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WITHOUT so much as a last gasp, the movies' New Romanticism has vanished as quickly as it came. Meanwhile, politics and the counter-culture have stopped selling, and sex is left for the pornographers. All that remains to fill the cultural gap is violence, and violence has done admirably. The success and controversy of El Topo, The Devils, and Straw Dogs in the last six months are witnesses to the arrival of brutality at center stage--fresh copy for the press, love object for the cultists, and general bugaboo for the hysterically-minded.
It is not only that violence is suddenly more explicit--it is certainly that--but now it is also expertly crafted. Roman Polanski is simply too technically proficient to be dismissed as a dealer in shock value. Sam Peckinpah is not just fascinated by violence, he is good at it.
And now Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange arrives on the scene, and the whole sticky business increases fourfold. Angry viewers write angry letters to bemused editors. Critics swoon in admiration or bellow in rage. Admittedly, A Clockwork Orange is at times a black and raw film; it has pushed violence about as far as is imaginable. But this still can't explain the sheer depth of resentment it has provoked.
So far both defenders and detractors of the film have argued the question of violence on conventional critical grounds. Is it gratuitous, they ask, or does the larger context of the film sustain it? Is it exploitative or central to Kubrick's vision?
BUT ALL THAT misses the issue. What is really so disconcerting about A Clockwork Orange has nothing to do with the general question of the place of violence in art. The brutality in the film may very well be gratuitous and exploitative, but what is far more disturbing is that it is so aesthetically satisfying anyway.
For the first hour of the film, adolescent protagonist Alex and his gang ravage a futuristic England, rape, vandalize, and murder. They are complete scoundrels, not redeemed by mutual esteem or sympathy for the unfortunate. But they are so vital and exuberant, and Kubrick is so technically masterful that, despite one's moral abhorrence, one cannot help but sympathize. One giggles.
All of which brings us to Mick Jagger. In one of the abortive attempts to get the Anthony Burgess novel on film, Jagger was to have played the role of Alex. The project fell through, but the possibility is too intriguing to ignore. As it is, Malcolm McDowell, who ultimately got the part and is superb, looks like Jagger, teases and taunts like Jagger, and is arrogant and sexy like Jagger.
AND in Alex's elaborate posturing, in his self-willed, self-conscious contempt for the weak, the ordinary and the feminine, in the exquisite tastelessness of that first brutal hour, the sensibility of A Clockwork Orange is pure Rolling Stones. Pop vulgarity in all its ambiguity. At one point, Alex, in the midst of rape and assault, breaks into the old Fred Astaire number "Singin in the Rain," and all the contradictions pour through. The scene is morally obscene, but technically masterful. It is appalling, as it should be, and exhilarating, as it should not. The film works in its pose, not its substance, and its emotional attraction has nothing to do with morality or politics; like it or not--and like it we should not--the violence works as an end in itself. Perhaps like sunsets and babies, there is some intrinsic aesthetic satisfaction to a body badly battered--if the battering is done well.
So let us grant that the violence is gratuitous and exploitative, but when we have said this, we have solved nothing. The appeal remains, and the appeal is the problem. Not: how could Kubrick do that? But: how can we admire him in spite of it?
A Clockwork Orange opened yesterday at Sack Cinema 57. A complete Crimson review is forthcoming.
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