A Clockwork Orange
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Malcom McDowell, Patrick Magee
How do you describe a film like A Clockwork Orange?
"See, it's about this guy, and he's the head of this gang that goes around fighting and raping people, but then he gets caught and has to go to prison. Then he enters into this alternate rehab thing where he's more or less tortured and he pretends to be all reformed, but he's really not. And it's a comedy. I think."
My thoughts exactly.
The first time I saw A Clockwork Orange was my freshman year in college. A suite of boys at the end of my hall, whom I had befriended, convinced me that I needed to see it, so they sat me down one afternoon and we watched it. My friend turned to me after it ended and said, "What do you think?"
I chewed the question for a moment. "I don't know," I said. It was the first time that I realized that I honestly didn't know what I thought about the movie. I didn't know if I loved it or hated. It was all too much, too extreme, too insane, too over-the-edge.
Over the course of the next few days, the movie refused to leave my mind. I found myself thinking about it all hours of the day. It would pop in my head unannounced in the middle of a lecture, as the image of Alex at the milk bar infiltrated its way into my brain.
Three days had gone by since I had seen it. I finally walked up to my friend and said, "Ask me again." "What do you think?" he asked.
"I loved it," I said.
I had come to a conclusion: If a film is capable of staying with me for that long, then it's something special. If a film is capable of being both so ugly and so bizarrely beautiful at the same time, then it's something special. If a film is notorious for how brutal it is YET doesn't show a fraction of what modern torture-porn flicks do, then it's something special. This movie is something amazingly special.
Much is made of the satire that is the central story. Alex (McDowell) goes about his general raping and pillaging until caught, at which point he's entered into prison. He undergoes a controversial and cruel treatment that leaves him physically incapable of the sex and violence that got him there in the first place. After attempting to commit suicide, he is scooped up by the government as a poster-boy for reform.
Of course, the real issue here is that Alex is not reformed. Alex is never reformed. The treatment that leaves him incapable of striking someone or feeling a pair of breasts has done nothing to appease his violent desires; it has simply rendered him unable to act on them. The government doesn't care about reforming Alex; they simply want to use him as a promotional pawn for (or against) their institutional systems. Alex is brutal to people, and people are brutal in kind to him. He tortures and is tortured in several scenes. The final scene of the film, memorable to the last, has Alex, in a hospital bed, surrounded by reporters and agreeing to pimp out for a politician while he fantasizes about a wild orgy. This is not a reformed man.
A Clockwork Orange is a disturbing film on many levels. Few films depict rape and violence with such a clear, perverted eye. It tends to evoke extreme reactions from people; you either hate it or love it, there is no in between. My husband rather hates this movie; he's seen it once, and never wants to see it again. "Too much," he says. For those who have not seen a Kubrick film before, I do not recommend starting with this one. It IS too much.
The violence in this film is vastly different from violence in other films. I have thought about this issue, and have come to a theory. Many films are violent, yes. Seeing people get beat up is nothing new. What is new and unique in A Clockwork Orange is Alex. Alex is unlike any hero or villain I've seen. First, there's the fact that he's the main character. Normally in a film, the main character is a hero. Flawed, perhaps, but fundamentally a good person. Maybe they are a victim of external forces, pressured to do immoral things because they must survive. Maybe they have one fatal flaw that leads them down a deadly path, causing them to perform awful deeds. Not Alex. Alex is not "flawed." Alex is not "a victim of circumstance." Alex is evil. Alex thinks evil, breathes evil, and acts evil. More than that, he is the one who is the main character of our film. Usually, the baddie is not the main character - usually, we see the bad guy through the eyes of the hero. We are never inside his head, we simply observe him from the outside. Perhaps this makes it easier to judge villains, to feel hatred for them, to cut them down.
Kubrick puts us in the uncomfortable position of "being" Alex. We know what he is thinking constantly and are present firsthand to witness the atrocities he commits. When in prison, while he’s pretending to have “reformed,” he is reading the Bible, and commenting about how much he’s enjoying reading it. “Wow,” we think, “He’s enjoying the Bible?” Cut away to a shot of the crucifixion of Christ, and there’s Alex – not as Christ, not as a sorrowful bystander, but as the man whipping Christ. That’s why he’s enjoying the Bible. We are not kept at arm's length from Alex; we ARE Alex, and this is what is so disturbing about this film. We are not buffered against the horrible things going on in his mind, but instead, we actually learn to understand the mind of such a person. This is more disturbing than any act of violence could ever be. When we witness the violence in this film, we are not allowed to turn away from it. We are forced to confront it head on, forced to watch the cruelty without anything standing between it and our minds. I have never seen another film do this, I have never seen another film plunge us headlong into insanity without granting us reprieve.
Even more disturbing than taking us so thoroughly within the mind of such a monster is the fact that the story makes us feel some bizarre sense of sympathy towards Alex. Alex’s atrocities come back to haunt him in the third act, and he is tortured several times. I catch myself feeling sorrow for Alex, cringing as I watch him go through one horrible thing after another. And then I remember: I’m feeling sorry for a rapist and a murderer. The movie just made me sympathize with a rapist and a murderer. What is going on here?
The satire and blackest of black humor that is laced throughout the film lies mostly in the parallels between the anarchy of gangs and the anarchy of governments and institutions. The government is hardly any kinder than Alex, turning him coldly into a machine, taking away his free choice, dehumanizing him. That Alex goes along with it this willingly is even more chilling. Honestly, though, I dare you not to laugh at this film. There are parts that you simply must laugh at, because they are too bizarre to be taken seriously.
This all deals with the basic plot structure of A Clockwork Orange, not with the actual production. I have said it before - I adore Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick is a master of the creepy visual. He is known as a cold director; his films, though stunning, contain little heart. I'm not going to disagree; in fact, I think it's the coolness with which Kubrick approaches Alex and his deeds that help this film shine. I love Kubrick's work with fluorescent lighting in this and other of his films. No one else uses those harsh bright white lights the way he did. They punctuate the opening Korova milk bar scene, imbuing it with a creepy, clinical quality, which was undoubtedly what he wanted to do. The fluorescents come back again and again, in the homes of the people Alex terrorizes, in the library at the prison, in Alex’s room at the reformatory. The color scheme of the film is thrown into stark relief with this harsh white light, and Kubrick does not shy away from daring color work. His imagined future is one of bright, bold, neon fashions and décor, garish to the point of absurdity.
His long takes, slow close-ups or zooms, and parallax camera work create a world all its own, one that is uncomfortable and bizarre, strange and chilling. It all adds up, it builds on the disturbing story taking place. I could watch Kubrick camera shots all day long and never get tired of it.
Along with the visuals, Kubrick really knew music. I have never seen another director so adept at perfect musical pairings. Kubrick loved to use classical music in his films, and there are several pieces he uses in A Clockwork Orange that help construct and define the movie. First, the baroque music of Purcell's "March for the Funeral of Queen Mary" opens the entire movie, only instead of played by a string orchestra, it's being played on a synthesizer. Hearing centuries old music played in such a cold, modern way is uncomfortable, and creates a supremely disquieting scene with the slow zoom out from Alex's face to the entire Korova milk bar. The piece pops up several times throughout the film, illustrating a typically serious and downbeat scene; perfect for a Funeral March, after all. Second, Rossini's "La Gazza Ladra Overture" is used with Alex and his droogs are conducting their misdeeds. Rossini was a composer of semi-comedies, comedies, and farces. His music is typically that of a farce, and it speaks volumes that Kubrick took this to underline his scenes of violence. It's a farce, he's saying. It's all too crazy! It literally took years of listening to "La Gazza Ladra Overture" (one of my favorite compositions) before I was able to separate it from A Clockwork Orange, that's how indelible the pairing is. Next, there is additional Rossini, but this time, his more well-known “William Tell Overture.” Kubrick doesn’t simply plumb the famous “Lone Ranger” section of the Overture here (used incredibly comically during a fast-paced orgy sequence), but also the slow adagio opening, the cello solo. The melancholia of the opening of the overture is used when Alex returns to his family home after prison, only to find that his parents have rented out his room and he has nowhere to stay. Perfect. Kubrick then goes to Elgar’s immortal “Pomp and Circumstance” (re: graduation music) when Alex moves from prison to the cruel reformatory. I love the irony of this music choice here. Alex is “graduating” from prison to his reform treatment. Brilliant. Lastly, Kubrick uses Beethoven's 9th Symphony many many times - it's Alex's favorite, after all. What I love about this piece is that Kubrick uses far more of the symphony than simply the Ode to Joy line. The third movement (more well known in pop culture as the intro to “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”) alternately soothes then tortures Alex throughout the film, and the iconic fourth movement is used in all its glory within the narrative of the film. It comes up again and again and again, symbolizing fear, symbolizing sex, symbolizing freedom. Rightly so, the film ends on the joyous and ebullient final strains of the fourth movement, contrasting it with the definitive orgy fantasy sequence.
This is a difficult film. This is a divisive film. This is an ugly film. And yet, it's breathtaking, thrilling, and captivating. This film showed me that movies don't have to play nice, that movies can break the rules. This film showed me that movies that make me think are the best movies of all.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. I would give this 11/10 if I could.