A Clockwork Orange December 11, 2017
2 Hrs., 16 Mins.
tanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) is a snarl of moral dilemmas, social commentary, and cinematic reinvention, all supplemented by the sounds of Ludwig van Beethoven and ghastly screams. Visceral and unfailing in its capacity to disturb, to watch it is to be provoked by it; entertainment is not an obstacle faced in its labyrinth of provocation.
It is concerned with the teenage Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a classic “angry young man” of the period who’s turned to violence to relieve his various disaffections. Continuously followed around by a pack of pals he calls his “droogs,” Alex stalks the city streets looking for a fight on a nightly basis. Sometimes he and his pack even knock on the doors of random inhabitants of the greater London area, inflicting physical and sexual violence onto whoever welcomes them in. (In one of the movie’s most callous sequences, the delinquents insert themselves into the home of a writer and his wife, where the latter’s raped and the husband’s forced to watch.)
It could be argued that such scenes dehumanize the victims. When classical music isn’t subversively playing in the background, Alex sings “Singin’ in the Rain” while the frenetic photography spins about as if it were capturing vaudeville. But it could also be noted that Kubrick is simply showcasing the world as his anti-hero sees it. While ugly, this POV is fascinating: Kubrick convincingly clarifies that this young man, along with his friends, does not actually understand the weight of his actions.
The movie continues on this dastardly path for most of its first act. But then the comedown begins around the time the first hour comes to a close. After brutally murdering a cat-obsessed eccentric living on the outskirts of town, Alex is caught by the police, sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Then A Clockwork Orange sours further. In the second act, we watch in horror as Alex is tortured by law enforcement officials into essentially becoming “good.” For the third, we see him released early on good behavior, tormented by a public that won’t have him, and, finally, strangely martyred.
These disconnects in tonality work to movie’s benefit. It’s a feature so kaleidoscopic in its variety of controversial declarations, it’s bound to prompt heated discussions even among those who can hardly stand it.
The more you try to untangle its jumble of intellectual and visual ideas, the knottier A Clockwork Orange becomes. Throughout its opening, it is a character study, unflinching and meaningfully stylized. For the entirety of its middle, it is a feature-length probing of whether the punishment thrust upon criminals by the government is that much less heinous. Within its long-winded finale, it asks if it is actually possible for a rapist and murderer to be “cured.” And when Alex is fashioned into a political tool during the final few moments, it also wonders if society is propelled by much else besides ego and monetary gain.
These ideas are all dealt with thoughtfully and humorously (albeit darkly), buoyed by a performance by McDowell that’s so courageous (and brutal) that we consistently ponder if any sort of sympathy directed toward this monster is earned. Kubrick has made a strange, stylish, and perceptive social commentary meant to unsettle. I want to criticize it for perpetuating quasi-alienation in terms of viewing, but a film dealing with a sadist, as well as corrupted law enforcers, is supposed to be more sickening than riveting. We aren't supposed to embrace it.
A Clockwork Orange still does struggle with keeping us engaged, especially during the final act. Because it begins so bombastically, we expect that chutzpah to inform the rest of the film – and it does not. Once Alex is done terrorizing the general public, the movie becomes more interesting to talk about than to watch. Before, a kind of compulsive watchability made it compelling. Once the atrocities come to a close, we’re inclined to think Kubrick should've abbreviated his later commentaries ever so slightly. (Though maybe not with the same speed of the inventively edited sex scene that occurs toward the film’s beginning.)
But even when A Clockwork Orange loses some of its intensity, it remains a tour de force of style and of editing. So much of it is influential. The colorful opening credits and the fluid camerawork predate the seditious stylistics of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). The inaugural shot, which closes in on Alex’s sneering face only to slowly zoom outward, has become one of the more popular ways to introduce — or end — a movie. The innovative usage of fast and slow motion would become integral in music videos and arthouse cinema. The purposely ill-matched soundtrack foreshadows the artistic techniques employed by Quentin Tarantino and modern-day superhero flicks. The singer Lana Del Rey's 2014 sophomore LP, Ultraviolence, references one of the movie's many questionable concepts.
So much of the time, though, we admire A Clockwork Orange much more than we enjoy it. Though even saying one enjoys it seems an ill-fitting statement as well. So we must consider that so often is a movie’s greatness defined by how it made an impact on the period. Judging the way cinema looked the decade preceding 1971, A Clockwork Orange wasn’t just unequaled — it was also groundbreaking. B-