I've seen Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange three times in the theatre, the first being by myself because everyone I knew it the time was terrified that seeing it might warp them in some way, and the other times I watched it with my friend Joyce and then with my friend Ruth Ann. I mention this in such detail because the two women expressed no particular sense of uneasiness, and I considered then and still do that these were and are among two of the wisest and most wonderful women ever, despite my apparent need for alliteration. Anyway, I was originally quite troubled by the movie and I'll tell you why. It's a troubling movie. That's why.
Whenever something this well done runs counter to everything you believe in and hold sacred, you are going to feel uneasy. Technically, no film before or after has exceeded the brilliance of A Clockwork Orange, from the use of oppositional colors during the opening titles to the overlay of synthetic classical music during the same entrance into the nightmare comic world of Alexander DeLodge. "There was me, then, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Carova Milkbar trying to make up our razoodocks what to do with the evening." Even if you've seen this film only one time, I guarantee you'll remember that bit of nadsat commentary as the camera at first lingers on the lizard-like huffing face of our friend and humble narrator and then inches back effortlessly to reveal the world in which his story is taking place, a world in which everything has mechanical connotations, including sex, violence, and criminality. Sex is not just sex; it's the old in-out. Violence isn't just violence; it's the old ultra-violence. And crime isn't just crime; it's accompanied by music, old music made by new machines.
I watched this movie for the umpteenth time this morning and was disturbed all over again. There they stood at the mouth of some blue drained alley with the old drunk burbling away. Alex jammed his cane into the old man's belly and with a tight close up, inquired of the man who had remarked of the stinking world, "Oh? And what's so stinking about it?"
The movie is terrifying because you can't help but worry that if Hitler had had Kubrick instead of Leni Riefenstahl, the bastard just might have won the way more overtly. The audience gets programmed just as the Alex character in the film gets programmed. And in exactly the same manner. Oh, I know. I went on about that subject about a year ago here and that is true. But dammit, the movie is still every bit as good and every bit as horrible as it ever was and yet I have a hunch that we as an audience or we as a people have just possibly not risen above our own prurience.
Of audience manipulation Kubrick is a master, as anyone who has enjoyed The Shining can attest. But relocating the audience around the chessboard or being relocated is insufficient for an engaging evening. We still require an interesting story and here as well we are met head-on with the response to our challenge. Kubrick, as with novelist Anthony Burgess, wastes no time getting down to business. Visually, sartorially and otherwise, A Clockwork Orange does not so much pull us in as it grabs us by the collar and drags us into the admittedly comic shenanigans of the despicable teenager played to perfection by Malcolm McDowell.
So what is my problem? My problems are many, but the one I wish to mention in passing is that within the larger context of the director's work, it is reasonable to inquire if just possibly all the psychological shifting wasn't just a magnificently artistic way of camouflaging a deep misogyny. Just like Ray Davies, you and I do not want to die in a nuclear war, but we don't necessarily enjoy the fact that Dr. Strangelove used women as objects, just as they were used in Lolita, just as they were used as either officious bitches or sheer ugliness and stupidity in The Shining. Oh, but that's just part of the auteur's genius at work, they say. Very well, then that is one particular type of genius who is free to stay the hell away from me because I have changed and can no longer put up with this type of betrayal of talent. It turns out that I rather like women. My mother, for instance, was a woman. And I can't say that my initial and prolonged discomfort with A Clockwork Orange and its anti-rehabilitation, anti-statist proclivities are any more palatable today than they were back in 1971 when the film first came out. The only difference is that I no longer have the intellectual burden of needing to rationalize the vacuousness and evil that is ultimately celebrated here in the name of freedom of choice. Better a million Alexes than a system in which he could not be free to exist. That's what they said then and it's been repeated everywhere since from Baghdad to Virginia Tech. Fuck it.