Sunday, 21 November 2010

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Country: UK/USA

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange

I should start this review by saying I’m not a fan of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, which was first published in 1962. I first encountered it as an impressionable seventeen year old at college (this experience seems to be a very common rites of passage, at least in the UK) and I found it to be a reactionary and highly conservative work of Orwellian propaganda. Beneath the layers of linguistic game playing (his use of slang language for the delinquent gang is more irritating than anything else) there beats a right wing heart. This element never totally leaves Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay, especially in the camera’s adoration of the narcissistic fascist pretensions of the films anti-hero Alex. The politics of the film are more ambiguous than the novel though, but both share an interest in stylistic radicalism. In both film and book this helps to mask the socio/political intensions of both authors. However the synergy between Kubrick’s visual and aural experimentation provides a resonance that makes certain set piece sequences far more troubling than anything that appears in the novel.

There is no doubt in my mind that Kubrick’s film is far superior to the novel (something he also achieved with The Shining) and the response to the film by the UK press is an indication that Kubrick had done something with his film that the novel hadn’t. For a start the film possesses a sense of humour that contributes immeasurably to a satirical tone that reminds one of Dr. Strangelove (1964). This created a moral vacuum within the film when scenes of violence are played for slapstick farce; a trick Kubrick would use later in the first half of Full Metal Jacket (1987). The cynicism and nihilism present in the film switches from the gang rape and violence of Alex’s gang to the hypocrisies of the British government and modern psychological procedures. This reversal in the second half of the film is particularly troubling because it repositions Alex as a tragic figure, the voice over narration coming into its own when Alex is in prison. From preying on society (the assault on the tramp, the home invasion sequence, and the death of the cat lady) Alex becomes a victim of it; the problem is that Kubrick does not adjust the way in which he frames and composes the character. Throughout Alex is a monumental character, shot in low wide angles and invested with a power, charisma and arrogance that is only occasionally diminished.

The science-fictional elements of the narrative extend to the odd bit of production design or costume. A plethora of weird costumes and colours (the record store scene), an absurdly low to the ground sports car, the desolate and characterless architecture of Alex’s housing estate, and the chic futurism of the Korova Milk Bar. What science-fiction does provide though is a metaphoric and allegorical dimension which adds even more layers of ambiguity to the principal themes of the film. The cavalcade of saturated hues, cartoonish violence (the fight in an abandoned theatre), and the gallery of eccentric and grotesque characters (Alex’s parole officer for example) gives the film an artificiality; an on screen signifier of aesthetic construction that to me at least has the effect of distancing one from the events of the film. This is why I have never had any problems with the sexually violent scenes. Kubrick does not aim for realism, but continuously emphasises the nature of filmmaking as an artistic concept. The soundtrack contributes much to this and Kubrick continues in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in his attitude to sound design. In both films classical selections are used to counterpoint the screen action. The use of The Thieving Magpie in the home invasion sequence and the clash between high and low culture signalled by Alex’s rendition of Singin’ in the Rain is one the most effective. My personal favourite is a hyperactive electronic version of the William Tell Overture which plays over speeded up footage of a threesome. The classical selections are used in tandem with the synthetic experimentations of Walter Carlos, a further clash of cultures which creates a cool detachment that mirrors the clinical eye of Kubrick’s camera.

In addition to the government (which is depicted as an odious and wheedling force), the psychiatric profession (which is depicted as dark and cruel and merciless in its determination to mete out the Ludovico Treatment) art and culture is also under attack. In Kubrick’s film there are no critical elites to defend high art, this is a world in which any sense of a cultural hierarchy is dirtied and rubbished. Modern art becomes a phallic murder weapon, and the music of Beethoven becomes (along with the bible) a masturbatory aid to fantasies of sadistic violence. It is ironic that Kubrick utilises the full artistic and aesthetic means of cinema in order to articulate this descent into cultural depravity. A Clockwork Orange is a decadent dystopian fable in which the gossamer strands of control that keep society in check have been severed. A world in which right and wrong have lost their distinction and in which the violent and sexual excesses of Alex and his band of misfit followers take on a spiritual grandeur which positions them as heroes in a truly dysfunctional society.
© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. I've never read the book, but love the movie. I like the points you make on the movie about the artificiality of the film. This is something I noticed, especially in those scenes where Alex and the gang are riding around in their car, with the background being an obvious projection.

    I always saw this movie as Kubricks way of commenting on power and its abuse. Alex is a teenager (well, in the book he is anyways, so I've heard) and in this sense, he has the power of youth on his side. Which he constantly abuses. He attacks the homeless and the elderly, he rapes women, he even attacks his own mates when his power is defied.

    For all intents and purposes, Alex is an out of control youth. What the movie does tells us is to control these violent urges, or else someone will control them for you. In this case, the government.

    Control the power you are giving in life to do what you want, because if you use it against society by killing, raping, and stealing, society will have to reel you in and force you to behave properly.

    Do you rather have control over your own actions, or would you rather have someone force you to do good? That scene where Alex is forced to lick the shoe is a key sequence in transmitting these ideas.

  2. Thanks for commenting Franco :-)

    I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the principal themes of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I believe in the book the character is 14 or 15 years old, still a schoolboy. You should certainly give the book a red, it is an interesting comparison piece, but I find it a frustrated and dissatsifying read, the total opposite to Kubrick's film - which is a pleasure to watch.

  3. An excellent review of another excellent film Shaun, I still have yet to read the book as well, but I really love the film. Satire hasn't been laid on this thick since Voltaire!

  4. Thanks for the kind words Carl, it is very much appreciated and inspires me to continue. The book is a take it or leave it kinda thing for me, whereas the film is essential.

  5. Hi, Just come across this review. Interesting article, even though the film had a very different effect on me.

    Oddly enough the novel is the only Anthony Burgess book I DID like. I think for teenagers the next rite of passage is looking up his other works expecting more adrenaline-fueled ultra-violence and instead finding embarrasing, flatulent middle-brow works with ludicrous plot and dialogue. His ridiculous comb over seemed to pretty much reflect his book: a veneer of pomposity over nothing.

    Anyway as for the film, I have mixed feelings over the surreal elements. I thought the scene where Billy Boy and his gang attempt to rape that 'healthy girl' (as Ms Slocombe would say) was gruesome precisely because it did depict rape as a striptease.

    Aside from that though, I thought it was an excellent film.

  6. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment Gregor. I confess I haven't read anything else by Mr. Burgess, after A CLOCKWORK ORANGE I didn't feel particularly inclined too.

  7. Several issues here:

    You suggest that the glorifying of adolescent violence is meant as a sign of a truly dysfunctional society.

    It was not meant thus. Violence in the clockwork orange is argued to be 'natural' to some human beings.

    Instead, the moral discussion is foccussed on whether pavlovian means are a humane way to deal with such inevitable urges.

    Secondly, art and culture are under attack, but not in the absolute sense i get from your review.

    While 'high art' is employed by the degraded in their heinous acts, Imo Burgess intended us to question if art truly makes a person cultured (the people who ran auszwitch listened to beethoven), Alex's love for Beethoven and the Bible arguable sets him apart from the rest as a person of good taste.

    In short, art doesnt make one more civilized, though it reflects good taste. Good taste and being 'cultured' are different, according to Burgess.

    While I can understand your frustration with the diction in the novel, I strongly suggest you rephrase the way you described it.

    While it may be perplexing and indeed frustrating to first-time readers, those who bother to look up the linguistic roots of the make-believe words may find it very rewarding.

    The words created have multiple meanings in multiple languages, adding a depth of meaning that a single language would be unable to convey). I wont go further into the language of the novel, but it is significant in many ways, at least to some people.

    So again, please take pains that you do not turn would-be readers off a book which they may find linguistically interesting

  8. Thanks for the eloquent and well articulated comment. I take all your points on board. I dont feel the need to rephrase the way I describe anything in this review. If my review turns would be readers of the book, and I'd be very surprised if it did, then I wouldnt be bothered in the least. For me this is the whole point of creating a blog, to say what I feel about something. Naturally this may create debate and I'm very happy you have come along to defend the linguistic aspects of the novel. Hopefully people will read the review, and your response to it, and come away with something approximating a balanced view. In many ways I hope for comments like yours, to offer an alternative view to my own...many thanks!

  9. I loved the novel and the film is my favorite of all time. I think the novel is as important as the film. It puts you on the point of view of the character without any restraints; you read everything he thinks, exactly how he talks, etc. This whole thing is taken brilliantly to the screen by Kubrick, but we must never forget the originality of the new slang created for the novel, the social importance and universality of the themes, the fact that the character is so up-to-date and how the author refrains himself from being politically correct or academically approvable to show Alex in his true flesh and soul. The readers are his only real friends throughout the adventure, and he wants us to understand him no matter how “flawed” he is.
    Another thing I don't quite agree is the right-wing association with the film / novel. In my opinion it's a direct and fully fledged philosophical question to humanity, quite opposite to the fascist spectrum. It plays with our impressions very intelligently: Alex is first shown in all its cruelty and then we understand the real value of his life and the torture he endures, being a victim of both left extremists and the right ("victim of the modern age"). Plus, in both mediums, and especially in the novel, the minister that is part of the oppressive government is clearly the bad guy, for he employs Alex's former partners in the police, and then tries to compensate Alex's misfortunes with materialist offerings (new job, good salary), thus the final image of Alex raping a girl in the clouds with a very entertained aristocracy: chaos becomes applauded by a detached, bourgeois society, and this serves as a question to the viewer: are you simply enjoying the show or actually doing something to prevent a fascist rule that comes into being through the control of crime? Though Kubrick may seem ambiguous in the way that he shows something, it's because he's inclined to make you think, displaying both sides of the matter as you would do in a philosophical essay. However, it is clear that his worries are as deep as the ones of a genuine humanist: how do we deal with crime without being brutal? How can we expect for a criminal to reform in a modern jail ("It had not been edifying. Indeed not. Being in this hellhole and human zoo for two years now, O my brothers"). Are we to trust the mainstream media? In the end Alex becomes a victim of many things, among them a political rivalry, showing in the clear light of day how politics works. You can't get more humanist than that.
    Good review by the way!

  10. Thanks very much Federico for your detailed response. I'm glad my review has generated some debate and inspired you to put finger to keyboard. I'm even happier that you found things to disagree with :-)

  11. Federico ( April 2011 at 09:14

    Shaun, it is a pleasure for me to find such an interesting site and such a well-manered, intelligent reviewer. I've always wanted to write film reviews on a website but I have always been lazy trying to make my own blog!

  12. Much appreciated Federico, im glad you find some value in my efforts :-) y'know it really isn't too much hassle creating a blog. I guess it all depends what your motivation is. I always set out just to have a space where I could put my writings - if anyone commented or chose to follow I've always considered that an unexpected bonus. Some people covet generating traffic and getting hundreds of followers, I personally think that takes the fun out of it. The reviews are the main thing, so if you have the spare time to write them, you should create your own blog.

  13. Its interesting that looking back on the 60`s and 70`s A Clockwork Orange now comes across as a piece of garbage that Kubrick literally threw together (just for something to do and to keep himself in "film-making trim", as it were) between the 2 supreme masterworks of his life as a film-maker: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon. I`m not kiddin` Shaun, when i saw A Clockwork Orange for the first time about 10 years ago i couldn`t believe what a laughable pile of crap it was and it was initially very difficult to convince myself that it was made by the same person who made those other 2 towering, incredible and influential achievements of world cinema.

  14. I agree with parts of what you say - I do think 2001 was his best film, and I think highly of BARRY LYNDON too, but I've never thought of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in the terms you mention. I think it's great film, not overrated or overappreciated at all...unlike THE SHINING.


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