CAUTION: the following review contains two, three or more spoilers of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But then anyway, why not see it and come back here for a second opinion?
A Clockwork Orange. What a great title. In two words, everything the film is about is given to us right away. Stanley Kubrick’s critique of the artificiality of behaviorism and conditional treatment twists the engines of oranges and the buds of cuckoo clocks, and the patience of people like Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick himself. Now I have seen it for the third time, and in each occasion I saw it through three different perspectives and three distinct interpretations – a clear sign of how time has twisted my perspective as a film reviewer and how this perspective has “evolved” through the years. They all converge to what I believe is a satisfyingly definite vision that the film is, despite the extremely positive and negative receptions it has received, yet another piece of genius filmmaking that Kubrick developed so consistently throughout his long career of perfect successes. Why?
First and foremost, no matter what one thinks of this film, it’s unwise to outright deny that A Clockwork Orange, as a technical achievement, is a tour de force. Its dystopian universe, violently deformed and surprisingly flashy, is a hilarious miracle of production and costume design; if critics and artists are at once critical of the museum-like quality of the spaceship interiors in 2001: A Space Odyssey, no one should complain about A Clockwork Orange‘s predictions of the future of fashion and its industry. It envisions the wild and rebellious vision of the 1960’s youth to be later industrialized and imprinted into society’s customs, an unavoidable debauchery of colorful shenanigans, sexual symbols incorporated into establishment decor, exaggeratedly amorphous furniture and off-putting offbeat music. Much like punk, the nouvelle vague and everything that was once revolutionary, the subversive art of the Swinging Sixties has become as much of a commodity as anything else, only this time it retains its radical aesthetic to provoke a discomforting effect to the viewer and reveals a lifestyle that, although stable, seems to be entirely out of balance.
Sound and music is also part of the film’s impressive production values. In all of his post-2001 films, Kubrick employed music with the eye, one could easily say, of a music video director: not only is the film carefully edited around the film’s score, the compositions it uses (mostly classical works) seem to be especially made for the film itself. In A Clockwork Orange, the main regent of the film’s pop culture overdose is also the chief-train of its subversiveness. What could be more unthinkably distorted than Beethoven’s Nynth Symphony filtered through a Moog synthesizer, or Rossini’s William Tell Overture as music for a sex scene, or Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance as the background for a prison line-up? Not surprisingly, adding a disco touch to classical works – something done in plain sight in films like Saturday Night Fever – would become extremely popular in the 1970’s, perhaps even to the point of annoyance.
The society in A Clockwork Orange not only reeks of mass-produced pop art, but of mass-production and objectification altogether. The film clearly abuses of overly sexist portraits of women, of public and private littering, of offensive graffiti works, and overall of public property teared to pieces. Everything points towards social indifference and negligence towards the vandalism of the young and the marginalized; most importantly, it shows that very little is being done against this sort of vandalism. Worse, it tells us that Alex is not only the most treacherous figure in a sea of ambiguous characters, but also a reflection of the society in which he lives; the same debauchery seen in the actions of his droogs can also be found in the interiors of the health farm, the intellectuals that visit the Kolova Bar, the leftist activists that suffer in the hands of Alex’s gang only to nearly destroy him, and even the ones involved in Alex’s treatment like government agents and associated doctors.
My first interpretation of the film was that it’s no more, no less than a straightforward, solid story of astonishing qualities, which eventuality offers something about morality and free will to be skimmed in face of other more interesting factors. The poster itself, which carries the slogan “Being the adventures of a young man whose main interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven”, sells the movie exactly under this perspective. Much more often than not, Alex DeLarge is glorified for its formulaic attacks on his victims and his stylishness, when it’s exactly these traits that make him so repugnant, so cruel and so realistically evil. There’s a tendency in viewers who passively watch violent movies to relate to such violence and corruption of morals when the villains are interesting and charismatic enough; the line between loving the villain and loving the brilliant villainy that it personifies is blurred, and it seems easier to cheer for the villain in the end. If you go to any memorabilia store, you will surely find at least half a dozen products dedicated to the book, the film, and particularly, Alex himself.
That can be attributed to how violence in the film, beautifully orchestrated through multiple moments of intensified continuity with an eerie sense of immediacy, is something to be truly admired for its visual brilliance: it’s visceral, aggressive, almost lyrical in its parade of punches, stabs, kicks and baton blows. It’s the glorified version of violence that Alex and his droogs have always imagined and sensed in their actions, as beautiful to them as a good glass of Milk Plus or a good session of Beethoven. But it’s not, as opposed to what some may feel about it, a victory for the story; the violence on screen, which often consists of action and tardy reaction (meaning it always backfires in one way or another), is never victorious, but simply a detached observation of a fight between two opposing forms of evil and immorality.
It’s necessary to admit, however, that this artificial universe, although visually stunning and tighly constructed, is occasionally an obstacle, even a weakness of the film. None of Alex’s droogs is developed enough or has the necessary energy to serve as counterparts to their master, and the film inevitably feels off balance; it’s only by the beginning of the second act, when Alex meets two of his former friends, that some true energy can be felt in their deliveries and personal traits can be ascribed to them. Their eccentric lifestyle isn’t explored well enough to sustain the magic touch that probably shone in the book. On the other hand, the left-wing writer, whom Alex’s team attacks early in the film and who later plays a substantive role in the story, feels too explosive and too over-the-top next to Malcolm McDowell and his screen persona. Long story short, the round character that is Alex deLarge feels too large against the collection of stereotypes that surround him, and that makes it too easy to be on his side.
My second interpretation of the film, the direct opposite of the first, is that the film means well, but ultimately seems to defend man’s right to free will in unconditional and extreme terms even if it takes the form of brutal and gratuitous violence as it is designed by Kubrick and his team. While many of the film’s biggest fans love it for its violence, its opponents hate it for all the same reasons.
This kind of criticism is the meat of the controversy that has marked A Clockwork Orange‘s troubled history: the film would receive a damning X rating by the MPAA, only to be later withdrawn from distribution in the UK by Kubrick himself. The film was brutally bashed by world-renowned critics like Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael and Stanley Kaufmann, and directors like Jacques Demy and Jacques Rivette – who would later call Kubrick “a machine, a mutant, a Martian” with “no feeling whatsoever”. It was accused of many things, from a “paranoid right-wing fantasy” to “bad pornography”, and is still one of the most controversial films ever made.
My second turn watching the film was marked by this exact impression of repugnance and perplexity: even though I couldn’t deny all the technical brilliance of it, I found myself watching a twisted form of sadism and misanthropy that I simply couldn’t bear or tolerate. It felt to me as if Kubrick were playing a poor substitute for a devil’s advocate, vouching for the importance of free will and casting the most violent man as the most innocent.
But that happens not to be the case: the violence in A Clockwork Orange is nothing but the main character’s perspective on his actions and the lyricism he finds in his episodes of beatings, rapes and murders. It’s at times exaggerate, and I certainly don’t like the idea of corrupting something as angelical and universally beautiful as Singin’ in the Rain (you just don’t do that to poor Gene Kelly), but like the whole story altogether, Alex’s violence as shot by Kubrick is entirely a product of the character’s mind (something similar can be said about The Wolf of Wall Street, but that one also has its problems). Alex is the first-person narrator of the story, and the world is seen through his eyes and his eyes alone; when he’s transformed from the aggressor into the victim and unfairly has his enemies execute their revenges, it’s not the film’s intention to feel sorry about him and his suffering, but to elucidate how the violence that he was so passionately devoted to has become so ugly and repulsive from one moment to another when cast against him, and how the violent reaction of his victims is just as putrid.
Another mistake in this approach to A Clockwork Orange consists of the countless accusations of nihilism and even fascism mercilessly made at the time of its release – this article by Jim Emerson features table-turning excerpts from Kubrick’s own thoughts on these accusations and their superfluousness. But once again, this negative interpretation entirely misses the point; in fact, the film couldn’t be more explicitly anti-totalitarian. The Ludovico treatment, the polemic center of the story that spins Alex’s life around, is a perfect analogy to the brain-washing time and again cast upon society that leads to the rise of totalitarian extremism. This psychological conditioning, if expanded, turns a free and liberated mind into a robotic answer machine that fears punishment and blindly seeks for rewards – much like a fascist system of unquestioned orders and forbidden lifestyles, suppressed ideologies and neglected cultural orientations. When Alex is operated and given his rebellious state of mind back, the film doesn’t praise his final outcome, but uses it to demonstrate that nothing changes in the end when such techniques succumb to pointlessness, whereas everything can change if the system continues steady and strong.
My third and final interpretation is that the film is overall a fantastic, multi-layered social satire about society’s incompetence to fight juvenile delinquency, vandalism, recidivism and violence in general; it’s neither an ode to violence, nor an innocent critique of it. It’s a hopeless, tragicomical series of predisposed attitudes to go in every right and every wrong direction possible, thanks to the hipocrisy and lack of consistency of its perpetrators. The aforementioned writer, for instance, is an enthusiast of liberty and freedom of choice, but when he has a second chance with Alex, all he can think of is revenge, as lethal and painful as revenge goes. The correctional facility where Alex is kept prisoner, which garrisons him as a colonel holds on to prisoners of war, is even worse: the prison’s chaplain rages against the creators of the Ludovico technique when he finds out it erases the patient’s right of choice, since goodness comes from within, but believes himself that the only path of salvation is fear of punishment – only it’s fear of the divine instead of fear of the institution. The Minister of Interior, the main supporter of the Ludovico technique, at first defends its efficiency, then outright condemns it purely out of fear of losing the election, while mumbling random thoughts about the patient’s safety and individual rights.
And Alex himself is a perfect illusion of the conscious prodigal child; he’s a spoiled young man and a reckless one, but he claims to mean well and to really eager for change. This is the underlying duplicity of the film: everyone means well but acts instinctively, according to preconceived suspicions (always the most convenient). Nothing changes much in the end for Alex: he revisits his crimes, but out of fear; he learns about the ugliness of violence, but the lesson wears off; his parents, at first negligent, grow suspicious of him – an interesting parallel with the difficulty that the young and the marginalized have to be reinstated into society – and ultimately forgive them, but he repels them. The real ugliness is in the fact that no one in society really changes, and the dust returns from the ground it came from. The film, in the end, comes and goes with a warning that things don’t change without nobility and that goodness from within. Mental conditioning doesn’t help, and neither does counterrevolution. In the end, is there really a cure?
A Clockwork Orange
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clarke, James Marcus, Godfrey Quigley, Philip Stone, Sheila Raynor
Academy Awards: Best Picture (nominated); Best Director (nominated); Best Adapted Screenplay (nominated); Best Film Editing (nominated)
Sight and Sound’s Top 250: #235 (tied)