Clockwork Oranges

March 26, 2010

It often goes without saying that a film based on a novel is not going to be as good as the novel itself. This usually occurs because people don’t realize that said film is not (and ought not to be) the novel in movie form but rather a different work entirely. Nevertheless, I almost always find myself preferring the original work over the film when I happen to be familiar with both, with only one notable exception. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, is in my estimation a better work than Anthony Burgess’s 1962 original novel of the same title.

In the 1986 Norton edition of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the author laments the success of a story of which he seems to think very little and voices his displeasure of the original American publication of the book which omits the final chapter as well as Kubrick’s film which uses the American publication as its source. On page xii of the Introduction, Burgess writes:

The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction…There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. […] When a fictional work fails to show change…then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.

I mostly agree with Burgess in that a novel usually shows some sort of change in the protagonist, though I do prefer to regard it as a descriptive rather than a prescriptive characteristic. The main problem I have with his assessment, however, is his contempt for Kubrick bastardizing his work and removing from it the “quality of genuine fiction.” After all, Burgess chooses not to include this quality until the very last chapter; on page xii of the Introduction, he even admits that “There is no hint of this change of intention in the twentieth chapter.” I will add that there is never a hint of it in the preceding nineteen chapters, either. His attempt to make his work “genuine fiction” is merely tacked on in the final few pages, and the original American publisher was right to disregard it—as was director Stanley Kubrick.

The film version is actually incredibly faithful to the original work in terms of plot and dialogue—in fact, many lines in the film are indeed word for word from Burgess’s text. Kubrick managed to keep nearly every important plot element of the novel while at the same time masterfully adding in the elements that separate the two media: namely, visuals and music. Kubrick’s film is pornography at its best; he uses music and images to shock, arouse, and excite the viewer, and he succeeds on every level. Music plays an integral role in the book, but the film actually allows the viewer to experience the music, which exponentially increases the desired effect. In short, the film is not only pure art, but pure pointless art. As Burgess laments, the viewer gains nothing from the film except for the experience of having watched it and enjoyed it.

That is not to say that it is impossible to gain anything from the film; it does indeed address moral and ethical and political issues, and watching the film will at least potentially cause the viewer to think about how the events of A Clockwork Orange relate to society and human nature. What the film does not do, however, is tell you what to think about these events. It opens the conversation, but it does not dominate it. The same cannot be said of the book, or at least the final chapter of the book. On page xiv of the Introduction, Burgess writes:

It seems priggish or pollyannaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. […] But the book does also have a moral lesson, and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice. It is because this lesson sticks out like a sore thumb that I tend to disparage A Clockwork Orange as a work too didactic to be artistic.

The very author of the work does not consider his novel to be artistic, and yet I’m still compelled to disagree with him anyway. Burgess apparently focuses on content in his evaluation of art, but my tendency is to lean toward form instead. For some reason, Burgess doesn’t think very highly of his accomplishment in writing an entire novel in what he calls nadsat, the language of A Clockwork Orange’s teens (also called nadsats); on page xiv of the Introduction, he even indicates that his lingo gets in the way of the story, but I would contend that the language is more important than the story.

Kubrick took A Clockwork Orange and utilized everything that defines a film as a media to provide an experience for his audience. He combined raw visuals, supernal music, and a compelling narrative and created an absolute masterpiece. Despite his griping in retrospect, Burgess utilized what makes a novel unique—the interaction of the reader with words on the printed page—and created something wonderful, as well. It is the language of A Clockwork Orange that separates it from other works, and reading it provides an experience one can’t possibly get anywhere else. For that reason, I must disagree with Burgess that his work is not artistic, and I will add that, for whatever it’s worth, watching the film invariably makes me want to read the book, but reading the book does not leave me wanting to watch the film—I’d just as soon read it again.

My previous analyses of Family Guy’s “Road to Rhode Island” and The Simpsons’s “Mother Simpson” focused primarily on narrative structure, conflict, and resolution, and I came to the conclusion that the Simpsons episode is a work of art based on its emotional content and ability to work on multiple levels but the Family Guy episode is not because it is little more than twenty-three minutes of loosely connected gags. There is more to these shows than narrative structure, however, and I believe some further analysis will help provide additional support for my conclusion.

The animated format of these shows allows the writers a lot of freedom to use large numbers of settings and scenes and quick cuts to non sequitur gags. Both programs use this to great extent, but Family Guy seems to rely on it more than The Simpsons. Typically, a character will talk about an amusing situation and then a cut is made to the situation itself, thus both telling and then showing the joke. For example, in “Road to Rhode Island,” Lois tells Peter they have communication problems, and then they immediately cut to a new scene which illustrates Lois and Peter having communication problems. Usually, the illustration scenes last a matter of seconds and then they return to the original scene. This tactic allows Family Guy to provide visuals to any joke they want, thus doubling the potential of every gag; the viewer gets to hear the joke and react, and then also see the joke and react.

These quick cuts are trademark Family Guy, and they work well for its random style of humor. The Simpsons is also known to be random, but an episode like “Mother Simpson” is a much tighter and more focused affair. Whereas Family Guy relies on non sequitur show and tell, The Simpsons relies more on running gags for their humor. One example from “Mother Simpson” is the tombstone. Homer’s tombstone first appears at Marge’s doorstep in a wagon towed by Patti and Selma, thus revealing the initial gag of the engraving (“We are better for having lost him”). The tombstone is next seen by Homer in the graveyard, causing him to shriek and fall into his own grave. Finally, it appears in a beautiful reveal at the end of the episode, as everyone’s coffee mugs are raised and we see the reactions of Mr. Burns and his posse from the tombstone’s perspective as they learn whose tombstone Patti and Selma had purchased. An argument can be made that running gags require the viewer to be more engaged in the episode in order to appreciate them whereas non sequiturs need only be seen, appreciated, and forgotten, but both styles certainly have their merits.

This is not to say that these styles of gags are exclusive to each series, nor is it to say that their styles are completely different. One type of gag employed to good effect in both episodes in question is the defial of expectations reveal. In “Rhode Island,” Brian and Stewie agree that they need to disappear fast, and then a passing bus fills the frame. When the bus is gone, so are Brian and Stewie—until the camera pans to the right, and they state that they probably should have jumped on that bus. Naturally, the cartoon convention is for characters to disappear when blocked by passing obstructions, but here the expectation is defied and mocked. In “Mother Simpson,” Homer grandly announces that he and Bart shall make the most of their Saturday now that his death has been successfully faked, and the next shot is of two kites flying gaily in the sky, but then the camera pans and Marge and Lisa are revealed to be flying the kites while Homer lies drinking a Duff in his hammock and counting as Bart lazily pounds a hammer on the brick patio. Again, both of these gags are facilitated by the animated nature of the programs, and both shows use the reveal adroitly.

There is more than visual humor to be had in each series, however. Both Family Guy and The Simpsons demand the viewer be familiar with popular culture in order to understand certain jokes, but there is still a significant difference to be found in the types of references made. When Stewie attempts to remember his home phone number, the first sequence of numbers that come to mind are “867-5309;” when he discovers his blunder, he proclaims “Damn you Tommy Tutone!” Obviously, anyone unfamiliar with this early eighties one hit wonder will have no idea what Stewie is talking about, but others may appreciate the brainy toddler’s knowledge of power pop which predates his own time by over a decade. Stewie and Brian also play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in the car, which requires the viewer to be familiar with this game in order to understand what they’re doing, and perhaps knowledge of the specific actors and movies named will also increase the scene’s humor, but really the main humor of the scene comes from the fact that a talking dog and a toddler have the capacity to play the game and berate each other in an intellectual fashion.

The references in “Mother Simpson,” however, take a bit more parsing to be appreciated. In the third act, Burns calls in the F.B.I. to track down his helpful hippie assailant, and the agents are none other than Bill Gannon and Joe Friday of the second version of Dragnet, with Harry Morgan providing Gannon’s voice. The characters are never named, though (except Friday is once referred to as “Joe), so unless the viewer is familiar with Dragnet already, then the gag is entirely lost. Also, Lisa and her grandmother bond over bashing John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, and anyone who had to read said book in the ninth grade can better appreciate their commentary. Strangely enough, one of the finest moments in the episode occurs when Homer discovers that what he thought was his mother’s grave is actually that of Walt Whitman, which sends Homer into a violent fury during which he exclaims, “I hate you, Walt freakin’ Whitman! Leaves of grass my ass!” Personally, this scene sends me into a violent fury of laughter every time I see it, but the gag is probably lost on anyone who has never heard of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Really, though, the funniest part is that Homer is apparently rather familiar with it, which is hilarious considering how alternately buffoonish and intellectual he can be.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Mother Simpson” which clearly places it in a separate league from Family Guy is Homer’s mother’s epiphany. As revealed in a flashback, Homer’s mother tucks him into bed and enters the living room to find Abe watching the first Super Bowl. As soon as she sees Joe Willie Namath’s lustrous mane of hair and wild sideburns, an entirely new world of rebellion is opened up to her, complete with a circular pan around her featuring swirling colors and psychedelic imagery in the background. This new world puts her in direct opposition to the old one to which Abe subscribes, which is represented by Johnny Unitas’s “haircut you could set your watch to.” For The Simpsons to so perfectly summarize the attitudes of the late sixties via the hairstyles of the starting quarterbacks for the New York Jets and the Baltimore Colts is nothing short of brilliance—sheer brilliance.

“Road to Rhode Island” does not offer the kind of depth that “Mother Simpson” does, and I feel confident that the same could be said of the two franchises at large. Overall, The Simpsons is a complex and intelligent television series, and even though I have not seen a large amount of Family Guy episodes, I feel confident in stating that its product is nowhere near as intelligent or complex as The Simpsons’s. These qualities help to solidify The Simpsons, and “Mother Simpson” in particular, as works of art, and hopefully this analysis provides some clarification as to what enables The Simpsons to stand above Family Guy and countless other programs, as well.

One of the greatest influences on my life comes not from a hero or a parent or a mentor, but from a television series. An unfortunate product of our age, perhaps, but I have no qualms admitting it and accepting it. For better or for worse, I grew up watching The Simpsons, and was shaped and molded by what I saw. The jokes of The Simpsons became my humor, the style became my sensibilities, and the dialogue became my vocabulary. Someday I hope to catalogue everything I learned and gained from watching the series as an impressionable youth, but this is not the time or place. Now I’d like to examine one episode from the seventh season of the series entitled “Mother Simpson,” original airdate November 19th, 1995, directed by David Silverman, and I will attempt to follow much the same format as I did in my previous entry.

The episode opens with an elaborate plot employed by Homer to skip out on a day of community service. The main conflict, however, is not introduced until the second act, and actually has nothing to do with Homer at all. The main external conflict is Mother Simpson vs. Mr. Burns, and it is established via flashback to the day when Homer’s mother was forced to abandon him. Ostensibly, the internal conflict arises once Marge announces her reservations regarding Homer’s mother, and Homer’s joy turns to anguish as he comes to the assumption that his mother must have left because he was a horrible son and she didn’t love him. Homer is perhaps too slow and naïve to jump to such a conclusion on his own, but he still carries that sadness with him until the situation is resolved.

Both conflicts come to a head at the same time in the final scene. Mr. Burns’s wrath once again sends Mother Simpson on the run, and she manages another successful evasion of the tyrant and the law with some help from a familiar ally. Before she does so, however, she takes the opportunity to give her son a proper good-bye, one for which he is actually awake and reciprocal. She assures him that she will always be a part of him, which is further illustrated by her annoyed grunt as she clumsily hits her head on the van, and Homer can live happily knowing that his mother is still alive and indeed truly cares for him.

Although the first act of the episode wildly differs from the latter two, it still contributes integrally to the main plot. In fact, this is an episode which probably qualifies as having only an A Story; one could argue that the two conflicts mentioned above naturally imply an A Story and a B Story, but the two are so intertwined that they can easily be considered part of one driving narrative. The first act takes a long time to set the stage for where the plot is headed, but everything that happens is related and relevant to the next thing that happens, or at the very least something that happens later on, thus establishing good cause and effect as well as important elements that will recur in the final act.

The climax of the story occurs when Homer and his mother say good-bye. The scene recalls the flashback of Mother Simpson kissing her sleeping boy at her initial departure, and Homer even explicitly mentions how he’s glad he’s awake this time. The emotional moment between mother and son is punctuated by the gag of Homer’s mother hitting her head, but even this bit of slapstick serves to create a sweet bond between the two and reinforce their powerful connection. The scene also features significant moments of silence, which can be found elsewhere in the episode, too; simple slow zoom reaction shots go a long way to convey their emotions without words, and Alf Clausen’s musical cues always enhance the moment. The story concludes with a gorgeous shot of Homer sitting on the hood of his car watching the stars twinkle in the sky, and the credits roll over the landscape with an extremely subdued and intimate closing theme. It is endings like these that illustrate why The Simpsons is more than a funny cartoon or an animated sitcom; the show takes silly characters in crazy situations and somehow still touches the viewer on more levels than the vast majority of other shows could ever hope to achieve.

“Mother Simpson” may therefore be easily classified as a work of art. To take a twenty-two minute timeslot and construct a complete narrative with as many complexities as this episode has is an incredible feat, and it is something that The Simpsons has been able to do over the years on an impressively consistent basis. In my next entry I will delve further into these complexities and provide a side by side comparison of “Mother Simpson” with my last entry’s topic, Family Guy’s “Road to Rhode Island.” I realize that a comparison of two episodes does not equal a good assessment of the two programs as a whole, but it will at least allow me to explore a few fundamental differences between the two and draw conclusions from there. Though my proclivities for The Simpsons over Family Guy and just about any other series that isn’t The Simpsons ought to be evident, I will continue my efforts to be as objective as possible.