“A CLOCKWORK ORANGE” (1971)
Based upon the novel by Anthony Burgess
Written, Produced and Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The image in the above photo is about as iconic as it gets.
The image of the darkly sinister and disturbingly mischievous, glowering gaze of Alex DeLarge is one that I have seen for most of my life. It was a fixture of pop culture iconography that I was completely aware of and yet never knew its origin and significance. Just take a moment and look at him and try to think of a time when you did not know this face and figure. The eyelashes on the underside of one eye. The white boiler suit complete with combat boots, bowler hat and a codpiece as outerwear. Simply unforgettable.
By the time I made the connection of this character to something called “A Clockwork Orange,” I was deeply entertained by science fiction genre material and that title and face emerged time and again as a particularly revolutionary tale. I tried watching the film sometime during early middle school. While renting movies for the weekend one night with my Father, I casually asked him if he had heard of the film and he informed me that he and my other had seen it when it was originally released in 1971. I asked him if I could rent it and then, his face grew an unusually perplexed look as he stated simply, “Sure. But…it’s really…strange.”
That weekend, I placed the video tape into the VCR and began to watch. For all of this film’s legend, what I saw just didn’t take. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what I was seeing. I just didn’t get it at all, even despite my proud status as an Anglophile. Again, I really didn’t understand who exactly Stanley Kubrick happened to be, let alone his importance in the world of cinema and the entire proceedings sailed over y head. I remember turning it off after about a half and hour or so (the comically sped up sequence where Alex beds two girls he meets in a record store set to a breathless electronic version of “The William Tell Overture”) and never thought about it again throughout my teen and college years.
I never even thought to attempt to watch the film again until the release of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” (1994), a wild, epic, hallucinogenic, ultra-violent film in which Stone places his sights upon the media and the public’s obsession and attraction to graphic violence. In nearly every review that I remember reading about that film, Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” was always referenced as being the starting point for a film like Oliver Stone’s. So, at the age of 25, I rented it again and began to watch and this time, the experience took…and relentlessly.
Set in an indeterminate future version of London, England, “A Clockwork Orange” immediately introduces us to Alex (Malcolm McDowall) and his gang of “Droogs” (James Marcus, Warren Clarke and Michael Tarn respectively) as they sit inside of the Korova Milk bar drinking narcotic laced glasses of milk, preparing themselves for an evening’s worth of what Alex fiendishly, yet excitedly, refers to as the “ultra-violence.” The gang of four bludgeon a drunk, older tramp in the road, get involved in a gang fight with a rival group, steal a car, stage a home invasion where they batter Mr. Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), a writer and viciously rape his wife, Mary (Adrienne Corri) as Alex sings and dances to “Singin’ In The Rain.” Yet all is not harmonious within the Droogs as Alex’s demonstrative style is causing severe inter-political tensions. Alex is abandoned at the scene of a new crime, when he accidentally murders “The Cat Lady” (Miriam Karlin) with a fatal blow to the head via a giant penis shaped sculpture.
Alex is arrested and soon sent to prison. After two years behind bars, he catches wind of an experimental procedure that would supposedly cure a person of their malicious tendencies and then, that person would be fully released back into society. Playing all of the requisite angles to ensure that he is the perfect candidate for this treatment, Alex is soon taken to the Ludovico Medical Clinic where he undergoes a torturous two week session called the “Ludovic Technique.” This process involves the subject being forced to watch violent imagery while strapped to a chair, wearing a straightjacket and having his eyelids fastened open widely and unable to close.
Has Alex, the ultimate con man, the terrifying hoodlum, finally met his comeuppance? Will the untested technique cure him of his violent tendencies once and for all? Will he a last face the consequences he deserves for his insane choices or has he outfoxed everyone, including the entire British government in the process?
By the time I finished the film, I knew on an artistic and filmmaking basis that “A Clockwork Orange” was indeed a masterpiece and completely lived up to its legend. From an emotional standpoint, I was troubled, to say the least. It felt as if Kubrick and his conduit Malcolm McDowall personally reached inside of my brain and forced me (almost like Alex at one crucial point), to see things I didn’t necessarily want to see, think thoughts I did not want to have and experience emotions I didn’t want to feel. That famous first shot of Alex staring into the camera and then slowly pulls back to reveal the sights of the Korova Milk Bar, adorned with bizarre erotic sculptures and scored to Walter Carlos’ innovative and disturbing electronic score, lasts for an uncomfortably long time and after a spell, Alex’s piercing gaze actually made me feel queasy. I watched the film over the course of two days as I felt I needed a break from the mayhem and disturbing content.
All of that being said, the opening passages of “A Clockwork Orange,” from that very first shot all the way through to Alex’s capture by the police after the murder of “The Cat Lady,” is probably one of the most visually and viscerally arresting collection of sequences I have seen in any film throughout my life of watching movies. As I viewed the film again over this past week, after not having seen it for many years I remained riveted. Even knowing everything that will occur, I am still hanging on for dear life. It is as if Kubrick is clearly getting off on his own sense of unfiltered and endless creativity and pursuit of how to make each scene not even a great scene but an unforgettable scene. Again his reputation for filming endless takes in pursuit of what he called “the magic” served his absolutely brilliantly. It would be euphoric if it weren’t so despicable, inhumane, and stomach churning and cringe worthy.
The controversy surrounding “A Clockwork Orange” is as legendary as the film itself. The film originally received an “X” rating in America and England upon its original release (it was soon downgraded to an “R” in America after Kubrick trimmed 20 innocuous seconds). After several copycat crimes based upon the movie’s exploits of Alex and his gang began to plague England, coupled with death threats placed upon his life, as well as his family, Stanley Kubrick performed the incredible task of having the film pulled from theatrical release despite its box office success. “A Clockwork Orange” was banned in England for 27 years, the remainder of Kubrick’s life.
Why is this film still so controversial, even in the 21st century during a period when the general public happily views all manner of graphic violence, including rape, as entertainment on prime time television programs? (I am looking right at you CBS and NBC for your “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises as well as Lifetime whose almost entire programming revolves around women in jeopardy.) For a film that plunges us deep inside of the ultra-violence, “A Clockwork Orange” is a nearly bloodless affair and there is no gore whatsoever. Alex’s inadvertent murder of “The Cat Lady” climaxes not with blood splattering the screen but with a quickly edited barrage of cartoon artwork images that seemed to have arrived from a surreal issue of a “Batman” comic strip. Even the actual rape scenes, while dangerously squeamish, are not as graphic as they could have been. In fact, the most difficult sequence for me to watch are actually the Ludovic technique conditioning treatment sections. Stanley Kubrick stages the entire proceedings of “A Clockwork Orange” with an extremely heightened and heavily stylized visual canvas so every single moment of the film never feels as real as life and yet the disturbing power of the film is as abhorrently potent as it was upon its release over 40 years ago. To date, there just has never, ever been an experience quite like this one and there probably never will be again.
As I wrote in my posting of ”The Shining,” that film felt as if Kubrick was staging a bird’s eye view of madness, allowing the audience to make any interpretations and connections for themselves. “A Clockwork Orange” works very similarly yet with a twist. In that famous first shot, Alex toasts the camera (therefore the audience) with his glass of milk before drinking. By breaking that visual fourth wall, Kubrick is informing us without question that the experience we are about to witness is indeed a movie and not a representation of life as it is lived. The exaggerated style of the film from this point onwards also contributes to this hyper-real quality. But perhaps the queasiness of the film arrives because Alex does raise his glass in a toast to the audience and then continues throughout the entirety of the film speaking to us in a sort of sing-songy, hushed tone as if he is reciting the most illicit bedtime story into our ears before Mom and Dad enter the room. This is a brilliant textural stroke as it makes the audience completely complicit in Alex’s horrific pursuits. Alex, referring to himself as “your humble narrator,” and addressing us as his “friends” is sharing his darkest secrets with us.
Furthermore, as Malcolm McDowall, in what is unquestionably his signature performance, is in every single scene of the film, the world of “A Clockwork Orange” is seen entirely through his eyes, hence the film’s stylized nature as Alex is clearly a psychopath and for the duration of the film, we are stuck inside of his head. We are so far inside of his mind as we even see his fantasies. When he listens to Beethoven for instance, he has visions of hangings, explosions and his own face adorned with bloody vampire teeth. While in prison reading the Bible, does he engage himself with the teachings of Christ? Not in the least. He envisions himself as a Roman flogging Christ on his way to being crucified as well as being fed grapes by a trio of bare breasted handmaidens.
Kubrick’s mastery of merging music and images also works to establish the psychological state of Alex as Beethoven has never sounded as sinister and the electronic versions of classical pieces performed by Walter Carlos sound more disturbing as time passes. Those distorted classical music sounds of sonic wallpaper feels as if this is how the world even sounds to Alex. With all of these qualities, it is as if we are trapped in a speeding car with a madman at the wheel. And since we are unable to stop him, we are unfortunately implicated in his actions. We are Alex’s co-conspirators.
From an acting standpoint, Malcolm McDowall has a devilishly delicious time portraying Alex and we cannot help but to be swept away with his obvious enthusiasm, which worked extraordinarily in tandem with Kubrick’s vision and that also makes for some difficulty when thinking about this awful young man. He is highly self-aware. He is funny and is definitely not without charm. He is not the typical thug that we could easily find ourselves stoning the screen in protest and disgust. He is deeply intelligent and possesses a lofty sense of artistic taste, mostly depicted through his devotion to the music of Beethoven. And he is one hell of a storyteller.
Still, through all of those attributes, Alex is a thief, rapist and murderer and how Kubrick almost makes us feel some level of sympathy towards him as he becomes a government and scientific pawn is something of a motion picture miracle. Kubrick and McDowall constantly force us to question our feelings towards Alex’s personality and his actions. If we like him, even for a moment, what does that say abut us?
With “A Clockwork Orange,” Kubrick is again utilizing a bird’s eye view of nothing less than the nature of evil while simultaneously forcing us to confront the nature of evil that exists within all of us. Maybe that is a major reason why this film still feels like an almost forbidden piece of work. There is absolutely no getting away from Alex and since we are all along for the ride there is absolutely no way of getting away from the ugliest parts of ourselves.
Beyond evil, Stanley Kubrick places questions of morality and how the freedom of choice plays into whatever avenue of morality we all attempt to travel directly in front of us and without judgment. This is also a masterstroke as he utilizes a completely immoral character to have us explore morality itself, much like how Director Milos Forman explored the nature of censorship and the First Amendment with another deplorable individual in “The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996).
And somehow, Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is indeed a comedy. However, its a comedy with the sharpest teeth attached to it. This satire hinges greatly on the game Alex plays with every authority figure in the film as we are constantly wondering who exactly has the upper hand in an overall system that may be as barbaric as Alex. Kubrick pokes great and Monty Python-esque fun through his characters’ surreal depictions. All of the characters that represent the exaggerated forms of education, the clergy, the prison system, advancements in psycho-therapy and of course, the massive pomposity of the British government itself are all presented as looming, blustering, sinister, monstrous figures with cartoon faces and reactions shots.
None moreso than Patrick Magee as the poor, elderly writer, who re-appears late in the film, crippled from Alex’s attack at the start of the film. The level of his rage and justified sense of revenge against Alex is palpable and simultaneously hysterical and tragic. Watching him await a level of retribution against Alex was almost like viewing Wile E. Coyote setting the ultimate trap for the Road Runner and just as in the classic cartoons, it is all to no avail. The film’s final moments, show Kubrick’s greatest indictment and perhaps a hugely, yet too often truthfully, nihilistic viewpoint concerning the lack of justice in the world. For at the end of “A Clockwork Orange,” Kubrick makes us question exactly which character truly suffers the fullest consequences of Alex’s actions and how can justice exist in such a harsh, violent, and seemingly morally bankrupt world. I wonder if this film, which remember is set in the future, was functioning as a societal warning from Stanley Kubrick. No one will ever know but the fact that this film still provides us with the questions is nothing less than spectacular to me.
“A Clockwork Orange” is a film produced during a time period where the Hollywood studios were not so terrified of taking grand, artistic risks and supporting filmmakers with unrepentantly personal visions. It is a level of risk that is of such depressingly short supply these days. With “A Clockwork Orange,” Stanley Kubrick completely re-wrote the rules for cinema and satire in particular, even expanding past his own already revolutionary film “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb” (1964). “A Clockwork Orange” is its own beast to such a degree that its brand of satire feels exclusive to absolutely every other brand of satire. It firmly exists within its own universe.
And what a universe it is to return to every once in a while.