After a 30-year absence from British screens, one of the most notorious films in history is due for re-release. What took it so long?
Thursday 02 December 1999
In 1987 Anthony Burgess adapted his cacotopian fable A Clockwork Orange for the stage, in a semi-musical version intended for production by amateur groups. On the last page of the published text, just before a valedictory chorus sung to the tune of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" ("Do not be a clockwork orange,/ Freedom has a lovely voice...") is a striking stage direction: "A man bearded like Stanley Kubrick comes on playing, in exquisite counterpoint, `Singin' in the Rain' on a trumpet. He is kicked off the stage." It seems fair to infer that this stage direction was more than just a cheeky wink at the man whose film had bestowed on Burgess the vexed gift of world- wide fame, or notoriety.
Burgess was a man of prodigious talents and boundless energy; a man whose artistic career, though begun late in life, would eventually run to some 60 books of fiction, criticism, biography and linguistics, many film and television scripts, dozens of musical compositions (including three symphonies and a musical version of Ulysses). And yet, from 1971 onwards talk-show hosts and newspaper strap-lines would inevitably introduce this astonishingly fecund, polyglot, polymathic opsimath as: "Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange".
Better to be recognised in an insultingly limiting way than not at all, perhaps, but it's easy to see why Burgess's feelings towards Kubrick might be less than fulsomely grateful. For a time novelist and director were on pretty good terms - friends, almost, if not quite droogs. More often, Burgess had his doubts. His problems with Kubrick began well before the film was released.
Razrez: to cut, rip, tear
It seems that Kubrick first encountered A Clockwork Orange during the filming of 2001, when Terry Southern - a fan of Burgess's work - gave him a copy of the book. Unfortunately, from Burgess's perspective, the edition Kubrick read was the US one, published by WW Norton. In its earliest British version, in the final chapter Alex reaches the ripe old age of 18 and starts to grow up, seeing his former life of tolchocking and ultra- violence as a classic juvenile disorder, and the state of youth itself as "being like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and then you wind it up grrr grrr grrr..."
Like clockwork, in fact.
Burgess often told the story of how this final chapter was deleted from the US edition at the insistence of Norton's vice-president, Eric Swenson, who felt that its hints of a happy ending amounted to a cop-out. Burgess, uneasy but far too short of cash to object strenuously, acquiesced. (It's only fair to add that Swenson doesn't agree with this version of events.)
According to John Baxter's Stanley Kubrick: a Biography (1997), the director was a good four months into work on the film when he found out that the author had intended a radically different ending. Kubrick brusquely dismissed it, and carried on regardless. The completed film ends with Alex's silky voice-over purring, "I was cured all right", and a vision of himself naked and copulating with a half-naked damsel, while grey ranks of Establishment mannequins applaud his thrashings with genteel enthusiasm. Deliciously worldly, but a conscious distortion of the book's deliberate focus-pull to the wider, sadder perspective of the adult world.
Burgess had three stories to tell about the origins of A Clockwork Orange, and all three of them involve violence or the threat of death:
The first happened in 1944. Burgess, stationed with the British Army in Gibraltar, received a letter from Sonia Brownell (soon to marry George Orwell) in London, telling him that his wife, Lynne, had been set upon late one night by four GI deserters, who had punched and kicked her to unconsciousness. Lynne was pregnant, and aborted, and suffered from that time on with attacks of vaginal bleeding. The Burgesses would never have children.
In Chapter 2 of A Clockwork Orange the unnamed writer ("Mr Alexander" in the film) who is beaten and forced to watch while his wife is raped, is at work on a social polemic entitled A Clockwork Orange.
The second happened in 1959 and 1960. Burgess had been invalided home from his job as a teacher in Brunei and told he had an inoperable brain tumour and only a year to live. Instead of going on a drunken binge, he went on a work binge, and wrote five and a half novels. The half-novel began with nothing more than a title - A Clockwork Orange, which Burgess often described as an old Cockney phrase denoting "queerness", not necessarily sexual. (Though no Londoner I've ever asked, of any vintage, can recall the phrase; he may have invented it.) Compulsive wordsmith and polyglot that he was, Burgess saw the Malayan word orange (man) lurking inside the English "orange", and that set him thinking of mechanical men, behaviourism, BF Skinner and Pavlov, and of rumours about the forcible reconditioning of habitual offenders.
As a recently returned expatriate, he was surprised by the new strut and arrogance of British youth, incarnated in the "Edwardians" or Teddy Boys and the Mods and Rockers whom he had seen ritually beating the hell out of each other one summer afternoon in Hastings. It reminded him of the Elizabethan apprentice riots of the 1590s and he began to compose a novel set in that period, before realising that foresight might be more artistically productive than hindsight. He then relocated the action to a suitably distant future: 1970 or thereabouts. But he found the novel was proving difficult, so he set it aside for more than a year.
Govoreet: to speak, say
The third happened in 1961, when Burgess and Lynne went on a holiday to Leningrad. Before they travelled, Burgess taught himself Russian. A notebook from the time shows precisely how he did it: by inventing funny little mnemonics and cartoons. Thus next to the translation and transliteration of the Russian word for "man, person, fellow", chellovek, is a doodle of a cello with a man's face. He realised he now had an answer to the problem that had stumped him - how to write a book full of teenage slang when such slang by its very nature becomes outdated in a matter of months. Simple: by inventing a slang, using mostly a modified Russian vocabulary - "rooker" for ruka or hand, "noga" lifted directly from noga (leg and foot), "horrorshow" from khorosho, the neuter form of the word meaning good. By the time they set sail for the USSR, Burgess was a good way into the novel's second draft. Leningrad helped to confirm his instincts, offering the spectacle of a drunken riot by young stilyagi. Adolescent hooliganism, it appeared, was not a social disease peculiar to capitalism but a plague of the late 20th century. Burgess duly christened his artificial argot Nadsat, from the Russian suffix "teen".
Messel: thought, fancy
Extract from an unwritten reference book on British cinema in the Sixties: "A Clockwork Orange (1967, UK). Directed by Michael Cooper. Produced by Sandy Lieberson, Si Litvinoff. Screenplay by Michael Cooper and Terry Southern, from the novel by Anthony Burgess. Starring Mick Jagger as Alex, with Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. Score by Jagger/Richards, performed by the Rolling Stones."
It almost happened. As Sandy Lieberson recalls, it all began when his photographer friend Michael Cooper, who had shot the Peter Blake cover for Sgt Pepper, introduced him to the novel. "I thought, my God!..." had to go back and read it a couple of times, but I was stunned by the power of it, so I made enquiries into the rights." Burgess's agent put Lieberson on to Si Litvinoff, who at that time was Terry Southern's lawyer, and who had optioned the book with his partner Max Raab for just a few hundred dollars.
"I knew Si," Lieberson continues, "so I approached him and said, I'd like to put a film together with Michael Cooper as writer and director."
For a while things proceeded swimmingly. "We decided where it was going to be shot; it was going to be almost all Soho - there was a rawness to Soho at that point that doesn't exist today. It certainly felt possible to re-create the atmosphere of the book in a much more gritty, dirty way, more realistic than Kubrick's approach... I also think that our instinct was that the language had an importance as great as the visual."
But the Stones couldn't find time to make the film. By the time Kubrick stepped in and picked up the option - Warners handed over $200,000, plus 5 per cent of the profits - everyone had moved on. Lieberson finally collaborated with Jagger on Performance, and gave Burgess some work rewriting Sandy Mackendrick's screenplay about Mary, Queen of Scots. Michael Cooper committed suicide in his early thirties, thus depriving the world, Lieberson believes, of an exceptional visual talent.
Malchick: boy, youth
A final speculation: maybe the Stones would have come to A Clockwork Orange anyway, by another route. Their callow Svengali, Andrew Loog Oldham, was a great fan of the book; his sleeve notes for the group's 1965 album The Rolling Stones, Now! are written in a pallid approximation of Nadsat, replete with internal rhymes: "It is the summer of the night London eyes are all shut tight all but 12 peepers and six hip malchicks who prance the street...
"This is the Stones' new disc within. Cast deep in your pockets for loot to buy this disc of groovies and fancy words. If you don't have bread, see that blind man - knock him on the head, steal his wallet and lo and behold you have the loot if you put in the boot, good. Another one sold!"
Pressure was put on the Stones' record company, Decca, when someone bothered to read this thin gruel and realised what it was recommending, tongue in cheek or not. Oddly enough, though Burgess hated pop music with all the cold fury of a thwarted composer, he was ungrudgingly well disposed to Mick Jagger: "I admired the intelligence, if not the art ... and considered that he looked the quintessence of delinquency."
When I first saw the film I was 16 - just a year older than Alex at the book's start. (Malcolm McDowell was pushing 28 when he played the role.) Violating the "X" certificate code was about the most spectacular crime of my own adolescence, and added to the excitement. Naturally, I thought it was a masterpiece.
I watched a laserdisc of A Clockwork Orange again this week, now being older than Kubrick was when he shot it. The film has its virtues, undeniably, and the greatest of them is McDowell's performance - demonically sexy and arrogant, bristling with malicious intelligence: splendid. Otherwise...
It strikes me now as a mean-spirited exercise in dim sarcasm, and, for long stretches, egregiously dull. Every character save Alex is a caricature worthy, at best, of Seventies sitcom. In his lengthiest addition to the book Kubrick films Alex's induction to prison in wearisomely complete detail, delighting in showing what a jumped-up, anally retentive berk the warden is; Porridge, in other words, without Ronnie Barker to humanise the poor wit. (The novel, far swifter, just jumps forward a couple of years.) It's almost a textbook example of how to milk a feeble joke until it's stone dead. But Kubrick's greatest crime against the art of acting is the performance he extorts from Patrick Magee, the great interpreter of Samuel Beckett, as Mr Alexander. I believe the technical term is "chewing the carpet".
Compare it point by point, scene by scene, tolchock by tolchock with Burgess's book, and it really does jollify, prettify and generally render titillating its ultra-violence - turning Alex's brutal rape of two 10- year-olds into a fast-motion sex romp, turning the ancient cat-lady Alex murders into a much younger, foul-mouthed health freak, and fastidiously or timidly cutting away from any hint of true horror. There's not a frame in the film to compare with the ghastliness of the original: "The writer veck and his zheena were not really there, bloody and torn and making noises."
The issue isn't the hoary one of fidelity to the letter, but of truth to the spirit of Burgess's work: Kubrick's reading amounts to a sustained dilution and vulgarisation. His decision to withdraw the film from British circulation in 1974 may well, as his biographers suggest, have been motivated by his fears of attacks on his family, but it is also the shrewdest thing he could have done for its maverick reputation. Kubrick's film may be a cinematic legend, oh my brothers, but it is also, frankly, a load of cal.
Crast: to steal, rob; robbery
At various times both Burgess and McDowell were furious with Kubrick for treating himself to what they regarded as a greedy solo credit for the screenplay. All Kubrick had really done, they recalled, was to bring a copy of the book on set, look at the scene in question - "Page 59. How shall we do it?" - spend hours discussing and rehearsing, shoot the result (often in a single take), then go home and type up the improvised dialogue. Burgess once snarled to one of his friends about the aptness of Kubrick's selection from Rossini for his sound-track: The Thieving Magpie.
Sloosh: to listen
Apart from Alex's vicious crooning of "Singin' in the Rain", the only popular music in A Clockwork Orange is Erika Eigen's inane ditty, "I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper". The auditory world of Nadsat trickles with the sweet orange-juice of Purcell and Beethoven and Rossini, rendered clockwork by the Moog synthesis of Walter Carlos.
Yet the film's effect on pop culture has been abiding. David Bowie was to use the Purcell For Queen Mary's Funeral music as a prelude to his concerts, and the word "droogie" can be caught in his song "Suffragette City." The Eighties band Heaven 17 lifted its name from the book. The highly literate Elvis Costello is rumoured to have been building up a collection of first editions. Damon Albarn and the other members of Blur dressed up as droogs for the video of "The Universal". One good argument for the re-release of the film following Kubrick's death is that it might put an end to all this malenky malarkey.
The dedication to Burgess's novel Napoleon Symphony is shared by the novelist's second wife Liana and one "Stanley J Kubrick", who is addressed as "maestro di color". When I first read this in the mid-Seventies I was quite ignorant of Italian and assumed it meant "master of colour". Years later, sweating my way through Dante in the original, I found that Burgess was alluding to a celebrated phrase from Inferno, IV i.131: "vidi il maestro di color che sanno" (I saw the Master of those who know). Dante was referring to Aristotle. Respectful; very respectful. And yet, as Burgess knew, the man at whom Dante is gazing is a long-term resident of hell. Dante was not the only writer who knew about settling grudges in literature.
With thanks to John Baxter, Sandy Lieberson and David Thompson.
A version of this article appeared in `Sight & Sound' magazine
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