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A Clockwork Orange: Battling with Kubrick’s Most Controversial Film

Whenever I rank the 13 feature films of Stanley Kubrick, “A Clockwork Orange” is always a major headache. Along with “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), it shows Kubrick at the peak of his great filmmaking career, but it's also one of the most violent and disturbing movies even today, and I usually am conflicted about where to put it on the list. Yes, it's certainly a very important work from one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, but I don't think I really like it, even while recognizing its undeniably iconic status, which has been steadily solidified along with its lasting notoriety.

Some of you may say that the movie, based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, is worthwhile to watch for its thought-provoking themes and many visually striking moments. I agree to that to some degree, but, seriously, you may think twice before recommending it to others around you. I still remember well when I showed it to my parents in 2006. My mother was so horrified by what is shown during its first 20 minutes that she eventually walked out, and I came to take a more cautious view on the film when reflecting more on her immediate negative response to it.

Nevertheless, I have revisited the movie more than once since then, and I was alternatively impressed and disturbed when I recently watched it again via its new 4K UHD edition. Right from its very first shot, "A Clockwork Orange" powerfully challenges you with its young criminal hero’s coldly glaring stare, and then it effectively pulls you into his violent dystopian society during the next two hours. This is not so pleasant to say the least, but we cannot possibly look away as we're often struck by its gut-wrenching presentation of violence, and that is not so far from what its hero suffers later in the story.

The first act of the film feels like an endurance test for audiences. As its hero, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), and his three gang members bounce from one barbaric moment to another, the movie casually wields its vicious mix of black humor and brutal violence across the screen, which is further accentuated by the terribly brilliant utilization of several classic works of Gioachino Rossini and Ludwig van Beethoven. During the fight scene between Alex’s gangs and a group of some other thugs, the Overture from Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie is cheerfully played on the soundtrack, and Kubrick’s precise mix of music and visual makes this scene look like an absurdly violent avant-garde ballet.

And there is that infamous scene where Alex sings the titular song from a certain well-known Hollywood musical movie as he and his gang savagely attack a middle-aged writer and his wife. Kubrick presents Alex and his gang’s sheer atrocities with his own cold and detached attitude, which makes this scene all the more chilling—especially when Alex gleefully stares at the writer (and us) right before raping the writer’s wife. The movie thankfully does not show everything, but the horror of what will soon happen to that poor woman is quite visceral to us, and we come to feel more repulsion than before.

However, as reflected by its first-person narration, the movie also seems to be forcing us into Alex’s sociopathic viewpoint. Usually aligning itself with whatever he heedlessly and sadistically revels in, "A Clockwork Orange" often finds itself on the verge of embracing his repellent nastiness, and it accordingly feels dangerously exciting at times. After all, violence in films is inherently stimulating in one way or another, and even Kubrick cannot entirely contain that artistic danger.

During its middle act, the movie attempts to argue that Alex’s individual violence is nothing compared to the systemic violence of his dystopian society. Not long after he is eventually arrested and then incarcerated, he happens to be selected for an experimental rehabilitation project promoted by the government, and then there comes another iconic moment of the film. Through a very twisted Pavlovian procedure, he is deprived of his free will in exchange of becoming virtually incapable of any kind of violence, and then he finds himself victimized a lot once he is released from the prison.

Are we supposed to be sorry for Alex around that point? What is inflicted onto him is cruel indeed, but we are also reminded of what a horrible criminal he is. When his “cured” status is presented in front of a bunch of important figures, he looks pitiful and helpless on the surface, but he does not deceive us at all. We can clearly sense that his violent nature still exists behind his seemingly passive face despite being artificially repressed for now, and we come to observe his following plight from the distance without much pity or care.

The story feels all the more ideologically muddled when Alex encounters that writer character again during its last act. As a hardcore liberal guy quite critical of the current government, the writer is excited to have Alex at his home, but then he becomes quite vengeful once he comes to realize Alex’s identity. He ultimately ends up being as broad and grotesque as many other supporting characters in the film including a certain prison warden, who is so stiff and petulant that he seems to belong more to a Monty Python sketch.

As the movie has no middle ground between its two extreme kinds of violence, we have no choice but to become stuck with Alex despite his many loathsome aspects, and we accordingly have to deal with the deeply cynical finale which can be compared to that sublime final moment of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Instead of that mysterious monolith, we get a couple of big and tall audio speakers in front of Alex’s bed, and the eventual reversion to his old self, which is accompanied with the final minutes of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, certainly an ironic contrast to the transcendent emergence of the Star Child at the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Should we laugh about that? Or should we wince? I do not have answers for these and other questions provoked by the movie, but we all can agree that the movie is a distinctive reminder of how many notable films such as “Dirty Harry” (1971) “The French Connection” (1971), “Straw Dogs” (1971), and “The Devils” (1971) were quite willing to push boundaries during that time after “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) came out. They are all violent and controversial in their own daring way, and, just like “A Clockwork Orange,” they will not go away easily once you watch them, regardless of whether you like them or not.

On the whole, “A Clockwork Orange” is still ticking well enough to disturb us even at present, and I am still trying to sort out my ambivalent feelings and thoughts about it. When I watched it for the first time in late 2000, it was something I had to watch as a young movie fan by any means necessary, and I was glad to watch it at last after hearing so much about it for years. During my recent viewing, I was more alarmed due to acquiring more sensitivity to the depiction of violence on women in movies over the last several years, and I became more inclined to put it below several other Kubrick films I personally prefer more. Admiring it from a distance with more caution than before, I am now reminded of what Roger Ebert once said about it in his review on “Butcher Boy” (1998): “Rationalize as I will, revisit the film as I have, I cannot feel the emotional shift that would involve me in the material: It remains for me an exercise, not an experience.”

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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