Monday, January 16, 2012

Sympathy for the sadist, and other dubious teenage readings of A Clockwork Orange

As a teenage boy I suppose I was impressed by the artful brutalism of it, the audacious juxtaposition of music and image, the home invasions, gang rapes and vicious beatings set to show tunes and classical favourites. When you’re young you need dystopias, and A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s controversial 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel, more than delivered, replete with its own jive talk, ugly furniture, outfits and wigs. It re-legitimized milk-drinking for the bad kids. It also fed juvenile homophobic suspicions that parents were zombies, authority figures were buffoons, and social workers just wanted to get down your pants. It wasn’t that hard to identify with Alex. Sure, he murdered the cat lady, but he didn’t mean it. Kubrick facilitated Alex’s palatability by excising the novel’s pedophilia and making all of Alex’s victims unbelievably irritating, cartoons practically waiting to be victims. Still, I find it interesting that the prison chaplain is the sole voice of reason: “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” (Burgess was a lapsed Catholic.)

Then there was Malcolm McDowell, a bold, intelligent actor, whose Alex is so memorable, so savage yet shamelessly sympathetic, that the role kind of haunted him, a bit like Norman Bates did for Anthony Perkins. In those early scenes of Alex and his droogs prowling city and country for the old ultraviolence, McDowell never blinks. It’s a way to assert his unflinching lust, this sadist with a soft spot for Beethoven. Which makes it that much more chilling when Alex goes to prison and gets plugged into the experimental fast-tracked rehabilitation program where they feed him drugs and force him to watch nasty movies all afternoon with his eyelids held open by metal insect legs. The result of this new crime-crushing tactic? A generation of ex-cons who get nauseous whenever confronted with bullies, young men incapable of intimate contact with the opposite sex. Once released from the pen Alex is anything but “ready for love.”

Which brings us to the third act and its chain of dramatic ironies, which possess a certain satisfying symmetry. Going back to A Clockwork Orange for the first time since my teens it was these final sequences that I realized I’d forgotten. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well they unfurl, despite the film’s stiff satire on disciplinary systems and wobbly warnings about the malleability of the mind and the persistence of aberrant urges. Whether any of this works as social commentary remains debatable. Kubrick was genuinely horrified by the copy-cat killings and avoided these themes in the future, leaving them to Michael Haneke—who would run into a whole other set of problems with his own Funny Games.

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