"A Clockwork Orange" has created more diverse reactions in audiences and
critics alike than in any other Stanley Kubrick film. Even Kubrick himself
was outraged at how the film induced copycat incidents in Great Britain,
causing him to ban the film until his death (now it has been re-released
since Stanley died in March of 1999). Despite how others feel about the film,
in my estimation, this is the greatest film ever made about the nature of
violence, and the nature of behavior and moral choice in a clockwork society.
It is as relevant and awe-inspiring and as intellectually charged today as
any other film since on the subject.
Alex, the punk, the Droog, remains the most ironic, complex, and sympathetic
antihero in the history of the cinema. As played by Malcolm McDowell, he is
vicious, murderous but also a lover of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He also
has nude paintings in his bedroom, has masturbatory fantasies to the tune of
Beethoven with images from the movies (and himself as Dracula). Alex loves
his working-class parents, his boa constrictor, and supposedly goes to school
- he seems like a delightful lad you would see in your neighborhood on an
"azure sky of deepest summer." There is only one difference - Alex has a
knack, a love, for sex and violence. He has a creative imagination but it is
fueled by his violent-proned rages - he seems to take delight in killing
At the beginning of the film, in stunning close-up, we see Alex at the Korova
Milkbar with his fellow Droogs drinking some milk substance that can "sharpen
you up and get you ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence." Their nightly
activities consist of beating up old winos in dark alleys, attacking people
in their homes, driving like madmen on the roads, having sex with women they
pick up in record stores, and it is usually all to the tune of Beethoven's
lovely Ninth. These Droogs dress in white, have ripped-out eyeball
ornamentations on their cuffs, and often wear masks with phallic, Pinocchio
noses. Kubrick shows us quite a bit of violence in the first half-hour but he
has more up his sleeve as the film continues.
Alex is eventually caught by the police after being betrayed by his fellow
Droogs (he is hit in the nose with a milk bottle). Once in prison, he gets
wind of a "Ludovico technique" where a prisoner is subjected to a
rehabilitative process that results in getting out of prison in no time at
all. Alex wants to do good or he says, "one act of goodness." The prison
chaplain (Godfrey Quigley) tells Alex that the technique has not been tested
much and is considered dangerous. As the chaplain explains, "Goodness comes
from within - goodness, is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be
a man." Alex doesn't comprehend such ideas, and decides to take part in the
technique at all costs. He gets his chance when the Minister of the Interior
(Anthony Sharp), who is looking for criminals to participate in such a
technique, chooses Alex whom he considers ruthless, smart, and enterprising.
In what remains surely the most perfectly realized scenes in the film, Alex
is strapped to a chair with clamps that keeps his eyelids pried open as he is
forced to watch violent film footage - at first, he enjoys it but slowly he
becomes nauseous and sickly. Alex is becoming conditioned not just against
violence but everything else he enjoys, including Beethoven's Ninth.
So what is Kubrick trying to say? That in a clockwork, mechanized society, we
have no rights - we must remain aligned with what is expected? All people who
rebel are killers? Alex does not fit into society, he is in fact a rebel,
allowing himself to choose violence over nonviolence because that is what
makes him tick. Removing his instinctive behavior is not human - it is the
result of a dehumanizing society and Alex is as human, direct and joyous as
anyone else in the film, including the victims.
Even in today's jaded world of ubiquitous sex and violence, "A Clockwork
Orange" is still potent stuff - as disturbing now as it was in 1971. The
reason is threefold: we, the audience, can't help but like Alex because he is
so charming and ruthless despite his murderous ways. We are also asked to
identify with him because we feel he is wronged by society and by the
higher-ups who are abusing him and using him for political ambition. And yet
Alex is not really cured, we sense he will go back to his violent self.
The violence is both stylized and realistic. It is shown in slow-motion,
time-lapse motion, and sometimes "viddied with the red, red vino on tap."
When Alex kills his victims, it is shown at a remove, a distance from which
we become observers particularly the attack on Alex (Patrick Magee), the
Leftist writer, and his wife (Adrienne Corri), to the tune of "Singin' in the
Rain." When Alex is attacked by his own droogs (who ironically become
policemen) or by other higher-ups, it is realistic and bloody, with none of
the enjoyment of "action and performance" that Alex feels when he inflicts
pain or kills.
Lastly, the film suggests that Alex cannot be changed by the Ludovico techniqu
e - his survival instinct is violence, it is what makes him a person. A moral
choice cannot be made, as the prison chaplain says, because you cannot change
a person's behavior. A liberal view to be sure but a justifiable view
"A Clockwork Orange" is terrifying, scary, witty, exciting, funny, and
exhausting. It is Kubrick's most cinematic odyssey: beautifully shot and
choreographed with almost monochromatic tones, and occasionally bursting with
some bright, vivid colors of red and black justaxposed with blue and white.
Malcolm McDowell gives what may be the seminal performance of any Kubrick
film - exuding charm, arrogance and cleverness in the face of a callow,
youthful killer. What's disturbing and provoking even today about the film is
that Alex wants to retain his moral right to be bad. And we can't help but
feel he is right.
Copyright © 2001 Jerry Saravia