‘I think choosing to have the choice taken away from you is all to the good.’
This is the first screen version of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, an hour-long effort thrown together by Warhol at the Factory in 1965 – with a script by Ronald Tavel (presumably mostly ignored), which replaces Burgess’s nadstat with declamatory stuff (‘pray tell, sir, what does this page mean, sir?’) delivered by Gerard Malanga as Alex analogue Victor. Did Stanley Kubrick bother to see it – had he (or Burgess?) even heard of this thing? It’s presumably a coincidence that this film starts with a close-up of the protagonist staring directly into the camera and then a pullback to show him sat among jaded, sprawling exquisites (including Edie Sedgwick), though this is how the 1971 film opens. Of course, this being mid-60s Warhol, the shot then locks off and stays steady for two reels of film. Malanga – who wasn’t so much directed as sabotaged by Warhol – has to recite reams of off-Broadway type speechifying, which renders Burgess’s future British thug Alex into American 1950s terms of JDs and squares (‘the squares do good because they dig it’) while other people in the frame (including Ondine as ‘Scum Baby’) basically fidget and smoke (J.D. McDermott as ‘the Cop’, does a cartoony evil laugh). Crowded into the background, a naked-chested, bewigged, tied-up guy is tortured by wax drippings by a couple of doms.
After a speech, Malanga chicken-dances to Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Nowhere to Run’ – which has a sort of robot, hypnotic effect, though the use of pop music in an underground cinema context is crude in contrast with Kenneth Anger’s (and, of course, at odds with Burgess’s use of classical music, which was a canny way of ensuring that his futuristic vision wouldn’t be dated by associating its wild youth with any contemporary tribe). This evidently takes the filmmaker’s fancy, since the record gets another spin – and Edie does some seated jiving to go along with it. He tussles with sunglasses-wearing Scum Baby, who is apparently the Mr Alexander character, and the ranting doctor (who has a lot of attack in his delivery, but a shaky grasp of his lines) subjects him to a version of the Ludovico Treatment (‘people have to make a choice to goodness’). This involves Victor being tied to a chair (a voice-over – which had earlier announced the title – now interjects ‘Victor is played by Gerard Malanga’ and reads out the rest of the credits; Ondine is billed as ‘Robert Olivio’ and his character name is given as ‘Scume’), having his shirt ripped, getting duct tape stuck to his chest and reciting a speech that actually is paraphrased from the novel (‘where did they get such a flicker as this – I didn’t know such films existed … I see some JDs grabbing a young chick and giving her the old up-yours, one after another’) while of course no such films are shown.
Tosh Carillo as ‘The Doctor’ (who gives the closest thing to a conventional, proper acting performance) wears a white t-shirt and jeans with black belt and boots which – as they read in monochrome – look a bit like Kubrickian droog drag. The treatment runs to candlewax-dripping – a mild, but plainly genuine, bit of s/m torture which Malanga overreacts to – and the strapping-on of a gimp hood and water being poured through a funnel into his mouth. The Kinks’ ‘This Could Be the Last Time’ is played in the room, followed by snatches of ‘Shout’, something by Sam Cooke, ‘Tired of Keeping Me Waiting’, etc – which you can bet Andy didn’t pay PRS on, though he did claim to have sprung $500 for the rights to the book. About now, 48 minutes in, Edie gets bored with being perched not that comfortably on a trunk, but can’t bear to leave the frame – though the film does suddenly cut to a close-shot of the hooded Malanga being abused, with Edie stretching a white hand into the frame to flutter around. This locked-off shot then cuts off everyone’s heads as the story breaks up, Malanga gets out of the chair, Carillo starts dancing, someone reads the end credits and Victor gets strangled – though, mirroring the first shot, the camera then pulls back to show someone in a leather jacket hitting on Edie as Victor and his torturer give up pantomiming violence and start slow-dancing together. The image starts to fade, everyone clumps together, and it’s all over …
It’s all set in a cramped corner of the Factory, with a strew of pages torn from porn magazines on the floor. By having the skeletal remains of a plot – a literary source, not even that well-known at the time – this is more like a caricature of a real film than the moving portrait or ambient image pictures Warhol was taking at the time. The locked-off camera, use of music, and weird all-crammed-in-like-the-stateroom-from-A Night at the Opera feel even make this something that draws attention to the film frame in a way that separates it from a filmed happening or stage performance. Like the whole of Warhol’s oeuvre, it’s essential and disposable at the same time – a tough watch, but an interesting thought … a cosy, twee transgression and a snapshot of its precise moment in time (this is, really, not a film about the future – it’s a film about that afternoon). It’s an hour that feels like a weekend, too. But I’m glad I finally got round to watching it.