A Clockwork Orange
Let's make this clear up front: Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was a bloody genius. No other film director could ever deserve the title more. Just look at the list of films he made, and think about the impact they all had. Paths Of Glory. Dr Strangelove. 2001. The Shining. Full Metal Jacket. This wasn't a filmmaker who had a good patch and then tailed off, coasting on his former glories: every single picture spoke directly to its time. Movies will be a lot less exciting and a lot more predictable as a result of his loss.
But the fact remains that in 1993, Stanley Kubrick murdered my favourite cinema. And I can never completely forgive him for that.
It was a grubby little fleapit in King's Cross called the Scala. For those of you who don't know King's Cross, it's a bit like the ninth circle of hell, but with better rail connections to Scotland. Drugs, prostitution, fried chicken franchises named after every Southern state in the USA apart from Kentucky: all the seedier aspects of human life, crammed into a small area of North London. It would take something damn special to make an australopithecine leave his comfortable home and go there on a regular basis. And the Scala was that damn special.
Sure, there were other repertory cinemas in London at the time, providing daily programmes of old and obscure films as an alternative to the creeping multiplexation that was prevalent elsewhere. But nobody did it quite like the Scala, housed in a building that at various times had been a labour exchange, an aeroplane parts factory and even an ecological exhibition called the Primatarium. It gleefully hurled together double and triple bills of cult classics. It introduced hordes of fans (myself included) to the wonders of Hong Kong action cinema, in the days before the genre had its own shelf in the Virgin Megastore. It used its token membership fee (50p a year) to operate under club conditions and show stuff that had been rejected outright by the British Board of Film Classification. (I still have nightmares about Curt McDowell's Thundercrack!, featuring men, women, gorillas and cucumbers in every possible sexual permutation.) And then one afternoon it held a low-key screening of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and it all went horribly pear-shaped.
A Clockwork Orange was never banned in this country, at least not by the BBFC: they passed it uncut with an X certificate in 1971, and it certainly wouldn't have any problems getting an 18 rating today. However, we've never been able to see it in the UK since the mid-seventies, because Kubrick himself withdrew it from release, following death threats he received after a number of copycat assaults were blamed on teenage gangs trying to imitate the film. So when the Scala sneaked a copy into the country for their screening, it wasn't a censorship issue, but one of copyright. Kubrick and Warner Brothers took the Scala to court, and the cinema was fined so heavily it went into liquidation. Despite the fundraising efforts of its patrons - I still have my Droog In The Dock benefit t-shirt, featuring the cinema's cat with Alex-style eye make-up and bowler hat - the Scala finally went under in 1993, dying in a suitably over-the-top hail of bullets as Chow Yun Fat himself turned up for the last ever Hong Kong weekender.
And despite all this, British people have still managed to see the film over the last 25 years. Fourth generation copies of the Netherlands version of the video (Dutch subtitles and all) are sold from car boots and surreptitiously passed around school playgrounds. Cinemas in Paris (still showing it to this day) are invaded by Brits on a regular basis. And now the Internet allows us to buy video copies from the US and have them posted over, which apparently isn't a problem as long as it's only for your own personal use. The copy of A Clockwork Orange that I ordered from Amazon.com appeared on my doorstep just two days after Kubrick's death. It seemed like some sort of sign that I should examine it closely.
Kubrick's film, like Anthony Burgess' source novel, has a distinct three-part structure: and one of the key problems it's encountered over the years is that everyone only remembers the first part. We're thrown in at the deep end in an unspecified time and location, although there are enough clues to keep it recognisably English. Violent teenage gangs wander the streets looking for trouble, speaking in their own slang, a bizarre combination of Russian dialect and Olde English that's generally come to be known as nadsat. (Although strictly speaking, that's the name that the teens give themselves, not just their language.) Our guide to this world is Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his band of droogs, and the first forty minutes of so of the movie follows them over two nights of ultraviolence, the old in-out-in-out and the red red krovvy fountaining out lovely. The highlight of their evening involves breaking into the house of a writer (Patrick Magee), beating him savagely and raping his wife. But the gang is starting to get fed up with the idea of Alex being their leader: they desert him during another raid on a house that results in a woman being killed, and he's left to carry the can alone.
It's from this point onwards that the people who are watching the film just for the violence start to get bored. The second section of the movie rejoins Alex after two years in prison, desperate to get out. He finds out about an experimental treatment - the Ludovico Technique - which it's claimed could help him get over his violent tendencies in a fortnight, and he volunteers to help the authorities test it. The Ludovico Technique is basically drug-assisted aversion therapy: Alex spends two weeks with his eyes clamped open watching violent films, while being chemically treated to feel sick at the sight of them. Tragically, as one of the films is accompanied by Beethoven's music, he develops an aversion to that as well, despite his love of "Ludwig Van" being one of the few calming influences in his former life.
The final section shows Alex being released back into the outside world after undergoing his treatment. As far as the authorities are concerned, it's been a total success: in trials, Alex goes to pieces as soon as he's made to feel a violent impulse. The juicy organic hoodlum of his old days has now become a clockwork automaton, devoid of free will and totally unable to control his reactions in violent situations. Which is a pity for Alex, as most of the people he came into contact with during the first part of the film are still waiting for him on the outside, and they've got a few lessons to teach him on the nature of crime and punishment.
The main problem people tend to have with A Clockwork Orange is how we, the audience, are meant to relate to Alex. He's our main figure of identification in the story - after all, he narrates it to us - but he spends the first third of it performing a number of incredibly bestial acts. The trick Kubrick has to pull off is to allow us to keep just enough sympathy with Alex to make us feel sorry for his later dehumanisation, but not enough to actually enjoy the violence and rape for ourselves.
He does this by filming the violence in a dizzying array of styles, so we're never quite sure how to react. The gang fight near the start is a hilariously surreal bit of choreography worthy of Jackie Chan, as bodies go flying through the air and through furniture without any on-screen indication as to how they got airborne in the first place. But within minutes we're horrified by the assault and rape of the writer and his wife. Crucially, unlike many other films of the time, the rape is not given any erotic overtones whatsoever: this is an act of humiliation and violation, pure and simple. (And it's made all the more horrific by being accompanied by Alex's rendition of Singin' In The Rain: an addition to the story by Kubrick which not only gives him a neat way of setting up the climax of the film much later, but also taught Quentin Tarantino about the potency of cheap music and big violence some twenty years later.) Kubrick keeps this see-sawing tone going so that by the time Alex is battering a woman to death with a giant marble phallus, we don't know whether to laugh or scream any more.
But once you've got past that, it's the philosophical arguments that make the film particularly interesting. Anthony Burgess has always revelled in setting hard moral choices in his books. His stupendous 1980 novel Earthly Powers (is there anyone on earth capable of filming that one?) features a Pope who is to be canonised as a Saint, the principal evidence being his miraculously curing a terminally ill child with prayer: however, the child grows up to be a religious cult leader who gets all his followers to commit suicide Jonestown-style. So was the curing of the child a miracle, an act of evil, a practical joke by God, or what? A Clockwork Orange is based around a similar dilemma. To rehabilitate Alex back into society, his free will has been artificially obliterated: is it acceptable for this to be done to a human being for the sake of society? Burgess doesn't offer any easy answers, and if there's a flaw in the book it's the way this debate ends up being verbalised at great length between the various characters. Kubrick has the tricky task of visualising all this rather than making the film a series of long speeches, and he handles it with aplomb, primarily by using McDowell's stunning performance in the lead to embody the issues being discussed.
The ultimate conclusion of this dilemma leads to the biggest difference between the book and film: because there are two different endings. Tormented by the reaction of the outside world to his liberty, Alex attempts to commit suicide. He fails, but wakes up in hospital having been in a coma. Thanks to a combination of the shock of his attempted suicide, a complete blood transfusion and the help of a Government minister trying to cover up what really happened, the treatment no longer has any effect on him. As he accepts the gift of a new stereo from the minister, and realises he can listen to his beloved Ludwig Van without puking, he fantasises about doing the old in-out with a lovely young devotchka while a smartly-dressed crowd applauds. "I was cured all right," sneers Alex. Roll credits.
It's a fine ending, but Kubrick didn't realise (or chose to ignore, depending on which version you believe) that this was only the ending to the American edition of the book, which had its final chapter cut by an over-zealous editor. The real ending to Burgess' version (which has always been available in the British printing of the novel) shows Alex a couple of years on from this, realising that he doesn't enjoy his life of violence any more, looking to settle down and raise a son: in short, Alex grows up. "Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal... being young is like being one of these malenky machines." You could argue that this points up the difference between two artists, both of whom were leaders in their field. Burgess the humanist, firm in his belief that youthful exuberance will eventually grow stale, and therefore should be allowed its day: Kubrick the cynic, equally convinced that Alex is a product of his society and that nothing will ever really change. Choose your ending.
It has to be said that in one or two areas, the movie's dated badly. For all Kubrick's scrupulous manipulation of the look of the film to set it in an unspecified time (director of photography John Alcott and designer John Barry have to take credit here), the score by Walter Carlos really ties it to the early seventies: great though the music is, Moog-ed up versions of Purcell and Beethoven were only really futuristic back in 1971. There's also the problem of Kubrick's frequent use of British character actors in minor roles, who subsequently went on to sitcom stardom. There's nothing quite as shocking as when you first saw Leonard Rossiter as a Russian scientist in 2001, but there are enough appearances from the likes of Michael "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" Bates, John "Fred Elliott off Coronation Street" Savident and Dave "Green Cross Man" Prowse to keep contemporary audiences giggling. But the film's still the emotional rollercoaster ride it always was, despite those niggles.
At the time of writing, Kubrick's death has left the possibility of a British rerelease of A Clockwork Orange in limbo. As has been widely reported, his final film Eyes Wide Shut was finished literally days before his death: a great relief to those of us who were worried that it would be left to some hack at Warner Brothers to finish the film off. (Think about it: this is the big summer movie for Warners for 1999. Their big summer movie for 1998 was The Avengers. Their big summer movie for 1997 was Batman And Robin. Aren't you glad they can't touch it?) As the ban on A Clockwork Orange was entirely of Kubrick's making, we'll have to see whether he planned for it to extend beyond his death. I suspect any future rerelease would suffer a similar fate to that of The Exorcist - viewers who remember it from the seventies will make friends with it all over again, snotty teens will sneer at it wondering what the hell the fuss was all about - but it absolutely deserves to be seen on a proper size screen again.
There's one final irony to report that even Kubrick would have to appreciate. In the very month he died, the Scala suddenly burst into life again like a gigantic Star Child. It's had a major refit, and is now operating primarily as a nightclub, with live concerts and - yes - the odd film screening also planned. The converted Primatarium is back open for business, and even if A Clockwork Orange doesn't get a return engagement, I'll probably see you down there. Being a monkey, and all.
The Internet Movie Database is the obligatory first link for any movie-related piece here, and obviously you can look up A Clockwork Orange and Stanley Kubrick on there. And Anthony Burgess, for that matter. Bonus points if you can name the movie where Burgess is credited as 'creator of special languages' before you go there.
Stanley Kubrick The Master Filmmaker is the best of the fan sites out there: it was recommended by the BBC News page on the day of Kubrick's death, and its hit count went through the roof as a result. The lovingly assembled content in place here deserves the attention.
A Clockwork Orange is a fan site dedicated to the film, with a good selection of links included among the other stuff you'd expect.
Amazon.com are the on-line retailer of choice for Brits looking to pick up a copy of the video, but be advised that you'll only be able to watch it if your video deck is NTSC compatible. If it isn't, you can always console yourself by buying Anthony Burgess' book or Wendy Carlos' newly remastered recording of the complete score. (Yes, I know he was called Walter Carlos back in 1971, but that's another story.)
Eyes Wide Shut has an official site in place: no data on the film as yet, but there is a rather touching tribute from Stanley Kubrick's wife Christiane.
The Scala has an official site as part of its new incarnation. Find out how to get there and what's lined up for the next month or so.
April 17th 1999