I guess A Clockwork Orange is something akin to a movie buff’s ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ moment. Every self-respecting film devotee from the UK is likely to recall the first time they watched Stanley Kubrick’s controversial masterpiece and, if you’re of a certain age, chances are you were breaking the law when you did. Which seems kind of apt when watching this vivid study of a young man who not only likes Beethoven and milk, but a bit of the old ultra-violence too.
Let me explain. If you hail from the UK and you’ve purchased this beautiful, extras packed Warner Bros Premium Collection DVD/Blu-ray/Digital download of A Clockwork Orange or, if you’ve seen it for the first time any time in the last seventeen years (perhaps you saw it on ITV2? The grandmother of Northern comedian Peter Kay did, who claims she famously uttered the maloprop “did you see Stanley Kubrick’s A Chocolate Orange on TV last night?”) you’re not familiar with how surreal that seems to a generation of moviegoers who have gone before you. Kubrick, like Baron Frankenstein fearful of the Monster he gave life to, withdrew his creation from general release within the UK indefinitely in early 1974 as a direct reaction to a growing number of so-called copy-cat crimes and protests from councillors, politicians, the clergy, Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, and, most damning of all, the press. A Clockwork Orange became, to all intents and purposes, a dangerous cult movie.
The brutal murder of sixty-year-old vagrant, David McManus at the hands of fifteen-year-old, former Grammar schoolboy and builders labourer Richard Palmer in April 1973 was perhaps the first heinous act to draw parallels with Kubrick’s film. Palmer had beaten to death McManus with glass bottles, slabs of crazy paving and a stick, before emptying the deceased’s pockets of just one and a half pence. In his police statement, he cited A Clockwork Orange as an influence to his actions, despite never having seen the film himself: “It was about the beating up of an old boy like this one”. At his trial, these parallels were further drawn by defence consul, Roger Gray. “What possible explanation can there be for this savagery other than this film?” Gray rhetorically asked, having drew the attentions of the judge and jury to a recent police report that claimed a link between cinematic violence and the rising crime rate from an impressionable youth. Palmer was subsequently found guilty and detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure indefinitely but what he started blazed on across the national psyche and no one appeared safe. The rape of a seventeen-year-old Dutch tourist in Lancashire was said to have been an act inspired by the movie to the extent that, the poor girl’s abusers were even singing ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ as they attacked her. Sixteen-year-old youth dressed like Droogs were alleged to have beaten a younger teenager, whilst the murder of a fifty-year-old firewood seller by a gang of youths also allegedly dressed like Alex’s Droogs was reported by the Daily Mail as a homicidal attack from ‘A Clockwork Orange Gang’.
Looking back on the situation, Anya Kubrick (Stanley’s daughter) said in 1991 that there was “a concentrated group of journalists who spotted a way to spin a story. Instead of ‘Thug Beats Up Old Lady’ it was ‘Clockwork Thug Beats Up Old Lady’. The thug was going to beat up the old lady anyway, and you’re going to report it anyway, but now you get to call him a Clockwork Thug”. Likewise, Anthony Burgess, the author of the novel on which Kubrick’s film was based, reflected on the period “If a couple of nuns got raped in Berwick-Upon-Tweed I would get a phone call” For Burgess, who wrote the novel as a cathartic response to the robbery and cruel, physical beating his pregnant wife Lynn had endured at the hands of four American deserters in London during WWII – the violence causing her not only to miscarry and become unable to have children from then on, but also to sink into a deep depression and attempt suicide – it must have been a particularly bitter blow. For Kubrick, it posed a dilemma; he appreciated that what the establishment and the media were doing was somewhat akin to the Salem witch trials, but he also felt sickened to see and hear tale of his film being so obviously misunderstood by the general public. His patience finally snapped when, according to his wife Christiane in an interview given after his death, he began to receive death threats against him and his family. His response was to remove his film from public domain within the UK, to effectively impose a ban on his own work. It was the only action available to him, a final retort to everyone who believed that once an artist’s work was released it belonged to the masses.
So when was my cinematic equivalent of ‘the Kennedy moment’? It was when I was at school in the mid-’90s. A lot of videos used to change hands at our school (the work of Alan Clarke used to be a particular favourite, with the film version of Scum, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! and The Firm, often doing the rounds and endlessly quoted in the playground or in class) and somehow, someone had got their hands on a pirated copy of A Clockwork Orange. A frisson ran around the school and names were to a mental ‘baggsy me, next!’ list for consumption. The clamor to view this admittedly ‘old’ film in our school was not unsurprising: for a start, there’s the inherent and intoxicating cache for kids of witnessing something banned of course, not unlike the childish desire to touch something freshly painted when you’ve been specifically told not to by a parent our authority figure. Simply put, you’re going to come away with wet, sticky hands. You’re going to want to do what you’ve been told you mustn’t do. But there’s more to the appeal of A Clockwork Orange than its forbidden nature, there’s also the unavoidable fact that A Clockwork Orange is a ‘Youth’ film; about youths and for youths, and that is arguably what so terrified and appalled the establishment of the 1970s who gave it its folk devil and moral panic status. The themes of juvenile delinquency have always appealed to young cinemagoers – arguably ever since Marlon Brando rode into town in The Wild One answering the question of ‘What are you rebelling against?’ with a provocative ‘What have you got?’ – and the cultural belonging of youth to a specific movement in the twentieth century, from 1950s Teddy Boys to 1990s Baggies (with Burgess’ own influence, the experience of seeing Russia’s ‘Stilyagi‘ or ‘Style Boys’, inspiring the confusing marriage of Russian with Cockney English to create the peculiar prose and speech patterns of his droogs) will always be relevant and easy to relate to, tapping as it does into a subconscious desire to belong to a tribe. A further peculiar marriage of style was brought to life in the sublime and memorable costume design of Milena Canonero, only further piqued the interest of youth. In designing the Droogs, Canonero creates a punk sensibility that is also tied up with two other notorious fashions of the 1970s; the androgynous yet sexualised theatricality of Glam, and the belt and braces bovver of the Skinhead movement. This careful mesh of styles was still intoxicating in the ’90s when my clammy hands got to grips with the film, and I daresay it still is today. The working class ‘oi’ machismo of Skins met the camp and daring frippery and foppery of Glam in Alex’s infamous eyelashes, long hair and the white strides and combat boots.
I actually first saw A Clockwork Orange one night around a school friend’s house. There was a group of us and, perhaps understandably, it was not as Kubrick would have intended any of us to see it. There was a (somewhat apt) orangeish, ghostly and saturated hue to the VHS’s much warped picture and a perpetually fuzzy, muffled tone to the sound which only added to the surreal and illicit experience of an evening’s viewing which, if truth be told, freaked a lot of us out. We were all under the age of eighteen, but we had all seen films rated 18 (an illegal act in itself) but this was like no other 18-rated movie, there was something…intelligent…going on here, which only added to the unsettling, strange power of this disturbing fantasy. Around five or six years later in early 2000, and after Kubrick had died, I – along with the rest of the British public – got the chance to see the film as it was meant to be seen: in a crisp, digitally enhanced, sharp definition with Dolby surround-sound on the big screen, and later as a VHS and DVD release in the comfort of your own home. The times they were a-changing, as the BBFC argued that ‘despite the notoriety, the Board does not consider the concerns expressed at the time of the film’s original release…are as serious now’ and other controversial films such as The Exorcist and Straw Dogs were also released, rehabilitated and reappraised. Within a year, the self-appointed watchdog of British society, Mary Whitehouse, had also breathed her last, signifying the dawn of a new more enlightened mood as the restrictive social mores of the past began to relax and fall away.
But now that A Clockwork Orange is respectable, now that it’s easy to view anywhere and at any time, now that market forces have wrested its ownership from Kubrick’s protective and defiant embrace, now it routinely crops up as the late night movie on ITV-god-knows-what for Peter bloody Kay’s gran to watch, does it still really have the power to shock and freak people out like it once did for the impressionable fourteen or fifteen-year-old me? Well, as I said earlier, I would like to think that A Clockwork Orange still appeals to its designated target audience because the themes of delinquency among societies young has never really abated for them. But it has to be faced that the film’s daring, street-cred is now a thing of the past. Nowadays, A Clockwork Orange works more as a social, historical document where its controversial potency is little more than supplementary baggage – an echo from a past that it the film so arrestingly conjures up for modern eyes. Kubrick’s brilliant visual aesthetic captures ’70s England arguably like no other. It may have once felt like two seconds into the future, but now its got one foot deeply in the past, lending it a funny ‘retro-futuristic’ air. What A Clockwork Orange so identifiably represents to audiences now is (much like Mike Hodges’ Get Carter in this respect) an austere comedown of the swinging decade that proceeded it. The aftershock of the ’60s excess hangs heavy over the proceedings like a hangover that simply will not shift. The shining bright future promised by the twin figureheads of modish Quant of Carnaby Street and ‘white heat’ Wilson of Downing Street have been replaced by chilled-to-the-bone three-day weeks and garish, gaudy oranges and browns. Europe, in the form of the then Common Market, has reached out to an increasingly beleaguered Heath’s England and, in doing so, there’s a feeling that its grip will tip the country into the sea; there’s a sense of a national identity adrift as Alex, with his curious language, erupts with bloody violence within eerily abandoned streets and brutalist buildings. All of this permeates Kubrick’s film and it’s particularly weird to see it today, with Europe moving away (or more accurately, being dismissed) from England in the wake of last year’s controversial decision to leave the EU. Those Brexiteers claims that this would be a move to regain national identity have been proven to be very hollow indeed as the identity seems just as insecure and ugly to behold now, with very real instances of ‘hate crime’ against immigrants now on the rise. The only difference now being the country doesn’t feel like its submerging into the sea, more like it’s abandoned its moorings to drift perilously off course and to an even greater, rabid oblivion.
The truth is that the notion of what is acceptable and unacceptable has moved on a pace in the forty-odd years since Kubrick banned his film and, whilst this means it may no longer provoke the same kind of reaction from audiences for whom the violence and depravity from both the delinquents and the authorities seeming somehow less confrontational, I still feel the film not only has relevance, but also that it has somehow maintained it’s ability to shock regardless. It may not necessarily be in the unsettling, stomach-churning depictions of rape or the horrific treatments of Ludovico, which may feel a bit excessive to some, but it’s certainly there in the sheer style of the piece; the all pervading-strangeness of it all, the way he frames each shot of this oddball political, judicial satire, the way he refuses to remove the camera from the disturbing, deeply manic expressions of the droogs as they make their getaway through the rural roads into the night, and in the sheer cynical, bloody bleakness of it all – yes, it is there that this film still feels at its most powerful, at its most shocking.
This Warners release comes complete with a bounty of extras, including a Making Of featurette, Malcolm McDowell’s commentary with film historian Nick Redman, a reflection from the star (who once famously admitted that he thought he had made a comedy) on the cultural impact of the film and its controversy, the Channel 4 documentary Still Tickin’ made to coincide with the film’s general release in 2000, a feature-length profile of McDowell’s career (wonderfully entitled O Lucky Malcolm! in reference to his other most famous, central role in Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy), John Harlan’s film Stanley Kubrick – A Life In Pictures, and the obligatory theatrical trailer.