Comedy / Drama / Films

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange has an infamous history. Anthony Burgess wrote the original novel back in 1962, over a three week period in order to beat a terminal brain-tumour which never quite lived up to it’s promise. The novel was unusual – a dystopian fiction detailing the life of a rapist and murderer and told in a strange, fictional slang dialect, a spin on Russian and Cockney called ‘nadsat.’ It was an impressive little book – one which dealt with the nature of free will, violence, and political order – but the book didn’t really make a dent until it was picked up by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick, as he often did, took the novel and adapted it to his own needs as an artist, and crafted a brilliant, albeit extremely controversial movie. Though lavished with praise from certain parties (including a Best Picture nomination) the movie was considered misogynistic, sadistic, and generally nasty, and a supposedly-inspired-by-the-picture murder caused Kubrick to pull the film from UK soil. Why exactly Kubrick did this remains unclear, though it’s more likely he was appealing to his artistic ego – basically, if they don’t metaphorically get it, they don’t literally get it – as opposed to any notion of censorship. It’s a film the UK didn’t get to enjoy for a long time, and remains one of the most powerful and shocking in Kubrick’s collection. A bold and twisted movie, it’s one that is worth discussing. clock1A Clockwork Orange follows Alex (Malcolm McDowell) a young boy based in a futuristic and decaying London, a boy who loves nothing more than Beethoven, rape, and ultra violence. Him and his gang of droogs stalk the streets at night, committing various sadistic crimes – one of which lands Alex in jail. Desperate for freedom, Alex puts himself forward for an experimental government process called the Ludovico Technique, which is supposed to cure criminals of their internal evils. The experiment, however, proves to have its drawbacks. clock8When A Clockwork Orange first came out, critics were generally so disgusted by it that they ignored its natural aesthetic qualities. On a purely cinematic level, Kubrick is an undeniable master of visual art, and it’s amazing that this movie was so readily dismissed when it’s so beautiful to look at. Kubrick’s use of framing, triangular structure and the wide-angle lenses gives the movie an elongated, unreal quality, where everything feels slightly off-kilter and dreamlike. There’s a wonderful atmosphere to A Clockwork Orange, provided by the off-beat visuals, a growing sense of surrealism and absurdity throughout, and of course, the stunning music. The use of classical pieces throughout gives the movie a soaring, operatic tone, which contrasts with the haunting use of Moog synthesizers, which add to the dream-like, menacing and unstable atmosphere. There’s some very surreal moments throughout – flashes of art during murders, and a very energetic and silly sex scene, one of the most memorable in cinema. There’s an element of the absurd to everything too, and a sense of comedy which many miss. The dystopian setting is used well, with Kubrick choosing to film in the more ‘modern’ (from a 70s view) areas of London, which are of course sprawling semi-Soviet blocks of decaying concrete; London looking like it’s gone very wrong. On top of the decay however, there’s a 60s pop-culture vibe to the movie with heavy use of bright colour and costumes which makes everything pop off the screen; an odd mix of crumbling streets and bold fashion which makes the film feel like an alternative version of the 70s, a more stylised but also scarier version of the world. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this is a darkly beautiful and well composed piece of art cinema. clock3The purely cinematic qualities of the movie were at the time ignored because of the movie’s violent plot and content. A Clockwork Orange is a violent film yes, and audiences struggled with Kubrick’s point of view, many believing that Kubrick aligned with Alex and glorified the horrors on screen. Yet looking back, it’s hard to accept this idea completely. The violence in the movie is horrific and purposefully so – the most violent movies in cinema often have something to say on cinematic violence, and A Clockwork Orange is no different. The way the camera holds on the beating of an old man, or remains rigidly locked and cold whilst Alex and his gang rape a screaming woman; A Clockwork Orange is meant to be unflinching, documentary-esque, and uncomfortable. It’s meant to attack the senses and shake people out of their seats. Notions of the movie glorifying violence seem unfounded – the early rape scene, with Alex singing ‘Singing in the Rain,’ is horrific, working like the Jack Nicholson’s ‘Wendy, I’m home,’ as he axes through the door in The Shining; it’s the day-world smashed together with the dark-world – the contrast is there to highlight the horror and inexplicitly terrifying nature of the scene. What scares audiences, is that Kubrick fixes on Alex and keeps the film rigidly locked from his point of view, which essentially makes the audience feel aligned with him, which in turn, makes them feel accountable for the violence on screen. It cuts a little too close to home in regards to cinematic voyeurism and violence – primarily asking the audience what they get from this – which is probably what caused the controversy at the time. The murders apparently inspired by the movie are of course nonsense, at least on the level that the film created them; art does not create violence, it just occasionally provides an excuse for it. clock4Kubrick’s plot follows the American version of the book, which cuts out Burgess’ original ending. In the original UK addition, Alex is cured simply by ageing. As he hits 21, he moves away from his youthful anarchy and begins to settle down. This gives the original book a more comforting closure and goes some way to softening the violence tone. Kubrick didn’t see the original ending until within the movie’s production, and even then, felt it didn’t naturally fit with what went on before, a point arguably true; Burgess’ original ending is great thematically but betrays the main character, and doesn’t feel believable within the context of the story. By removing the ending however, the movie ends on a much more frightening note – Alex goes back to normal, and his violence is celebrated – an idea which again, went against the movie upon its release, with many believing that Kubrick enjoyed Alex’s return to form.clock5Essentially though, that’s missing the satire. A Clockwork Orange is a very intelligent novel and Kubrick adapted it faithfully, brining in the themes of free will, choice, evil and human nature. Strangely, Kubrick leaves out the Pavlovian explanation of the title – forcing mechanical rules into an organic and potentially sweet piece of nature – perhaps thinking that the Ludovico scenes would speak for themselves, which arguably adds to the movie’s density and ambigiouty. This is a complicated movie, which aligns us with a rapist and murderer and then goes to lengths to criticise the government for trying to cure him. But that’s the issue – the notion of curing someone, by restricting their free will. Alex is does not choose to do good, but is forced to do good, which the movie argues is worse than doing evil. It’s the ability to choose which makes us human. Though this makes the film appear more liberal than anything, both sides of the political spectrum are criticised here as being corrupt; different ideologies with the same vile means of getting to where they need to be; we’re given a real sense of political chaos in the rafters of the movie which really builds the world around Alex. Strangely too, this is a very multi-sided film, with every different point of view valid in some way, which makes it difficult to read. It’s easy to see why so many accused of the film of glorifying violence without really getting what the movie was about. The film also remains faithful to Burgess’s nadsat and refuses to dumb down the dialogue for the audience; however, it goes without saying that the strange slang is more powerful on stage than screen – it’s considerably more dense and disorientating in the novel, simply due to the medium.clock6Malcolm McDowell deserves a lot of credit for Alex. He’s a wonderfully charismatic actor, sexual, predatory, charming and funny with great comic timing, it’s easy to get drawn along with him. His iconic look and style will be remembered forever too. Crucially, what’s odd is that Kubrick forces us to like Alex – he’s a horrendous murdering rapist, and we should hate him, but he’s so wild and out-there that it’s hard not to be drawn along. After the infamous Ludovico scene, we genuinely feel sorry for Alex too, and pulling the audience along in such a way is hugely impressive. The rest of the cast fall under McDowell’s shadow but everyone does well; Kubrick has some of his actors over-act (Patrick Magee for instance) but this actually adds to the movie’s off-kilter, crazy dream-like tone. Nothing feels natural or correct and everything is over-the-top, bright and insane. The acting style works within the context of the movie. clock9There’s a lot more going on in A Clockwork Orange than its reputation would have you believe. This is a complex, intelligent and beautiful movie which comments on the nature of cinematic violence and human free will. It’s a bold, artistic and powerful movie, and one of the finest of a very fine director. Put aside its infamous reputation and enjoy A Clockwork Orange for the fantastic movie it actually is.



6 thoughts on “A Clockwork Orange

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