Written and Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Malcolm McDowell
As far as film experiences go, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is by far one of the most challenging, one of the most disturbing and one of the most satisfying experiences to be had. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece is considered practically unwatchable by many of its detractors and possibly his most inspired work by many of its admirers. A contemporary viewing of the film is surprisingly horrifying, considering how desensitized the world has become to, what was coined at the time as, ultra-violence. I can only imagine what initial audiences of the film went through as they met and came to know, the now iconic, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell). Critics at the time called it either the greatest film ever made or the most deplorably amoral piece of pornography ever made. With such a distinct divide, it is no wonder that A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has stayed the test of time and overcome its criticism to take its rightful place as one of the most controversial films ever made.
Kubrick makes it practically impossible to like Alex from the very start. He is young and attractive, sitting with his mates, known as The Droogs, at a bar unlike any other I’ve ever seen. In this representation of Britain set in an indeterminate time in the future, the cool thing to do is to sit around and drink milk, complete with chemical enhancement, dispensed from the nipples of milk bars shaped like naked women, while you put your feet up on tables, also shaped like naked women in spider walk poses. When Alex and The Droogs leave the bar, they make a few choice stops before heading home. The first is an alley, where they beat up a drunk, homeless man, perhaps because they can see their own futures in front of them or perhaps because they just felt like it. Then they save a helpless naked girl from being gang raped in an abandoned theatre by beating on her attackers. Of course, Kubrick allows us to watch her attempted rape long enough for it go from uncomfortable and sickening to a full on rape fantasy, but that is somehow part of this film’s charm. At this point, we are still torn on Alex but then he and The Droogs force their way into a luxury home and proceed to beat the man of the house senseless and rape his wife in front of him, all the while singing the cheery tune, “Singin’ in the Rain”. Then its back to his cushy room at home with Mom and Dad for Alex, just another night out with the boys.
This overt misogyny is rampant throughout A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, from the women with their legs spread wide open in the art on the walls to the young ladies sucking on penis shaped suckers in a record store. As offensive as it all can be, perhaps it is best served as a foundation for the times Alex has grown up in. It is possible that Alex has no respect for women because society in general has none either. Even strong female characters, what little there are in the film, have the same paintings on their walls or walk around with lightning blue hair and are clearly not meant to be taken too seriously. And while this may explain Alex’s lack of respect for women, it does not say anything of his violent tendencies. His antics get him arrested and sent to jail at one point and, after spending a few years behind bars, Alex volunteers for an experimental process that is supposed to cure him of all violent impulses. This ushers in one of the film’s central themes, one’s own free will. The experiment is a success; through a series of tests involving drugs and forced subjection to violent imagery, Alex now gets physically ill every time he wants to do bad. The question then remains whether a person can be conditioned to change from evil to good and whether there is truly any change at all if the impulse remains but the subject is just no longer capable of acting on it. If Alex were physically paralyzed, he would not be able to inflict harm on other people but the answer is not to cut off the limbs of all criminals currently in prison to ensure good behaviour. How then is it fair for the government to sever the minds of madmen, as though they were limbs, to achieve the same effect?
The experiments that were conducted on Alex lend a critical layer to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE that practically places the viewer in Alex’s torture seat. We are, after all, as spectators and potential admirers of this fantastic film, like Alex, attracted to violent film. Why else would we be watching this? Unlike Alex, yes, we can walk away whenever we want to, but how often do we do just that? The experiments Alex undergoes suppose that his initial exposure to such violent imagery played a significant role in his violent nature and this is why they are now being used to trigger negative reactions to similar impulses. If you’ve watched this far into the film, then you’ve seen quite a bit of provocative imagery. Does this then mean that something inside of you has been triggered to now want to reenact these acts you have just seen, as you equate this kind of violence with the slick, smooth coolness of the film? Of course not. Why then is it so simple for right wing conservative groups to propose that film violence has a direct impact on the rise of violent behaviour in an impressionable mind? To further drive the point, Kubrick aligns us with Alex everytime Alex’s narration is heard and he refers to himself as our humble narrator and to us as his only friends. Suddenly, this is the company we are keeping in close council. Alex is without question an appalling human being but now that we’re friends , we can’t just turn him away.
The scary truth is that I actually feel sympathy for Alex by the time his journey comes to a close. I also do, to some extent, delight in his company. I don’t condone his bevaviour but he is certainly good for a chuckle now and then. In that sense, Kubrick reminds us that nothing is as simple as it seems. You cannot just turn violent nature on or off by flipping a switch in someone’s head; you cannot reject Alex flat out because you cannot say with any certainty that he is incapable of being saved; and you cannot simply dismiss a film because of its rough exterior or you will miss the complexities lying underneath. Like a plain old orange, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE may be tough on the outside but you have to peel through it to get to the juicy bits on the inside.