Against A Clockwork Orange 

Irrelevant and condescending as it is to judge a movie by its fans, I can’t help associating Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (upcoming at Moving Image) with the drooged-out revelers wandering the Village every Halloween. For one thing, since Malcolm McDowell only wears his retro-futurist delinquent’s uniform in Act One (the film’s second third sees him in prison garb, and the final third in civilian duds) they suggest the dominance his opening ultraviolent spree holds in memory. Which is inevitable — not only because the initial scenes of beatings, rapes, and murder are so iconically masturbatory, but because the remainder of the film is so insufferably drawn-out, humorless, and pedantic.

But before we get to that: much has, rightly, been made of the difference between the British and American versions of Anthony Burgess’s (far superior) source novel, which watches as young offender Alex runs riot in a not unfamiliar dystopia, is subjected to sado-Pavlovian behavior modification, and ultimately regains his criminal mind. Kubrick follows the American version in excising Burgess’s last chapter, in which Alex’s thoughts turn to more constructive aims. Burgess argued that enforced morality is no better than destructive free will, but that exercise of the latter might eventually evolve into maturity; Kubrick wallows in Alex’s immorality, triumphs in its restoration, and justifies it by presenting anti-social behavior as no worse than the ruined society it opposes. It’s not just Alex’s public housing that’s run down: Pauline Kael, spot-on, noted “Alex is the only likable person we see… younger and more attractive [than anybody else in the movie],” which is mostly true, given the grotesque performances coached out of the supporting cast, but not entirely, considering the invariably flawless, speechless flesh provided as fodder for the rape scenes. Nice how, even in a society where internal rot contaminates outward appearance, we don’t have to watch the violation of imperfect bodies.

Except that, as immorality goes, Clockwork Orange is pretty unfulfilling. Couldn’t people who play the social critique card to rationalize their fondness for Alex’s (and Kubrick’s) depravity get off on something less calculated? An early gang melee plays out like a fight scene’s greatest hits, a string of brutal acts without any connecting choreography. And, though a taste for Beethoven represents (in book and movie) Alex’s individual will, Kubrick likes classical music much less than his protagonist: when he scores a sped-up orgy to the William Tell Overture, he’s using the music and frame speed as glibly ironic counterpoints, so he can stage a threesome while claiming detachment.

And Kubrick’s supposedly searing vision of social ills is tiresome didacticism. His idea of skewering institutionalism is a one-note absurdo-fascist prison guard, or the glacial, make-sure-they-don’t-miss-the-irony inflections of a manipulative government minister; scenes, particularly “cured” Alex’s return home to his less-than-thrilled parents, are extended to excruciating length, Kubrick perhaps expecting his audience to conflate the torment of his static camera positions with the indignities inflicted upon Alex. Clockwork Orange is tedious and disingenuous; why would anyone watch it, unless they were strapped into a chair with their eyelids clamped open?


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