Wednesday, 10 June 2020

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange
Like so many other people I grew up knowing about the reputation of “A Clockwork Orange” as a deeply subversive and somewhat illegal movie. One that you should be careful watching. Then in the mid-nineties I got the opportunity to attend a screening of it… and was sort of disappointed.

Few movies can live up to a special reputation and in my mind I had expected something far more revolutionary.

I do not recall watching it since so it felt like a new movie to me now that I had to re-watch it. I only really remembered the rape scene and as it turned out not very well. Frankly, I dreaded watching it again, mostly because I feared it would be boring, but either my expectation level has been properly adjusted or I have simply matured. This time round was a far more interesting experience.

“A Clockwork Orange” is still a dystopic and pessimistic movie and certainly not one to leave you happy. In fact, it is difficult not to sit back with a bad taste in the mouth, but there is also something fascinating about watching a topic as ruthlessly explored as Stanley Kubrick did with this movie.

One of the interesting things about Stanley Kubrick is that he never makes the same movie twice. In that sense he is the antithesis of Hitchcock. A second thing is that he always dives 100% into his movies, making each of them have layers of depth. In “A Clockwork Orange” Kubrick has created an at once very familiar but also very alien environment and let his theme of nihilistic violence run amok in it.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of his gang of four, his droogs. The gang spends its time seeking thrills by stealing cars and beating people up. They are dressed up in white pajamas and bowler hat and speak an odd mix of Cockney English and Russian. The remarkable thing about them is how casually they exact violence on other people. They are completely lacking empathy when they break in, beat up and rape innocent people and this lack of empathy is more shocking than the actual acts of violence. Alex is clearly intelligent, more intelligent than his droogs and his parents, but this complete lack of empathy makes him look… handicapped enough to seem vulnerable.

When Alex is caught for murder and imprisoned the movie shifts. Up to this point it is Alex who had been casual about violence. Now it is everybody else. We learn that violence is everywhere. In the police, from politicians, even his parents lack empathy not to mention his former victims. A major act of violence is when Alex is subjected to a treatment to take violence out of him. While it may sound like a good idea, he is effectively lobotomized and the procedure is extremely invasive, taking away his free will and creating the eponymous clockwork orange.

While the first part builds up the sentiment that Alex need to be stopped and punished, I certainly felt some righteous anger, if anybody deserved what was coming to him it was Alex, the second part invalidates this punishment because how does a violent society have any right to punish violence?  If lack of empathy is met with lack of empathy, how can we condemn the first?

There is enough to think of in “A Clockwork Orange”, if is fascinating stuff that messes with your brain, but it is also ugly to watch. The acts of violence are terrible, and the black humor thrown in just makes it feel even worse. When Alex sings Singin’ in the Rain while raping a woman, it shows how much he is enjoying it and how little he feels with his victims. That is tough to watch.

I have yet to meet a Kubrick movie that did not impress me, but at least here I have one I did not like. It is impressive as hell, though.



  1. We'll disagree on this--I think this is probably Kubrick's best film. Then again, I'm biased--I'm a huge fan of the source material, and this is a hell of an accurate adaptation.

    1. Ah, yes, but I agree it is one of Kubrick's best movies. It is impressive as hell. I just do not like it. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch, which I assume is the intention. It is very very effective filmmaking.

      I saw in the extra material that Kubrick used the book as a script instead of making an adaption. They literally walked around on set with the book and filmed it page by page. You do not get closer to the source than that.