Stanley Kubrick's films spend a lot of time contemplating the worth in unspoken social customs and rules, and in the value and danger of abandoning them. The two extremes of the argument can be seen when comparing his 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange
, with his next film, 1975's Barry Lyndon
. The two protagonists are polar opposites of each other--Alex DeLarge is intelligent and sadistic, charming and ugly, and without any apparent sense of honour or respect for the social contract. Barry Lyndon is stupid and sensitive, dull and handsome, and thoroughly committed to honour. Both characters step outside their worldviews--Alex when he's forced through conditioning to behave himself and Barry when he becomes a thief--but both return to their original states by the ends of their respective films. The worlds in which the two films are set are similarly in opposition; Alex's futuristic dystopia is the ultimate realisation of post-modernism, where every symbol's association with meaning is commonly disregarded by everyone, while Barry exists in meticulously rendered 18th century Europe at a time when aesthetic beauty was considered to be reflective of truth and virtue in a very real way.
One of the weird things about Alex (Malcom McDowell) is that I tend never to feel bad for him even as I hate the methods people use on him. Possibly it's because most of the people who oppose Alex do so in ways that resemble his worst qualities--through a motivation for personal satisfaction and a disregard of any real sense of honour. But why should anyone have a belief in anything but their own impulses? Art and philosophy are no more than window dressing. Patrick Magee's character espouses a political position that condemns the treatment used on Alex but at the same time he exploits the effects of that treatment to take revenge on the young man. Alex beat him and violently raped his wife right in front of him, an act he believes eventually led to her death, but, as ugly and repellent as Alex's crime, I feel no vicarious thrill in Magee's revenge.
I really like Patrick Magee. I've seen him in several horror films and watching him in Francis Ford Coppola's first film, Dementia 13
, set and shot in Ireland, would be a good choice for Saint Patrick's Day to-morrow. So it's not that I don't like the actor. In A Clockwork Orange
he seems a decent enough fellow, he's got a nice library, and he's pals with David Prowse. His wife is beautiful and Alex was being particularly cruel in hurting her when she was trying to help him. But try as I might, I just can't take pleasure in Magee using Beethoven as an instrument of torture on Alex. The two best reasons I can think of for this is that Kubrick had the blessed coldness of vision to portray revenge as realistically devoid of glamour and
part of the argument of the film is that the music of Beethoven does
have intrinsic value for its beauty.
You wouldn't need to convince anyone of that in Barry Lyndon
, though it's set long before Beethoven's time (the movie ends a few years after Beethoven's birth). When Barry (Ryan O'Neal) is taken under the wing of another character played by Patrick Magee, the Chevalier de Balibari, all the two of them need is a beautiful wardrobe and good manners to be taken as gentlemen, despite Barry's low birth. This follows after several costume changes for Barry that allowed him passage in different countries, posing as officers in different armies, a stark contrast to the bowlers and makeup worn by Alex and his droogs where the absence of any socially agreed upon significance in them is the whole point. Alex's crew, like modern Internet trolls, flaunt the loss of meaning in symbols to an extreme degree but the milk bar, crowded with mannequins of nude women in sexual poses, is just as acceptable a meeting place to some businessmen and an opera singer as it is for the group of delinquents.
It's easy to forget that not everything Alex does is horrible. When he picks up two young women at the record store, the three have a completely consensual and mutually enjoyable menage a trois
, apparently liberated from any restrictive mores.
In this case, Barry could've benefited Alex's perspective in one of the funniest scenes from Barry Lyndon
where early on, no matter how much she tries to make it clear she wants him to, Barry can not bring himself to voluntarily fondle the woman he loves. His sense of propriety and conception of feminine purity will not allow him to believe she would want him to have sex with her outside of a marriage bed, even when she tells him in an increasingly irritable tone to search her entire body with his hands. This moment is mirrored by a disastrous one at the end of the film where Barry faces off in a duel against Bullingdon, played by Leon Vitali, an actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to Malcolm McDowell, playing a similarly ruthless character. Barry's unhesitating observance of fair play has truly tragic consequences, the worst of which being, by not allowing himself to shrink to the level of an Alex or a Bullingdon in any way, Barry allows them to win.