A Clockwork Orange Film Still Review

“If you accept the idea that one views a film in a state of ‘daydream,’ then this symbolic dreamlike content becomes a powerful factor in influencing your feelings about the film. Since your dreams can take you into areas which can never be a part of your conscious mind, I think a work of art can ‘operate’ on you in much the same way as a dream does.”

– Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange

Before he began directing films, Stanley Kubrick was a photo-journalist with Look magazine, starting his career in 1946, and was, apparently, their youngest photographer on record. This background in photography is apparent in all of his subsequent film-making ventures, including A Clockwork Orange. Released in 1971, the film is now considered a classic. Although an initial success across Europe, the film was later withdrawn from cinematic release in the U.K. by Kubrick himself,# who did not like the reasons for the attention the film was receiving. A Clockwork Orange is in part Kubrick’s exploration of the ideas of propaganda and brainwashing techniques, especially through the use of images. The now iconic scene in which the main character- Alex DeLarge- is forced to sit through a propaganda film in order to undergo a form of Pavlovian reconditioning is the plainest and most infamous example of this, but there are many others throughout the film. In fact, the use of imagery is exemplary from the first shot onwards, in which we join the protagonist surrounded by his friends in the futuristic Korova Milk Bar. Right from the outset we see the use of strong, often shocking images, heavy repetition and several other techniques in an almost Nazi-like dystopian setting.

The composition of the still is masterfully crafted to to implant ideas which are continually developed through the course of the film. The symmetrical placement of the benches and props is such as to narrow the photograph, creating a clear visual corridor which ends with Alex and his droogs, sat reclining and looking menacing underneath drink titles, and this immediately and very effectively brings focus onto the main characters. The placement of the lettering on the walls- and in fact the font used as well- is done so as to create curves, a theme which is dominant in the picture. In fact, there are almost no straight lines in the entire composition: the letters are curved, the statues of the women are contorted into strange shapes with arched backs, and even the silhouette of the four droogs’ heads mirror the wavy line of the lettering. This strong developed theme serves to create a sense of exoticism, as the decor of the bar, whilst being striking in itself, is arranged into an unusual pattern which would not have had a real world counterpart at the time of the films release. As a venue, it is both unique and visually striking.

Equally as striking and in keeping with the conformity of the curves, the idea of mirroring is very prevalent in the composition. Sat opposite a group of what look to be ‘hippies’ is a group dressed in an identical fashion to Alex and his friends, and this juxtaposition is reminiscent of the polar opposition of the mods vs. rockers phenomenon which was underway at the time of the books conception. This gives the viewer an instant and familiar real-world counterpart to consider amongst the strange and alien composition. The fact that there is another group dressed similarly to the droogs is another example of the this mirroring technique: and all of this serves to create an internal consistency which cleverly strengthens the jarring difference between reality and the pseudo-reality Kubrick creates as a backdrop for Alex’s journey. This increases the ability of the images to ‘operate’ on the audience as per Kubrick’s belief about art.

The focal point of the still is the four characters sat on a bench- Alex and his henchmen- and the immediate focusing foreshadows the focus of the entire film itself. The relationship between Alex and his droogs has been described as akin to that between Jesus and his followers, with Alex himself being an inversion of the Christian messiah. This is likely an intentional feature of the film which is backed up by the use of religious imagery throughout, particularly via the four figurines of Jesus (one for each of the gang) interlocked and resting in Alex’s bedroom. The bluntly exposed image of the naked figures of Jesus links the exploration of the relationship between the characters with the use of borderline (and sometimes even brash) pornographic images.

The blurring of the line between art and pornography is ever-present in A Clockwork Orange, and this is reinforced through the use of props and images throughout the film. The statues of the naked women inside Korova milk bar are almost an instant statement of intent by Kubrick, who throughout the film combines strong sexual images with everyday decorations and adornments such as statues, paintings, photographs, sculptures etc. This unapologetic use of the naked form was not used simply to shock the audience, but rather to emphasize the tension between the dystopian world of the film and the society the film was released into, which was often less than receptive to such uses of such ‘disturbing’ images.

The initial still of Alex, sat flanked by his four droogs in a position of comfort and power contrasts excellently with a later image, in which Alex lies powerless and friendless in a hospital bed surrounded by journalists. This stark comparison works in an almost binary opposition to the opening shot of the film: where the original still is intensely black, broken up with white decoration and the garish highlights, and focused towards Alex and co.; the latter image looks outwards from Alex’s perspective, looking towards his audience in a bland and brown-heavy colour palette. This role reversal from being viewed to viewing shifts the situation entirely: in the beginning of the film the audience are closely watching Alex, with this switch Kubrick holds a mirror to the audience and forces them to consider the role (and even the power) of the audience when interacting with art. As an artist often subjected to harsh criticism it is easy to see why Kubrick would want this consideration of audience participation, and it is through the simple contrast of images that he manages this.
The theme of fascism is a recurring one throughout much of Kubrick’s work, and indeed Nazi propaganda was a large influence in the composition of the film. The arched backs of the statues in the bar are highly reminiscent of several of the shots used by Leni Riefenstahl in her propaganda film based on the 1936 Olympic Games Olympia. When considering Kubrick’s outspoken views regarding fascism and the use of propaganda as a brainwashing technique (one of the key messages in the film), it is hard to imagine that this could be coincidental. Indeed, a relative of Kubrick’s was raised in Germany during the Nazi regime, and this proximity imbued Kubrick with the utmost respect for the use of strong imagery in propaganda films. Kubrick’s own use of such imagery, therefore, seems to be a reaffirmation of the ideas regarding propaganda and brainwashing techniques, which are central to the film and particularly the use of art and images.
In the quote at the top of the page, Kubrick describes the process through which he thinks films affect the audience. The quote itself, however, could also be an apt description of the supposed effects of propaganda films. With his background as a photographer and experience and study into the ideas of brainwashing, Kubrick sets out, even with the opening images of A Clockwork Orange, a fascinating study of propaganda per se, interweaving certain propaganda related techniques throughout. What he manages to do is create a particularly memorable set of images which are now firmly ingrained in the public psyche and pop culture, proving the success of the venture, and the power of images.
Bach, S. Leni: the Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (Knopf, 2007)
Lobrutto, V. Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (Da Capo Press: London, 1997)
McDougal, S. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
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