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Horror Show

A Clockwork Orange

directed by Stanley Kubrick

When Anthony Burgess published A Clockwork Orange ten years ago, he compacted much of what was in the air, especially the odd mingling of dismay and violence (those teen-age gangs) with pious euphoria about the causes and cures of crime and of deviance. Mr. Burgess’s narrator hero, Alex, was pungently odious; addicted to mugging and rape, intoxicated with his own command of the language (a newly minted teen-age slang, plus poeticisms, sneers, and sadistic purring), Alex was something both better and worse than a murderer: he was murderous. Because of a brutal rape by Alex, the wife of a novelist dies; because of his lethal clubbing, an old woman dies; because of his exhibitionist ferocity, a fellow prisoner dies.

The second of these killings gets Alex jailed; word reaches him of the new Ludovico Treatment by which he may be reclaimed, and he seeks it and gets it. The treatment is to watch horrific films of violence (made by one Dr. Brodsky) while seething with a painful emetic; the “cure” is one that deprives Alex of choice, and takes him beyond freedom and dignity, and extirpates his moral existence. But the grisly bloody failure of his suicide attempt after his release does release him. Alex is himself again.

The novel was simply pleased, but it knew that aversion therapy must be denied its smug violences. And the early 1960s were, after all, the years in which a liberally wishful newspaper like the London Observer could regale its readers with regular accounts of how a homosexual was being “cured” by emetics and films.

To do the ultra-violent”: Alex makes no bones about it. But the film of A Clockwork Orange does not want him to be seen in an ultra-violent light. So it bids for sympathy. There are unobtrusive mitigations: Alex is made younger than in the book. There are obtrusive crassnesses from his jailors: when Alex pauses over the form for Reclamation Treatment, the chief guard shouts, “Don’t read it, sign it”—and of course it has to be signed in triplicate. (None of that in the book.) There are sentimentalities: where in the book it was his drugs and syringes that he was shocked to find gone when he got home, in the film he has been provided instead with a pet snake, Basil, whom his parents have wantonly and hypocritically done in. Above all, Alex is the only person in the film who isn’t a caricature, the only person the film is interested in; whereas in the first-person narrative of the book, Alex was the only person Alex was interested in.

One realizes that the film is a re-creation, not a carrying-over, and yet both Kubrick and Burgess are right to call upon each other in what they’ve recently written in defense of the film, Kubrick in The New York Times, February 27, and Burgess in The Listener, February 17. The persistent pressure of the film’s Alexculpations is enough to remind one that while A Clockwork Orange is in Burgess’s words “a novel about brainwashing,” the film is not above a bit of brainwashing itself—is indeed righteously unaware that any of its own techniques or practices could for a moment be asked to subject themselves to that same scrutiny as they project. Alex is forced to gaze at the Ludovico Treatment aversion films: “But I could not shut my glazzies, and even if I tried to move my glaz-balls about I still could not get like out of the line of fire of this picture.” Yet once “this picture” has become not one of Dr. Brodsky’s pictures but one of Mr. Kubrick’s, then two very central figures are surreptitiously permitted to move “out of the line of fire of this picture.”

First, the creator of the whole fictional “horrorshow” itself. For it was crucial to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange that it should include a novelist who was writing a book called A Clockwork Orange—crucial not because of the fad for such Chinese boxes, but because this was Burgess’s way of taking responsibility (as Kubrick does not take responsibility for Dr. Brodsky’s film within his film), Burgess’s way of seeing that the whole enterprise itself was accessible to its own standards of judgment. The novelist F. Alexander kept at once a curb and an eye on the book, so that other propensities than those of Dr. Brodsky were also under moral surveillance. Above all the propensity of the commanding satirist to become the person who most averts his eyes from what he shows: that “satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” But in the film F. Alexander (who is brutally kicked by Alex, and his wife raped before his eyes) is not at work on a book called A Clockwork Orange, and so the film—unlike the book—ensures that it does not have to stand in its own line of fire.

Nor, secondly and more importantly, does Alex have to. The film cossets him. For the real accusation against the film is certainly not that it is too violent, but that it is not violent enough; more specifically, that with a cunning selectivity it sets itself to minimize both Alex’s violence and his delight in it. Take his murders or womanslaughters. The old woman in the novel with the cats and an ineffectual stick becomes in the film a professionally athletic virago who nearly stuns him with a heavy objet d’art; the killing comes after a dervishlike tussling and circling, and moreover is further protected, Alexwise, by being grotesquely farcical—Alex rams her in the face with a huge sculpture of a penis and testicles, a pretentious art work which she has pretentiously fussed about and which when touched jerks itself spasmodically.

The film reshapes that murder to help Alex out. Similarly with the more important death of the novelist’s wife. “She died, you see. She was brutally raped and beaten. The shock was very great.” But the film—by then nearing its end—doesn’t want Alex to have this death on our consciences, so the novelist (who is manifestly half-mad to boot) is made to mutter that the doctor said it was pneumonia she died of, during the flu epidemic, but that he knew, etc., etc. Or, not to worry, Alex-lovers.

Then there is the brutal killing within the prison cell, when they all beat up the homosexual newcomer:

Anyway, seeing the old krovvy flow red in the red light, I felt the old joy like rising up in my keeshkas…. So they all stood around while I cracked at this prestoopnick in the near dark. I fisted him all over, dancing about with my boots on though unlaced, and then I tripped him and he went crash crash on to the floor. I gave him one real horror show kick on the gulliver and he went ohhhhh, then he sort of snorted off to like sleep.

No place for any of that in the film, since it would entail being more perturbed about Alex than would be convenient. No, better to show all the convicts as good-natured buffoons and to let the prison guards monopolize detestability. The film settles for a happy swap, dispensing with the killing in the cell and proffering instead officialdom’s humiliating violence in shining a torch up Alex’s rectum. None of that in the book.

When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality” (D. H. Lawrence). As a novelist, Burgess controlled his itching thumb (he does after all include within himself as much of a polemicist for Original Sin and for Christian extremity as his coreligionists Graham Greene and William Golding). But the film is not content with having a thumb in the pan—it insists on thumbs down for most and thumbs up for Alex. Thumbs down for Dr. Brodsky, who is made to say that the aversion drug will cause a deathlike terror and paralysis; thumbs down for the Minister of the Interior, who bulks proportionately larger and who has what were other men’s words put into his mouth, and whose asinine classy ruthlessness allows the audience to vent its largely irrelevant feelings about “politicians,” thus not having to vent any hostility upon Alex; thumbs down for Alex’s spurious benefactors, who turn out to be mad schemers against the bad government, and not only that but very very vengeful—the novelist and his friends torture Alex with music to drive him to suicide (the book told quite another story).

But thumbs up for the gladiatorial Alex. For it is not just the killings that are whitewashed. Take the two girls he picks up and takes back to his room. In the book, what matters to Alex—and to our sense of Alex—is that they couldn’t have been more than ten years old, that he got them viciously drunk, that he gave himself a “hypojab” so that he could the better exercise “the strange and weird desires of Alexander the Large,” and that they ended up bruised and screaming. The film, which wants to practice a saintlike charity of redemption toward Alex but also to make things assuredly easy for itself, can’t have any of that. So the ten-year-olds become jolly dollies; no drink, no drugs, no bruises, just the three of them having a ball. And to make doubly sure that Alex is not dislodged from anybody’s affection, the whole thing is speeded up so that it twinkles away like frantic fun from a silent film. Instead of the cold brutality of Alex’s “the old in-out,” a warm Rowan and Martin laugh-in-out.

Conversely, Alex’s fight with his friends is put into silent slow motion, draping its balletic gauzes between us and Alex. And when one of these droogs later takes his revenge on Alex by smashing him across the eyes with a milk bottle and leaving him to the approaching police, this too has become something very different from what it was in the book. For there it was not a milk bottle that Dim wielded but his chain: “and it snaked wishhhh and he chained me gentle and artistic like on the glazlids, me just closing them up in time.” The difference which that makes is that the man who is there so brutally hurt is the man who had so recently exulted in Dim’s prowess with that chain:

Dim had a real horrorshow length of oozy or chain round his waist, twice wound round, and he unwound this and began to swing it beautiful in the eyes or glazzies…. old Dim with his chain snaking whisssssshhhhhhhhh, so that old Dim chained him right in the glazzies, and this droog of Billyboy’s went tottering off and howling his heart out.

The novel, though it has failures of judgment which sometimes let in a gloat, does not flinch from showing Alex’s exultation. The movie takes out the book’s first act of violence, the protracted sadistic taunting of an aged book lover and then his beating up:

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