Monday, August 20, 2012
First sentences: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
'What's it going to be then, eh?'
Of course, that's two first sentences, but we'll have a more interesting post if I include both.
'What's it going to be then, eh?' is as much a motif as a sentence: each of the book's four sections begins with this phrase, and it provides a driving theme throughout. A Clockwork Orange is a book about a lot of things, but by its own statements at the end, it's primarily a book about youth. Alex, violent criminal that he is, passes through four stages - or, since he's a music lover, we might consider the book a symphony and say four movements - and the question re-occurs in new contexts. This, the first section, contains a long series of cheerfully described assaults, rapes, robberies and fights; 'What's it going to be then, eh?' is the question of four teenagers sketching out their evening plans for mayhem. It's a threatening question - what it's going to be is going to be bad for quite a lot of people - but it's also youthful one: Alex and his friends, like any teenagers, gather with no fixed plans. It is, youthfully, a question of activity - what are we going to play today? - but it's also a question of boredom, boys with no interest in life except violence and no accomplishments except the ability to dominate their victims, looking for fresh ways to fill the empty time.
As Alex's circumstances change, consequences progressively piling upon him, the question is asked by different people. The second time we hear it, it's a question from the prison chaplain while Alex serves a sentence for murder. At that point, it's a question of moral choice: are you going to learn from this experience and become better people, or are you going to remain sinners? The chaplain (the 'prison charlie', as Alex lightly refers to him) is not a man of moral authority, and Alex has little respect for him, but it is a question Alex answers in a way: he chooses to become 'good'. Or rather, he chooses to subject himself, with a teenager's arrogant lack of caution, to 'Ludovico's Technique', knowing only that it's a method that will get him out of prison within a few weeks and prevent his return, and not pausing to reflect that with a state as violent and authoritarian as the one he inhabits, such a technique might not promise such a reward without being a little more drastic than he anticipates. Filled with drugs and conditioned to associate violence with nausea, Alex becomes the same bad person he's always been but unable to see or contemplate violence without collapsing in sickness, and is then released onto the streets with no further rehabilitation, leading to the third 'What's it going to be then, eh?' as he wonders what on earth he's going to do now. What he does is knock from one place to another, rejected everywhere as his karma catches up with him: his parents don't want him back, his former victims can take their revenge with impunity, and political dissidents eventually provoke him to a suicide attempt in order to raise a scandal about Ludovico's Technique.
The final 'What's it going to be then, eh?' is interesting, because it heads a chapter that was omitted from the American version of the book, and also from Stanley Kubrick's notorious film adaptation. Faced with a scandal, the government has had no choice but to decondition Alex, and the previous chapter has ended with a gleeful, 'I was cured all right.' In this chapter, Alex begins where he started, head of a new gang, with a conveniently enjoyable day job provided by the government in exchange for some propaganda (which of course Alex, entirely self-centred, sees no reason not to provide). This time, however, the prospects of what it's 'going to be' that the criminal life can offer him are losing their lustre. His thug friends irritate him with their immaturity; he's starting to see it as 'cowardly' to hurt people weaker than himself; he's starting to want to keep his money rather than squander it; he has, for reasons he can't quite explain, found himself carrying a picture of a baby in his wallet. Eventually he runs into the mildest of his original 'droogs', now happily married and law-abiding, and in the melancholy of comparing their lives remarks with surprise, 'I was like growing up.' 'So that's what it's going to be,' Alex finally declares: he's going to settle down, find 'like, a mate,' and have children - though it's his bleak expectation that his son will repeat all his own mistakes because youth is too stupid to do otherwise.
So much is mostly synopsis, but it's an important part of the repeated sentence. The book begins with a question that the final chapter answers, and in so doing sketches out a theme that Burgess himself acknowledged as didactic: youth is a time of asking that question and answering it badly, and the bad answers get better if people are allowed to mature. The final chapter, he remarked, brought the total to twenty-one, and '21 is the symbol of human maturity, or used to be, since at 21 you got the vote and assumed adult responsibility,': removing it damages the numerology as well as the theme of the book. 'Those twenty-one chapters were important to me,' Burgess stated in the introduction to this edition, 'But they were not important to my New York publisher.' Burgess was deeply annoyed, complaining that 'The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings can change ... The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.' It's rather interesting to reflect in current times that the American pressure was to make a book less wholesome rather than more so: 'The Americans, [my publisher] said in effect, were tougher than the British and could face up to reality. Soon they would be facing up to it in Vietnam. My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really wanted was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it ... Such a book would be sensational, and so it is. But I do not think it is a fair picture of human life.'
What can we make of this American preference for a 'Nixonian' ending? Given that this decision took place in the early 1960s, perhaps that there was an element of cooler-than-thou as well as a belief that violence was more honest than maturation; hope for the future was, according to Burgess's bitter summation, 'veddy veddy British.' When it comes to Kubrick, there is a greater defence to be mounted: every novel that passed through Kubrick's hands became, through that great director's icy alchemy, a Kubrick film, and finding one's work stripped of redemptive qualities was not an experience unique to Burgess. Stephen King's Jack Torrance sacrifices himself for his son at the end of the book; Stanley Kubrick's freezes to death in a snowy maze, chasing the little boy in a murderous rage, roaring like a wild boar. Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert finally comes to understand that the true tragedy of his relationship with Lolita is the harm he has wrought upon her life; Kubrick's realises no such thing, and closes the film hunting her rescuer with murder in his heart. Closest in spirit to A Clockwork Orange is perhaps Full Metal Jacket, a dark comedy in Kubrick's hands, sharing A Clockwork Orange's gleefully unapologetic presentation of youthful male violence; less well known is Gustav Hasford's small and beautiful book The Short-Timers, upon which Full Metal Jacket was based, a savage and elegiac cry for the horror of soldiering with more grief than glee at the callousness it creates. Kubrick never liked to make a straight adaptation: such are the perils of letting your work into the hands of an auteur. Kubrick films are best understood as inspired by novels rather than based upon them, and with his preference for poised, heartless wit, it's hardly surprising that Kubrick chose the 'American version.' It would be hardly surprising if he had excised the humanist final chapter even if the publisher hadn't.
The publisher, though? Looking at books through the medium of first sentences actually gives us a clear and simple condemnation of his hubris. Look at the whole book, and a first sentence can get lost in the crowd, but isolate it, and what sense does the American version make? With the twenty-first chapter intact, that sentence is a thematic through-line, a question posed throughout the story that the conclusion finally answers. With only twenty chapters to conjure with, it becomes little more than a gimmick: each section starts the same way for no particular reason that we can determine. It looks like a writer trying to be clever rather than a writer exercising his intelligence. It's a fair generalisation to say that if the removal of a chapter makes the first sentence of the book look stupid, that chapter should probably stay where it is.
That, then, is one way of looking at the first sentence of this book: as a sentence that makes a strong ruling on a dispute between author and editor. What of the sentence itself?
A Clockwork Orange is famously written in 'nadsat talk', an invented slang largely based upon Russian vocabulary, but the first sentence is plain English. Very plain English, in fact, and more than plain: awkward English. The staccato 'What's it going to be then, eh?' has no elegance to it, the phatic 'then' and 'eh' redundantly rattling over each other at the end. When two out of seven words in a sentence add no meaning to its content, one can assume an inarticulate speaker. The 'then, eh?' serves a social rather than an aesthetic function: piled together, they make it clear that this is indeed a question, and not a rhetorical one either: both are short prods at the listener, demanding a response. Cooperation is not the tone here; instead, language jostles and provokes. Living language is very much the medium of this book, and questions are asked because people want something of each other. Street tough or prison chaplain, the push for an answer is the same, a democratising force of inelegant demand. The reader may deduce a theme, but the speaker and listeners are a practical bunch, and the question means something else to them.
Character is absent too - as witness, of course, the fact that it's a question asked by everybody, but also by the curious placing of the speaker in the sentence: in this context, 'What's it going to be?' is a substitute for 'What are we going to do?' While the prison chaplain's asking of the question is an exhortation to moral choice, this iteration steps back from responsibility: what will 'be', it asks, as if the teenagers' upcoming rampage were something that simply happened rather than being deliberately chosen. Alex, in the disputed final chapter, compares teenagers to clockwork toys that bump into anything in their paths, and this aspect of denied agency, unthinking impulse, is present in the question.
Present, though, is a general sense of malaise. While selfish Alex only notices politics insofar as they cause him personal inconvenience, what we see through his eyes is a state moving more and more towards totalitarianism. Youth violence is out of control, draconian measures are being introduced - not just for the sake of law and order, but because the government is running out of prison room and, as a minister ominously remarks, 'Soon we may be needing all our prison space for political offenders.' Alex comes a brutal cropper, but as a victim of Ludovico he is incidental to the state, subjected to torture largely because he is in the way and they need his prison cot for other purposes. Prisons are desperately overcrowded; released, Alex finds that 'brutal young roughs' like two of his former friends have been recruited into the police and deal out 'a bit of the old summary' - that is, a severe beating - to any minor offender they feel doesn't merit 'the old station routine' of legal arrest. Alex isn't interested in what it's 'going to be' except as regards his own wellbeing, but the question rumbles around him, and the answer does not sound encouraging.
So, that's the first sentence of the book, and there's plenty to be said about it. But while we're here, we might as well look at the second, as it's more or less a template example of how an author introduces new words to their fiction.
Present, again, is the jerky and graceless use of language. Alex begins with a scramble, a blunt 'That was me,' to tell us who's speaking, and breaks off every few words to add another aside. Given that we begin with 'That was me,' parenthetically explaining the previous remark, really the whole sentence is an aside, information fired at us as each new thought occurs to our impulsive narrator. 'And we sat', too, feels like an afterthought, or rather like a run-on commentary with no particular interest in establishing itself neatly: between two 'that is' asides, an aside about an aside referring to Dim's dimness, and then a simple, awkward 'and', by the time we get to an explanation of what's actually happening (with another aside about the weather, and a tacked-on 'though dry' for good measure), Alex has forced us into patience with him. He's going to talk at his own pace, he's not going to bother with the niceties of phrasing - or even, on occasion, grammar - and we can accept it or we can, as he tells us at intervals, 'kiss my sharries.'
What does 'sharries' mean? Well, we can work it out from context: it means buttocks, because what else does somebody impatient tell us to kiss? And that's the key to how nadsat talk works for us, and that we can see right from the beginning.
Some editions of A Clockwork Orange apparently were published with a glossary at the back. Such an edition is, to this reader at least, an addition almost as barbarous as the excision of a chapter: a glossary encourages the reader to take constant breaks from the text, referring back and forth through the pages, and that creates an entirely different rhythm of reading. The point of Alex's language is that we can, in fact, reliably work out everything from context: Alex may be a casual narrator, but Burgess is an extremely careful writer, and if we take a 'nadsat immersion' approach to the narrative, we quickly get our ear in. And by being forced to get our ear in, we quickly, too, are forced to start seeing things from Alex's perspective. 'Tolchock a veck' sounds a lot more fun and a lot less nasty than 'Hit a man.' While we're presented with detailed descriptions of Alex's crimes, we are simultaneously shielded from the victim's perspective: Alex's slang is domineering, crowing and callous, closed to empathy. (Which is probably a major reason why the film adaptation struck such controversy: playful as Kubrick's camera is, it cannot provide the narrative distance of Burgess's language.) To best catch the pace of Alex's thought, we need to read the text without any double-checking.
This second sentence is a clear example of it. 'My three droogs' are introduced, first names only, sitting together in a bar. Clearly this means friends or companions, because the four are acting like friends, even if we don't know that 'drug' is the Russian word. Then we get to 'making up our rassoodocks'; this can only mean 'making up our minds', because the idiom is familiar. Finally we get to 'flip': there are a number of possible meanings we could intuit - the commonest definition seems to be 'wild', though the word is later applied to 'flip horrorshow [good] boots for kicking', so 'extreme' might be a more all-purpose translation - but it's clear that it's some kind of emphasis added to the jumble of adjectives Alex applies to the weather. The fact that the precise meaning of 'flip' isn't clear is another element of our immersion: we are not lost as to the general sense, but at the same time we're acclimatised to an element of uncertainty. We know roughly what Alex is talking about, if not completely, and so are at once required to accept that we may sometimes have to see a word in more than one context to get a full understanding of it - but only if it's crucial to understanding the whole sentence. In fact, we're assured that we can get on with this language if we'll just exercise a bit of patience with it: we have to commit in this, the second sentence, if we are to continue, and the sentence is generous enough with its context that the commitment looks worthwhile.
The new words and unruly syntax are really equally important: it's the shunting beats of Alex's speech that conveys his force as much as any fictional jargon. Energy rather than elegance is the key here - and his energy is turned amiably towards us. Alex is a narrator who cheerfully talks to us, calling us 'oh my brothers' often enough, and as his situation gets worse, 'oh my brothers and only friends.' Likewise he's quite happy to explain things to us whenever it occurs to him ('Dim being really dim', he adds, just to save us any confusion as to the source of the nickname), and he's willing and ready to share. For such a horrible individual Alex is surprisingly likeable, and it's the lively, friendly, explanatory stance towards the reader that does it. We're half-inclined to like him just because he seems to like us.
Even without his explanations, though, there's more to see. Dim's nickname may be happily accounted for, but names in general are important here. The very fact that one of the gang is given such an insulting nickname tells us something about its abrasive dynamic, and hints at the underlying tensions that will explode it, too, for the others finally tire of Alex's high-handedness and betray him to the police. Dim's nickname establishes him at the bottom of the hierarchy as far as Alex is concerned, but Dim himself is far from willing to stay there. But while it may be an extreme nickname, it's worth pointing out that none of the boys bears a full moniker: there's no talk of Peter, George or Alexander here. Again, this is joky friendship, but it's also part of the book's ludic relationship with language in general: our chatty narrator cannot see a name without wanting to play with it somehow. 'Pete' may be quicker to say than 'Peter', but 'Georgie' takes longer than 'George': convenience is not the issue. Instead, the point is flippancy: everything, down to the names, must partake of the joke, for to be outside the joke is to be on its receiving end, and the receiving end is under the boys' fists. Fun is what they are after, and taking anything too seriously spoils the game. Alex's fall, in fact, begins because he himself takes something seriously: a passionate music-lover, he loses his temper when Dim blows a raspberry at a woman singing an operatic extract and punches him for being a 'filthy drooling mannerless bastard', garnering himself the beginnings of mutiny in the process. Ceasing to laugh is a dangerous business, even at your own name.
Punning Burgess, though, may very well have intended something specific in naming his hero. (Credit where it's due, this is not my original point, but I fear I forget the name of the critic who pointed it out.) Alexander may be a name of Greek origin, but parse the nickname in Latin and you can hear something else: a-lex, without law. Lawlessness is announced in Alex's very name, making him only in part a character. He is, too, an avatar of riotous youth, an embodiment of the spirit that hasn't yet served its twenty-one years. Specific his voice may be, but the playful grammar and bouncy slang hide him as well: everyone seems to talk like that in his world. If a character speaks in an idiom familiar to us, we can get a sense of the subtle variations in how they employ it, but Alex, speaker of an invented language, is as much its representative as its user. Exactly what Alex's personality is, outside of his merry criminality, is not quite the issue: his voice is lively and engaging, but it's not a study of temperament. It's a study of condition, of a social role specific to a time of life (at least according to Burgess), and Alex's punning name and foreign vocabulary serve to generalise him as much as to make him specific. Devoid of a surname, he simply is what he is: Alex, lawless, nadsat.
What's it going to be, then? The answer, assuming a sympathetic publisher, depends a great deal on where you are, and how old.
I think that the uncertainty of meaning is important because it reflects the lack of formal definition of actual slang; a word's meaning may have nothing to do with what its native speakers would understand by it, once it's gone through the process of becoming a generic term of (dis)approbation and later been fastened onto some specific concept. (At least that's the impression I've gained; I'm no expert.)
Nobody's writing down what a particular word means; when someone in this community associates a word and a new meaning, he's going to be spreading it by context, in just the same way that it's used here, and the meaning will never be clearer to its users than it is to us.
Something I'd be interested to learn: it seems to be a critical truism that Burgess picked Russian as the source language because it was considered the language of the enemy, and thus likely to offend the (in-story) adults. But how obvious would this have been to the original audience of the book, and how much would they have been able to work out the source terms?
Wow, having a real "wow" moment here. I couldn't connect some of your analysis to A Clockwork Orange as I remembered it so up got out the copy that I read "back in the day" (and which is heavily underlined and annotated -- we didn't just read it in passing) - and I realized that although our copy is "not for sale in the USA" it too was missing that last chapter. It is a reprint issued after Kubrick's film and, I would gather, the chapter was removed even so that it would not "disagree" with the filmed version.
Also, realize that our copy is both well read and badly bound so that probably needs to be replaced -- so I guess we need to order it from a British bookstore (and check that it has that chapter before we do so.)
I wonder if the reason for the excision is that the United States can't stand redemption narratives.
Having grown up in the United States, what comes immediately to mind is the narrative of American history: it's told as a sequence of conflicts where the virtuous side prevails. The American Revolution pit plucky freedom-fighters against the oppressive British; the Civil War had the virtuous northerners fight to free the slaves; the World Wars (both of them) had the Noble Americans save the world from the German (and Japanese) Empires.
In all of these cases, the narrative says that the victors weren't changed by the experience. The newly-formed United States didn't go through a troublesome period of establishing self-governance that resulted in suppressing several local rebellions. Instead they (mumble mumble mumble) WESTWARD HO! (mumble) CIVIL WAR!
I think that attitude carries through to literature as well, and why the true ending of Clockwork Orange is problematic. Here, by our host's summary (I haven't read the book myself) Chapter 21 presents self-inspired disillusionment and desire for reform that simply wasn't there before. The protagonist didn't uncover a hidden gem of virtue (which makes up for "acceptable" redemption), he created something that wasn't there before.
The comparisons to modern extreme political discourse and the updated versions of Satanic Panics discussed on Fred Clark's blogs are unfortunately too obvious. Americans love for their villains to be unredeemable.
Christopher Subich: that attitude that a villain is unredeemable also feeds rather blatantly into the justice system, particular prisons. Why bother to make them anything other than boxes to put people in, if they're always going to be villains when they come out anyway? Ditto the death penalty: you don't have to worry about a wrongful conviction, because they are villains and you are not.
The flaws in this sort of thinking seem obvious enough to me, but clearly it's good enough for a lot of people...
I think a big question is how much the American attitude has changed since A Clockwork Orange was first published. Which, after all, was fifty-odd years ago, and in the 1960s, a time of notorious social upheaval. It's possible that an editor open to publishing such a violent book in the first place was an editor on the side of the rebels who would object to the idea that order might prevail over non-conformity, and especially that order might prevail by choice - that a rebel might choose to stop rebelling.
From a literary standpoint, I can see it, because for all the book's merits, Alex's moral reformation does feel a little tacked-on: it all happens in the final chapter, and nothing in any of the previous chapters has suggested any maturation at all. The entire story has been about how in moral essentials, he fails to change or to learn from experience; having him acquire maturity through the passage of unseen time is not, perhaps, the best character writing. It works as a fable, but it doesn't sit quite comfortably with Alex's narrative voice, which is one of the book's most striking feats. So it's a bit of a problem, or at least, it's likely to seem to to at least some readers.
And it would be difficult to address that problem by changing things in any of the previous three sections, because they're all such magnificent set-pieces that hints at future growth would spoil them. It would likewise be difficult to address it by having a longer section in which Alex matures, because that would cause drastic damage to the rhythm and pace of the whole book. I think the editor was wrong, but I can see why he might have felt that the solution to this mildly nagging sense that Alex's reformation was all a bit sudden was to cut it out entirely.
Burgess said that the American publisher felt it was 'selling out', which might suggest a political objection - perhaps that human nature is not so changeable, or perhaps that a rebel must continue to rebel for the edification of the audience. (Although Alex is no rebel in the political sense, merely a criminal who openly enjoys his criminality. But rebellion was fashionable in the sixties, and when a particular mood is in fashion, that affects how books get read.) But it might also have been a sense that the final chapter 'sells out' the plot and character writing of the previous twenty. Which it sort of does, but for reasons that can't really be addressed without doing more harm than good.
But how obvious would this have been to the original audience of the book, and how much would they have been able to work out the source terms?
Well, I think that if the original audience had been inclined to miss it, Burgess gave them a pretty big hint. There's a scene in the second section in which Alex is cursing the 'grazhny sodding vesches that come out of my gulliver and my plott' ('filthy sodding things that come out of my head and my body' - he's wired up while undergoing the reconditioning treatment), and his tormentors have a brief chat about it:
'Quaint,' said Dr Brodsky, like smiling, 'the dialect of the tribe. Do you know anything of its provenance, Branom?
'Odd bits of old rhyming slang,' said Dr Branom, who did not look quite so much like a friend any more. 'A bit of gipsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.'
So if they couldn't spot it, the characters are there to tell them - or at least, to speculate that Alex has been corrupted by Russian thought. Though the fact that the characters say it could suggest, on the other hand, that it's a mistake to assume political enmity from Alex simply because there's some Russian vocabulary in his slang: Dr Branom is not very sympathetic to Alex, and is pursuing a course against him that the book clearly considers morally wrong, so we are not encouraged to trust his social insight very much.
It may also be a relevant factor that the book strongly implies that there are many youth subcultures, each with their own slang that's incomprehensible to outsiders. One of Alex's worst crimes is the sexual assault of two little girls aged about eleven, whom he lures into his room by buying them lunch and inviting them back to his room to listen to his record player. He refers to their slang as 'weird' and 'bezoomy' (crazy) - it seems to be more like Fifties slang, with words like 'swoony' - which of course is ironically entertaining since he's calling their slang peculiar in peculiar slang of his own, but their hobbies (swooning over hearthrob singers, from what we can see), are likewise Fifties. So you might make a contrary case that a subculture's slang does reflect its values in some way - though whether 'nadsat talk's Russian content actually reflects an interest in Communism or is simply an attempt to annoy or intimidate is another question.
Whether or not contemporary readers could identify the actual roots - well, probably no better than a modern reader; few of us are linguists as accomplished as Burgess. But working them out without help is part of the fun.
Kit, thanks, I'd forgotten about that explanatory scene.
My reading of the (full) narrative is along the lines that you can't force a boy to grow up, but sooner or later he'll do it of his own accord.
Did my comment go through?
I don't see it, so I'll re-post:
Like Mmy, I am considerably startled to realize that the version I read (many years ago) had a completely different ending from Burgess's intent.
I'm still trying to process that.
However, with regards to the intent of Kubrick's film -- I think it is worthwhile to put it in the context of BONNIE AND CLYDE, which came out a few years earlier, and which expressly presented lawlessness and violence as an appropriate and laudable reaction to a repressive society, and which glorified youth as an inherently redemptive status (indeed, the final gory death of the title characters can be seen as a gift, "saving" them from the "boring" maturation and "selling out" of Alex in the final chapter.)
But what I wanted to add is a few thoughts about what's *missing* in both the book and the movie, what HAS to be missing for this narrative to "work" -- and that's any sense of empathy for the victims.
Alex, of course, is excessively, supremely self-centred; but that's no reason for the text (or the film) to agree with him. Yet I get the feeling that both Burgess (and especially) Kubrick go out of their way to portray his victims as ugly, corrupt, venal -- in other words, "asking for it."
(I may be allowing my memories of the film to color the book -- the scene where Alex rapes the little girls, who are changed to sexually adventurous young women in the movie, was particularly notable -- but I do seem to recall that the writer character and the "cat lady" were presented in the books as "worthy targets", and are sympathies are only engaged in violence against the droogs themselves.)
Does this final chapter, which I haven't read, return with any sympathy towards Alex's victims? Or is it, once again, "what's it going to be for Alex?"
You're right, Alex shows little remorse or empathy right until the end. He refers to the woman he murdered as a 'poor starry forella' (poor old trout), and that word 'poor' is about as far as it goes. Beyond that, he mostly shows a detached fatalism - 'A terrible grazhzny [filthy] vonny [stinking] world, really, oh my brothers.' But he concludes by saying, 'And to all others in this story profound shooms [noises] of lip-music brrrrrr. And they can kiss my sharries.' So either he's including his victims in that raspberry, or he's not considering them participants in the story, merely props of a sort.
So he doesn't 'grow up' so much as tire of violence because it bores him; he's still a sensation seeker with little concern for anything beyond his own enjoyment. And Burgess doesn't advance the (obviously false) idea that criminality is something everyone grows out of, because the prison Alex inhabits is full of men older than himself, who have evidently not grown out of their criminality - they're cannier about getting away with it and have more sense than Alex about what constitutes a fatal or non-fatal beating, and that's about as far as their maturity goes.
His victims 'deserving' it, though - well, I'd say not in the book. We see them entirely through Alex's objectifying gaze, and he makes fun of them, but because Alex is some emphatically unreliable a narrator, we can interpret them differently. Some of them are helpless victims who get beaten into silence too quickly to show much personality; some of them stand up to him and we can, if we choose to ignore Alex's laughter, admire their courage. We see so exclusively through Alex's eyes that we're free to disagree with his opinions.
Kubrick ... well, the victims do tend to be comedic grotesques one way or another. But then, I'm not sure that's entirely a case of them 'deserving' violence either: almost everyone in Kubrick's oeuvre is a grotesque of some kind or another. Alex, in the shape of Malcolm McDowell, possesses more physical grace and poise than almost all the other characters, as characters often do when they embody Kubrick's ruthless, anarchic side; other characters are generally at their most elegant when violent - as, again, is often the way in his work. So while it's a jolie-laide kind of film, I don't think it's quite accurate to say that Kubrick was 'going out of his way' to imply that the victims deserve it. I think he was, on the contrary, walking his usual path, very much on his regular way: his aesthetic had a kind of pristine Gothicism, a poised antic disposition, that very few characters escape.
Kubrick ... well, the victims do tend to be comedic grotesques one way or another. But then, I'm not sure that's entirely a case of them 'deserving' violence either: almost everyone in Kubrick's oeuvre is a grotesque of some kind or another. Alex,
I have to admit that my feelings about the movie (and to some extent the book) were very coloured from the experience I had watching it in the cinema.
At several of the points in the movie members of the audience laughed and giggled with seeming approbation at Alex's actions. For example, their behaviour throughout the scene in which Mrs. Alexander is raped (it was clear they especially enjoyed watching Alex cutting her clothes off, bit by bit. Later, when the Alex comes once again upon Mr. Alexander a fellow sitting several chairs away from me gave one of the loudest laughs I had ever heard at the moment when the audience realizes that Mr. Alexander is confined to a wheelchair.
For me, a young woman, sitting in that theatre with that audience was a chilling experience. It was an afternoon showing of the movie, in a fairly upscale area of the city and yet I felt that I was sitting among Alex and his friends.
I know that Burgess' himself had very disturbed feelings about the film. I don't know what Kubrick thought would happen given the way he directed the film but my personal experiences was that the casting, framing, music and direction of the film made it easy (the default) for members of the audience to see/experience/judge everything through Alex's pov.
Of course now every time I attempt to read the book I find myself returned to that chilling feeling in the cinema--that moment when I felt like a fawn surrounded by pack of wolves. The wolves didn't seem to be hungry at the moment but it did not make me feel any more comfortable that they were passing the time by watching a film about a wolf attacking fawns.
Well, one thing that happened was that after some assaults in the UK that the papers called copycat crimes, Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation. You couldn't watch it here when I was a teenager; it only became available after his death. Whether this was out of genuine concern or because he just didn't want to deal with the hassle, there's probably no way of knowing; it was only over here that he withdrew it, anyway.Post a comment
I think you can get films where you're encouraged to identify with the 'wolf', but where the director was hoping you'd have enough sense to recognise that this was an artistic effect aimed at creating mixed feelings rather than a straight, 'Fuck yeah!' I always assumed that Clockwork Orange was one of these, but then, that's my reaction. I do think that films are easily misinterpreted, especially when they contain violent men; I'm think of the guy who was absolutely convinced that Jack Nicholson was the hero of 'A Few Good Men', despite the film pretty explicitly painting him as the villain, or the fact that Kurosawa created 'Yojimbo' as an attack piece against the yakuza and found to his dismay that yakuza loved it and thought they were like the hero, or this review here
... which praises 'Knuckle', a documentary in which the maker says plainly that he came to see these fights as a sad thing and backed his point up by playing 'Lost Highway' as the concluding music, as if it were a straight martial arts film.
So there are certainly cases where people see what they want to see despite the film's best efforts. I don't know for sure, but I'd certainly speculate that Kubrick was a candidate for that.
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