Tony sings in the rain.
A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick is practically by definition not an easy watch. It’s arguable that Kubrick never wanted an audience to be comfortable during any given minute of any of his films. His intention was more that you not be able to look away, and that you never be entirely able to forget the tableaus he created. In that sense, A Clockwork Orange is possibly his most successful film (yes, yes, the majestic filmic wonder of 2001, but gods it’s a tedious watch).
What it isn’t, as author Anthony Burgess relentlessly pointed out on its launch, is a true depiction of his dystopian novel of the same name. It’s very distinctly ‘based on’ Burgess’ original, the characters, the situations, the language of Nadsat – all droogs and yarbles – are all the same. But in a story which examines a range of socio-political and philosophical themes, such as the motivations for violence, State repression, the concept of choice and the idea of free will, it very notably drops the final act. In Burgess’ book, lead character Alex, after all his adventures on the streets, in prison, in tortuous psychological manipulation and its aftermath, actually grows up. He matures. He leaves his world of ultraviolence and ‘the old in-out’ behind him, giving, in essence, an ultimately optimistic end-note for human nature. In Kubrick’s film, the ending is darker, much darker, seeming to co-opt a revitalised and violent Alex into the government’s service as completely as his old droogs, George and Dim, were co-opted into the police force while he was in prison.
That makes the film version of A Clockwork Orange very distinctly Kubrick’s, rather than Burgess’. But then if you were in any doubt the vision was Kubrick’s by the ending, you may well have been watching a different movie. A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick through and through – disturbing, hypnotic, and wherever possible, hypersexualised in a way that never dares dabble with anything as trivial as actual pleasure.
The story of a future Britain in which the teenage Alex and his ‘droogs’ – pals – sleep all day and roam the streets all night, fuelled by ‘milk with knives in’ and embarking on wild sprees of theft, rape and ultraviolence because they genuinely think it is fun is in itself a bleak vision of humanity and in particular of a society turned upside-down, certainly from that which existed when the novel was written and the movie made. When Burgess wrote the book in 1962, teenagers had only really existed as a growing, independent economic force for about a decade. The hyper-extension of where teen power might eventually lead showed a society afraid of its own children, a world of locked doors and self-imposed curfews and of gangs of youths running rampant in the streets, taking what they could, just because they could. The idea that the State would try and quell the criminal instinct by means of radical aversion therapy, and so take away the ability to do ‘bad’ things, while leaving the desire intact (the fate of our narrator), was futuristic perhaps, but not entirely fanciful.
Kubrick lends this world an unforgettable visual style – from the Korova Milk Bar with its naked-women statues, to the pop erotic art scattered throughout the movie, including the giant rocking phallus which gets Alex into so much trouble as a murder weapon, to the cheap retro-fashion of the coloured wigs, leather and vinyl outfits and faux-historical costumes, and the symmetrical framing of shots which doesn’t let you escape the action, any more than within the story, Alex can escape the aversion therapy images to which he’s subjected to ‘cure’ him of his violent impulses. For a movie Kubrick took on essentially to do something cheap after the heavy lifting work of 2001, he’s nevertheless in every frame of celluloid shot, filling in some visual gaps in Burgess’ world, and allowing his own interpretation of a world in which humanity itself is cheapened and lessened, where grotesquerie is everywhere and the chance of any genuine human connection is an almost alien concept.
He also gives his Clockwork Orange a rather more contained and circular shape in terms of its storytelling, stopping off in the second half, the ‘cured’ half of Alex’s story at almost all the points we visit in the first half, to show that Alex’s ‘fall’ as a ‘cured’ man, unable to defend himself from violence is equally as terrible in personal terms as his ‘rise’ as a violent young man was in societal terms.
And then of course there’s the music.
As much as creating visual tableaus that you instinctively remember forever – from The Asphalt Jungle to Spartacus to Dr Strangelove to 2001 (yep, all Kubrick) – one of Kubrick’s greatest legacies was the interweaving of music into the story, making it a vital part of the narrative. Here, Burgess’ work gives him an enormous head start, the obsession of our droog Alex with Ludwig Van Beethoven already pivotal in the story, but in Kubrick’s hands, the use of classical music and a Moog synthesiser score becomes not only a musical underpinning of that combination of the old and new, the old being timeless, the new somehow meaningless by comparison, it gives frequent glimpses into Alex’s psyche at critical moments in the narrative. The almost incidental use of Beethoven – his beloved, his precious ‘Ludwig Van’ - as the background music for images of concentration camps as part of his therapy hold the key not only to the failure of his ‘cure’ but also to the philosophical core of the movie – if our most fundamental drives are supressed, who knows what we might also lose in the process?
The fact that A Clockwork Orange has become a classic of dystopian cinema though is not just down to two men.
It’s down to three.
From the very first, staggeringly unblinking shot of Malcolm McDowell as Alex, he leaves you in no doubt who is the star of this particular show. There are moments like this scattered throughout film and TV history, where you see someone and simply know they will never let you blink. In the same way as, for instance, The Rocky Horror Picture Show only starts to make anything approaching sense once Tim Curry’s on screen, or his limited screen time in the first movie doesn’t stop the entire Star Wars franchise being about Darth Vader, Malcolm McDowell as Alex is utterly mesmerising, and responsible for much of our inability to turn away from Kubrick’s landscape, which for all its statement aesthetic choices about the cheapening of human life, is not somewhere, without McDowell, that we’d necessarily choose to stay for over two hours of running time. McDowell gives Alex something he actively lacks in the book – range, tactical intelligence, a calculating sense of the frightening. Alex in the book is by no means a pushover – he is after all still the same character, a teenager who’s the leader of his gang, a milk-fuelled maniac who kills and rapes and beats the innocent to within inches of death, but the book gives him that sense of being something unformed, an almost-child, which allows for the eventual change into a man at the end. Without that Burgess ending, McDowell, while delivering an arc, while still giving Alex a youthful vulnerability when faced with real power and authority in the grown-up world, makes Alex feel powerful in his own domain, almost like a Capone or a Kray twin in terms of his own understanding. His arc here is less complete because his transformation feels all like manipulation and playing along, with some introductions to helplessness along the way. His transformation into the ‘cured’ Alex, though he speaks the right words, is clearly only a ploy to get his way. While the book sees Alex evolve naturally out of his violent tendencies, delivering the message that violence is almost a phase of puberty which, left unchecked by law or discipline will have its terrifying day, and then burn out, the film makes Alex just as keen on violence and rape at the end as at the beginning, delivering the idea that the State can co-opt even violent psychopaths for its own ends, and that violence is a constant in some people, almost a pure principle. While the agenda may be Kubrick’s, it wouldn’t be half so memorable without McDowell’s unnerving blue eyes and lopsided, dangerous smile, or his quixotic, unbalancing performance to give it substance.
A Clockwork Orange is an amalgam of three distinct talents. Burgess, who imagines a world of teenagers running wild and ruling the night according to their hormone-driven desires. Kubrick, who takes that world, and visualises it as a casually brutalised society, populated only by different kinds of grotesque. And McDowell, who takes the two versions of A Clockwork Orange, the two visions of it, and welds them together in a single mesmerising performance.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk