Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Blowjob for the Übermensch, or: Stanley Kubrick's Bobby Fischer Moment

directed by Stanley Kubrick
starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee,
Michael Bates, Warren Clarke, Adrienne Corri

The England in which Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange was an England marked by think pieces and concerned chatter about juvenile delinquency; the idea then was that "we need to do something — anything — to put a stop to this nonsense." What Burgess intended in response was a condemnation of the future toward which he saw English society rushing: a profoundly un-Christian tomorrow in which man is stripped of his God-given free will for the sake of the greater good, robbed of his ability to make a moral choice, and rendered no better than the lowliest of animals. What kind of world are we clamoring for, Burgess asked, if it's one in which all that is noble and admirable about humanity is flattened under the same juggernaut of "scientific progress" as its propensity toward violence and destruction? Burgess' concerns were fundamentally Christian ones, humanist to the core; Stanley Kubrick's, coming from a professed agnostic with his thinking shaped by the Holocaust-centered nihilism of the Jewish world, were not. Fittingly, Kubrick — still working in smart-ass satirist mode after his Dr. Strangelove blew up the world to the strains of "We'll Meet Again" — took a flick of the switchblade to Burgess' cautionary dystopian tale and slashed away all that worried-about-the-state-of-man malarkey; stripped it, in the manner of its sociopath-as-rock-star protagonist, down to its barest essence: tits, bush and the sing-song of Burgess' invented Nadsat dialect over Beethoven's Ninth.

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of A Clockwork Orange means to stagger us with the prescience of its warnings about the corruption of the individual, but its stunted adolescent morality makes it a disingenuous mess. Kubrick's far less honest about his aiming for pulpy, transgressive kicks and strip-show titillation here than your average exploitation filmmaker. Not only does A Clockwork Orange virtually trump for sleaze any Euro-perv grindhousers with their shameless resorts to lovingly choreographed rapes, fetishistically filleted femme-flesh, preteen training bra-fillers or the Auschwitzian curves of a perpetually undressed Laura Gemser, Kubrick's film is worse: it's an exploitation film with airs. Like the most puerile forms of punk rock or the genocidal ghetto pathology of gangsta rap, A Clockwork Orange is perhaps best appreciated when one is fifteen or sixteen years of age — a time when one is generally unburdened by larger intellectual demands about art and can simply get off on volume and cartoon antiheroes and mindless rebellion against formalism for their own sake. It suggests Phillip K. Dick as adapted by an autistic, photography-obsessed kid who'd spent his childhood locked away from humanity with his father's classical records and a closet full of spank magazines.

With its closing twist-of-the-shiv meant to sledgehammer home just what a black joke society is (as if our skulls weren't already numb from the previous two hours' worth of its upending-of-orthodoxy thwacking), Kubrick — arguably the pre-eminent film stylist of the twentieth century — impresses as little more than a self-important high-schooler who'd stumbled across the term "protean irony" somewhere and couldn't wait to get called upon in English Lit the next day, so that he could expound gaseously upon this newfound wisdom, to his professor's bemusement and to everyone else's utter boredom. Civilized society is but a sham, A Clockwork Orange seems to insist — a middle-class illusion propped up by upper-crust phonies and double-talking politicians, and enforced by fascist correctional officers and lecherous youth counselors, not for the advancement of anything good or worthwhile but merely so that stammering, ineffectual fathers can sit about with the morning paper, munchy-wunching "lomticks" of toast, while their own children rape and pillage and light the fire that causes their mannered little world to burn down around them. Consequently, we're to understand, said society is no more legitimate or worthy of respect than the nightly rape 'n' pillage routine of a dead-end kid and his dim-witted band of "droogs."

This is, of course, about the biggest load of horseshit ever served up by an artist of considerable stature, but it's mere cover since Kubrick couldn't admit to what he was really on about: that Burgess' remorseless thug Alex is the unironic hero of this film, with his ascendant will to power against a thoroughly robotized populace. Alex is far too charismatic for it to be any other way — far too potent a shot of self-determination in his bold peacocking through dreary, mechanized surroundings; far too wink-wink entertaining with his sardonic faux-deference to the corrupted authority all about him; far too seductive in his voice-over narration to us, replete with flattering intimacies such as "O my brothers" and "your humble narrator" spoken in the same plummy, contrived cadences he uses to con his elders within the narrative. Kubrick designed the film as a love letter to Alex, as a Rossini symphony fashioned from the two-chord crudity of Alex's sense of entitlement and his junkie's need for kicks. It's Alex as a punk-rock Richard III, as a sneering, bowler-and-codpiece-clad proto-Johnny Rotten striding through the burned-out remains of a vaguely post-socialist Old Blighty with his dunced-out Sex Pistols — scooping up record-store strumpets and ravaging the homes and wives of the chattering class not as a political statement, and not even as a means of waking up an older generation gone flabby and self-righteous, but simply as a means of thrusting middle fingers skyward in the tradition of literature's greatest rogues.

When Alex leads his gang on a random break-in that culminates in the assault of a writer and the rape of the writer's wife, he directs his boys in imitation of the way that Kubrick the director might marshal his actors and walk them through a scene. Alex bellows the lyrics to "Singin' in the Rain" while gagging the writer and snipping away bits of the wife's clothing because it's a means of upping his high, because the bitterly ironic counterpoint of Alex conjuring a Hollywood musical while engaging in utter savagery was too pointedly wicked for Kubrick to resist showing us, too amusing in ways that only the cleverest of monsters could engineer. It's Alex's willful embrace of his Jungian "shadow," fueled by the wide-eyed shock of complacent souls who never expected to answer a knock at the door and greet their worst nightmares. What Alex is saying to the writer, in effect, echoes the elegantly ruthless Nazi bogeyman of legend — a specter that haunted Kubrick's imagination from childhood through his work on the aborted Holocaust project Aryan Papers. He's saying: I'm not some deranged lunatic ravaging your wife because I can't help myself. In fact, the actual rape isn't what arouses me the most; it's staging the violation of your pride and joy as a piece of performance art for which you, O my brother, are a most unwilling audience. It's knowing that my perfectly arbitrary entry into your placid little life, while meaning nothing to me, will leave you and your turtledove with scars that'll never heal.

Kubrick allows nothing into his film's narrow purview that might spoil our affection for Alex — not even Burgess' original text. Gone here is the murder of a fellow inmate that the Alex of the novel commits while in prison. Kubrick takes the ten year-old girls Alex doped up and molested on the page and abracadabras them into foxy adult fillies who consent to a fast-motion threesome over a synthesized parody of the William Tell Overture because Kubrick the Alex groupie has to drop in a digression about his bad boy's way with the ladies. Kubrick even goes out of his way to uglify Alex's environment, so as to leave us no doubt as to who the real villains are. Thus, the blandly efficient Britain of the book becomes here a barren wasteland of trash-strewn government-issue housing projects with broken-down elevators, its police force comprised wholly of Gestapo-ready sadists. The mild-mannered writer Alex attacks in the book carries on here — glowering under crazy-old-man eyebrows and teetering on the brink of a seizure — as if the actor Patrick Magee had rushed over from playing a mad scientist in a Roger Corman production and had forgotten to switch characters. He blathers on about "the full apparatus of totalitarianism" while plotting to use the rehabilitated Alex as a political tool against the government.

Alex's "post-corrective advisor" goes from being a fairly respectable figure in the book to leering at Alex with cryptic closet-homo menace and smacking him in the balls — he's so eager for an excuse to toss this hunk of young meat to penitentiary wolves, his warnings to Alex to keep his "handsome young proboscis" out of trouble come off as thinly veiled incitements. Under Kubrick's design, Alex's crimes are made palatable to us, even justified, by the fact that everyone else is so much worse than he is: soulless little crypto-fascists who lack Alex's devilish charm or his honesty about the ways that they, too, use others as instruments for their own gratification. Alex doesn't exist because he's what a society of the future will inevitably give rise to, he exists because Kubrick wants him to — he's the crystallized essence of Kubrick's icy remove from human folly. He's Kubrick's golem of fuck-your-system chaos that humanity deserves, in his eyes, for having stuffed itself to inertia on material comforts, for having given its bent for lies and hypocrisy free reign in the delirium of a smug postwar moral certainty allowed to flourish behind the protective fence of what Alex's first victim terms "earthly law an' order."

Kubrick's naked admiration of Alex's viciousness and cunning is there right from the opening shot, with its calculatedly iconic close-up of dashing, Olivier-gone-psycho Alex staring us down while high on drug-laced "milk-plus" and contemplating the "ultra-violence" that he and his gang are set to unleash upon a future-shock England full of supercilious upper-class twits. Here, though, as the camera pulls back from Alex's dead-soul glare, the better for us to marvel at Kubrick's meticulously lit and set-designed wank-fantasy of future decay that's just as orchestrated for maximum shock value (and, hence, just as phony) as any scandal-seeking modern art piece, or just after, as Alex and his gang thrash an old bum in an alley, the celebratory impulse is at least implicit — it could reasonably be misread as an artist's commitment to presenting his characters' milieu as is, free from editorializing. Gradually, though — as Kubrick serves up slavering and rather obsessively drawn-out preludes to rape; as he dishes up both a gang fight that might double as a battle royal at a WrestleMania and that sped-up mini-orgy with the grandeur of classical for isn't-this-ironic musical accompaniment; as he freezes time with static, interminable sequences that jerk themselves to a froth over beatings and other tortures; as he taunts us with cheeky-lad bits of sacrilege that strain so hard to rattle our Christian sensibilities that they nearly shit themselves — his m.o. becomes unmistakable.

He insists that when his camera lingers like a drooling priapist on the exposed breasts and asses of the film's female victims, or when he mocks those whom Alex attacks by making them the most contemptuous Monty Python caricatures of drunkards and high-society nitwits that he can, he's merely showing us the way that Alex sees things. In his oft-quoted interview with Michel Ciment, given at the time of Clockwork's release, Kubrick stated that, "Since [Alex] has his own rather special way of seeing what he does, this may have some effect in distancing the violence."

But everything in the film is distanced this way, both before and after Alex's artificial conversion to harmlessness — Kubrick's heightened approach to Alex's hopped-up ultra-violence is scarcely differentiated in style or tone from a shot of him browsing discs in the record shop. Nearly every scene comes shrinkwrapped in the unrelatable hyper-reality evoked by the tinny electronic score (with its Muzak dehumanization of the great composers' works), by the wide angle lenses' distortion of space, by the laboratorial set design and that hard, flood-lit, almost shadowless lighting scheme Kubrick employs — and every character but Alex is painted in the same buffoonish brushstrokes as his victims. Alex's "rather special way of seeing" is the perspective Kubrick wishes to endorse — it's the perspective we're meant to cling to — because Kubrick maintains it even in those rare moments when Alex isn't around.

It's impossible not to snigger at Alex's "Singin' in the Rain" bit because Kubrick has timed the kicks and slaps to Alex's victims, and their responses, to go along with the rhythm of the melody — it's the debauchment of Western civilization as jaunty adult musical. Adrienne Corri, as the writer's wife, is absolutely stripped for our — and Kubrick's — voyeuristic gaze, just as it's entirely by design that Kubrick prefaces the rumble that Alex and his boys have with a rival gang by jumping ahead, before Alex has even arrived, solely so that we can watch the rival faction strip and attempt to restrain a girl that they're about to gang-rape. It's a sequence that — par for the course with this film — goes on endlessly, far past the point where we could excuse it as merely ornamental. Kubrick makes sure his camera gets unobstructed, full-on shots of the girl's big, bobbling tits swaying from side to side like milk sacks about to burst from the pressure of overfilling, as well as of her dense, jungle-like — and very Seventies — mat of bush. Kubrick teases with each woman's helplessness before raw animal impulse as a pornographic come-on to an audience primed for rollercoaster thrills 'n' chills — the titillation of vicarious hooliganism. I suppose if I weren't the stylishly jaded, dominance-enjoying sophisticate that I find myself, I'd register this stuff as offensive in and of itself (it isn't); what's conspicuous about it, though, is how transparent Kubrick is in the ways that he uses it.

Speaking with Michel Ciment, Kubrick enshrined his directorial motives in one of the most self-aggrandizing, woundedly defensive heaps of professorial pomposity a director's ever flung at the general public:
A Clockwork Orange has received world-wide acclaim as an important work of art. It was chosen by the New York Film Critics as the Best Film of the year, and I received the Best Director award. It won the Italian David Donatello award. The Belgian film critics gave it their award. It won the German Spotlight award. It received four USA Oscar nominations and seven British Academy Award nominations. It won the Hugo award for the Best Science-Fiction movie. It was highly praised by Fellini, Buñuel and Kurosawa. It has also received favourable comment from educational, scientific, political, religious and even law-enforcement groups. I could go on.
Oh, do go on, Stanley.
But the point I want to make is that the film has been accepted as a work of art, and no work of art has ever done social harm, though a great deal of social harm has been done by those who have sought to protect society against works of art which they regarded as dangerous.
Now, recall Kubrick's serenade to his own irreproachability as you go back through Clockwork and note all the shortcuts and crafty elisions he utilizes to achieve his ends. He cuts off that rival gang's ravishing of their prey with the appearance of Alex and his droogs; we never see the rape carried through. Likewise, he ends the scene of Alex with the writer's wife just before the actual penetration begins. Stripping these actresses and leaving us with only the full measure of their womanly bounties uses the stimulation of softcore to shut down our resistance, just as Alex and his crew deaden with drugs whatever slivers of compunction might precede their rampages. It prods us to acknowledge in ourselves the part of these thugs' underdeveloped psyches that gets its jollies from thickets of snatch-thatch and fun-bags that pendulate like the woes of an accused man; it's a flagrant, carny-barker appeal to the fourteen year-old boy inside us all. Spoiling our dubbed-Swedish-nudie-on-late-night-cable high with the women's teary-eyed agony, or with the relentlessness of a five-on-one pounding followed by a likely dispatch via switchblade to the poor lass' throat, would wilt our erections and cause us to dissociate, pulling back into hard, moral — adult — considerations.

In Kubrick's eyes, the real crime is not what Alex does, but rather when the state gets its mitts on him and saps him of his taste for the finer things in life, drugging him into marching in lockstep behind all the other parrots of good-think, who shuffle off to the factory for another-day-another-dollar and cozy themselves in front of the telly at night like good little consumers. Thus, Kubrick glides through the section of Alex in prison by completely omitting any possibility of the bitch-boy-for-survival act that a rascal with the winsomeness of a young Malcolm McDowell would likely succumb to. We get a nod toward buggery as the prevailing order when a burly inmate taunts Alex with air kisses and winks during prayer service but its implications are never built upon, and we don't expect them to be — Kubrick showing us his foxy firebrand broken down and dominated by a masculinity more powerful than his own would shatter the alpha-god allure that Kubrick's predicated upon Alex's dominion over others. It might even hinder us from following our captain on the Good Ship Dystopia down Kubrick's intended path of forced identification.

Kubrick, of course, goes out of his way later to show Alex in the grip of the mind-warping Ludovico Technique while imprisoned, then helpless with his good-citizen reconditioning against the seething vengeance of those he once wronged. But this, too, is in service of his effects; it's meant to bind us to our dissolute Brando-of-the-id against the hypocrisy we've watched him endure, to rouse the champion of the underdog in us all and stoke our need to see him returned to his true nature as a proper corrective to such woeful imbalance. Poor Alex! Kubrick says. His parents are clueless, unloving dolts! His only friends betray him without hesitation! The cops are ruffians and every other authority figure is full of shit! What, oh, what does our Alex have left to him but to give back to society what they've given him?

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Kubrick squeezes such played-to-the-rafters, comic-book overkill from every actor who isn't Malcolm McDowell in this film not because he'd forgotten how to put conventional human beings on the screen, but because he loathed conventional human beings — at least somewhere in his core. Among the most frequently quoted of Kubrick's public statements is this assessment of man, a sentiment that would have had the great Sam Peckinpah nodding in fervent agreement:
Man isn't a noble savage, he's an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved — that about sums it up. I'm interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it's a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.
Furthering his self-perpetuated image as eternal pessimist and student of anthropologist Robert Ardrey's ignoble-savage theory African Genesis (as was Peckinpah), Kubrick even countered what he saw as the misguided optimism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1762 treatise Émile, or On Education:
Rousseau's romantic fallacy that it is society which corrupts man, not man who corrupts society, places a flattering gauze between ourselves and reality. This view ... is solid box office but, in the end, such a self-inflating illusion leads to despair.
Burgess would assail what he characterized as a willful misreading of Kubrick's film by ostensible sheep when he spoke of attending a screening and having his senses assaulted by "blacks standing up and shouting, 'Right on, man,' because they refused to see anything beyond a glorification of violence." Actress Miriam Karlin — in Clockwork, she's the "cat lady" whose death at the hands of Alex sends him to the big house — pinpointed the honesty of the film's advertising when she opined that "the film has been really badly sold on violence and sex. The kids come out saying, 'That's what we're revolting about, this plastic world.'" But violence and sex are virtually the only elements of Kubrick's narrative; the gut reactions at which Burgess and Karlin wrinkled their noses were not only anticipated by Kubrick, but fully counted upon for the bait-and-switch he so clearly intended (and for confirmation of Kubrick's worldview, I'd wager).

His effects in this film are so singularly bombastic and proto-Oliver Stone-ish (to a degree that Clockwork stands as an anomaly within the Kubrick canon), so geared toward eliciting Negroidal hooting and spastic, seal-like applause from us during the early parts, then so undeniably committed to taking that approval and ramming it shiv-like into our delusions of refinement and self-determination, because his view of society in Alex's world is a mirror he professes to hold up to our own; because we're the thrill-seeking simians he imagines laying down the money to see a film touted on its own posters as "[b]eing the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape [and] ultra-violence." (Recall that Kubrick maintained strict control over every aspect of his films' releases, down to the promotional campaigns.) As said simians, we're naturally impervious to subtle measures — what Prof. Kubrick's peering-down-his-nose discourse on the sorry state of humanity calls for, of course, is nothing less than stentorian declamation with the occasional jab of his pointer or meaty fist pounded into the lectern for properly accusatory emphasis.

As outlined above, Kubrick shared with Sam Peckinpah a fundamental doubt of man's innate drive toward peace — Peckinpah's 1971 masterstroke Straw Dogs is as devoted to blowing this notion all to hell as is Clockwork. The plain difference between them — the thing that makes Straw Dogs stand erect with the inflexibility of God's truth while Clockwork wobbles under inauthenticity — is Peckinpah's essential admission of humanity; it's that, contrary to Kubrick's distance through garishness and stylistic distortion, Peckinpah flambés his own flawed nature in addition to that of his characters. In Dogs, he's right there in the thick of it alongside us: peering up into the eyes of a rapist from his victim's point of view; so close to the faces of his embittered couple during the climactic siege that we can hear the panicked whirring of their minds leapfrogging from one rapid-fire survival strategy to the next.

With regard to its Christian-baiting and its New York salute to the durability of English (read: white) social structure, one may even see in Kubrick's Clockwork approach the Jew's inherent disdain for the goyim rearing its head, as it inevitably does with any Jewish artist. We never get the sense in Kubrick's films — films devoted exclusively to dissecting the lives of Gentiles — that Stanley the Great ever deigned to count himself among us mere mortals. (Kubrick is said to have put any novel he adapted through a ritualistic de-Semitification: according to his Eyes Wide Shut co-writer Frederic Raphael, Kubrick especially insisted on the WASP-ishness of that film's married couple, despite the source characters in Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 Traumnovelle being most likely Viennese Jews.) There's never the presence of an "I" in these films — some yearning of his to better understand people, some personal confessions or demons or even private fetishes that the director was burning to release, or attempt to make sense of, through the catharsis of storytelling. There's only "he," "they," "you": the godlike remove of the self-styled satirist peering down in dry amusement at the pettiness of the tiny figures beneath him; the dispassionate certainty of the effects-obsessed technician whose fixation on the perfect canvas reduces even the weightiest themes — eradication of the self, filicide, war — to no more than whatever extra brush stroke or splash of color they add to his predetermined masterpiece.

It's the chilly inhuman flawlessness that's the star of a Stanley Kubrick film. In The Shining, that chilliness lent itself to the mounting aura of dread we expect from a horror film; in Eyes Wide Shut, it served well the dream-logic journey from desire frustrated by diktat of what seems like cosmic will to sex "magick" and an apparent blood sacrifice. But in Clockwork, filtered through film-student shock cuts to a row of naked, bleeding Jesus figurines on Alex's mantle, or through schoolboy naughtiness such as Alex's pet snake posed against a mural of a spread-eagle woman so that it looks to be performing cunnilingus on her, it leaves us with little to register but how much, like Alex, Kubrick would love to smack and kick and mock us out of our self-induced stupor. His forays into Alex's sexual adventurism may as well have been posed with mannequins because the warm blood behind that sexuality is lacking; the spontaneity and messiness of sexual endeavor would never be his forte as a director. What we take away from these moments is another awkward cashing-in on Seventies permissibility from a filmmaker whose career dated back to black-and-white days. Kubrick as sudden libertine is like a sheltered private-school kid playing naughty — he revels in shouting dirty words to impress the jocks and class cutups (whom he knows he's better than, anyway) but there's no true irreverence behind his stabs at mimicking the commoners; he hasn't yet learned how potty-mouth and a fondness for boobies sit within the framework of plebeian self-expression.

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A 2005 Haaretz article details Kubrick's conviction that no single film could ever capture the full scope of the Holocaust; it references what it calls "Kubrick's fascination with the Nazi era." It also quotes Geoffrey Cocks, author of The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust, as having argued that "the Holocaust serves as the 'veiled benchmark of evil' in many of Kubrick's films." I tend to doubt, though, that his view of things was this tidy, this comforting to lifelong investors in the one-world credo dispatched from limousine-socialist mealy-mouths like bags of wheat dropped from helicopters onto villages of starving Africans. Kubrick, according to Frederic Raphael, once offered that "Hitler was right about almost everything"; as if this weren't enough to get the screenwriter all verklempt, Kubrick would also savage Steven Spielberg's Oscar-bait-ification of the official exterminated-Jews narrative in Schindler's List. (Crispin Glover in his 2013 essay "What Is It?": "When Steven Spielberg clutched his Academy Award for Schindler's List, saying it's for the 'six million,' was he speaking of a quantity of people killed, or the quantity of dollars poured into his bank account?") As quoted in that Haaretz article, the director challenged Raphael:
Think that's about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't.
Michael Herr, who co-wrote Full Metal Jacket, would peg the director, in his 2000 biography Kubrick, as an "old-fashioned social Darwinist" who laughingly paraphrased Jewish Trotskyite-turned-"godfather" of neoconservatism Irving Kristol's maxim that a neoconservative is "a liberal who has been mugged by reality," and who leaned toward enlightened despotism as a political panacea, given man's cutthroat irrationality and inherent selfishness. Herr saw fit to underline that Kubrick was "certainly a capitalist" and, in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, he asserts that, with Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick had "accepted that it was perfectly okay to acknowledge that, of all the things war is, it's also very beautiful." Kubrick himself insisted, in a 1987 interview with critic Gene Siskel that Full Metal Jacket "suggests that there is more to say about war than it is just bad."

So Kubrick was no stranger to wandering down the off-roads of unsanctioned thought. His disingenuousness in Clockwork aside, I have no kick against his fascination with Alex; I'm not such a dullard that I'd insist upon something as mundane and as nitwit-coddling as "likable characters." After all, however one wishes to quantify them (racially, culturally, via individual intelligence or personal achievement), there absolutely are such things as superior beings — nature's nod to Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch, if you will. If we take Frederic Raphael at his word and retrofit Kubrick's "Hitler was right" onto Kubrick at the time of Clockwork, we might say that it's Kubrick's conflicted relationship with Jewishness — his grappling with the crashed economies, banker-funded wars, and mass genocides wrought by high-level Jewish predation upon the West — that muddles his approach and keeps him bouncing between alpha-goy worship and mockery of those whom the Jewish Talmud likens to "cattle" and other animals, of those whose lives Jewish tradition considers lesser than Jewish lives, of those whom philosopher and Torah scholar Maimonides, in Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 10:1, termed "worshipers of an alien deity" while declaring, in Laws of Murder 4:11, that Jews are forbidden from ever saving one of these "alien" worshipers from perishing.

Like all Jews, Kubrick was deeply self-contradictory in regard to these shkotzim whom his people's history (and, seemingly, genetic code) programmed him to chip away at with all manner of socio-cultural critique and selective historical emphasis, all while relying — of course — on the generally tolerant and highly prosperous societies Gentiles maintained to provide him and his kin safe harbor and a first-rate standard of living. (Bronx-born and -raised, Kubrick moved with his family to England in 1961, ostensibly to escape the crime-ridden hellhole that New York was already becoming. He'd reside in the U.K. for the remainder of his life.) His Alex is born of that most characteristic of Jewish traits: the apparent compulsion toward provocations of their host societies — a compulsion so metronomically consistent in sparking the endless loop of pogroms and expulsions that is Jewish history, even the non-Biblically-inclined might well wonder how the lament of the Jews in Matthew 27:25 that "[Christ's] blood be upon us and on our children" doesn't qualify as actual living curse passed down through the ages. Here, though, that compulsion seems tempered with Kubrick's awareness of its fundamental shortsightedness. As even the hardiest of parasites must know that it's only as healthy as its host — and seeking to extract a better life from the advancements that another nation's rightful inhabitants have worked to build and sustain is, in essence, a kind of parasitism — Kubrick's fashioned Alex as a warning flare sent back from the Oceania of a future he saw his beloved English society hurtling toward.

Might it say something unflattering, after all, about the Jewish character that the West has been the safest, most persecution-free home the Jew has ever had — that America, in particular, has virtually embraced the Jew with open arms: defeating Nazi Germany to liberate the concentration camps, allowing millions of Jews to emigrate to her shores, and offering the Jew carte blanche to own and control all facets of her media; to shape her culture via his artists and journalists whose media predominance marks them as the gatekeepers to all public expression; to prevail via in-group favoritism in her Ivy League colleges, in her legal and medical fields, in her banking and financial sectors; to hold sway over the minds of her youth via his infiltration of her academic institutions; to control the supply of her currency then loan it to her at interest via his Federal Reserve; to steer her foreign policy via his all-powerful lobbying groups while ensuring that the chief directive of her elected officials is the unrelentingly aggressive pursuit of Israel's interests — and the Jewish response to all this has overwhelmingly been to shower its adopted home with criticism and opprobrium, to advocate seemingly anything that undermines or subverts Western values and cultural cohesion, to recast both Western history and the existence of her majority culture as prehistoric artifacts to be tossed aside, or out-and-out destroyed, in favor of some ever-mutating whimsy of "progress"?

Behold a double-edged sword: Clockwork's workaday Britons are the contemptible cattle of the Talmud, yet Kubrick's Alex is a kick to the yarbles from Britain's empire-building, civilization-spreading, imperially-English-and-all-naysayers-be-damned past to its present-day beneficiaries: the descendants of those very same kings and warriors and statesmen and philosophers, who now sit fat and sated inside the comforts bought for them by blood and toil; descendants, though the term befits them only as a house cat is akin to a mighty cheetah, guilt-tripped and mind-fucked into mirthless sub-existence by the orchestrated social decay of Orwell's 1984 come to life, which is to say, the seething anti-European resentment of a post-World War II Zionism given political primacy and armament-backed legitimacy. Today's Englishman is arrested merely for voicing unfashionable opinions online. He's written out of his own history, in real time, by British media. His daughters and nieces are pimped by foreign grooming gangs while his police look the other way. His vote to reclaim the sovereignty of his grandfather's nation is all but laughed at by his ruling class. He's stabbed, bombed, acid-drenched, and plowed with vans by the unassimilable hordes replacing him on his own soil while the alien mayor of his own capital tells him that this is simply the new order of things.

What's worse: he allows it — this farce, this surrender of his birthright, this tattered white flag waved with a trembling hand upon the cultural battlefield as he stands atop the smoking corpses of his own readily sacrificed children and grandchildren — for no greater reward than the promise that his capitulation will save him from schoolyard taunts like "racist" and "xenophobe." However bombastic Kubrick's Gentile-degradation porn may have been, one need only look at what's come since to see how optimistic the old nihilist actually was.

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Kubrick stages the rewiring of Alex's instincts as an allusion to the CIA's MK-ULTRA mind control program (purportedly discontinued in 1973) — it's to Clockwork Orange what secret-society occult sex rituals were to Eyes Wide Shut, what his supposedly having helped to fake footage of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing was to The Shining (some say): its covert central subject matter. Though the program's existence wouldn't be revealed to the wider public until the de-classification of related CIA documents in 1975, it isn't terribly far-fetched to imagine that Kubrick was privy to things ahead of Joe Six-Pack. After all, his extensive NASA connections allowed 2001: A Space Odyssey to anticipate the methods by which we'd send astronauts to the moon a year later. His expansion of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita hid within the plain sight of its narrative the possibility of pedophile networks involved in child pornography — and this, over half a century before "Pizzagate" became a buzzword for internet black-pillers. Similarly, Dr. Strangelove, via its General Ripper, prefigured modern concerns about the fluoridation of our water supply; its titular ex-Nazi scientist pulled comedy from the U.S. recruitment of Der Führer's best engineers and technicians in what would later come to light as Operation Paperclip. Even its re-creation of a B-52 bomber's cockpit was so dead-on down to the last switch, it drew attention from Pentagon officials concerned that Kubrick might have gained access to top-secret information via a breach of security.

The goal of MK-ULTRA, according to the decision reached in Supreme Court case CIA v. Sims 471 U.S. 159 (1985), was "the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior." In a footnote to the decision, it's stated that
Several MKULTRA subprojects involved experiments where researchers surreptitiously administered dangerous drugs, such as LSD, to unwitting human subjects. At least two persons died as a result of MKULTRA experiments, and others may have suffered impaired health because of the testing.
One of these "subprojects," never officially acknowledged, is said to be Project Monarch, a system of trauma-based programming, developed by Nazi scientists (Josef Mengele — Slayer's very own "Angel of Death" — chief among them) and later refined under the aegis of the U.S. government. Project Monarch is said to focus on the prolonged, ritualistic exposure of its subjects — or slaves — to physical torture and various horrors so intense that their minds essentially fracture. This fracturing is a built-in self-protective component of the psyche — in effect, the mind shuts down in order to dissociate from a reality that it cannot handle. It's while the subject is in this dissociative state, it's said, that the programmer is able to create alternate personas, or "alters," within the subject's compartmentalized mind — personas that can be triggered by key words or phrases, or by specific sights or sounds, and reinforced by "handlers," for whatever purposes the programmer wishes. Word around the conspiracy-buff campfire has it that the mind-controlled slaves turned out by Project Monarch range from "Beta sex kittens" created to serve as playthings for wealthy elites (actors and actresses, singers, models — Marilyn Monroe is said to be the prototype) to "Delta"-level killers — Manchurian Candidates, if you will — trained to carry out, or act as patsies for, high-level assassinations (Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Jr.) as well as other politically useful acts of violence and destruction (the Manson murders, Jonestown, the Oklahoma City bombing, various false-flag shootings). If properly conditioned, it's said, a Monarch killer should have little to reveal in the event of capture but the false memories and motives implanted via his alters.

Kubrick foresees the government using this far-past-Orwellian gambit to strengthen its grip on a populace that's already "mind-controlled" by trinkets and distractions, by easy sex, by "law and order" with its soothing assurances against the pandemonium at society's gate, by the drugs it uses just to spark (or repress) basic human emotions, by the media it consumes (hence, Alex's fondness for Hollywood cinema; hence, his calling up the imagery of sword-and-sandal epics — like Kubrick's own 1960 Spartacus? — in his biblically-inspired daydreams of blasphemy). Alex strapped to a chair in a grim simulacrum of a movie theater, his eyes propped open and all manner of wires running from his "gulliver," is the film's clearest expression of MK-ULTRA/Project Monarch techniques — the alter of a Pavlovian Alex conditioned to abhor violent sights, with the accompanying music of Beethoven's Ninth as an unwitting trigger to this response, is created before our eyes.

The Alex of the first act ceases to exist from this point — the remainder of the film is given entirely over to his alters. The programming of the "good" Alex who's released back into the world, too neutered for sex or even for self-defense, is reinforced in a sort of S&M horror show by a series of symbolic "handlers" tasked with keeping him in a continuous state of disarray: his former droogs (now duly appointed officers of the law), the old vagrant he'd nearly killed at the beginning of the film, and — naturally — the writer whose wife he'd despoiled and apparently left for dead, all of whom waste no time repaying his old cruelties upon their recognition of him. Beethoven's Ninth — blasted at Alex by the writer, as he's learned of Alex's conditioned repulsion toward it — is the trigger that pushes this alter toward its predestined self-destruction: Alex hurls himself from the window in what now plays as a nod to Frank Olson, a biological warfare scientist and CIA employee who either leapt, "fell," or was pushed to his death from a New York hotel window in 1953 after having been unknowingly dosed with LSD in a run-up to MK-ULTRA testing. (A second autopsy performed on Olson in 1994 would find indications of blunt-force trauma to the head, suggestive of injuries sustained prior to his fall.)

Alex's return to malevolence is no triumph of the rake, however. No less a personage than the Minister of the Interior himself visits Alex in the hospital after his jump, all dulcet-voiced apologies for Alex's ordeal — which, he notes, has lost him a considerable amount of public support. He assures Alex that the writer — now branded a dangerous subversive and put away for his own good — poses no further threat. He tells Alex he'll be given a job and made a proper beneficiary of the new order if he's willing to be used as a mascot for the Minister's upcoming re-election — if they have what the Minister refers to, first with a hint of darkening in his tone, then victoriously, as an "understanding." Out come the flowers and cameras for the front-page photo-op; along with them, gigantic speakers blasting Beethoven's Ninth, which Alex, in his newly deprogrammed state, is able to enjoy again. Except that this isn't deprogramming at all — the Ninth now serves as the trigger for his second alter: a cheerleader for the new socialism, whose gift for deception is in service of the politician who's literally fed him by hand, who'll now charm and proselytize on behalf of a government he's trained to regard as the sole means to his daily sustenance.

Of course, everyone recalls the "I was cured, alright" parting shot, in which Kubrick cuts to Alex's fantasy of tangling with a tasty young "devotchka" before the applause of Victorian-garbed onlookers who represent the high society that's just given him a license to operate. What no one seems to discuss is what immediately precedes this: Alex, shaking hands with the Minister, hypnotized by the sensory overload of Beethoven at top volume and flashing camera bulbs, suddenly lets his mouth go crooked, eyes gazing blankly above him then rolling back in his head, as if some switch inside his brain had just been flipped. It's Kubrick's broadest stab at evoking the catatonia of mind control — what MK handlers refer to as sending the subject to his "happy place" so as to facilitate the dissociative process. It says that the renewal of his yen for kink is no less a function of government-engineered identity than when the "new and improved" Alex nauseated at the sight of a naked woman. It says that the Alex we first met — cockroach though he was — is, for all intents and purposes, dead and gone; relegated to a hologram of his pre-alter existence that twitches and crackles to life at the whim of others.

Kubrick highlights the unreality of Alex's "happy place" with a painterly stroke for the observant: a butterfly — Monarch, to be exact — on the hat of a woman within the crowd of applauders, at the leftmost edge of the frame. (As if to verify certain theories about the entertainment and fashion industries, Monarch symbolism — once one is attuned to it — tends to pop up in all manner of films, music videos, photo shoots and graphic design.) Worth noting is that her eyes — windows to the soul, as it's said — are "missing," i.e. completely covered by the pulled-down brim of the hat as if the Monarch had replaced them, whereas the eyes of all other onlookers within the shot are fully visible.

Those so inclined might, for that matter, note the shape of a pyramid on the brick wall overlooking Alex and his fellow inmates as they mill about in a circle — a "magic circle" being an important concept in witchcraft for the harnessing of energy. Their energies properly harnessed, the inmates then line up as prospective sacrifices for the Minister of the Interior, as the pyramid is situated directly above him — the pyramid being among the most well-known of "Illuminati" symbols indicating a hierarchy of human existence, with the elite, or "most illuminated," at the pyramid's apex. (From our vantage point, the Minister grows in stature beneath, or "within," the pyramid, the closer he gets to Alex.) They might also note that Clockwork's controlled-by-external-forces allusion starts even before the first shot's summoning of "all-seeing eye" iconography via the costume lashes on Alex's right peeper — a touch added by Kubrick. It extends to the film's title cards, presented as a slideshow loop of alternating colors: red-blue-red during the opening, then red-blue-red-green-magenta under the closing credits. Color programming is said to be used in the creation or triggering of various levels of alters, particularly in child subjects — red, for example, signifies the sexual programming of a beta "kitten"; green has been attributed to "self-destruct" programming — and Alex, with his arrested emotional development and tethering to his immediate wants, is nothing if not a child. (Burgess had written him as a fifteen year-old.)

Burgess' notion of the title was that a man without free will is as foreign to God's intentions as a piece of fruit that reveals itself to be composed of springs and levers upon peeling. Kubrick took the "clockwork" aspect far more literally: man is manipulable mechanics beneath his organic outer appearance, and all it takes is someone who knows how to program him to set the world wobbling on the precipice of an abyss — hence your Holocaust, says Kubrick; hence, your heresies against law an' order; hence, your slaves to a venal ruling class. It isn't just Alex, though; Kubrick, in effect, turns his audience into "clockwork oranges" predisposed against making a clear moral choice as to what degree it should identify with Alex. One could even say he's chuckling at this quasi-MK-programming of us during the color flashing of the end credits: as songs and nursery rhymes are often used in Monarch conditioning, so the reprise of "Singin' in the Rain," heard here in its original incarnation and now repurposed for Kubrick's effects, carries the playfully sinister air of something he's just implanted in our collective subconscious — its almost mindlessly whimsical melody now and forever acting as an instant trigger, per Kubrick's intentions, not to flashes of Gene Kelly on an MGM soundstage, but to our mental replay of Alex and his droogs' home-invasion-as-Broadway-showstopper. (Kubrick's sly acknowledgment of ditties as brainwashing tools wouldn't end here. Full Metal Jacket would examine the mind control used to mold recruits into Marines, going from call-and-response chants during training — used to effect a replacement of the self with a group identity — to hardened killers reinforcing their own programming by singing the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club in unison. One doubts this was incidental, given both Walt Disney's long-rumored status as a high-ranking Illuminist and the reputed importance of Disney-related motifs to MK-ULTRA rituals.)

The more incisive among us — dare I say "the smartest"? — will place ourselves in Alex's seat, with the wires running from our own heads, wondering how Kubrick's display of ultra-violence means to program us. We'll ask ourselves why Kubrick, our saintly moralist finger-pointer and lecturer on free will, has endeavored to achieve the opposite of what choreographed rape and documentary Third Reich footage has done to his Alex: Kubrick's desensitized us; he's beckoned us forward and made us want to see more. Regarding his comments in the Ciment interview and his general levitating-over-humanity approach as storyteller, I don't buy for a second that Kubrick means to implicate himself and the rest of Hollywood when we hear Alex speak glowingly of his "dear old friend," the "red, red vino on tap" of onscreen carnage, or when he fantasizes in the gaudy visual language of B-movies. Kubrick seems to have taken from Burgess' novel, and from the CIA experiments which so clearly fascinated him, a kind of artistic challenge: is it, in fact, possible to program or surreptitiously induce a room of simpletons into chucking aside civilizational fripperies and embracing the repellent?

Not long after Clockwork's release, its provocations spilled past the cineplex and into real-world England: the murder of a homeless man by a teenage boy who'd claimed Alex's hobo-throttling as inspiration, a sexual assault by hoods incorporating "Singin' in the Rain" into the act, death threats directed at Kubrick and his loved ones, protests outside their home. Kubrick volunteered — or was persuaded — to withdraw the film from U.K. cinemas out of anxieties about his personal safety and (what one imagines was) a sense of civic responsibility. It seems the question posed to him by his artistic challenge had been answered, his objectives quite easily reached among the unthinking and the unhinged — the Untermenschen, one could even say. I suppose we ought to be grateful a young Stanley Kubrick never went to work for the CIA.

©2018 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Pretty Baby (1978)

Die Verkaufte Brooke

directed by Louis Malle
starring Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine,
Susan Sarandon

To comprehend the mere fact of Pretty Baby's existence — it being an Oscar-nominated, major-studio-distributed, child-prostitute drama that undressed, deflowered and Playmate-posed an eleven year-old Brooke Shields, then milked the ensuing is-it-art-or-exploitation publicity wave for all it was worth — you'll first need to understand that Shields was, in essence, America's first mass-marketed child sex symbol. More to the point, the future star of The Blue Lagoon and eventual best bud to Michael Jackson (plus "whitest woman in America," according to Eddie Murphy) was our most brazenly commodified emblem of child porn chic — a curious by-product of '70s licentiousness that (apparently) saw the inclusion of pubescent forms within the decade's panoply of aestheticized femme-flesh as just another nudge of the ol' envelope; instant Che Guevara points in the libertinism-as-revolution sweepstakes.

There's arguably no more jaw-dropping a monument to '70s depravity than the topless bathtub shot of an oiled-up, ten year-old Brooke on the July 1978 cover of France's Photo Magazine — a cover that once decorated European newsstands, and which (as of this writing) the venerable old shutterbug journal still proudly displays on its official website. I say "arguably" — this was, of course, a time when hardcore porn reels featuring honest-to-God children were hawked in the backs of skin mags (with ads touting the tender ages of the kids involved); a time when "reputable" smut companies like Denmark's Color Climax could crank out titles such as Pre-Teen Sex and Sucking Daddy with full legal protection. This stuff was underground even by the standards of its own debauched era, though: confined to the trenchcoat disguises and averted gazes of Times Square's dankest crawlspaces; to the back rooms and under-the-counter stash drawers of places where Travis Bickles would linger like an oily fart, soaking up the clammy air of sexual impulse diseased and corrupted, and then feeding it back into their own dysfunction — exactly where you'd expect it to be.

By contrast, Bite-Sized Brooke in that Photo Magazine spread — with her childishly outsized head and eyes, and her vixenish smudges of eyeliner; with her coquettishly exposed pink nipple and sudsy expanse of leg; with her fiendishly intentional linkage of your wee daughter's bathtime to the classic girl-in-the-bath setting of the all-American centerfold (along with its attendant dirty-tart-who-needs-to-be-cleansed arousal mechanism) — this was the pedophile's gaze as "high art"; "high art" as legitimized by trend-setting lensmen like Francesco Scavullo (who shot Brooke at eleven months old for an Ivory Soap campaign and went on to capture some of her first nudes), "high art" with the imprimatur of starmakers like bigwig Eileen Ford (who started a junior division at her Ford Modeling Agency in deference to Shields' cultural impact).

Brooke's turn in Pretty Baby sparked all the tongue-wagging and pretend-outrage that Teri Shields, Brooke's mother-cum-manager/pimp, intended it to. Teri Shields, it's said, was determined from the time that Brooke was a baby to milk her little beauty for all she was worth — and this she certainly did, even if it meant offering her up as masturbation fodder for the world's kiddy-diddlers and incest fantasists. Cleverly, Teri Shields milked the exploitation of her daughter at both ends. She sold Brooke as pedo-bait across the pond, and to the fashion world at large, to capitalize on the anything's-permissible-in-the-name-of-art tastemaking of jaded hipsters and godless Eurotrash (though even that Photo cover hedged its bets by upping Brooke's age from ten to twelve). She then orchestrated publicity over it all in the mainstream with superficially pearl-clutching magazine articles that, of course, doubled as covert enticements to view — and embrace — the very thing one was expected to furrow one's brow over.

"Brooke is twelve. She poses nude," declared the September 26, 1977 issue of New York Magazine. "Teri is her mother. She thinks it's swell." Accompanying this was a cover shot of Teri standing just behind Brooke with a serene pride on her booze-lined face, her hands on the girl's shoulders as if showing off a mare of impeccable pedigree for a prospective buyer — as if presenting her, à la the madam in Pretty Baby, for our inspection of the goods just prior to defloration. More subversively, celebrity-fluff weekly People Magazine used Brooke and Pretty Baby to sell child erotica to Middle America. People's May 29, 1978 cover paired its tantalizing reference to the actress "stir[ring] a furor over child porn in films" with a leg-revealing shot of the then-twelve year-old cradled in a wicker chair and holding flowers, barefoot and clad in what looks like a nightgown; her gaze, with just a flicker of impudence, imploring the viewer: "Please, mister... be gentle." It's a shot that plays so shamelessly upon the girlishness of her physique (there's even a Band-Aid near her shin so as to suggest the scrapes of childhood), a visual so baldfaced in its calculated appeal to foot fetishists and "leg men," and so loaded with "nymphet's first time" suggestiveness (subtle touch, those flowers), that it seems purloined straight from the seedier end of 42nd Street.

Her "Toulouse-Lautrec pout" was "sensual, ethereal, mesmerizing," according to the People article. Twelve year-old Brooke was offered a part in a "Swedish lesbian movie," the article informs us; it also tells us of the adorably innocent response she gave to Playboy asking her what the term "good in bed" meant to her. Meanwhile, you're recalling the steps little Brooke was set upon on her mommy-mandated climb to middle-of-the-road bankability. You're recalling the Brooke of a few years prior, served up — helpless as a lamb — to the judgment of Francesco Scavullo's camera: pouting in lipstick and white orchids, striking sexpot poses in a baby toga hiked up almost to her non-existent hips on one side; and naked as a dove, meeting the viewer's gaze head-on, in another, more "iconic" shot that still commands hundreds of dollars at art auctions. "I don’t even have my period yet," People quoted Brooke as chirping, while you thumb through The Brooke Book, the quickie cash-in on Pretty Baby's notoriety, rushed out at Mama Teri's behest, with its split-personality divide between wholesome testaments to Brooke as the goofy-face-making, all-American kid next door and virtual beaver shots of Brooke in candy-striped knee-high leggings, her thighs parted to give us as unobstructed a view of her underbaked muffin in tighty-whiteys as the law would allow.

Child-porn Brooke was merely Phase One, however; a phase that the arthouse cachet brought about by Pretty Baby enabled her to ditch and attempt to sweep under the rug like a dead roach seconds before your new girlfriend visits. She and her mother weren't wholly successful at this disappearing of the past; they'd spend a good stretch of the early '80s in court, fighting to keep photographer Garry Gross from circulating the entirety of Brooke's bathtub set, from which Photo had drawn its infamous cover (along with publishing some of its more "subdued" shots), and for which Teri had signed over full rights to Gross back in the do-anything-to-get-Brooke-noticed days. The courts would rule against the Shieldses — "artistic merit" and all that — and Photo would celebrate the ruling by devoting a second layout to the full set. But, by then, it scarcely mattered — Teri Shields' puppeteering had paid off. Phase Two was well underway: Brooke Shields as America's Sweetheart with her very own doll, to boot — she of the aw-shucks George Burns comedies and the celebrity acrobatics on TV's Circus of the Stars; she of the high-fashion gloss and the Revlon ad campaigns; she of the Bob Hope USO tours and the hanging out at the Grammy Awards on the arm of the "Just Say No" Decade's single brightest pop supernova.

Gone was the symbolic child sacrifice of her virgin flesh led stripped to the altar of the camera's eye, of her defilement in Pretty Baby, of her murder in the 1976 horror cheapie Alice Sweet Alice. Brooke had paid her dues, she was now a star — and stars, like gutter whores who've worked their way up to the big house, don't have to sell you their bodies, and they don't have to flash you their underwear in some pinup photographer's idea of a little girl's bedroom. Stars get to do "tasteful," high-toned nudity, like Brooke's sex scenes in the 1981 teen-romance melodrama Endless Love (shot when she was fifteen). They can avail themselves of body doubles in The Blue Lagoon, while keeping their nipples obscured with cascades of hair. Post-Pretty Baby Brooke wouldn't be caught dead courting the perverts and reprobates on whose predilections she made her fame; newly haute couture Brooke's brand of cheesecake was strictly clothed and rubber-stamped with name-brand approval, such as her Lolita-comes-to-Madison-Avenue TV blitz for designer jeans, in which she rolled across a floor with her ass in the air, and cooed to us that nothing came between her and her Calvin Kleins.

Pretty Baby was a natural career move, though, given the era in which Brooke was first marketed. (Christ, just imagine if Stanley Kubrick had waited ten years to direct his adaptation of Nabokov's Lolita.) Such was the '70s zeal for wanton taboo-busting that filmic offerings to the spirit of Lewis Carroll came to seem as commonplace as the clap. Sixteen year-old Melanie Griffith bared incipient sweater pups in Arthur Penn's Night Moves and in Michael Ritchie's teen beauty-pageant comedy Smile (both 1975), while the same-aged Jenny Agutter had skinny-dipped throughout Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout in 1971. Fifteen year-old Cathryn Harrison breastfed an old woman in Louis Malle's surrealist allegory Black Moon, while photographer David Hamilton live-actioned his filtered-lens chronicling of birthday-suited jailbait with his 1977 directorial debut Bilitis, and its sprinkling of twelve to fourteen year-old girls Walkabout-swimming and frolicking under the sheerest fabrics imaginable.

You had the 1970 Czech horror fantasy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, with its unveiling of thirteen year-old Jaroslava Schallerová's unblemished anatomy as handy metaphor for unsoiled purity. There was Wim Wenders' 1975 road odyssey, The Wrong Move, in which a grown man introduced a naked twelve year-old Nastassja Kinski to S&M Lite; Kinski would likewise beguile a grizzled Richard Widmark with her full-frontal walk of seduction in Hammer Studios' To the Devil... A Daughter the following year. Kraut sexploitation makers — spurred by Deutschland's post-Hitler frenzy to reject, in as Jewish-influenced a manner as possible, all time-honored notions of good Aryan comportment — had been undressing minors since at least the 1969 sex "documentary" Freedom to Love and its tableau of a tentative dyke-out between two girls, neither of whom looks to be a day over eleven. The soft-porn Schoolgirl Report nudies subsisted on the disrobing of various fifteen to seventeen year-old Mädchen, and #13 in the series (Don't Forget Love During Sex) showcased the rather frighteningly advanced development of — how cheekily appropriate — thirteen year-old Katja Bienert.

I haven't even detailed the unalloyed zest with which the swarthier side of Europe managed to lower the screen-nudity age bar. Whereas your Frogs and your Dieters tended to make at least a cursory stab at concealing their hebephilic compulsions behind the old "artistic merit" smokescreen, you had Greeks like Ilias Mylonakos, who paused the narrative of his 1979 Emanuelle, Queen of Sados (a.k.a. Emanuelle's Daughter) so as to scan up and down the soap-slicked body of twelve year-old Livia Russo in a pointlessly protracted shower sequence, and to stare up her skirt during an equally drawn-out scene of her squat-and-thrust disco dancing. Italy's contributions to '70s tykesploitation were so plentiful, they started jumping up out of nowhere before the sensitive had time to duck — as in Eriprando Visconti's 1977 trauma-from-kidnapping thriller Oedipus Orca (a knock-off sequel to his 1976 La Orca), where suddenly we're treated to the sight of a preteen girl undressing in front of the mirror and appraising herself. (A "spiritual" ancestor, if you will, to a similar moment in Catherine Breillat's 2001 À ma sœur!) The Boot even gave us entire plots dedicated to this stuff. Twelve year-old Katya Berger spends half of 1978's Piccole Labbra (that's Little Lips) co-starring with her tits — or the closest approximation that she can muster at her age — in an intermittently gripping tragedy-with-a-extra-mozzarell' about an impotent writer who's returned from World War I too shellshocked to consummate his obsession with her. The low point (or high point, depending on your fantasies) of Massimo Pirri's Ennio Morricone-scored L'Immoralità (1978) was a bathroom-floor sex scene wherein ten year-old Karin Trentephol climbs out of the tub and proceeds to seduce the pedophile child-killer who's holed up at her family's house, and who's busted in during her rubber-ducky time to hide from policemen searching the premises.

Brooke's prototype was French child model and cause célèbre Eva Ionesco, the infinitely haughty-looking Greta Garbo of superstar lolis, who'd been posing as a live china doll for mommy Irina since about the age of five, and in the buff since not long after that — her childhood drained of all innocence (and, apparently, joy) then preserved in moody monochrome for eternity's deviants. Teri Shields copied pages straight from the Irina Ionesco playbook: an early determination to cash in on the molestability of her only child while holding to the plausible deniability of "it's not pornography, it's art"; the scandal-seeking nudie spreads in Photo and other European publications with her progeny's ripening fruits plastered on the front; boosting her moppet's fuck appeal by selling her as a miniature woman (with makeup, jewelry, heels, lingerie); parlaying the tut-tutting of culture guardians and the morbid curiosity of outrageous-art connoisseurs into a bid for her daughter's silver-screen viability — the hope that yesterday's junior exhibitionist might have some longevity beyond the sullied-youth demimonde.

Eva's great leap to the next plateau was 1977's Lord-of-the-Flies-as-kid-erotica kink-fest Maladolescenza — Italy's queasiest donation to the vanguard of the times (or of any other times); an obsessive's record of her and co-star Lara Wendel's early puberty so discomfitingly intimate that it remains in legal limbo, and has for years been sidelined to the home-video ghost realm of bootlegs struck from a long-deleted German DVD plus whatever VHS tapes from the '80s are still kicking around. Teri Shields was far savvier a careerist than Eva's mother and, thus, Brooke was much luckier. Where Irina Ionesco hitched Eva's future to a badly-dubbed, patchily-directed cellar-dweller of a film that asked her to show off her asshole, mime receiving cunnilingus and kill birds, Brooke got the director of Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien to gild her pathway. She got longtime Ingmar Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist to caress and sanctify the impropriety of her gawky little kid's nudity into something out of a Bouguereau painting. She got to ride the wave of plaudits from Roger Ebert and the New York Times, and Pretty Baby received the ultimate in art-not-pornography vindication: a Technical Grand Prize win at the Cannes Film Festival, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, a nod from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Brooke Shields from the early '80s forward was bigger than Coca-Cola, her genesis as baby temptress all but memory-holed. Yet, Eva Ionesco will go to her grave as "that little girl who posed nude in the '70s" — and this is despite her post-Maladolescenza litany of bit and character parts in perfectly middlebrow French films; it's despite her haunting (and haunted-looking) debut as Roman Polanski's hallucination of a crippled goth girl in his suffocating mood piece-turned-blackest of pitch-black comedies, 1976's The Tenant. (Had Polanski made The Ring at the time, his Eva would've been a shoo-in to go crawling out of a TV set.) Battling her mother in court for the rights to those old photos, directing a film (2010's My Little Princess) that reenacts her stolen childhood: the most publicized chapters of Ionesco's life since have only served to reinforce her as the mirrored disco ball of an era few now wish to acknowledge, and which even fewer would ever believe happened, were it not for the morally shaky artifacts it left behind.

If you're seeking the era-summarizing jolt of a single image that outdoes the schizoid disconnect of The Brooke Book, that outpaces even the shock value of Brooke on the cover of Photo, there's the May 23, 1977 cover of Der Spiegel, the German news weekly and bible of lefty-think that, not incidentally, made clear its position on Donald Trump's election to the U.S. Presidency with a cover piece labeling it "The End of the World." Der Spiegel was no less full of shit forty years ago when it paired a breathless tabloid headline about "Children on the Sex Market: Lolitas Sold" with some of the best child-selling seen outside of the third world: a flagrant cheesecake shot of an eleven year-old Eva, patterned to the letter from something out of Penthouse or perhaps European men's magazine Lui. It presents Eva, as sullen-looking as ever, half-perched on a stool, her right hand raised and poised atop the curls of her good-time-dolly bouffant in bald mimicry of a pinup queen's flaunting of her God-given bounty. Needless to say, she's stark naked but for her porn-starlet wardrobe of fingerless black lace gloves, a long bead necklace, and thigh-high stockings topped off with the kind of pink frills one might find on the bedspread in a little girl's room. The contradiction of her fledgling middle-schooler's breast development juxtaposed with the full bramble patch of early-onset pubic hair bequeathed to her by Romanian ancestry beckons the viewer; it calls to the newsstand passer-by, like the underage streetwalker in a Brazilian favela calls out to the handsome American in a suit: to stop, gawk and react.

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Pretty Baby is, in spirit, the story of Eva Ionesco. Louis Malle was struck by her early portfolio, and by its hushed-voice prestige among his coterie of committed artistes and bourgeois heretics against restraint. It inspired him to take hold of Polly Platt's script about a young girl's hard coming of age; he infused it with all the qualm and turmoil he saw straining to break the skin of Eva's costumed and choreographed image — especially in Irina Ionesco's black-and-white cocktails made of equal parts child sex trade circa Weimar-era Berlin and Murnau's Nosferatu.

Behold the blasphemy against age of consent on Zoom Magazine's August 1979 cover — Eva, with a defiant hauteur in her toplessness in this 1976 shot; Eva, with the hands-on-hips petulance of a brat who's been told to clean up her room. Behold it, and you'll find the genesis of Violet, Pretty Baby's grade-school lady in waiting, and her near-constant outbursts; you'll see the rough sketch of Violet sassing the house mammy when chided about her teasing of a black boy, you'll see Violet asserting her place on the brothel totem pole by either lording it over the other whores' children or flaunting her carnal knowledge at them. Draw a straight line from the emotional disconnect beneath Violet's harlot burlesque, and it leads you back to Eva bronzing naked in the Ibizan sun for Italian Playboy's October 1976 issue, her schoolgirl-in-math-class disinterest at enduring Jacques Bourboulon's innumerable setups a mere blemish atop her old pro's ease at spreading her legs with just a hint of clam, at striking the classic arched-back/tits-out pose, at miming doggystyle on all fours with her eleven year-old ass pointed skyward. (Why, there's even a pillow for her to rest her face on — who said porn was never classy?)

Delve into Malle's insistence on the normality of child prostitution in the 1910's, despite scant evidence of it in his source material, and you'll realize it's the audacity of his own time he's examining from the distance of the period piece. Gasp at Violet carried aloft as live meat on a platter — visual confirmation of her pre-menarche state to a gathering of the brothel's customers — and you'll recall "Classe 1965!," the title of that 1976 Playboy layout wielding proof of Ionesco's pubescence as a badge of honor. Gape askance at Violet's cherry being auctioned off the way Irina Ionesco made a pricey art-gallery piece of her daughter's hairless vulva, the way rare book sellers still fetch a pretty penny for first-rate copies of seven year-old Samantha Gates full-frontaled and centerfold-postured all throughout Alice, photographer Hajime Sawatari's 1973 re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland. Marvel as the madam interrupts Violet's bath time to show off her sopping allure, Garry Gross-style, to a would-be defiler. Unpack the implications of Violet being rouged and dolled up for her ravishment at the hands of johns over four times her age — a whores' debasement ritual born of the slattern's hatred for all things innocent; a bestial disfiguring of girlhood via the mercenary considerations of the sex market that's as sublimely depressing as Eva, high-heeled and leopard-printed, in the October 1976 issue of Playmen, an Italian Playboy knock-off that trumpeted her on that issue's cover as "L'Adolescente Nuda."

In fact, if hebephile porn has an analogue to the On the Lookout sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, that Playmen spread is it: Phillippe Ledru shoots a tired-looking, slightly bloated Eva swimming in baby fat as if he were auditioning victims for a snuff film. Desecrating childhood seems to be a theme: Ledru has her stand panty-less before a smiling religious bust as she crushes a doll beneath her platform fuck-me pump. He poses her like a Raggedy Ann tossed spread-eagle onto a bed, her left nipple haphazardly exposed as if her shirt had been forced open — here, she's flanked by wooden dolls out of a demonic-possession movie that parody the malleability of her plaything's existence, as she tugs the boxers she's wearing up around her crotch so they resemble a pair of diapers with the impression of her vagina pushing through. Elsewhere, he has her lifelessly mimic the poses seen in old Marilyn Monroe snaps within the frame, and the effect is one of the cruelest mockery. It says: kid, you can parade the spitting image of a real screen siren all you want, but you'll never escape this cluttered, windowless pedophile's apartment and these thrift-store props. You're meat for freaks, our dour lamb at the sexual-liberation altar — doomed for posterity to these dreary, washed-out colors, to this cheap smut-rag print job, to the fringe renown and back-of-the-closet collectors' stashes inspired by your ignominious, throw-away childhood.

This is a child, these photos scold us from within the ready erotic charge she transmits, from within her uncanny elegance at even the earliest age. It's a child resentful at having been coaxed into doing things she didn't want to do, a child whose one constant throughout her modeling work was the projection of a pronounced sadness. Irina Ionesco and the photographers she loaned Eva out to learned to work with this built-in handicap. They thwarted Eva's undisguisable instinct to sabotage their sexualizing of her, twisting it into a willful kid's approximation of you'll-never-have-me femme-fatale insolence — a kiddie-dominatrix glower that only enhanced the obscenity of her portrayal, thus realizing its creator's intentions.

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Pretty Baby reflects upon a time when America tried to reconcile with man's taste for sin by way of a fairly radical social experiment: the "Storyville" district of old New Orleans, where prostitution was — from 1895 until about 1917 — regulated as quasi-legal under the legislation of City Councilman Sidney Story. Story, it's said, was inspired by port cities that acted as open containment zones for vice. The hunch behind Storyville was that authorities could keep a tighter watch on the whores and their madams cordoned off from respectable society, and allowed to operate in plain sight, than they could with them scattered about the criminal underworld. The era survives largely in the photographs of Ernest J. Bellocq, who captured Storyville prostitutes in simple, undramatized states of being, mostly in the very bordellos where they plied their trade.

Nothing in these photos, though, supports the Southern-fried Weimar Republic that Malle concocted for Pretty Baby, with its pedophilic Bellocq taking home the child prostitute Violet (Shields) after she's abandoned by her mother, and turning her into his unofficial wife and all-around erotic muse. The source for Violet was a rather blasé ex-prostitute interviewed in the 1974 book Storyville, New Orleans by historian Al Rose, whom Paramount Pictures paid fifty thousand dollars for the rights to his material. As quoted by Rose, she reflects on a life of sex work as the family business with curiously self-satirizing whore logic, sounding like a sweet but dim-bulb trollop straight out of Mark Twain:
I know it'd be good if I could say how awful it was, and like crime don't pay. But to me it seems just like anything else, like a kid whose father owns a grocery store. He helps him in the store. Well, my mother didn't sell groceries.
Rose would dispute the way that Malle sensationalized this woman, a marginal figure at best in his account (and even there, I'd guess that the real-life figure — if she existed — has been "touched up" by the writer's pen). Certainly, there's no record of Bellocq having met her or, for that matter, having ever shown an inclination toward what German sleaze merchants in the Wild West days of the porn biz would refer to as Kindersex. So one wonders, when seeing that Malle has fashioned a through-a-child's-eyes take on Storyville centered upon Violet, when then noting the way that Keith Carradine's Bellocq fixates upon Violet as the perfect subject for his own camera: to what degree has Malle emptied out the particulars of the real-life E.J. Bellocq and merely used him as a vessel for his personal fascination with Brooke-as-Eva Ionesco? To what extent did Malle and screenwriter Platt fixate upon a wisp of a concept in Al Rose's book and puff it up beyond history's dull constraints in fervid speculation — in fantasy — about the tragedy of Ionesco's life?

The Marilyn Monroe-ization of young Eva Ionesco reads like a blueprint for Malle's direction here. It's Ionesco's chafing at her own objectification being channeled when Violet, splayed nude like a junior Playmate in Bellocq's home studio as he meticulously prepares his camera, leaps up in restlessness, throws a tantrum, and begins smashing and scraping away at his glass negatives. To the befuddlement of art historians, the faces in many of the real-life Bellocq's negatives were indeed obliterated in such a manner. (Was it the photographer's shame? Protecting his subjects' identities?) But there's an intriguing detail in the scene for those with keen eyes: the outline of a girl's image is briefly visible in one of the negatives that Violet snatches up, and the mop of curls that we glimpse is a perfect replica, not of Violet's straight locks, but of Ionesco's mane as styled in the bulk of her modeling work — most especially in her mother's photographs. I'm not suggesting that Malle riddled Pretty Baby with easter-egg tributes to the object of his aesthetic concern — he most likely meant to imply that this was simply a random portrait of one of Bellocq's other subjects, probably Violet's mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon), who sports a similar coiffure. The visual "slip of the tongue" is telling, though — an undeniable call-out for those familiar with Eva Ionesco (though few moviegoers would have been in 1978), and especially suggestive of Malle-Platt's real inspiration if one reads Violet's pique in the scene as a reaction to her own image.

Shields as Violet registers as well as she can. Malle forbids a surplus of child-actor preciousness from wilting his canvas, so what we get from her is the distilled essence of all little girls — an impetuous, demanding, self-obsessed, occasionally mean-spirited little diva taught that the center of the world sits between her legs — compounded by the character's fatherlessness and by the amorality of her formative environment. (Baudelaire on la jeune fille: "A little fool, a little slut; the greatest idiocy united with the greatest depravity.") But Violet hasn't much to communicate to adults beyond the warped sense of human intimacy imposed upon her by her draw of the short stick — and this Malle largely glosses over. If anything, Pretty Baby suffers from having too much taste. It prioritizes sober-mindedness speckled with odd sops to Spielbergian sentimentality over truth; it serves up prostitution as a kind of Oscar-bait museum exhibit — sterile and encased in the good intentions of a "serious artist" — rather than risk pushing us, and especially our sugar-and-spice conceptions of little girls, into thorny psychological terrain. Malle treads so gingerly along the right side of the line between Euro-auteur envelope-pushing and Maladolescenza that he never takes us into anything we can't blithely transition away from — it's as if nothing in Violet's world ever lingered or scarred, which only completely contradicts the entire point of the film. Malle's pulled off the neat trick of using Violet's real-life inspiration as fuel for his fever dream of perversion that implicitly moralizes about the Bad Old Days, while taking her nonchalance in the Al Rose book at face value. The two elements cancel each other out, rendering Pretty Baby the cinematic equivalent of that Der Spiegel piece.

Violet's carried off to her first time by an outwardly meek banker type, who's as glum and uncommunicative in getting his money's worth as she is wide-eyed and tremulous. The silence between them and the darkness of the room play against Violet's expectations of gentility — he closes in on her, and we're primed for her naïveté to meet its vicious death. Malle cuts to her shriek of pain as heard by a pair of children listening outside the door. As the whores pile into the room after, first to check that she's still alive, and then to laugh with her as she tries to mend the shards of her innocence over the agony from her batter-rammed and disarranged innards, the moment wobbles on the brink of some great, sad irony — some skewering of evasion as human coping mechanism like the post-assassination crowd sing-along to "It Don't Worry Me" in Robert Altman's Nashville. It gets about halfway there but it withers away because Malle isn't interested in asking real questions about what he's showing us. To do so would mean turning a critical eye on the women in the film, for one, and that might mean jostling us from our smug easy chair of current-year enlightenment, which rests nonnegotiably upon the insistence that women of history never had agency, that they were never more than, at best, pretty pets straining against a leash clenched in the iron grip of patriarchal whim.

And yet, it's impossible to maintain that argument in the face of what Pretty Baby shows us. It's the women here who tend oppression's garden. It's the Hatties and other would-be/should-be nurturers of Storyville who sustain, condone, and profit unhesitatingly from a subculture of child exploitation, of self-exploitation, of bidding away anything that isn't nailed down to the man waving the highest dollar. Malle gives us a childhood to make Charles Dickens weep: one born of sexual expendability to go with its abject poverty; one steeped in the cheapest, stinkiest and most degradable aspects of femininity unshapen by any kind of ethical guidelines or stabilizing societal force. We see little Violet, excited at the birth of her baby brother, tearing through the cathouse at peak business hour to share the news with all the prostitutes — the only "family" she's ever known. But, of course, they couldn't care less; they're too busy engaging customers (as she watches on) to bother sharing in the wonder of new life — a life that they know won't have any value in this environment, anyway. We see Violet start her morning in a rat-infested dumping-off chamber for the brothel's children, where they sleep, packed in like sardines, some two to a bed. We see Violet pressed into early parenthood, as the only mother figure around to quiet her screaming brother while Hattie sleeps off the drunken revelry of the previous night next to her naked john. We see Violet shooed away and ignored by everyone from Hattie to Bellocq, whose initial interest is in the portraits he tries to capture of her mother, and not in the irksome brat who insists on planting herself next to his camera and spoiling his painstaking artistic process with her mugging and endless questions.

We see Sarandon's Hattie, mother in title only, so at home in the gutter and so blatantly unsolicitous of Violet's well-being, that she lounges about in all manner of undress before the girl's curious eyes, and ensures by her non-existent parenting that Violet's most accessible pathway forward is to trudge along in her own footsteps. Violet stands by as Hattie gets into a scrape with a boorish caricature of a john, who puts his hands upon her before she returns the favor — they roll and tumble about like something out of a silent-era domestic farce. Malle refuses to shape the moment; he declines to link it to Violet's developing sense of male-female relations, to her notion of what her place is in this world she inhabits, so it deflates into sitcom slapstick, punctuated by Violet's chuckling as if seeing her mother attacked were just the most gosh-darn hilarious thing ever. Malle leaves you with the suspicion that having Hattie wind up on top was his attempt at endearing this wretched Jezebel to us as some tough-gal proto-feminist who don't take no guff. Some heroine, though: Hattie the Teri Shields stand-in offers no objection to the madam's decision to whore her daughter off at the age of twelve; she virtually hand-feeds the kid to a customer herself. She displays so little awareness that there might be another life choice for Violet, so little concern over whatever Violet will be left to as she ditches the kid for a better life with her new husband, that she's functionally a sociopath — the banality of true evil embodied in the raw female survivalist instinct. (The impression is only furthered by Sarandon's open-mouthed, deliberate, never-quiet-there style of acting.)

And what of Violet's bought-and-sold virginity — something that might have served as the horrifying black-hole centerpiece of a much more honest film, something whose implications and in-the-moment details, both physical and psychological, might have been explored by a director with balls, with artistic integrity? Questions abound in anticipation of genuine daring, such as: How precisely does Violet feel about servicing men old enough to be her grandfather — how does she stow it away in her mind? At what point does Violet come to enjoy the sex, as all whores must? (We only kid ourselves that they toil away joylessly, just as we convince ourselves that sexual adventurism is a stranger to the young.) "Ah hate chu!" Hattie winds up spitting at Violet on the heels of a face slap. "If it weren't for you, I would've been outta here a long tahm ago!" How conscious is Hattie otherwise of this resentment toward an unwanted burden — of her spiteful crab-in-a-bucket impulse toward filthying her own daughter's vagina, just as hers was long ago scarlet-lettered and Storyvilled away beyond the reach of a proper life? Malle teases with a scene of Violet following Hattie and her john into a room and then shutting the door behind her as she steps inside. Then, he cuts away and it's never built upon. But what are Hattie's boundaries as it relates to the violation of her child — would she balk at a john whose great unscratched itch is to enjoy a mother and daughter together?

Bellocq transfers his attraction for Hattie over to Violet since he sees the girl as a less tainted version of her mother that he can mold and idealize — but how does he bridge the gap between Violet the sex object and the heedless orphan he spends all his time reprimanding? How will the Violet of Malle's final shot transition into society, post-Storyville, and will men ever suspect the past that bubbles, dormant but ever alive, beneath her newly scrubbed-and-bow-adorned exterior? Frances Faye, as the elderly dwarf of a madam, hobbles about the margins, looking like an old Jewish drag queen someone found beaten and stripped of makeup in an alley, but who still insists on the glamorous airs of his stage act. Malle assures us of her bone-deep venality by foregrounding her counting of money at the breakfast table as Hattie breastfeeds her baby. How did this Irina Ionesco figure make the transition from procured to procurer (as would be most likely)? At what point did the door to any glimmer of conscience inside her become rusted shut?

We get neither answers nor even an awareness of the questions. Stymied by Malle's cowardice posing as objectivity, you struggle for an answer as to why Pretty Baby was even made. The closest he gets to rendering a verdict on any of the film's goings-on are the demurrals of a couple of brothel denizens as the price on Violet's hymen is announced, and the vaguely unsettled looks of the house piano player, played by rubbery-faced blaxploitation regular Antonio Fargas. We know he's intended to represent some oasis of humanity here since a) he's black, and Malle already told us what a jazz-worshiping French Negrophile he was in the semi-autobiographical Murmur of the Heart b) he's the only character who relates to Violet, not as a Raggedy Ann to be stripped and posed, and not for her potential earning power, but simply as a child.

Malle contradicts even this, though, when he shows the Fargas character smirking and offering advice as the women primp Violet for her debut customer. The director's fealty to his own concepts is as tenuous as his commitment to the reality of segregated 1917 New Orleans, which he alludes to whenever he wants to score easy points against the characters, but which he otherwise ignores in favor of his soggy multiculturalist delusion of black and white whores operating freely within the same establishment, and of Fargas' grown-ass Negro being allowed anywhere near a young white girl — and in full view of paying white customers, at that. (More sticking points for Al Rose in his savaging of the film.) We get Violet having her legs rubbed with muck in a voodoo ceremony to bless her with irresistibility to men, we get dyke-dancing and (implied, as usual) salt-and-pepper threesomes, we get the near-murder by ballpeen hammer of a violent drunkard — but what, if anything, does Malle feel about any of this? The non-judgment of the cultural relativist is gutless faggotry for a serious artist — true artists judge; they make statements, they bolster their art with a moral clarity or, at the very least, an unwaveringly delineated point of view, as Paul Thomas Anderson did in Magnolia when he denied daughter-diddler Jimmy Gator the escape of his own death, as Malle himself did when peeling back the psyche of Nazi-occupied France in Lacombe, Lucien and, later, in Au revoir les enfants.

In March 1977, just over a year prior to Pretty Baby's release, and two months before Der Spiegel used Eva Ionesco to sell the charms of the unripe, Malle's colleague, Roman Polanski, was taken into police custody. The charges against him were: rape by use of drugs, sodomy, perversion, unlawful sexual acts upon a minor under the age of fourteen, and furnishing controlled substances to a minor. The victim was thirteen year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer), whom he'd photographed topless for a Vogue spread at the home of an absent Jack Nicholson. Polanski would plead guilty to simple unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, then flee to France, where he's avoided extradition since 1978. He's long maintained that the sex was consensual; in a 1979 interview with novelist Martin Amis, he summed up what he saw as the hypocrisy of the law by asserting that judges and jurists all wanted to fuck young girls as much as he did.

Polanski's fondness for the training-bra set was no secret; Hollywood is an industry where noshing on the children of the goyim was old hat back when producer Arthur Freed flashed his petseleh to an eleven year-old Shirley Temple. (See also: mogul Jack Woltz in The Godfather, Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Bagatelles pour un massacre.) And like Eva Ionesco, like Brooke Shields, like Violet, Samantha Gailey was nudged forth into the Devil's embrace by her own mother, an actress and model who'd approved the photoshoot with Polanski, offering up her little lamb on a Seder plate in exchange for career advancement. Pretty Baby was happening all around Malle; safely confining it to his neutered conception of the mythic American past was his first miscalculation. His greatest: not stepping aside so that a tortured degenerate like Polanski could enliven this pimping of a little girl with the grit of personal experience.

©2017 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .