As of yesterday, I can strike another film from my “Must watch someday” list, because I finally managed to see A Clockwork Orange.
I read the book by Anthony Burgess years ago, but I never saw the film until now, because for years it was very difficult to see it in Germany. I don’t think we ever were affected by the UK ban imposed by Stanley Kubrick himself. But whenever there was a Kubrick retrospective on TV (and there’ve been a few since his death), the station in question cycled reliably through Kubrick’s oevre from Fear and Desire all the way to Eyes Wide Shut with one exception. They always omitted A Clockwork Orange. I don’t know why they left that one out, but I suspect it was either the victim of a TV ban thanks to the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien or the casualty of a rights issue, where the sort of TV channel that would run a Kubrick retrospective, i.e. a public channel, did not have the rights to A Clockwork Orange for some reason. It’s unlikely that there was a total ban, because I’ve seen the DVD for sale. But even though I wanted to watch the film, I didn’t want it badly enough to shell out the money for a DVD (it was a pricey one, too).
But whatever the problem was, the wonderful German-French cultural TV channel arte has obviously solved it, because they broadcast A Clockwork Orange yesterday night and along with a “Making of” documentary.
So what’s the verdict? Better than expected, actually, because even though I wanted to watch A Clockwork Orange for years, I didn’t really expect to like it. For starters, while I admire the novel for its voice and style and of course the future teen slang nadsat, it’s not a pleasant book nor is it meant to be. And then there is Anthony Burgess’ conservatism, which I already knew about when I read A Clockwork Orange and which – perhaps unfairly – tainted the book for me with the “conservative old fart writes about teen violence” brush.
What is more, I also have issues with Stanley Kubrick’s work. There is absolutely no doubt that Kubrick was a great director and creator of stunning visuals – pity about the movies that went with them. In fact, I expected that sitting through A Clockwork Orange would be a slog much like sitting through 2001 – A Space Odyssey, because 2001 for all it’s prettiness is also one of the most infernally boring films ever committed to celluloid. And it’s not nearly as deep as it pretends to be.
But unlike 2001, A Clockwork Orange didn’t bore me for a second. Like 2001, it has great visuals – but then we know that Kubrick could do great visuals. However, A Clockwork Orange also has the things that 2001 lacks, namely an actual protagonist and supporting characters, action, dialogue and – perhaps most importantly – humour. Okay, so it is a very twisted sort of humour, but I still laughed at some points. I laughed during a Kubrick film. Imagine that. Come to think of it, the only other Kubrick film that doesn’t send me to sleep is Doctor Strangelove and that one also has humour, albeit equally twisted.
Aside from Malcolm McDowell’s fabulous performance as Alex, there are some nice surprises in the cast as well, including a very young Warren Clarke as one of Alex’s droogs and a rare glimpse of a David Prowse (Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy) without a mask. He’s quite attractive, actually, if not for those Clark Kent glasses.
I had wondered how they would manage to transport the unique voice of the novel – which is really the main attraction, at least for me – to the screen. Especially since Kubrick was never a director whose films are praised for their dialogue. However, Kubrick did manage to pull off transporting Alex’s voice to the screen – partly via voice-over narration. The nadsat is dialed down compared to the novel, but the flavour is there.
As for the ultra-violence that caused such a shock and uproar when the film premiered in Britain, forty years later one has to stretch to see what the uproar was all about. Is A Clockwork Orange a violent film? It sure is. But compared to what one sees today and even compared to what was shown in other films of the same period, A Clockwork Orange isn’t really the big shocker it was made out to be. Bonny and Clyde, The Witchfinder General, The Wild Bunch, the original Django and a dozen Italo-westerns or Italian giallo movies are definitely worse in terms of violence, including sexualized violence, and blood spilled on screen. The violence in Clockwork Orange is largely stylized, shadowy silhouettes beating up a homeless man, costumed figures on an abandoned theatre stage assaulting a young woman, Alex tapdancing to “Singin’ in the Rain” while viciously kicking the elderly writer, Alex throwing his droogs into Southmere Lake. Even the two most infamous scenes, the rape of the writer’s wife and the woman beaten to death with a giant penis, are more stylized than anything. Besides, violence, when committed with a giant penis, crosses the line from ugly to completely over the top.
If anything, the violence later committed by the police and by his former victims against Alex is depicted more harshly than anything done by Alex and his droogs, which is highly problematic in itself. Besides, I’m sure it would have been possible to show that Alex is a violent and thoroughly nasty piece of shit without showing quite so many rape scenes. I counted at least four rape scenes in the film, perhaps even more, and all of the rape scenes were bizarrely stylized. Were all of those rape scenes really necessary?
What was unusual, at least for a film of the early 1970s, is that there were also hints that Alex (who is supposed to be a teenager) has been sexually abused by his probation worker. And later in the prison scenes, there are definite hints of prison rape. Rape as well as consensual same-sex relationships are often conspicuously absent in prison films made before approx. 1980, which makes it notable that the subject is at least addressed here, especially as Clockwork Orange was made six years before Die Konsequenz (1977), Wolfgang Petersen’s groundbreaking drama about a consensual gay relationship in a prison.
arte put a “This film contains scenes of psychological and physical violence” warning before A Clockwork Orange and for once that warning is justified. Nonetheless, I suspect that nowadays there would be more objections to the nudity and sex scenes in A Clockwork Orange than to the violence (which says a lot about our culture). Because while the violence in the film is not overwhelmingly shocking by modern standards, there is a lot more nudity than one would expect even in a non-mainstream film nowadays. There are a lot of bare breasts, the already mentioned rape scenes, there is a high-speed sex scene in which Alex has a threesome (consensual for once) with two girls he picked up in a record store and even a brief glimpse of Malcom McDowell’s penis. Never mind the fact that the set design is full of sexual imagery.
In fact, the sets and costumes look like late 1960s psychedelic/pop art design filtered through the mind of a 12-year-old boy. There were penis statues (used to club the catlady to death even), penis masks, penis lollipops, plenty of pictures of naked women, a bar furnished with naked store mannequins in suggestive poses including one dispensing milk from her breasts, Alex’s pet snake crawling on a picture of a naked woman, etc… It was as if someone had let the most notorious penis scrawlers from my 7th grade class loose all over the set design.
In the “making-of” documentary broadcast before the film, one of the co-producers said that Stanley Kubrick’s aim was to make a film that doesn’t look like 1971 but like some unspecified future. He was spectacularly unsuccessful in that respect, because it is difficult to imagine a film that looks more like 1971 than A Clockwork Orange. It’s not just the tech – manual typewriters, vinyl records, cassette tapes – that dates the film. The sets and locations are pure early 1970s as well, from the stunning black and white interior of the Korova Milkbar (I want that furniture) via the ultra-modern coziness of the writer’s country house via the groovy record store interior (in reality the Chelsea Drugstore) via the fabulous multilevel wood-paneled interior of the Duke of New York pub via the pop art cheeriness of the flat Alex shares with his parents (I kept eyeing Alex’s quilted bedspread, wondering how the 3D effect had been achieved) to the concrete brutalism of the Ludovico facility, where Alex undergoes treatment, and council estate where Alex and his droogs live. There’s a list of the filming locations here. No close-up of the bedspread, unfortunately. If you’re a design buff, the fabulous early 1970s sets alone make watching the film worthwhile.
I found the scenes shot on the Thamesmead council estate particularly eerie, because the cityplanner’s nightmare that is Thamesmead has been used as a filming location several times in the past forty years, most recently in what is probably my favourite TV show at the moment, Channel 4’s Misfits. And the shocking thing is that the Thamesmead council estate has barely changed at all in the forty years between A Clockwork Orange and Misfits. This is particularly evident in the scene were Alex and his droogs walk along Southmere Lake (and the droogs later end up in the lake) and I expected them to bump into the Misfits gang any moment. There’s no graffiti in A Clockwork Orange and a pointy-roofed building seen in the background in Clockwork Orange is gone by the time of Misfits, but otherwise the location is eerily unchanged, particularly compared to the brief scene at the Chelsea Embankment near the Albert Bridge, a location which looks completely different today. For anyone interested in architecture and British council estates, there’s an overview of the development of the Thamesmead estate here as well as an image gallery.
Come to think of it, there are actually several references to A Clockwork Orange in Misfits. For example, in one season 2 episode, the Misfits gang are scrubbing off a big graffiti (they do a lot of scrubbing off graffiti) showing figures with phallus-shaped noses. I took particular note of that scene, because the graffiti penises do not look like penises drawn by the sort of people who scrawl penises onto public walls (I have a couple of compulsive penis scrawlers in my classes) would look. However, the phallic noses are obviously a reference to the phallus-nosed mask Alex wears during his raids. I also seem to recall spotting the poster for A Clockwork Orange in the background in Misfits, most probably in Simon’s bedroom, because he’s the sort of person who’d know that a film had been shot in his backyard and who’d have made an effort to watch it, much like I sat through How I won the war for a glimpse of the Uesener Brücke.
But the parallels between Misfits and A Clockwork Orange go beyond the fact that both were shot on the same London council estate. There is a very obvious thematic parallel as well, as both Misfits and A Clockwork Orange take a hard look at how (British) society deals with juvenile delinquents. Both take the POV of their young criminal protagonists, while representatives of the ruling authority, whether police officers, probation workers, psychologists, prison wardens or politicians are depicted as violent, corrupt and generally worse than the criminals they pursue and punish. In fact, the slimy probation worker from A Clockwork Orange would have been right at home in Misfits – under the foundations of an environmental monitoring station or at the bottom of Southmere Lake*.
The clergy is one exception to the “authorities are corrupt” rule, as the prison chaplain in A Clockwork Orange, whose assistant Alex becomes, actually seems to be a decent person and speaks out against the questionable morality of the Ludovico treatment (probably an artifact of Anthony Burgess’ Catholicism), while the priest seen in the final episode of series 2 of Misfits is a thoroughly nasty piece of work who uses false, superpower-enabled miracles to pass himself of as the Second Coming, defraud his followers out of money and finally uses superpowers to coerce young women into having sex with him. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t fare any better than the doomed probation workers.
There are other parallels as well, for example the scene were Alex returns home after his prison stint only to find himself rejected by his parents and his room occupied by a lodger is very similar to a scene in Misfits where Nathan comes home to find that his mother has replaced the locks on the front door in order to enjoy uninterrupted romantic bliss with her new boyfriend. Though it’s interesting that Alex comes from a fairly well adjusted, if totally clueless working class family and lives with both parents, while the Misfits kids mostly come from broken homes, if we see their parents at all.
The main difference – aside from the fact that we are dealing with very different, if both speculative, genres – is that Alex actually is a violent and thoroughly nasty thug, while the Misfits kids are mostly victims of bad circumstances and their own stupidity. Of course, this also makes it easy to sympathize with them, while sympathizing with Alex is very difficult (in the film, it’s even more difficult than in the novel) and you actively feel uncomfortable once you do start to feel sorry for Alex, because he actually is a horrible person.
But while A Clockwork Orange and Misfits are both dystopias removed only a few steps from the actual Britain of their respective times, I have a hard time deciding which one is actually worse. At first glance, A Clockwork Orange is definitely worse because of the sheer brutality of the police and justice system, the inhumanity of their brainwashing program and the sheer corruption pervading the entire society. Nonetheless, A Clockwork Orange is set in a world where politicians, psychologists, the prison system, etc… are still trying to do something and “improve” the criminal youths, no matter how misguided and ultimately wrong their attempts. Meanwhile, Misfits is set in a world where no one gives a damn. Everybody knows that the community service these kids are doing is utterly pointless, while the only probation worker who doesn’t get killed is the one who doesn’t give a damn and alternately views his job as an annoyance and easy paycheck. The only person interested in the superpowers the Misfits kids acquire is a greedy PR agent, there’s not even a shadowy Men in Black type government organization bent on exploiting the kids’ powers**. A Clockwork Orange shows an ugly and corrupt society, while Misfits paints a picture of a society that has completely broken down.
However, Misfits is also a far more hopeful story. Because in Misfits, friendship, love, happiness and hope are still possible on an individual level. There is absolutely none of that in A Clockwork Orange. Alex doesn’t have friends. He keeps his droogs in line by means of terror and violence, while the droogs turn their back on him and strike back as soon as they get the chance.
The film version of A Clockwork Orange ends – like the US edition of the novel – with Alex free, deprogrammed and agreeing to put his violent impulses into the service of the state. Meanwhile, the British edition of the novel has one additional chapter, set a few years later, where an older Alex is losing his taste for violence, runs into one of his old droogs, now married with a small child, and thinks that he’d like to have a family and a baby as well. I’ve always liked that ending with its assertion that the problem of teenage violence will eventually solve itself, when the teens grow out of it, provided they’ve managed to keep out of prison until then. However, Americans didn’t want to hear it – the message wouldn’t fit with a country that likes to pass ridiculous sentences of 125 years in prison to juveniles. Never mind that some people just don’t like hope in their dystopias.
Interestingly, series 2 of Misfits ends on a very similar note of hope as the British novel version of A Clockwork Orange with the kids having matured, no thanks to any attempts to punish or reform them, and come to terms with their superpowers and the resulting responsibility. They seem settled in their personal lives as well – two of them are a couple, while Nathan has even acquired a girlfriend and a baby. No matter what happens in series 3, by the end of series 2 you had the feeling that those kids were going to be all right. I don’t think anybody has ever had that feeling by the end of the film and the US novel version of A Clockwork Orange.
*Though the Lake looks terribly shallow in A Clockwork Orange, while it generally looks deep in Misfits, deep enough to dispose of probation workers at any rate.
**Simon is afraid of being locked up, experimented upon and dissected, should their powers become public. But then Simon clearly watches too much TV and reads too many comics.