Monday, May 2, 2016

The Moral, The Good, and the Clockwork

It was the strangest moment, in what was something of a peculiar evening.

It was family movie night, adult and older-teen-child edition.

Times have changed since we'd settle in on the sofa with little boys and microwave popcorn, ready to watch some animated Disney output or to giggle over a MST3K episode.  This was different.

Meaning my wife and I took our sons out to a midnight movie at the local art house cinema, where the four of us went to watch A Clockwork Orange.

I realize this might not be standard fare for pastors and their families, but my younger lad's a Kubrick fan and my older son has an appreciation for craft and art, so, well, seeing it on the big screen seemed a must.

It had been decades since I'd seen it, but it's a potent enough film that much of it remained.  It had Kubrick's pacing, careful, slow, and deliberate.  The frustratingly hyperkinetic palette of every modern filmmaker was completely absent, even as the movie explored themes of sexualized brutality.  It felt oddly calm, abstracted from the horrors it presented.

I remembered all of it, but as we left, my wife noted something that hadn't popped for me when I saw it in my youth.

It was the character of the priest, the chaplain in the prison.  He was a little fire and brimstone, perhaps, fiercely presenting his decadent charges with a vision of divine justice.

But in a dark and relentlessly cynical film, he was the only person who seemed to genuinely care about the good.  It matters to him whether the thuggish Alex DeLarge has free will, whether he is given the right to choose good or evil.  When a potent mix of chemicals and aversion-based behavior modification is used to torture Alex into being unable to commit violence, it is the priest who challenges the blunt Skinnerian consequentialism of the method.   Watching Alex abused and unable to respond with his usual gleeful rage, the priest objects to the "success" of his "treatment:"
"He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice"
It was not what I'd expected.  Here, in one of the most deeply cynical works in the history of film, directed by one of the most notoriously cold auteurs to ever sit in a director's chair, a Christian character who is not a cookie-cutter hypocrite.

The priest is, in point of fact, the only one holding up the idea of goodness as a meaningful category.  The priest...in the film as in the book...rejects the whole premise of the world as "clockwork."    He is the only clearly moral character, presented without comment or snark, through Kubrick's coldly dispassionate lens.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young disaffected agnostic, I missed that amidst the cinematography and the ultraviolence.  But now, now that I find myself older and in that role?

It's surprising.  Perhaps even oddly heartening.

Which was not what I'd expected, in watching A Clockwork Orange.

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