Malcolm McDowell as Alex
‘What’s it going to be, then, eh ?’ The phrase which recurs as a Leitmotif throughout Anthony Burgess’s 1963 novel, surfacing once in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 screen adaptation, encapsulates what its author saw as the essential element determining whether human behaviour can be judged as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ – choice. More prosaically, it was an apposite question to ask myself as I sat down in front of this notorious movie forty years on from its original UK release: would it come over as a period-piece dependent on the assumptions of the times in which it was made, or would it continue to work on its own terms, as any piece of art must if it is to be worth revisiting ?
The short answer is, probably, both. The film’s opening sequences of gang violence speak, of course, to continuing fears among the wider population about young men attacking the vulnerable. Burgess’s starting-point was an assault by off-duty GIs on his wife during the Second World War blackout in London, but by the early 60s what Dick Hebdige called “respectable fears” about Teddy Boys, and later Mods and Rockers, fighting each other , the police, and polite society, had become a standard media trope. By 1971 this had modulated into tabloid-fuelled terror of that highly-visible, working-class male phenomenon, the skinhead (I can’t be sure, but I think I had a No 1 crop at the time I first saw the film.) Kubrick’s costume design taps cleverly into contemporary signs associated with such groups – the antihero Alex’s gang wear straight trousers, boots and braces, as did the skins; the group led by one ‘Billy-Boy’ sport vaguely Nazi-ish military insignia, then current among some bikers. In the ensuing decades it’s easy to map the same hysteria onto successive, loosely-identifiable groups of young men – ‘casuals’, punk-rockers, ‘chavs’, boys in hoodies, wearers of ‘gangsta’ uniform – banding together, as young men will, to establish hierarchies of status based largely on physical strength and aggression. Customary liberal opinion holds that any destructive behaviour emanating from such groups is a social and/or psychological problem amenable to practical solutions; A Clockwork Orange , however, suggests it may be a moral issue more intractably arising from human nature – even, in Burgess’s lapsed-Catholic terms, Original Sin.
Anthony Burgess in the early 1960s
It has to be said that Kubrick is lighter on the religion and philosophy than Burgess, probably wisely, almost certainly because of the difficulty inherent in rendering internal monologue cinematically. Whereas Burgess’s Alex is quite explicit from the beginning about his belonging ‘in the other shop’ from ‘Bog or God’, Kubrick’s is necessarily more of a doer than a thinker. If anything, this makes the depiction of violence all the more shocking. Burgess filters his description through a largely Russian-based argot (derived, probably, from his Cold War-era fears about the advance of Soviet influence), which has a distancing, almost comic effect. Kubrick retains the ‘nadsat’, or ‘teen’ language for much of his dialogue, but choreographs his scenes of beatings, stabbings and rape to a soundtrack of popular classics, which serves the dual purpose of counterpointing Alex’s delight in mayhem with the supposedly ‘civilised’ pleasure he takes in serious music, and by extension implicating the audience in this confusion of savagery and culture. One thing everyone knows about A Clockwork Orange the film is that it was blamed by the tabloid press for inspiring just about every outbreak of youth-related violence which occurred during its original run, and was thus withdrawn from distribution in the UK for some 20 years afterwards, allegedly by Kubrick himself. Ironically, then, it was co-opted by the very advocates of social engineering whose philosophy – that human nature can be altered by external intervention – it questions. Doubly ironically, Burgess, from whose pessimistic vision of humanity it arose in the first place, found himself appointed a popular media pundit on teenage violence, despite his insistence that he knew nothing in particular about it !
It is said that nothing dates like the future, meaning that our views of what is to come are invariably based on present prejudices and therefore likely to seem absurdly quaint once that future actually arrives – think 1950s science-fiction movies, for example. A Clockwork Orange, 1961 novel-version, is avowedly a futuristic satire, its setting a Britain in which a kind of socialism is institutionalised in government, streets are named after early-1960s Labour Party luminaries and left-wing writers (including Kingsley Amis !), Russian words have infiltrated popular speech, and so forth. It doesn’t, however, give much attention to domestic detail. Kubrick, on the other hand, faced with the need to depict the future physically, chose a slightly different tack. Design is fundamental to his film, and his approach was to exaggerate existing trends in décor, clothing and architecture rather than attempting to imagine something unknown. Thus the modified skinhead- and biker-clothing already referred to. Also, his use of the brutalist Friars’ Square shopping centre in Aylesbury (built 1966) for some of the external scenes (e.g. Alex walking home at dawn across the prestressed concrete roofs of its retail units), and the California-era David Hockney-influenced interior in which Frank (the writer earlier beaten and crippled by Alex and his droogs) and his weightlifting friend Julian appear towards the end of the film. Most strikingly, the furniture in the Korova Milk Bar – the gang’s regular meeting-place and hangout – is clearly based on the now largely-forgotten work of Allen Jones: stylised, moulded plastic simulacra of exaggeratedly trim naked female bodies, sadistically twisted into table supports and, in one case, a machine which dispenses drug-spiked milk through a gravity-defying exposed breast.
Allen Jones table
Korova Milk Bar dispenser
This inevitably raises the portrayal of sexuality in A Clockwork Orange, in both versions a wholly male affair predicated exclusively on rape. Burgess is deliberately flat in his account, allowing his reader’s assumed disgust to arise automatically. Sex is apostrophised, in Alex’s narration, as ‘the old in-out, in-out’; most of the rape-victims are almost casually described by him as no more than ten years old (he himself, we learn at the end of Part 1 of the book, is ‘not yet fifteen.’) Kubrick’s approach is more problematic. Plainly, he could neither depict the full brutality involved, nor use child actors, and yet sexual violence – indeed, the way in which his male characters regard sex as indistinguishable from violence – is an essential element of his critique. Again, the design – from the outrageously sexist Allen Jones-inspired tables, through the phallic masks worn by Alex & co as disguises, to the casually-placed sculpture of a giant penis with which Miriam Karlin’s unfortunate character is battered to death – is crucial to establishing the misogynistic context within which his characters operate. But it is difficult to see what is shown of the actual assaults – specifically the artful cutting-away of a catsuit worn by Adrienne Corri prior to her character’s (unseen) rape – as anything other than titillatory, however stylised. Not much in A Clockwork Orange is comfortable to watch, but this additionally feels like exploitation.
McDowell in phallic mask, Adrienne Corri in catsuit
McDowell & murder weapon...
The original poster for the film carried a strapline describing Alex as ‘a young man whose principal interests are ultra-violence, rape and Beethoven.’ Though a composer himself, Anthony Burgess held no illusions about the morally edifying power of great music, which notion he doubtless would have seen as a piece of mechanistic reductionism akin to the penal authorities’ attempts to condition Alex against evil through aversion therapy – the ‘Ludovico Technique’ of both novel and film. It is, of course, well-attested that many perpetrators of Second World War death-camp atrocities were apparently ‘cultured’ people with a well-developed love of music. This is neatly folded into Alex’s story by the use of Beethoven to accompany a film of Nazi activities shown during his ‘therapy,’ which inadvertently causes him to associate the Ninth Symphony with a desire to commit suicide. It’s worth commenting here on Walter (later Wendy) Carlos’s disorienting soundtrack to the film, a series of Moog synthesiser programmings of, inter alia, Purcell and Beethoven, combining familiarity of theme with a demonic strangeness of execution, cleverly complementing what has been done with the visual ‘stretching’ of current design conventions into something almost hallucinatory. With or without aversion therapy, if I woke in a locked room to find Carlos’s arrangement of the Ninth bubbling and squeaking at high volume through the floorboards, I too might be tempted to throw myself through the nearest window…
A film made 40 years ago of a novel that is now 50 years old, A Clockwork Orange stands up well because of its abiding themes – violence among young men, misogyny, the eternal nature of evil, and the perennial failure of the state to rid itself of ‘antisocial behaviour’ through social and medical interventions. Kubrick elides some of the metaphysical subtlety of Burgess’s book, but creates some strong visual images as corollaries for philosophical unease. There are also many telling little details to delight the heart of the film-buff and amateur cultural historian: Alex-in-the-film (Malcolm McDowell) is given a Mancunian accent, like that originally possessed by his literary begetter, and the surname ‘Burgess’ - although confusingly he's also referred to at one point as 'Alex Delarge'. There is even a not-so-subtle piece of early product-placement in the form of the soundtrack album from Kubrick’s own 2001 – A Space Odyssey at the centre of a display in the record-shop scene ! Around the edges of the violence done both by and to Alex there gathers a coterie of memorable grotesques – a bombastic clergyman aping the hellfire priest in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, Freddie Jones’s oleaginous probation officer, Alex’s bewildered parents, the crazed writer Frank (Patrick Magee) – signalling, perhaps, that what we are dealing with here is above all a very, very black comedy. In fact, the whole thing can be seen as a kind of updated Jacobean revenge play, full of horrors, gory effects and dark wit, from which no-one emerges well. Anthony Burgess would certainly have liked that. Stanley Kubrick too, probably.
Stanley Kubrick's film is now widely available on DVD, often, alas, in supermarket bargain bins; Anthony Burgess's novel, though not his best work, has remained continuously in print since its reissue in 1972, currently as a Penguin Modern Classic.