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...

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