I recently had the privilege of attending a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece A Clockwork Orange in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the film and to mark the release of the Blu-ray box set ‘Stanley Kubrick: Visionary Filmmaker Collection.’ What made this particular screening special was an introductory Q&A session with the film’s star Malcolm McDowell, Kubrick’s widow Christiane and her brother, longtime Kubrick collaborator Jan Harlan.
Hosted by Warner Brothers and HMV at a plush but intimate screening room (about 40 seats) in the Soho Hotel, McDowell quipped, when first handed a microphone, “Why do I need a microphone, there are only 3 people here!?” Asked if it felt like 40 years since the release of the film, he replied “Honestly, it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Now, if I had been in a prison cell, I’m sure it would have been a very slow 40 years, but as I’ve been having the time of my life, pretty much, that whole time, I can say that it’s gone (snaps fingers) like that”.
The question was directed to Ms. Kubrick and Jan Harlan, and she responded “Everything seems very short when you’re my age.” Mr. Harlan grinned and said “Now I have seven grandchildren, that’s what’s happened in the last 40 years.” Harlan was asked what attracted Kubrick to Anthony Burgess’ novel, and replied “He (Kubrick) had prepared Napoleon for two years, and he was very very sad that he couldn’t do it. After feeling very down for about two weeks, he hit on Traumnovelle (Dream Story, a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler), which was Eyes Wide Shut (which he made 30 years later), but he didn’t know how to do it. He wasn’t happy, although we already had a contract with Warner Brothers for that particular project. Then, he rediscovered this book (A Clockwork Orange) and fell in love with it; this process of falling in love with a project was necessary, because he knew that he took a long time and he needed that kind of energy in order to do this.”
Ms. Kubrick was asked if she remembered her husband reading the book. “Oh yes, I remember,” she replied. “In bed?” she was then asked, at which point McDowell jumped in. “Did it happen to you in bed? With all the tolchoking and horror-show stuff? Here’s a nice bit darling, with the old in out, in out, what’s that?” Ms. Kubrick continued, after the laughter subsided, “I had already read it, although I didn’t get some of it at first, but he so did, he got it immediately. He wondered how much of the language he could put into the film. It was very exciting, the book was like a roller coaster, so what was not to like.”
They were asked if they were aware of how potentially controversial the material was. “Of course it was, still is, rather startling,” said McDowell. “The first 20, 25 minutes just hits you with one punch after another; the wonderfully futuristic design for the Korova Milk Bar, and the sort of strange looking guys. Of course now everybody’s copied it, from Madonna to David Bowie to Slipknot (which shows you how with it I am). The social impact was tremendous; the punk movement was sort of born out of A Clockwork Orange in a way. At the time we didn’t think it was that violent. I thought we were making a comedy, a black one, but a comedy. I was quite upset when I saw the film in New York and not one person laughed at anything (you are allowed to laugh, by the way). I didn’t know how people couldn’t laugh at some of the stuff, but people of course were just totally shocked, and sat in stunned silence. One woman at a screening I was at ran out and apparently threw up in the lobby. But now, I’ve seen it with young people at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and the kids loved it, they just laughed all the way through. It finally caught up with the audience, or the audience caught up with it.”
The oft discussed subject of how McDowell came to be cast as Alex was raised. “We saw if….,” said Ms. Kubrick, “and a very short time into the film Stanley said ‘We found Alex’. He did run if…. again but he immediately knew, and didn’t look at any other actors.” McDowell, when asked how it felt to be chosen that way, said “I didn’t know. I was asked to go and meet with Stanley. I was doing a movie at Elstree with Bryan Forbes directing, so I went on my lunch hour and met with Stanley for a general talk, I thought. I asked him if there was anything in particular as I had to get back on set, and he said ‘I’ve got a book I’d like you to read, so would you read it, and then call me?’ Of course It was A Clockwork Orange, and actually I had a problem with it the first time I read it because of all the strange language, I was having to look at the back of the book in the glossary. I read it a second time and thought ‘this is pretty good’, and then I read it a third time and thought ‘wow, what a great part!’ So I called him after about a week and he asked ‘Have you read the book?’ Read the book, I said, it’s amazing, but how on earth are you going to make a movie out of it? ‘I have a few ideas.’ There was a little bit of an impasse as I remember it until I finally asked, well, are you offering me the part? And he said ‘yes’. A friend of mine is Ian Holm, who was supposed to do Napoleon, and he said ‘You’ve got to watch that Kubrick, because he doesn’t keep his promises.’”
I first saw the film in Toronto in my teens, and it had a profound impact on me; apart from the obvious cool factor that it had/has in spades, it seemed to have a lot to say for itself about a lot of things, many of them disturbing, which even my half formed teenage brain picked up on. More than 30 years since first seeing it, my deep appreciation of A Clockwork Orange hasn’t diminished one iota, and I was particularly looking forward to seeing it on a largish screen in the company of my partner, who had never seen it (largely due to its unavailability in the UK until after Kubrick’s death), and watching her reaction to the still potent 40 year old film.
It has of course been digitally cleansed for its Blu-ray debut, and it is now spotless with much sharper contrast overall, but in many ways it isn’t a film that benefits as substantially from being re-authored for Blu-ray as other films of the period do. The look of Kubrick’s films varied greatly depending on the subject and time period they were set in, and for A Clockwork Orange he worked with a very muted, almost washed out colour palette which subtly accentuated the bleakness of the futuristic setting. Kubrick and his team were always very closely involved in the technical aspects of the home entertainment release of his films when he was alive, and although I couldn’t get confirmation of who supervised the Blu-ray authoring of ACO and the rest of the films in the collection, I’m almost certain it must have been someone associated with Hawk Productions, protecting his legacy and presenting Kubrick’s work as he would have wished it to be seen. Certainly, the film looks better than it ever has on any home format while remaining as true as possible to the filmmaker’s visual intentions, and as with all vintage films on Blu-ray, it’s great to now have a richer uncompressed PCM track as an audio option.
The Stanley Kubrick box set includes 7 films on 8 discs, with quite a few extras for some titles, and very few for others. It is by no means definitive as it doesn’t include Kubrick’s films that were not made for or are not controlled by Warners (namely Fear & Desire (which I’ve never seen, and would like to), Killer’s Kiss, Paths of Glory, The Killing, Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove), but perhaps one day there will be a cross licenced or collaborative collection that will include all of his features, examples of his early still photography and documentary film work, and more.
A Clockwork Orange is available individually on Blu-ray, but the additional bonus content is only included with the version in the box set (good trick that). A Clockwork Orange 40th Anniversary Edition is available On Demand and for Download from iTunes™, including bonus iTunes™ extra content; Lolita, Barry Lyndon,2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut will be available On Demand and for Download.
McDowell was asked about his reaction to the backlash to the film in the UK at time of release, and related a story about his astonishment at seeing four ‘yobbos’ emerge from Hammersmith tube station dressed as the droogs, as well as his bemusement with how many times people have told him they dressed as Alex for Halloween (he reckoned about 500). He went on to talk about his feelings about the film today, which echo its place in my own personal pantheon: “…it’s like an old relative, this movie to me. It comes back every anniversary, and we all get together, and have a damn good time.”
As for my partner’s reaction to Alex and his droogs….she woke from a nightmare that night believing there was an intruder in the house. Viddy well indeed brothers, viddy well.