A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Writers: Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess
  • Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clarke, Adrienne Corri, Carl Duering, Miriam Karlin, James Marcus, Aubrey Morris, Sheila Raynor, Anthony Sharp, Philip Stone, Michael Tarn, and David Prowse
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#70), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#75), 4 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Stanley Kubrick, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

A Clockwork Orange is not in my top 5 favorite movies by Stanley Kubrick, but anything banned in multiple countries for decades is worth considering in greater detail. It is a movie widely infamous for its depiction of violence. Yet I would say that, for example, The Wild Bunch has far more blood and gore and a lot more people getting killed. Yet this movie still has the power to really shock today, because the violence feels so personal, yet completely random and gratuitous, and completely mixed up with sex in ways that most of us still haven’t come to grips with. I would say its biggest issue is that it has all these thoughts but doesn’t necessarily always know what it thinks about them or what they mean. All the violence is there both to show us how terrible our main character is and how much he suffers. Is free will really important? What does it mean to be good? If you’re being good because you’re afraid of what will happen to you if you’re bad, does that count? When politicians talk about “law and order,” what do they actually mean? Is that something we should want? Those are all extremely interesting questions that this movie asks, but I’ve seen it a few times now, and I’m not really sure what it thinks about most of them.

The movie is set in the nebulous near-ish future of the UK, where gangs of street toughs speak a bizarre sort of vernacular that takes bits from both Cockney rhyming slang and Russian, and some other stuff. The author of the novel on which the movie is based, Anthony Burgess, was a linguist by trade, and he invented this whole slang in an effort to keep the novel from ever seeming dated. Here, our “hero” Alex (Malcolm McDowell) narrates the whole movie in it. I’m told some people find it impenetrable. Maybe it’s how my brain works, but I’ve always found it pretty self-explanatory.

Anyway, at the beginning of the movie, Alex leads a gang of dudes dressed with iconic bowler hats and weird all-white outfits, who hang out at “the milk bar” and like to go out and “indulge in a bit of the old ultra-violence.” This includes breaking into the home of a rich couple (Patrick Magee and Adrienne Corri), where they randomly beat the couple within an inch of their lives and rape the wife. But soon one of their capers go awry and Alex “accidentally” kills an angry cat lady (Miriam Karlin) with a giant sculpture of a penis (as you do), then gets arrested and convicted of murder. After spending years in jail reading the Bible (convincing his jailers of his intent to reform, while also getting to imagine himself as one of the Roman soldiers whipping Jesus), he volunteers for an experimental program designed to “cure” violent criminals.

This program, the “Ludovico Technique,” turns out to involve forcing Alex to watch films of violence and rape while on drugs and with his eyes forced open, so he can’t look away. The idea being to make him physically incapable of violence. To Alex’s extreme distress, it also has the side effect of making him “want to snuff it,” whenever he hears his favorite music, Beethoven. He is released to great fanfare, but finds himself unable to defend himself when everyone he wronged before comes back for revenge. Bloodied and half-dead, he shows up on the doorstep of the rich writer he previously tormented. At first the guy wants to use him to make the government look bad, but after he figures out who Alex is he too can’t help taking his revenge, tormenting him by blasting Beethoven’s 9th at top volume until Alex jumps out a window. In the hospital with a full-body cast, Alex discovers himself to somehow be cured. In a final press conference with the Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) he pronounces himself “cured all right,” as he imagines himself having sex with a beautiful woman in front of an applauding crowd.

A Clockwork Orange defies simple explanations, which has enabled different people to see different things in it over the years. One film scholar (the future head of the MPAA, in fact) published a complicated analysis in which he wrote that Alex is “man in his natural state,” who becomes “civilized” but must also accept “the neuroses imposed by society.” Kubrick himself voluntarily withdrew the movie from UK cinemas in 1973 after a series of crimes that seemed to involve people copying parts of the movie. Is the movie anti-conservative or anti-liberal (honestly, I’m not sure it isn’t anti-humans-in-general)? Does it think criminals deserve harsh punishment or not? Is any of it worth the sick violence and rape it shows? Are some of the shots of naked ladies a little too long for no actual reason? For the last one, I’m definitely going to say yes, though the movie certainly has that kind of thing on its mind from a thematic perspective. I mean, Alex’s climactic (sorry) act of violence is literally murdering a lady with a penis.

In some ways, Kubrick does some of his most impressive directing in A Clockwork Orange. He shoots many of the scenes in this super wide-angle lens, emphasizing the alienation and distance of his young characters. He somehow creates this convincing, half-derelict future world with very few actual sets… the vast majority of the movie was shot on location in and around contemporary London. But there is always this inhuman quality to Kubrick, too. Adrienne Corri was only cast as the rich woman who gets beaten and raped, it turns out, after two other actresses quit, according to Malcolm McDowell, “because it involved having to be perched, naked, on Warren Clarke’s shoulders for weeks on end while Stanley decided which shot he liked the best.” Corri didn’t mind the nudity, jokingly telling Kubrick he was “about to find out she was a real redhead,” but still ended up having to get actually hit by McDowell over and over. After 39 versions of one take, he refused to do it anymore, much to Kubrick’s consternation. If it’s any consolation to his actors, Kubrick took the same approach to his equipment: he filmed Alex’s attempted suicide from Alex’s point of view by literally dropping a camera out of a window. To Kubrick’s surprise, the camera survived six takes before shattering.

Anyway, A Clockwork Orange has something to say about human nature, but what it is may be too complicated for me to quite wrap my head around. It is certainly the most “problematic” of Kubrick’s films (I would say far more so than, say, Eyes Wide Shut), and not the first one I would show people coming to them for the first time. It’s also probably the greatest work of art in human history to involve someone being beaten to death with a sculpture of a penis. And that’s… something, right?

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