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A Clockwork Orange – The Stuff Of Nightmares

December 1, 2017

Malcolm McDowell - A Clockwork OrangeStanley Kubrick made a career of unpacking the darkest recesses of humanity. Along with him, we scoffed at oblivion in “Dr. Strangelove…” We reveled in the ice-cold villainy of computer logic in “2001: A Space Odysey.” We waded the terrors of alcoholism in “The Shining.” Even among those heavyweights, “A Clockwork Orange,” a film about the politics of crime and “big” government, is the scariest film Kubrick ever made.

1971 was the year Stanley Kubrick unleashed A Clockwork Orange on the world. This movie was released during a particularly fertile period in Kubrick’s ground-breaking run. Kubrick’s films are uniformly difficult to pin down in succinct fashion, and A Clockwork Orange is no different. While its legacy is probably built on its horrific displays of “ultraviolence” and dystopic hooliganism (replete with its own language known as Nadsat), Clockwork pivots to a sharp rebuke of big institutions including prison systems and their related politics.

A Clockwork Orange is extraordinary, but it’s not an easy film to love. Its detached portrayal of violent acts is a calculated gambit, turning the stomach and stimulating the other senses in equal measure. Even more perverse is how Kubrick sets the scene with a deluge of classical music as the carnage unfolds. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, primarily. An iconic early scene turns a home invasion into a literal song and dance, as Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) does a lively Gene Kelly impression.

You know you’re dealing with something unique when a movie as DNA-level violent as this takes a turn that dares you to sympathize with the offender. Clockwork is a singular Kubrick experience, to be sure. It’s also the stuff of nightmares.

Alex DeLarge is teenage delinquent who gets set up by his cronies and arrested following a brutal crime spree. Assault, home invasion, rape, murder, you name it. Alex is a true sociopath who revels in the chaos without conscience, and with a conspicuous love of ole’ “Ludwig van.”

While the film is broadly revered, it has occasionally been accused of glorifying violence. It was notoriously released with an “X” rating in the United States, before being cut and re-released the following year with an “R.” The film was protested in the UK and became a principal scapegoat for a rash of copycat crimes. The backlash was strong enough that Kubrick pulled the film from UK theaters, and released a statement in its defense. Wherever one falls on the subject of violence in movies, the film’s track record seems to speak for itself.

Excessive or not, the malice is not without reason. Uncomfortable and mean-spirited as the first half may be, the second half is arguably just as disturbing, putting viewers in the queasy position of having to decide what is more important: free will or imposing order upon chaos.

In a dystopic/funhouse-mirror version of the modern world, A Clockwork Orange features England under an emerging totalitarian regime. Alex’s crime spree and resultant incarceration coincide with the development of the experimental “Ludovico” technique, an aversion-therapy-flavored criminal rehabilitation program. Eager to pounce on any opportunity to breathe the free air again, Alex volunteers for the program with little thought of what might be required of him.

In a movie dripping with iconography, the particulars of the Ludovico technique may very well take the cake. Strapped into his seat in the front row of an auditorium, Alex is given nausea-inducing drugs and forced to watch hours and hours of violent films, unblinking as his eyes are propped open and kept hydrated by a physician. In a cruel twist, the sessions are accompanied by Beethoven’s Ninth, Alex’s favorite.

Alex DeLarge - Ludovico Technique

After numerous sessions, Alex is conditioned to become thoroughly ill when in the presence of violence, sex, and essentially any kind of unpleasant confrontation. His new outlook on life is demonstrated during a grotesque stage show orchestrated by his doctors. Oh, and he can’t stand the Ninth anymore, either.

Now a free man, and having supposedly paid his debt to society, Alex is unwelcome in his parents’ home. Streetbound and helpless, Alex is mugged by those he used to terrorize, and unable to prevent his own suffering at the hands of his vengeful former mates (his droogs, if you will). He no longer has a taste for violence, and yet he no longer has the ability to chose how to respond to it.

As news of the Ludovico technique spreads, the case becomes a media sensation, and Alex becomes an unwitting pawn in the culture war over whether it is acceptable to simply scrub society of its ills. In Alex’s case, Ludovico threw the baby out with the bathwater, removing not only his violent tendencies, but his free will, love of music, and perhaps his humanity itself.

The Ludovico technique suggests that the only thing a person needs to become a productive member of society is the proper dosage. The problem with applying this to Alex is that he is, until his therapy, a remorseless thug. His treatment doesn’t make him a better person, it simply relieves him of his free will.

There is certainly a critique of how criminal rehabilitation was handled at the time, and perhaps still is. Ostracized following his sentence, Alex realizes that he will never truly be able to repay his debt, as the world is not only prejudiced against him (justifiably, given his sociopathy), but he is no longer able to defend himself against those who mean him harm. That is, until Alex’s case is taken up by a countercultural author looking to bring down the regime behind the Ludovico technique. More suffering for Alex ensues, although, with extreme irony, he is eventually vindicated and painted as the victim of his overzealous rehabilitation.

Kubrick’s screenplay for A Clockwork Orange was based on Anthony Burgess’s novel of the same name. While the film is regarded as a close adaptation, Kubrick has shown time and time again that he has a unique way with adaptations in which he recontextualizes and magnifies literary themes in a way that gives fresh perspectives to his films. For example, Kubrick added dark comedy to his adaptation of Peter George’s Red Alert for Dr. Strangelove…, and altered the emphasis of Stephen King’s The Shining. In Clockwork, a novel its author claimed to have written in a matter of a few short weeks just for the money, Kubrick finds a number of layers worth exploring.

While Kubrick certainly doesn’t valorize the Ludovico technique, he also seems to turn his nose up at the much more conservative “eye for an eye” alternative. His (and Burgess’s) rapier wit cuts across both sides of the proverbial aisle. At risk of celebrating a sociopath, Kubrick created a world in which the individual is the only thing worth fighting for. Faith in institutions such as the criminal justice system, self-righteous politicians, and structured government itself don’t fare so well here. It’s a society so bleak that we, as viewers, are somehow able to sympathize with a maniac. There’s no place for someone like Alex DeLarge in civilized society, but then again, there’s really nothing civil in A Clockwork Orange.

This movie just might be a bit too violent for its own good, but who are we kidding? It’s still a masterpiece.

From → Essay, Film Reviews

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