Mother’s milk

An American kid’s take on Clockwork’s totalitarian and ‘tit’ glam-violence

Mothers often like to share in their child's formative experiences. Some are there for the moment when the training wheels come off, watching their son or daughter amble down the street triumphantly unaided. Others will cuddle up and recite from a treasured, dog-eared E.B. White or Louisa May Alcott novel. Mine sat down to watch A Clockwork Orange with me at age 11.

It was an effort to show me the perils of totalitarianism, the threat of a police state and the concept of irony. I think. To me, it was all about boobs. Hypnotic, slow-motion orbs of flesh, heaving up and down, having the clothing snipped right off them, being fought over like volleyballs. To see something so sacred and maternal treated with such disregard: It was shocking, horrifying and more than a little fascinating. It's not for nothing that titillation begins with a "tit."

To be fair, I'd requested it. My obsession with the justly forgotten, historical sci-fi rom-com thriller Time After Time — wherein Jack the Ripper steals H.G. Wells' time machine and travels to San Francisco of the future in order to kill Mary Steenburgen — made me voracious for anything starring Malcolm McDowell, preferably in a bowler hat and tails. O Lucky Man was just too long, and no matter how hard I tried, If ... just didn't make sense to a prepubescent, public school educated nonrevolutionary (never mind that the damn thing kept switching to black and white).

But something about Stanley Kubrick's midnight-black adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel, for all its calculated shocks and grown-up controversies, speaks to the undeveloped mind in the way only a movie about a sociopathic, undeveloped mind can. From the staccato blasts of primary colors in the opening credits, to the sped-up, Looney Tunes orgy scene to the insatiable, only-child id that fuels McDowell's stunning performance, it's a brilliantly sustained piece of juvenilia, the first-ever X-rated episode of Sesame Street. It's a movie that seems like it might've sprung fully formed out of the head of its antisocial antihero Alex, if he ever had the initiative to actually create something instead of smashing it like a sandcastle.

What was I supposed to make of it at that tender age? What was anyone supposed to make of it? It would probably bring a grin to Kubrick's yeti-bearded face to know that, after being reviled by so many when it came out, Clockwork has now achieved midnight-movie status. The good ol' "ultraviolence" Alex engages in looks more than a little quaint by today's standards, and anyone who thought it went too far in 1971 certainly hadn't been exposed to the films of the Japanese avant-garde, which by that time were making provocations far more explicit. If the movie still has the power to shock, it's because of Kubrick's technique: The suffocating wide-angle lenses, the Marquis de Sade-meets-2001 production design, the hallucinogenic quick-cutting when Alex fatally impales "the cat lady."

And then there's the matter of the movie's influence: Not just on American filmmaking — it's doubtful we'll ever hear Rossini's "Thieving Magpie" the same way again, let alone "Singin' in the Rain" — but its effect on the oh-so impressionable youth who watch it. Much was made of the copycat crimes that flared up after the film; it's hard not to think that we have Clockwork to blame for the sad phenomenon of bum-fighting videos clogging the market. But in some small, perverse way, you could argue that kids, with their not-yet-acclimated moral compasses, might be the film's best potential audience. Either they'll assimilate the very bad behavior of our protagonist Alex, in which case they probably would've turned out to be homicidal maniacs anyway, and we've just caught them a little earlier than we might have otherwise. Or, more preferably, they'll be stunned by what they've seen, and grow up to be gay film critics who live under the assumption that all heterosexual behavior is a violent, loveless act of depravity. To quote Alex, I was cured, all right.


Screens at midnight on Friday-Saturday, Aug. 17-18, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

Scroll to read more Arts articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.