Cult Film Review: A Clockwork Orange

What’s it going to be then, eh?

Any time you watch Kubrick’s colorful and controversial 1971 classic A Clockwork Orange you know you’ve about viddied a horrorshow sinny. For those of you just tuning in – or haven’t the had the pleasure of watching the movie – that the movie’s slang for – loosely – “you’ve just seen a great movie.”

Both Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel and Kubrick’s reimagining of a dystopian England beset by lawlessness, roaming gangs and the total disconnect of all elements of society from each other are propelled by Nadsat; a form of slang spoke primarily by narrator Alex and his ‘droogs’ (friends/cohorts) that comprise his merry band of thieves and rapists.

Nadsat remains more prominent in the novel but it’s place in the film cannot be dismissed so readily. “Odd bits of old rhyming slang,” says a doctor within Burgess’ pages. “A bit of gypsy talk, too. But most of the roots are Slav. Propaganda. Subliminal penetration.” It is – in essence – a very bleak political statement. It’s role as an engineer of violence and confusion is the bedrock upon which the film’s hyper-visual brand of “the old ultraviolence” is built upon is pivotal.

Malcolm McDowell plays our violent narrator Alex. The blue-eyed boy with a mop of unruly brown hair hides behind his mask of presumed innocence to lead his band of Droogs into the city each and every night to wreak havoc. The film’s opening scene finds the devilish quartet trapping and savagely beating a drunk, homeless old man underneath a bridge by the cover of night.

To say that’s Kubrick’s adaptation is a little on the intense side would be quite the understatement. The director’s notorious foibles and habits – combined with the film’s tough subject matter – meant that it all came spilling out onto the screen. The contrasts, the dark and shade between Alex and his Droog’s ultraviolence – and penchant for rape, known at times as “the old in-out-in-out” – with balletic poise adds another gloss of menace on a movie that was doing malevolently enough without it. The flowery language, graceful tongue-twisters and artfully crafted scenes belie the shock you should be feeling. Bear witness to Alex teaching his own men a lesson:

See too, the brutal fight scene between Alex, his Droogs and their avowed enemies of Billy Boy’s gang (NSFW for brief full-frontal nudity). The slashing knives, the beating with chains and the rather fatal-looking chair smashing over heads look remarkably insane when married with a symphonic score and some flash moves that wouldn’t look out of place in the Bolshoi Ballet.

A Clockwork Orange shifts dramatically when Alex is accosted, arrested and incarcerated for murder. The film’s themes and message become widely open to interpretation. In order to bring about an early release – serving two years instead of his given seventeen – Alex is subjected to the Ludovico Technique by a government determined to fight crime and restore order any way it can.

The Ludivico Technique comprises something just short of torture: Alex being force-fed a visual diet of violence in order to essentially short-circuit his brain into ‘converting’ into the model citizen. He would be repulsed by violence, sexuality and the need to indulge in either of these habits.

… and so what does Alex meet when he is released back into society-at-large? As (bad) luck would have it, a roll-call of his enemies and those he made suffer turn up in order to dispense their own forms of retribution. And so the question is thus: who is responsible? Alex and his violent tendencies or the society that had a nice little ready-made template for him and all the rest?

Suffice to say there are plenty of moral quandaries that the viewer must navigate while trying to accept and understand A Clockwork Orange. Long mis-understood by the public at large and blamed for a slew of copycat criminal incidents, it must not be forgotten that Burgess’ original text was perhaps the more shocking. Alex – in text form – is only 15; his age on screen is never determined. The two girls he meets at the kaleidoscopic record store (where a copy of the 2001 OST is on sale, no less!) and takes home for energetic sex are teenaged-to-adult in the film, but in the book are only 11 years old. It’s much easier to demonize when things are put right in front of us… which, in its own way can be construed as one of the morals of both film and text.

So…like I said…what’s it going to be then, eh?

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