The Stanley Kubrick Project: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen A Clockwork Orange before, but the odd thing is, I can’t recall exactly when. This fuzziness is particularly irritating because I am then also uncertain I had actually seen it, although I was intimately familiar with the visuals, and the script. We’ll see if I can cut through this muddle later, as I try to examine Clockwork and its effect on my life.

Journalistic integrity out of the way: A Clockwork Orange is the tale of Alex, a young man in a near-future, depressed England, who, with his mates, lives a life of “What’ll it be, then?” Bored, facing no future prospects whatsoever, they spend nights beating up other gangs, beating up tramps, stealing cars, invading homes and raping and beating their occupants. When Alex savagely puts down an uprising in his ranks, the offended gang leave him for the police when their next bout of burglary goes bad. Alex spends the next two years in prison for murder (of a 14 year sentence), and finagles his way into a program that will supposedly cure him of his anti-social tendencies, and get him released from prison in two weeks time.

“The Ludovico Technique” involves shooting Alex full of drugs that -among other things – induce nausea while he is forced to watch movies of violence, rape, and war. This instills in him a Pavlovian response whenever confronted with violence or, shockingly, a nude woman – immediate, immobilizing nausea. The Minister spearheading the project declares him “The Perfect Christian” – always willing to turn the other cheek. What they have produced, however, is The Perfect Victim. Alex is released into a savage world that he once negotiated so effortlessly, and finds himself again and again in the clutches of those he had wronged before: the tramp, his old gangmates now in uniform as police officers, even the now-paralyzed and widowed victim of the home invasion, who uses Alex’s own beloved Beethoven – now rendered an instrument of torture due to its inclusion on the soundtrack of one of the movies shown to him in the clinic – as a means to drive him to attempt suicide.

Alex survives, and somehow, while he is still in a coma, doctors manage to reverse the effect of the Technique. Alex now finds himself back to his normal, depraved state, with one important addition: He now has political clout.

Apparently, after 2001, Kubrick was planning to do a movie on Napoleon. Then Waterloo, starring Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer hit theaters in 1970 and… well, suffice to say, that movie met its Waterloo at the box office. So Kubrick did what he had often done before: he headed in the opposite direction.

After the mega-expensive and expansive 2001, he decided to prove he could do a low budget movie – much to the dismay of his producer, no doubt. Clockwork is shot using mainly natural light, and a tiny Lowell light kit, which is good for student films but a far cry from most productions. There was only one set built – the Korova Milk Bar. And if the future seems very 70s, with shiny mylar surfaces and bright colors, purple and yellow and blue wigs, a future with Selectric typewriters and vinyl records and very tiny cassettes – well, it was the 70s.

A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971 to an England which was in a state of social turmoil, truthfully, not too terribly far off from the world of the movie. The effect was dramatic; on the one hand, it was a top money-maker for Warner Brothers. On the other, as video games had not yet been invented, Clockwork Orange was identified as the root cause for all evil in the land. ‘Twas ever thus, and continues to this day: People on the docket for hideous crimes claim they did it because they saw it on TV, or in the movies. Kubrick himself received several death threats against himself and his family, and at that point, he requested Warner Brothers remove it from distribution in the UK; it was, in fact, impossible to see it in a theater there until after Kubrick’s death.

I do not think its sudden disappearance made much difference in the level of crime and violence in the country. But that’s rather beside the point, now.

When first released in the US, Orange received an X rating from the MPAA; this was later amended to an R, probably due more to the pornography industry taking over the disastrously un-trademarked X rating than any real loosening of moral standards. In the intervening years, it has to be said that its reputation as a violent movie has been overtaken by broadcast TV. There isn’t even all that much blood in Orange. What is there is quite a bit of female nudity, which in close proximity to the violence is unsettling, and the primary reason the all-out assault of the first half-hour of the movie still packs a punch. But it is still a diminished punch, in this day and age, and it becomes much easier to regard the movie as the jet-black comedy it was always intended to be.

If there is a message in Clockwork Orange, it’s that the removal of free will removes the essence of what it is to be human. The prison chaplain complains that the cure has removed from Alex the ability to consciously make the moral choice between good and evil, and therefore redemption is impossible. It is significant that, back during the filming of Dr. Strangelove, Terry Southern handed Kubrick the American version of Anthony Burgess’  A Clockwork Orange, which for some reason excised the final chapter, in which a more adult Alex, having reformed his gang, nonetheless makes the decision to disband it and attempt to build an actual future for himself. Kubrick’s movie omits that chapter, too, and Burgess never truly forgave him for that.

I know I normally scoff at the idea of entertainment being a direct cause of violence in the real world. However. My best friend in high school, as I got to know him better, I discovered was a Clockwork Orange fanatic. Had the whites, the bowler, the false eyelash, everything. He had recently moved to town from a nearby college burg, and his friends back there had a similar bent. Now here is the thing: though he had seen the movie – several times, I must assume – it was only that first half hour he chose to concentrate upon. The other two hours, with Alex suffering the tortures of the damned (and an incredibly game Malcolm MacDowell suffering too, I must say)? Not even on the radar, I fear.

This puzzles me. At the time, I had not seen Orange, and in that period before VCRs (hell, even something called HBO was still a few years away), I wasn’t going to anytime soon. I found one of those books that was an illustrated screenplay, a couple of black-and-white screen shots per page, and that may be why I am so familiar with the imagery. Of course, my friend played the soundtrack constantly, so that may also play into why I feel I had seen it before.

Time passed, we drifted further and further apart, and eventually parted ways in college. But that still troubles me; why did he feel that was something to emulate? What had Kubrick touched on there, what nerve had he plucked? Because I don’t think my friend was alone. Hell, I know he wasn’t alone in that desire to play dress-up, to imitate that swagger, that aggression. I just can’t imagine why, and I think I’m glad that I can’t perceive it.

2 Comments

  1. […] Kubrick’s determination to use natural light as much as possible – given a dry run on A Clockwork Orange – yields astounding pictures of great beauty, again echoing the paintings of that era. Where […]

  2. […] surprised anyone is beyond me, given the changes made to the paper versions of Lolita, Red Alert, A Clockwork Orange and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. It is easier and far more common to pick up and read a book – […]


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