There was a time when liking Clockwork Orange was just about the coolest, darkest and nastiest thing you could do.
In the early seventies at school it was only the genuinely nasty types who were even allowed to talk about it. Everyone else was far too soft to have seen the film, which everyone believed to have been banned not knowing that Kubrick himself withdrew it, and the book was passed around, a battered and moth eaten bible guide on how to be bad. Grubby hands pawed over that iconic book jacket and probably never got past page ten of the book which being written in a half made up, cut and paste language, was a bit too much for grunting lovers of ultraviolence.
Of course the fact that no one actually understood it didn’t get in the way of all the posturing and the fact that it was actually a deeply intellectual work of paranoia and a dark take on authority and the moral code of a decaying world seemed to have sailed past most of its teen thug fans.
That stark graphic on the cover was enough. It was the ultimate badge of out there weirdness and toughness and a definite precursor to the nihilistic side of punk rock. All you had to do was hold the book and no-one would fuck with you. And if you had sent he film then you could lace up yer docs with pride.
The film itself has just been tarted up and presented at the Cannes film festival and lead actor Malcolm McDowell, who plays the lead Droog Alex, is doing the rounds talking eloquently about the film itself and his relationship with the director Stanley Kubrick.
It’s fascinating stuff and a measure of how much society has changed since the seventies. Most commentators now see the film as some sort of black comedy and snicker at the scenes of rape and ultra violence and point to the film’s iconography going mainstream with the likes of Kylie Minogue using the boiler suited droog image on her recent tour as a sign of its acceptance.
Whether this is a good or a bad thing is another point, we have become so dulled to what Burgess termed as ultraviolence that somehow it doesn’t even matter anymore and the fact that the film almost seems quaint and old fashioned like it’s a witty Gilbert and Sullivan opera is a bit unnerving.
The book itself was a work of genius with its multilayered subtleties so often missed. A complex work it pitches the youthful Alex into a dark world- which he quickly makes darker. Victim or instigator, Alex is based on Alexander the Great and there are countless other themes in the book, some dark, some biblical, some a comment on the way Burgess perceived the post war society- a society stunned by the sheer scale and depravity of the human psyche presented by the Nazis and then the communists was heading. Almost a hangover from the second world war, the book has a disdain for the Nazis and their psychotic behaviour whilst still loving ”Ëhigh culture’- by making Alex a fan of Beethoven Burgess sneers at the belief that culture can pacify the grunting human animal with Alex himself happy to indulge in his ultraviolence whilst listening to Beethoven.
The key rape scene in the book of the writer’s wife was based on Burgess own wife being raped by American GI’s during the war and the book’s mix of fatalism and brutality was a reflection of the way Burgess felt the post war world was going- a fatalism that has been partly true.
The film, whilst being brilliantly acted and seamlessly made, is a weirdly sketchy take on the book and seems to miss some of the points of it, somehow, though, it’s loose take and almost comic book glow on the book’s narrative makes it even darker and stranger, with its sheen like plasticity making the violence seem even more off hand and darker. The fact that you couldn’t see it added to its allure and many a apprentice psycho would fake tales of seeing the film in some backstreet cinema whilst the very occasional distorted pirate video copy would float around in the late seventies with everyone storming around to the one person who had a video recorder’s house to drool over its artfulness, freak violence and genuine weirdness.
What really doesn’t work is the way the film controversially misses the last chapter of the book. Burgess meticulously wrote 21 chapters because 21 was the age when, in his mind, a boy turns into a man. The 21st chapter in the book saw Alex grow up and sort of settle down but still plagued by his demons. In America this chapter was considered far too much of redemption and a cop out and the book was printed with 20 chapters with Alex left in the cycle of punishment and state brutality which matches anything he could dream up himself with his droogs.
Kubrick claimed to have never seen this version of the book until the film’s near completion and didn’t like the ending anyway- leaving the film with a completely different message than Burgess’s book.
For me, the best version is of Burgess himself reading the book. His gruff Mancunian voice adds to the starkness and he really get inside the Nadsat- the language he brilliantly made up from Russian and other words- a great example of the youth slang and cut up, grab bits of culture from everywhere that would become such a staple of all modern pop culture.
The book itself stands the test of time, the language once you have settled into it is genius. Burgess creates this strange and dark world and his made up words quickly make sense- it’s even stranger now when you read it and realise just how many of the those words have entered pop culture in a case of life imitating art.
The random violence, the nihilism, the drug use, the weak parents and the vicious state machine and the endless brutality are all part of modern life and the book seems like a work of visionary genius.
It can still be read as a guide on how to be a hooligan or it can be wallowed in for its subtle and deeper message, Anthony Burgess was one of the great writers here reflecting the growing post war paranoia of the new concrete.
The second world war was brutalising and after the way the Nazis pushed the depravity in the name of their take on culture it’s no wonder that writers like Burgess were cynical. Afterall the random droog violence was nothing compared to what the state was capable of. The post war concrete world and the rise of the state brutality in Russia, mixed with a dreamland of the classical world, a wrestle with biblical morality and a genuine feeling of disgust towards the establishment and the sheer brutality that man is capable of are all entwined in the book.
The film took all this and turned it into a surreal black comedy, a west end romp and a pop culture classic that is both entertaining and uncomfortable to watch and will hopefully guide people towards the book which still contains the terror of modern life in its brilliantly written pages.