Back to School Part II #5: A Clockwork Orange (dir by Stanley Kubrick)


It may seem strange, at first, that I am including the 1971 best picture nominee, A Clockwork Orange, in a series of Back to School reviews.  Certainly, Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel is not usually described as being a film about juvenile delinquency but that’s exactly what it is.

Many viewers tend to forget that Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell, who was nearly 30 at the time) and his three droogs are all meant to be teenagers.  (Only Michael Tarn, who played Pete, was actually a teenager at the time the film was shot.  Warren “Dim” Clarke and James “Georgie” Marcus were both in their late 20s.)  There’s even a lengthy scene in which Alex is interrogated by a social worker, P.R. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris).  Viewers are usually so surprised when Deltoid suddenly grabs Alex’s crotch that they forget that the whole reason Deltoid even came to the flat was to find out why Alex had been skipping school.  (“Pain in my gulliver,” was Alex’s oft-quoted excuse.)

So, make no mistake about it.  Among other things, A Clockwork Orange is a film about both the problem of juvenile delinquency and the continuing debate concerning what the authorities should do about it.  Stylistic and philosophical differences aside, A Clockwork Orange comes from the same cinematic family tree that’s given us everything from Rebel Without A Cause to Bully to Spring Breakers.

Of course, that’s not all that A Clockwork Orange is about.  It’s a Kubrick film, which means that there’s several different layers to work through and multiple interpretations for what we see on-screen.  For those who may not be familiar with the film, it takes place in a recognizable but futuristic England.  (One of my favorite theories is that A Clockwork Orange was about what was happening on Earth while David Bowman was becoming the starchild in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)  It’s a violent world, one where there appears to be significantly fewer people around than in the past.  The streets are deserted and bombed out.  Occasionally, when Alex returns to his home, he passes a mural of idealized working men creating a new world.  This rather banal work of Socialist realism has been defaced by obscene drawings and mocking graffiti.

Teenage Alex spends his nights hanging out with his friends (or, as he calls them, droogs), Pete, Georgie, and Dim.  They drink at the Korova Milk Bar and wear obscenely oversized codpieces, signifying this society’s obsession with outsized masculinity. When they speak (and when Alex narrates the film), they do so in a rhyming slang called Nadsat.  Under Alex’s sociopathic leadership, they spend their nights raping women, beating the homeless, and fighting with other gangs.  When Alex is not with his droogs, he enjoys lying around the house and listening to Beethoven (or “Ludwig Van” as he calls him).

After being betrayed by his droogs (who have tired of Alex’s cockiness), Alex ends up imprisoned for murder.  However, Alex is offered an early release if he’s willing to take part in the Ludovico Treatment.  For two weeks, Alex is drugged and forced to watch violent and sexual films while the music of Beethoven plays in the background.  As a result of the treatment, Alex grows physically ill at the thought of both violence and sex but he can also no longer listen to Beethoven.  Arguably, as a result of being cursed of his anti-social tendencies, he has lost the only non-destructive thing that he enjoyed.

Over the objections of the prison chaplain (who argues that robbing Alex of his free will is not the same as rehabilitating him), Alex is sent back into the real world and he quickly discovers that he now has no place in it.  His parents have rented his room out to a boarder who is now more of a son to them than Alex ever was.  The streets are full of men who were previously tormented by Alex and who now wants revenge.  In perhaps the film’s most brilliant moment, Alex discovers that his former droogs are now members of the police force.  Though they may now be wearing uniforms, Dim and Georgie are still as destructive and dangerous as Alex once was.  The difference is that Alex was caught and cured whereas Dim and Georgie discovered they could do just as much damage as authority figures as they did as juvenile delinquents.

In fact, the only people who now care about Alex are the political dissidents who hope to use Alex to discredit the government.  However, the dissidents aren’t particularly worried about Alex’s well-being either.  He’s just a prop to be used for their own ambitions.  Even worse, for Alex, is the fact that one of the dissidents is Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee), a writer who lost both his ability to walk and his wife to an earlier assault committed by Alex…

(Interestingly enough, Mr. Alexander’s boyguard is played by David Prowse, who later become the ultimate symbol of government oppression when he was cast as Darth Vader in Star Wars.)

A Clockwork Orange is a brilliant film but it’s one about which I have very mixed feelings.  On the one hand, you can’t deny the power of the film’s imagery.  How many times has just the opening shot — of McDowell staring at us while wearing one fake eyelash — been imitated on TV and in other movies?  How much of the film’s dialogue — from “pain in my gulliver” to “the old in-out” — has lived on long past the movie?  Regardless of how many times I’ve seen A Clockwork Orange, the film’s electronic score (from Wendy Carlos) never ceases to amaze me.  Finally, it’s a film that argues that free will is so important that even a sociopath like Alex must be allowed to have it and that, as the chaplain argues, true goodness comes from within and cannot be manufactured or regulated by a government agency.  (It’s also a film that suggests that the government would be just as quick to use the Ludovico Treatment not just on the evil Alexes on the world but on anyone who dared to dissent from the party line.)  As I’m something of a “Freedom of Choice” absolutist, that’s a message to which I responded.

(At the same time, A Clockwork Orange does not argue that Alex’s actions should be free of consequences.  If anything, the film’s message seems to be that things would have been better for literally everyone if the government had just left Alex in jail, as opposed to trying to “fix” what was wrong with him.)

And yet, I have mixed feelings about A Clockwork Orange.  I guess my main issue is that the film doesn’t always play fair.  Malcolm McDowell is allowed to give a charismatic and well-rounded performance as Alex but nearly everyone else in the film is directed and written as a one-dimensional caricature.  Whereas Anthony Burgess’s novel emphasized the very real damage that Alex did to his victims, the film tends to surround Alex with comedic grotesqueries.  By both making Alex the only fully developed character in the entire film and then casting the energetic and charismatic Malcolm McDowell in the role, the film seems, at times, to come dangerously close to letting Alex off the hook for his worst crimes.  It also leaves the film open to the oft-repeated charge of glamorizing sex and violence.  (According to Roger Lewis’s biography of the author, that was Anthony Burgess’s opinion of the film.)  For the record, I don’t think A Clockwork Orange is an immoral film but I understand why some people disagree.

For that reason, A Clockwork Orange remains a controversial film.  In fact, I’m somewhat surprised that this subversive and deliberately confrontational film was nominated for best picture.  It was only the 2nd (and last) X-rated film to receive a best picture nomination.  Though it lost to The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange continues to be a powerful and controversial film to this day.  Perhaps the biggest indication of A Clockwork Orange‘s success is that it’s still being debated 45 years after it was first released.

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10 responses to “Back to School Part II #5: A Clockwork Orange (dir by Stanley Kubrick)

  1. Good call in pointing out that Alex is supposed to be a teenager. It’s been a long time since I read the book but I vaguely seem to recall that he’s of high school age which would put him about…what?…15 to 18? As shocking as the movie is, can you imagine if Alex and his crew had been played by actual teenagers?

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  3. Did you notice that every victim of Alex’s violence was carefully presented in a way that made it difficult to sympathize with them? The first couple (who lived in a “home”), seemed to have something kinky in mind for Alex when he first stopped by. The homeless guy that the Droogs beat-up was nasty from the get-go. The woman who was killed by Alex before he was arrested was portrayed as a totally unsympathetic “art snob.”

    The only apparently innocent victim was the girl being raped in the abandoned theater by another rival gang, but she was – sort of – “saved” by Alex and his Droogs.

    To me, it appeared that Kubrick’s intent was to push the viewer into sympathizing with Alex’s situation, while practically ignoring his victims. Everyone, including Alex, suffered, but everyone essentially “deserved it.”

    Which, I just now realized, describes almost every contemporary horror film, where sex out of wedlock or pranks against a schoolmate are rewarded with a visit from some guy in a mask wielding a chainsaw.

    Clockwork trivia: If you check the list of the top ten bands on the wall at the music store Alex visits, you’ll find that each one of those names was soon used by real bands within a few years after Clockwork was released.

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  4. PS: On the age thing in Clockwork; it was easy for me to suspend disbelief when seeing all the Droogs looking older than high school age, since I’ve known a few British self-described thugs who all look much older than their actual age.

    Fighting for your life on almost a daily basis all the way through your younger years does tend to age you in a relative hurry.

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