Retrospective: A Clockwork Orange
Imagine a future at one remove from our present, a future where law and order have broken down and prisons swell with those deemed unable or unwilling to exist within societies moral bounds. Feral gangs of ‘Droogs’ roam the streets at night comprised of young men in outlandish dress. Their aim is stimulation by any means; random violence, sex (not always consensual) and home invasions. This is the futureworld Stanley Kubrick chose to present to the British public in 1971.
It’s helpful to remember that at the time the UK was hardly a harmonious society itself, if such a thing can ever truly exist. Only two years into the decade and already the 60’s felt long gone. By all accounts it was a fractious and divided place where political lines polarised and rational thought seemed drowned beneath the cry of the mob.
And so whilst the threats against Kubrick and his family (leading to the films withdrawal from release in the UK) still seem an overreaction in any context, one can almost feel the dangerous chill of a work of art being too close to it’s time for comfort.
Adapted from Anthony Burgess’s novel of the same name it uses the original narrative device allowing our ‘humble narrator’ and Droog leader Alex to enthral and repulse in equal measure. That its original medium was a novel is hardly surprising. The use of language in the film owes a debt to the extraordinary Nadsat language sculpted by Burgess. Combining Russian phraseology, Shakespearean-like dialogue (“what does that great big horsey gape of a grin portend?”) and street slang to startling effect, it dazzles with its invention. Not merely a showy device, Alex’s command of language adds to his disturbing charisma. Malcolm McDowell could add-lib in the language and embodies Alex’s confidence perfectly.
Visually the brutalism of Alex’s tenement bloc may now appear dated (it’s actual location is Thamesmead in London) but the drab misery of the place still subtly impacts the viewer. This is not an idyllic place to live.
On first viewing what really stands out is that the violence is not treated with solemnity, but rather with a cold objectivity. Perhaps this is what so shocked viewers the first time round. We see events as blankly as Alex does. He is not sorry for his victims but is simply enjoying the moment. Evil does not think in the moment, it merely acts. That’s why he can chirpily rattle off Singing in the Rain whilst invading peoples homes. He simply does not care. It is violence delivered with a smile and is even more terrifying as a consequence.
The sense of swagger and playfulness are continued by Kubrick himself in the “William Tell” overture sex scene, the classical music and footage speeded up to a farcical tempo to raise laughs. The use of classical music throughout serves multiple purposes. It shows that even culture vultures like Alex can engage in violence. It is also satirical when used to underscore violence and works in combination with the theatrical movement of the actors to explain the allure of “the old ultraviolence” to the Droogs.
The stark electronica you hear at the beginning and throughout (a whistled version is particularly effective) is a continuation of the confrontational style Kubrick uses throughout the picture. As Alex’s sort of guidance councilor Mr Deltoid says (“We’ve studied the problem, we’ve been studying it for damn near well a century”) teen delinquency is nothing new. The electronica however, reminds you that no matter how much you can draw parallels with our own time, the world of Clockwork is quite its own. Aside from the aforementioned 60s housing blocks and some miniature cassettes the music and visuals help to give the film a feel of a picture not just of its time but of all times.
The noblest thing science fiction can do is to use it’s settings to address the issues of the day, or the eternal problems facing mankind. On both these counts A Clockwork Orange succeeds.
The notion of free will includes man’s right to do evil. As spelled out by the priest; “when a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man”. This does not condone acts of evil as many hard of thinking came to conclude, but rather elucidates the point that to brainwash someone into being good does not make them a more human, but less.
And what of Alex? The most compelling vision of evil in modern cinema. His style and swagger unnerve, as does his charm. He is a villain, a monster but one with a ready smile. He is sharper than the others around him and as dangerous as a viper. Yet what really shocks is that he, himself is misused by persons of authority in government, those in whom the public have placed their trust. In retrospect this is the truly terrifying aspect of the film and the subject of the state intruding on the citizen is always prescient. Clockwork confronts this head-on without giving any easy answers.
Like the opening shot of Alex, A Clockwork Orange is a film that stares back unblinking at the viewer. It challenges, provokes and unnerves. For anyone invested in the society they live in it’s enough to put not the fear of god into you, but the fear of humanity. Kubrick’s cold view of us envelops you like a glove, warning about a future we need to avoid and a present we can’t escape.
As Alex might say: Viddy well my friends, Viddy well.