GREAT MOVIES ESSAY: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

***CONTAINS SPOILERS OF THE FILM AND THE BOOK***
A Clockwork Orange is a deeply ironic satire on the nature of free-will, the individual vs a government verging on totalitarianism, and of course, the timeless themes of good and evil. It’s the kind of film where an uncomfortable moment will be briefly followed by a section so absurd and ludicrous that it is utterly hilarious – almost as if the rape and violence never occurred. This is because the film switches perspectives and asks us to empathise with the state, the victim of a crime and the criminal – and due to this, we feel uneased, disgusted and then well…we laugh…and then later on, feel guilty and ashamed for laughing. Kubrick constructs images which are not only dreamlike and bizarre in their nature, but work with sound in such a way that they hit our emotional psyche harder than most films do – in this respect, A Clockwork Orange works in a similar way that 2001 does. His images are memorable due to their nonsensical and intentionally-iconic nature.
The 1962 experimental cult novel written by, Anthony Burgess, employs a made-up language called ‘nadsat’ (which critics called poetic and Shakespearean) to develop the themes of brainwashing within the film. Kubrick of course uses this language in the script but indeed uses images and sound to brainwash the viewer in the same way that the book does. The opening shot is mesmerising and is one of my favourite opening shots in all of cinema, and it mirrors the psychedelic LSD-culture in which the classic 60s novel was written.
Here is the opening shot:

Opening shot

Opening shot

Opening shot

Opening shot

Opening shot

Opening shot

Opening shot

Opening shot

I don’t think I really need to explain why this famous shot is weird and psychedelic, but it is interesting to see how Kubrick shows us the themes of a sexual perversity and almost foreshadows the rape ahead: the fact that all of the manikins are naked women, and such women have coloured vaginas (sexual perversity). But even more of note is how we are told that in this world men have more power over the women, as various characters use the manikins as footstools – parts of their body are on top of the woman, thus showing their authority over them. Kubrick’s work is often centred around masculinity, and none more such as this film, where the droogs are an exaggeration of masculine archetypes.
Needless to say the colours of the wigs, vaginas and the written words on the wall (they’re the names of the drugs) add to the themes of brainwashing. But the people on the side not only add to the symmetrical composition of the opening shot but the facial expressions are blank and emotionless adding to the brainwashing concept which is at the film’s core. In terms of the music in this section, it is slow, psychedelic and takes it’s time to unfold, thus matching this opening shot. Even the opening titles themselves add to the brainwashing of the audience:

Opening Titles

Opening Titles

Opening Titles

Opening Titles

It is saddening that when A Clockwork Orange is mentioned, people’s instant thoughts are of the rape and violence committed in the opening 40 minutes (which is almost minor considering the films two and half hour length). Indeed, I once mentioned the film in passing to somebody and this someone said: “that’s the film about the serial rapist”. To say I was annoyed would be an understatement. But, it would pointless to write a piece about the controversial 1971 film and not mention why the violence is so effective, so here goes.

A Clockwork Orange and Violence

A Clockwork Orange and Violence

For starters, the gore count is very limited. There is minimal blood. The main weapons used are batons, chains and a good kick – this is of course street violence that is represented. These sections of violence are usually shot in an objective way, the camera is placed at a distance away from the violent action so that we are rejected by what we see and question Alex’s motives and what he is doing. Yet, Kubrick instills an emotional reaction with us by his choice of music, Thieving Magpie. This score has a mischievous tone to it and it makes us empathise with Alex. The music puts us inside Alex’s head and we know why he commits these acts: for fun. At once we are put in the perspective of the state and the victim (questioning Alex’s views) and inside Alex’s head (enjoying/laughing at the violence). Of course, there will be those who say how could you laugh at violence. Clearly they have never seen somebody bludgeoned to death with a giant ceramic sculpture of a penis.

The most memorable 'work of art' you'll ever see

The most memorable ‘work of art’ you’ll ever see

Of course, the rape scene is a primal example of why the violence is at once uncomfortable, yet funny. There’s an anarchic sense of humour in this section of the film. The gang screams and makes animalistic noises, all the while, Alex is bursting into song – singing the old classic Singin’ in the Rain. (Yes Gene Kelly was very angered). At once, the most bizarre emotions entangle the viewer: do I laugh or do I wince uncomfortably? To I liken to Alex or am I repulsed? The question of whether to like or to be repulsed by Alex is eventually answered in the closing shot, where we see them about to commit the rape from a wide-angle point-of-view shop of the rapee’s husband (Is ‘rapee’ the technical term?) It is concluded that we are disgusted by his actions, yet previously we enjoyed them and casually chuckled at them – does this film say something about how humans are inherently sadistic and cruel, that we find violence funny? If so, it is ironic to think that the media at the time criticised the film’s violence, when the film is actually satirising those who commit the violence, and indeed satirising us by wagging a finger at us and saying: you shouldn’t laugh at somebody who’s about to be gang-raped, no matter what musical number they are chanting.

The final shot of the rape scene

The final shot of the rape scene

Then we get to the state. Indeed, the film is as bitter and cynical about the government as it is about Alex DeLarge, perhaps even more bitter. The basics of satire is that if you exaggerate questionable views to such an extreme level, the views are no longer celebrated, but mocked. Subtle satire is not effective, no matter how you try to argue it – satire should be blunt, unforgiving and hyperbolic: like a bludgeon to the face, a brick to your head, or a ceramic sculpture of a dick to your nose. A Clockwork Orange is unsubtle and does have a sculpture of a penis being used as a weapon – therefore, it is undeniably satirical genius. Exaggeration is primarily employed in the performances: the prison warden, P.R Deltoid, the priest, F. Alexander are all exaggerated to such an extreme level that you laugh at them.

VERY EXTREME PERFORMANCE

VERY EXTREME PERFORMANCE

The way the government treats Alex is also disturbing. The brainwashing scenes are uncomfortable, but the way he is brutally treated when he is let out is arguably more uncomfortable than the rape scene, because of how long it lasts for. His head his dunked into a basin of water, and he is striked repeatedly. This moment of violence is done in one long take, which feels like it’s lasting forever, and when Alex’s head is removed from the basin, he’s not just the only person who’s relieved, we are as well.
A Clockwork Orange also rips apart the hypocrisy of religion as well. Indeed, throughout the book and the film, The Bible is known as ‘The Good Book’. The film explores the amount of violence within The Bible and the overtly-sexual nature of it, so at once we are posed the question of whether religion is really justified to provide a ‘moral authority’ where certain sections of The Old Testament are as repulsive as the rape that Alex commits. Indeed, Alex doesn’t like “the preachy part” of The Bible, but the lovely, juicy violent and rapey bits. Essentially, religion, government and criminals are all as bad as each other.
The most striking point about the film (and of course, the book), is that the state’s treatment of Alex is just as disgusting as Alex’s treatment of his victim’s. But the fundamental difference between the book and the film is that the film omits the final chapter. In the final chapter of the book, Alex decides to quit violence and to ‘grow up’, and thus the message of the book is that it’s better to have the choice to do wrong as opposed to having it stripped away from you. The film’s missing out of this chapter ends on a more cynical note, the final line is “I was cured alright”, and thus the government hasn’t managed to invent a successful scheme to stop violence and Alex submits to his old ways. The book answers the question about free-will, whereas the film poses it. If anything, this is why I prefer the film.

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