A Clockwork Orange (1971) *****
For some reason, it never occurred to me to check the copyright date on any of the previous occasions when I read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. I was rather taken aback to see that it was published as early as 1962. That really says something, I think, about how shit-scared it made people when they realized, at about the middle of the 20th century, that the youth were developing a culture of their own (several cultures, actually), separate from that of their elders and predicated upon values that were often radically different. Think of it— 1962! Kids hadn’t even started caring about the Beatles yet, and the band themselves were still jobbing their way around Hamburg nightclubs. Elvis and his diabolical pelvis had just proven that they were okay after all with a two-year stint in the US Army, and were now recording gospel albums. Marijuana was still the scariest drug anyone had ever heard of, except among preserved-in-amber beatniks and practicing biochemists. Sure, there were the outlaw biker gangs, but it wasn’t for nothing that the most troublesome among them proudly referred to themselves as the “One Percenters.” Everywhere you went, teenagers were mild in the streets! And yet… A lot of that perception of the 50’s and early 60’s as a time of only trivial youth nonconformism stems from the fact that we know what was coming. The people who lived through those days naturally didn’t. And of at least equal importance, the mere fact that one could even speak of “teenagers” meant that something significant had shifted in the workings of Western societies.
I’m not trying to suggest that adolescence didn’t previously exist, of course. The human body undergoes profound physical and chemical changes beginning somewhere around the tenth to thirteenth year, and that’s obviously been true for as long as there have been anatomically modern humans. Material facts are subject to social interpretation, however, and on that level it makes sense to speak of the invention or discovery of adolescence— or better yet, its rediscovery, since the ancient Greeks understood well the special transformative significance of the teen years— during the second quarter of the 20th century. Meanwhile, it makes even more sense to speak of the spread of adolescence down the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. For those who worked more with their minds than with their hands, and especially for those whose work entailed the exercise of power in any but the most brutal and unthinking forms, it had nearly always been obvious that adulthood meant more than mere physical maturity. A farm boy might be reckoned a man as soon as he was strong enough to break a horse or to lug around a sack of seed corn, and his sisters women as soon as they were capable of carrying a pregnancy to term, but a shopkeeper’s son would have to learn arithmetic, bookkeeping, and at least a smattering of basic economics before he was ready to follow in his father’s footsteps. An aspiring military officer would need to learn tactics and leadership along with weapons proficiency. A would-be doctor had to learn medicine, a would-be cleric had to master the most abstruse articles of his faith, a would-be scholar had to acquire several languages and specialized modes of thought. And those whose backgrounds presumptively destined them for political authority had a thousand things to learn, not the least of which was sound and reliable judgement. All that takes time (and judgement depends on a section of the brain that usually doesn’t get fully wired up until a person is well into their 20’s), so it was longstandingly traditional in the West for the privileged classes to recognize a developmental gray area between childhood and adulthood, in which more or less physically mature young people were nevertheless shielded from full grown-up responsibilities while they absorbed the extra mental training needed to cope with them according to their stations. Again, though, such things were just for the elite; everybody else could start contributing to the economy as soon as they were physically able. Then the Industrial Revolution happened.
No, no— don’t worry. It would take a historian who was also an economist and a sociologist to distill that story down into the paragraph or so that I’d want to spend on it. I’m not one of those, and we’ve strayed far enough from A Clockwork Orange as it is. Besides, all that matters for my present purposes is what seems, in my educated layman’s assessment, to be the most socially radical side-consequence of industrialization, the mushrooming demand for manual laborers sufficiently well educated— and more importantly, sufficiently well accustomed to education— to learn how to use not only whatever machinery was in service at the time, but also whatever more powerful and more complex machinery would be introduced next month or next year or next decade. That demand led to compulsory school attendance being imposed upon children of the working class, eventually even to the extent of requiring them at least to attempt high school. An educated workforce could become a politically aware workforce, which is to say a workforce that had taken the first step toward political power. And a politically powerful workforce could become a well-paid one, too. The result, after many decades of evolution and struggle, was to give people who in former days could never have been more than peasants or proletarians a legitimate shot at a modest middle-class lifestyle, and that brings us back to the subject of teenagers. If the old blue-collar paradigm whereby one’s first day on the job was roughly coincident with one’s first pubic hair was now obsolete, then it followed that adolescence would cease to be the preserve of the well-to-do, and grow into a mass phenomenon.
For the first time, in other words, the children of the relatively privileged were going to school alongside the children of those people. And because those people’s kids practiced different forms of adolescent mischief than their supposed betters, the mixing of the classes produced essentially the same sort of reaction that it always does from the folks in the upper echelons: all of a sudden, there was a brand new bogeyman in town. If you pay any attention to mid-century pop culture, you know exactly who I mean. You know him from television shows like “Dragnet,” from movies like The Blackboard Jungle and Teenage Crime Wave, from hand-wringing books like Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. His name was Juvenile Delinquent, and his only ambition in life was to bring about the demise of civilization as we know it! Now to be fair, youth crime was a serious problem in the postwar years, but it had also been a problem in 1909, when Theodore Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on Children and Youth, and throughout all the intervening time as well. And while there was more youth crime in the 50’s and early 60’s than there had been in previous eras, there were also a great many more young people available to perpetrate it. What was truly new was the framing of the issue, the wariness with which adults of child-rearing, policy-making age were now regarding the generation coming up behind them. Also new was the rise of a consumer culture aimed expressly at adolescents (whose families could now afford to let them keep for their own use whatever they earned in the event that they chose to work after school, over the summer, and on the weekend), which tended to reinforce the tribalizing effect of spending six to eight hours every day surrounded by 500 or so other teens.
Anyway, to return finally to A Clockwork Orange, Burgess wrote the novel in response to both the reality and the perception of these phenomena. The behavior of A Clockwork Orange’s youth gangs was exaggerated to such wild heights of viciousness that it would be tempting to dismiss the book as a piece of tawdry alarmism were that viciousness not used as a jumping-off point for a thoughtful meditation on the moral limits of social control. Furthermore, Burgess’s ultimate thesis is a decidedly anti-alarmist one, basically boiling down to, “relax, they’re just kids— they’ll grow out of it if you let them.” Most American readers would not have understood that last part, though, up until the Commonwealth text of the novel became available here in 1986, because A Clockwork Orange’s original US publishers deleted the final chapter (significantly, Chapter 21) from their edition of the book. They found it completely unconvincing that Burgess’s protagonist could outgrow being an unapologetic human monster, and argued that their customers would agree with them. Burgess, who was in serious need of money at the time, submitted to the alteration, but was never happy about it. You can imagine, then, how much more unhappy he became after 1971, when Stanley Kubrick adapted A Clockwork Orange to the screen, working from the compromised American printing of the novel. Movies, after all, attract much more attention than books, and cinema-goers frequently never read the literary bases of even their favorite films. And Kubrick, who read the final chapter only after the film was well underway, had the same reaction to it as the American publisher. He found it tonally inconsistent with the rest of the book (which it is— although that’s rather the point) and implausible from the perspective of character development. This is a rare case, in other words, of the film version of a story working as a conscious, direct refutation of its print predecessor. For Burgess, A Clockwork Orange was a tale of redemption, of maturation, of acquired wisdom. For Kubrick, it was about the question of how society copes with the truly irredeemable.
In an unspecified but not too far-flung future— probably approximately the one where you and I are spending this very moment of our lives— Britain has gone enthusiastically to pot. London is a filthy, blighted shithole, a place where Toecutter and Johnny the Boy would feel right at home, even if it’s still a little too civilized for Wez and the Lord Humungus. Drugs are sold more or less openly (curiously, one of the preferred delivery systems for them is milk, sold in bars catering specifically to kids too young to buy alcohol), police have all but surrendered the fight against crime, and no one with a lick of sense goes out after dark anymore. Naturally it’s all the fault of the teenagers. Take Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell, from Cat People and Caligula), for example. It’s hard to say exactly how old Alex is supposed to be; McDowell could plausibly pass for eighteen here, but no way do I buy him as the fifteen-year-old Alex of the novel. In any case, he’s plainly underage, as he not only lives with his mom (Sheila Raynor, of The Omen and Demons of the Mind) and dad (Philip Stone, from Unearthly Stranger and The Shining) in their slightly cramped working-class apartment tower, but also attends whatever form of high school exists at this stage of British history. Alex’s parents are frankly terrified of him, and with good reason. Together with his friends, Georgie (James Marcus), Pete (Michael Tarn), and Dim (Warren Clarke, later of Hawk the Slayer and a BBC version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Alex practices the art of hooliganism at an exceedingly high level for his age. Robbery, theft, rape, assault, home invasions, gang fights— it’s all in a night’s entertainment for these lads, and there’s nothing that parents, teachers, or juvenile delinquency counselors like Mr. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris, of She Creature and Lifeforce) can do about their behavior.
Still, one of Alex’s followers thinks they could be doing better. Sure, it’s fun to steal a sports car, break into the home of a well-known writer (Patrick Magee, of Dementia 13 and The Skull), and trash the place while beating the owner senseless before making him watch as they gang-rape his wife (Adrienne Corri, from Madhouse and Corridors of Blood), but Georgie wants to play in the big leagues. Georgie wants to try his hand at the sort of crime that’ll earn an adult living. And if Alex doesn’t like that, well, Dim is twice Alex’s size, and he always liked Georgie better anyway. What Georgie hasn’t figured on is that Alex is still faster, smarter, and just all-around dirtier than any of his lackeys, and the mutiny ends with the two rebellious boys getting a lesson in proper gang discipline via Alex’s knife-handled cane.
Alex recognizes, though, that Georgie’s idea is not without merit, and once order in the gang is restored to his liking, he asks Georgie to explain if he had anything specific in mind. Georgie did. Outside the city, there’s a solitary old lady (Miriam Karlin, from Children of Men and Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera) in a great, big, isolated house. She’s an art collector, and Georgie knows a guy who deals in exactly that variety of stolen goods. Alex likes the sound of that, and decrees that Georgie’s scheme be put into action that very night. Things do not go according to plan, however. The boys have a standard routine for home invasions, you see. Alex knocks on the door and gives whomever answers it a sob story about a hit-and-run accident, a badly wounded friend, and an urgent need for a telephone. (Once again, we observe that nobody saw the ubiquity of cell phones coming.) Well, not only does the art collector not fall for the ruse, but she recognizes the spiel from a newspaper article about the attack on the writer and his wife a few days back, and calls the police. The latter she does as Alex is busy breaking in the old-fashioned way, so he never hears the call. Furthermore, the old lady is feisty for her age, and fights back hard enough to drive Alex to serious violence. So when the cops arrive a short while later, they find him with a dead body on his hands, left to take the fall by his so-called friends— who you can be sure spend the rest of the evening cooking up a sturdy alibi!
It’ll be no more juvie hall for Alex this time, either. This is murder, and young Mr. DeLarge is to be put away for a long, long time. Both the prison commandant (Michael Gover) and the chief guard (Michael Bates, from The Stone Tape and The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones) hold a special loathing for their new underage inmate, but Alex secures his safety behind bars by behaving himself with all the diligence he formerly devoted to crime, and by sucking up to the chaplain (Daleks: Invasion Earth, 2150 A.D.’s Godfrey Quigley) with equal zeal. Not that he’s actually reformed, mind you— like all the most successful psychopaths, he’s just extremely good at calculating his self-interest. That same calculation is at work several months into his sentence, when he hears about something called the Ludovico Technique. Not enough outside information filters into the prison for Alex to be sure what the Ludovico Technique really is, but evidently submitting to it entitles a prisoner to immediate early release on the theory that it renders recidivism permanently impossible. Alex himself puts no stock in claims of the technique’s effectiveness (and has no desire to be anything but a career criminal anyway), but getting out early sounds awfully attractive to him. When the newly installed Minister of Corrections (Anthony Sharp, from Schalken the Painter and The Clue of the Silver Key)— a firm backer of the Ludovico Technique— visits the prison looking for candidates for a pilot program, Alex makes sure to get himself selected.
The Ludovico Technique turns out to be a system of Skinnerian behavior modification. The subject is administered certain drugs to produce intense nausea and anxiety, and is then shown several hours of film clips depicting violent and criminal acts. After two weeks of twice-daily treatments, brain and body become so accustomed to associating the behavior shown on the screen with the effects of the drug that just thinking about committing an antisocial deed brings on debilitating physical and psychological symptoms. When Alex is turned loose after two weeks, he is indeed a changed lad— and the helpless prey of a society that has lost all patience, tolerance, or forgiveness for criminals, reformed or otherwise.
I remembered A Clockwork Orange as a difficult, distressing film to watch, and I did not do so inaccurately. Stanley Kubrick has one of those distant, clinical cinematic eyes that for me invariably make scenes of violence and cruelty harder to take. His camera watches Alex and his gang brutalizing everyone they encounter— and later, everyone the psychotherapeutically defanged Alex encounters brutalizing him— with the same impassive attention as an inquisitive child watching ants tear a caterpillar to pieces, and that paradoxically produces in the viewer (or at any rate, in this viewer) the exact opposite attitude. Indeed, A Clockwork Orange is simply loaded with distancing effects that end up drawing the audience in closer instead, and thus compounding the horror of its already quite horrid events. Take the production design, for instance. Most futuristic movies with this strong and distinctive a visual personality start essentially from scratch, imagining a future that looks little or nothing like the present day. The passage of time doesn’t work that way, though; only rarely does the future bulldoze the past, replacing while leaving no sign of what was replaced. Instead, the future grows out of and onto the past, like a coral reef encrusting a sunken ship. Kubrick understands that point, and every aspect of this movie’s esthetic reflects it. A Clockwork Orange may look like a freakshow, but it’s easy to see how its world would get there from 1971. All that garish strangeness therefore feels discomfittingly realistic, even if mere verisimilitude is not its objective. The same goes for the stilted and artificial acting. It’s too uniform and universal across the cast to be an accident, and the impression it leaves is that these are the manners of a culture no longer our own. Then there’s the film’s bizarre youth dialect, ported over from the novel with only the tiniest bit of softening. Futuristic slang has always been a minefield for sci-fi writers, best not entered at all. Anthony Burgess was trained as a linguist, however— if anybody could invent a plausible teen lingo for the next century, he was the guy. A dense confection of Cockney rhyming slang and Russian loan-words, it starts off impenetrable, but comes to make perfect sense by about the half-hour mark. Once again, the immediate effect is to solidify the world of the film, and the derived effect is to make the gang’s crimes (and the tortures of the Ludovico Technique) seem correspondingly more terrible. We believe in this world, and so we also believe in the dehumanizing brutality that saturates it.
Most of all, though, what makes A Clockwork Orange so distressing to watch is how utterly charming and likable Alex is, and how hard Kubrick makes us root for him in the final act. Witty, intelligent, cultured, creative— he’s everything a depraved teenage thug isn’t supposed to be. Throughout the film, we are guided by Alex’s internal monologue, which stands out as one of the few really successful uses of such persistent voiceover narration. It serves as a counterpoint to that cold, clinical camera I mentioned before, so that we see the events of the story from inside and out simultaneously. We’re forced to relate to them contrapuntally, too, which is A Clockwork Orange’s true genius. During the first act, repulsion at Alex’s almost literally nauseating crimes comes in tandem with id-echoes of his elation with his power to do wrong. During the second, the stern, authoritarian pleasure of seeing Alex get what he deserves competes with the sympathetically anarchic one of watching him pull the wool over the eyes of the contemptible prison officials. And at the last, horror of Alex is overwhelmed by horror on his behalf, as he is rejected by his parents, abused by the police (none other than Georgie and Dim, incidentally, the latter boys having found at last a socially sanctioned outlet for their bullying tendencies), and turned into a political football in the latest match-up between the forces of liberality and reaction.
As I said, I remembered all that from previous viewings of A Clockwork Orange. What I did not remember was how funny this movie was capable of being. To be sure, we’re talking here about a black sort of humor indeed, and with good reason— the implication seems to be that it’s Alex’s sense of humor we’ve been invited to share. Nevertheless, it does work. The most obvious (and also the weakest) bit of pitch-dark levity is the scene in which Alex picks up two much younger girls and has them back to his family’s flat for a threesome, which plays like the evil twin of a sketch from “The Benny Hill Show.” To the extent that it’s funny, it is precisely the evil that makes it so; the laugh comes less from the gag than from the shock of seeing such a thing treated as a gag at all. Much better are the house-call from Mr. Deltoid the guidance counselor, and virtually every scene involving the chief guard at the prison. Both are pitch-perfect caricatures of how authority figures look to a rebellious adolescent (Deltoid unctuously smarmy, and the chief guard a pompous martinet whose bellicosity inspires more derision than fear), and both could have walked out of a John Cleese-Graham Chapman skit on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Best of all, though, is the Minister of Corrections, forced in the end by unforeseen political expediency to kiss the ass of the little monster whose reformation he thought would be the lynchpin of his career, and visibly hating every craven second of it. This stuff could easily have been A Clockwork Orange’s undoing, like the travails of the bumbling cops in The Last House on the Left, but Kubrick is much more firmly in control of both himself and his material here than Wes Craven was in that film. I think again because it is Alex purportedly telling this story, the humor seems organically connected to even the most hideous scenes of violence and sadism, instead of counteracting them to the movie’s detriment.