“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, and we sat in the Korova milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening ...” He stares at us from the screen. His black bowler at a cocky angle. His right eye sporting long, false eyelashes. His mouth drawn tight in a thin slit of a grin. A glass of milk is propped atop his preposterously padded codpiece. His boots, with steel toe caps, rest high on the thigh of a nude female sculpture reclining in front of him. He is practically expressionless but could never be mistaken for someone dumb. It’s an icy mask, full of mockery and menace, as if to say: keep your eyes open, I’m capable of anything. His lips don’t move. His offscreen voice continues. “The Korova milkbar sold milkplus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and made you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.” Where are we? Who is he? What’s he talking about?
A new image appears. An old drunken tramp sputtering and slurping his way through Molly Malone. The four young toughs approach him.
Alex rams a stick into the tramp’s stomach. The drunk cries out. “Oh! Go on, do me in you bastard cowards! It’s a stinking world because there’s no law and order anymore. It’s a stinking world because it lets the young get onto the old like you done.
It’s no world for an old man anymore. Men on the moon and men spinning around the earth and there’s no attention paid to earthly law and order anymore.” He dolefully re-
sumes his croaking song. The youths punch and kick him to within an inch of his life. They’re having a wonderful time.
A third scene in as many minutes begins with the haunting strains of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie. A rival gang of youths are raping a girl on the stage of what appears to be the bombed-out remains of a once magnificent theatre. In Alex’s lingo, “they were getting ready to perform a little of the old in-out, in-out on a weepy young devotchka they had there.” Alex and his gang step out of the shadows. He calls out. “Ho ho ho! Well, if it isn’t stinking Billygoat Billyboy in poison. How are thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou.” Billyboy spits a thickish gob out of the side of his mouth and presses his switchblade, which glints in the light. The two gang leaders lunge at each other. The screen is filled with blood-drawing punches and flying glass, whooping war cries of those who gorge themselves with violence.
Numerous theories will be expounded in the coming months trying to explain what Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange means. Because it is made with great care and intelligence, and it does pose provocative questions, one expects the sort of analysis that is tediously over-ingenious. What
matters most is that A Clockwork Orange is a spellbinding experience, rivaled only in creative power by Kubrick’s own Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. As a film director Kubrick is a master magician. It’s a disservice to treat him as one of the 20th century’s great philosophers who somehow wandered into show business and whose every film is a teasing oracle to be worried over.
A Clockwork Orange offers abundant pleasures as a sharpwitted, bitterly satirical vision of a future society which practises the sort of behavioral program advocated by B. F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom And Dignity. No one in the cast is well known with the possible exception of Malcolm McDowell, who portrays Alex and who leaps from the early, promising work done in If.. . and Figures In A Landscape to become the best young actor working in English films today. Patrick Magee who played the Marquis de Sade in Peter Brook’s stage and film versions of Marat/Sade portrays Mr. Alexander, a writer of left-wing sympathies and causes, with a comic timing and dementedness worthy of Peter Sellers at his best. Much of the emotional force of A Clockwork Orange comes from the excellence of its actors, even in the smallest roles. Anthony Sharp as Minister of the Interior, Michael Bates as the Chief Prison Guard, Warren Clarke as Dim, Miriam Karlin as the Catlady, Aubrey Morris as P. R. Deltoid all have their “moments” and deliver their lines with a distinctively funny quirkiness that I expect will' be imitated (badly) a thousand times over by those who come to love this film, savor its ironies and memorize its inspired lines.
Stanley Kubrick would clearly prefer to be prodigious
rather than prolific. Five years separate 2001 from Dr. Strangelove. Three years separate A Clockwork Orange from 2001. He takes the time to grow between films. It shows in his work. No matter how misanthropic his films may appear, the care spent in conceiving and making them shows a deep respect for their audiences. Though I doubt that A Clockwork Orange, either in its original novel form by Anthony Burgess or in the film Kubrick has made of it, has anything profound to say about human freedom, it asks its questions so dramatically that one cannot avoid being moved by them. It’s a film that invites us to let our minds become sailboats set loose from their moorings, to drift with the currents of a dream. Around one bend it astonishes us with its beauty, its ear for language and music, its eye for surrealistic sets; around another it shocks us with its brutality and grim humor. Trying to pin down the film’s literal meaning is like trying to squeeze a phoenix into a pigeonhole. Maybe that’s the best proof that A Clockwork Orange is alive and ticking.
It is the destiny of certain works of art — James Joyce’s Ulysses and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to cite just two examples — to be greeted with indignant misunderstanding. They are called “obscene,” “inhuman” and “nihilistic.” Kubrick shares an affinity with Joyce and Nabokov. He has no illusions about human nature. A Clockwork Orange has no moral in tow, no pieties to preach. It sweeps over one like a chilly blast of fresh air. Some will find that invigorating, others will just get cold feet. Whether you like A Clockwork Orange or not depends on how much truth you want from a film. ■
John Hofsess is a prizewinning Canadian film director
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