A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
[Some images NSFW. #thankscptobvious]
Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just like being an animal so much as being like one of those malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grr grr grr and off it itiies, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of those malenky machines.
That’s the key paragraph in the final chapter of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, the chapter purportedly missing from a copy of the book printed in the 1960s and possessed by one Stanley Kubrick, already by 1971 the director of at least four truly great films, most recently the double-headed juggernaut of midcentury hope and paranoia in the hazily forceful form of Dr. Strangelove and 2001. A third vision of some sort of oblique future would be sourced from Burgess’ witty, linguistically tricky, somewhat horrific but finally human 1962 novel — with the crucial caveat that the absence of chief droog Alex’s closing ramble changes the entire point of the narrative. At this point in our story we must accept that Kubrick wished for Alex’s story to mean one thing, Burgess wished for another, and however much the screenplay of the film follows the novel — which it does to a great degree — its adherence to the letter doesn’t allow it the depth of its true spirit. This isn’t a criticism of the film by any means, but a criticism of the underlying point within Kubrick’s reading — though he’s credited with rendering it a passionate treatise of sorts about free will, it’s really Burgess’ sideways, perverse prose that offers this agenda. Kubrick’s film is finally skeptical, even disdainful of the free will concept, suggesting a kind of inevitability of evil — and not just in our Alex but of a wider corruptibility. There’s some satirical charge here but it’s also a muddied up way of expressing what is finally a somewhat simple-minded and emotionally stunted worldview, in comparison not just to the wily outlandishness of the novel but to every other Kubrick picture, the prior two perhaps above all.
In my view Kubrick is the best of all American filmmakers, but he’s dogged by a certain stereotype about his own work, and not simply the ones about a certain limitation and stasis in his visual style, which I think is nonsense and owes its existence to one Steadicam-heavy, symmetry-obsessed film (The Shining). My major criticism of A Clockwork Orange, the least of his major works (all of which are essential), is that it’s the sole Kubrick picture that actually justifies the easy, cynical perspective of Kubrick as flat emotionless observer of nasty or neutral human behavior. Because good heavens, what nonsense that generally is! There are probably no war films in existence as flattening and unerring in their despair as Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, and while I’m sure there are those who can come away from the rich, aching beauty of Barry Lyndon, Lolita and 2001 unshaken, I’m not among them. But yes, the moral dubiousness and wrongheaded perversions of Clockwork do have a certain creepy Cartesian, clinical current about them — it’s the one time Kubrick resembles less the mature and compassionate chronicler of life than the giddy mad-scientist whose major goal is provocation: all the feverish wordplay of the book rendered as bone-cold iconography and Goon Show outrageousness with psychosis and terror rather than anarchy at its core. That disturbs me because it’s a superficial goal, and this is a superficial film, and that disturbs me all the more because Kubrick has proven himself so meticulously trustworthy in the rest of his career that to go to these “places” with him is genuinely unnerving. Hitchcock made some honest errors around this same time, but he never so distressingly uprooted the worldview espoused by the remainder of his work.
But to be clear, it should be stressed that this is a brilliant film, in fact a stunning and breathtaking achievement in terms of visual design and art direction as well as direction, performance, and liveliness, and this is why it’s so troubling. We revel in the comic extremity of the piece, the giant penis comes hammering down and a real victim becomes a comic book page; Ludwig Van’s eyes come spooling out at us like we were in some real horrorshow 3D spectacle; Alex features in a Biblical-epic fantasy sequence that calls cleverly back to Spartacus; and Alex himself, bursting with life thanks to a beyond-criticism Malcolm McDowell, is as enormously ingratiating a personality as we’ll ever meet at the movies. But he rapes. He murders. Yet he coos and chimes at us in the narration, and glares out at us with his seductively lifted eye, and our heart goes out to him as a world and a director attempt to destroy Alex and Malcolm both (the actor still deals with the retina-based consequences of the horrific theater sequence, and he was nearly drowned in one astoundingly unfaked fight scene), and there we are. Yet to what effect? Is this manipulation, delighftul as it feels, really a means to any interesting or worthwhile end? Seeing the full Kubrick filmography, it’s a thrill to see him throw himself into such bizarre and surreal and wildly ahead-of-the-curve bashing around, but the thrust of the piece as he renders it is all very bleak and unforgiving indeed, and not to the great lesson-learning effect he intends, and is that gotcha! point really even worth making anyway? There’s the rub — it’s a magnificently seductive film, but its power is not necessarily something you want to abide by, to allow to have done to yourself. But again, are there many movies more glorious to look at, more overstuffed and fascinating in every frame-filling second? No. There truly are not.
Still, it takes so little time for Kubrick’s normally sure hand to lose its grip on the tone and intent of Clockwork that it’s as alarming as watching a skilled driver’s vehicle hit black ice and spin out of control. Some of what’s bothersome can be pinned down to the general response to the new permissiveness of the movies in the early ’70s — I have no issue with the many nude bodies and nipples and crotches on display, but the direct, musty rapiness and the beauty extracted from it is very much of its time and very macho and weird: that’s all still uncomfortable, even now and perhaps more so. And what makes it worse is how on board we all are with the satire and farce here, which is all witty and joyous and full of hilarious detail, in what is finally one of the most confusing mismatches of thesis and execution in cinematic history. Because this exuberantly terrifying story is treated like a Marx Brothers routine by Kubrick, and all too effectively — I guffaw at a lot of this, and quote it all the time, it’s so rich in beautifully ugly and painfully amusing detail: the two handclaps after the post-reformed Alex demonstration, Patrick Magee’s demented barkings about “TRY[ing] THE WINE”; the faces Alex makes when he’s eating peas in the last scene; the generally daffy mannerisms of the whole cast; and the most phenomenally brilliant scene of the picture, Alex’s bedridden psychological exam, which single-handedly provides Mike Judge with his future career in barely two minutes. And that’s just it. I enjoy this movie; it’s a fucking delight, and given its nearly propagandic intentions, that seems mildly fucked.
As you can tell, my relationship with A Clockwork Orange is sort of complicated, by virtue of the way it revels so wholeheartedly in Alex’s early exploits and excesses, all the rape and cavorting and beating and madness of the Droogs, the smirking inner life of an adolescent who can commit crimes both petty and large all night then down some milk and crank the Ludwig Van at the drop of a hat without a second thought, examined by Kubrick with such a feathery touch that it’s like he’s making Tom Jones, and given the atypically bouyant joy of the William Tell orgy sequence, maybe he fucking should’ve! The effort is clearly to try and make our world his, something Burgess intriguingly sidesteps by consistently casting us as outsiders, but this is hardly Kind Hearts and Coronets even if there’s never any question we’re meant to find Alex’s behavior redundant. The juxtaposition of charm and horror is just a strange experiment that not only doesn’t fully work for me but makes me feel a bit scummy.
This problem might well have been erased if the film had ended the way the novel ends, if Kubrick had somehow found a way to implicate and charge us for our complicity in the Droogs’ ultraviolence, but that’s not even what trips me up because that’d be a straightforward criticism. What trips me up is that the ending as it stands is glorious, hysterical, brilliant; I want to be resistant to the charm and joy of the film and think about what it’s trying to tell me but I just can’t. I become just like the idiots with worshipful Alex posters on their teenage walls, just therefore like Alex, and I suppose there’s a chance that’s the idea. But it’s just such a clinical, detached, surface-level brilliance that sees Alex and us as mere machines to be manipulated, absent of the final human connection the book takes pains to make. Free will nothing, it’s all just a hollow commentary upon an empty world that Kubrick knew perfectly well wasn’t empty; all pretty pictures, even, like David Lean out at a swingers club. Is it just a coincidence that this broad divergence with his typical ideas resulted in the one major project he disowned, refusing to allow it to be screened in the UK (his residence) until after his death?
I’ve never been able to shake how much I love the person McDowell, with Kubrick’s help, creates in Alex, and how much I loathe the fact that I enjoy his company. All great villains are charming, sure, but I’m far more freaked out by an immaculately, even lovingly designed cartoon of a rape-and-murder sequence like the catlady scene in A Clockwork Orange than I am by affable Barry Foster’s morbidly disgusting and explicit assault of Barbara Leigh-Hunt in Frenzy. Hitchcock’s picture is as much a black comedy as this but it contains three-dimensional female characters, and its rape — though also committed by a character we’ve come to enjoy, which is precisely the point — is genuinely horrific, vile, imprinting itself permanently on us in the worst and most devastating manner. Hitchcock himself admired Kubrick’s film once he saw it, after speculatively writing off its use of violence as a crutch, but I feel as if Kubrick might well have created a less risible film if he’d taken a similar tactic. Either play the entire film just a little straighter, taking the camp down a few notches and having a little less fun with all the horror and destruction (and before you carp that it’s all just the way Alex sees the world, note that the tone remains giddy and sharply comedic even after he goes to prison and becomes mutant-Alex) or juxtapose the actual violence more harshly instead of playing it for laughs. Yet do I want to live in a cinematic landscape wherein this Clockwork Orange does not exist? I don’t, at least I don’t think I do.
But Kubrick makes other, less nebulous errors here. A Clockwork Orange isn’t on the upper end of his filmography in terms of minutes expended; 2001, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut, and Spartacus all run longer than this — but this feels like his longest film to me. It’s primarily because of mediocre, loose editing; almost every scene is longer than it should be. Viddy the protracted sequence between Alex and the Droogs at the foot of the stairs, a novelistic distraction that rambles much and advances little; or the moment when he tries to go back and move in with his parents; or much of the long stretch between the initial evening of ultraviolence and the occasion of Alex’s capture. Kubrick is in top form visually but his rhythm and pacing are off, surprisingly so since he meticulously whittled his films down as much as he possibly could. Thus, ACO becomes a bit of a task to watch, much as it does continue to impress and shock after all these years.
And as a note of contrition, it’s a sinny that gets weaker and weaker the more you viddy it, yet watching it with someone, particularly someone who’s never seen it, makes it feel like a new experience entirely. (The same, for some reason, is also true of The Shining, except I find it continues to improve with like repeated exposure.) There’s so much choodessny and spoogy “stuff” here, and it’s such an overwhelming feast for the glazzies and ookoes, that I can’t think of it as anything less than a film I love with like a whole lot of caveats. But except for Killer’s Kiss, there’s not another Kubrick film I’m this conflicted about. Not by a longshot, my brothers.