A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the Stanley Kubrick film of the Anthony Burgess novel, tries to force its audience to accept some outrageously artificial terms. I don't think you should accept them: they are those of its lead character, without any distancing to guard you from his impulses. Even with those granted, the film won't give satisfaction. Kubrick's work is not immoral, but it is awfully silly. And 2001 fans will go home crying--this one features crude theatrical effects and baldly repetitious camera movements.
The Burgess novel has for years been an underground classic. A nihilistic put-down of an English welfare state grown large enough to make its population (willingly) swallow dubious measures it dictates, the book attacks not only this future society but the unthinking few who rebel from it. Alex, the narrator, is the fifteen-year-old leader of a street gang, one of many which terrorize unwary citizens in poorly-policed night hours. He is a sadistic punk, only a little better than the authority figures he confronts, and no better than the elders he kills and rapes. If his NADSAT slang, composed of Russian, rock and road talk, is an attractive reaction against official jargon, the scientific tomes of a donnish type and the antique knick-knacks collected by a starry old lady are more touching attempts to preserve personal cultural interests. Aside from the attractions of the language, Burgess uses Alex's tunnel vision in order to balance his own hard knocks at government regimentation. After much discussion of the primacy of Free Will in moral systems, the book closes with the question it begins with: "What's it going to be then, eh?" For Burgess, neither social efficiency nor individual freedom is worth all costs; a compromise must be struck, taking into account human capacities for both compassion and aggression.
KUBRICK, however, removes the ambivalence of the Burgess viewpoint, and weights all material on Alex's side. The people whom the gang beat up are ugly or ridiculous--they spout cant about the lack of law and order or assume mere postures of fear. Alex still gets to screw two teen-age girls, but here he doesn't first get them drunk or shoot them up with horse. Kubrick makes his representatives of the state not only bland, but sexually randy. Most important for audience emotion-letting: out of all the victims seen, only Alex suffers. Kubrick has, in general, turned Burgess around to make apologia for a teen-age hero pitted against decadent oldsters.
Burgess satirized philosophic issues through the individuals who embodied them. Kubrick has overplayed the satire, which wasn't that subtle to begin with. The novel is one of the first '60's apocalypses to take apart the weeping-heart liberal: Alex stomps the author of an essay called "A Clockwork Orange," which protests the state's "attempt to impose...laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation"; in addition, he brutally rapes the writer's wife. Later, Alex is sent to prison on a murder charge and undergoes the Ludovico Treatment--which conditions him against violent, sexual or (ironically) musical action, leaving him helpless when he finally returns to the outside world. The writer initially pities Alex--whom he then discovers to be the mugger and rapist. The writer's motives become muddled--he attempts to kill Alex and discredit the L.T. in one move, and botches the job. In Kubrick, the writer is so caricatured that his motives are individually ridiculous anyway. In the final ten minutes of the film, thematic development becomes utterly chaotic, with none of the possibilities for resolution made clear.
What Kubrick has made from Burgess's fantasy is a plush animated cartoon, with extraordinary color consistency (credit John Alcott's lights), one acceptable action setpiece (a gang battle, not the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence), and a cast of characters in no way as interesting and varied as that of Fritz the Cat. The Ludovico Treatment, not as indispensable to the book's development as Burgess's language and characters, not only dominates the film's outlook, but the way in which it works.
UBRICK zaps the audience. The music keeps you awake or makes some obvious comic point, but it is too strained to be effective counterpoint to the narrative (as in 2001), and the entire mode of storytelling--a mosaic held together by the director's editing--is so self-propelled that nothing but action or obligatory dialogue becomes an integral part of the story. John Barry's production design and Russell Hagg's art direction drop sexual decorations and phallic sculptures in the midst of sterile modern architecture: a vain attempt to indict a Zeitgeist through innuendo. The gracelessness of the photography, however, is perhaps the most telling aspect of Mr. Kubrick's growing arrogance as a director. In vain, we wait for some formal structures to emerge from the succession of images, as they did in 2001 (or as everyone thought they did in 2001). Perhaps, in relief, we hope to be whipped through the story with the no-nonsense bite and sardonic flair of the previous Kubricks. Instead, if you look closely, you can spot the same scene-setting dolly used three times in the first five minutes of Orange. (The only shots which Kubrick repeats to some purpose are two lateral truck shots in the writer's quarters.)
The acting further demonstrates the one-sidedness of Kubrick's approach. Malcolm McDowell is fine as Alex--but he's the only actor Kubrick gives screen space. Is it that hard to hold an audience when your competition is physically slighter than you, and following cuecards to boot? Patrick Magee is the second lead, the writer, and in his crucial scenes he's an embarrassment--he drums his fingers and stares wildly ceilingwards like a resurrected Dwight Frye. The officials act like they're in drag, and the thugs are morons, without the gutter wit that makes them interesting in Peckinpah.
What makes the film so frustrating is that Kubrick was able to do what he wanted. This is no groping failure, but a full-scale breakdown. I am hard-pressed to find reason for the praise and the controversy it has engendered. Kubrick has removed the book's human qualities to the extent that the only ones that should be bothered by the violence are the stunt-men's wives. He has transformed Christian anger into adolescent braying. He has made a hard-driving piece of sensationalist entertainment, but the only serious subject I see Kubrick able to cope with after it is military history. He's currently prepping a film on Napoleon.