By Jed Mayer | Press Play December 11, 2012 at 8:34AM
I have always been drawn to visions of the future, but little did I know what brutal images were held on the Beta videocassette of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange I rented at the tender age of ten. Although the film had been banned in Great Britain, it was shelved innocently in the science fiction section of Johnny’s TV, and no one would have thought of suggesting that this might be inappropriate viewing for a child. By the time I reached the infamous scene where Alex and his droogs violently assault and rape a woman while forcing her husband to watch, I knew that I had crossed some indefinable line and that I couldn’t turn back. Later, wondering what had led me to this most disturbing of film experiences, I realized that it had all started with a filmstrip.
Once upon a time, before Ken Burns, teachers needing a break from making lesson plans would beguile their classes with a charming and primitive piece of media technology: the filmstrip. An inexpensive and uncomplicated alternative to moving film projection, filmstrips consisted simply of a little reel of cellulose about the size of a roll of tape, encased in a cardboard or plastic box, accompanied with an audiocassette. The projector was not designed to move the filmstrip, just to beam its expanded image onto a screen: the task of moving one still image to the next generally fell to a student volunteer, often myself, who was prompted by a loud beep from the cassette recording that provided narration and image. To those who grew up in the era of the filmstrip, this distinctive beep is like an electronic Madeleine, unleashing a flood of childhood memories. Oh, bliss it was in that era to be alive, but to be in A/V club was very heaven!
Such primitive media technologies have a distinctive charm that, like Czech animation or natural history dioramas, is indistinguishable from their premature obsolescence. There is something poignant about the notion of watching sequences of still images in an age of television and film. I remember settling into the experience of viewing these slow-moving narratives as into a kind of meditational trance, broken occasionally by the pitch bend and warbling of stretched cassette tape. How fitting, then, that this peculiar medium would be the means of introducing me to the strange world of early electronic music.
One afternoon our music class took a break from our usual routine of playing recorders, banging out Carl Orff compositions on wooden xylophones, or singing obscure Civil War ballads in order to watch a “very special filmstrip” about a new kind of instrument that could make all the sounds of an orchestra and more. The sound of the filmstrip’s signal beep gradually gave way to a host of bleeps and bloops, which first amused, then mesmerized me. As the narrator led us through the inventions of Léon Theremin, Robert Moog, and Raymond Scott, we eventually reached a sequence describing “The Synthesizer Today,” which included such seventies classics as the theme to The Rockford Files, “Popcorn” by Hot Butter, and Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, which was followed by a brief mention of Carlos’ music for A Clockwork Orange, accompanied by Philip Castle’s iconic poster image. The combination of strange, alluring sounds and stark futuristic imagery proved irresistible, and the prospect of seeing Kubrick’s film was added to my growing list of adolescent obsessions.
Seeing the horrific rape scene in the film left a similarly indelible impression on me, and proved to be as effective an education in the immorality of violence against women as the education the film’s protagonist experiences as part of his aversion therapy. This scene remains the image that comes to mind whenever I hear the word rape, and it gave me an early, brutal understanding of the uniquely sadistic and degrading nature of this act. If prostitution can be glibly referred to as the oldest profession, then surely rape is the oldest crime. Ironic, then, that the film I had hoped would take me into an imagined future ended up exposing me to the primitive and the barbaric.
This is, of course, one of Kubrick’s abiding themes, most concisely presented as the visual argument of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s opening sequence, where a thigh bone used as a primitive murder weapon is thrown into the sky and becomes a space-ship. Alex and his droogs prowl a decayed urban landscape, its unrelenting bleakness evoking Orwellian images of dystopian futurity. As they set about their brutal acts of ultra-violence, the film ruthlessly undoes any naïve faith we might have had in dreams of future progress. Wendy Carlos’ innovative score provides an aural parallel to this experience by rendering familiar classical pieces in electronic form, often accentuating their raw undertones.
As a teenager I would return to the film, drawn to the stark images of a retrogressive future that seemed closer than ever. I later learned that most of the film was shot, not on sets, but in actual London settings, including Thamesmead, one of many planned urban communities of the 1960s and 1970s that produced scenarios not unlike that presented in Kubrick’s film, when families experienced traumatic feelings of disorientation as they relocated to blocks of buildings that had little in common with the neighborhoods they’d grown up in. What was an unpleasant reality for many Londoners became for me a kind of stark fantasy image, one on which I gazed obsessively in its various permutations, as seen on album covers and music videos produced by a new wave of electronic artists, like Gary Numan, John Foxx, and The Human League, composing pop music for a dark future.
Though I still deplored the violent acts of Alex and his mates, A Clockwork Orange resumed its earlier place among my obsessions. As with Alex, the film’s earlier aversion therapy didn’t take. Perhaps that’s because none of us experience only one form of social conditioning. While Alex is given nausea-inducing drugs meant to establish negative associations with the violent images on screen, his therapists clearly underestimate the staying power of his previous conditioning.
The influences on Alex’s life can be regarded simply as various forms of technology. Whether these take the form of synthetic drugs or synthetic music, planned community or penal institution, they are all highly contrived, elaborately developed cultural constructions that condition him in a variety of ways, many of them contradictory, many of them unplanned. Similarly, when my music teacher played a film strip one day in 1975, she couldn’t have anticipated that it would induce one of her students to rent a video that would expose him to traumatic scenes of ultra-violence, nor could I have anticipated that the sound of synthesizers would lead me through an image of the future that would initially repulse me, and later draw me towards its dangerous attractions.
Watching Kubrick’s film now, I feel a sense of nostalgia for its abandoned futures, mingled confusedly with the futuristic attraction that initially drew me to it. As one media technology gives way to the next, we forget what hopes we invested in the new as it becomes obsolete, and as the old technologies fade, we look back to them as if they held some lost secret. If the most prescient element of Kubrick’s vision is its exposure of the naïve idealism with which we greet each new technological development, its most ruthless is its exposure of the futility of nostalgia. After seeing A Clockwork Orange, nobody pictures Fred Astaire when they hear “Singing in the Rain.”
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.