A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick | 2hr 16min

The labels of cynicism and disillusion often stuck to Stanley Kubrick should not be taken to imply misanthropy, as even here in A Clockwork Orange where he expresses perhaps his most scathing condemnation of humanity, there is still a wonder and adoration of that which makes this species so vulnerable and unique. With our right to free will comes our liberty to conduct truly heinous acts, but tied to it is also our potential to create and appreciate works of art, as well as to stand up against other evil. It isn’t just an inalienable right in this film – it is the very source of human life, as crucial to each person’s welfare as it is vulgar and repulsive. To cut that off is essentially a form of castration, or as Alex DeLarge’s victim, Frank Alexander, puts so succinctly:

“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”

It is from this philosophical reasoning that Kubrick’s inspired, repulsive aesthetic explodes outwards, marking nearly every corner of this dystopian British society with phallic symbols as overt as explicit paintings, lollipops, and bulging jock straps, or as subtly suggestive as long-nosed masks, canes, and Alex’s snake Basil, who mysteriously dies the moment his masculine assertion of freedom is revoked.

One of the great movie openers – a long, slow tracking shot backwards from a close-up to a wide, revealing the perversity of Alex’s environment.

From the very first shot in which the camera tracks backwards from Alex’s disturbing gaze and slowly reveals a tableau of young men dressed in white, drinking milk atop tables fashioned out of naked female sculptures, his own character is established by the perversity of the environment. Through his voiceover in a drawling, Russian-tinted dialect we gain a very specific, youth-oriented view of this society that has fallen prey to its pleasure-seeking instincts, and left to rot by weak, materialistic adults who focus more on decorating their homes with garish, mismatching designs than cleaning up the garbage and crime-infested streets outside. They have retreated into their homes out of fear, but even these private spaces are no longer safe as Alex and his droogs make a hobby out of invading and terrorising them, relishing these deeply immoral acts with a wicked sense of humour and a touch of musical irony. At least for the first act of A Clockwork Orange this is well and truly his world, and Kubrick frames him as such in commanding positions that tower over others, or otherwise centres him in shots with wide-angle lenses that seems to radiate his surroundings out from his body. Whether the speed of the film is cranked up to fast-motion in an exhilarating sex scene or slowed right down as he launches a vicious attack on his droogs, everything we see or hear is stylistically in service of Alex’s own dominance and immediate pleasure.

The magnificent slow-motion attack as Beethoven underscores it all – a vicious power play from Alex.
Another excellent tracking shot following Alex around the record store, this wide-angle lens radiating the scenery outwards from him at its centre.

Oftentimes when talking about mise-en-scène it is easy enough to link a film back to its influences, but besides the expressionist impact evident in long, stark shadows and haunting silhouettes, A Clockwork Orange very much stands alone in being a truly original piece of visual art, unbridled in its obsession with depicting sexuality in the most literally objectified manner possible. In rendering such sensitive, personal parts of our bodies in hard, inorganic materials, so too does Kubrick paint out a vision of humanity that has itself become a cheap, manufactured product of its own making, devaluing that which allows us to create life. Even beyond the physical rape that takes place, we watch as Alex weaponises a sculpture of a penis, debasing its artistic purpose by beating a woman to death with it. This is a culture that has slipped over the years into unrestrained hedonism and corruption, and it is only after thoroughly setting up this rotten, futuristic civilisation that Kubrick confronts us with something even more provocative – the notion that physically removing its criminals’ worst impulses will only lead to something far worse.

Gothic expressionism here in the long shadows and chiaroscuro lighting.

Kubrick is sure to indicate that the evils we see unfold here are not contained within this one fictional setting, but are rather ingrained in our own history as seen in Alex’s daydream of being a Roman soldier whipping Jesus, and the archival footage of Nazi Germany used to torture him into submission. Consequently, the scientists’ erasure of any desire to commit sin from his mind also inadvertently cuts him off from the rest of the world which shares his sin. These medical, legal, and government authorities who proclaim sovereignty over the laws of nature are just as prone to their own shortcomings as him even if they don’t admit it, though the truth is evident in our witnessing of furtive affairs going on behind closed curtains in hospitals, and the slimy political manoeuvring with which the Minister of the Interior goes about his work. Although Alex is deemed fit to return to society as a reformed citizen, society continues to thrive off the same evil that he too once prospered under, and as such subjugates him to its own depraved torture.

The human body turned into art and objects – you can’t say Kubrick doesn’t have a sense of humour with decor like this.

In a show of tremendous narrative form, each person who Alex wronged in the first act returns in quick succession in the third, delivering over-corrective punishments against this man-turned-doormat who no longer has the ability to defend himself. Now visually removed from all traces of phallic imagery, Alex is effectively neutered, unable to sin but also equally unable to fight against the sin of others. Furthermore, his sensitive appreciation of classical music, which was once his last remaining connection to the best of humanity’s potential, has disappeared too. In short, Alex becomes the soulless, mechanical contraption fashioned out of an organic entity that is teased by the title – the clockwork orange, which has the basic essence of life stripped from it so that it may tick along to its manufacturer’s forced rhythm.

It is just like Kubrick to omit the source novel’s last chapter to avoid any hint of a potentially bright future in this hauntingly pessimistic ending. “I was cured alright,” Alex teases upon regaining his former glory and finding his new place in society as a political poster boy. The Minister of the Interior feeds him like a servant, as with the return of Alex’s free will comes power, and his connection to a world that has no place for pushovers. These different forms of evil may possess separate objectives, but Kubrick recognises in this finale of A Clockwork Orange how similar it all really is in its origins and, quite cynically, how necessary it is for humanity to have any hope of moral salvation.

Not the most beautiful shot from the film, but probably its most terrifying in its deeply uncomfortable body horror.

A Clockwork Orange is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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