The AFI Top 100 Films: A Clockwork Orange (#46)

Entertainment 150A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Starring Malcolm McDowell
Written by Stanley Kubrick (screenplay) and Anthony Burgess (novel)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

There’s a lot to see in A Clockwork Orange that apparently isn’t really there. Numerous interviews with the author reveal that there doesn’t seem to be much thought behind a lot of the most iconic things in the movie. The Russian slang served a purpose, for example, but it was only meant to provide a barrier between the audience and the book’s violence — nothing more. Both Burgess and Kubrick disagree about what the story means, or at least we assume so. Kubrick was typically quiet about his meaning, letting the movie speak for itself. And in his later years, Burgess came to regret writing the novel in the first place, saying it had been badly misinterpreted and known for all the wrong reasons.

That could inspire another discussion on how a work changes when it’s given over to your audience, how the message can be warped in its receiving to the point that your original intention is lost. What do you do then? Do you patiently make the rounds, trying to explain your work to people who would rather see it another way? Or do you simply take this as the audience’s response, their answer to the beginning salvo of your conversation? It’s an interesting question, but pondering it gets us too far off-track. A Clockwork Orange is what it is, and at this point we can safely assume that our interpretation of the movie and its story is going to be different from what at least one of its authors intended.

Alex DeLarge is a young man adrift in a dystopian Britain. He leads a small gang of three friends, and together they beat and rob the elderly, commit acts of shocking, casual rape, and drink modified milk in a bar when they need to recharge. A falling-out with his friends leads Alex to be captured, and instead of jail he opts for an experimental technique meant to force a person to lose all taste for the urges that lead him to commit criminal acts. It works a little too well, and Alex becomes victim to the casual cruelty of the world that he moved through. Karmic retribution keeps piling on him, higher and higher, until there’s a breaking point. I think what happens there and afterwards is where you ultimately take the true meaning of the story, but if you haven’t seen the movie yet I’ll try not to spoil it for you.

The movie itself has so many iconic shots; the opening pull-back that begins with a close-up of Malcolm McDowell’s hard, challenging gaze (mascara done around one eye so that it looks like a dark star) and retreats to reveal his friends, then a strange room filled with naked statues and meaningless words floating by on black walls. There’s the contraption he’s forced to wear during his experimental conversion, his eyes held open by metal clamps, an assistant passively dropping fluid in them so they won’t dry out. The rape scene is particularly difficult in its implied brutality; Alex sings “Singin’ In The Rain” in a way that marries it indelibly to the awful things he’s doing. McDowell moves through the film like a force of nature, and Kubrick sets up a carefully-arranged, decaying world specifically so that his star can leave behind a ton of damage in his wake.

And whether it’s intentional or not, there are a number of interesting conflicts here. One of the first violent acts committed by DeLarge is because a bum is “old”, and thus especially egregious. I noticed how Alex and his gang of droogs represents this unknowable, energetic generation after your own, brought up in a world that you’re not plugged into any more. What makes Alex so shocking and so dangerous is the way he invades the inner world of his victims; first he pretends that he’s the victim of a car accident and his friend is dying in the road, then he barges into your home and punishes you for an act of compassion. He purposefully disrupts the order we create around ourselves, shattering our illusion of safety. He’s open defiance of an orderly society, an orderly life; he’s the reminder that something horrible can happen to you, at any time, for no other reason than the simple fact of your proximity.

Young, chaotic energy vs. old, ordered implacability. Ingenuity vs. the accumulated knowledge of time and masses. The cruelty of the individual vs. the cruelty of the state. They all exist within this movie, fighting each other until they’re subsumed or integrated. And really, it’s up to you what the whole thing means. Can people out of step with the rest of society ever be brought in line? Should they be? How far do we go in our efforts to protect the rights of the populace to build orderly lives, safe from random violence? How far should we allow the individual to push the fabric of society before we decide he loses his right to do so? A Clockwork Orange seems to ask all of these questions while offering no real answers; the ending seems fatalistic, suggesting that what we think of as two opposing forces are actually the same thing with different expressions. As they move through life, cruel men such as DeLarge and his droogs channel their thirst for violence through the machine of society, finding legal ways to do what they’ve always done. This is what really happens to the cruelty of individuals. The ‘cure’ is simple redirection, not disintegration.

At least, that’s what I take from it. What you take from it will differ depending on your views of individuals and what makes a man, and society’s role in the individual’s life. And that’s something that shifts all the time. A Clockwork Orange makes for a very interesting cinematic inkblot test, if you ask me; watch with your friends, and you’ll find yourself in a very surprising conversation.

Rating: 7/10.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.