Friday, May 16, 2014

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

UK / USA, 136 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Burgess
Photography: John Alcott
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven
Editor: Bill Butler
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Warren Clarke, James Marcus, Michael Tarn, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Michael Bates, Sheila Raynor, Philip Stone, Anthony Sharp, Carl Duering, Michael Gover, Aubrey Morris, David Prowse, Clive Francis

There's nothing subtle about A Clockwork Orange. Its famous violence is obvious and programmatic: assault, robbery, rape, murder, the usual. In fairness, the picture does a reasonably good job of anticipating how ongoing societal breakdowns play out. And the solutions to the violence, arguably the point of this near-future fantasy, are also obvious and programmatic (see title metaphor, which belongs to the author of the original novel, Anthony Burgess). In the end, in an example of classic Stanley Kubrick cynicism, it appears that attempting to solve problems only makes them worse, and in unimaginable ways. We are left to try to live with the consequences. I suspect all the heavy-handed, clonking points are as much as anything the reason why I loved it so much as a teen. I do appreciate better now the horrors of the violence in the first 15 minutes alone—"the old ultra-violence," as voiceover narrator and main dude Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) insists on calling it. But I also still appreciate the energy, concision, and choreography that went into those early scenes, especially the gang fight, which is a case of pure infectious dynamics. And the Beethoven soundtrack only propels it.

In fact, much like the case with some Woody Allen movies, I now experience A Clockwork Orange at least partly as formative and already internalized, operating in a kind of twilight haze of nostalgia. Some of the language formations—the moronic "well well well well well well well" of one of the thugs, the use of "appy polly loggies" as a sarcastic way to apologize, "eggiwegs" and such for food, and Alex's occasional elaborately Shakespearian turns of phrase, such as "what didst thou in thy mind have?"—I still use, and am often surprised on revisits to this movie to find them waiting for me there. A Clockwork Orange is less than convincing in its ideas, bogged down in outdated Cold War gestures such as a youth slang pervaded by Russian (that was Burgess more than director / screenwriter Kubrick), or just simply smug about its ability to shock. But some of its individual elements nonetheless remain outstanding—a hallmark of Kubrick films, as we can see better all the time.

In A Clockwork Orange, the single most important element is the performance by Malcolm McDowell, which it's fair to call a tour de force. Scrape away the smirking façade of McDowell's Alex and you are left with only another smirking façade, a taunting, jeering face of cruelty and youth, impatient for what he wants and taking it as he will, laughing at the gyrations of a society claiming to believe in things like fair play. Interestingly, a good deal of what makes McDowell's performance so effective is how much punishment he takes—not just his character Alex, but McDowell himself, playing him. He is spat on, forced to strip naked, knocked about frequently, his eyes pried open with clamps—and a lot of times it looks like it hurts. In one scene his head is held underwater for a very long time—time it yourself. He plays a horrible person but no one can say he doesn't receive his come-uppance.

Another important element: Beethoven stands in as a rich, complex symbol of culture and privilege. I like it better than Wagner, because it doesn't have the overt linkages to Nazism, yet Beethoven and more broadly the romantic style of symphony are Germanic (and 19th-century) enough that there is some unmistakable overripe hint of its poisoning the action with pulpy decadence. If at first Alex's appreciation for "the lovely Ludwig van" seems like a cheap affectation, it comes to work very well, as the pervasive ubiquity of Beethoven resembles the youth culture Alex wallows in. Beethoven's image is on every wall Alex calls home, and during the crime for which he is ultimately sent to prison he is attacked with a bust of the composer (defending himself with a giant statue of a cock and balls). The Beethoven element reaches its climax when the music is used to deliberately torture Alex—in one indelible image, his torturers are gathered around a pool table while the music plays, one of them idly rolling a ball back and forth across the table.

It's all a bit strained in the idea area, as I said—these are all-too 20th-century views of paranoia, totalitarianism, and manipulation of human will via techniques derived from Pavlov, Skinner, etc., which felt remarkably stale even at the time, one reason I suspect Kubrick omitted even reference to the title, let alone explication. And the story goes approximately the only direction it can go. But Kubrick (well, Burgess) even salvages that with a mechanized action / reaction narrative structure, in which many of Alex's victims get their turns as victimizers, and Alex, as he himself mentions late in the film, suffers his own tortures of the damned.

Perhaps most interesting, and to its vast credit, A Clockwork Orange is virtually drained of hackneyed emotional connections. In most vengeance-driven narratives we tend to be manipulated to be on one side or the other, often finding ourselves willy-nilly taking great vicarious satisfaction in the violence (cf., for just one obvious example, the 24 franchise). Perhaps Kubrick's greatest achievement is to keep us fairly neutral. What Alex does is horrible. But what is done to him is equally horrible and there's very little satisfaction in it—much less so when the injustice is only compounded and it begins to occur to us that there may actually be no just resolution available here at all, let alone a satisfying one.

In that case, maybe it's better to laugh, and so the movie goes out perhaps the only way it could: on one last vision of violence, Alex's declaration, "I was cured, all right," and the death-rattle chuckle of Gene Kelly's version of "Singin' in the Rain" playing over the credits.

Top 10 of 1971
1. A Clockwork Orange
2. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
3. Walkabout
4. The French Connection
5. Carnal Knowledge
6. The Last Picture Show
7. Macbeth
8. Two Lane Blacktop
9. And Now for Something Completely Different
10. Duel


  1. You know I enjoy reading your writing, when I eagerly click on a Clockwork Orange review, even though I know it will likely piss me off. And it didn't ... you do a good job of explaining your take on the film without making me wish Kubrick had died in 1965. The one place I'd disagree most strongly is your argument that Kubrick keeps us neutral. There is only one character he cares about, and the other actors are so dismal I get the feeling the only one he worked with at all was McDowell. McDowell/Alex is all of the things you describe, but he is also quite charismatic, and without having anything to base my opinion on, I'd say a good majority of the people who like the movie are on Alex's side.