Mannerism and A Clockwork Orange
Film is unique among the arts. Compared with the lyrical cave paintings of Lascaux or Altamira, film was invented only yesterday, its influences are those entirely of modernity. More significantly, the art of film-making is not the exclusive province of artisans employed by aristocracy, but the domain of artistic republicanism, relying on the monetary votes of the masses for continued existence. Not even the popular paintings of American artist Frederick Church, who charged admission to view his panoramic landscapes, could ever muster the audience of most films produced during the 20th century. Because of the enormous expense of producing high-quality films, only a large audience will recover the outlay.
A tendency exists to refer to films in terms of the Modernist impulse, to compare this art form with other forms during the 20th century such as Cubism, Surrealism, Internationalism, and Expressionism. Yet what moviegoers would tolerate pure abstraction in motion pictures? With the requirement of appealing to a substantial audience, films must revert to the same methods of telling a story as seen in Homer’s Odyssey or in the fable of Gilgamesh. Therefore, comparing modern films with other periods in art history is not in the least inappropriate. Viewing A Clockwork Orange, the 1971 work of the director Stanley Kubrick, does not show a completely modernist impulse, but a Mannerist style similar to the late Renaissance work of Flemish and Italian artists.
Mannerism developed in the 16th century as a reaction to the naturalism of the early Renaissance. Figures were often exaggerated, unrealistic, if not slightly surrealistic. Spatial distortion as well as complex poses of figures resulted in a world disturbingly out of balance. Mannerist artists include Michelangelo Buonarroti, El Greco, and Jacobo Robusti Tintoretto.
Among these artists are found unusual spatial arrangements containing dramatically stretched and twisted figures. In an article about the comparison of Mannerist drawings and etchings with the modern photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, David Boyce describes Mapplethorpe’s similarities as, “clearly interested in classical form, sculptural effect, and an artifice of bold and/or unusual theatricality, and these qualities are what link his work with Mannerism” (50). So, too, A Clockwork Orange has many of these characteristics, intentionally devising a world unto itself based upon artistic license. Responding to a question of an audience’s association with violence, Kubrick stated, “There is a very wide gulf between reality and fiction, and when one is looking at a film the experience is much closer to a dream than anything else” (Houston 110).
Mannerism was reinterpreted by some Modernist painters and artists. In Masterpieces of Western Art, the authors wrote, “In Mannerism’s distortion and simplification of the natural model, Expressionism and Cubism recognized essential features of their own philosophy of art” (Sukale 160). F.T. Marinetti, an Italian Futurist, declared, “We reject the right angle as devoid of passion. We desire the shock of the acute angle, the dynamic arabesque; the oblique lines which rain down on the viewer’s senses like arrows coming out of the sky” (qtd in Sukale 160). The astounding, emotional effect of the Kubrick camera reflects the Mannerist ideal.
A Clockwork Orange makes no attempt at reality. Kubrick attempts a different world with enough associations to the real world to draw an audience into the visual distortions. The first scene, which sets the tone and aura for the rest of the film, is a close-up of Alex, chin down and eyes staring menacingly at the movie viewer with one eye spiked with large artificial lashes. The camera, fitted with a wide-angle lens, draws slowly away from Alex through a row of white, nude, plastic female mannequins in impossible postures. The unreal perspective and distorted figures are strikingly similar to the images of late Renaissance paintings and sculptures. Leonardo da Vinci uses similar dramatic effects in his famous painting, the Last Supper. Although not strictly a Mannerist, Leonardo introduced some of the ideas of Mannerism by tilting the table down and out of perspective. Combined with the vanishing point converging behind Christ’s head, the dramatic effect of this bending of reality is intensely effective. Throughout A Clockwork Orange, wide-angle views move through narrow halls and pathways, reproducing the drama of the perspective of Mannerism.
Ironically, the film also makes use of old Cockney and Elizabethan language. The language Nadsat was created for the generative Anthony Burgess novel and was drawn from various sources, among these the Elizabethan period, which coincides with Mannerism. In one scene from the film, we hear Alex say, “How art thou, thou globby bottle of stinking chip-oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly, thou!” Certainly the influence of this sort of language, combined with the visual and musical effects, creates the sense of other-worldliness sought after by the Mannerists.
The acting, too, conforms to a Mannerist style. Overdone for effect, actors dance through many scenes to the flow of integrated music. Author James Naremore sums up Malcom McDowell’s portrayal of Alex this way: “Alex is a theatrical personality and a picaresque rogue who finds himself in widely different dramatic situations; as a result, McDowell plays him broadly, in a comic style that employs more volume and ostensive gesture than is usual for movies” (160). The character of Alex actually becomes a human out of normal perspective. The term “clockwork orange” comes from a Cockney expression, “as queer as clockwork orange.” Burgess intended this term to mean “mechanical clockwork” and the term “orange” from Malay for “person”. Therefore, Alex becomes a distorted image of a human being.
In total, A Clockwork Orange conforms to the ideals of the Mannerist period. The imagery, the acting, and the tone fabricate an off-kilter image of a world. Strangely, this world has an ominous, but alluring quality. The distortions and exaggerations seem quite appropriate in the total context of the film. Much like the art during the late Renaissance, A Clockwork Orange establishes a sense of a different reality, a different way of thinking and dreaming.
A 1973 Interview with Malcom McDowell About A Clockwork Orange
Boyce, David B. “Mounting Maplethorpe.” Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide 13.1 (2006): 48- 50. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Phoenix College Library, AZ. 28 Nov. 2007 .
Da Vinci, Leonardo. Last Supper. 1498. Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Refectory), Milan. 22 November 2007 .
Houston, Penelope. “Kubrick Country.” Stanley Kubrick Interviews. Ed. Gene D. Philips. Mississippi: Univ. Press of Miss., 2001. 108-115.
Naremore, James. On Kubrick. London: British Film Institute, 2007.
Sukale, Robert, et. al. Masterpieces of Western Art. New York: Taschen, 2005.
Filmography of Stanley Kubrick
Eyes Wide Shut. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1999.
Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1987.
The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1980.
Barry Lyndon. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1975.
A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1971.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. MGM, 1968.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Columbia, 1964.
Lolita. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. MGM, 1962.
Spartacus. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Universal, 1960.
Paths of Glory. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. United Artists, 1957.
The Killing. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. United Artists, 1956.
Killer’s Kiss. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. United Artists, 1955.
Fear and Desire. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick Productions, 1953.
The Seafarers. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Seafarers International Union, 1952.
Day of the Fight. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. RKO, 1951.
Flying Padre. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. RKO, 1951.