July 18, 2004
I've seen a couple of good movies in the past couple of days: one not at all new, and the other recent but also not new.
The first was Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Many people have been telling me for years that it's a good film, and my high expectations were mostly met. I read Burgess's novel a few years ago in my core Humanities class at the U of C, and really enjoyed it. I wrote an essay arguing that the book was in sonata form, an idea that I'm not sure I take seriously, but it was a lot of fun to dissect the structure of the novel. I couldn't help but have some of this in mind while watching the film. The opening third, I think, suffered somewhat from the translation to film, because the full force of the violence from the novel was somewhat muted. For instance, the scene in which Alex rapes two young girls he meets in the music store is transformed into a sex romp with two consenting, if young, women. Still, the highly choreographed violence in the film's opening segments has a sort of hypnotic effect and does make the viewer rather uncomfortable, and Kubrick's choice of musical accompaniment enhances the effect. Visually the film is stunning, which helps us to get a better sense of Alex's aesthetic sensibility, in which ultraviolence is beautiful. The film is generally very faithful to the novel (more so than I had expected), but omits Burgess's last chapter. The merits of that chapter can be debated: Burgess wished his fiction to be didactic, with the effect that his ending can seem somewhat implausible and heavy-handed. Modulo this, Kubrick's version of the story is largely consistent with Burgess's. A lot of the structure in the novel (like the duality of Alex and the writer F. Alexander) is less apparent in the film. Still, the most important parts come through clearly, and Alex's identity as an aesthete is enhanced by the visuals and the score. (Wendy Carlos's Moog-synthesized version of the chorus from Beethoven's Ninth is not to be missed, by the way.)
The second was Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville, which Ed has written about here. One amusing thing about the film was pointed out in Sean Carroll's blog: the Einstein equations appear during the opening credits. A lot of the film's charm comes from quirky details of this sort, from the blimp flying a sign reading "In Vino Veritas" to the dead pig on a bicycle in a storefront window. The animation in this film is beautiful, and while it's apparent that computer animation was used extensively throughout, there is still something of the look of an old-fashioned animated cartoon. The exception is the scene involving sea travel; the waves here stand out as computer-generated in a way that doesn't mesh as well with the rest of the animation. Still, I wouldn't say that even this scene looks bad. The landscapes and townscapes of the film are very well-drawn. I've read several claims about which cities were combined to make Belleville, but the buildings shaped like wine bottles made me think of Chicago's Carbide and Carbon Building, patterned after a champagne bottle (or so the story goes). Posted by Matt at July 18, 2004 03:36 AM
I'm not sure I agree with you about the ocean scene in Triplets of Belleville. Partly it's just a matter of taste: I thought the sea looked really neat and I liked the way that Chomet gave an added sense of realism to water and fire in many different parts of the movie. (In my first comments on the movie, I had the ocean scene in mind when I wrote that "Then, just when you've gotten used to the movie's low-key style, you come across a scence that's visually stunning.") At the same time, I think that one of the movie's biggest strengths is its emotional range. One moment Chomet gives us a nice slow scene emphasizing the monotony in the life of Bruno the dog; later on, he presents us with quirky and faster-paced images of the title characters. (These scenes feel very different emotionally, and touch on themes that don't often appear in animated films.) The ocean-crossing scene, I think, makes really good use of both the movie's score and of computer animation in setting the mood. The scene feels more realistic--the dangers in crossing the sea seem more real--because of these effects, but the overall feel of the scene fits with the movie as a whole. If anything, I think it makes sense to keep the main look of the scene the same (both maintaining a sense of continuity and emphasizing the scene's basic quirkiness--just look at how they're crossing the sea) but to accentuate the feelings of tension and add a note of realism with a computer-generated storm and waves.
You can make a case, for example, that the villains in the movie never seem terribly real or terribly dangerous: they look like cartoon characters. (I don't mean this as a criticism.) The sea in this movie seems very real and very threatening, which makes the grandmother's cross-ocean travels even more poignant. I think the scene would have felt a bit dull if the computerized water effects had been left out, and that Chomet used obviously computer-generated animation just enough to emphasize certain moods and themes wihout overpowering the movie as a whole.
To this day I can't hear the song "Singing in the Rain" without punctuating the chorus with the two thunks of Alex kicking that old man in the stomach. The William Tell overture will occasionally make me think of "A Clockwork Orange" as well. The Moog synthesized ninth didn't do much for me, though.
My favorite bit of Kubrick movie music though has got to be the sparse, spooky Ligeti piano and organ piece from Eyes Wide Shut. I like that movie largely because of how effectively it used that song.
Ed -- I would more or less agree with all of your points if I had thought that the sea in those scenes was visually impressive, but for some reason I didn't. It's not that I object to the computer effects; as I noted, they're used throughout almost the whole movie, with varying degrees of subtleness, and I didn't dislike it in any other place. Even some of the more obvious uses of computer imagery -- the grenade explosions shooting columns of water in the air, for instance -- looked really good. It's hard to pin down what it was about the sea scene that seemed off to me, so I guess we should just call it a matter of taste.
Paul -- glad to have you reading the blog. I've only seen a few Kubrick films (2001, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, and now A Clockwork Orange), but I really like what I've seen of his use of music. All of the music used in A Clockwork Orange worked really well, I think. It's interesting that he made some changes from Burgess's choice of music; I think Burgess had Beethoven's 5th playing during the Ludovico treatment (I don't have a copy of the novel around at the moment to check), but the 9th works better for consistency. As for the synthesized ninth, I had heard it before outside the context of the film and had a pretty neutral reaction to it, but I thought it worked really well in the movie.
I haven't seen Eyes Wide Shut, but I like all the Ligeti stuff I've heard. I'll have to see the film sometime (though as Kubrick movies go, I think The Shining and Lolita are higher priorities for me).
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