A Clockwork Orange: A reappraisal of Stanley Kubrick’s allegorical masterpiece

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Every Kubrick fan has, at least, one “strangely cryptic” film that the visionary director has made, whose meaning, significance and reason for existence seem to have escaped them upon initial viewing. However, they found themselves coming back to it months or years later and ultimately discovering one or more things that once remained elusive to them. They still may not have all the answers yet they are finally elated at the thought of having deciphered at least something about that film. Steven Spielberg once said in an interview that he did not love Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove initially but only after repeat viewings did he finally understand what it was all about and really admired what Kubrick had done with it. He now regards it as one of his favorite films. And when he said that Kubrick films tend to grow on you, I was nodding my head in agreement. I myself had a similar experience. The film is A Clockwork Orange, his most provocative film this side of  Eyes Wide Shut. This was a film that I thought was so bizarre and disturbing at first because it had several elements that upset and haunted me for a little while.

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Set in a dystopian future, the film follows the life of a teenage protagonist, Alex DeLarge, whose principal interests are, as the poster for the film describes, “rape, ultra-violence, and Beethoven”. The only part that is relatable about him is Beethoven. The rest, not so much. He spends his time with his “droogs” at the Korova Milk Bar getting kicks from a special drug-laced milk called “Milk Plus”. This gives him the necessary boost to go out into the night and commit random acts of violence, including rape. After a nice evening of “energy expenditure”, they go back to the bar for a final glass of milk and then it is time for bed, but not before Alex’s customary masturbation session with a bit of the old Ludwig Van playing in the background. Alex doesn’t tolerate dissent or any act of defiance, no matter how small, and would mete out severe punishments to anyone who would dare stand up to him. He gets an occasional visit from his “corrective officer” who enquires about his lack of attendance at school and starts wondering about his involvement in the violent crimes that’s been happening lately.

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During one of their “pleasure trips”, Alex brutally murders a woman with a phallus-shaped statue while his gang waits patiently outside with a nice surprise ready for him. When he comes out, they smash his face with a broken glass bottle and leave him there, his face drenched in blood. The police arrive and apprehend him. Inside the prison, Alex makes attempts to (or pretends to) reform himself and asks a priest about an experiment called “The Ludovico Technique”, which he happens to learn about. The experiment was developed with the intention of turning dangerous and violent criminals into good-natured, law abiding and harmless citizens. Alex hopes that by submitting himself to this experiment, he’ll have a good chance of getting out as soon as possible. He is told that this experiment might produce some undesirable and disastrous after effects but he doesn’t pay heed to these warnings. When the experiment begins, the authorities inject him with various drugs and use all his weaknesses against him until he starts to develop an aversion toward it. Seemingly cured, he is released into society once again. But what awaits him outside may not be really what he had anticipated.

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The film’s subject matter, needless to say, provoked a considerable amount of controversy during its release. But if you place it alongside many disturbing and shockingly provocative films from recent times, it seems tame in comparison. But this was 1971 and cinema was only beginning to get progressive. It was only two years ago that John Schlesinger came out with Midnight Cowboy  which was, until then, the only major motion picture to receive an “X” rating from the MPAA. A Clockwork Orange would be the second. Even though Kubrick was no stranger to controversy, the impact of this film was so huge that it kind of backfired on him. As a result of some copycat crimes that were being reported in the media, Kubrick was forced to remove the film from all the theaters in U.K and it would remain unseen until after his death in 1999. Now this was all happening despite the fact that several eminent critics had nice things to say about it. The film has aged well and there still continues to be several debates on the meaning of the film among Kubrick fans and non-fans alike.

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So what was Kubrick really trying to say here? This is the question that pops into everyone’s mind after seeing it – provided, of course, that they had the stomach to sit through all of it. Kubrick himself has said that it was about free will and morality. As the priest himself tells Alex in one scene, “A man who cannot choose ceases to be a man.” The absence of free will renders someone an automaton and this is what the title may be alluding to. “A clockwork” means an automaton and “orange” is a slang for strange behavior. The title may either be referring to Alex or rather society in general. The film may be Kubrick’s twisted way of saying that one should celebrate one’s individuality. Many people seem to have missed this point. To everyone else in the story, Alex is the odd one and he thinks the same way about them. Everyone is trying to appear normal but for Alex, whatever he does is “normal” to him. That’s how he feels alive in an alienating and claustrophobic society such as his. Everyone seems to display signs of some or other repressed emotion. Even his corrective officer reveals him to be a pervert when he grabs his crotch in one scene. But Alex has no problem expressing all of his.

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This brings me to a line that this officer says. He asks Alex why he behaves this way despite having such a warm home with nice and loving parents to look after him. He seems to want for nothing yet he commits these horrendous acts. We  have a good character study here which prompts us to ask several questions. Does a man turn evil due to the circumstances he was brought up in? Have his parents got anything to do with it? Why would he want to be an evil person if his parents are good-natured? No clear answers are given but I guess it’s safe to assume that some people are just born evil and that there is no point trying to reform them. We see and read about people like these us every day. The only chance of that person turning good is if he/she chooses to be. This story questions the validity of behavioral modification techniques. Alex may have genuinely felt the need to reform but perhaps the Ludovico treatment may have put an end to all that and we finally see Alex turning into someone who may or may not have become worse than how he initially was. But this time, he is a “government approved” maniac – a clockwork orange.

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The rape scene at the beginning of the film may have upset many back then but looks tame by today’s standards. Unlike some of the extremely violent films coming out today that shows everything in graphic and explicit detail, Kubrick cuts away before the actual act. But it can’t be denied that Alex’s repulsive behavior and the song he sings, “Singin’ in the Rain”, creates an unpleasant feeling even to this day. This scene can also be seen as a metaphor for how Alex’s presence affects everyone else around him. He is basically “violating” a rigidly conventional society by being different from everyone else. And it’s worth noting that the audiences felt the same way about the film and treated Kubrick exactly the way they would’ve treated Alex. Doesn’t the film behave like the Durango 95 sportscar that Alex drives? This is why I think the film is primarily about individuality. It  also examines the power of authority and its effect on an individual. Alex seems to display a contempt for authority and his rebellious nature and desire to form a “gang of droogs” with him as the leader seems like a response to that. But he is being a hypocrite when he himself behaves like the very people he despises.

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The film benefited greatly from Malcolm McDowell’s tour-de-force performance as the equally childish and menacing Alex and it’s his presence that drives the film. I may be wrong about one or all of the above interpretations but, is there really a definitive one? Everyone is invited to make their own interpretation(s)S and that’s where the beauty and power of this film lies. I haven’t read the novel it was based on (written by Anthony Burgess) but I heard that Kubrick omitted the optimistic and redemptive final chapter in the book. But I think I like this ending better. Although I didn’t think highly of the subject matter back then, I was very appreciative of Kubrick’s distinct filmmaking style. The hypnotic opening sequence with the electronic synthetic score, stunning production design, innovative cinematography and the use of classical music made quite an impression on me. Certain sequences were filmed in a heavily stylized manner in order to give us a sense of how Alex would imagine them. I now regard the film as a subversive masterpiece.


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