Counter Clockwise, Or Lay Quiet Awhile with Ed and Id Molotov: Re-examining the Crossed Wires in Kubrick's and Burgess' A Clockwork Orange
by Joseph Aisenberg
Bright Lights Film Journal
To watch Stanley Kubrick's 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is to enter a nightmare, a curiously frigid funhouse inferno where human values have been turned upside down. The ordinary order of things has been made stale, ugly and repressive; repulsive brutality has been given a fluid allure, a breathless excitement. Though the film has been fairly tamed by time's power to assimilate most everything, it still retains a certain edge, an unpleasant disreputable aura. There is nothing really "nice" about the movie — and though the critical clamor over it has of course long since vanished, the cloud of danger surrounding it has chemically colored the film inalterably.
In the decades since its release, critics have been pretty passionately split on the subject: the likes of Rex Reed, Robert Hughes and Vincent Canby thought it a perfectly brilliant "tour de force" when it came out, while such usually divergent folks as Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael despised the thing. And despite its having won many awards, being nominated for four Oscars, Kubrick was eventually forced to cut the film so as to shed its initial X rating, which was hindering a wide release. Over the years it has continued to get a bad rap from Timeout's film guide; Entertainment Weekly in 2006 voted A Clockwork Orange the second most controversial film of all time, after The Passion of the Christ; and as late as 2007, in the book On Kubrick, an appreciation of the director by James Naremore, the author seemed oddly uneasy in his critical assessment of the movie's ultimate value.
After the film's release, its supposed excesses were blamed by the media for inciting all kinds of copycat crimes: a woman was raped by assailants performing "Singing In the Rain"; boy gangs marauded around England dressed as the droogs; Arthur Bremmer, who shot George Wallace, reported in his diary having watched the movie and been inspired to get Wallace all through it (his diary, in turn, became partial inspiration for Paul Shrader's Taxi Driver script); and a sixteen-year-old boy obsessed with the film beat a sixty-year-old tramp to death.2 Despite the insistence by Burgess and Kubrick on the primacy of art and the film's essential morality, both would display a great deal of ambivalence on the subject over the years. Burgess eventually wearied of defending it, grew to wish he had never written the book. Kubrick was pompous. "Although a certain amount of hypocrisy exists about it, everyone is fascinated by violence," he told an interviewer. "After all, man is the most remorseless killer who ever stalked the earth. Our interest in violence in part reflects the fact that on the subconscious level we are very little different from our primitive ancestors . . ."3 He argued that the film's violent content did not provide an audience with the easy rhetorical set-ups that usually made its consumption guilt-free. Even so, he took the perceived dangers of his film seriously enough to voluntarily remove it from distribution in England for decades, until after his death in 1999.4
In other words, the jury's still out on this one, and probably always will be, since the film's message, not to mention its perversely gleeful perspective, make it impossible to fully justify. For that reason, Kubrick's vicious, campy comic-book vision is always worth another look. Having kept much of its provocative messy power intact, it remains, as Gore Vidal once said of the novel, "chilling and entirely other."5 Not to mention that the kernel of primitive truth in the material remains ever relevant. From My Lai to Al-Mahmudiyah to the latest tabloid atrocity, ultra-violence is always with us.
A Clockwork Orange's simple story is structured around a fable-like what-goes-around-comes-around framework. In a futuristic London, or what now appears to be a tackier version of the 1970s London it was filmed in, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his droogs (Warren Clarke, James Marcus, Michael Tarn) are one among several street gangs battling to rule the night, drugging, raping and pillaging. On the evening the film opens, Alex and pals beat up an old man in a tunnel-like pedestrian underpass, fight a rival gang in the theater of a derelict casino, go on a wild high-speed drive, gang-rape an upper-middle-class writer's wife, and relax afterward in their favorite milkbar while some local "sophistos" sing Beethoven. It seems like a nice enough life for Alex, until his droogs rebel against his domination of them, not to mention his high-toned musical taste, by having plans of their own. When Alex violently reasserts his authority over the pack, his droogs avenge themselves by setting him up at the scene of a robbery-gone-wrong and leave him to the police and a hefty prison sentence. After two years, he's sprung from the clink when he's chosen as a guinea pig for a new program, the "Ludivico Technique," which "cures" prisoners of their criminal tendencies. Submitting to drugs and a series of films depicting rape, violence and fascism, he becomes completely averse to any aggressive or libidinous urges, and thus helpless. Out of prison, in stylized succession, Alex is confronted by those whom he has wronged. Each gets back at him, beating and tormenting him to the point he throws himself out a window, which threatens to become a publicity nightmare for the government that sponsored the inhuman plan in the first place. In compensation, Alex is deprogrammed and given a cushy job. At movie's end, we are left to feel he will be terrorizing London again as soon as he can get out of the hospital; the film closes in tones of freakish ironic ambivalence — one is amused, horrified and exhilarated simultaneously.
The thing to keep in mind about the movie now is the milieu from which it first emerged. It was one of those ghastly kinds of controversial films that was probably only possible in the context of that shell-shocked, "Vietnamized" era. A whole host of such pictures from the late sixties through the mid-seventies comes to mind: Taxi Driver, Straw Dogs (often connected in the media with Clockwork at the time); The Devils (which Ken Russell directed after giving up on doing an adaptation of Burgess' novel himself); Nashville, Carrie, Petulia, Night Porter, X,Y, & Z; Apocalypse Now, Midnight Cowboy; and many others. As they began to roll through select theaters, the old code of censorship crumbled in the wake of the new ratings system; confused and collapsing studios were too stunned and desperate from a vanishing market to put up much of a fight against them. Hence a wave of hysteria, horror, paranoia and female nudity splashed across gaping screens in a way that's unlikely to recur anytime soon. Could the ugly male fears of inadequacy and misogynistic nastiness in something like Sam Peckinpah's remarkable, silly and provocative film Straw Dogs ever run the gauntlet of politically correct euphemism currently cutting a tepid swath through cineplexes? The gleeful willingness of those long-gone filmmakers to muck around with incredibly indelicate and unpleasant subject matter gave their work, in retrospect, a certain desperate truth that one rarely comes across nowadays. Even if much of the stuff smeared and seared across the screen in movies like A Clockwork Orange and radical-minded muddles like Marat Sade, or in the ugly exploitative Marxist con games of Fassbinder, or the black-comic affectlessness of Badlands, or the Freudian bombast of Women in Love seems questionable, repulsive or just plain tasteless, you still can't help feeling these filmmakers were really trying to do something. They shrugged off all the old rules, the generations of genericism that had previously dictated the spreading of creamy predigested bromides over everything, so anything would go down nice in the end.
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