What is the point of all of this ultraviolence? Is it for the story, or just for us?
The Film: Alex (Malcom McDowell), a psychopathic gang leader who enjoys rape, drugs, and random assault, accidentally murders a woman during a robbery and finds himself in prison. Eager for freedom, Alex volunteers for the Ludovico method, an experimental treatment that promises to cure his violent nature. It works too well; Alex is set free, but conditioned to experience debilitating sickness whenever he engages in violence, sex, or (in an accidental side effect) hears his favorite Beethoven track. Weakened, Alex falls prey to his earlier victims, including an activist writer who tortures Alex with music until the teen attempts suicide. The government, eager to cover up the incident, “fixes” Alex back to his psychopathic ways and rewards him with a cushy government job.
The Production: The failure of the film Waterloo in 1970 forever killed Kubrick’s dream project, a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. Eager to do something completely different before returning to the Napoleonic age (which would result in Barry Lyndon), Kubrick chose to adapt a curious dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess titled A Clockwork Orange. The book, a withering essay on violence and free will, had once been optioned by Mick Jagger (who intended to take the lead role and cast the rest of the Rolling Stones as his droogs), and adapted by Andy Warhol in the mid 60s into an unrecognizable movie called Vinyl.
The London shoot was a standard Kubrick show. The director exhausted his cast by demanding extensive takes, causing at least one actress to quit over the emotional toll of performing a rape over and over again. Somehow, though, the shoot ended up as one of Kubrick’s fastest. The film was shot and released in about a year, making it to screens by December 1971. It was an instant cult favorite, but critics argued over the film’s merits, and although the movie was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director), it failed to win any.
Best Moment: There are several candidate scenes for the “best” scene in A Clockwork Orange, but none are more (in)famous than an early, ugly bit of suburban violence. Drugged on stimulants, Alex and his gang invade the home of a married couple, attack the husband, and prepare to rape the wife. Then Alex takes this already horrific event to another level of disturbing by setting it to song. (This is somewhat SFW… the video ends before the roughest stuff.)
That Alex would gleefully rape and assault is awful, but that he could find such boisterous pleasure in it is especially chilling. Incidentally, legend states that the song was an improvisation by McDowell trying to spice up the scene, and that years later, Gene Kelly stiffed McDowell at a party for what the actor did to Kelly’s most famous musical number.
Lasting Impact: Culty, but far-reaching. Copycat crimes in England sparked a public outrage, leading Kubrick and Warner Brothers to yank prints from British screens, and the film remained hard to find in England until after Kubrick’s death. The “banning” of the film spiked worldwide interest and the movie became a major underground success with the youth of the 70s and 80s, who saw it (correctly) as an attack on overreaching government and (incorrectly) as a celebration of rebellious youth. The novel’s author, Anthony Burgess, regretted what the film had become. Burgess always considered Orange to be the least of his novels, and he suddenly found his name synonymous with it. He persistently criticized his book and Kubrick’s film until his death in 1993.
Overall: I recently attended a revival screening of A Clockwork Orange at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, and as I viewed the film with a small, appreciative audience, two observations struck me.
- The movie still shocks. Orange is one of only two X-rated films to be nominated for Best Picture. The other is Midnight Cowboy, a movie that barely registers as an R today, and has content more sweet than scandalous. Orange still has a handful of grotesque and sexually charged scenes, and hasn’t lost an ounce of its power when making an audience squirm.
- It’s really, really funny.
Yep. Despite the outrageous violence and the gauntlet that the film’s female characters have to go through, A Clockwork Orange is a biting satire, skewering human nature and its shifting standards of morality. But, you know, using comedy. In the silent comedy classics, the hero rarely changes. Whatever he wants, that is all he wants, and the world conspires against him. If Buster Keaton needs to cross a street to deliver a flower to his sweetheart, he’ll find open manholes, careening cars, and anything else he can imagine blocking his way, but he never stops trying. Alex is the same here, although obviously darker. All he wants is to rape, beat, and maim, but his way is blocked by politicians, prisons, activists, and thugs. They all say they want to help him, but they never agree on how, and the only agenda they ever advance is their own. Poor Alex is stuck in the middle, confused and single-minded. Why, a person might even (gasp!) sympathize with him.
That’s Kubrick’s game, of course, and he rigs it by making key changes from the novel. Alex is the same in both novel and film, but his victims are very different. In the book, the cat lady is a defenseless old woman, but in the film, she collects bizarre pornography and attacks first. The writer’s wife dies of her injuries in the novel, but succumbs to the flu in the film, making the writer seem insane when he blames Alex for her death. Each change lets Alex off the hook a little bit and undermines his victims. These people, alongside the pawing social worker and the barking, bureaucratic prison guard and many others, are as sick in their way as Alex is. Some people, like me, see the humor in this. Others reject it completely.
Is it the violence? Surely Kubrick could have made his points without such graphic, uncomfortable portrayals of rape and murder. Some critics, including the legendary Pauline Kael, accused Kubrick of lingering on these shots as a way to excite his audience. The exploitation seemed an hypocrisy, a way to take a stand against violence while ensuring the “thugs” in the audience got their money’s worth. Your own opinion of A Clockwork Orange is likely to turn on whether or not you think there’s a reason for all of this ultraviolence.
The US Supreme Court sided with Larry Flynt in his pornography trial because they believed that free speech rules are in place to protect all citizens, not just those currently in line with the day’s moral code. Christians dogged Flynt for years, desperate to shutter Hustler magazine and protect America’s moral character, never realizing that if the government had the power to stop Flynt, that power could then be turned on the Christians if it became politically convenient to do so. The same principle applies to Alex DeLarge. Here Kubrick gives us the lowest form of human being and asks us to care about his plight. It would be simple for us to choose in favor of free will if we know the person would choose good. Alex won’t. We’ve seen how rotten he is in every frame of film, and yet still (like the prison chaplain, the one sensible character in the story) we must protect his ability to choose evil if we want to retain the choice at all. The weight and impact of this decision simply isn’t there without the cold, clinical violence we’ve witnessed from the start.
The original novel contained one final chapter. It showed Alex, now older and cured of the Ludovico treatment, spontaneously giving up violence because he’d like to have a baby someday. Kubrick knew about the chapter, but claimed he never even considered putting it in the movie, choosing to end instead on the bleak idea of a psychopathic Alex back on the prowl. Burgess believed this dark ending was totally inappropriate for his story, but I think it’s the only way to end the film as Kubrick shot it. The happy ending is too quick, too comforting. Kubrick gave us a world with no soul and a protagonist with no heart and then asked us to decide where the moral yardstick should go. A Clockwork Orange is one of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest films because everyone finds a different answer and, thankfully, there are no easy ones.
The Stanley Kubrick Project
5. A Clockwork Orange
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire