A Clockwork Orange (1971,USA/UK)
Director: Stanley Kubrick Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clarke
Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ grief spawned novel A Clockwork Orange is probably best known for the controversy that surrounded its UK cinema release. Plagued by accusations of inspiring real life violence in the press the director eventually withdrew the film from distribution in Britain, a situation that would remain unchanged until after the director’s death in 1999. Oddly enough, when the film was rereleased there didn’t seem to be a recurrence of these incidents, but the argument as to whether on screen violence inspires real life violence is a circular one and most definitely one for another day. The fact is, A Clockwork Orange is a powerful and important film based on an equally powerful and important book.
Alex (McDowell) is a teenage hoodlum, running riot of an evening with his small gang of thugs, terrorising the populace of a near future, faintly alternative England with their bouts of “ultra violence”, robbery and rape. His gleeful crime spree is brought to a shuddering halt when a burglarly gone wrong, coupled with betrayal by his maltreated friends ends in a fourteen year stretch of hard time for murder for little Alex. In an effort to secure an early release he volunteers for the experimental Ludovico treatment to cure him of his violent urges but in being subjected to the controversial aversion therapy he gets far more than he bargained for.
I’m not sure iconic is a good enough word to describe A Clockwork Orange. Mimicked, pastiched and lampooned far and wide since its creation (you know when The Simpsons are paying tribute you’ve probably sufficiently penetrated the global collective consciousness), love it or hate it the sheer power of the film to lodge itself in your mind is undeniable. Strangely enough though, the chief charge levied at the film, that it is gratuitously and graphically violent, doesn’t really hold true, especially today.
The on screen violence in the film is very much of the stylised variety. The consequences of the violence are not really shown, at least not immediately. Take the gang fight between Alex and his droogs and Billy Boy’s gang in the old casino for example, a comic book style, almost farcical rumble with the trappings of an old school Western style bar brawl (chairs smashed over heads, people flung through windows and so on) that certainly isn’t in and of itself disturbing or distressing. Granted, as Alex savagely beats a householder while preparing to rape his wife to the tune of Singing In The Rain the effect is overwhelming but the images on screen are far from graphic. The power of the scene comes more from the fact that such brutality can take place to the rhythm of such a well known, well loved and innocuous song and from the obvious delight the boys take in the savagery of their crimes. It’s the build up rather than the pay off that plays on our minds but really, realistically, it’s pretty tame by contemporary standards.
Sadly this obsession with the violence (the necessary violence) in the film really only serves to overshadow what is a superbly crafted film. The product of Kubrick’s trademark obsessional micro management, it is a visually stunning piece of work that stamps itself indelibly onto your brain. The costume design, the salacious set design, the seventies vision of a near future England all captured with Kubrick’s superhuman eye for film. Perfect framing, perfect lighting, disorienting shifts of pace and pitch. The film is a visual work of art, even during its most brutal and shocking moments.
When this is combined with the extraordinary performances and the magnificent dialogue (much of which is conducted in Burgess’ fictional teenage slang Nadsat – a peculiar mixture of corrupted Russian words and rhyming slang) it makes for an immersive experience and perhaps this is why so many people feel the film is far more explicit than it really is. McDowell in particular plays a blinder, somehow managing to maintain Alex as a sympathetic character despite his unrepentant penchant for violence and rape. He plays Alex with a sinister, psychopathic charisma which is essential to the story if we are to feel any kind of injustice at all over his treatment at the hands of the authorities. It’s here that the real significance of the story lies, the concept that “goodness” is only good if it’s arrived at through free will.
When Kubrick made the film he worked from an American edition of the novel which dropped the last chapter. The film’s somewhat downbeat ending, with Alex being cured of the Ludovico conditioning and feeling fired up for a renewed life of ultraviolence and the old in out is something of a departure from the actual book, a departure that for me confuses the message slightly and may well be responsible for many people missing the point. In the novel, Alex outgrows his violent urgings and as an older, marginally wiser man comes to the conclusion that what he really wants from life is to be settled down, start a family, have a life beyond sporadic and arbitrary acts of violence. He grows out of it. Burgess, who wrote the novel in response to the rape of his wife, seemed to accept that violence is inherent in humans and indeed an essential survival mechanism – when Alex is robbed of his capacity for violence he falls victim to violence, particularly that inflicted by the authorities. Yes, Alex commits unspeakable crimes in his youth, but then boys will be boys.
There’s a great line in the book that sums it up, “No it is not just like being an animal so much as being like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines.” The young Alex is like every other child, banging into things and trying to come to terms with his elemental nature. Perhaps this is the real reason the film terrifies so many people, that it is unafraid to show what people are capable of, not because of the influences of society but because it’s just the way we are.
Forty years on, it’s still a very effective exploration of violence but with today’s fundamentally different standards of acceptable material the controversy has faded somewhat allowing you to focus much more on the expertise with which this extraordinary film has been put together, especially on this blu ray edition that revels in every beautiful detail. Further proof of Kubrick’s mastery of the medium.