The Church Of Me
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Of course Kubrick knew damn well about the final chapter, and he was right to ignore it (or spread its contents subliminally throughout his screenplay). Perhaps he should have ignored the narration, as well; Burgess' extended High Tory moan of a novel reads like bad Christopher Marlowe. Burgess was always the sort of person who gave the impression of being a great writer without actually having written anything great.

It's all very 1971, of course. The balletic tropes of the rape and murder scenes come across like a Pete and Dud sketch for which the punchline had been lost. The business with Miss Weatherby the Catwoman is straight out of Benny Hill. All very mild, all a rather laboured set-up for remaining 90 minutes of the film which concern themselves with the question of revolt.

And Kubrick films link to other Kubrick films in his own Arcades. With Clockwork Orange it seems to me that the film with which it naturally pairs is Spartacus, that other extended dissemination of a violent rebel and how "society" tames and neutralises him. Unlike Spartacus, Alex has no specific political or social reason for what he does; he does it because he cannot achieve otherness in any other way. But the repeated references to crucifixion - indeed, the line "I'd rather be crucified than crucify!" is a direct lift from the Spartacus screenplay - not to mention the final imagined graveside scene, which queerly preludes Kubrick's next work, Barry Lyndon - would suggest that we are meant to view his random violence (with its accompanying misogyny) as a greater and noble thing than that perpetuated by the State.

It of course suggests something else. As with Spartacus (famously exemplified by Olivier double-entendring away with Curtis in Hearst's old swimming pool) there is a homoerotic subtext a continent wide in this film. The Droogs fancy him, in particular Dim (Warren Clarke) - and the latter's subsequent transformation into a proto-buggery police officer indicates a degree of Iago-like estrangement and betrayal. Note the evident hard-on enthusiasm he displays when dunking Alex in the horse trough - the equivalent of Olivier's brewing rage when he finds that Curtis has vacated his life, subsequently forcing Kirk Douglas to slay him.

And throughout the film, in contrast to Alex's problems with women, nearly every manifestation of male authority makes a play for him. There's Aubrey Morris' Post-Corrective Adviser - a role which should quietly chill but which Morris, as is his wont, camps up beyond credibility. The part reads as though it was written for Kenneth Williams. The prison chaplain, the Home Secretary (a pity that Eric Portman was by that time no longer around to give that latter role its definitive performance) - and, most notoriously, Mr Alexander, the writer whose wife was raped by the Droogs and who himself was crippled in their attack.

When we first encounter them in their overly spacious house (a nod to 2001 and also an alternative fate for the two protagonists of The Shining?) they enact a strange Pinteresque, deliberately banal dialogic exchange ("Well I suppose we'd better let them in"). Slowness, stiffness - there is no love or sex in this house to begin with. His wife in her womb-like pod could be a thousand miles away from him. The distance says it all; the shelves of largely unread books confirm it. It's significant that the most uninhibited act of violence in the Droogs' rampage is when Alex gleefully tips over the writer's desk and typewriter, followed by one of his bookcases; the denial of sex itself, in a very literal sense, brought to book.

(The rape scene itself is not very explicit and deliberately shot at a distance, and only in its early stages. A much more explicit refraction of the cravings of the passive viewer can be found in the genuinely brutal extended rape scene which forms the centrepiece of the 1992 Belgian flim Man Bites Dog. In the latter, the serial killer is simply going about his daily business as though it were a job; the punctum in this scene is that the camera assistants who are making a documentary about the man enthusiastically join in with the rape and murder as though they were simply adjusting cables or designing a set. Changing Rooms as hijacked by de Sade and Francis Bacon. Worse is the reaction of the audience, including this writer and his partner when they first saw it in the cinema - I regret to report that we were rolling about in laughter at the blackly comedic incongruity of the whole thing)

Even more significant is the later sequence where a reformed but societally-disowned Alex seeks refuge in the writer's house. The dialogic sequence plays itself through again, word for word. The desk, typewriter and books are all in their original place as if no damage had been done, as if the wife had never existed, for - when the camera does the same long pan from him to the spherical chair - we find reclined in the latter, not his wife (who apparently died of pneumonia some months after her rape), but an extremely camp David Prowse as his "bodyguard" - in other words, his real desire, a shapely hunk. He welcomes Alex in, as he is now apparently engaged in writing "subversive literature" (a jibe by Burgess at "liberalism") and is seemingly on his side - that is, until he overhears Alex in the bath gleefully singing "Singin' In The Rain" - the same song the Droogs sang as the rape and attack took place. Knowing who he now is, the writer sets about nullifying him, but society first nullifies the writer to save Alex and the ruling party's wafer-thin parliamentary majority.

(Alas, Patrick Magee, a distinguished Beckettian who plays the writer, also falls into the ham/camp trap. In his latter appearances you could almost be watching Kenneth Griffith!)

Alex's final courting by the Home Secretary does not of course lead to his renouncing violence - the conspiratorial closing whisper of "Oh, yes, I was cured all right!" put paid to that, not to mention keeping the sequel options open (although no sequel was made); his "rebel" self is reborn, Spartacus lives through his baby son - "he will grow up to be a Roman!" exclaims Jean Simmons, nearly as chillingly.

In truth, Clockwork Orange is a rather ropey film. The device of anti-violence propagandising/indoctrinating film footage was used to much starker and far more frightening effect in Pakula's The Parallax View three years later; the acting is generally far too camp; the jocular tone far too jocular to act as any kind of an ironic Greek chorus - and its signifiers far too easily assumed (without any understanding of the signified) by two generations' worth of dumb pop groups and denser designers.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

. . .