Film: A Clockwork Orange
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.
There I was, sitting in my basement making up my rasoodock of what to do with the evening. There are papers that must be graded, but also this film to viddy all on my own oddy-knocky. It was made by Stanley Kubrick, some great chellovek who made a bolshy great pile of cutter, such that he might be like Bog and all his saints, oh my brothers.
When I think of movies that fascinate me, I frequently forget about A Clockwork Orange until such time as I watch it again. Once I do, I remember how much I like this movie despite how difficult it can be to watch. This is Kubrick at his best, at the absolute height of his abilities as a filmmaker.
All films are of a time, place, and creator. The power of A Clockwork Orange is such that I cannot imagine anyone else making this film, nor can I imagine it coming from any other era. This film is unquestionably from the early 1970s and could not have come from any other time period. It would be an entirely different film if it was created in a different decade.
Kubrick was an incredibly smart filmmaker, and this movie is ample evidence. A Clockwork Orange is hardly an innovative story—the basic question is whether or not being good without choice is better than being bad by choice. If a person has his or her free will taken away, do they continue to be a person, or are they something significantly less? This is the “clockwork orange” of the title—an organic thing that is nonetheless without the ability to make a choice for itself. It’s also possible that it’s a minor corruption of “A Clockwork Orang,” or a mechanized man without free will.
What makes the story so great is the setting. The original novel by Anthony Burgess takes place in the near future, a world that is terrorized by youth gangs who attack anything they wish, do anything they wish, steal anything they wish, and suffer virtually no consequences. Burgess is a master of language, a virtuoso of the written word, and of adapting language to suit his various purposes. He’s good enough at this that he created the language used by the proto-humans in Quest for Fire.
For A Clockwork Orange, he developed his own slang, called Nadsat. This language used by his narrator in the book is also used by most of the teens throughout the story. Based on a combination of rhyming slang, schoolboy slang, and Russian, Nadsat is a complete language in and of itself, difficult at first to follow but ultimately cohesive and following a complete set of rules.
The evidence of Kubrick’s genius is that he left most of the Nadsat in the film. While this does make some of the dialogue difficult to understand at times, much of it is simple to follow. It adds a unique texture to the film, adding to its futuristic and otherworldly qualities.
The film is also visually striking throughout. One of the best known images of the film is Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) in his white outfit and black bowler, false eyelashes on one eye, holding a glass of drugged milk. Perhaps more well known, and much more striking, is that same Alex in a straightjacket, head held in place with wires coming off the top, eyes clamped open, forced to watch film after film while an assistant douses his eyes with a constant stream of eyedrops.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our Nadsat-speaking narrator, Alex, is a juvenile delinquent of the worst and most vicious caliber. Within the first few scenes of the film, he and his three droogs, Pete (Michael Tarn), Georgie (James Marcus), and Dim (Warren Clarke) savagely beat a beggar, beat up a rival gang headed by their foe Billy Boy, steal a car and run pedestrians and other traffic off the road, and break into a country house, savagely beating the owner and raping his wife. And then, Alex goes home to bed, because he has school the next day. It’s worth noting that while he’s a little older here, in the book, our humble narrator is a mere 15.
The rape sequence is notable for its savagery as well as the fact that, while he prepares his victims, Alex sings “Singin’ in the Rain” in preparation for his festivities. It’s a brilliant move by Kubrick. A song that for so many years had such pleasant associations becomes, in the span of a couple of minutes, attached to a scene of depravity and horror. It’s nearly impossible for me to hear the song again, even in the context of the movie that made it famous, without flashing back a little to Alex wearing his rubber mask and emphasizing particular words by kicking Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee).
Things go sour for Alex the next day. Warned by his probation officer to stay out of trouble, Alex and his gang instead quarrel amongst themselves. Alex reasserts his dominance by thrashing two of his mates. Then they break into a spa, where Alex inadvertently kills the resident by bludgeoning her with a giant ceramic phallus.
Here again, the visual brilliance of the film is evident. The spa is decorated, at least in the one room, with incredibly suggestive art. In addition to the giant phallus (attached to a combination scrotum/sphincter), the art on the walls shows women either pleasuring themselves or posing in pre-sex positions. And in the midst of this, the woman is killed in what is, ultimately, a simulated sex act.
From here we follow Alex to prison, where he falls in with the prison priest (Godfrey Quigley). The priest is convinced of Alex’s trying to better himself. The boy does, in fact, spend a lot of time reading the Bible, but it becomes evident to us that he is interested less in salvation and more in many of the Bible’s more lurid tales. This is evidenced when we see Alex reading, then watch his mental picture of the crucifixion, with him driving Christ onward by beating him with a whip.
Ultimately, Alex submits to the new Ludovico Technique, which is guaranteed to completely reform him in a couple of weeks. Essentially, Alex is forced, eyes clamped open and otherwise restrained, to watch films of beatings, rapes, and other atrocities while being drugged to feel ill. Essentially, he is conditioned a la Pavlov’s pooches to respond to sex and violence with intense nausea, guilt, and feelings of suicide. Once “cured,” he is released again into a brutal world where he is no longer capable of defending himself, since even self-defense makes him violently ill.
These scenes of the Ludovico Technique are difficult to watch, but also demonstrate the commitment of this film. They had to be pure torture for MacDowell to undergo, and yet he does. There is no way to fake what was being done to him, and he soldiers on, acting through what must have truly been something like torture.
The film is graced by an incredible soundtrack of electro-techno Beethoven performed by Walter Carlos in the few years before he became Wendy Carlos. It is both classic and disturbing, and a perfect complement to the film.
If I have one complaint about this movie, it’s that Kubrick based his film on the American version of the book. For whatever reason, when Burgess’s novel came to the U.S., the 21st and final chapter was omitted. That 21st chapter is absolutely pivotal—it changes the entire meaning of everything that happened. Kubrick’s film ends on chapter 20, which is also as far as I knew the book went the first time I read it. Now, having read the restored novel, I would have liked to see what Kubrick would do with it. Part of me imagines he still would have stopped where he did—but I’d have liked him to have that choice.
Should you watch it? Yes. But you should also read the book. Just make sure you find a copy with a decent Nadsat glossary in the back, or you’ll likely find yourself lost.
Why to watch A Clockwork Orange: Even 40 years after it was made, it has lost none of its original power to shock, awe, or provoke thought and discussion.
Why not to watch: It is tortuous in places.