A Clockwork Joker

12 August, 2008

In my Dark Knight review, I discussed the depiction of violence and how I feel it was held back by Hollywood’s body-count mentality. In films like Se7en and No Country for Old Men, we are thrust into the after-effects of carnage, in the latter’s case committed for no other reason except that it’s part of his code. On another site, I came under fire for lamenting the lack of blood which may have contributed to the ugliness of Nolan’s world. I just realized, however, that maybe blood wasn’t the answer after all, because there’s one film that barely spills a drop of blood and yet still manages to be one of the most chilling examinations of violence in cinema history.

It may be hard for us to imagine in the age of Hostel and Grindhouse but this film freaked people out. Similar to Hitchcock with Psycho and Powell with Peeping Tom, people wondered why Kubrick would make a film so trashy and violent, and in England his reputation suffered terribly. While the picture certainly wouldn’t disturb or upset the average moviegoer in the same way today, its influence on pop-culture cannot be ignored, and it’s fitting that I should bring it up in this context when you consider what Heath’s Joker would’ve been like without Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Alex. Audiences fall in love with them no matter how much they rape and pillage their surroundings.

But consider why A Clockwork Orange is still considered so disturbing. One scene in particular has more of a visceral impact than The Dark Knight has in its entire duration. Take a look at it for yourself:

There are two points to consider:

1. Imagine sitting quietly in your house when a gang of thugs storm in, beat the shit out of you and maybe even rape you. Just think about that for a moment. That’s a pretty scary thought, isn’t it? There’s an intimacy in the concept that is lacking in The Dark Knight. Buildings blow up, public figures are assassinated, and terrorism on a massive scale reigns supreme. Not that those moments aren’t scary thoughts but we’ve seen all these things before. Many many many times. In film and sadly in reality. It’s the difference between H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Steven Speilberg’s version.

2. The framing is essential to this scene. Most of it is done in one wide-shot; Kubrick only cuts when absolutely necessary. The result is that this horrendous act of violence loses all emotions. We are forced to look at it for what it is: Man attacking man. That’s it. The violence in The Dark Knight is also desensitized but not in the same way. Only one character gets to truly suffer and that’s because he has to: Harvey Dent. His transformation into Two-Face is perhaps the exception to the rule, making it true. But he is also a central character. It doesn’t matter that Clockwork only has one central character; every person who suffers under Alex’s wrath really gets to suffer. They may only be on-screen for five minutes but it doesn’t matter. Not to mention that only one character dies, which in the end, is far worse than blowing up hundreds and hundreds of extras. The people who survive Alex’s crimes will have to live with that pain the rest of their lives.

So the critics of my review were right; you don’t need to spill blood to freak out the masses. But you do need real pain. And I’m not convinced that The Dark Knight has a whole lot of pain to offer us. In that sense, it is no different from all the Imperial soldiers who died in the Death Star at the end of Star Wars.

“Many quite popular films are filled with violence. I think the difference between those and my films is that I show the cause and effect of violent activity. It’s not a Donald Duck situation where he get a brick in the back of the head and gets up and walks away in the next frame. Mine have violence which keeps Donald Duck in the hospital for six months and creates a trauma which he will remember for the rest of his life.” – Peter Greenaway

P.S. Remember, I still like the film. 8/10 is not bad so don’t jump down my throat because I don’t think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

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