Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Timeless brutalism... A Clockwork Orange (1971)

This film was an experience shared through rumour by the lads in my class; all way too young to have seen it. A narrative of excited outrage has surrounded the film like a cloud ever since its release and to watch it for the first time, post-election in a Great Britain discussing a “snoopers’ charter”, over-crowded and under-staffed prison service and the right to abortion in Northern Ireland is to be stunned by Stanley Kubrick’s foresight. He based the both on Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel but it feels very 2017 in so many respects.

Our world is not as bad as the film’s but we’re getting closer whereas in 1972 you would have assumed progress was going to move us further and further away. We are now in the time of going backwards and the warnings of the film stand out starker than ever they did.

As Kubrick said of his film it is not only social (and moral) satire but a “running lecture on free-will” for if society’s cure for anti-social behaviour and criminality is brutal brainwashing and chemically-fired aversion therapy then how far have we lost the will to reason? And is this brutal “project of fear” just an admission of failure in the matter of producing a society capable of reasoning and reaching moral judgements?

A Clockwork Orange is as comic and brutalistic as it its concrete backdrops but amidst the theatre of the absurd book-ending the imprisonment and “rehabilitation” of Alex, it poses the questions that hit hardest. Burgess ’62, Kubrick ’71… we are all Alex now. Yes, really.

Malcolm McDowell gives one of his most complex and disturbing performances as  Alex DeLarge, the boy from Burscough, adopting a strange generic northern accent which makes his love of violence and Ludwig van Beethoven somehow all the more shocking. He leads a gang of “droogs” – Pete (Michael Tarn), Georgie (James Marcus) and Dim (a young and perfectly-cast Warren Clarke). The language is Nadsat, a slang invented by Burgess involving of Slavic (especially Russian), English, and Cockney rhyming slang.

The boys find a tramp
He lives at home with his folks but in the first blistering and unsettling sequence we see what they get up to on a typical night out… Back as my boyhood turned to early youth there was always a specific culture of violence in British society: bovver boys, skins, lads wandering round in light blue “parallels” and feather cuts… a glam-rocker link between well-dressed mods and later footie casuals who favoured designer labels as part of their aggressive signalling. These were all gangs you’d cross the road for and at the very least avert your gaze.

Alex’s gang evening starts off with a vicious attack on a tramp – kicks for kicks and mindless too. Next up they interrupt another gang raping a young woman (Shirley Jaffe) in an abandoned theatre/cinema – a degenerate “show” – and attack the other gang not to rescue the girl but just because they can. Celebrating victory in a comically back-projected, Wacky Races car drive they end up at the home of a writer Mr. Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his elegant wife Mary (Adrienne Corri).

Disturbing the peace: the unsettling Home invasion
They con their way in and soon reveal their attitude to women and the “in and out” by brutally raping Mary whilst kicking Frank around on the floor. Alex belts out “Singing in the Rain” as if to illustrate the fact that this gruesome act means absolutely nothing to him…

The film’s influence on pop culture is clear throughout: the boys drink in the Korova Milk Bar (later the name of the Bunnymen’s record label) and drink Moloko cocktails (later the name of a post-acidhouse dance-pop band)  and Alex goes record shopping with a band called Heaven 17 at number 3 in the charts. The record shop was the Chelsea Drugstore and it has a copy of the 2001 soundtrack prominently displayed… naturally. Alex meets a couple of young women Sonietta (Gillian Hills a proper French pop star as well as having featured in Anotioni’s Blow Up and being the teenage riot herself in Beat Girl) and her pal (Barbara Scott) and the three enjoy a famously hi-speed threesome back in Alex’s bedroom: a reference to Hills, Hemmingway and Birkin in Blow Up?

Gillian Hills and Barbara Scott: Heaven 17 high in the charts!
In spite of their successful freewheeling horror show there are divisions in the gang and Alex’s leadership of Dim and Pete is growing weaker. The two challenge him and Alex humiliates them but the resentment only grows… After a disastrous raid on another wealthy household in which Alex accidentally kills a woman referred to only as Catlady (Miriam Karlin - a powerhouse cameo mixing yoga and physical violence) with a large porcelain phallus… the boys beat him up and leave him to be arrested.

Society takes its revenge and Alex is imprisoned and after a few years inside cultivating religion and the favour of the prison chaplain, he jumps at the chance to undertake a new treatment which aims to “cure” criminals so they can safely be returned to society without the ongoing costs of imprisonment… But it’s not a let off and the process involves aversion therapy of the most unrelentingly brutal kind as – eyelids forced open – Alex if forced to watch hour after hour of horrific images until, literally, violence, sex and evil make him sick.

 Will his liberty be worth the loss of his emotional freedom?

Dusty verdict: In truth there’s too much narrative detail to accurately summarise the film; you could spend paragraphs on Alex’s trip to the record shop and subsequent high speed threesome. But this film remains controversial because of its high level of content.

At the time Kubrick was blamed for so-called copycat violence and ended up pulling the film after he and his family were threatened with an attack on their home aimed at replicating the film’s domestic invasion, assault and rape. It was too much and the film wasn’t screened again in the UK until after the director’s passing in 1999.

McDowell endured much discomfort filming the "eyes wide open" sequence...
That is hard core and nothing has even come close in popular culture until the dawn of the social media troll… Threats were more serious in the seventies perhaps or maybe we’re just more used to the de-civilising impact of technology.

A Clockwork Orange is unpleasant but essential watching for anyone serious about film and its socio-political context; almost half a century on it’s still in your face, challenging the watcher to examine their own reactions and to stay watchful.

The film is widely available and now on Blu-ray which is hard to resist although you’ll probably wince and look away from time to time; unlike Alex, we have a choice…

An impossibly young Steven Berkoff interrogates Alex
The Moog music score of Walter, later Wendy, Carlos remains unsettling too:  a “tomorrow’s world” of sound that now signals a parallel universe of the musical future.

Available from all good stores although the Chelsea Drugstore has long since closed and is now a McDonalds...

Friday, 30 June 2017

Peculiar practice… Doctor Strange (1978)

The recent Marvel Extended Universe film of Ditko and Lee’s classic hero was one of the better recent films for a genre that’s dominated the last decade to the point of near exhaustion. You keep on thinking it’s all going to come a cropper and then along comes Ant Man (most of it), Logan and, especially Patty Jenkins’ triumphant Wonder Woman which successfully recaptures the feeling of Richard Donner’s Superman whilst moving the genre boldly in a new feminine direction: a hero becoming heroic and the impossible being achieved through kindness and spirit.

Around the time of that original comic-book blockbuster came many attempts to recreate this four-colour success on TV with Marvel trying their hand at Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk with varying degrees of success. Then came this oddity which four decades on I watched for the first time having bunked off school and paid to see Spidey on the big – disappointing – screen in the Liverpool Odeon – it was the TV pilot and not grand enough for the scale.

The Fourth Dimension in the Seventies...
Doctor Strange is mild and entertaining in a predictable way – just like a comic book that you’d keep as part of a series but one that wouldn’t get you started on a new one: comic fans will like it because of our addiction to continuity and the need to fill those holes in our collection. I have Green Lantern 1-300 and X-Men 1-300 but there are whole sequences I’d discard if only they wouldn’t leave things so incomplete.

As if to prove this very point, this film was a pilot produced with Stan Lee’s input that was designed to kick start the mage’s own series but it obviously didn’t quite hit all the buttons unlike Hulk and DC’s Wonder Woman (there she goes again… never underestimate Princess Diana of Themysciera!).

It’s only when you go back and read the early stories scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by the magnificent Steve Ditko – the co-inventor of Spiderman if you don’t know – that you realise just how odd Strange is. There are stories of astral flight, alternative universes of inexplicable dimensions and pure evil in continuous pursuit of our hero. This the recent film captured, along with a precious sequence in which Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor drives along to the sound of The Pink Floyd’s psychedelic classic Interstellar Overdrive (an early live favourite featuring Syd Barrett’s improvisations years before the Dark Side…).

Sexy sorceress Jessica Walter
But this film also kicks off in a strange dimension – the Fourth - as our rather sexy baddy, Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter) is given one last chance by the Demon Balzaroth (voiced by Ted Cassidy) to defeat the powers of good magic who oppose all Demons and users of the dark-side of the dark arts.

Morgan is convinced she’s the strength to beat the reigning Sorcerer Supreme, the aging Lindmer (played by a perfectly-healthy looking Sir John Mills), in spite of his always having beaten her in the past and his ever-present trainee Wong (Clyde Kusatsu).

Eddie Benton gives Sir John Mills the push
But Morgan is sneaky and she possesses the body of an attractive young student, Clea Lake (“Eddie” Benton whose actual name was Edmonda Benton, later Anne-Marie Martin and then Mrs Michael Crichton for a while…), and gets her to push Lindmer off a bridge. Morgan leaves Clea’s mind and the lass thinks she’s killed the old man but his powers are strong and he wanders off with nary a speck of dust…

Now things get complicated as Clea keeps on having bad dreams about the incident and the mysterious woman and ends up seeking help in a hospital in which a tall young psychiatrist with odd diction, Dr Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten) takes an interest in her plight despite official disapproval… why is it the powers that be always fail to spot an interesting case when they see one.

Peter Hooten and June Barrett
The hospital is staffed not just by obstructive senior administrators but also a power-crazed jobs worth head nurse (Diana Webster) and very winsome blonde ones called Sarah (June Barrett) who has a flirty rapport with our hero-to-be, who already has the super-power of being very specifically 1970’s handsome (with a very West-coast moustache…). But professional determination makes Stephen is determined to find out what ails cute Clea…

Clea and the Doctor on the astral plane...
Now things get complicated as even Morgan gets distracted by the Strange good looks and, in a twist of (Doctor) fate his connection to Lindmer is revealed after he appears at the hospital… Of course, Stephen has the potential to be the next Sorcerer Supreme and Lindmer begins to help him along. At Lindmer’s iconic Bleeker Street base (I’ve been there a number of times and never seen it…) he enables Stephen to astrally project into the fourth dimension and bring Clea’s soul back despite demons and dark magics ranged against him.

But that’s not it and nothing will stop the increasingly desperate Morgan from a) trying to finish off old man Lindmer, b) lure Dr Strange into pervy fourth-dimensional love pact and c) use sweet Clea as bait and incentive.

Don't fall for her allure Doctor Strange!
Dusty verdict: A lot happens but there’s a strange (see what I did there…) absence of real peril even though there’s flash bang and wallop – even a genuinely creepy scene with Lindmer trapped, sunken-eyed in a mystical web of death… Philip DeGuere directs well but it’s just a little tame especially with the tell-tale backlot exteriors, yet it is still entertaining at a comic book level and there's nothing wrong with that! I also liked his TV reference to Abbot and Costello as well as the moment when Stephen picks up a copy of The Hulk!

Sir John in his study
The acting is good especially Mills who jogs through with comfortable conviction and Jessica Walter who was born to play sexy malevolence (swoon!). Peter Hooten has an odd intensity which doesn’t always ring true but his amiable screen presence does win you over whilst the disarmingly feminine “Eddie” Benton puts her heart into responding to the supernatural terrors of Le Fay and the romantic allure of her super-saviour.

Yep, she's called Eddie...
So, of its time and all the better for it, a bridging point between Steve and Stan’s masterwork and the MCU psychedelic revival and well worth seeking out.

By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth to the Vapors of Valtorr!
Bud and Lou on TV in Strange's office