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A Less Important but Still Sick 'Clockwork Orange'

January 10, 1991|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for the Times Orange County Edition.

The brutality in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" has a yowling momentum. It comes in waves as Alex, Kubrick's grinning, amoral hero, enjoys "the ultra-violent," a game of raping, smashing and killing that has as much consequence to him as a leisurely afternoon of cricket.

"A Clockwork Orange," screening Friday as the first installment in UC Irvine's Alternate Realities film series, is like a sick joke that goes on for more than two hours, constantly sucker-punching with its shocking (and sometimes comic) imagery. What redeems it are the ideas at the movie's core.

Kubrick wanted the 1971 allegorical satire to comment on violence in an increasingly unethical, mechanized and lawless society. Through Alex (Malcolm McDowell in one of the most startling movie debuts ever), he sought to present a cautionary reminder that we'd better not take the future, or the people who will inhabit it, for granted. And through the abuse of Alex, he took a page from Orwell, warning against accepting science and the state as unimpeachable guardians of civilization. If you don't feel he makes these arguments, "A Clockwork Orange" is pointless savagery.

The first 30 minutes may be the most difficult to watch in the history of the legitimate cinema. Somewhere in the not-so-distant British future, Alex and his droogs ("pals" in the vocabulary of Nasdat , a part-slang, part-Russian amalgam they speak) have just indulged in a spot of volocet , a hallucinogenic added to the milk at the local Milkbar. Feeling giddy, they do what they do every night--go on a rampage.

A bum is beaten, a rival gang is thrashed and, when the droogs reach a country estate, a writer is forced to watch as his wife is terrorized and raped. Kubrick is known for creating scenes that last in one's memory--the computer Hal reading the lips of the astronauts in "2001: A Space Odyssey"; Slim Pickens riding the back of a nuclear missile in "Dr. Strangelove"--and, for better or worse, here's one of his most famous: Alex, his dildo-mask swaying gayly, performing a soft-shoe and rhapsodizing through "Singing in the Rain" while kicking the writer.

Alex is later caught and imprisoned for murder. Once inside, he becomes the subject of an experiment to eliminate his violent tendencies. He's turned into a wimp who can't even think of sex (which he associates only with mayhem) without feeling sick.

But as intent as Kubrick is on making us hate Alex early on, he also wants us to feel a bit sorry for him. The thug's real grace, besides a bold, calculating mind, is his love of Beethoven's ninth symphony, which becomes poison to him during the brainwashing. Science has dehumanized the only human thing about Alex.

Anthony Burgess, who wrote the 1962 novel on which the movie is based, said in interviews shortly after its release that he liked what Kubrick had done, even though it's a somewhat sanitized version. Those who think the film is too much might keep in mind that Burgess describes Alex as having a taste for 10-year-old girls and liking to squish animals under his tires, among other cute habits.

There's a cartoonish superficiality in Kubrick's approach to Burgess' dense morality tale. Once this neutered Alex is back in the real world, the black comedy is amped up to almost "Dr. Strangelove" pitch, all the while hammering home life's retribution in a sort of hellish "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride." Alex's parents don't want to have anything to do with him, the bum he beat earlier now beats him, and his old droog chums are now cops who almost drown him.

Kubrick grabs our attention not just with the cruel story line. There is innovation, even cinematic evolution, here as he uses skewed camera angles, some looking up from the floor, some from weird spots off to the side, to give the film a garish, unearthly feel. The colors are garish too, and even the voices seem to be a little louder, tinnier than in a normal movie.

The movie seems more grating to me now than when I first saw it, back in 1971. It also seems less important, and not as triumphant a step in Kubrick's career (the earlier "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove" and "A Space Odyssey" have aged better). But the film can't be dismissed as merely a cinematic shock treatment without any valuable reverberations. Just search the front page for the latest "wilding" incident and you find a reflection of "A Clockwork Orange."

What: Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange."

When: Friday, Jan. 11, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.

Where: UC Irvine's Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive to Bridge Road. Take Bridge Road into the campus.

Wherewithal: $2 and $4.

Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.

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