|Alex and his droogs relaxing at the milk-plus bar.|
This statement by the prison chaplin in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange alludes to the central philosophical question of the film. The movie explores sex and violence, nihilism and decay, conformity and individuality, freedom and behavior modification in a manner that was controversial when it was released in 1971. It received an X-rating in America due to its sexual content. Kubrick ended up personally withdrawing the film from distribution in the United Kingdom due to a disturbing rise of copycat violence in London and other cities. Obviously, the film made a strong impression, but that is nothing new for a Kubrick work.
Though he never shied away from pushing boundaries and generating debate from his audience, Kubrick abhorred the violent reaction the film invoked. Still, due to its low-budget, it generated a healthy profit and made the director even more famous and wealthy. It was “popular” enough due to Kubrick’s sense of the times.
Fresh off his success with 2001, Kubrick became fascinated with Anthony Burgess’ novel and saw in it the elements of the late-60’s, early-70’s zeitgeist. It was a story involving youth. It covered plenty of philosophical ground. It questioned authority and somewhat glorified the counterculture movement of the time, albeit in a negative, anarchistic way. Among other things, A Clockwork Orange seems to be saying to us that our humanity is rooted in evil as much as goodness, and psychological or cultural attempts to eliminate the choice of evil in mechanistic fashion, however beneficial the result to society, make us less human and are a violation of individuality.
Alex DeLarge is one of cinema’s most enigmatic, anti-heroes. He is dominant, aggressive, energetic, nihilistic, obsessed with sex and violence. But he also appears to be fairly well-educated, somewhat creative, has a gift for language, particularly slang, has an outrageous sense of humor and is versed in the arts, particularly in Beethoven’s 9th symphony. This striking mix of positive and negative attributes makes him distinctive, or at least pioneering, in the history of film.
Like Burgess’ novel, the film’s dialog and narration (by Alex) is laced with a strange mix of British and Russian slang words along with a few phrases that are just made-up. Alex is the head of a small gang (called ‘droogs’). Basically, he sleeps all day, frequents a bizarre “milk-plus” bar in the evenings, and then commits all sorts of despicable crimes at night in what is a slightly different (rather than futuristic) dystopian society.
Although A Clockwork Orange is considered a great science fiction film, it takes place in the present (of its time), just a twisted version of it. The only “futuristic” technology presented in the film is a behavior modification treatment. But the society itself is not particularly advanced. The often humorous, slightly militarized, paper-ridden bureaucracy, transportation and communications are not futuristic at all.
We watch Alex and his droogs beat up a homeless old man, they fight a rival gang who are in the process of committing a well-choreographed rape scene, they then commit their own brutal rape by breaking into the home of a writer, crippling the man and raping his wife while Alex sings “Singing in the Rain” the whole time, an expression of what Alex calls “the in-out in-out” and “ultra-violence.”
In the film’s so-called “Cat Woman” sequence, Alex assaults a woman with a large “piece of art” penis, ultimately bludgeoning her to death with the head of it. The penis itself is used rather humorously. Alex makes it rock back and forth on the table upon which it sits. As he talks to his victim, we see the head of the erect penis twitching the foreground up and down juxtaposed against the woman in the background as we see her from Alex’s perspective. The murder itself, while brutal, is not actually shown. There is surprisingly little blood in the film given everything that happens. But that doesn’t make the overall effect any less vicious and it certainly makes the film far less gratuitous than it could have been.
Alex becomes disenchanted with his droogs when they attempt to remove him from power and do things their own way. They are tired of the petty theft acts that do nothing more than keep them in money for the bars. They aspire to something bigger. But Alex won’t have it and hammers and slashes them into submission with his boot, walking cane and a knife (set humorously to classical music and shot in slow motion). The droogs turn on Alex and he ends up being arrested and imprisoned for two years.
After that time, Alex undergoes the experimental “Ludovico” aversion therapy treatment. His behavior is successfully modified and he is released early from prison. Alex is no longer capable of hitting or harming anyone. Moreover, inadvertently, the treatment’s use of Beethoven’s Ninth as background music for the shocking images of hatred and violence he is forced to watch renders this piece of music, which Alex prizes above any other form of art, unlistenable. He gets nauseated and panics at the sound of it. This leads to a twisted occurrence. While the treatment successfully renders Alex docile, he is helpless against the wider violence of society itself, which now turns Alex into a victim.
The second half of the film is a symmetrical mirror of the first. This time the homeless old man, the now crippled writer, and the droogs (now become police officers) each beat Alex and torture him in their own way. Alex is no longer a criminal but he is no longer able to appreciate his life either. Ultimately, all this, especially his inability to listen to Beethoven’s symphony, makes his already nihilistic life even worse. It is not his choice, it is a newly uncontrollable, robotic aversion to life – meaningless is inflicted upon him rather than himself perpetuating within freedom.
It would seem that we can modify the evil of one person, but that doesn’t make society as a whole any less wicked or violent.
Hopelessly miserable, Alex attempts to commit suicide. But this, too, fails and he is approached by the government during his recovery. The government will provide for him as long as he agrees to publicly go along with their public relations effort as part of their re-election campaign. (They can’t afford the negative publicity around the experimental technique used on Alex.) Alex does so, but in the end he is no longer “cured” but, rather, back to his old, twisted sexually aggressive and violent self. The end.
I am a lifelong Kubrick fan but A Clockwork Orange is not one of his films that I have seen a lot. This most recent viewing was only my fourth or fifth time through the movie and I haven’t seen it at all in over 20 years. It remains one of Kubrick’s weaker works, in my opinion. It feels more dated than most of his other films. The film reeks of the late 1960’s in terms of fashion, design, and creative content. It is a strange story, not giving the viewer much to latch on to or even care about. True enough, Kubrick plugged into the spirit of his times with the film, but for that very reason, the film strikes me as stuck in the past and, therefore, less relatable for the viewer today.
Alex is evil through and through and I don’t care. His despicable acts and those committed against him later on leave me unmoved. Despite some of its philosophical underpinnings, it really isn’t a deep or profound movie. I suppose the most that can be said is that it was a ground-breaking film for its time (along with Straw Dogs and Bonnie and Clyde) in terms of establishing violence as an acceptable form of entertainment – and even that isn’t saying much at all. So shocking to audiences back in the day, A Clockwork Orange leaves me indifferent today.
But there are some redeeming qualities to the film that make it worth watching at least once. The usual Kubrick strengths are readily apparent: cinematography and music. While not grand, Kubrick’s camera work is impressive. He uses a lot of wide angle lenses, low angles, and handheld shots to create a sense of disorientation and surrealism. This is especially effective during close-ups of the violence sequences. Meanwhile, the wide angles are not chosen to capture a wide image but, rather, because the shots in such lenses look “normal” in the middle of the screen but become more distorted and elongated along the edges bewildering the viewer.
One of the surprises of seeing this film again after a lapse of so many years was how much of the soundtrack is classical music. As usual, the selections are superb matches for the moment. Alex’s affinity for Beethoven’s Ninth comes into play several times. It is even used to comic appeal in a “dance” sequence. When Alex first puts a small tape of the symphony on his stereo we are treated to a wonderful job of editing shots of a poster of Beethoven, an erotic artwork of a woman with legs spread as Alex’s pet snake, Basil, probes her, and an absurd statue of four crucified Jesus’ dancing like chorus line girls. The editing with the music is hilarious. Don’t watch this film if you have a highbrow sense of the sacred. Ha ha ha!
Humor was always a mainstay of Kubrick’s directing. Almost all his films are funny in some way. But I don’t recall laughing so much during my previous viewings of A Clockwork Orange. Another example of when music and camera work together to comic effect is the ménage a trois sequence where Alex brings two girls back to his room for a bit of the “in-out, in-out."
This is an orgiastic scene with full nudity that earned the original release of the film an X-rating. But it is presented in fast motion so that the viewer can only catch a glimpse of what is actually happening. The three of them end up in Alex's bed. Then, after a nice roll around between the three of them, one girl gets up and dresses, Alex finishes with the second girl only to grab the first one and undress her again. This also happens after the second girl dresses herself. Very funny. And it is all set to a synthesized version of the William Tell Overture which is so ridiculous (and mechanical as opposed to passionate) that I found myself belly laughing. The whole sequence lasts less than a minute.
Other elements of humor include the ridiculous, militaristic, paper-ridden bureaucracy by which Alex is transferred from prison to the psychological facility where his behavior will be modified. Also, a choreographed rape scene by a rival gang is more of a dance movement than a violation of the rather well-endowed woman depicted. Her movements on stage and even as she escapes (the rape is interrupted by Alex and his droogs who are itching for a knife fight) are so obviously dance-like that it strikes me more darkly funny than tragic.
Uncharacteristically, Kubrick later conceded to some slight edits to A Clockwork Orange so that it obtained a more acceptable R-rating. This served not only to open the film to a wider audience at the box office, but to make the eventual sale of the rights to broadcast television possible. Today most versions of the film contain the original X-rated shots, which are now considered R-rated. Times have caught up with Kubrick’s film, as it were.
Kubrick gets a “7” for A Clockwork Orange. It is a weird, bewildering, distinctive film, for sure. But, compared with 2001, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon, it has not aged very well. The timeless aspects of Kubrick’s brilliance are far less pronounced here. It is definitely entertaining and worth watching, probably "essential" watching for any film aficionado, like most of Kubrick's films. But it has never resonated with me the way the above mentioned films have as have even Lolita and Paths of Glory. I'll be spending my "Kubrick time" with these other films before ever returning to the world of Alex DeLarge.