“Of directors to have emerged in the American film during the 1950’s, Stanley Kubrick seems to me the most interesting.”
A week before I saw A Clockwork Orange, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the second time. I had liked it the first time I saw it, and I liked it now; the experience of seeing it again providing no large revelations but only a reminder of those things which I’d been aware of before. The idea of the film’s being a non-narrative work seemed perhaps even less tenable than it had before—the narrative is, to be sure, an attenuated one, broken up by leisurely, non-narrative intervals, but the main action falls firmly into place as a coherent story, and is easily paraphrasable as such, despite the absence of a single protagonist to link the parts. Perhaps it seemed a bit clearer to me than it had before that the character of the work divides roughly at the point of the film’s intermission: part one, chiefly a comic capsule history of an incorrigibly banal mankind’s technological progress (man discovers weapons, eats at Howard Johnson’s, watches wrestling on TV in outer space, and copes with “zero gravity toilets,” etc., while computers declare in interviews that they “enjoy working with people”), climaxing, in effect, with the scientists posing for pictures in front of the “intelligent” slab they have discovered like fishermen with their trophy; part two, chiefly the melodrama of machines which have become like men turning against men who have become like machines, climaxing in the astronaut’s dismantling of the computer. About what follows, I have my strongest reservations: the “light show” is pedestrian, and the concluding sequence of the astronaut in the Louis XV suite suffers, I think, not from obscurity but rather from an excess of clarity in conveying Arthur C. Clarke’s message of man’s rebirth through the benign guidance of extraterrestrial intelligence. Yet such fatuity notwithstanding, this final sequence of the film is realized by Kubrick in a succession of images which truly astonish in their surreal strangeness and beauty; and, indeed, with its wit, it is the film’s visual beauty (the light show excepted) which seems to me its most secure achievement. For all his intellectual distrust of them, Kubrick does love his machines as aesthetic objects, and no other film I know has dwelled with such obsessive fascination on the painterly and sculptural detail of flashing light-panels and mesmerically sliding doors—or made so oddly lulling a spectacle of them.
Given my liking for 2001, as well as my much greater admiration for The Killing and admiration also for Paths of Glory and for things in Kubrick’s other films, it seemed to me more than likely that I would want to write about his latest work, and not premature to draft, before seeing it, the first sentence of a review: “Of directors to have emerged in the American film during the 1950’s, Stanley Kubrick seems to me the most interesting.” I’ve now seen A Clockwork Orange, and have been staring dumbly at that sentence ever since, as if waiting for it to rewrite itself, or at least move protestingly across the page. For, if there is one thing A Clockwork Orange is not, it is “interesting”—striking, perhaps; even brilliant, though in a way I find specious and repellent; but not interesting. And if there is another thing the film is not, it is, all the ballyhoo in the mass media to the contrary, the embodiment of its maker’s “startling vision.”
One could, I think, say much the same of Anthony Burgess’s thin, anecdotal fantasy of an imminent future from which Kubrick’s film has been adapted. Neither 1984 nor Brave New World may be a great novel, but the fantasized futures of Orwell and Huxley take root in one’s imagination because they connect with the realities of a recognizable present and are extensions of them; their projections are founded in urgent ideas, and usable in one’s thinking these ideas through further (thus the observation that Orwell’s book has made the actual materialization of what he describes less likely, a consequence one can’t imagine ever ascribing to the Burgess). For all the greater closeness of its writing to us in time, A Clockwork Orange posits a future (in which a soulless socialist state reconditions its violent criminals into virtuous automatons) whose elements seem both more tangential to our present exigencies and less convincing as an extrapolation from them than do those of the futures of Orwell and Huxley; while the ideas that prop the Burgess novel up consist of little more than a few pages (43 and 96 in the Ballantine reprint edition) of platitudinous conjecture (put, to be sure, in the mouths of characters who can’t be identified with the author) on the primacy of selfhood and dubious goodness of those unable to choose evil.
Still, if there is a “vision” in Kubrick’s film, it is the novel’s, and, even if the novel’s vision of the future seems finally less its imaginative moving force than something manufactured to serve the author’s distaste for the present, the book has at least what the film does not: a center. This center, in the novel, is the voice of its narrator; not so much the invented slang in which Alex, the teen-age hoodlum, speaks to us, as the cold nihilism with which he perceives his narrow but vivid world. (The language itself, a compound of adapted Russian and sub-Joycean wordplay, can seem mainly an irritating impediment to one’s reading at first, though the fact of finding oneself finally proficient in it is really part of the book’s amusement.) Some of Alex’s narration remains in the film, but, with the loss of its concentration in a sustained, controlling voice, the paucity of the work’s narrative invention is rather cruelly exposed, and none of the director’s pyrotechnics—the slow and fast motion, hand-held camerawork, distorting lenses, phosphorescent color—will really substitute for it. And they are directorial pyrotechnics rather than directorial technique—which, however brilliant, finally is about something more than this film’s anthology of photographic chic. Even before A Clockwork Orange, the notion of Kubrick as a technical genius did not really stand scrutiny; there is, I think, some justice in Gilberto Perez-Guillermo’s characterization of 2001 as the work of a Stroheim in outer space; yet, if that film’s technical triumph seemed to be less a director’s than an art director’s, there was at least a director’s art to be seen both in the film’s wit and beauty.
But A Clockwork Orange only marks the further progress of Stanley Kubrick’s art into that of interior decoration; and, with its shapelessness, limp rhythms, clumsy rear-projection (the scene of a joyride in a stolen car), it is not only lame technically (compare it with Alphaville, Godard’s vision of a proximate future, to see of what the difference between dull literalness and innovative genius in film-making consists), but deficient even in those things in which one might expect a show of Kubrick’s characteristic strengths—of wit and originality. (And though Kubrick has never been better than an erratic director of actors, no other film of his from The Killing on has placed such weight on a performance as badly misguided as Malcolm McDowell’s leering, smirking, swaggering Alex.) Watching an ape (that one knows to be an actor in ape’s costume) contemplate a bone and discover its use as a weapon while Also Sprach Zarathustra swells on the soundtrack in a section entitled “The Dawn of Man” in 2001 was funny because it ironically mocked its own pomposity; the speeded-up orgy to the accompaniment of the William Tell overture in A Clockwork Orange is no more than bad varsity-show humor, as is just about all the other slapstick deviation from Burgess—the stage-gay probation officer drinking from a glass containing Alex’s mother’s false teeth, Alex falling face first into a plate of spaghetti, etc. And the other instances in which the book has been smartened or tarted up seem equally misconceived—Alex being given a pet snake, the feeble “black comedy” of Alex doing a soft-shoe rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain” while preparing to rape one of his victims, the transformation of a wretched old woman whom Alex murders into the bitchy proprietress of a “health farm,” surrounded by erotic artworks including a huge phallic sculpture with which he bashes her. (There seems to be a streak of puritanical meting out of punishment in this last touch, as in Kubrick’s having the teenyboppers whom Alex lures to his apartment introduced sucking phallic popsicles, as though the assaults on these victims were somehow invited by their impropriety.) Having no great attachment to the novel, I’d be a hypocrite to take the film to task just for departing from the book, if it weren’t that all the departures are for the worse. (To be fair to Kubrick, it seems clear that he admires the novel, and Burgess himself has expressed approval of the film of it.) Even the omission of a single word can constitute a betrayal. In the film, Alex, restored by the government for politically expedient reasons to his former brutality, exultantly declares, “I was cured!” as the music blares triumphantly on the soundtrack and gives way to a reprise of “Singin’ in the Rain” as performed by Gene Kelly. In the novel, noting the return of his familiar murderous desires, Alex simply remarks, “I was cured all right,” in that tone of casual but total contempt which never wavers.
Yet, even had there been no novel with which to compare it and had A Clockwork Orange been a better film than it is, what would it mean to speak of the “vision” of a director who, only one film before, was soliciting wisdom from the heavens? Even at its best, Kubrick’s work seems less the product of a vision than of a temperament, an idiosyncratically misanthropic temperament as capable of finding expression in tandem with the “vision” of Arthur C. Clarke as of Burgess. When the material is as attuned to the temperament as it is in The Killing, the result is what, I think, is still Kubrick’s best film; Paths of Glory may be more skillfully put together, but it suffers from its simplistic demonology and its sentimental ending. But the films that follow are about as uneven in their quality as those of a director who claims serious consideration can be, with frequently little more than their misanthropy and photographic preoccupations to mark them as the work of the same film-maker. Yet what is most distressing about A Clockwork Orange is not that it is as sophomoric in its misanthropic humor as Dr. Strangelove (which at least had Peter Sellers at his goonish best as the mad doctor), but that the misanthropy has now become merely another aspect of the decor—more chic—to be offered to the photographer; and it is this, and not the misanthropy itself, which makes A Clockwork Orange so peculiarly repellent. The “vision” of A Clockwork Orange is really quite tame compared with that of a Yojimbo or Viridiana (which both happen also to be incomparably more funny). But when, in Viridiana, we watch a beggars’ orgy and attempted rape while the “Hallelujah Chorus” of the Messiah is heard, the effect is black but bracing because the feeling behind it has such strength of conviction. When, in A Clockwork Orange, we watch the “stylized” and “balletic” sequence (the adjectives are Malcolm McDowell’s) of two rival teen-age gangs clashing violently in an abandoned theater while the soundtrack plays the Thieving Magpie overture, the effect is repellent not because of an intensity of feeling but just because there is no feeling at all—only the desire to be clever and photogenic.
Even at his best, Kubrick is ice; Sam Peckinpah is fire. Before seeing Straw Dogs, I could have described Peckinpah as the most exciting director to have appeared in the American film since the 40’s, and his new work only confirms me in that judgment. Like his earlier The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs is a violent work, and, like A Clockwork Orange, it is about violence. But the violence of Straw Dogs isn’t “stylized” and “balletic” as it is in the Kubrick film, nor does one stand coolly and antiseptically aloof from it. Rather it closes like a trap around one until, at the end, one finds oneself grabbed by the throat and plunged inescapably into the sweaty, bloody, palpable thick of it.
The protagonist of the film is a young American mathematics professor on a leave to write a book, and recently arrived to spend the time in an English country town where his British wife had once lived with her family. From the start, despite the pastoral surroundings, things are not right, both between the mathematician and his wife, and around them, in the town, where everyone seems to be intensely aware of the stranger’s presence among them, and preternaturally informed of his comings and goings. The young men who work at repairing the farmhouse he has rented on the outskirts of the town barely disguise their resentment of him as an affluent outsider and of his wife’s having left the town, or their sexual interest in her (with whom one of them once had an affair); and the wife, excluded by her husband’s work and attracted to the cruder, more aggressive masculinity of her former lover, encourages the men’s attentions. The wife mocks her husband only half-playfully; she had lived in the farmhouse with her family, and, when the husband asks if a certain chair was her father’s, she gibes, “Every chair’s my daddy’s chair”; and she accuses him of attempting to hide, in his work and at this secluded place, from commitment and from the violent turmoil of the country he has left behind. But the town seems to be only a microcosm of that country, and violence or the threat of violence everywhere around them: in the bellicose old man starting fights in the town pub, the man on the street slapping his simpleton brother; even a boy’s slamming against the mathematician’s parked car seems an expression of scarcely veiled and unfathomable hostility.
That hostility bares its face when the wife’s cat is discovered hanged in their closet; put there by one of the workers, the wife insists, “to prove to you they can get into your bedroom.” But though his wife prods him to take action against the men, he says nothing, and even agrees, in an act of bravado, to join them in a bird shoot. He does, and while he is duped into waiting for them in the woods, the wife’s former lover returns to the farmhouse to rape the wife, who invites him in and finally gives herself to him responsively; then another of the men appears, with his shotgun, and, despite the protest of the unarmed former lover, a much more real and ugly rape ensues. The next day, the mathematician, incensed at his humiliation by the men during the hunting party, fires them, unaware of what has happened to his wife, who tells him nothing but only taunts him for his “cowardice.” Then, on the evening of a “church social” at which the town’s population congregates, all the strands come together. Niles, the simpleton, leaves with a young girl, the niece of the pub-brawler, who flirts with him after flirting unsuccessfully with the mathematician, and the demented man accidentally kills her. Hunted by the old man and the four workmen, he is struck by the car of the mathematician, who takes him to the farmhouse to which the others soon track him. They demand that Niles be turned over to them, but the mathematician refuses, and the men attempt to force their way inside. The town magistrate appears and tries to restore order, but he is killed by a half-accidental blast from the old man’s shotgun. And then all hell breaks loose. When it is over, the house is a shambles, though successfully defended, and the old man and four workers have been horrifyingly slaughtered.
These are the bare bones of the film’s action, but such an account of them gives almost no sense of the undercurrents and tensions which wrack the work: of the subtle malevolence of old men’s watchful eyes in the town, the foul cauldron of animosities that boils among the men loitering at the pub, the intricate web of goading and provocation in which everyone finally is entangled. Above all, is the insistent linkage of violence with sex (and of sexual with territorial relations). The wife taunts the husband about his lack of the workmen’s kind of masculinity, while provoking them by exposing her breasts at the window; the workmen in the pub tease the old man for being past it sexually, while the old man is tigerishly protective of his sluttish niece in a way that suggests his own fantasies of her ravishment. When the men actually go after the simpleton, they are not even aware that the girl is dead, but they hardly need this further incitement to violence, so soon does the violence that has been seething everywhere establish its own momentum. And suddenly what had seemed to be one thing becomes quite another. The wife, sickened now by the prospect of more violence after her rape, begs her husband to give Niles to the men, but he refuses, and, when one of them asks why he is taking responsibility for Niles, replies not (as might seem most compelling) that the hurt man was struck by his car, but: “This is my house.” And one sees that this is, for him, his second chance to confront the men who have humiliated him; his second chance, in effect, to save his cat; and, though he is properly dismayed by his wife’s willingness to turn Niles over to their attackers, that is not really what his stand is about at all. “This is where I live. This is me,” he says, turning furiously even on his wife when she is reluctant to aid him. “I will not allow violence against this house.”
And the terrible irony of this is not just that, unknown to him, violence has already been committed against his house, but that it is nothing compared with the violence which follows. And, further, that, somewhere during the course of that prolonged and horrendous violence, one becomes aware, as one watches him take to his task as though possessed, that he actually enjoys what he is doing. “Why don’t you entertain Niles?” he says to his wife, winking lasciviously, when she refuses to help him, at one point dragging her by her hair just as one of the rapists had earlier. When the violence subsides, the old man’s foot blown off, two others shot full blast, a fourth bludgeoned with a poker and the fifth mangled in a trap, the mathematician rights a fallen chair, and says to himself in incredulous exultation, “Jesus, I got ’em all!” (Though, in fact, it is the wife’s ex-lover who has killed one of them, the second rapist, who surprises the wife upstairs, and attempts to rape her again. She calls for help—not her husband’s but her lover’s name—and so he, too, has his second chance to prove himself heroic in her eyes.) At the end, the mathematician drives Niles back to the town. “I don’t know my way home,” Niles tells him. “That’s OK,” his benefactor replies, his face breaking into a sickeningly knowing smile. “I don’t either.”
Yet even to give this much of an account of the film’s features is to leave it at bare bones insofar as one fails also to suggest its filmmaking mastery and extraordinary beauty. No other American director now working (with the exception of Hitchcock when he feels like it), and perhaps no other who has worked since the advent of sound (with the exception of Capra at his best), edits film with Peckinpah’s brilliance and precision, and the climactic section in particular, as ugly in subject matter as a work of art can be, is paradoxically beautiful as well in the command of dynamics and rhythms and the sheer stunning virtuosity with which this passage of film, of images in motion, is pieced together. Straw Dogs is like The Wild Bunch in its embodiment of this paradox, and surpasses the earlier film, I think, in the way the isolation of the violence by slow motion here magnifies it without any aesthetic softening; for really, of course, Peckinpah’s film is no less stylized than Kubrick’s—it’s just that the style of Straw Dogs isn’t preening and effete. And Straw Dogs is like Peckinpah’s other films, too, in the way the actors—here Dustin Hoffman—are both used for what they bring to their roles as types and allowed to develop performances which, at least in Hoffman’s case, draw deeper on their individual resources than anything they have done before. But, curiously, the film I am also put in mind of by Straw Dogs is The Birds—because of Peckinpah’s technical mastery, in part, but also by both films’ sense of gathering dread, and by the way the characters and spectators of both too late find themselves ensnared. Straw Dogs is less spacious and visually dazzling than The Wild Bunch; a darker, more brooding work in both mood and visual style; and probably I could say I enjoy it less than I do the earlier film. And the beginning is, I think, really somewhat too looming and deliberate in its oppressive sense of ubiquitous peril. But the later film is finally, if anything, even more complex and amazing in the way it forces one to an agitated confrontation with one’s own emotional involvement in the violence it depicts. Nor does Peckinpah evade complicity with the spectator in this;1 surely, whatever his conscious attitudes toward the violence of his films, no one can stage scenes of violence with the kind of controlled frenzy Peckinpah brings to them without being susceptible to the frenzy despite his controlling it; without, in some sense, enjoying what he does. And it is this investment of himself and attempted exorcism of his devils in his work, perhaps even more than his film-making genius, that makes Peckinpah at once so hard to take and so impossible to turn away from. Kubrick coldly lectures us that we are living in a hell of our own making. Peckinpah writhes in the flames with us, burning.
1 It is perhaps relevant to note here the source of the film's title in Lao-tse: “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs. The sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.”