Posted to coincide with Malcolm McDowell’s 69th birthday. Party well, little brother, party well.
“We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die.” Thus spake Anthony Burgess, author of the slim novella on which Stanley Kubrick’s symphony of visual mind-fuckery and ultra-violence is based. It’s a hell of a thing of a writer to repudiate one of their own works, let alone admit that said work has no value beyond the money it earned.
This contentious point, however, is accurate. In 1958, having published his ‘Malayan Trilogy’ but still essentially treating writing as something of a hobby, Burgess collapsed while lecturing to a class and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. This misdiagnosis was compounded by the clinician in question giving Burgess a year to live. Keen to provide for his wife, Burgess banged out four books in quick succession, one of which was ‘A Clockwork Orange’. It’s an amazing piece of work, not just for its immediacy, raw power and its prescient approach to youth-speak (narrator Alex uses “like” almost as punctual), but for its linguistic experimentalism.
The inspiration for the novella, if such a lofty word is appropriate to such a grim starting point, was the attack on the author’s wife by a gang of American GIs during the war. They were deserters; Burgess, serving in Gibraltar at the time, wasn’t allowed leave to visit her in hospital. She was pregnant at the time and subsequently miscarried. In approaching such violent material, and using a first person narrator, Burgess used the language of the book as a distancing technique. Using a mélange of corrupted Russian, cockney rhyming slang and Romany colloquialisms, he effectively created a language that any reader of the novella has to pick up as best they can during the first few pages. He called it Nadsat.
Stanley Kubrick – never one to let an author’s intentions get in the way of an adaptation (if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, Google “Stephen King Stanley Kubrick The Shining” and settle back for an evening of reading) – happily jettisoned the concept of Nadsat as a distancing technique from the violence, turning it instead into a verbal barrage of swaggering machismo that plunged the viewer further and further into the world of Alex and his droogs – a world basically defined by ultra-violence, the old in-out-in-out, and some lovely lovely Ludwig Van (the 9th Symphony a particular favourite). Put simply, Burgess’s novella is a dystopian investigation into societal dysfunction, governmental conditioning, wayward youth and eventual maturity; while Kubrick’s film is an unapologetically amoral romp that celebrates the darker impulses of the human psyche and sounds a triumphant Ode to Joy to free will, never mind that said freedom of choice is often knowingly deployed by bad people who luxuriate in their recidivism.
Or, put even more simply, the film is totally not what Burgess intended the book to be. This has much to do with Kubrick omitting the last chapter, in which Alex reflects on his misbegotten life and begins to entertain thoughts beyond the fighting, fucking and fuck-authority-ing that have defined his personal aesthetic thus far.
And this is where I quit sitting on the fence, launch myself out of the middle ground and come down firmly in Camp Kubrick. As much as I love ‘A Clockwork Orange’ à la Burgess, I’ve always found that last chapter forced and just a smidge unconvincing. The note Kubrick ends the film version on, I completely buy into it even as it chills the hell out of me.
‘A Clockwork Orange’ probably isn’t Kubrick’s best film, and I will admit to some ambivalence regarding the director. I often find myself admiring his work rather than liking it. The lack of any real humanity to a good half of his (admittedly unprolific) output results in some jaw-droppingly amazing technical exercises rather than engaging and emotionally fulfilling works of art. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ remains my favourite, ironically, purely because it’s honest about its lack of humanity. The film introduces us – literally: in his first scene, he raises a glass to the audience – to a complete bastard, albeit an awesome cool one, in the form of Alex the droog, played, in what must rank as one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema, by Malcolm McDowell. Kubrick picked McDowell on the basis of his performance in the equally incendiary Lindsay Anderson film ‘If…’, and it’s easy to see Alex as Mick Travis with a few years on him and a decent classical music collection.
For two and quarter hours, we follow Alex’s rise, fall and restoration to his vicious ways. The first hour is an adrenalin rush of the reprehensible: Alex and his droogs kick the shit out of a drunken old homeless guy, run motorists off the road as they go joyriding, get stuck into a fight with a rival gang using fists, boots, knives, bicycle chains and broken bottles, and pull a “surprise visit” on an unsuspecting couple which concludes with very unsavoury business which plays out to ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. And our man Stan films it all with exuberant abandon.
After another B&E that similarly concludes in a welter of sexual violence (a porcelain phallus the size of a chair is used to deliver the coup de grace), Alex is abandoned by his droogs – it should be mentioned that he’s not twatting them for getting out of line – and arrested. By the kind of coppers who probably watch ‘The Sweeney’ as a refresher course. He’s booted and spat on and next thing he’s in the nick, hypocritically cosying up to the chaplain to get out of the more onerous work rota and fantasizing all the while about being one of the Roman soldiers whipping Christ on His way to Golgotha. (Think ‘Life of Brian’ without the laughs and you’ll pretty much have imagined this scene.)
When the prison’s pompous Elgar-loving governor mentions a revolutionary new “cure” for criminality – Ludovico’s Technique – Alex immediately volunteers, convinced it’ll win him a quick parole. Ludovico’s Technique involves Alex being strapped to a chair, his eyes forced open, while images of violence, destruction, degradation, Naziism and just about any other bad shit you can think of play out in front of him. He is being programmed to reject all such stuff. To respond with physical revulsion at the very thought of it. There’s an unforeseen side-effect, though. Throughout the treatment, the accompanying music is Alex’s personal favourite, Symphony N° 9 in D minor, Opus 125.
Released, unable to even consider lifting a hand in anger, Alex’s mind is also programmed to reject Beethoven. It’s an almost unpalatably horrible implication: deny free will and you’re taking great art out of the equation as well as the capacity for evil. Your choice folks: a world with all the horrors that Alex epitomises but which also has Beethoven’s 9th, or a world without any of it, the good or the bad. Think you’ve made your choice? Slip a microtape on and think again.
Deep, dark, troubling stuff … and you know what the worst (or perhaps the best) thing is? Kubrick plays it as comedy. Right down to the final sequence where Alex, suddenly a cause célèbre as the media rounds on the government in condemnation of Ludovico’s Technique, has the process reversed and gleefully takes up the mantle of his erstwhile persona, imagining himself feted and in flagrante as the ‘Ode to Joy’ reaches its crescendo. “I was cured all right,” Alex purrs as the music dies away and Burgess’s last chapter gets its head kicked in as thoroughly as any of Alex’s victims.
Two more things to mention: like Alex, my favourite piece of music is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; unlike Alex, I regard it as the mankind’s highest artistic achievement in any medium. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard it, and the amount of different recordings I’ve listened to (though the Karajan 1963 version with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon takes some beating – this review was written while listening to it at high volume), and there are still times, almost without realising it, that I find myself murmuring “I was cured all right” at the climax.
Second thing: the most recent Warner Brothers ‘Director’s Edition’ box set of Kubrick’s work features a documentary called ‘Great Bolshy Yarblockos’ as one of the special features. I’m one of the talking heads in the documentary. I get about thirty seconds’ screen time all told, but it was my bit they picked to explain the origins of Nadsat. I’m a bit proud of that.