by Daniel Hirshleifer
Getting to see A Clockwork Orange on the big screen these days is a rare occurrence. To see it with Malcolm McDowell in attendance is a once in a lifetime experience. Daniel Hirshleifer managed to get a ticket to this sold-out show at the American Cinematheque (www.americancinematheque.com). Read his thoughts and recollections of the night.
I was in 7th grade. My friend calls me. He says, "Daniel! I just read this amazing book, and this guy actually creates his own slang! There's a movie, too. Let's go rent it." The next thing I know, I find myself at his house, and he's popping in a tape with the strange title of A Clockwork Orange. I sit down to get comfortable, and I'm suddenly glued to the set as I see nothing but red on the screen, with pulsing electronic music moving through my ears. Suddenly it cuts to the close up of Malcolm McDowell's face. On his right eye are fake eyelashes. The camera tracks back and I see the surreal Korova Milk Bar. That was it, my friends. From that moment on I knew nothing but the adventures of Alex, our humble narrator. When the movie finished, I sat back, exhausted. But I was a changed man. Before that point, my appreciation of movies was simply casual. My favorite movie was Star Wars. After A Clockwork Orange, that was all over. I became a certified film buff, and an obsessive Kubrick fan in particular. But despite the fact that 2001 was more revolutionary, or Barry Lyndon had more beautiful cinematography, I have and will always maintain that A Clockwork Orange is the best Kubrick film, simply because it was the first movie that made me truly love film.
Cut ahead several years, and I'm doing some volunteer work for the American Cinematheque, an organization that shows rare films, obscure films, classic films, just good films in general. I'm working at the theater (they were showing Australian documentaries), when a girl walks in, needing to use the bathroom. As she comes back out, it turns out she knows one of the volunteers. As they begin some small talk, she mentions that she was buying a ticket for the next night, a showing of A Clockwork Orange, with Malcolm McDowell there to discuss it. Needless to say, I was out the door before she was, shelling out $10 for a chance to see my favorite movie on the big screen, with the star in tow. And a good thing I did, too, because a few minutes later, it sold out. The next day I got there at 6:30 (the show started at 7:30), and there was already a line of people waiting to get in, as well as a line of people trying to get tickets (slackers). They let us in at 7:00. I picked out a prime spot in the middle of the theater (so as to get the best sound mix, in case this was the new print with 5.1 sound that Leon Vitali had just remastered). I watched the people stream in, and eventually struck up a conversation with the woman next to me. She was from Italy, and apparently had written her college thesis on Kubrick's Lolita. Apparently, A Clockwork Orange was also the first movie that made her a film buff, but, being from Italy, she had never seen it in English! This showing was her first time seeing it in the original English (after the show, she told me that the Italian dubbing was very good, but still didn't compare with seeing it in English).
Eventually, Malcolm McDowell entered from a side door to a tremendous amount of applause. He came up to the front, took the mic, and said, "I'm very glad to be here tonight, since they don't usually do these things until after you're dead." He then gave us an anecdote to set us on our way for the film. He talked about the opening shot, and how they worked on it for a full day. A few weeks later, Kubrick came up to him and said, "Malcolm, I just saw the rushes of the opening, and I noticed that you raise your milk glass to the camera. Why did you do that?" And Malcolm replied, "Well, Stanley, I wanted to let the audience know that they're in for one HELL of a ride!" To which Kubrick simply said, "Oh...o.k."
And with that, the film started. Right away I knew it wasn't a remastered print. The sound was obviously in mono, and the print was scratched and dirty. I guess I'm a DVD snob, but I can only imagine how amazing the new prints would have looked and sounded in a real theater. Still, seeing the film on the big screen was eye opening. You could see spots of acne on McDowell's face, as well as other small details (notice that in the montage of newspapers scene, Alex's last name is given as "Burgess"). The audience was responsive and lively, obviously right in tune with what Kubrick was trying to do with the movie. The sped up orgy scene was greeted with applause. It was most definitely a successful showing of a landmark film.
We all applauded over the ending credits, and then McDowell came down to the front, along with a moderator, and began to talk. He talked about how the film was originally received ("I thought we were making a comedy. I remember it came out and I thought people needed more of a sense of humor."), wearing those eye clamps ("They scratched my corneas. Stanley told me if I was to be out because of it, I should be out for a week. We could make an insurance claim."), and Kubrick's eccentricities ("Kubrick had a lot of theories, and most of them were CRAP. Some of them, though, were amazing. But most of them were crap."), among other things. He was very personable and chatty, in fact, he talked so much that the moderator had to practically cut him off in order to wrap it up for the night. Hearing these various stories really enriched the experience of watching the film, as I got to learn how much sweat and blood went into making it. McDowell called Burgess a genius, and told us that he had to read the novel three times before he actually understood it. He talked about how Kubrick cast the three handmaidens by simply taking shots of women's breasts, and then when they picked the three actresses who would play them, he realized that they had no head shots to tell which breasts belonged to which actresses. He mentioned that Kubrick had a very hard time telling an actor what he wanted in a scene, which is why he always did so many takes, as opposed to director Lindsay Anderson (who directed Malcolm in three films, If..., O, Lucky Man, and Britannia Hospital) who always liked to talk about the character and performance. He talked about how Kubrick's training as a still photographer stuck with him as a filmmaker, as well as how Kubrick would drive 5 mph on the way home from a shoot, blocking up the entire staff behind him. When the moderator finally did finish it up, I felt sad that I couldn't hear McDowell talk for days, as it was obvious he had plenty more stories to tell. By the end of the night, the whole atmosphere had become magical, as McDowell had so much respect and love for not only Kubrick but his fellow actors and even the audience who had come out to see him.
I think I can safely say it was a real horrorshow night.