Part four: Chaos and Order: A Clockwork Orange and THX-1138
There are few more optimistic visions of the future than a 24-minute film Walt Disney made shortly before his death. It was designed to sell the plans he had for a large patch of land his company purchased in Central Florida. Those plans includes a theme park similar to California’s Disneyland, an addition Disney made late in the process, and with some reluctance. But the jewel in the crown would be a project called Epcot. Short for “Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow,” Epcot was nothing less than Disney’s notion of a modern utopia, a constantly evolving “practical proving ground” for “fine arts and technicians skilled in the arts of the Space Age.” The city would be built along a wagon wheel-like “radial” plan, with an enclosed downtown area surrounded by green space, apartment buildings, and further out, sensibly planned suburbs. No cars would be used in Epcot, though underground passageways would let traffic flow through the city, and permit freight to be delivered. Residents could keep cars of their own for trips outside the city, but why bother? Epcot would be big enough to contain the whole world, with neighborhoods that would re-create the look and feel of famous international locations. (A few blocks might look like, say, a stretch of Florence, and spotlight Italian culture. Bored of Italy? Why not take in a bit of China or Mexico, just a few blocks away?) Epcot would gather the past together as it looked toward a harmonious future—a destination its residents would reach via monorail and the WEDWay PeopleMover system.
Disney is a genteel master salesman throughout the pitch; his talk of Epcot’s lofty goals seemed sincere because they were sincere. Disney had his flaws, but he was also an idealist at heart. Shot in 1966, Disney’s presentation plays as the culmination of post-war optimism, a vision of a tomorrow made better by smart engineering and trust in the essential neighborliness of the American people, all of it delivered in the convivial tones familiar from the host segments that bookended Disney’s TV shows. The world of tomorrow could be smart, orderly, peaceful, and lovely, if only its builders stuck to the plans.
By the early 1970s, Walt Disney was dead, Epcot was on its way to being reinvented as a theme-park dilution of its original conception, and the sort of optimism that inspired it was in short supply. The Space Age climaxed with manned flight to the moon, and effectively had nowhere else to go. (Or at least nowhere else possible with the technology and budgets of the day.) Meanwhile, back on Earth, social unrest intensified to the point where it became hard to imagine even a relatively humble utopia like the Epcot of Disney’s imagination.
Roughly speaking, the era’s visions of the future can be divided into two camps: Those that imagine chaos, and those that imagine a horrifying sort of order. Sometimes the same fear could produce a different imagined future: The prospect of the world running out of resources resulted in both the authoritarian nightmares of Soylent Green and Z.P.G., and the violent tribalism of No Blade Of Grass. Neither possibility looked particularly appealing. Neither do those presented in two films from 1971, one of which imagines a world on the verge of being overrun by the violent ids of a barbaric younger generation, and the other, one locked down tight enough to squeeze the humanity from its citizens. Both make cases for keeping the human spirit liberated, but they go about it differently, and with varying degrees of success. And both build their horrific futures from the materials of the present.
Early in A Clockwork Orange, protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) plays hooky and goes shopping. Specifically, the Beethoven-mad thug goes looking for music—and girls, but that seems almost incidental—a journey that takes him to a store filled with magazines and records. Stanley Kubrick films his venture in a long take that captures the store in all its near-futuristic glory, though Londoners at the time would have recognized it as a future that had already arrived. As designer John Coulthart details in a 2006 post, Kubrick shot the scene in the Chelsea Drug Store, a London hotspot immortalized in The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” As its name promised, the Chelsea Drug Store did feature a chemist, but it lured in shoppers with a variety of other products, music and magazines among them. Which is why viewers who look closely will notice it’s filled with objects from 1971, from a Rare Earth album to a poster for the then-recent Mick Jagger-starring film Ned Kelly. It’s one of the film’s many examples of Kubrick looking around, imagining what might last, and calling it the future.
As Coulthart also notes, it was a strategy he (and others) borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, which found a science-fiction alternate universe tucked into the the ultra-modern architecture and florescent-illuminated hallways of contemporary Paris. In London, Kubrick mostly imagined ugliness living on. Alex is a product of a towering council house that’s falling into disrepair, a real-life example of a post-war utopian idea that had started to edge into dystopia by the end of the 1960s. (The title and lyrics of a song by The Jam from a few years later summed it up: “The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong.”) He and his gang begin and end their evenings at The Korova Milk Bar, an establishment that attracts posh city-dwellers out for an evening of slumming, and teenagers looking to fuel an evening of crime and mayhem. But between visits, they patrol the lawless lakefront, confront rivals at an abandoned casino, and find a soft target for home-invasion in the countryside. They make wherever they go a playground for their basest impulses—rape, brutality, and later, murder—and nothing stands in their way. The film makes some stabs at explaining why. Alex is clearly bright, but born to ineffectual parents who indulged his whims, and now fear the monster they’ve raised. But mostly, Alex seems to be a symptom of a more general sickness. He fits right into Kubrick’s future-as-the-present-but-falling-apart world because it’s the place that made him and his ilk.
“It is essentially now,” Anthony Burgess reflected of his novel in a 1973 essay for The New Yorker that went unpublished until 2012. He might have added “and a little bit ago, too.” In A Clockwork Orange’s most disturbing scene—in both the film and the book—Alex and his friends (“droogs,” in the film’s hybrid English/Russian slang) talk their way into the country home of writer Frank Alexander, crippling Alexander and raping his wife. For the scene, Burgess drew on his own wife’s attack at the hands of AWOL American soldiers during World War II. Both the book and the film (where he’s played by Patrick Magee) later turn Frank into Alex’s unlikely ally, of sorts. “Reformed” by the brainwashing of the Ludovico Technique, which conditions Alex’s mind to be repulsed by violence, but also by his beloved Beethoven, he becomes a pawn for Frank and his supporters, who use his case to illustrate the greater evil of state-sponsored suppression of free will.
That’s a remarkable argument for someone touched so directly by violence, particularly one writing for a 1962 British audience in a state of mild panic over gangs and juvenile delinquency, which soon intensified with the clashes between Mods and Rockers two years later. Burgess meant it, though. Elsewhere in that 1973 essay, he writes:
In our own century, the state has been responsible for most of our nightmares. No single individual or free association of individuals could have achieved the repressive techniques of Nazi Germany, the slaughter of intensive bombing, or the atomic bomb. War departments can think in terms of megadeaths, while it is as much as the average man can do to entertain dreams of killing the boss. The modern state, whether in a totalitarian or a democratic country, has far too much power, and we are probably right to fear it.
He also lays out his motivations as plainly as possible: “I had read somewhere that it would be a good idea to liquidate the criminal impulse through aversion therapy; I was appalled.” To illustrate the absoluteness of his repulsion, Burgess creates a worst-case scenario. If ever there was a monster the world would be better off without, it’s Alex, who’s unrepentant about his actions, and shows no inclination he’ll ever change his ways (at least up to the final chapter cut from American editions of the book, and left out of the movie). Yet Burgess forces readers to spend the whole of A Clockwork Orange in Alex’s head, and while it isn’t a pleasant place to be, it also makes readers reckon with what it means to extinguish the humanity, however flickering, of such a character. To snuff out the urge to rape and kill is also to snuff out whatever part of his soul climbs to understand Beethoven’s 9th.
But does Kubrick’s film share that agenda? His Clockwork Orange makes the same argument, but without much conviction. It feels more like a shrug of surrender, peering into a future to be defined by either authoritarianism or barbarism, and opting for the perceived lesser of two evils, however plagued with rape and murder it might be. McDowell’s performance is appropriately monstrous, but only the scene at Alexander’s house captures the full awfulness of his behavior. Elsewhere, the film feels a bit too infatuated with his cheekiness, and its heightened world blunts the impact of the violence. Alex’s murder of the cat lady, while not exactly played for laugh, also doesn’t play like one human visiting violence and death upon another.
It’s a perverse film in many ways, not the least of which is the way Kubrick fills it with references to his earlier film, 2001: A Space Odyssey: the prominent placement of that film’s soundtrack album in the shopping scene, the way the staging of the droogs’ attack on a homeless man mirrors the behavior of the ape men in the “Dawn Of Man” sequence, those monolith-like speakers that appear at Alex’s bedside in the final scene. If the end of 2001 could be read as humanity entering the next, higher phase of its existence—a common interpretation—then A Clockwork Orange suggests that sliding backward is another possibility.
The film earned Kubrick praise from some quarters, but also some of his career’s most damning reviews. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote:
A Clockwork Orange is based, somewhat faithfully, on a novel by Anthony Burgess. Yet I don’t pin the rap on Burgess. Kubrick has used visuals to alter the book’s point of view and to nudge us toward a kind of grudging pal-ship with Alex.
Kubrick’s most obvious photographic device this time is the wide-angle lens. Used on objects that are fairly close to the camera, this lens tends to distort the sides of the image. The objects in the center of the screen look normal, but those on the edges tend to slant upward and outward, becoming bizarrely elongated. Kubrick uses the wide-angle lens almost all the time when he is showing events from Alex’s point of view; this encourages us to see the world as Alex does, as a crazy-house of weird people out to get him.
The bad press didn’t stop with the critics. After a series of seeming copycat crimes—and some death threats directed at Kubrick and his family—Kubrick and Warner Bros. pulled the film from circulation in Britain, where it remained until after Kubrick’s death. Its imagery lingered on, however, on posters and buttons, and it became widely circulated as a bootleg, as anyone who ever visited London’s Camden Town markets, or other places where legally questionable media got sold, can attest.
In many ways, that’s appropriate to the film, which struggles to make a coherent statement, but has shots and moments that sear into memory like few others. It plays like a dark joke without a proper punchline. That might help explain its influence, too, as if later films set in grim futures and overrun with youth gone wild were trying to see through what A Clockwork Orange started, and puzzle through its implications. Would we really be better off in the hands of Alex than in the hands of the Big Brother-aspiring administration that tried to neuter him (and which, in the film’s crowning irony, co-opts him into its own scramble to hold onto power)? As triumphs of the human spirit go, it’s enough to make even the most radical-minded crave a bit of authority.
The question is, how much? The answer is surely not the world of THX 1138. George Lucas’ feature-film debut expands on “Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB,” an acclaimed short the director shot while a student at USC. It’s 15 minutes of future-dread:
Though bigger in scope than the source material, everything that makes THX 1138 memorable can be glimpsed in the original short: the eerie electronic soundtrack, from the score music to the sounds of everyday life in the future; the technology applied to creating a nearly omniscient surveillance state; the sterile whiteness; the dispassion with which everyone goes about hunting down the title character; and an ending that plays as triumphant, but leaves the protagonist facing a lonely, uncertain future.
The short also benefits from being, well, short. As a feature, THX 1138 is more visually arresting, but the running time reveals how little thought Lucas—working with co-screenwriter Walter Murch—put into considering whether the film’s world makes any sense. In broad strokes, it’s a haunting vision of the future. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) and his state-assigned roommate LUH (Maggie McOmie) live in a future that’s equal parts 1984 and Brave New World. Passion is suppressed by drugs. Consumerism is encouraged. And the government watches it all. The films throws in some pointed touches as well. The populace appears to be made up entirely of white people, but all entertainment—which takes the forms of holograms watched in private—is performed by black people. And not even flesh-and-blood black people, either: The holograms are computer programs, one of whom, SRT (Don Pedro Colley), joins THX 1138 in his attempt to escape after the latter is committed to an asylum for the crime of having unlicensed intercourse with LUH.
The fine points do in THX 1138 as a narrative. How does a hologram enter the real world? In a world defined by its rigid restrictions, how does consumerism, which demands at least some kind of freedom of choice, serve as the driving force? What, beyond suppression, is the government’s goal? (On a making-of doc included on THX 1138’s DVD and Blu-ray, Murch describes it as being about “unbridled consumer culture,” but that choice seems almost arbitrary.) Yet part of what makes the film so remarkable is how little those questions matter while it’s playing. Catching up with the film in 2009, novelist Lev Grossman called it “eye-bleedingly boring” while also noting that it “makes a powerful emotional impression.” Those opinions only seem to contradict each other. Lucas habitually creates immersive worlds, and staying close to THX, following his routines from work to home to a state-sponsored confessional and back again, while letting cracks develop in that routine, makes that world seem real. (Substitute “hypnotic” for “eye-bleedingly boring,” and Grossman gets it right.)
So does the enveloping sound design, also largely Murch’s work, and the production design, which creates a future of whirring tape, tapping print-outs, electronically distorted voices, and faceless robot policemen, all of it made even more convincing by the humble, taken-from-life elements used to build it. Lucas began his career as a Francis Ford Coppola protégé, and he shot THX 1138 largely in San Francisco, letting room-filling computer equipment and already-futuristic city buildings, grim parking garages, and unfinished BART tunnels stand in for the future. (All this makes Lucas’ maddening decision to throw flashy, anachronistic-looking CGI imagery into his 2004 director’s cut of the film even more maddening. A notion outside the scope of this column, but worth considering: At some point, did Lucas stop identifying with his rebel heroes, and start admiring his authoritarian regime’s aspirations to assert total control?) It also, after a certain point, picks up the pace, finishing with an underground car chase filled with daring stunt work. It stops being a story about a world going round in circles, and starts being the story of one man determined to outrun fate.
There are shades of Lucas films to come in that sequence, but let’s consider for a moment THX 1138 in isolation, as a naïve but overwhelming vision of terrible things to come, a world designed to snuff out what makes us human, and one man’s attempts to resist that suppression. Though released in 1971, THX 1138 plays at times like the last science-fiction film of the 1960s, while the downbeat A Clockwork Orange feels like the first of the 1970s. While superficially, they have little in common, in many respects, both films puzzle over the same obsessions. THX 1138 offers a dour, laconic vision that ends on an up note—THX escapes and stands against one of the biggest, boldest sunrises ever filmed—in contrast to A Clockwork Orange, which keeps a perversely peppy pace, up to an ending that’s happy for its hero, and chilling in its implications for everyone else. And even if, of the two, only Lucas seems fully invested in the argument, and even if both come up short, both make the effort. Both feel driven by a sense that, in the years to come, humanity would need a defense against the dehumanizing forces at work, whatever form they might take.
Next: The forms they might take: Logan’s Run, Sleeper, and other 1970s dystopian visions.