleefully in a ballet of animated violence, hurling themselves through furniture and windows with slapstick enthusiasm. Energized by, and often synchronized with the thundering music of Rossini their exhilarations then bursts into a joy-ride through the night, scattering traffic in wild panic and yelling with the sheer joy of speed. Malcolm McDowell presents the ideal Alex, whether required to fling a recalcitrant gang member into the river in slow motion, cringe resentfully from authority, or face in growing horror the realization that everything he values most in life is going to trigger an adverse reaction His tortured face, encompassed by metal restraints and wires, his eyelids held open by vicious clamps is one of the most haunting sights in modern cinema
Central to Kubrick’s films is a measured state of endurance. A Clockwork Orange continues this pattern. Alex sets in motion an inexorable retribution, culminating in his suicide attempt as a result of the “allergy” his treatment has given him to Beethoven’s Ninth. Then he is re-born - “I came back to life after black, black night for what might have been a million years” - and is carefully restored to his original self by attentive specialists. His new “wisdom” gives him a tremendous, if unspecified power which he can be expected to devote to self-indulgence.
The final shot echoes the beginning, in which the camera focuses on an unblinking gaze. Alex stares from the screen directly, and Kubrick’s zooming retreat carefully reveals the full scene. There is an awareness of potency in that look, a sense of power that will be wielded not wisely but too well. The end of the world as we know it is in his eyes.
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