The two essential ingredients in the director’s recipe book are subtext and point of view. Subtext is the meaning of a scene that’s not readily detectable on the scene’s surface. The second, and equally important, ingredient to effective directing is the point of view (POV) in a film. Wherever the director points his or her movie camera on set implies a specific perspective. The camera establishes the looking glass through which the audience is permitted to peer; therefore, it creates a point of view. The subtext is what the filmmaker sets out to shoot, and point of view is how the filmmaker shoots it.
Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork, “A Clockwork Orange,” is an excellent example of a first person narrative. Alex DeLarge, played by Malcolm McDowell, is an ultraviolent criminal with little-to-no conscience—his passion for rape and murder is only superseded by his passion for Ludwig van Beethoven. After being jailed for his crimes, he volunteers to participate in an experimental program that cuts short his sentence. The result of the program is a biological revulsion of violence, sex and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, an unfortunate, and unanticipated, side effect of the treatment.
In the following scene, Alex is captured by the husband of one of his victims, a woman he brutally raped while forcing the husband to watch some years ago. The husband drugs Alex and locks him in an attic room.
Kubrick starts the scene in a close-up, Alex’s face in a pillow, as the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony begins to echo in the background.
In one of his signature zoom-outs, Kubrick reveals Alex lying on a bed. His head is not resting on a pillow, but on the foot of the bed, where his feet should be; his feet are on the pillow, where his head should be. He is upside down with respect to his surroundings, just as his internal state is turned upside down when confronted with the sounds he’s being forced to listen to.
The costume design and production design work in tandem with each other to depict a man in utter contrast to his world. His dark silhouette is juxtaposed to the light pinks, peaches and off-whites around him. Alex sticks out like a sore thumb, in a place he does not fit into—he may, technically, have been released from prison; however, he finds himself back inside a prison of his own making. The crisscrossing wallpaper, the latticed back of the chair, and the crossed joints in the window, all conspire to convey the feeling that Alex is trapped inside the cage of this room.
As Alex walks across the room, attempting to open the door, the affinity—or similarity—of tone, color and texture of the room is striking; particularly in contrast to the way he is depicted.
Alex pinpoints the source of the offending music, the reverberations of Ludwig van, and the source emanates from the room below. He is helpless and can do nothing short of slamming his hands against the ground and yelling, with futility, at the indifferent floorboards.
In what some may argue is a shift in point of view, Kubrick cuts to the room below.
Inside the room, is the widowed husband, who is visibly enjoying the pain he is inflicting upon Alex through Beethoven’s Ninth. However, because the film as a whole dutifully adheres to the Alex’s first person point of view, we must question how much of a shift this is, or if it is simply Alex’s emotional perception.
This close-up of the husband is eerily reminiscent of the famous bust of Beethoven, an image we see earlier in the film in Alex’s room. This is the nightmare version of Beethoven, the distorted persona, who is persecuting Alex with the music he so loved and adored. This distortion manifests itself within Alex’s perception; it’s what he imagines in the room below him.
The malevolent use of the billiards table to prop up speakers, while a character playfully rolls pool balls across its surface, seems exaggerated and nightmarish, too—not to mention the gigantic amplifiers stacked against the back wall; these speakers are more likely to be used on stage at Wembley Stadium for a Who concert, than inside a residential home.
The dark, contrasting shadows and elements in frame serve to further separate this room from the room upstairs—it’s more in line with the way Alex looks. Its tone is more indicative of the darkness that permeates his life post-treatment.
After Alex realizes there is no way to stop the music from blasting its torment into his cage, he realizes something else: he can stop it, and he can stop it by escaping, and the only option through which to escape is “to snuff it.”
Kubrick zooms into Alex’s face, punctuating his revelation. He then reconfigures his camera, bringing it behind Alex, and filming the other side of the room for the first time.
The shift from one side of the 180 degree line to the other is prompted by his character’s decision to commit suicide.
Simply by changing the target of his lens from one end of the room to the other, Kubrick completely alters the tone, color and texture that he established in the beginning. The affinity of these elements that once contrasted Alex, now match him—the brightness of the environment has been infiltrated with darkness, which obscures the cage-like textures and renders the colors, well, colorless.
Everything in the frame stands in contrast to the bright light of the windows that beckons Alex toward it.
As Alex unlocks the window and pushes it open, the crossed joints of the windows and the walls around him no longer cage him in—there is nothing between him and his escape: his own death.
As Alex jumps, the camera shifts to the ground, aiming its lens upwards toward the falling body. It’s as though the lens is a magnet and Alex’s body a forgone conclusion as it hurls its way toward it.
In perhaps a testament to the first person experience of this scene, the final shot takes the guise of Alex’s literal first person point of view [often called the POV shot] as gravity pulls him to freedom below.
This film weighs the importance of law and order vs. the right to individual freedom. While detestable choices may lead to the harm, injury and death of others, to the detriment of society at large, the freedom to make these choices is what makes Alex, and all of us, human beings.
The point Kubrick is making: free will, we are all entitled to it; furthermore, we are all entitled to our own point of view.
William Dickerson received his Master of Fine Arts in Directing from The American Film Institute. He is a writer and director whose debut feature film, Detour, was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner, and nothing short of “authentic” by The New York Times. He self-released his metafictional satire, The Mirror, which opened YoFi Fest’s inaugural film festival in 2013. He recently completed his third feature, Don’t Look Back. His award-winning work has been recognized by film festivals across the country. His first book, No Alternative, was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ‘90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. His latest book, DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter), is available now. He currently serves on AFI’s Alumni Executive Board and is a Faculty Member at the New York Film Academy.