Retrospective | A Clockwork Orange

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Malcolm McDowell as Alex in A Clockwork Orange

“What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again,” belts teenage psychopath Alex de Large as he derobes a woman while her gagged husband, writer Frank Alexander, watches helplessly. Alex cheekily bastardizes the Gene Kelly classic — his dancing feet land with a kick to his victim’s nether regions, then a rip to the wife’s blouse, bearing her breasts to the lechery of Alex’s loyal gang members. Now that the wife is sufficiently exposed and the husband sufficiently beaten, Alex finishes his song-and-dance routine. The stage has been set for the main event. A futuristic dirge takes over. Frank Alexander’s eyes roll with agony as Alex rapes his wife. “Singin’ in the Rain” will never be the same again.

This violent episode is no isolated incident in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, based on the Anthony Burgess novel. Played with impish, Nietzschean charm by Malcolm MacDowell, Alex is a deranged impresario of sadistic amusements. After terrorizing the couple, Alex and his gang return to the watering hole where this all began: the Milkbar, where milk is served through the nipple-spout of a wantonly-posed row of busty mannequins. It’s been a long night of the old “ultra-violence” for Alex and his gang. Appetizer was the jubilant beating of a homeless drunkard under a bridge. First course was a balletic romp of violence with a rival gang. The twilight tryst with the married couple was dessert — then it’s back to the nipple-spout for a nightcap.

In its original US release, A Clockwork Orange was rated X. The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures gave it a “Condemned” rating, which forbid Catholics from seeing the movie. In 1973, after protestors threatened his family, Kubrick requested that the film be withdrawn from release in Great Britain, though he also denied culpability for reports of “copycat” crimes that prosecutors argued were based on the film and Burgess novel. It was not until 1999 after Kubrick’s death that the film was made available in theaters or on VHS in the UK. The film became the focal point for large-scale discussions of censorship, violence, and pornography, inviting decades-long discussions about the seductive power of violent images.

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Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange begs the question, what is the most violent thing you can do to a human being? As a moral fable, the film answers: removing a human’s free will. After murdering an upper-class woman with a giant art sculpture of male genitalia, Alex is betrayed by his lackies, putting him in the police’s hands. After two years of “good behavior” in prison, he volunteers to be a test subject for the “Ludovico Technique” aversion therapy. Alex trades his fake eyelashes, bowler hat and codpiece for a straightjacket, specula which keep his eyes pried open, and nausea-inducing drugs which are pumped into his system as he’s forced to watch violent and pornographic films. Scenes which could have been plucked from his own recent history are projected onscreen — punks dressed like Alex’s old gang beat a defenseless man and gang rape a young girl. But instead of lusty excitement, the drugs create a Pavlovian response of queasy revulsion to the “ultra-violence” Alex once glorified.

The second half of the film unfolds like a perverse inversion of the first. Our charming psychopath with the easy smirk and pendulous mood swings is now a pale husk of himself. To show that he is now “healthy,” the scientists stage a performance. First Alex is antagonized and beaten by a male performer, who forces Alex to lick his shoe. Then a naked blue-haired girl walks onstage. A glassy-eyed Alex reaches for her breasts, but the nausea prevents him from groping her, and he collapses helplessly to his knees. The treatment has succeeded. Alex is released to society a “cured” man. Now free to prowl the streets of England, he is kicked out of the home he once took advantage of, attacked by the homeless man he once terrorized, and beaten by the droogs he once lorded over. In his vulnerable delirious state, he unknowingly stumbles upon the house of the writer Alexander, who is now wheelchair-bound and missing the wife who Alex raped. The film’s symmetrical structure reduces the complexities to a simple moral framework — “free” Alex versus “conditioned” Alex. It makes it easy to ignore how both Alexes are products of conditioning, only the former operates more invisibly — the culture of violence and casual sexual imagery are so woven into everyday life that they become naturalized.

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Malcolm McDowell as Alex in A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange is beyond hyper-stylized  — it’s less a story with style than a style with a story. The ultra-mod, unreal affectation shapes everything from performance to framing to narrative structure. The characters shout and speak with exaggerated accents — Alex speaks a made-up language called “Nadsat,” which is a strange pastiche of Russian, Gypsy, and Cockney slang. From the psychedelic scope of Kubrick’s famous wide-angle frames to the aggressive musical cues to the cartoonish villains, the film makes it clear that realism is not its objective. There are no real people, only broad strokes of archetypes — even when Alex is broken, MacDowell plays it overdone like a pitiful Dickensian protagonist. None of this is bad — in fact, it makes for excellent black comedy. But it is confusing for audiences predisposed to naturalism in film, particularly when trying to understand how to evaluate depictions of violence. Kubrick’s film instead treats all violence with the same irreverent, ironic shallowness, making it impossible to empathize or engage emotionally. Instead of striving for a sensitive exploration of suffering, the film covets an aloof, intellectual distance required for philosophical parable.

Its philosophy can be summed by the “clockwork orange,” a cockney slang referring to something organic-looking on the outside but mechanical on the inside — a paradox reflecting a perversion of nature. After the Ludovico treatment, Alex does not rape, pillage and kill because he’s “reformed,” but because of behavioral conditioning. Alex performs goodness without being good. In the film’s bleakly ironic ending, the hospitalized Alex goes into a trance imagining groping a struggling woman in front of a crowd of onlookers. He muses in a voiceover, “Oh. I was cured all right.” The tune of “Singin’ in the Rain” resumes. The orange may be clockwork, but it’s still rotten.

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