Thursday 4 March 2010

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Malcolm McDowell

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

OK, A Clockwork Orange is unique. Let's get that clear right off the bat. There is nothing else like it anywhere in the history of cinema and that quality puts it automatically into a select company of movies. It's hard enough to give a film a truly different voice within the combined output of a single year. To do it within a hundred years of cinema is no small achievement. Something I say to people when I happily force them to watch anything directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky is, 'There are things in this film that you have never seen before,' and I could just as accurately say the same about A Clockwork Orange. Director Stanley Kubrick not only managed to show us things we hadn't seen before but he managed to upset a lot of people in the process. He even began the film with a blank red screen so that viewers literally saw red from moment one.

As he found out, many people really have no interest in seeing something they're not used to. In fact the death threats that he received after the initial release led him to voluntarily withdraw the film completely from circulation in the United Kingdom. This made for a very strange set of affairs indeed, given that it was never officially banned. While there were many horrified reactions to the film, it was also critically acclaimed and won New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. It was one of only two X-rated films ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, the other being Midnight Cowboy.

However nobody in the country it was filmed could legally see it, myself included, even though it was released the year I was born and I spent a couple of decades growing old enough to watch an X-rated film. A cinema just across the English Channel in France showed nothing but A Clockwork Orange for nearly thirty years, and much of its custom came from curious English tourists. Only when Kubrick died in 1999 was it finally rereleased in the UK, this time without the apparent copycat troubles that plagued its initial run. I had previously borrowed dubious nth generation bootleg copies at points but for some reason never got round to watching them. When a friend bought it on DVD I still only managed to see the first half an hour.

Only in 2004 did I finally get round to watching the entire thing and it was difficult to sum up my reactions to it. A fresh viewing in 2010 helped because this is certainly a film that warrants at least a second viewing to get just what Kubrick, and Anthony Burgess before him who had written the source novel, were aiming at. Just watching half an hour really doesn't cut it and some of the themes only become apparent as the film runs on, prompting the need for a reevaluation of what you thought you saw earlier. Unlike many films today, this isn't something that you can truly experience through its trailer or from clips on a TV show. You have to watch the whole thing and you have to do it at least twice.

After the credits, we're confronted by Malcolm McDowell, merely looking at us in the sinister way only he can, breathing at us with menace from under his bowler hat. He and the outrageous fake eyelashes that he wears only on one eye are at the Korova Milk Bar to drink drug-laced Milk Plus, and as the camera pans back slowly we find that the tables are designed in the form of naked women. The fact that Alex and his droogs have their feet up on these fake women only suggests at the treatment of women to come, because this is a very dark near-future story. As the drunken vagrant they promptly beat up after leaving the bar suggests, it's a stinking world because there's no law and order any more. What's left is the sort of thing that Alex is fond of. As the movie poster points out, his principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven and, sure enough, that's pretty much what we get for the first highly uncomfortable 45 minutes.

Our protagonists (we really can't call them heroes) are thugs, to put it politely, all of them. Alex is the leader of this little gang, with his droogs Pete, Georgie and Dim backing him up, and they get their kicks by invading the remote house of a writer called Frank Alexander through false pretenses, then beating him up and gang raping his wife. Admittedly, they save another young lady from the same sort of treatment by interrupting a different gang of thugs in a derelict theatre, but it's pretty obvious they don't do it for her sake. He has a drawer at home full of watches and money that he's stolen from victims as proof that it's the act that has meaning for Alex and his droogs, not the reasons for it or the consequences that stem from it.

Director Stanley Kubrick doesn't show us everything he could show us, but he doesn't exactly hold back either. We get full nudity, both male and female, though the sex scenes are shown at Benny Hill speed. Some are consensual between apparent adults, like the two young ladies he takes home from a record store for some of the old in and out, even though in the book they're ten year old girls that he rapes. The violence is hard hitting and relentless, though we're mostly shown resulting blood rather than impactful gore. However the context that this is all placed in is perhaps the most disturbing of all because the world that these characters live in is populated everywhere by violence, drug use and pornographic art, even at Alex's parents' house.

Yes, it turns out that the leader of this little gang of thugs is a schoolboy living with his parents. He lives at Municipal Flat Block 18A, Linear North, somewhere in London, and he plays truant from school. How normal can you get? Well not very, when life doesn't apparently have any limits, at least limits that can't be easily ignored like Mr Deltoid, some sort of social worker or probation officer, who is assigned to him but is ineffective in the extreme; or the Korova Milk Bar, which is apparently happy to dispense mescaline-laced milk without an age check. Admittedly Malcolm McDowell was 28 and certainly didn't look 15, but to put it quite bluntly, this film would not be the same without him. In fact Stanley Kubrick once said that 'If Malcolm McDowell hadn't been available I probably wouldn't have made the film.'

A perennial oddball in a plethora of quirky films over five decades, it was here that McDowell really established himself. He'd made a solid impression in 1968 in Lindsay Anderson's If..., an anti-establishment British film that featured the first instance of a full-frontal female nude passed by the BBFC. Only three years later they had to deal with this: that's how far ahead of its time this film was. McDowell makes the character his own, apparently fine with the physical and mental hardships that he went through during filming. He had to bend over naked for a prison guard and in a justly famous scene, he had his eyelids clamped open with a trained optometrist on hand to keep his eyeballs moist. He nearly drowned when his breathing apparatus failed while he was dunked in a horse trough, suffered broken ribs and even received a scratch to the cornea of one of his eyes, yet he dominates every single scene that he's in and there are very few that he isn't. That 1971 was only his third year in films makes the achievement even more astounding.

McDowell also improvised one the most memorable scenes of the film, the attack on the writer and the rape of his wife. Unhappy with how staged the scene felt, Kubrick had asked McDowell if he could dance and so for a laugh he started an imitation of Gene Kelly's famous Singin' in the Rain routine, interspersing the tap dancing with brutal kicks and slaps to his victims. As soon as Kubrick had stopped splitting his sides he drove home, rang New York to acquire the rights to the song for $10,000 and then drove back to shoot the scene. In a film that thrives on this sort of supreme irreverence, it's hardly surprising to find that Alex is finally brought to justice after bludgeoning a woman to death with a giant penis, something that she reiterates is 'an important work of art' but with which Freud would have a field day. Yes, this is a film that you could watch in the den with your beer buddies and then again in your psychology class. Everything has an interpretation.

The key to both the novel and the film are in realising that they aren't about what we might expect, the growth and change of the lead character. We don't get that in the slightest, even though Alex is sent to prison for fourteen years for murder and goes through an experimental treatment, the Ludovico Technique of aversion therapy, which is heralded by the government as a magical cure all for the ills of society. He becomes reformed in every respect, at least to the satisfaction of the Minister of the Interior, because, conditioned by the treatment, he gets physically sick at any exhibition of sex or violence. The government is happy to release him because he's no longer able to do anything that they don't approve of. Whatever else happens they apparently don't care about, especially as they want the thugs out of prison to make room for political prisoners. He becomes the clockwork orange of the title, flesh outside but a machine inside.

Society really isn't shown to be any better than Alex here, as the film bitingly compares a charmingly honest but notably twisted young man with society as a whole and asks both what society can do to deal with characters like him and what we can do to deal with a society that can't. Parents and social workers may or may not care but they're utterly useless. The police end up hiring the very thugs they fight against. Prison is dehumanising rather than rehabilitating and could be summed up by one scene where a barking little guard with a Hitler moustache hurls orders at inmates who are known by numbers not names, to the accompaniment of Land of Hope and Glory, the unofficial English national anthem. Even the prison chaplain isn't shown in a particularly sympathetic light, seeing nothing except what he wants to see, but he does get to give us the moral of the story, in two notable instances of dialogue.
'Goodness comes from within,' he says before Alex signs up for the Ludovico Technique. 'Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.' Alex hasn't chosen good because it doesn't seem like he's ever been given an understanding of what it is. When the chaplain points him at the Bible, we find that he merely focuses on all the sex and violence in the Old Testament, down to visualising himself scourging Jesus on the road to the cross and lounging with naked handmaidens, dressed up to the nines in Roman fashion. Once he's rehabilitated by the Ludovico Technique, proudly flaunted as proof of the concept's success by the government, the chaplain points out, 'He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.' As we find out, he also ceases to be able to deal with life, especially life in this world where sex and violence are apparently routine.

I really should make another attempt at the source novel by Anthony Burgess, published in 1962, to see what the original take on things was, but my last try, many years ago, was acutely unsuccessful. As a child of maybe fourteen, I simply couldn't get my head round the language Burgess had his droogs use, an imaginary thing called Nadsat that was sourced from Russian and included elements of Cockney rhyming slang, childish repetition and Shakespearean theatrical language. Kubrick's film is in English with a healthy smattering of this new vocabulary, but the book is more like the other way around. Burgess was a linguist who delighted in this sort of thing, going on to invent a further language, a prehistoric one, for the 1981 French movie Quest for Fire, which was set in the Paleolithic era.

While the story belongs to Burgess, the film being a faithful adaptation, albeit one that follows the American version that omits the final chapter rather than the English version, the film belongs to Kubrick and McDowell. Kubrick only made thirteen features but he refused to repeat himself, the links between them being in use of themes and techniques, not to mention use of taboo subjects. For Dr Strangelove, he made a comedy about nuclear war, for Lolita he addressed a sexual relationship between a grown man and an underage girl and here he dared to pose questions about the nanny state, very prescient ones given the degrees to which Mary Whitehouse and the BBFC would go over the next couple of decades. It's hardly surprising to find that A Clockwork Orange turned out to be a controversial picture, because there's very little that doesn't dare.

Even Kubrick's trademark use of classical music can hardly be excepted from the controversy, not just through the violence that punctuates Singin' in the Rain. The scene early on where Alex's rivals attempt a gang rape in a derelict theatre is choreographed to appear more like a ballet, albeit with a stripped and unwilling primadonna. Alex's fondness for Ludwig Van is played up throughout, there being numerous mentions to Beethoven, not just in the soundtrack but right down to the cat lady who fights him off with a bust of Beethoven. We can hardly ignore the classical music in any Kubrick film, not least 2001: A Space Odyssey, but here it's tied more explicitly to the material rather than just the visuals, as Kubrick explores what part culture has in conditioning.

This isn't a perfect film, as some scenes run a little slow, the balance of the film is sometimes wanting and some characters are more than a little overblown. The pocket Hitler in prison is an obvious caricature and Patrick Magee's character, the writer who loses his wife through Alex's actions, ends up not just wheelchair bound but transformed into some sort of apoplectic garden gnome. When Alex comes back into his life and he realises who he is, he goes way over the top, so much so that it detracts from what we should be paying attention to. Nonetheless A Clockwork Orange stands up almost forty years on, as subversive and thoughtful as when it was released if a little less shocking given much of what has come since. Yet there's still next to nothing in mainstream cinema that dares to even attempt walking in the world Kubrick built here. That says plenty all on its own.


James R said...

Very much one of those films that requires multiple viewings. I was a bit puzzled by it first time round but on later viewings I've thought it was one of the best films of the 70s.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

The more I rewatch Kubrick the more I realise how ahead of his time he really was, in a way that defines the best science fiction. Often it takes a decade or two for the world to catch up to what he was looking at.

Much of the credit for this here goes to Anthony Burgess but it's there throughout Kubrick's films. What seems inexplicable, eccentric or just there for shock value turns out to be a valid concern only as the decades pass and the context become reality.