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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Clockwork Orange

Stanley Kubrick continued to produce movies that rocked the conventional boat. Released in early 1971, A Clockwork Orange (ACO) both shocked and amazed. Sometimes classified as horror, sometimes as crime drama, ACO is also sometimes labeled as sci-fi. Based on Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel, it is clearly a dystopic tale of the dark side of science and society. Much has already been written about the movie, so this review will not be a complete treatment. There are simply too many points for one essay.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Alex and his three "droogs" (gang members) are delinquent teens in a near-future Great Britain. They drink drug-laced milk in Milk Bars and hanker for "ultra-violence." That night, they beat up a drunken bum just for fun. They interrupt a rival gang attempting to rape a young woman. In the rumble that followed, Alex's gang gets the upper hand and savagely beats Billy's boys. Later, joyriding in a stolen car, they stop at an isolated house. They gain entry, break the legs of the husband (author Frank Alexander) and rape his wife. Back at the milk bar, a woman is singing the vocals from Beethoven's 9th symphony -- Alex's favorite. Gang member Dim starts to mock the music, but Alex whacks him hard. Tensions flare, but abate.The next day, skipping school to sleep in, Alex is visited by his post-corrections councilor, Mr. Deltoid, who got word of Alex's misadventures, but cautions him to keep his nose clean. Alex later visits a record shop, finds two pretty women and takes them home for some sex. Afterward, Alex finds his droogs waiting. They demand a new order. No more whacking Dim and Georgie wants to suggest more profitable capers. Alex says okay, but later ambushes and savages Dim and Georgie. Later, Alex's authority is supposedly reestablished. Georgie describes a caper, burglary of a closed health spa with only an old woman caretaker. They help Alex get in. The old woman is scrappy and fights back. Alex kills her with a big penis sculpture. When Alex leaves, his disgruntled gang members beat him up and leave him for the police to find. Revenge. Alex is then jailed for the murder of the cat-woman. In jail, Alex attaches himself to the prison chaplain's work. Having been good and gained the chaplain's trust (somewhat), Alex seeks to be chosen for an experimental treatment that is supposed to cure criminals and earn them early release. Alex is chosen. The treatment involves being given a serum (akin to antabuse) and forced to watch violent films. He gets violently ill and thus his body learns to "reject" violent and sexual-abuse thoughts. An unfortunate byproduct is that the films played Beethoven's 9th as background, so Alex is now violently averse to his favorite music. "Cured" Alex is released. He finds his parents have rented out his room and don't want him back. He encounters the old drunk who leads him under a bridge where other old drunks beat him up. Any effort to defend himself makes him sick, so he is helpless. When the police come, the two officers turn out to be Dim and Georgie (new jobs). They drive Alex out into the country to nearly drown him in a watering trough and beat him up. Badly hurt, Alex struggles back. He comes across a house and asks for help. It turns out to be Frank Alexander's house. Frank, now wheelchair bound, eventually recognizes Alex as the rapist that killed his wife, and the "cured" Alex in the newspapers. He secretly calls some friends who come and take Alex away. (drugged his wine) They want him to kill himself to discredit the government for their criminal-curing process. The friends play Beethoven very loudly. Alex, tormented, jumps from a high window. He does not die, but is severely injured and in the hospital. The suicide attempt has broken the conditioned response in Alex. He can think violent or sexual thoughts or listen to Beethoven, without getting sick. The Minister of the Interior promises Alex a cushy job for life to continue to be their poster boy for success. Alex agrees. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
"Fun" is not the word. Thought-provoking would fit better. ACO is a difficult movie to watch, given its stark portrayal of brutality and sexual violence. It is one of the X-rated movies to win awards, so the X material was not just there for the sake of it.

Cultural Connection
The social commentary aspect remains relevant. See notes below. As with his Dr. Strangelove and 2001, Kubric's films were not easy to categorize or simple to follow.

Two Faces of Evil -- ACO starts off with the more easily recognized face of evil -- Alex and his gang. As the film goes on, however, another and greater evil emerges -- the Modern Humanitarian State -- which uses its own scientific ultra-violence. In the end, brutal, savage Alex, is just a mere pawn of the vastly larger brutal state.

Dystopo-philia -- Burgess's novel included a final chapter in which Alex becomes truly reformed, sincerely seeing the error of his ways. American publishers of the novel wanted that last chapter left off, feeling that it was too pat, too tidy. The market for dystopia was growing -- especially in American culture. The gee-whiz euphoria of the 50s had pretty much evaporated. The American version is what Kubrik used for his screenplay. Hence Alex ending the film, not reformed, but simply co-opted into a larger arena of institutional violence.

New-Sexuality Satire -- A recurring background theme is satire on the new "open" sexuality of modern (1970) culture. Seems nearly every house is decorated with paintings of naked women as objects. The help spa had many, and a desk-sized penis sculpture as "art". Yet, the scientists worked to "cure" Alex of sexual thoughts when clearly obsession with and trivialization of sex had become a ubiquitous background.

Brutal Liberalism -- ACO satirizes the modern liberal notion of humanitarianism. Perhaps by no coincidence, I was just reading an essay by C.S. Lewis essay entitled, "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment." Lewis covers the exact same topic. Theories which seek to label crime as a sickness which can and should be cured, unintentionally dehumanize the criminal. As a guinea pig, he is fair game for experimentation -- which can be worse than the supposed badness of prisons. At one point, the chaplain complains about the experimental treatment on the grounds that, "Goodness comes from within. It must be chosen. When a man cannot choose, he is no longer a man." Conditioned Alex was not choosing to be good, but had no choice. Is a society of such programmed guinea pigs really a human one?

Assumed Anonymity -- Alex was the first to dehumanize. He saw his victims as mere objects -- and temporary ones at that -- in true existential form. The subtle subtext of the story speaks against the dehumanization of existentialism. Alex's victims all fail to be temporary. They come back into his life and extract their revenge. Alex finally realizing this (as in the omitted final chapter) caps this off. He realizes he is not the only consciousness in the universe and begins to act accordingly.

Ah, the Music -- The one feature that binds and drives ACO is the heavy use of classical music as the score. The contrast between gentile overtures and violence buffers the brutality into something surreal. Note the gang fight, set not to hard-driving punk riffs, but almost like a ballet -- set to Rossini. His "Thieving Magpie" and "William Tell Overture" figure strongly. You get "Pomp and Circumstance" (the traditional graduation theme) when Alex is transferred from prison to the clinic. Throughout, there are excerpts from Beethoven's 9th symphony. There are many other synthesized pieces too, created or adapted for the film. They enhance the surreal mood.

Bottom line? ACO is not an easy film to watch, but it is a very strong film. It is certainly not "Lite" viewing or family fare. There is much violence, some blood and more than occasional nudity. But those are not the reason for the film. Amid all that, is a dark dystopia in which people are consumed by "this modern age." ACO is definitely worth watching, but probably not on Date Night.


Randall Landers said...

A disturbing dystopia, to be sure. We're not to this point and time yet, and we may never be, but it's nonetheless a terrifying prospect.

One amusing note: South Park did a wonderful tribute/spoof of this film to a degree in BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT by having a device implanted in Eric Cartman to accomplish the same thing as Alex.

Lastly, Alex in a sense conquers his world as Alexander conquered his. A well-named character.

Nightowl said...

Hi Randall,
For me, the lingering angst in ACO's dystopia was the science-politics aspect. In the story, it was almost too large to be really seen, (Forest hidden by trees) yet was ever-present as the ghost animating the machine. And, since it was so vast, the fates of the puny: Alex, the author's wife -- curiously named Mrs. Alexander) or even the cat lady, become meaningless as pawns.