||[Apr. 17th, 2006|03:48 pm]
Title: PAST FUTURE: THE TROUBLED HISTORY OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S A CLOCKWORK ORANGE , By: Carruthers, Susan, National Forum, 01621831, Spring2001, Vol. 81, Issue 2|
Database: Academic Search Premier
PAST FUTURE: THE TROUBLED HISTORY OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Some years achieve premature celebrity. George Orwell made 1984 infamous in 1948. If 1984 is Orwell's, then 2001 is assuredly Stanley Kubrick's, a claim staked with 1968's release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reaching that year means catching up with a future famously mapped in advance. But where few social commentators in 1984 could resist holding Orwell's totalitarian dystopia to the test of time, only the most crushing literalist would seek to fault Kubrick for defective powers of prophecy. With hindsight, we look back on cinematic imaginings of both past and future as mirrors of their own age, not as reliable guides to the times they purport to inhabit.
Indeed, whether movies seek to recreate history or to anticipate it, they often come to appear unshakably anchored in particular temporalities -- however ambitious the auteur's attempts at transcendence. But the fact that celluloid conjurings of other times are so perishable, quickly exposing their own fixity in a specific time and place, is surely central to the kitsch appeal of swords-and-sandals epics and previous generations' sci-fi movies alike. They unwittingly afford us the ironic satisfactions of distance and knowingness.
With the 1970s still the hippest retro decade, perhaps it is no wonder that another of Kubrick's exercises in futurology, A Clockwork Orange, garnered such laudatory reviews on rerelease in Britain last year. With-drawn by Kubrick in 1973 after feverish press reports of a copycat Clockwork crimewave, the film remained barred from British screens --both small and large -- until shortly after his death. In the interim, Kubrick's "lost masterpiece" accumulated the allure of long-term forbidden fruit, but also gathered dust. Suddenly exposed to daylight again, A Clockwork Orange -- for all its futuristic locations and trappings -- appears a quintessentially Seventies artifact. Even though we may suspect that the decade's sartorial lapses did not -- quite --stretch to extravagant codpieces fetchingly teamed with bowler hats, the film's look is entirely of its era. Likewise, its sexual politics and "artfully" pornographic violence bespeak an age that now appears alien. Its British rerelease serves as an opportune moment to consider the film's troubled relationship with its own time, and the questions that its adulatory reception may raise for ours.
While he was shooting 2001, Kubrick's imagination was captured by a novel that had been dubbed a "nasty little shocker" on its publication in 1962. Crystallizing pervasive anxiety over mind-control, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange appeared in tandem with cinema's most stylishly chilling treatment of brainwashing, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. But where Frankenheimer looked (with considerable artistic license) to the Korean War for his experiments in mental repatterning, Burgess drew on much more personal history. One night during the London blackout of World War II, Burgess's pregnant wife was gang-raped by four American deserters, an episode that shatters nostalgic mythologization of the Blitz as all cups of tea and sing-a-longs. The vicious attack, which induced a miscarriage and a subsequent suicide attempt, formed one of the book's points of departure. Burgess's fascinated repulsion with the Mods and Rockers then strutting and scooting the streets of London sought a literary outlet -- his novel conjuring a not-so-distant future (circa 1970), where brutish youths confront an equally brutal regime. Conscious that his "space-age hooligans" needed to be inoculated against premature signs of aging, Burgess coined a Russian-inflected argot, "nadsat," for his amoral antiheroes: youths with a taste for both "ultra-violence" and classical music, whose delinquency the state seeks to neutralize through Pavlovian reprogramming.
Burgess's A Clockwork Orange offers a meditation on the moral paradoxes that follow from an acceptance of free will. Free to follow their natures, humans may choose to do evil. But attempts to engineer law-abiding citizens constitute a greater ill than individual acts of immorality. They may also, Burgess suggests, prove unnecessary. In a final twist, the novel's antihero Alex, surviving the "Ludovico treatment" with violent impulses intact, is finally crushed by the conformism that accompanies turning twenty-one. Domesticity and paternal stirrings quash Alex's taste for violent "tolchockings" and rape. Being bad becomes a bore.
In Kubrick's hands, however, A Clockwork Orange delivers more muddied morality. Having read W.W. Norton's American edition of the novel, he was apparently ignorant of the concluding "optimistic" chapter --significantly, the twenty-first -- until the screenplay was completed. (Kubrick rejected all other scripts, including one by Burgess, in favor of his own). Kubrick's Alex, played with mesmerizing panache by a youthful if scarcely teenage Malcolm McDowell, remains defiantly unbroken. And, as many contemporary reviewers pointed out in 1971, it is hard not to relish Alex's enduring appetite for badness. Sooner the inventively agile delinquent -- whose assaults are synced to "Singin' in the Rain" and whose rapes are choreographed to Rossini -- than the servile automaton that initially emerges from the Ludovico facility.
That Alex is so magnetic a presence certainly troubled some Seventies critics. Kubrick was also berated for bequeathing him a set of victims less easily identifiable as such than in Burgess's parable. In the novel, Alex rapes two ten-year-old girls he picks up in a record shop. On screen, the same episode becomes a double-speed whirl of sexual acrobatics. To the accompaniment of the William Tell Overture, Alex dizzyingly romps through the Kama sutra with two girls who appear thoroughly willing and certainly not ten. His next victim, the "Catwoman," has undergone a rather different transformation, as a foul-mouthed collector of pornographic paintings and sculpture -- objects that Kubrick claimed would soon be as readily available in Woolworth's as the currently vogueish African-wildlife paintings, a prediction that time has mercifully confounded.
Was Kubrick satirizing the pretensions of modern art? Was his own film "Art," thereby redeeming its ambivalently artistic treatment of violence? Critical opinion in 1971 was polarized. In the United States, many thumbs remained resolutely down. Roger Ebert proclaimed himself "disgusted," while in Andrew Sarris's eyes, inflated codpieces could not mask a "pretentious fake." The doyenne of film criticism, Pauline Kael, launched an excoriating assault on Clockwork Orange in the New Yorker, charging the film with irresponsibly "sucking up to the thugs in the audience" by desensitizing them to violence, and lambasting Kubrick's "attempts at phallic humor" that sank "like a professor's lead balloons."
British critics extended a considerably warmer reception. Beyond merely favorable, some were salivatingly laudatory. "Kubrick's Ninth" -- like Beethoven's -- was hailed as a masterpiece of "organic beauty" by the British Film Institute's house journal, Sight and Sound. Awed by Kubrick's technical virtuosity, The Spectator announced that the director now "bestrides the English-speaking world like a colossus." Kael and others who found the film distasteful if not dangerous were chided as either puritanical prudes or cinematic illiterates, who failed to realize that if violence is rendered surreally balletic then, as Art, it ceases to be imitable by Life. As controversy surrounding copycat crimes swelled, some critics even suggested that the violence in Clockwork Orange functioned in a similar way to the aversion therapy wincingly enacted on Alex. Eyes wired open, Alex at least temporarily sickens of the ultra-violent "sinnies" that unspool to a soundtrack of Beethoven, his erstwhile favorite stimulant. In like fashion, Kubrick's admirers insisted that exposure to his film could only induce shuddering revulsion toward its own violent sequences.
Kubrick preferred to insist that film could have no causative consequences on life, good or ill -- a position seemingly contradicted in A Clockwork Orange itself, where cinema certainly colonizes youthful imaginations even if it does not catalyze wrongdoing. (In prison, Alex enlivens Bible study by casting himself as a Roman guard at a vividly conjured Crucifixion worthy of any sword-and-sandals epic -- Kubrick's disparaging nod, perhaps, to his own contribution to that genre.) But while the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lent Kubrick unusually pugnacious backing -- to deny his film a certificate would be "anti-social and even an immoral act," the Chief Censor proclaimed --less aesthetic sensibilities insisted that its exhibition could only have the most corrosive social effects.
Tabloid Cassandras warned that A Clockwork Orange would inspire a wave of imitative crime before any such incidents had been reported. Signs of a prophecy fulfilled were eagerly seized upon. And reports duly surfaced of a nun gang-raped by four teenage boys ("dressed in droog style") in Poughkeepsie; of a seventeen-year-old Dutch girl subjected to a similar fate by youths chanting "Singin' in the Rain." In May 1973, British newspapers headlined the murder of a fifty-year-old tramp -- from whom one-and-a-half pence (about a cent) had been stolen -- a day after the film finished a local run in Newton-le-Willows. Two months later, another tramp was murdered at Bletchley (now more famous for its Enigma decryptions) by a sixteen-year-old who claimed familiarity with the novel but not with a movie he was two years too young to view.
Needless to say, proving a causal relationship between on-screen violence and off-screen crime is considerably harder than merely asserting it, though the furor over Clockwork Orange is now wearily familiar (from the controversy over Natural Born Killers to attempts to link Columbine with The Matrix). Was a felony accompanied by "Singin' in the Rain" incontrovertible evidence that Clockwork Orange had debauched otherwise law-abiding youths? However tenuous the insinuation, Kubrick was stung by its repeated invocation as unassailable fact. He certainly failed to offer the movie his ongoing support, leaving Burgess both to collect the awards and salvage the reputation of an Orange whose paternity Kubrick had briefly usurped -- insisting that the movie appear under the self-aggrandizing title Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. However, by late 1973, Kubrick slyly relinquished proprietorship to a chagrined Burgess, who was dissatisfied with his work's transformation from print to screen. Whatever crimes could not reasonably be attributed to Kubrick, the filmmaker had certainly done violence to Burgess's novel. "A vindication of free will had become an exaltation of the urge to sin," its disgruntled author railed. (He exacted revenge, however. Translating his novel into a "play with music" in 1987 -- with the film still illicit property in Britain -- Burgess penned a mischievous stage direction: "A man bearded like Stanley Kubrick comes on playing, in exquisite counterpoint, 'Singin' in the Rain' on a trumpet. He is kicked off the stage.")
The decision to bar A Clockwork Orange from British screens appears to have been entirely Kubrick's, in response to mounting press criticism of his film's degenerative consequences. The scale of the furor far outstripped the movie's actual distribution. A lucrative sixty-one-week run at the Warner West End in London was followed by only limited provincial screenings. An unprecedented box-office hit in the capital, where no other film had shown continuously for more than twelve months, it nevertheless slid from public view almost unnoticed. That Kubrick had persuaded Warner Bros. to withdraw the movie from the British market altogether, seemingly in perpetuity, only became clear in 1979 when the National Film Theatre unsuccessfully tried to secure a print for a Kubrick retrospective. Throughout the next twenty years, attempts to screen A Clockwork Orange -- or to cannibalize it for documentary purposes -- were met with legal injunctions and court summonses. Rigorous policing of the ban ended only with Kubrick's death. Indeed, with almost unseemly haste, his demise was met with speculation that the illicit citrus might soon reappear on British screens.
But how would A Clockwork Orange fare with twenty-first-century censors? Purists feared that Kubrick's masterpiece might itself be violated --with strategic excisions the price to be paid for its rehabilitation into respectable society. (In fact Kubrick had never defended the integrity of his original cut, making a number of deletions in search of an R rating from the MPAA.) Such anxieties soon proved ungrounded. The BBFC stood by its 1971 decision to release an undiluted Orange -- "with juicy bits." Although consistent in its approach towards Kubrick, the BBFC decision appears somewhat inconsistent with current practice. Generally, the present censorial regime adopts a more restrictive approach towards the aestheticization of rape than it did thirty years ago. A present-day director might accordingly experience some difficulty in depicting a woman violated by a giant plaster-of-paris phallus.
Perhaps precisely because A Clockwork Orange now seems so much the product of a different era, the long-lost (and abandoned) orphan of a legendary auteur, it escaped the censors unscathed -- to a rapturous reception. Viewed at a comfortable thirty-year remove, Kubrick's future, and his sensibility, look undeniably dated, prompting a tendency to bask in our own superior evolution. Certainly many critics put ironic distance between themselves and the film's misogyny, which passed without comment on rerelease, as though it were as unremarkable a feature of the Seventies as flares or platform soles. But where the latter have made a surprising comeback, we have yet to see any fresh reports of bowler-hatted youths, extravagantly garbed, singing -- and sinning -- in the rain. Progress? Or did we just get old?
PHOTO (COLOR): Artwork adapted from the Warner Brothers poster originally used to advertise the film A Clockwork Orange.
By Susan Carruthers
Susan Carruthers is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, U.K. She specializes in media, culture, and politics. Her most recent book is entitled The Media at War: Communication and Conflict in the Twentieth Century (St. Martin's, 2000). She is currently working on a study of mind-control and brainwashing anxieties in Cold War America.
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Source: National Forum, Spring2001, Vol. 81 Issue 2, p29, 5p