Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Clockwork Orange

Stanley Kubrick, 1971, 130m

This is a film with a message: it's the capacity for choice that makes us human. To be capable of good and bad and to choose to be good is what makes us good. Divested of this capacity and to be programmed to behave only one way makes us into clockwork automatons--Clockwork Oranges. Orange is appropriately ambiguous because how can a biological organism-a nice, beautiful, juicy orange-be like a passive assemblage of nuts, bolts and levers?

Alex is the magnetic leader of a band of young men whose way of life is to go around beating up people and molesting women. The setting is England, the near future, a world sufficiently like and unlike ours to make it a grotesque uncanny valley. The language of the script is a parody of English: words and phrases from different periods (thou and oh my brothers, and a liberal sprinkling of sovietisms to suggest a totalitarian state). The boys are dressed in a mixture of the Dickensian and Elizabethan with prominent codpieces and affect an exaggerated civility and cultivation of manners as they indulge in acts of brutality. Alex loves Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the violence is accompanied by this music. It is true that much of our musical heritage has been inspired by the battlefield. Beethoven's Symphony which is inspired by Utopian sentiments of human harmony is here used ironically to express a world bordering on chaos..

The mayhem of the first hour of the film results in a power struggle and the unintended murder of a woman. Alex is arrested, spending two years of prison, which is full of hilarious parody, as Alex feigns an inner change in a desperate bid to have his fifteen year sentence commuted. He is chosen, in recognition of his exemplary behavior, for the newly invented Ludovico treatment, whereby he is programmed to become incapable of wrong-doing. Beethoven's Symphony now throws him into paroxysms of agony.

The movie, for all it's famed lurid subject matter is an artistic triumph. Even the violence is meticulously choreographed, and I think ultimately Stanley Kubrick is depicting the violence which is a part of our nature. We are riveted by it's spell binding power because Alex and his friends represent an undeniable aspect of the human nature of which everybody partakes. In the middle of the film is some footage about Hitler and the troops of youth parading with Nazi emblems. Kubrick has replaced Wagner with Beethoven in a brilliant feat of irony.

War has always been synonymous with glory. History is punctuated with gory battlefields. In the film, this propensity for violence is expressed in an easily conceivable situation where the machinery of law and order has become ineffective. One solution which the film satirically offers is the lobotomization of the capacity for choice. This of course is much easier than "educating" people to a point where they stand in control of the tempestuous and unruly seas which constitute our inner reality, spiritual victors in the inner war.

A great movie.


Nathanael Hood said...

I'm a little angry at myself that I have never actually seen this film...

I KNOW that I should...I just can never convince myself to sit down and watch the damn thing...

S. M. Rana said...

For your information neither Ebert nor Pauline Kael had a good thing to say about it, finding the violence superfluous and in poor taste.

Jump_Raven said...

I always took away from the film that we as humans enjoy doing what Alex does, but that we can't stand it when it's done to us. Thus, you have the reason not to do those things to other people. Always seemed to be more logical and compelling than some abstract concept of morality or the fear of a post-mortem punishment.

I remember a film teacher I had who said the message of the film was that sex, violence, and the appreciation of art are inextricably linked. The murder with the giant penis would seem to back that up, but I still prefer the other one.

Have you read the book? Particularly the one with the often omitted 21st chapter where Alex sees the error of his ways and goes straight. No kidding it's laughably bad.

S. M. Rana said...

I haven't read the book. I think when we put the philosophy aside, Kael does have a point in saying that the film glorifies violence in it's highly aestheticized portrayal of violence. Her review is worth reading:

Jack L said...

I know this is a film that can be interpreted in many ways, but I have to say that I thought the same as you did while watching it.
It really is a film about free will and the fact that when we lose it we are no longer human.
I think Ebert and the other critics rather missed the point with this film...Of course some scenes are distasteful and Alex is a horrible character, but would the film have had the same effect if it was dealing with the loss of free will in a inherently good person? I don't think so, I think it's because Alex is evil that the film is thought provoking in it's message...

Anyway fantastic review, I can't believe I only saw this rather recently, it's a great film!

S. M. Rana said...

Jack L:

Yes, the crucial importance of the human capacity for choice as the most essential human quality, far above mere intellect, making him an ethical and spiritual animal rather than merely a thinking one....all this could not have been shown except through the abominably adorable and tragically funny bunch of vicious hoodlums. I think you and I see alike on this point.

Anonymous said...

"A Clockwork Orange" is surely impressive, but I cannot say it is one of my favorites. It shows two contrasting unpleasant conditions, and then it forces us to choose more "human" side, because, well, the free will is good. In Kubrick's cold, objective style, that argument looks timid compared to the brutality preceding it, so the film's second part loses some power till that sarcastically joyous finale.

I cannot recommend easily to others, but "A Clockwork Orange" is one of the important movies in the 70s. It still has that striking power to disturb and provoke us. Not my favorite Kubrick movie, but who can skip this if interested in the movies?

S. M. Rana said...


As someone pointed out the animal nature, which lacks freedom of choice, has completely possessed Alex and his friends even before the Ludovico procedure.

It is to Kubrick's credit that the brutality is shocking. Why are we not disturbed by the coldly calculated and large scale killings in war movies? The act of murder becomes anestheticised, and this is socially more dangerous, since killing is mechanised, simpler, and less painful. At the extreme of the spectrum are the so called WMDs.

Anonymous said...

You mean A Clockwork Orange, not The Clockwork Orange, right, S.M.?

I saw this film when it was re-released in England (timing is everything, as it coincided with my semester abroad there), and enjoyed it the most of Kubrick's films, perhaps because its meaning was the easiest to grasp. Having said that, I'm not sure if it's his best film.

Kael's review is certainly worth reading. Not only is it a well-written review, it also compares the movie to the book, and shows how the movie's weaknesses result from skewering the message of the book.

I plan to read the book at some point, especially now that the American version includes the 21st chapter (when Kubrick adapted the American version, it only had 20 chapters). The significance of 21 is that, before most things got lowered to 18 (except the consumption of alcohol--huh?), that was the age in which people became adults. After I read it, I'll have to see if I agree with Jump_Raven's assessment of that last chapter.