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THIS WEEK: Clockwork Orange (1971) An intelligent and complex commentary on violence and youth culture of a not too distant future.
HOW THE MOMENT STARTS: Our gang strolls up to a house, excited by the promise of a little of the old “ultra violence.”
THE PREFACE: The images and themes of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece require some participation to decipher. The title itself, Clockwork Orange, is interpretive. Perhaps, this clock metaphor relates to the stroke of midnight as the end of humanity. Once the hands reach 12, it’s like a red light signifying as a warning for us to stop whatever endangers the human race (nuclear war, pollution, etc.). If red is stop, then an amber (or orange) light urges caution – slow down, take in your surroundings, and prepare to slam on the brakes. Therefore, this interpretive title could be saying that this violent future of the film is a warning for us.
Kubrick fills the frame with information right from the opening where we meet Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of “droogs.” The language of the film may be confusing, but it creatively demonstrates the slang of this future world. Kubrick often uses images to help us translate the dialogue (like when “droogs” is said, Alex’s friends are shown at the same time, for us to connect the two) .
The legendary director also uses metaphorical images to help us translate the complex themes of morality. The opening sequence, staged in a milk bar, uses striking asymmetry (with something simple like a false eyelash) to let us know this world is off kilter.
Classical looking statues get a smutty modern update. Where Rome’s banquets might have tasteful nudes, the future has tables made of women with their legs spread wide and submissive. Don’t let the predominance of white suggest purity either. Furthermore, the “milk” of this future isn’t wholesome. This “breast-milk” doesn’t nurture love, but violence instead. Infused with mescaline, this drink gets the droogs in the fighting spirit.
This film is frightening and shocking, yet compelling in philosophical and political themes. There has rarely been a film more terrifying because of how internally unsettling this subject matter is. Kubrick vivisects our appeal to violence, slicing us for delighting in this sort of horrific entertainment. With Clockwork Orange, this iconic director not only wanted to prove he could make a great movie on a low budget, but he also wanted to provoke us into discussion and force us to turn inwards for explanations.
THE SET-UP: Can a director explore violence and still be ethically neutral? Those that think violence in movies cause violence in reality couldn’t be further away from the truth – at least in the case of Clockwork Orange. This film repels you from thinking anything violent is “cool.” Kubrick shows us the horror of the event, but asks us to side with Alex and attempt to understand his motives. We wonder why these young men are violent? Is it just a phase that males go through?
The violence isn’t glamourized like a war film. The home invasion sequence (which includes That Moment) is all the more shocking because of the delight. Alex isn’t threatening the home owners for money or stealing their car, he just wants to hurt them – for fun. We know people do this in reality, since there are murderers and serial killers, but we never know why. Watching someone like Alex, with a story guided by Kubrick, helps us discover which questions we want to ask about our fellow man.
Before That Moment, there is a scene in a derelict casino. A rival gang tears the clothes off a woman, ready to rape her. Alex and his droogs crash the “party,” saving the day – vigilante style… or so we assume. After the milk bar, these young men attacked a homeless man who was drunk on the streets. We wonder why. They seem disgusted by his lack of motivation and how it harms society. We are trying to justify (who we think is) our hero’s actions.
When Alex stops the other gang from sexually violating this young woman in the abandoned building, we think he actually -could- be a hero. However, Kubrick keeps us on our toes, constantly shifting our expectations, as the very next scene has Alex and his droogs committing sexual violence themselves.
THAT MOMENT: After a joy ride, playing Chicken in a sports car, the droogs decide upon a home invasion to keep their “high” going. Alex knocks on the door of an upper-class house asking for help (a.k.a. lying) because his friend was in accident. The older couple decides to let the young men use their phone. Once Alex enters the house, he immediately launches into a joyous attack.
The gang restrains and bounds the husband, sealing his mouth with tape. They constrict the wife in the same way. The disturbing nature just gets further and further embellished with each passing second. To jar our brains even more, Alex is so elated he begins to sing a song, one of the nicest and happiest ones ever,“Singing in the Rain.” This juxtaposition of gut-wrenching sexual violence and family-friendly lyrics makes your brain short a fuse. Wires that shouldn’t cross get entangled. It’s so startling. Alex accentuates this bizarre effect by kicking and beating the husband to the rhythm of the song as he playfully dances and merrily sings aloud.
This unbearable sequence gets worse and worse, as Alex delights in his torment. He cuts away the captive woman’s clothes, revealing her bare breasts. The husband is forced to watch, as our “hero” continues to cut up the jumpsuit until the woman is fully naked and vulnerable. It’s easy to step into the couples’ shoes, making it all the whole horrifying.
The juxtaposition helps remind us to think about why the characters are doing this, in the first place. Specifically, the music forces us to realize Alex is attacking innocent people for the simple fun of it – perhaps just because he can, or is bored by everything else.
Kubrick seems to be commenting how male bonding often occurs over violence. The pack mentality or group behaviour makes this event all the more disturbing. Not one of the droogs objects to Alex. In fact, they all follow his lead.
I first saw Clockwork as a teen, and could barely stand this Moment. It’s the only time I can remember fast forwarding a movie because of disgust. The innocence of the music paired with the sexualized violence and gleeful delight of the assailant was too much to understand. I simply couldn’t combine these contrasting images.
Years later, I think that’s what Kubrick was aiming for. He either wanted to make us despise our “hero” by playing with our expectations, or has the darkest sense of humour of anyone. Either scenario is entirely plausible. However, the social commentary requires some participation. On the surface, this scene was far too complex for a younger me to begin to understand. It isn’t art if it doesn’t offend someone, right. I also now realize how short this scene actually is (although it took 10 days to film – which had to be a strange place to “play” for so long). The Moment feels so extended because of how badly the viewer doesn’t want to be there.
Kubrick didn’t anticipate the reaction of Moments like this, and was disgusted to learn that some of the audience found the film tantalizing or exciting (for the wrong reasons). Clockwork Orange has to be the only time ever where the director banned his own film. After his death, this cult classic was allowed to be screened again. The question is: has the audience evolved since then? Are we ever ready for that first viewing of this controversial piece of art?
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: Alex is a very complex and challenging leading character. Here is a thug rapist who also appreciates the arts and life, yet does incredibly heinous and immoral acts. He seems to truly love what he’s doing. It’s all the more troubling because he is intelligent, almost aristocratic, but also enjoys a perverse delight from violence. The many shades of Alex inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers to create anti-heroes.
Clockwork also influenced the future of film with its juxtaposition of music and violence to short circuit the viewer’s brain. A famous example is Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, where a man’s ear gets sliced off to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You.” These songs will never be heard in the same way again.
The dark subject matter, critical response, emotional resonance, and sheer disgust, urged other filmmakers to provoke audiences as well. The 70s saw the release of other big screen sexual predators in movies like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left – except these horror stories focused on the revenge fantasy side of rape, siding with the victim.
Boldly, Clockwork Orange focuses on the animals who commit such vicious and deplorable crimes, searching for understanding. Kubrick’s film asks important eternal questions like: Why is are humans so abhorrently violent? Why does sex sometimes get paired together with horror, instead of love? Which is the aberration?
Like any great film, Clockwork won’t provide you with any easy answers, but rather provoke you to discover your own interpretation within via guided introspection.
What do you think? Is Kubrick’s masterpiece a morality tale about free will – or a cautionary tale about our unavoidable future?
Stanley Kubrick (screenplay), Anthony Burgess(novel)
Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates
NEXT WEEK: The Spielberg produced, JJ Abrams directed, underrated family sci-fi flick, SUPER 8.