A Clockwork Orange
It would be reasonable to ask whether there’s anything left to be said about A Clockwork Orange, so embedded in cult film consciousness is it. And so raked over in debates on sex, violence, censorship, and whether the media is culpable in cases of alleged imitations of fictional events in the real world.
A Clockwork Orange is not a film I particularly venerate, but I most certainly recognise its enduring power (perhaps for reasons both positive and negative). The documentary Revisiting A Clockwork Orange, produced at the time of the film’s re-release in Britain after nearly thirty years absence, made a cogent argument that it came into being at a time when the boundaries of censorship were being pushed back and, as a result of that environment, it’s unlikely that a film of its ilk could be made today. Because, while it isn’t a particularly violent film, it remains a disturbing one. Identification with sociopathic Alex isn’t, per se, what marks it out (there’s been plenty of charismatic villainy since) but the heightened milieu continues to be utterly original and distinct (even if elements of its stylistic flourishes have been stolen wholesale by less creative filmmakers and artists).
I didn’t see the film for the first time until it had its UK rebirth, and I think I had a certain reaction to all that hype surrounding it; brilliant filmmaking, but is it really so in terms of content? Is it saying anything exceptional, that others haven’t said? Maybe not. I believe it was Tony Kaye who commented that, even if it does not, in terms of aesthetic it is nevertheless exceptionally exciting filmmaking. And it feels that Kubrick at times reveals a sensibility that, even if it very much reflects the character of the protagonist, is highly insensitive to his cast (and it’s certainly a fairly well recognised trait of the director that he puts his actors through the mill to achieve the results he wants). But that’s also what makes it endure; elements here continue to feel wrong, and again I don’t mean this in terms of approximation of the perspective of Alex but in the approach of a filmmaker willing to present material the way he does.
Sam Mendes noted that the film’s landscape is one devoid of other people, besides Alex himself. So despite Alex’s jeering, mocking voice, in the absence of anyone else to identify with, we are drawn to him. The intimate, confessional tone puts us, however unwillingly, on the side of the narrator. Kubrick employs this technique far more effectively than he does with Humbert in Lolita; this may be partly because we hear more of Alex’s narration. Despite Alex being shown to be more overtly culpable than Humbert, we identify with him more because he is less remote.
The stylisation of A Clockwork Orange serves to encourage the audience to swallow many of its more unpalatable aspects. This heightened sense is evident from the first shot of Alex and the Droogs in the milk bar; the set and costuming is almost cartoonish, and Walter (later Wendy) Carlos’ music, played on a Moog synthesiser, still sounds extraordinary (Carlos would later work on Tron).
The sense of heightened reality is encouraged by Kubrick’s use of wide-angle lenses throughout. He frequently shoots from low or high positions, which shows off his actors to exaggerated or cartoonish effect. Seemingly a consequence of a tight budget, he also works mostly with natural light (something he would do again with the decidedly more expensive Barry Lyndon) and real locations. So we are exposed to an environment that feels both starkly real and at once stylised, and it’s all the more unsettling for that. The shot of Alex and his Droogs out on a joy ride draws attention to the artifice of its back projection and encourages the sense that we are privy to Alex’s world and point of view. While this works undeniably well at times, it also comes across as an excuse to justify some of the film’s more crass indulgences (most notably in its comedy content).
Then there’s the Russian/cockney mash-up of the Droogs’ slang; at once beckoning in its exotic distinctiveness and attractive because it is easy to grasp.
The rape scene has become a focal point for discussion of the film’s most troubling sensibilities. It’s been noted that there is an absence of feeling on the part of the filmmaker, a disquietingly observant role that makes one question the attitude behind it (it can’t have been a particularly pleasant experience for Adrienne Corri, and apparently the first actress employed in the role dropped out; it isn’t hard to understand why). The garish effect of the wide-angle lenses rub uncomfortably against the overlit harshness of the house. There is an abstraction to the violence, through mannerism, the nightmarish masks worn by the Droogs, and the posing performances (Singin’ in the Rain) such that the scene lacks authenticity, yet this has the effect of making it all the more disturbing (the cutting off of the wife’s clothing is especially wince-inducing).
The rape scene is shot very much from a male point of view. There is no dwelling on the effect on the victim; we experience more of the husband’s pain than we do his wife. Indeed, we learn later of her off-screen death; it is her crippled husband who is given the opportunity to enact revenge, and then as a grotesque caricature.
Like many scenes in the film, it is protracted beyond the point we would normally expect, played out in almost real time. And as Mendes noted in the aforementioned documentary, sex in the film is either violent or comic. He referred to it as a position that was “strange and not entirely healthy”. It’s arguable that this reflects Alex himself; there is no emotional connection to others within him. But such a take can also be used to let a filmmaker off the hook for a multitude of choices that would otherwise be considered extremely dubious, if not altogether unhealthy. While Kubrick lingers on the rape scene, he later speeds up the sex that Alex has with two girls for comedy effect.
We have already witnessed a woman stripped and surrounded by groping, leering men in the earlier attempted rape on the stage by a rival gang. The camera lingers on the group grabbing at her, the scene is allowed to play out, making us complicit as passive observers.
Kubrick surrounds the Droogs (not just the Droogs) with the paraphernalia of overt sexualisation; the pornographic plastic of the milk bar, the stylised posters and the crude graffiti daubed on every wall. One might argue that it is a precursor to today’s society, washed in easily accessible sexual imagery. Alternatively, it hearkens to the decadence of Rome (Spartacus, anyone?)
The attitude to sex in the film is that of an adolescent; it’s been said that Kubrick wanted to make a “youth” film in response to the prevailing winds of the era (Easy Rider and its ilk). What he delivers is an approximation of a youth film; it doesn’t feel as if it is made by a young filmmaker. It is too calculated for that. The only point in the film where the attitude to sex of the Droogs is mirrored is the scene with the cat lady. She surrounds herself with the same sort of fetishist material, but Alex’s reaction is to accuse her of deviancy. Embracement of sexuality is a young man’s indulgence, it seems. And for her sins, she is beaten to death with an ornamental ceramic phallus. Again, this is the kind of grotesque exaggeration that makes the film an often uncomfortable experience, searching about as it does for comedic mileage in sexual violence.
The overt comedy elements of the film are probably the ones most open to criticism of misjudgement of tone. Certainly, it’s arguable that Kubrick misjudged and indulged the comedic elements of Lolita. And if Dr Strangelove seems to be beautifully observed, let’s not forget that it was originally to have ended with a pie fight.
The broader slapstick elements of the film reinforce the notion that this is a comedy. I’d be more confident in suggesting this element mirrors the attitudes of its protagonist than defining its genre that way. It’s certainly at its sharpest (satirically) when dealing with the wheels of bureaucracy that envelop Alex.
But much of the comedy is also fairly elementary slapstick. And, as discussed, the camera itself seems to actively encourage our appreciation of this as an exaggerated and distorted world, a world of tits and cocks and arses.
From Alex’s passing out into a plate of Bolognese, to his coming round in a hospital where a nurse with big knockers is shagging a doctor behind a curtain, to Deltoid’s drinking from a glass of water with false teeth in (raising the question of which of Alex’s parents left the house all gummy that morning), the lack of sophistication is writ large and grins inanely (like Alex himself).
Look at the timing in the prison induction; the staging has almost musical precision. McDowell is fearless (fortunate, as he would be called on to make Caligula before the decade was out) and the comedy is deftly performed, but it is also defiantly crude and lowbrow.
If one is disposed to make allowances for this, there are still choices that Kubrick makes that seem a bit on the nose. Alex’s pet snake nestled at the pudenda of the woman in the painting on his wall is the choice of a film maker who doesn’t know when to rein it in, who has allowed self-indulgence to get the better of him.
The less self-conscious comedy often works better; for example, the performer at the show of Alex’s “rehabilitation” who bows three times before she leaves stage hits just the right note of surreality.
Prison Chaplain: When a man cannot choose, he ceases to become a man.
It might seem as if debating the “message” of A Clockwork Orange is like asking to be beaten about the head unsubtly with the an enormous ceramic phallus. But as others (Mark Kermode, I think) have pointed out, there’s a strong sense here that any point is secondary to how it has been dressed up. Almost as if Kubrick said “Right, that’s obvious, now I can get on with the important stuff. Such as the presentation”.
So, yes, individuality versus the depersonalisation of the state forms a cornerstone. But how conscious of that are we when viewing most of the film through Alex’s eyes? Alex himself leads a band who are controlled and identified as one entity at the outset. Kubrick certainly gives significant time to the wheels of the system. From the comedy prison induction to the laborious signing of release forms for Alex’s treatment.
Then there is the identification of art as the saviour of the soul. It’s certainly the only part of the film where you sense it is informed by the filmmaker’s passionate views (although the scene itself, where Alex is being brainwashed, is fairly intense anyway). Beethoven is the one thing that raises Alex up, gives him inspiration. And it is that which will be destroyed completely in order to cure him.
I’m not sure how pervading that position is. Alex’s imaginings merely adapt the content of that great work of literature, The Bible, to his own predilections. Does that amount to a poke at the conflicting moral content of The Bible (and by association the state that upholds it as a creed), or is there an intimation that some art is more worthy than other art, as with the sexualised posters and statues?
It should be noted that the pastor who opposes Alex’s treatment is probably the only genuinely sympathetic character in the film, despite being associated with a rather ineffectual institution. It’s a surprise that he doesn’t have untoward designs on Alex, because we expect the entire world to be corrupted.
The plot symmetry of the cured Alex meeting up with those he has wronged is unsubtle, to put it mildly. Again, maybe this is intentional, playing up the stylisation and artifice of the film. So Alex is beaten up by the tramp (and friends) that he (and friends) laid into in the opening scenes. And his former Droogs, now officers of the law (not very subtle that, either) give Alex a water-boarding (a jaw-dropping scene, just for the amount of time McDowell appears to spend under water, although apparently there is a cut). And then we move on to the house where the rape took place; Alex is playing out a succession of encounters almost as in a fairy tale.
That scene serves to emphasise how Alex’s attitudes haven’t changed, just his capacity for action (although we have already seen this with his visit to his parents and attitude to the intrusion of Clive Francis – very amusing – as Joe). Kubrick is happy to mock all-comers politically, so the intellectual liberal pose of the husband collapses into furious rage on discovery that Alex is the aggressor who crippled him and sent his wife to en early grave. Kubrick has no real interest in dealing with the reality of what Alex has done, but then Alex is unable to perceive the reality either. So it is presented in a heightened form.
This heightened reality has led some to label the film as belonging to the horror genre. The atmosphere created by Kubrick has the closest parallels his actual horror film, The Shining. The way he sustains sequences, uncompromisingly, partly creates that effect. It’s unlikely that anyone would label 2001 a horror film, but he employs similar techniques there. And, while we have horror elements as experienced by Alex (I might say this works because he’s the only character we are really invited to empathise with, but it’s debatable how much of The Shining relies on audience identification with the characters to achieve its effect) during his brainwashing – both physically, with his eyes forced open, and emotionally – we also encounter the sketchy line between horror and comedy. The husband’s explosive rage at Alex is a precursor to Jack Torrance’s OTT theatrics a decade later.
As for the ending, with Alex contentedly restored to his old capabilities, the point has been made that this is diametrically different to the place where Anthony Burgess’ book arrives. There, Alex makes the choice to change, a choice for “good”, having outgrown childish ways. In Kubrick’s film Alex is allowed to remain the eternal bad boy; the individual has won-out, Alex’s moral perspective being ultimately irrelevant to the society that wished to yoke him.
One point Mendes makes astutely is his suggestion that the film displays a bravery of attitude on Kubrick’s part. That is, he has faith in his audience to be able to read A Clockwork Orange in an other than literal sense (ironically, it is just this faith that would end up seeing him make the choice to withdraw it from circulation in Britain).
While I admire the film, I’m not devoted to it. A Clockwork Orange both impresses and repels, which I’m sure Kubrick would appreciate being told, and it also rewards revisiting and reappraisal. I should also disclose that I never felt impelled to put the poster on my bedroom wall when I was a student.
Addendum 11/09/22: Dyer’s take on A Clockwork Orange, that the film is about MKUltra, and “the truest, fullest and most dangerous aspect” of the same, that: “the masses are actually a kind of Alex deLarge writ large” is one many have pointed to, only not in so many words, and not necessarily in ascribing to these processes the same pointed intentionality.
Pauline Kael’s review is focussed on the perniciousness of cinema itself, but Dyer addresses the ways in which society is more broadly MK’d. In his example, Alex is reconditioned but represents us: “we are Alex and the two most notable images Alex is forced to watch are his own attacks and World War II/Hitler footage. Through the creation of new ‘imprinting’ and association, the sickness Alex is made to feel is behaviourist-style operant conditioning”. The process then, represents “a statist apparatus using these methods and techniques upon a mass audience” to “create a catatonic, pacifist public, emasculated and ultimately dispossessed of any free volition”.
Kubrick’s status as MK specialist/ reporter extraordinaire led to him denying Orange circulation in the UK (it remained so until after his death), as if he was in some way hit by its influence in ways he never expected. Surely this was more for show than deep down, though. Dyer points to our manufactured pop/youth culture, and we can see directly the influence of Kubrick’s invention of the same onto the real one, familiar as he doubtless was with the techniques for engineering the same.
Kael points to the techniques that were becoming prevalent in cinema and culture at the time, and while she doesn’t identify them as in any way artificially imported, she understands very well that it represents a mass shift, a movement. Embodied in Alex, there is “The trick of making the attacked less human than their attackers, so you feel no sympathy for them, is, I think, symptomatic of a new attitude in movies. This attitude says there’s no moral difference… I can’t accept that Kubrick is merely reflecting this post-assassinations, post-Manson mood; I think he’s catering to it. I think he wants to dig it”. This is, as we can see from the work of Dave McGowan, and engineered environment, and moviemakers like Kubrick and Friedkin are doing their bit for it.
Indeed, what she identifies, the slippery slope of greyness, of absent or good/bad found in everyone is the way the movie “plays with violence in an intellectually seductive way” such that one may find a “million ways to justify identifying with Alex” (ie a warning against the Establishment, fighting the system, he isn’t as bad as they are). She notes how Kubrick watered down Burgess to present his case, removing Alex in the book’s obstacles to identification, including “his taste for ten-year-old girls”; per Dyer, we rather see him as victim, via the social worker who molests him, whereby we “can deduce the normalisation of sexual traumatisation and abuse, possibly even paedophilia” Alex is “a subject of sexual-based traumatised mind control throughout his whole life” and a society that “protects and allows and propagates these crimes” cannot “cure” them, except by dosing him full of drugs.
I’m not repulsed by A Clockwork Orange the way Kael was, but I agree with most of her reservations on it, how the movie has a “confusing – and finally, corrupt – morality”, a “distinctive style of estrangement… leering, portentous style”. How it presents the “cartoon nasties” of his victims via a “jokey adolescent view of hypocritical, sexually dirty authority figures and extended it to all adults… The straight people are far more twisted than Alex”. And finally, how she comes close to identifying his agenda, that “maybe he’s more of a showman than he lets on… The film can work at a pop-fantasy level for a young audience already prepare to accept Alex’s view of society, ready to believe that’s how it is”. Kubrick is, basically, being a Beatle, or a George Martin.
Notably too, she felt the need to qualify her position, that in identifying the way audiences are “gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure” via directors desensitising it “saying everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools”, she is not advocating censorship but “the freedom to analyse the implications”, noting censorship is primarily concerned with sex and only violence when its eroticised. This has remained the case: sex (unless it’s trans/gay propaganda, of course) continues to be a barrier, but violence is relished.