“No time for the old in-out, love, I’ve just come to read the meter.”
It didn’t take long for the theatrical experience to prove essential when watching A Clockwork Orange on the big screen. As Henry Purcell‘s March from “Funeral Music for Queen Mary” plays, the frame is filled with a solid bright orange so massive and enveloping that it pulsates to appear as though it’s spilling past the edges. This goes on for a full thirty seconds before “Warner Bros. A Kinney Company Presents” appears in white and by the time it changes to an equally oppressive blue you’ve already been hypnotized. The dulcet tone of Malcolm McDowell‘s narration as Alex only draws you in further, his right eye’s long dark lashes holding your attention as the camera pulls back to expose the Korova Milk Bar’s long corridor of naked, aroused female sculptures posed to supply the droogs’ laced drink of choice.
Adapted by Stanley Kubrick from Anthony Burgess‘ novel published nine years prior, its non-descript future complete with set design and costumes lending a sort of retro look akin to the decade it was made provides a timelessness today a la Her‘s subtle aesthetic from 2013. Kubrick embraces the science fiction and dystopian ultraviolence not for visual style alone, but to also mask the scathing satire on totalitarianism lying underneath. It’s a topic that’s seen a rebirth in contemporary YA literature and cinema thanks to The Hunger Games, Divergent, and its ilk. But while those showcase the violence of oppression needing to be extinguished through rebellion, A Clockwork Orange shows the intrinsic quality to mankind’s brutality. We must ask ourselves whether we should embrace the free will to partake in hedonistic desire or the indoctrination necessary to willfully become their victim.
It’s therefore little surprise the MPAA slapped on an X-rating considering its subject matter warrants one with or without the multiple examples of rape shown in full, disturbingly horrific detail. As French critic Michel Ciment explained during his introduction to the film’s special screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox in conjunction with Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition, the director was very much using the story’s evocative nature to drive home the fact he’d rather inhabit a world of murder and sodomy at the hands of deranged souls free to live than one of false peace under the vice grip of a government neutering its populace to its own whims. So we watch Alex remorselessly abuse poor, innocent souls and then we almost have to feel for his plight when he’s psychologically altered at the behest of our true villain.
I say almost because we aren’t asked to condone Alex’s actions. We’re simply implored to understand that we cannot allow ourselves as a species to be rewired in a way that makes us less human. At the end of the day, doesn’t humanity entail a little bloodlust under the right circumstances? “Eye for an eye” retribution can bubble to the surface of even the most unwavering Pacifist when senseless tragedy takes everything he/she loves away. So while brainwashing a psychopath into physical discomfort each time he experiences the urge for violence or flesh seems just on paper, opening that can of worms introduces the catalyst to worldwide complacency. You’d have to lobotomize every last soul on Earth to be absolutely sure. But as The Purge preaches, our ability to release aggression unfortunately proves a necessary evil.
This line of thinking is obviously over-the-top due to its extremism and the film complies. Even though it would never be classified as one, A Clockwork Orange is very much a comedy. Some of the laughs come from our fear of the horror aspects, but a lot arrive due to the tonal choices Kubrick—and I’m guessing Burgess since I’ve yet to read the source novel—consciously makes. The use of narration gives everything a storybook sheen with Alex’s brazen delivery injecting a fairy tale lilt despite its substance. Burgess’ flowery Nadsat dialogue with a Slavic bent is spoken almost like baby talk with words like “viddy” for watch and “yarbles” for testicles. And one can’t deny the humor of parole officer Deltoid’s (Aubrey Morris) magnificent cheese or the victimized Mr. Alexander’s (Patrick Magee) flapping jowls of rage.
What really drives this manipulated morality tale’s warped message home, however, is the cyclical nature of its fateful irony. The violence of the beginning paints Alex into the monster he revels at being while also setting the stage for Act Two’s reveal of good men turning vicious when properly motivated. It might have been a better plot if Alex’s return to society after Dr. Brodsky (Carl Duering) turns his pleasure center into one of vomit-inducing pain at the behest of England’s Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) had him meeting variations on his old self on the street, but forcing him into confronting those he wronged ensures the theme’s potency. Victims let us learn to hate him, their quasi-docile demeanors turning sour revealing the universality of man’s animal instincts.
The rest is pure fun from Alex’s awkward reunion with his fearful parents to his love of Ludwig van Beethoven exposing culture that only makes his proclivities wickeder. Using “Singin’ in the Rain” to wreak havoc with a cane and kick provides another discomforting juxtaposition and the prison chaplain (Goffrey Quigley) both a naïve man to be duped by Alex’s easy charm and an idealist to see through the danger of what Brodsky has done. The real punch to the gut, however, comes from McDowell relishing every depraved act he performs. His excitement is infectious and the adrenaline rush of his actions a high we would never publically admit. It’s only in his leering gaze and mischievous smile returning that we finally see the truth of what’s occurred.
We’re all sheep led to slaughter by those we place in power. Criminal and victim alike, we’re exactly what they need us to be when and where they decide. The media helps perpetuate the fear, changing our nightmare daily to sell papers and earn ratings while prognosticators distill the raw data of audience appeal to discover what’s in the best interests of their candidate. Alex may think he’s in control, but he’s merely a pawn playing his role to perfection before and after meeting the powers that be. Politicians will always need rabble to make an example of and recondition just like they’ll always need injustice to overturn with a different form of injustice their successors can play with later. A goes to B, but B never reaches C. It simply turns back towards A and perpetually repeats forever.