Double Feature: The Stylish and Violent Op Art Future We Deserve
I've previously spoken of my utopian hopes and dreams as found in America's past. Now I'd like to focus on the stylish and violent op art future we're hurdling towards. That's right folks, pretty soon we'll be able to violently murder each other next to some sweet-ass concentric circles, just like our forefathers envisioned. You might scoff, but we've been dreaming of this future for a long time – look no further than the original Fahrenheit 451, Z.P.G, Logan's Run or World On A Wire. Okay, so maybe this was largely more of a late sixties / early seventies dream... Nevertheless, a stylish dream of death we can all get behind.
In this spirit, let us then take a look at two films which best capture this juxtaposition of artistic and moral complexities. The first being Kubrick's famously X-rated masterpiece A Clockwork Orange, and the second being Elio Petri's under-appreciated The 10th Victim, which actually came out six years before Kubrick's. Both films gleefully mix violence, humor, music, and buck wild artistic direction in order to better skewer some of our less flattering human tendencies.
Lead Feature: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
I've noticed more recently that A Clockwork Orange tends to be unfairly dismissed as the type of movie you "grow out of" – a sort of gateway film that grips you in high school, introduces you to a whole new genre and then gets overshadowed by films that are more indulgently violent or explicitly sexual. Personally, I've found it to be rather the opposite. The older I get, and the more I focus on the story instead of on various oddities and Malcolm McDowell's brilliantly smug shit-eating grin, the more profound the movie has become to me. It's actually my favorite Kubrick, a movie that still manages to shock me and make me laugh out loud every time I see it.
I have a hard time believing there's anybody left in this world who hasn't seen this movie but for that 1% of you who haven't, or those of you who thought it was too confusing to follow in high school: A Clockwork Orange focuses on teen-terror Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), the leader of a gang of ruffians who get their kicks quite literally taking kicks at other people. When they're not fighting, raping, pillaging or otherwise partaking in the bit of the old ultra-violence, they're avoiding school and/or their parole officers; maybe listening to the glorious Ninth by Ludwig Van and riding a high on some moloko plus. After getting double crossed by his droogs and arrested for murder, Alex volunteers for a new experimental treatment that will commute his fourteen year sentence to only a couple of days.
The procedure works but to the detriment of Alex's free will; not only is he unable to stomach the slightlest amount of violence or express his sexuality, but an unforeseen side effect is that he can no longer listen to Beethoven's ninth symphony without feeling deathly ill. After being released from prison he finds himself at the mercy of the entire world, unable to fend for himself. He mistakenly ends back up at the house of a subversive political writer who recognizes Alex not only as the man from the papers who had this Ludovico treatment, but also as the thug that crippled him and raped his wife years before. The writer, though he desperately wants his own violent revenge, in turn uses Alex's condition to stage and prove a point about the terror of this new type of government mind control. He and his political friends lock Alex in a room and blast Beethoven until he's forced to throw himself out of a window to escape his pain.
The movie ends with Alex in a full body cast at the hospital, his attempted suicide having been subsequently publicized as a dangerous overstep of government power. The Minister of the Interior, who recruited Alex for the treatment to begin with, is shown feeding Alex in his hospital bed in order to butter him up. He explains that they've since reversed the treatment on Alex while he was in the hospital, locked up the writer and his friends for their political dissent, and now need Alex's assistance with his PR so he can remain in office. Alex, now lavished with gifts and back in a position of power again, gleefully agrees.
It's impossible to try and talk about A Clockwork Orange without mentioning its art direction.
The relevance of art in this film is quite literally beaten into the audience via Alex killing the cat lady with a "very important work of art," an act that lands Alex in jail and drives the rest of the plot. This entire film is built on the juxtaposition of "high art" and "low art" and the ever blurring line between the two. From its use of classical music and the busts of Beethoven intercut with fantasies of violence, to the sacrilegious can-can dancing Jesus sculpture in Alex's room, or the numerous erotic bondage paintings of women in submissive positions – the idea of who is able to enjoy high art and how, mirrors the film's main message about the paradoxically nature of morality. Alex's violence is unacceptable in society, but to remove his ability to choose is equally unethical, so where exactly is the line of proper morality? Perhaps it can be found somewhere in the difference between an expensive painting of a woman's genitals and the Grecian hallway mural defaced with penis graffiti in Alex's brutalist apartment complex.
But listen, we don't need to worry our pretty little heads over those complexities when there's numerous amazing sets of eye popping color and patterns throughout A Clockwork Orange to viddy. That technicolor record shop reminiscent of Camden Market is well horrorshow, my droogies. The haunting black and white Korova Milk Bar interior, with nude marble lady statues that distribute beverages, and the funky foil wallpapers throughout M & P's apartment are all pictures of gorgeousness and gorgeousity indeed. You can dress society up in any way you'd like, whether it's modern conceptual art or kitsch midcentury pinup portraits of exotic girls, human nature will always find inspiration for a bit of the old ultra-violence. "It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen," Alex relates to the audience. With the widespread availability of sex and violence in media (the X-rating on this explicitly violent movie seems tame compared to some stuff they show on HBO), we've got that level of disconnect down to its own art nowadays. So if you're going to stab a man in the yarbles, do it with some class goddamnit.
Second Billed: The 10th Victim (1965)
I'd be genuinely surprised if Kubrick hadn't seen this movie, because it truly parallels A Clockwork Orange in style, violence and levity. Though it's definitely way heavier on the camp factor – you will catch yourself recognizing several direct inspirations for Austin Powers before all else – its overall message about the connection between indulgence, violence and complacency looms. Also there's a scene with a trick chair that launches a guy up into the air and into a pool where a vicious crocodile lay in wait. Yeah, you're gonna wanna watch this movie.
The 10th Victim takes place in a future where the government runs a program called The Big Hunt, a contest where people can opt in to legally murder other participants for cash prizes. You take turns starting as either the Victim or the Hunter; the hunter receives information on how to hunt their victim, while the victim must play defense and try and murder the hunter before they can murder them. If you survive ten of these hunts, you receive a whopping sum of one million dollars and you can retire in luxury. The program is so successful it's said to have replaced the concept of war throughout the world. The sight of two people trying to shoot each other dead in the middle of the street has become rather commonplace.
Both Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) and Caroline (Ursula Andress) are one game away from securing their status as the "decaton." The Big Hunt computer randomly pairs up Marcello and Caroline as Victim and Hunter respectively, and so sets off Caroline to Rome with an entire camera crew in tow. She has a sponsorship deal with The Ming Tea company to kill her Victim live on air in the Forum Romanum, complete with a choreographed dance number with sexy women in catsuits, people frolicking in giant tea cup costumes, and children running around yelling the company catchphrase. All she has to do is lead Marcello into the right venue to both get the shot and take the shot.
Caroline takes a sneak approach to confronting Marcello, acting as an air headed reporter interested in taking survey of the sexual habits of Italian men (you know how reporters are), doing her best to win over his trust so he never suspects her as his Hunter. On the way, she gets caught up in various aspects of his life – from his ex-wife and his lover, to his side job as a preacher for a self-help cult based around sunsets – all the while trying to seduce him into putting his guard down. Little does she know, he's plotting against her as well with his own sponsorship deal.
The 10th Victim is truly an over-the-top crazy film. The world is built on mod futurism costumes by André Courrèges, an absolutely manic soundtrack by Piero Piccioni (with vocals by Mina!), and some of the most inexplicable interior design this side of Rome. Where the art direction in A Clockwork Orange feels symbolic, the choices here can sometimes feel facetious at best. Why is the bureau of murder lined with yellow plexiglass? Why do Jazz men stand on cubes in a sea of blue blow-up ottomans? Why would Marcello need two identical op art targets for his indoor living room shooting range? The key to deciphering the sixties madness here is in fact in its over indulgence.
The 10th Victim showcases a future of excesses that's reflected in its art direction. Violence drives the entertainment world, which in turn drives the economy. Director Elio Petri has a track record of making movies sympathetic to communist leanings, so it's no surprise to see him taking aim at the frivolities of capitalism here. In a world where casual violence is monetized, the ante must be continually upped in order to keep building capital. The concept of a dueling commercial sponsorships vying for both the Hunter and the Victim to kill the other person on live TV in an exciting way may come across as ridiculous, but it's also entirely believable. (Not to mention it's not exactly that far from some reality TV we already have.)
The wild art direction here, the designs of which are all exaggerations of what was trendy in the sixties, comes across as an attempt to fill a void in the otherwise empty lives of these characters. Marcello's apartment and his ex-wife's house are drenched in art, most notably a wall-sized giant blinking eyeball and two dozen faceless papier-mâché figures in random tableaus. Yet all of it comes across as quite cold and distant, more like collections of "things" for the status of having them than any actual enjoyment of them. Marcello in general is portrayed as quite miserable, both his ex-wife and a lover are only interested in him for his money and he has trouble trusting anybody else for fear of murder. The only time he acknowledges something that cannot be bought or sold is in his preaching gig about sunsets, which he admits to Caroline he fakes by takes pills before to make him seem more emotional to keep the gig going. He clearly has nothing else to live for besides killing his way up the ladder to financial success. Gee whiz, this murder utopia sounds swell!
So get ready folks, the future may be cold and brutal but that doesn't mean it won't be full of expensive black and white spirals for us to splatter our brains out on. Happy hunting!