Sep 8, 2013

A Clockwork Orange: Violence, Homophobia, and Violation

The 1960s was crowded with movies and tv series that contrast young and old, individuality and conformity, bondage and freedom.  A Clockwork Orange (1971) isn't among them.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell, who would play the Emperor Caligula) is an "ultraviolet" youth gang leader who spends his free time assaulting men and raping women.  When he kills a woman during a home invasion, he is sentenced to 40 years in prison.  He volunteers for an aversion-therapy treatment in exchange for a reduced sentence.  Now he gets sick whenever he thinks of violence, even in self-defense.  Unfortunately, he keeps running into people he assaulted earlier, and they have retribution in mind.

I expected a totalitarian dystopia that drove the youth to acts of violent resistance.  Instead I found a slightly futurized 1960s England, with freedom of speech and assembly.  Alex volunteers for the therapy; he isn't forced.  He isn't rebelling against the system; he's just bad.

Most of the counterculture movies, like Easy Rider and Alice's Restaurant, give the youthful protagonist a gay-subtext buddy or a "do your own thing" nonchalance about gay people. But in A Clockwork Orange, we see instead a homophobic portrayal of oldsters "desiring" youth.  Alex's juvenile parole officer tries to have sex with him,  the prison is full of what he calls "perverts," who blow kisses at him, and a prison guard performs a symbolic rape as he checks to see if Alex is "a homosexual."

 In fact, the last half of the movie involves one symbolic rape after another at the hands of older men, including the elderly, handicapped writer Frank Alexander and his bodyguard (bodybuilder Frank Prowse, who would play Darth Vader in Star Wars a few years later).

There is some beefcake -- Malcolm McDowell has a pleasant physique, displayed in his underwear often and nude once (including a glimpse of his penis).  But to see it you have to sit through many, many scenes with naked ladies (I lost track at eight), plus gigantic paintings of naked ladies in nearly every room.  In their milk bar hangout, all of the furniture is shaped like naked ladies.  (In case you were wondering, the society is blatantly sexist as well as homophobic).

McDowell has played so many gay-vague villains that I thought he was gay in real life, but apparently he's heterosexual.

A new theatrical adaption premiered in London last spring, with Martin McCreadie as Alex and an all-male cast, restores the anti-establishment tone of the original novel and omits the homophobia, transforming the work into manifesto against the violence of heterosexism.

See also: Beefcake and Grammatical Atrocities in Hidden Valley

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