January 24, 2022

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #46: A Clockwork Orange

A frankly bizarre but memorable film about the nature of free will in an uncaring society.

Here’s a nice challenge:  ask yourself in what genre you would classify A Clockwork Orange.  Is it a sci-fi dystopia?  Some sort of crime drama?  A social satire?  A black comedy?  A character study of a charming psychopath?  All of the above or none?

I’m not sure how I would classify it myself aside from “very memorable.”

The other thing I would say for certain is nothing is here by accident.  Director Stanley Kubrick, whose work is appearing in this series for the first time, did everything on purpose.  A noted perfectionist, Kubrick wasn’t afraid to redo shots over multiple days to get it just right.  Shelley Duvall wasn’t completely acting in some of her scenes from The Shining so much as displaying genuine exhausted terror at the events going on around her.  As such, whatever we see in A Clockwork Orange is supposed to be there.  About the closest there is to any sort of “accidental” inclusion comes when Malcolm McDowell starts singing “Singing in the Rain” during a rape scene, and that was because Kubrick felt the scene was too intense and asked McDowell to come up with something to sort of lighten the mood and the song was McDowell’s suggestion.

As such, it’s very easy to fall down the Kubrick rabbit hole of theories involving what is where and why.  I watched a video or two on YouTube after watching the film but before coming to type it up, and there’s a lot of really odd stuff in the minutia of A Clockwork Orange, all of which is part of a singular vision Kubrick had for what this film was supposed to be.  What year is this film supposed to be set in?  The film doesn’t say.  Details off a newspaper say 1972, a year after the film was made, may suggest one thing, but then there’s the whole style of everything around Alex as he goes about his business.

As such, if I were forced to say what this film is according to its genre, I’d say it’s closest to a social satire.  A Clockwork Orange is pretty damn funny in places.  Much of the violence has an unrealistic look to it.  The classic music soundtrack and various wide-angle shots make the whole thing look more like a classic cartoon than a serious look into what makes people tick.  And with all that being said, the film is very much a serious look into what makes people tick.

Malcolm MdDowell, 28 at the time he made the film, stars as teenage Alex, a juvenile delinquent showing signs of being something of a psychopath.  He speaks in a slang language all his own that I would not attempt to replicate here or anywhere without being at least a little drunk, and I don’t drink.  Alex is, in his own words, our humble narrator, and probably the only real character in the film.  Everyone else is reduced to a handful of character traits which may reflect how Alex sees them as he tells his story.  What does become very clear is that even though Alex routinely engages in what he calls the old ultra-violence with his three-man gang (the droogs), no one around him seems to care much for him or his well-being any more than he cares for theirs.  His parents are ineffectual and incurious.  His gang is treacherous.  His parole officer seems to care more for black marks on his own record and may even be a bit of a pedophile.  The prison guards care more about rules and showing off their own authority.  The doctors and scientists involved in the Ludovico technique are completely disinterested in his emotional well-being even as he starts shouting for them to turn off his one real love, Beethoven.  And the government ministers that come to see him will only do the right thing so long as it keeps them in power.  The lone exception to that score may be the nameless Prison Chaplin.  While the Chaplin doesn’t go out of his way to offer Alex any more help than some vaguely spiritual advice, he also underlines the film’s themes, the sort of thing that actually explains away the film’s (and novel’s) title in ways that the film itself does not.

What is a clockwork orange?  It’s something that should be organic and juicy, but all the organic juiciness was replaced with mechanical parts.  It isn’t an orange anymore, and a human being, as the Chaplin says, that is incapable of making his or her own decisions isn’t really human.  Alex, after the Ludovico technique tried to make him a productive member of society by taking away his ability to commit any act of violence at all, even in self-defense, is that person who isn’t a man.  A line I have learned was deleted had the Chaplin actually suggest it might be better to let a psychopath not get fixed in a way that prevents that person from doing evil because it takes away that person’s ability to choose, and free will is more important that stopping societal crime.

This may be one of the longer entries I do at this rate, and it comes from the fact this film gives us so much to talk about.  All of that comes from Kubrick.  I’ve read Anthony Burgess’ novel.  It’s not bad.  Alex is the narrator, and if anything, Burgess’ writing in the slang Alex uses makes it a little hard to follow at first.  I actually found that having seen the film multiple times made it easier to follow.  Kubrick’s film made some changes, most of them softening Alex’s crimes to make him actually seem less evil and completely omitting the last chapter on the basis that it doesn’t really ring true.  That chapter shows Alex, not 18, going out and meeting Pete, the one member of his gang that disappears from the film after Alex is arrested for murder.  Pete has a girlfriend and has become a respectable member of society, and Alex, after a little reflection, decides he’s going to do that too and be a good person.

Say what?  After the crimes he’d committed (and he did worse in the novel), Alex was just going to be good from there on?  The novel does have a few other things going for it, like explaining what that bizarre final shot in the film means, what the title means, and, as stated, what happened to the third droog, but that ending seemed far too pat when I read it.

Meanwhile, Kubrick is setting up shots that force the audience to look where he wants them to.  He uses a good deal of symmetrical shots in all his work, and A Clockwork Orange is no exception. As with The Shining, Kubrick isn’t making an adaptation of a novel so much as he is using it as the basis for a story completely of his own, and symmetrical shot composition is just one of the weapons in his arsenal.  He even uses human anatomy to accomplish that.

The Simpsons did this as a tribute to A Clockwork Orange.

And while we’re on that subject:  for a film with as much human flesh, both real and reproduced, on display, very little of it comes across as what most people would consider to be sexy.  It’s just another sign that the world Alex DeLarge lives in is one where people don’t really care about others, where the “right” thing is only done in pursuit of selfish objectives, and the best we can hope for is a cultured monster who may like committing gang rape and assault, but also seems to be the only person with any appreciation of art and culture whatsoever.  And if that isn’t terrifying enough, just hope he stays off the show tunes.

Additionally, Kubrick’s symmetry doesn’t simply apply to the shot composition.  It applies to the story as well.  Kubrick uses the traditional three-act structure, and the acts seem fairly obvious.  Act one is the introduction and ends with Alex’s arrest for murder.  Act two is Alex’s time in prison and eventual “rehabilitation”.  Act three is where a released Alex can’t protect himself from any of his former victims enacting their revenge and his eventual “cure”.  Each act runs about 45 minutes.

The end result is a story where a young man loses and regains what most might call free will, and while he may be classified as a real person with that freedom, he’s still very much a monster.

NEXT UP:  After two anti-heroes in a row, let’s try something a little different, even if it also has a protagonist with a shaky connection to basic human morality.  We’ll be looking at 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

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