#70 A Clockwork Orange
(1971, Stanley Kubrick)
“That was a real kick and good for laughs and lashings of the old ultraviolent”
A Clockwork Orange caused a significant amount of controversy on its release. Aside from being seen as a hyper violent movie that glorified its delinquent main character, there were reports about possible copycat crimes occurring in Britain following its release. Ultimately, the controversy led to director Stanley Kubrick withdrawing the film from UK distribution for the rest of his life, only seeing UK TV showings after Kubrick’s death. But how controversial is it really?
Well, on paper, sure, it’s a horrific sounding movie. A gang of teenagers enjoy going out every night and committing acts of violence and gang rape on unsuspecting passers-by, led by Alex De Large (Malcolm McDowell). They speak to each in a mysterious slang derived partly from Russian. When they set out to rob the owner of a health farm of all her jewels, Alex ends up murdering her and being sent to prison. During his time there, he hears of a new experimental technique that will allow him to leave if he submits to it, so he volunteers.
On the surface, sure, it’s easy to label the movie as one that glorifies ultra-violence, particularly through juxtaposition of violence scenes with high art (particularly Beethoven’s 9th Symphony), and we’re meant to see Alex as a sympathetic character as the movie progresses, but at the same time there are many clues that Kubrick wasn’t actually pointing the finger at anyone, and in fact was highlighting that the issue with Alex’s behaviour is a societal one, and that even the supposedly upstanding moral guardians aren’t much better than him.
A Clockwork Orange is oddly apt today, possibly moreso than it was in 1971, so its lack of distribution in the UK wasn’t really much of a loss. The idea of teenagers speaking in impenetrable slang running amok and causing property damage and injury/loss of life is one that would seem far too familiar to those caught up in the riots of August 2011 in London and other cities. Similarly, the themes of a government using knee-jerk tactics in response to society’s issues seem suspiciously similar to tactics used by actual government. Not to mention how the government try and avoid blame when it all goes wrong. It’s almost like Kubrick and the book’s author Anthony Burgess could predict the future.
Of course, some aspects of the movie are a little impenetrable. The slang used by Alex and his “droogs” can take a while to get your head around, while some of Kubrick’s more “arty” choices of shot give things a bit of an otherworldly theme that makes you unsure if this is supposed to be set in the future or in some kind of bizarre alternate reality. The clash of 1970s British architecture with heavily styled artwork that marks these buildings interiors makes the film feel like it exists entirely in its own universe.
And yet, this weird lack of grounding in reality makes the movie feel timeless. The themes are recognisable under the clash of art styles, and in a way this makes them stand out more since they’re the sole connection to the real world here. This doesn’t feel like a product of the 70s, it feels like something else entirely. Although there are hints of its age in the location shots of genuine 70s London and the fact that Heaven 17 are mentioned as the name of a fictional band (even though a real band turned up a decade later, lifting their name from this), they never get in the way.
Then as soon as Alex moves into the prison and suffers at the hands of the guards, before undergoing the experimental brainwashing, the film takes on a new tone, and begins to question just how moral the justice system is. Sure, Alex commits horrific crimes, but what right does the State have to strip him of all his humanity? There’s a kind of poignancy in A Clockwork Orange, one that could easily be lost in talk of the gang rape scenes.
Kubrick is often held up as one of the greatest directors of all time, and this is certainly one of his strongest works. There’s a lot going on here, and while it threatens to push away the audience, it’s an achievement in filmmaking and holds up perfectly today.
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri & Miriam Karlin
Written by Anthony Burgess (novel) & Stanley Kubrick
Produced by Stanley Kubrick
Cinematography by John Alcott
Edited by Bill Butler
Favourite Scene: The confrontation at the writer’s house towards the end of the film is fantastic from the moment the writer realises who Alex is
Scene That Bugged Me: Every hint of gang rape is just as uncomfortable as you’d expect, even though nothing more explicit than a naked woman is shown.
Watch it if: You’re looking for lashings of the old ultraviolent
Avoid it if: You can’t understand what the hell a droog is
Originally posted on Blogspot Saturday 17 March 2012