A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Director:  Stanley Kubrick
Cast:  Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates
Plot:  In future Britain, charismatic delinquent Alex DeLarge is jailed and volunteers for an experimental aversion therapy developed by the government in an effort to solve society's crime problem... but not all goes to plan.

Genre:  Crime / Drama / Sci-Fi

Awards:  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.
Runtime:  136min
Rating:  R21 for strong violence, nudity, and sexual content.

Highly controversial.  Notorious.  Banned.  These are some of the words that one would associate with the screen version of Anthony Burgess’ brilliant dystopian novel, adapted and directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick. 

Nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture and Director, A Clockwork Orange is most certainly a landmark in the history of cinema.  After forty years, it has not lost its impact and doesn’t look its age.  It is a great film, but in my opinion, it is not Kubrick’s greatest as some critics would purport it to be.

Starring Malcolm McDowell as lead character Alex, A Clockwork Orange is a sharp and satirical commentary on politics and society, imbued with Kubrick’s trademark dark humor and cold vision of a future world where anarchy prevails in factions and the threat of totalitarianism strong.  

Alex and his gang of thuggish delinquents seek gratification in ultra-violence and rape, preying on drunken old men and vulnerable women, until one day they set Alex up.  This is where Kubrick’s film gets more nightmarishly interesting as we see Alex taken advantage of by the state in a new psychological experiment termed the Ludovico technique as a cure for criminal behavior.

Kubrick starts his film with a series of hard-hitting scenes depicting violence and rape, accompanied by classical music and most unforgettably, Alex’s rendition of 'Singin’ in the Rain'.  

The film’s visuals are stunning, with strategic lighting points to emphasize the detachment of warmth from the shots, especially in the interior scenes of the residences of the old man and his wife, and the woman in green tights.  The use of tracking shots, slow-motion, and fast-forward editing may look gimmicky and excessive but in the whole context of the film’s visual style, they fit in a playful way.

Credit to Kubrick’s screenplay, which manages to give Alex a transformative character arc that is not only fascinating but depressing to witness as well.  We sympathize with Alex despite his evil doings because after all, what is more evil than a government “torturing” its citizen to gain a political advantage?  Besides being satirical and bold, A Clockwork Orange is also a strong allegory to the depravity and madness of the Vietnam War at that time, a subject Kubrick would further explore in Full Metal Jacket (1987).

The necessity of evil in the nature of Man and his capacity for violence are explored literally through the eyes of Alex as he juxtaposes his actions with that of “others”.  Why do people turn violent?  Is it because of societal ills?  Of an individual’s lust for sadism?  Or of something else inherent in us that is motivated by an unexplainable cause?  

Moreover, violence may not necessarily point to the brute physicality of the act, but could be construed as psychological torture as well, which is both a trigger to violence and also its consequence.

My observation here is that Kubrick might have intended A Clockwork Orange to be less cinematic (ironically, this is despite his extravagant use of techniques to “cinematize” his film) by being more critically reflective of the power of cinema to reveal, though not always directly, the tension between the psychology of a person and his or her relation to the environment.  Not surprisingly, Kubrick uses Alex as a tool to critique the government’s use of psychological torture as a solution to violence when the former is violence itself.

Herein lies the greatness of A Clockwork Orange.  It is not cinema in the classical (or even contemporary) sense, but a screen equivalent of a provocative stab at the human condition. When we deny a human being a choice to be evil, are we also denying him his humanity? 

The film’s ambivalent ending leaves us with more doubts to grapple with.  Though not as groundbreaking as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or as satirically potent as Dr. Strangelove (1964), A Clockwork Orange remains to be a Kubrick masterpiece.  It frustrates, angers, provokes, and ultimately floors you in ways unlike that of other great films.


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