I guess those of us who are familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s incredibly unique film-making style would have at least heard of his infamous “A Clockwork Orange”. The man was really like none other; his dark, satirical humour, his unique vision and storytelling styles always push their messages across so effectively to his audiences that we will definitely remember them. Whenever I think of Kubrick, I think of the nuclear bomb going off to We’ll Meet Again in Dr Strangelove, or the lush scenery in Barry Lyndon. And yet, it seems like none of these films will ever match up to the audaciousness of A Clockwork Orange.
A Clockwork Orange is also known as one of the two X-rated films then to be nominated for best picture, with the other being Midnight Cowboy (1969). The film aims to be a social commentary in future Britain, where violence is something that is already deeply entrenched in the roots of society. When I first read the synopsis, I was expecting an extremely brutal and graphic film, which was what I got, but at the same time, the reaction that it evoked in me wasn’t quite what I expected. Maybe it’s because of what I’ve seen in violent films nowadays that has made me somewhat desensitised to blood and gore, which was something that I expected. In one of my classes, I was taught this phrase called “marrying the dichotomy”, where two opposite ends of something are put together. Watching Kubrick’s movies just reminded me of this phrase: the strange, dark comic tone adopted in Dr Strangelove, a movie about nuclear warfare, and the realistic depiction of violence set in a peculiar futuristic society in A Clockwork Orange. Contrasting two elements together always makes one stand out even more, and over here it is very effectively utilised. In this futuristic world of A Clockwork Orange, everybody has this pseudo-Shakespeare way of speaking, and their fashion styles are the very definition of “eccentric”, like how the ladies have neon-coloured hair. Yet, beneath the peculiarity is an inherent problem of crime in society that has never ceased to be relevant; gang fights, rape, robberies, and corruption and police brutalities. Initially, the kind of violence that I expected from this film is the gratuitous, over-exaggerated kind that is depicted too commonly nowadays: decapitation, chainsaws, massacres, explosions etc (I know, I know, don’t judge me). Yet, the more realistic violence that is portrayed here made me feel a little sick while I was watching the film. It could be the peculiarity of the film that makes the actions of the main character Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell) stand out more, but Kubrick goes one step further to add in cheerful and typically positive elements to highlight the pervasion of these crimes, such as Alex’s love for Beethoven music. In one notoriously infamous rape scene, Alex breaks into the house of a writer and rapes his wife in front of him while singing to “Singing in the Rain”. In another scene, the use of Beethoven music was used as a torture device (you need to watch it in the context of the film).
It’s easy to see why some will hate this movie; watching the author’s wife squirm while Alex cuts away her clothes (and “Singing in the Rain”) is enough to offend the most conservative audiences. Yet, I feel that the film isn’t being exploitative or graphic just purely for the sake of it. The story follows Alex’s arrest, and how he opted for a special “treatment” that can cure him of his evil ways and make him a better person. Naturally, in 1984 style, the treatment involves a forced, introduced aversion towards violence, where the subject is forced to watch graphic films continuously with his eyelid pried open. The film explores the concept of whether one’s violent nature is a result of the environment or something that is innate. Even though the brutal treatment has resulted in an introduced fear of sex and violence, it was always implied that such behaviour was a result of his natural impulse. The film also uses this to explore the concept of a totalitarian society, where criminals become “manufactured products” made to act and think in a certain way, and ex-gangsters could now become policemen. Other themes that were also well-explored are society’s prejudice of ex-convicts, and the resentment towards them. Strangely enough, you find yourself (or at least I did) feeling sorry for the “reformed” Alex as his ex-gang-members-turned-policemen beat him up, and when his own parents refuse to let him return to the house. It’s not just Alex who is “evil”; this is a depiction of a society that is rotten inside out, like when the homeless people rob Alex’s belongings.
There are so many fascinating elements about this film that I could write about, but I don’t think it’s enough for one post. I love the amount of detail Kubrick invested in the sets; the fashion and hairstyles, the colourful interiors of the houses and the way they were shot, the creepy naked statues in the bar that dispense drinks from the nipples (!?), the nude paintings and phallic sculptures – all these details bit by bit contribute in creating a sick and twisted world that is genuinely ahead of the film’s time.
The satirical tone of the film that seems to be mocking Government bureaucracies and the hassles of administrative procedures is also evident, like the exaggerated regimentation in prison. And of course, the abit too cheerful soundtrack that always plays while crime is happening, making you giddy at how sick the whole situation is. I wouldn’t say I love it, because it’s hard to love this film and I don’t think you are supposed to enjoy it per se, but there are a lot of things to admire. Malcolm McDowell should have been nominated for Best Actor (and win, in my opinion, but Gene Hackman was fantastic so can’t complain) for his sickening, brutal and twisted portrayal of Alex, the delinquent. He knew EXACTLY how to handle Kubrick’s over-the-top material; the peculiar way of speaking (referring to rape as “classic in-out, in-out”), the singing and dancing during the rape scene, and then his eventual downfall following his treatment. It’s one of the most fascinating and disgusting characters I’ve seen on screen. (IMDB TRVIA: Apparently, Gene Kelly was incredibly offended by McDowell’s portrayal and he walked away in disgust when he saw McDowell at a party several years later)
A Clockwork Orange: Is it for everyone? Definitely not. It will make the most conservative and prudish squirm in disgust, and I can totally understand why some hate this movie so much. Yet I find this film such an original, daring and insightful look at violence in society. It’s hard to say I enjoyed it, and yet this is the one time I don’t let this aspect get into the way of my appreciation for the movie. 5/5.