A lot has been said about this film, and one point that has been argued over and over is whether the shocking imagery is artistic or merely exploitive. Usually this debate comes down to one side defending it as purely artistic, and the other attacking it as grossly exploitive. Most attacks have come from a position of conservative moral outrage, denouncing anything that even suggests that actions and persons such as the movie depicts can even exist. Some other, later attacks have come from a feminist angle. The defenders, meanwhile, have tried to argue that what we’re seeing is not exploitative.
Perhaps the one group that can build a bridge between these divided constituencies are the afficionados of B movies — those of us who actually enjoy crappy exploitation cinema, something which no side of the usual debate will admit to. It’s up to us to ask the question that nobody else seems willing to confront: “Why do you call it exploitation as if that’s a bad thing?”
Having done much to broaden my knowledge and appreciation of crap exploitation movies in recent years, I found that my own reaction to recently viewing this film’s opening act was to immediately recognize it as being of like kind. “Damn, this is totally an exploitation movie!” I could not say that Stanley Kubrick deliberately aped any identifiable exploitation technique, and the more one tries to analyze how he shot these scenes, the more one is forced to recognize his individual uniqueness as a filmmaker rather than his commonality with any poverty row crapiste. Yet the connection is plainly there nonetheless. Like the judge said about pornography, I may not be able to define when cinematic nudity is exploitive, but I know it when I see it. What it comes down to is that his camera’s view is dripping with “the male gaze”.
I don’t believe that Kubrick studied exploitation movies and set out to imitate them... except, maybe, in the clips of staged violence shown to Alex as he is being conditioned. I do believe that he pursued the same resultant effect that exploitation movies do, and may have arrived at similar techniques by working from first principles — a sort of convergent evolution of sleaze.
On subjects other than sex and violence, the view he takes is quite different — often crudely mocking. There’s a peculiarly English style of filmmaking in which ordinary characters are routinely made grotesque for comic effect — one sees it also in the works of Terry Gilliam, another American immigrant to Britain — and Kubrick sometimes takes this belittling viewpoint to extremes, distorting characters’ faces with fisheye lenses and so on as he directs them to load their performances with twitchy mannerisms. His “futuristic” interior decor also shows, among its other artistically significant traits, a strong aspect of mockery. But all that drops away when what’s on screen is a bit of the old ultra-violence or the old in-out in-out.
Why would a filmmaker of his reputation, skill, and legendary cold precision do such a thing? Once asked, the answer is obvious: because it dovetails perfectly with the theme of the story. We are indeed being subjected to the same kinds of film experience that Alex is subjected to in his chair of torture. Scenes that are supposed to repel, but also manage to attract on some level — if there were no attraction, Alex would not have to be conditioned against them. In short, the feminist criticisms are entirely correct about the film’s offenses, except that those offenses are not at all gratuitous, they’re integral to the whole point.
The ability of this film to be that which it is holding up in-story as dystopian nightmare fuel not only gives the film an extra resonance that the source novel cannot match, it is at the core of what makes this such an audacious and successful classic of the film medium despite the loathing many still hold for it. This is undoubtedly a masterwork from a great director.
But being B fans here, we can hardly leave our assessment of the movie at that. If there are elements of it that are ripe for some disparagement, well... Some might say “But you’d be mocking a classic work of art!” and we reply, again, “You say that as if it’s a bad thing.” And there are definitely places where the film has imperfections that are in the key of B.
First up... Malcolm McDowell can definitely be A HAM, and Kubrick strongly encouraged the tendency. In some parts, McDowell’s performance here is not really all that different from the spectacularly absurd turn he took as Caligula eight years later. His braying and leering performance as evil-Alex in the opening act is built as much from a modernized form of Snidely Whiplash stage villainy as it is from Anthony Burgess’s carefree motormouth sociopath. (Villains and ham have always gone together... personally, I even find Anthony Hopkins’ celebrated role of Hannibal Lecter to have rather too much of the moustache twirl in it.)
Second, I gotta say that for all the distinctive boldness with which Kubrick assembles the scores of his films in this period, sometimes his use of music — especially here, where pieces of music are significant plot elements — is as crude as in any cheap B film. He doesn’t sculpt music to follow the flow of the action, he just carves off big wet slabs of it and slaps them down flat on the dining room table. In this film particularly, he wields songs and symphonic movements against the audience like ponderous blunt instruments. Often his juxtapositions of misfitted melody and action have startling and memorable effects, because he is a master, but technique-wise, his approach is unapologetically ham-fisted... just like a good B movie. (Now it’s your turn to tell me “you say that like it’s a bad thing”.)
I fail to see the thematic significance of making David Prowse look gay.
And... about the exploitive bits again. There are times when Kubrick went a little nuts with the nudity and so forth, to the detriment of the story. It’s perfectly understandable, everyone else in Hollywood was going nuts with it, and this was the first film on which he could get away with it. Especially as he clearly did not want to go all out on gore and violence instead — he did tone down some shock material from the book, particularly attacks on children. (Indeed, the level of violence that audiences of a generation ago were so shocked by is, by modern standards, not all that graphic.) The principal scene where this nuts-going does damage to the tale is when Alex, having been “cured” of violence, is shown off to an audience of bigwigs. Here’s how it goes in the book:
He said to me, very sneery, “Hello, heap of dirt. Pooh, you don’t wash much, judging from the horrible smell.” Then, as if he was like dancing, he stamped on my nogas, left and right, then he gave me a finger-nail flick on the nose that hurt like bezoomny and brought the old tears to my glazzies then he twisted at my left ooko like it was a radio dial.... Now I knew I’d have to be real skorry and get my cut-throat britva out before this horrible killing sickness whooshed up and turned the like joy of battle into feeling I was going to snuff it. But, O my brothers, as my rooker reached for the britva in my inside carman I got this like picture in my mind’s glazzy of this insulting chelloveck howling for mercy with the red red krovvy all streaming out of his rot, and hot after this picture the sickness and dryness and pains were rushing to overtake, and I viddied that I’d have to change the way I felt about this rotten veck very very skorry indeed, so I felt in my carmans for cigarettes or for pretty polly, and, O my brothers, there was not either of these veshches....
I said, real desperate, to this insulting and hurtful veck to stop the pains and sickness coming up:
“Please let me do something for you, please.... I must do something. Shall I clean your boots? Look, I’ll get down and lick them.”
...Dr Brodsky said to the audience: “Our subject is, you see, impelled toward the good by, paradoxically, being impelled toward evil. The intention to act violently is accompanied by strong feelings of physical distress. To counter these the subject has to switch to a diametrically opposed attitude. Any questions? ...Now we shall see in action a manner of Love that was thought to be dead in the middle ages.”
...[Now out] rolled or sidled the most lovely young devotchka you could ever hope in all your jeezny, O my brothers, to viddy.... and the first thing that flashed into my gulliver was that I would like to have her right down there on the floor with the old in-out real savage, but skorry as a shot came the sickness... so I knew I had to think of some new like way of thinking about her before all the pain and thirstiness and horrible sickness come over me real horrorshow and proper. So I creeched out:
“O most beautiful and beauteous of devotchkas, I throw like my heart at your feet for you to like trample all over. If I had a rose I would give it to you. If it was all rainy and cally now on the ground you could have my platties to walk on so as not to cover your dainty nogas with filth and cal.” And as I was saying this, O my brothers, I could feel the sickness like slinking back. “Let me,” I creeched out, “worship you and be like your helper and protector from the wicked like world.” Then I thought of the right slovo and felt better for it, saying: “Let me be like your true knight,” and down I went again on the old knees, bowing and like scraping.
In short, the conditioning causes Alex not just to be nonviolent, but to behave, spontaneously and without prompting, like a parody of perfect Christian charity. Now in Kubrick’s version, this aspect is entirely missing; Brodsky’s speech about Alex being paradoxically impelled toward the good is still there, but it is no longer based on what Alex does. The bully has to tell him to lick the boot, and there isn’t a peep about being anyone’s true knight. And what did all this material, which is at the very core of the story’s theme, get cut out for? So Kubrick could spend about a solid minute lingering on the cold devotchka’s breasts. And then sneer at us for doing so, by showing the panting of the bigwigs in the demonstration’s audience.
(Malcolm McDowell tells a story about a time when Kubrick, when casting some nonspeaking parts for topless women, got so carried away with photographing their breasts that, though normally meticulous and organized in the extreme, he entirely forgot to record which photo went with which name or face.)
But honestly, I would describe that one scene as just a single failed moment in what is otherwise a very successful venture. The film does set aside some of Burgess’s theme — for instance, it does not really address the question of to what extent Alex in his original evil state was already a conditioned automaton — but I would say that the new kinds of questions it brings up, by directly roping its own audience into the moral issues it considers, make it equal in thematic richness to the novel, and more unsettling.
That it is so profoundly effective in spite of sometimes being far more broadly comical than the book is extraordinary. Kubrick has added quite a bit of dark humor, much of it surprisingly coarse, and I’m honestly quite unable to understand or analyze how doing this is any help to the film in addressing the serious themes it contains... but Kubrick is a film genius and I am not, and it’s no surprise that once again, the result proves that he was right.
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