When I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, I was immediately enthralled by this subversive gem so ahead of its time in 1971 that it still feels modern today. The opportunity to see it return to the big screen was an easy draw, particularly as it turned out Malcolm McDowell would be in town to discuss the film. I wrote after my first viewing that, “The dark satire relies on making McDowell’s electric performance relatable which is no small feat.” I was fascinated to hear more about how Alex DeLarge came about.
As a young Shakespearean stage actor, McDowell claims not to have felt intimidated by Kubrick despite his reputation and success. Rather, he saw the project as a collaboration. That is quite something for an actor who has only just entered the world of film with If…., an allegorical story about revolution at an English private school. That first feature, perhaps because of its anarchic sensibilities, led directly to his selection for A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s widow recently recalled that the director had screened the film at home, repeating McDowell’s first scene five times, before turning to her and saying, “we’ve found our Alex.”
“Stanley wasn’t interested in the actor’s problem at all,” McDowell explains of the struggle to find a way to perform Alex. That became liberating, giving him the confidence to improvise — particularly with physicality, such as Alex’s exaggerated chewing whilst confined to a hospital bed, which emerged largely as a reaction to Kubrick’s evident boredom with the scene’s dialogue. The actor summarises his brief as being to “play a rapist murderer who people like”. The fact Alex has some culture in his love for Beethoven helped but ultimately McDowell imbued him with a love for life, something that one has to admire on some level. Yet that is what drew such ire from many audiences, the New York Times calling Kubrick a fascist for making Alex likeable.
Although the film makers played for humour, it didn’t take shape until they started filming. By modern standards the black comedy is self-evident, but McDowell recalls a New York audience watching in complete silence, whilst London offered only the occasional laugh — such was its uniqueness at the time. The home invasion sequence in particular could not have been done naturalistically, McDowell considers, “It would kill the film.” They spent five days shooting nothing, trying to work out how to create it. Kubrick eventually asked whether McDowell could dance, in response to which he launched into a spirited rendition of Singing in the Rain, replete with timed kicks. Kubrick was crying with laughter and, as McDowell tells it, immediately jumped into his car and drove home to purchase the rights to the song; it took them a further seven days to film the scene
Asked whether it was difficult to shoot the Ludovico technique, in which Alex is forced to watch a deluge of horrific footage with his eyes clamped open with ophthalmic forceps, McDowell responds enigmatically, “But I am Alex. If Alex is feeling pain then so was Malcolm,” before admitting candidly, “It was fucking horrible.” His eyes were anaesthetised for the shoot, meaning that he did not realise he had badly scratched his corneas until it wore off as he was driving home, in the worst pain he has ever felt. And then there were the reshoots…
It is easy to forget that the film existed before punk, with a look that perhaps began to usher it in. The fashion was as improvisational as the acting, using cricket whites that McDowell had in his car, a protector that Kubrick suggested he wear on the outside as a codpiece, and a bowler as “a fuck you to the city”. The fake eyelashes began as a gag gift McDowell purchased for Kubrick, but after some experimentation they found the asymmetrical look of a single eye was suitably sinister.
McDowell recalls Anthony Burgess’ reason for writing the book, whilst noting in the same breath that the man was a pathological liar, making it impossible to know what was true. The story is that a Welsh doctor had told Burgess he had only nine months to live. Wanting to provide for his wife, Burgess rushed to write five books in that time. As publication approached and he was still alive, he realised he could not release them all simultaneously under his own name, so used pseudonyms instead. At the time he also worked as a newspaper literary critic and, as the books were not in his own name, they landed on his desk. He gave himself glowing reviews, before being fired once found out.
Addressing the mythology around the film’s limited availability in the UK until after Kubrick’s death, McDowell explains that A Clockwork Orange was never actually banned. A year after its release, as a result of several crimes allegedly copying elements of the movie, Kubrick and his family began receiving threats. Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from the UK market, a decision respected by the distributor until after his death. Invariably the lack of availability meant that people wanted it more.
He describes Kubrick as having paranoid tendencies, recalling visiting him at home to find the man sat by a stereo, intently listening to something through headphones. He silenced McDowell, who waited expectantly, imagining that he was probably listening to Beethoven for inspiration. Eventually Kubrick removed the cans and shook his head, “Another near miss at Heathrow.” He had been listening to air traffic control.
By the time the film was withdrawn, McDowell had moved to the USA, though he was disappointed that its cultural impact would not be experienced in the UK. American students embraced A Clockwork Orange for its style as well as the statement hidden beneath about freedom of choice. Although McDowell feels Burgess made things difficult for the audience by using an immoral man who makes bad choices, his own anti-establishment feelings ring out loudly in response to the film’s alternative of State control, “We know what happens when the State gets involved in anything. It’s a complete fuck up.” Here, its particular cruelty lay in stripping Alex of his pleasures, not just the antisocial ones but his love of music.
In closing, McDowell praises Kubrick’s genius as a film maker and waxed lyrical about 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I consider overrated despite its visual majesty. McDowell highlights its propulsion of science fiction beyond contemporary cardboard sets, describing it as the best cinematic experience one can have on the big screen. In fact, I do not disagree at all with his final assessment: “I don’t know what it’s about. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s 45 minutes before anyone speaks. But it’s genius.”
Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium. Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.
People often describe despair as an all-consuming black hole. Whilst that may be its crushing final act, for many people I suspect grey is a more appropriate colour than black. Rather than an oppressive force, it has a tendency to drain away the colour from the world, so that it loses its joy, its allure, and its meaning. Gris wordlessly explores this concept, following a strong-willed woman standing against the fears, doubts and depression that plague her mind.
“I slipped into a state beyond my usual grief and restlessness and anxiety and despair — one of not feeling anything at all. And when I felt nothing I became almost nostalgic for the grief; at least when you felt pain you knew you were still alive. I had tried to fight this, forcing myself into life and noise. I had gone, on my own, to a few of the new music halls, always sitting near the front, right in the heart of the noise and laughter, and I laughed or sang along, trying to feel some of the joy that filled the room. But I was immune.”Matt Haig, How to Stop Time
At a basic level, Gris is a 2D platformer in which progression is marked by restoring colours, one at a time, to an initially greyscale world. It is rendered as a flat cartoon against a layered, parallax scrolling background with swirling inks. The beautiful world is striking in both its initial stark simplicity and its colourfully detailed ultimate form. More impressive, however, is the inner struggle communicated solely through its mechanics.
The eponymous protagonist awakes in the palm of a crumbling statue that acts as a clear analogue to her own eroded sense of self. Gris tries to sing out but chokes up, the statue’s hand crumbling and dropping her to the earth below. She trudges through a grey world, hunched body language conveying her emotional state. She is buffeted by winds that rise and dwindle, forcing her to hide behind structures to avoid being blown backward, undoing her progress.
“There are many fools, Sorwa, men who conceive hearts in simple terms, absolute terms. They are insensible to the war within, so they scoff at it, they puff out their chests and they pretend. When fear and despair overcome them, as they must overcome us all, they have not the wind to think… and so they break.”King Harweel, The Judging Eye (R. Scott Bakker)
After a time she gains the ability to turn herself into a squared off, stone block. This cartoonish power serves not only to allow Gris to explore further by breaking through cracked floors when falling from a height, but the additional weight allows her to withstand strong winds without needing extrinsic cover. The metaphor for resilience is clear: Gris is learning to become more robust. You are not saving this woman; she is saving herself. The wind then shifts from an oppressive challenge to an enabling experience as Gris begins to use vertical gusts of wind to access new areas, previously out of reach.
There is a button that, throughout the game, does nothing but cause Gris to exhale in a plaintive sigh. The sound design is real and touching, as pointless as this feature seems to be. However, once Gris has recovered the world’s colour, the same button unexpectedly serves an entirely new purpose as that sigh is replaced by song. We realise that this button has always represented her voice: muted and weak at first, but now rediscovered and liberated. With this discovery, her voice restores life to the world, causing trees to grow and flourish, carrying her higher.
It is the rediscovery of her voice that allows Gris finally to combat the formless, inky blackness that has been pursuing her. Her earlier attempts at passive evasion merely to survive now become a defiant challenge. This antagonist adopts at times the more stereotypical mental health motifs of a huge black bird, squawking angrily, and a giant face capable of swallowing Gris whole. When this finally happens, Gris finds herself ascending a tower to escape a rising ocean of toxic black sludge. As Gris sings, her statue self reforms and, moments before Gris succumbs to the rising tide, the statue sings back. This song banishes the creature and the sea of despair.
“Most things fail with age. Our hands and backs stiffen. Our eyes dim. Skin roughens and our beauty fades. The only exception is the voice. Properly cared for, a voice does nothing but grow sweeter with age and constant use.”Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear
The transition from a sigh to a song represents, to me, a shift from a sense of despair to one of hope. Gris’ ability once more to hope forges positive changes in the world around her. However, finding her voice is not itself the end of the game. It is a tool, and it needs to be taken actively out into the world and shared in order for it to change. Hoping for change is not an excuse not to act. Hope is a reason for not ceasing to act through despair.
Richard E. Grant is, in conversation, as affably charming as you might expect, garrulously spilling forth anecdotes but always to praise others rather than himself. He was visibly excited yet humbly grateful at his Academy Award nomination earlier in the day, for the performance that had just been screened in Can You Ever Forgive Me? He describes the project’s success, for which he has already received twenty-odd awards, as the culmination of many pieces falling into place. He was drawn to it by scriptwriter Jeff Whitty (who wrote Avenue Q) and director Marielle Heller (for Diary of a Teenage Girl). His only concern was whether this would be a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy’s comedy, fears that were allayed over a two-hour planning lunch with her (there was otherwise no rehearsal before filming began).
Grant realised McCarthy had not seen Withnail and I when she complimented with some surprise his ability to act drunk. Whilst he acknowledges comparison between the performances is inevitable “when you play two alcoholics in period coats”, he is glad that the roles were thirty years apart and was not consciously channelling anything of Withnail. That may come as a slightly surprise given that he plays Portland-born Jack Hock as English, but this was a directorial choice rather than his own (in fact an earlier, failed incarnation of the project had Chris O’Dowd cast in the role).
Having come off what he described as the “Testostoworld” (coming soon to theatres) of Logan‘s massive, male-dominated set, he loved the intimacy of a small picture with rarely more than three people conversing in a scene and predominantly female crew. That is not to say he dislikes working on big movies: he is enthusiastic about appearing in Star Wars at the end of the year, although he perhaps misread the room a little when looking for excitement at JJ Abrams directing.
When asked what convinces him to take on a role, Grant prefaces his response by noting with self-deprecation that he appeared in Spice World: The Movie. Like the plethora of British talent to appear in the film, he was instructed to take the role by a family member, as his daughter wanted to meet the Spice Girls. I wonder how many others are, like him, finding on the flip-side that it now opens doors with younger talent like Lena Dunham who wrote him into Girls because of that movie.
He reminisced about acting alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence, joking that he prostrated himself in thanks that the legendary actor had turned down the role of Withnail, thus providing Grant with a career. After the first day, however, Day-Lewis blanked him on set, and it took Michelle Pfeiffer to explain that the method actor would continue this throughout shooting since their characters disliked one another. He finally broke character on Grant’s final day of shooting to envelop him in a hug and tell him it had been an honour working together. Which understandably, after weeks of being ignored, simply felt surreal.
I could not say unequivocally whether Jack Hock is Grant’s best performance, but when a long-serving character actor finally receives that elusive recognition, it is hard not to root for him to win.
For a third year, here are some illustrated moments from the past twelve months. In a world creaking under the strain of social media’s artificial expectations, I want to remind readers that these are merely the pretty highlights and not representative of the everyday experience, albeit that my photography tends to reflect the way that I see the world.
More to come next time…