Stanley Kubrick directs Malcom McDowell, Patrick Magee and Warren Clarke in this sci-fi dystopian satire about Alex, a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.
1995: And I had the choice between Léon: Version Longue or A Clockwork Orange. My sister was going to France and she promised to bring one VHS back for me. One film unavailable in the UK, that was freely purchasable on the continent. I went for the extended version of Leon. It was my favourite movie as a teenager and Kubrick was still a foreign country to me. By this early point I had seen Spartacus and Full Metal Jacket, possibly The Shining. I had liked them but, as a kid, their mature themes and peculiar craft probably stopped me from embracing them. And chances are if Orange Mécanique had returned then I’d had to watch it with my parents. Sitting around the telly for a gory evening of Desperado or Braveheart was perfectly acceptable but the rape and sadism of a suppressed film was something I’d rather experience alone. After all, the extreme violence and sex within, and the UK’s reaction to it on release, had caused Stanley Kubrick to withdraw his creation from distribution in this country, his home. A Clockwork Orange was not family viewing.
When I finally did see A Clockwork Orange, a couple of years later, I found it powerful and disturbing but also grimy and poorly paced. The colours were vivid but the palette was as dated as prawn cocktail or a Slade music video. I wasn’t disappointed but I was happy to file it away as a museum piece, an important artefact of its time, better left preserved for posterity than taken out and played with repeatedly. Yet over the last two decades I have often found myself removing it from its glass case and toying with it. And as an entertainment it has grown on me.
I would say the main issue with “enjoying” A Clockwork Orange, beyond good taste, is it is a midnight movie that is very front loaded. All the glorious iconography of the Droogs, the balletic ultra-vi and the drawn out perversions are in the first half. The second hour, though equally histrionic and anxious, is talkier and less active. More ethical debate and less rock n roll. Just when your eyelids might start to droop, A Clockwork Orange gets static and serious.
Taken as a purely visceral experience there are distancing qualities that Kubrick implants in his adaptation that somewhat dampens the fun. While his camera often lurks in the outer reaches of a scene (I only remember three close-ups: Jesus statue, serum bottle, Alex’s eyes), rarely moving, the score he attaches is a wailing portent of doom. Visually he may be non-judgmental but aurally Wendy Carlos’ electronic score is a marvel of ominous alarm. Equally the brutalist architecture that Kubrick chooses to house the future in gives us rough, sharp, immovable, grey world. Utilitarian rather than spectacular. Harsh rather than progressive. Sure, the costumes, wall art and soft furnishing might be the height of dystopian fashion but the backdrop is lifeless and without comfort. A nightmarish vision of the future shot entirely on location in South East England.
There’s also something dispassionate about all the transgressiveness. When The Droogs interrupt another gang raping a girl, the victim is ignored in the ensuing carnage. When Alex brings two girls back to his flat for a sped-up orgy; it all happens too fast for us the viewer to savour the nudity and eroticism but equally makes the characters’ physical connection feel mechanical and comical. You get the feeling the only time Alex and The Droogs actually enjoy themselves is when breaking the rules of expectation rather than the actual crimes themselves. Listen to the dopey glee in Dim’s voice as he repeats “IN THE RAIN” mimicking Alex threatening performance of the old standard. Or Alex’s unfashionable love of Beethoven. These bad lads are only emotional when doing what isn’t expected of them by society… and that’s liking old music rather than being irredeemable thugs.
Much has been written about the film and the source material (a brilliant book by Anthony Burgess written in fictional patois of Nasdat) being treatises on Free Will. And we explore Alex, with his incongruous soft, lilting Yorkshire accent and unlikely toneless body, and his responses to the world. Here’s the thing… Alex can pretend to be a good boy… he can convince ladies to open their front doors to him, his parents he is too unwell for school, prison chaplins that he is redeemable and psychiatrists that he is up for rehabilitation. And he can appreciate beauty… whether it be fashion or old music. But he is expected to be violent for violences sake. He exists in a world where the police are former thugs, the bible is a pornographic text and the ladies on the other side of the door automatically presume he is a danger. The author and director need Alex to be a psychotic hellion to make their point. The viewer need him to be glamorous and anti-heroic to engage with the film. So how much choice does he ever have in his responses?
The hour where Alex is a victim of the system (and of his own victims) just doesn’t absorb us like the hour where Alex is an incorrigible agent of destruction. All Kubrick’s interior shot are as far back as possible. This is an unusual visual choice. We see the walls, floor and ceiling in nearly all scenes. Every interaction takes place in a box. Every moment feels caged in or viewed as if a lab experiment. Is Kubrick making a point about Alex’s free will? Or ours as an audience? If his camera is a passive observer, the glass of a two way mirror, then who are we?
We spend the first hour revelling in Alex’s repulsive behaviour. It is what we have bought a ticket for. He, the boundary-less criminal, is the product we have purchased for our own pleasure. He has been packaged fantastically in his bowler hat, eye make-up and codpiece. And he delivers exactly to the specifications we were promised on the poster’s tagline. He rapes, he is violent, he likes Beethoven. But after that hour of getting what we want with Alex as our avatar, Alex is then forced to watch videos of similar horror. His eyes are prised open, his head fixed so he cannot turn away. And the footage of a gang attacking a girl is filmed with precisely the same reality as Alex’s earlier adventures. Alex himself comments “It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen.”
Yet Alex has no choice but to keep watching. Even when his brain and body are so repulsed that he has an allergic reaction to the imagery. Imagery we have chosen to watch as our late night leisure activity. A Clockwork Orange was the 11th highest grossing movie of 1971. The current 11th highest grossing movie of 2018 is Peter Rabbit. We chose to enjoy A Clockwork Orange en masse. It presents a world where everyone is corrupt from snakey politicians to vigilante liberals, lazy hospital workers and actors who oppressively torment Alex then bow to a braying audience. It presents a world where the only happy ending is to reprogram Alex to be the violent, anti-social, little parasite he might have someday grown out of being… (see Burgess’ original ending).
Our final shot is the double brainwashed Alex’ fantasy. A rape in a white room without walls. The posh and the powerful applauding him. He is no longer boxed in. No longer reviled by the adults of his world. But all that is left is the sexual assault and audience approval. There is no context. Or reality. Beethoven’s Ninth reaches a crescendo. “I was cured, all right!”