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DVD Review: A Clockwork Orange

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Listen, my dear brothers, to a review of a tale most vile, full of the old in-out and other such nastiness. A tale in which Alex (Malcolm McDowell), our faithful narrator and leader, is imprisoned for the accidental killing of a person and later conditioned by his government to abhor sex and violence, but also the glorious music of Ludwig Van. Sometimes karma can be a cruel, cruel mistress. Sometimes it can be poetic. But, my dear brothers, we must never forget that it is always in play.

So learns Alex after his release from prison. Cured of his predilection toward sex and violence, he encounters the victims of his earlier transgressions only to find that people's forgiveness depend little for his cure or the fact that he's paid his debt to society. The wounds Alex has inflicted are deep, so it's little surprise when his victims exact their revenge because, deep down, they are no better than Alex. Freed from restraint by a feeling of righteous indignation, they are able to expose their true selves, as dirty and nasty and vile as Alex in his prime, only now Alex has been so conditioned that he cannot even fight back. He is defenseless, begging for mercy. It's doubtful that this was a desired effect of the conditioning, so you have to wonder: if the government takes away Alex's ability to defend himself and sends him out in a society that hates his very existence and distrusts this so-called cure, does perhaps the punishment exceeds the crime? Taking nothing else into consideration, possibly. But when you factor in the conditioning against the perfectly natural sexual appetite and the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven, then it's clear the government has gone too far.

There's little question that's part of the film's message, but to what end? The Prison Chaplain (Godfrey Quigley), as close to a voice of morality as A Clockwork Orange gets, argues before the review board that, due to the conditioning, "He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice." He's right, of course, as the Pavlovian approach to morality takes away the subject's humanity, reducing him to nothing more than a castrated animal. He's pitiful, really, which is a stunning turn of events considering his actions in the first half of the film. A great deal of that change relies on the acting abilities of McDowell, who's amazing in the role.[1]

Part of what made A Clockwork Orange so controversial upon its initial release[2], is that switch wherein Alex goes from hated to pitied. Kubrick presents us with a protagonist and narrator who is essentially an uber-villain — a gang leader who picks fights with rival gangs, beats up a homeless man, orchestrates a gang rape, and has a three-way with two teenage girls. There is no code of ethics by which he could be considered a good person. But, he is a clever and charming young man who serenades his rape victims with "Singin' in the Rain" and has a strange, unexplained fascination with Beethoven. It's difficult to reconcile that this likable young man could be capable of such atrocities, which is partly what Kubrick's going for here. Take Alex out of his odd white outfit and into some normal clothes and he looks no different than anyone else his age. Only at night he lets his inner demons run wild, where the rest of society has decided to suppress them. But the solution of just taking the demons away isn't a solution at all, because the demons are vital to who we are. Think of it as a ying and yang approach to the soul of man. Without that battle between good and evil we have nothing but an empty, boring wasteland. And that's not a life worth living.[3]

A Clockwork Orange, like so many of Stanley Kubrick's films, is an acquired taste. It is a bold, daring piece of cinema that aims to provoke a reaction in the belief that it is better to be found spectacularly bad than dull. Thankfully, it is neither. Kubrick paints in broad, provocative strokes, muting nothing in the frame. He employs a broad range of colors and flourishes that give the film a vibrant and raw feel, as if you're watching the characters and images explode off the screen. Alex mentions during one of his sessions that "the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen," so Kubrick does his best to make them seem really real, from Mum's hair to the red outfit of the woman being raped to the flashing lights of the record store. Couple that with the wide-angle lenses Kubrick is fond of, the slang bordering on gibberish[4], the numerous phallic symbols, and the occasional intentional continuity error, and the entire film is a bit disorienting and unnerving. It's designed to put you slightly on edge.

Of course, A Clockwork Orange isn't for everyone. It's an X-rated film that contains rape scenes and torture and pretty much anything that could make someone uncomfortable, but it's also a brilliant film with grand ambitions. Sure the film's message gets a little muddled near the end, and it isn't always clear what the intention is, and it tends to occasionally lose its way, but that isn't a reason to discount it. Thanks in large part to Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange feels like jazz, and because of that it feels alive, and a flawed film that feels alive is always preferable to a by-the-numbers one that's dull, especially when it's directed by a genius.

[1] His performance is often noted as one of the best to never be nominated for an Academy Award. He was also snubbed by the British Academy. The film received four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing. It won zero.

[2] Kubrick received death threats against both himself and his family and took measures to ensure the film wouldn't be shown in Britain until after his death.

[3] Strange as it may sound, I'm reminded of Revelation 3:15-16, "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth." I imagine there aren't many reviews of A Clockwork Orange that quote the Bible.

[4] A combination of English, Russian, and slang. So, yeah, you probably won't understand all of it.

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, and Warren Clarke
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, from the novel by Anthony Burgess
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
X, 136 min, 1971, UK

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About Lucas McNelly

  • Talk about guilty pleasures. I’m troubled by the way this movie appeals to me.

    I recommend the book, too – very important to get the updated edition with the new ending that Burgess wanted but the original publishers didn’t.

    The slang is called nadsat, by the way.

  • Nadsat also has traces of the Malayan language in it, as Burgess was very familiar with the language. He’d spent time in Malaysia whilst in the army, I believe.

    A book – and film – that will continue to be as frightening as it has been influential.

  • Scott Butki

    Lucas: You write really excellent reviews and when I just went to your blog I saw you were only 27.
    The fact I thought you were older is meant as a compliment in that you seem wiser than your years.
    But it also explains why, for example, you saw the remake of Psycho before the original.

    What list of 100 films are you using? The one from AFI? If you haven’t read I’d recommend AFI’s 100 Essential Movies book (or is it 100 influential movies). Either way I went through it last year and watched each movie on the list I could get my hands on (about 90 of the 100) and then compared my thoughts to those of the reviewer included.

    I think it was in there that I read something to the effect of the Singing in the Rain bit being a late addition to the film which is amazing considering its one of the most memorable.

    This movie has the distinction of being the only one which I think is so good that I hesitate to recommend it to some who I think would find the movie – especially the rape scenes – too disturbing.

    I had not heard before that the movie was not released in Britain until after his death. Was it ever shown then?

    As for Kubrick being an acquired taste I definitely agree with that.

  • Scott,

    Thanks for your kind words. The list I’m using is the Time 100 Great Films list, but it’s actually a hybrid of that and a few more criteria (a critic’s poll, certain high metacritic scores, and They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s top 100)

    the story i’ve heard about the Singin’ in the Rain inclusion is that it was the only song McDowell could remember the words to. it ended up being a pretty brilliant bit of luck, as anyone who saw Clockwork before Singin’ can attest to being a bit uneasy when they saw the musical.

    as far as I know, this was shown in Britain after Kubrick’s death.

  • Scott Butki

    Ah, well, then I’d suggest this book, because it’s also a pretty good list.

    I just asked for a review copy of a new book that’s supposed to be even more comprehensive.

  • excellent Review….thaks for bringing this Masterpiece up!


    one of the things i have always found fascinating about the film, not counting Malcolm’s performance, was the whole “full Circle” thing that happens…

    how everything that happened before Alex going to jail is repeated form the other side of a funhouse mirror…

    your mileage may vary