On Screen

SIMON, JOHN

On Screen JUICELESS ORANGE, DEFOLIATED GARDEN BY JOHN SIMON Alas, poor Kubrick! He is the American director for whom we had the highest hopes; who, alone among the younger crowd, promised...

...the rest of the casting is rather less felicitous...
...Unlike A Clockwork Orange, Bassani's novel is feeble stuff: juiceless, blunted writing in which neither people nor places come alive for all the accumulation of dry, flat details...
...Why should the victimized writer, described as young and likable, be played by Patrick Magee, a very middle-aged, quirkish actor specializing in being repellent...
...The sociopolitical background is dutifully and listlessly sketched in, with even the scenes of Micol, Alberto and Giorgio as children (the sort of thing that used to be De Sica's specialty) lacking savor...
...Even some unesoteric, perfectly filmable details of rich suggestive power are wantonly cut...
...what was only a fleeting, somewhat yearning contact with the rich family develops into a friendship with the son, Alberto, and desperate love for Micol, the spirited, vaguely intellectual daughter...
...Now during the Ludovico treatment, the violent film sequences are accidentally (?) scored with Beethoven, and Alex comes to abhor classical music as much as violence...
...old faithfuls, Cesare Zavattini and Ugo Pirro (along with VittorioBonicelli), and the direction by that grand old man, Vittorio De Sica...
...Kubrick's Alex ends with the Beethoven blaring into his ears, his restored mind envisioning him gamboling in the snow in satyr's attire with a near-naked, serenely smiling blonde, while a bunch of beaming onlookers exude admiration...
...The camera positions are amazingly predictable: For almost every entrance there is an establishing long shot with the new arrival entering from the back of the set...
...The second great error is the mismanagement of the music on the sound track...
...Though I considered his beginning, Fear and Desire, far from auspicious, The Killing was a respectable small film and Paths of Glory worked effectively albeit blatantly up to its crashing copout...
...The new shock treatment that jellifies him is named after its fictitious inventor, Ludovico...
...The problem is not only one of reducing the film to the level of illiterate masses????of all the Alexes among us...
...since what Alex and his three "droogs" (pals) enjoy most are beatings, lootings, and rapes, that is what usually comes under the marvelously ambiguous heading of "horrorshow...
...The recollections focus on a rich, quasi-aristocratic Jewish family, the Finzi-Continis, who, protected by their sumptuous house and huge, leafy estate, seemingly ignore the rise of Fascism and the first anti-Jewish laws...
...Kubrick cannot lay off parading his musical "erudition...
...This autobiographical fiction concerns Bassani's youth in Ferrara during the years leading up and into World War II...
...A man is a "veck," an abridgement of "chelloveck...
...Later, there are the standard chases, roundups, hairbreadth escapes and deportation scenes, in a weak attempt to recapture the style and motifs of the early neorealist films...
...As Giorgio's father????a worried, ex-Fascist Jew, now barred from almost everythingóRomolo Valli contributes the film's most authentic, flavorous performing...
...Hearing the highest and most ennobling music of Western civilization, and especially Beethoven's great "Ode to Joy," helps turn Alex into a ravening beast...
...Similarly, God becomes, from the Russian, "bog"????something to get bogged down in...
...A no less unfortunate screen adaptation is that of Giorgio Bassani's novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis...
...indeed, drops almost all cultural references from his screenplay, although they are of the essence...
...But lost, or impossible to catch in the film, is the tragicomic vandalism practiced on all language...
...So we get, besides the Beethoven, a very mixed bag of minor music????Purcell, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Elgar and two popular Rossini overtures, as well as some electronic and pop music?loudly and constantly creeching at us...
...Could Kubrick be after something as trite as yet another generation-gap movie...
...and a sincere performance by Lino Capolicchio as the weak, ineffectual would-be lover, Giorgio...
...as an exorcism of the ghost of the blonde, vivacious Micol, that beautiful, unattainable girl who died young and horribly...
...There are, to be sure, a few lively moments in the film, including a well-handled scene or two, and some of the futuristic gadgets are fun...
...So we lose Burgess' grand ironic design: An Alex who relishes songs by Freed and Brown, and who can have erotic visions even to "Scheherazade," is no longer an object lesson in the failure of culture to civilize us...
...There is, alas, no movie in that...
...The third great loss is the playing with language...
...A Clockwork Orange concerns Alex, a juvenile gang leader in some not very future England, who relates his first-person narrative in a teenagers' slang consisting chiefly of Russian words given English spelling and a lower-class British pronunciation...
...Is he, perhaps, just as capable of enjoying some or most music even after his treatment...
...This, O my brothers (to use one of Alex's favorite locutions), is a huge copout, as big as the one in Paths of Glory, contrasted to Burgess' happy apocalypse with Alex "carving the whole litso of the creeching world with [his] cut-throat britva...
...Our teenage hero is reduced to a meek monster of virtue whom violence, even in self-defense against walloping bullies, makes sick to his stomach...
...In the end, the film does somehow move you...
...the death of Alberto from lymphogranuloma and the deportation and presumable extermination of the rest of the family are relegated to a brief, equally unnarrative, epilogue...
...the dark and ruthless good looks of Fabio Testi as Malnate (in the book, a large, fat, lax, pipe-smoking fellow...
...The political conversations of the novel are severely pared down in the film, and the ardent discussions of literature, one of the leitmotifs, completely excised...
...Equally halfhearted are the tries at evoking Fer-rarese Jewish modes of being, the political moods of the times, and the gracious, vanishing life of dilettantism on the Finzi-Continis' ducal domains...
...Though some few of the Russian words are kept in the movie, they do not register on the ear as sardonically as on the eye?assuming that we can make them out at all under the Cockney accents...
...He even overdirects the basically excessive Magee to the point where the actor's eyes erupt like missiles from a launching pad, and his face turns into every shade of a Technicolor sunset...
...Thus Ludwig and Ludovico are equal banes: A plague on both their houses...
...It depends to a large extent on words, and particularly on certain curious, macaronic puns...
...Gone is not only the subtle irony of "they gave you the name when you bought," but also the cruel jest that grinds culture and pseudoculture into common masks from behind which bestiality may strike, protected...
...or "Come and get one in the yarbles...
...Here a set, there a set, but very little of what connects them, so that each episode looks isolated, sealed off from the rest, making the film unduly episodic, and giving it an unpleasingly lurching and halting rhythm...
...The novel was a poor choice for a film...
...An ironic parallel is intended...
...The poorest characterization is Mile Sanda's...
...Alex is a jolly sadistic criminal until he falls into the hands of a quasi-enlightened Socialist state that reclaims him via the Ludovico treatment: the enforced watching of filmed violence, murder, rape almost uninterruptedly for several weeks while strapped into a chair, his eyelids cruelly forced apart...
...Obviously Burgess does not like either alternative one bit????the proof is in the nomenclature...
...Bassani probably intended the novel as an evocation of le vert paradis des amours enfantines (a line quoted twice in the work...
...and as a re-creation of the atmosphere of improvident or fatalistic insouciance with which these wealthy Jews drifted into their undoing...
...These are blows to the very quick of language, spelling the doom of culture in letters (or crimes) more capital than knifings and rapings...
...Two terrific and very enormous mountains" and "how to comport yourself pub-licwise" Burgess' Alex will say...
...When the chips are down????except, miraculously, in Dr...
...Micol becomes a faintly sadistic and incestuous femme fatale, Giorgio a masochist, Malnate a coldly efficient seducer, Alberto a man haunted and betrayed by both Malnate and his own sister...
...It is quite wrong to read the novel, as some people do, as a plea for Christian free will (and, by the way, is free will necessarily Christian...
...There is a pathetic death scene for Alberto, and a horrid sex scene where, at night, Giorgio spies through a window on a barely postcoital Malnate and Micol, and the girl flaunts her nudity at him...
...The glamorous presences of Dominique Sanda and Helmut Berger as the doomed young Finzi-Continis...
...J. B. Priestley, a mediocre novelist and playwright but a Socialist, is honored with a statue and a square by a Socialist state, and it is all lost on the young for whom he is a "starry poet"????when poet is just what he wasn't, and starry still less, except that the word is really "stary": Russian for "old...
...2001 had some splendid gadgetry, even if not much else...
...Similarly, "rot" is Russian for mouth????and English for what comes out of Priestley's...
...Yet poor old De Sica (like poor youngish Kubrick) is in a bad state...
...the neo-Pavlovian conditioning????science at its most sinister ????merely makes him into a perfect victim for others to vent their bestiality on...
...Stanley Kubrick, autodidact and self-styled intellectual, misses the three main points here...
...How much these few words accomplish...
...Then they threw in all kinds of hints of guilty passions?homosexual, incestuous, voyeuristic...
...This hideous, low-level, casual heartless-ness tends to be dropped in favor of splashier crimes, more artful sadism, and the basic "banality of evil" theme is forfeited...
...Was Alex perhaps just as fond of second-rate and even trivial music...
...Field distortion by wide-angle lenses becomes wearying after a while...
...The nasty-minded Alex wallows in a kind of musical masturbation: Listening to his hi-fi playing Bach, Mozart and, above all, his favorite "Ludwig van's" Ninth Symphony (especially the last movement), he has onanis-tic fantasies of rapturous "ultra-violence...
...Strangelove????Kubrick's sensibility goes mushy...
...It is not really a novel at all, but a memoir of the timid, bookish narrator's unrequited longings for Micol, who may or may not have been the clandestine mistress of Malnate, a serious young Communist engineer and friend of her brother's, with whom Alberto, in turn, may have been secretly, unrequitedly in love...
...To have stuff like "The Thieving Magpie" and "William Tell"????not to mention the pop music????loudly smeared across the sound track both before and after Alex's conversion obfuscates the issue...
...you eunuch jelly, thou...
...Now comes the long-awaited A Clockwork Orange, based on Anthony Burgess' novel, for which I share the late Stanley Edgar Hyman's enthusiasm, as expressed in a New Leader column...
...The book is remarkably lacking in the kind of incidents that make up a narrative...
...Kubrick reduces this to one big, ludicrous false nose...
...From the bad to middling entertainments he has been turning out, there seems to be no way back to Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, and Umberto D. He is like a once-famous operatic tenor turned pop singer and grown old, trying to sing one of the arias from his youthful repertoire, and left wrecked and wheezing on the high C's...
...she emerges as a headstrong, cruel flirt rather than the female equivalent of Hanno Budden-brook that Bassani seems to have had in mind...
...When the tennis club throws out its Jewish members, Giorgio and other youthful sportifs are invited over to play on the Finzi-Continis' private court...
...but no one ever questioned Kubrick's talent as a gadgeteer...
...As frequently happens in movies dealing with some remote period whose full re-creation would be too costly, Orange has a fragmented look...
...First, they made all four of the young principals gorgeous and dashing...
...But they are slurred over or omitted by Kubrick as un-suited to the medium of film...
...In these evocative sequences, De Sica painfully demonstrates his loss of touch...
...Worse, ingredients essential to understanding the work's meaning are jettisoned????as, for instance, the typescript of a novel, "A Clockwork Orange," the gang's author-victim is working on, from which Alex contemptuously reads out a revealing paragraph...
...First, the relentless but laughing pessimism...
...Where the Russian words do not set up double entendres, their effect is nevertheless appalling in its suggestion of the communization of language, the world, the realms of the mind...
...The script is by thos...
...The minor characters tend to be similarly overdone or travestied...
...For example, "good" or "well" becomes, from the Russian "horosho" the slangy "horrorshow...
...Even the semiperfunctory portrayal of innocent victims on the way to the gas chambers, even the rather routine and somewhat lurid evocation of an aristocratic way of life brutally snuffed out, has an undeniable, though unearned, power to touch us...
...What is left...
...the lighting tends to be melodramatic and obvious...
...Thus, in the novel, Alex and his gang knew "right away we were in Priestley Place as soon as we viddied the big bronze statue of some starry poet with an apey upper lip and a pipe stuck in a droopy old rot...
...In fact, he gives himself away to the man whom he crippled and whose wife he raped and, indirecdy, killed by singing to himself "Singin' in the Rain," to which he once kicked the daylights out of the man...
...To cite a single example: When the gang drives happily home in their stolen car after a night's brutality and destruction, they keep "running over odd squealing things...
...But a near-fatal fall restores the will-less milksop to the vicious punk he was: The "happy" ending has him daydreaming about once again cutting up the face of the world with his trusty switchblade...
...The film's weaknesses, though, are often purely filmic...
...Both English and Russian lose their dignity through this cross-sterilization that in itself becomes a metaphor for Burgess' overwhelming, but cheerfully expressed, pessimism...
...Accelerated and slow motion are used overabundantly...
...Malcolm McDowell is excellent as Alex...
...But here the script and direction are mostly to blame...
...Missing from the film, too, are the masks our punks put on for their criminal binges: "they were like faces of historical personalities (they gave you the name when you bought) and I had Disraeli, Pete had Elvis Presley, Georgie had Henry VIII and poor old Dim had a poet veck called Peebee Shelley...
...Money is "deng," with unmistakable overtones of dung...
...John Alcott's color cinematography is routine stuff, and John Barry's set design, though trying to be clever, is mostly derivative...
...The camera placements, alternation of shots and editing are consistently uninspired, the color photography undistinguished...
...who, alone among the younger crowd, promised achievements of lasting, international stature...
...The best he can do with the great garden is a long, soft-focus dolly shot through the treetops, a cliche if ever there was one...
...a thing is a "veshch" ????and can you disregard the sinister implications of the similarity between "veck" and "veshch...
...Strangelove was one of the very rare successful screen satires made in this country...
...So De Sica and his scenarists jazzed up the nonstory into a conventional, superficial, occasionally sleazy film...
...before that, Spartacus and Lolita, both failures, had at least a few nice redeeming features...

Vol. 55 • January 1972 • No. 1


 
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