BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – A Clockwork Orange (1971)
There was me, that is Minty, and I sat in the Korova milk-bar of the BFI Southbank trying to make up my razodox what to do with the evening. The BFI sold milk-plus, or drexemal or drencrum, and oh you know what but fuck this, it might have been an amusing notion to write this review in nadsat, the futuristic argot of the cult delinquent novel A Clockwork Orange and subsequent film by a certain Stanley J. Kubrick, but following through on that impulse is pretty much impossible unless you want me to tolchok myself. Coming a mere three years after his odyssey amongst the infinite the production speed of Orange was almost cheetah like in comparison to Kubrick’s other carefully cultivated and obsessively researched projects, shot over the Autumn and Winter of 1970 and edited throughout the subsequent year he unleashed his nightmarish dystopian vision to the world in December 1971, and the controversy almost immediately exploded for him and production partners Warner Bros. due to our old English favorites – the gutter press. Those wonderful arbiters of the disintegrating morals speciously linked the film with some isolated incidents of yoofs gone wild in the council ghettos of our blighted urban cities, in fact the general climate of the period was obsessed with censorship due to a holocaust of controversial films such as Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and Ken Russell’s The Devils inflating the national debate on the dimensions of screen violence, but proceedings turned a little darker when Kubrick started receiving very specific death threats to him and his children directly at their isolated home on the outskirts of London, so he initiated the unthinkable – the film was pulled from domestic screenings in the UK, where it remained banned and unseen until just after his passing in 1999.
Now that’s how you open a movie, with a deep close-up on your protagonists grinning maniac face, identifying the key focus point in the tableau before pulling back to establish (in a trademark Kubrickain reverse zoom), a wider perspective, as Wendy Carlos screeching electronica score pummels needles under the skin with its future frosted fear. Malcolm McDowell is of course is Alex DeLarge, a psychopathic young hoodlum addicted to the celestial warblings of the great Ludwig Van Beethoven in a near future, litter choked dystopian England. Alex is arrested and imprisoned for murder after a home invasion escapade with his three ‘droog’ gang members goes horribly wrong, and he is enlisted for a radical new psychological aversion therapy which makes the very thought of violence or criminal behavior a lacerating, neurological ‘pain in the Gulliver’. The only problem is that the therapy has also imprinted a nauseous, paralyzing reaction to the glorious 9th of Ludwig Van due to a rather unfortunate coincidence of the aural accompaniment to the visual treatment sessions, prompting questions around freedom of choice and repression of the human animal, the very impact of technological advance on our souls and psyches.
Like Alex’s deranged, fickle mind this review is a collection of thieving magpie observations and thoughts, the first response that struck me following a BFI screening was how the elegant, static, forced perspective compositions are mixed with hand-held, chaotic immediacy (operated by Kubrick himself), usually a big affront to a normal production protocol when you’d trust your operators and focus pullers to do their job and capture the staged pandemonium. It’s that oscillation between the chaotic and destructive, of our species animal nature of fighting and fucking that is the yin to the yang of the peaks of civilization and cultural and rarefied art and decorum, a typically Kubrickian duality in which this brutal, satirical masterpiece mercilessly spears its subjects. One of the great anecdotes of the film orbits the Singing In The Rain scene, that squirmingly sung soundtrack to the home invasion and rape which Malcolm improvised on set, Stanley got on the blower to his assistants in the States after the first take and acquired the rights to the song and Gene Kelly has never forgiven him for forever tainting the aura of his MGM classic. Some of the 1970’s proto-futurist designs are near laughable now but were stripped from the pinnacle of design and fashion periodicals of the era, although the garish nudes and pictures immediately connect to this contemporary installation. The camera work and compositions are of course exquisite, less of Stanley’s trademark dollies and tracking arrangements than subjective POV from our hapless psychopath’s perspective, pushing him into our brains like an unblinking, invisible transmission of the Ludovico technique. Like Alex the film is infused with a dangerous, impish spirit from the garish color palette to the piercing pirouette score, with its nature versus nurture debate it also feels unique in the annals of socially conditioned SF, as I challenge you to name me a film which could loosely be considered in the same thematic vein as A Clockwork Orange from its contemporary crewmates – Barbarella, Planet Of The Apes, The Andromeda Strain, The Omega Man or even THX 1138. They are all entertaining, colorful films in their own ways but are in a different intellectual stream, the school bully with an academic affront.
The films proto-punk, working class council estate ethos sneers through the celluloid, it’s all so very British for an American director working with a British crew and cast, in British locations from a British writers fevered imagination. Unlike 2001’s necessary invention much of Orange was shot on location which also gives the film a naturalistic authenticity, utilizing then recent architectural erections such as the concrete oppression of the Thamesmead estate as the backdrop to his SF dystopian nightmare, and having worked with the teams at Bexley Council struggling with the monumental effort in regenerating that part of London believe me when I state that the fictional and film are not that far off in terms of unrest and malaise. The fact that the film was banned for so long gave my UK generation of cinephiles a sense of illicit thrill when we viewed such citrus contraband, the hunter gathering instinct of males to acquire, subjugate and dominate, with other meta level nonsense seeing Stanley as the isolated Mr Alexander (the intellectual portrayed by Patrick Magee in the film, whose wife is raped and subsequently kills herself) attracting mimetic threats of actions in Kubrick’s own remote, rural estate. I’ll always remember when I attended that Kubrick day with his daughter Katarina in attendance and she was asked by a rather slimy and odd member of the audience how scary it was to receive those death threats, and she responded, slightly aghast and understandably irritated that of course it was and she clearly remembers being scared with all the attention, which is an apt reminder of the kind of bloody weird and socially maladjusted people who sometime go to these events.
Why the film is so dangerous and still retains its chaotic chutzpah is that against every moral imperative you identify and root for Alex, against your moral judgment. He’s smart, he loves Beethoven, he’s our Bullingdon boy hero and the only major character in the film, a rapist and murderer who slowly comes to be to not quite sympathetic, but certainly troubling in a misplaced concern inability to defend himself, This is the perturbing Pandora’s box of screen representation and identification that Kubrick unleashes in the film, like the apes of 2001 it’s an almost an abstract step back in evolution, reminding us of our species penchant for violence and male privilege pack behavior which we still see in the likes of Gamergate. In terms of screen violence appealing to the base lizard instincts of the viewer then let’s be serious for one second, there’s a reason why consumers, mostly men do enjoy screen violence on a very base and perhaps unconscious level, there is a reason why video games like Call Of Duty games are so staggeringly popular – because we enjoy that mediated violence, the question is does that amelioration give a vent to those buried instincts or normalize and reinforce such behavior? Pushing aside the fact that not one single, reputable psychological study has suggested the latter during 50 years of analysis it’s still a dangerous arena to dance in which keeps the debate and discussion invested in the film, which still weeps resonance like those bizarre eyeballs glued to Alex’s wrists. Maybe after two SF pictures in a row, both mining social and intellectual issues Kubrick was prompted back to the depths of the 18th century and the ritualized, the civilized violence (the duels, the gaming rooms, the genesis of modern economics and commerce) with Barry Lyndon which was his next masterpiece.
After four years of production on 2001 I get the sense that he wanted to shoot quickly, moving his lean and efficient crew around existing locations within striking distance of Abbots Mead rather than construct those mammoth engulfing sets at Borehamwood or Pinewood, a writhing film anxious to slither out and constrict its audience. It’s always worth musing on the fact that Kubrick was a self-made director, no film school or even a university education for him, his early work was literally getting into a car with friends and making a film from the ground-up with a hired camera and a hungry crew, an instinctive method of creation where you have to readily adapt to the conditions on hand to mould the magic – weather, environment, the constant erosion of time. He maintained tiny shooting crews as much as possible throughout his career – an operator, focus puller, a few sound people and associated essentials – which isn’t always the impression one has when digesting those brave, bold expressionist canvasses that overwhelm in all their symmetrical, centrifugal glory, yet A Clockwork Orange is in many ways a grimy, ugly, piss sodden picture, an aesthetic absolute volte-face from the measured, operatic sterility of the previous odyssey. There is no redundancy in the picture, every scene has a purpose and strengthens the structure of the whole, building blocks of satirical and physiological strength which is remarkable when you consider the bloated economies of most movies with their engineered character beats, the formulaic algorithms of emotional plot peaks and test-screened troughs, the slavish yield to the three-act structure.
Like Eyes Wide Shut the film has a fable like, carefully heightened circular narrative where our central protagonist revisits locations and characters he had previously met in the first cycle of the film, himself changed in personality and dimension from his first revolution of his fate. It’s only by trading in that artificial arena that Kubrick is able to take a murdering rapist, the absolute psychopathic scum of the earth, remove his free will through conditioned psychological profiling and perversely make him sympathetic in such a bizarre and disquieting fashion. This is the film that will be inscribed on McDowell’s tombstone when he goes to see what bog is like, cast after Kubrick was swiftly impressed by his calm recalcitrance in Lindsay Anderson’s Coalition government predictive If….., while several of Kubrick retinue players support the searing satire, from Patrick Magee to Adrienne Corri, Stephen Berkoff and my personal favorite the Runyanesque Philip Stone.
The questions and queries are difficult – if you surgically or chemically remove an intrinsic human trait then what are the consequences of that void, and whom directs the moral calculus on the removal of free will and independent thought? Where then does the human reside in all its facets of the brilliant and brutal, constrained and contained by the apparatus of the state? Again to hark back to 2001 where would we be as an evolutionary species that has invested the technology, intellectual passion and devastating economic effort to ‘conquer’ the moon if the cold war wasn’t that overwhelming arbiter of male expansion? The oeuvre turns inwards as all social institutions come under Kubrick’s withering gaze, the liberal intelligentsia and their sudden turn to barbarity when Alex as a recurrent threat is recognized, the police drawing the violent thugs into their ranks in the reappearance of Dim, the church and their pious ineffectual sermonizing in the face of physical and social realities, a cold and calculating manipulation of subjects for continual production and consuming models. Since the establishment of the Kubrick archive scholars have been able to wallow in a wealth of material on the film’s production, using call sheets to establish which exact sequence were shot with a very specific when and where, a fascinating source of study as to how this almost guerilla filmed project was constructed in the mythological methodology of Kubrick’s perfectionist and methodical methods.
Now I’m exhausted oh my brothers this being some writing of no small expenditure, truth be told A Clockwork Orange has never been my specific favorite of the Stanley canon but while putting this together over the past week or so I’ve seen it anew as a masterpiece of form, a trembling of hallowed cinema ground as the utter dregs of humanity are inverted against a humbling reach for the immaterial illusion of high art and civilization, a work of genuine subversion that matures as the decades advance. I’ve still not properly considered the use of pure language /dialogue in the film as a metaphor for intelligence and communication (again, the silent monolith doesn’t speak) in the same way that Kubrick was attracted to the military argot of Full Metal Jacket or the socially violent forced pleasantries of Barry Lyndon, or indeed to a lesser extent in Eyes Wide Shut with the veiled threats of a deadly world beyond Bill Harford’s gilded cage, presented verbally or symbolically. To close I’ve always loved Michael (screenwriter of Jacket) Herr’s observation that his good friend may have scared himself with this still volatile film, a Promethean player imbued with social fire that disturbs to this day, a cult masterpiece that’s real horrorshow;