(Credit: Warner Bros)

48 years of glorious madness and perversion: Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Stanley Kubrick - 'A Clockwork Orange'
4.5

“I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again…”

I always put off watching Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange until the COVID lockdown was announced and, having nothing else to do, I sat through the nearly two-and-a-half hours of dark satire infused with scathing violence, frenzied fear and widespread madness. Was it interesting? Yes. Was it torturous? Yes. Would I do it again? No, and shortly will I elaborate why. 

Quite faithful to the original novel by Anthony Burgess, Kubrick’s film adaptation revels in “ultra-violence”; so much so that Kubrick banned the film himself following countless violent acts that were seemingly inspired by his own cinematic adaption. It was only after Kubrick’s death that the film was re-released. Burgess had invented the Nadsat slang dictionary for his novel which included ‘Russian, Rommany and rhyming slang’ infused with Cockney lingo, which might seem unfamiliar to the viewers. 

Set in a dystopian Britain, the film’s protagonist is Alex DeLarge. Alex is the leader of a band of delinquents who spend their evenings drinking milk-plus at the Korova Milk bar before indulging in extreme acts of “ultra-violence” which includes thrashing older men and mercilessly raping women. As Alex and his droogs set out for a fun night, they beat an old drunkard black and blue before warring with Billy-boy and his gang. Heading west, they invade Mr Alexander’s home, raping his wife and crippling him in the process. Alex, however, incurs the displeasure of his droogs who conspire against him and, while he tries to flee a crime scene when the police are alerted, they betray him, leaving him out for capture. Soon Alex is taken into custody where he becomes the subject of aversion therapy. He is coerced to watch violent films of torture and gore which is accompanied by his favourite Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th symphony

Slowly, Alex has a repulsive reaction to sex which convinces the Ministry that they have cured him, and the same method can be used to eliminate crime. Alex is released, and soon he realises that he is robbed of his possessions as well as his room. Almost immediately, Alex encounters his friends and an old vagrant who beat him mercilessly, leaving him to die. He then somehow reaches the nearest house for help which is co-incidentally the house of Mr Alexander, now a cripple dependant on a wheelchair. Mr Alexander offers to help Alex, not knowing his real identity, and wants to use Alex as a political weapon for what the government had done to him inside the experimental chambers. However, he soon identifies Alex and plays the 9th symphony which sends Alex into bouts of madness, forcing him to nearly commit suicide by jumping out of the window. As a “smashed up” Alex lies in the hospital, the narrative changes. He is offered a stable life, his parents are accepting, and he is believed to have been cured of all malcontent; however, the last scene is shocking.

Tracing back for a moment, we remember that the film begins with Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, staring ominously at the camera, as the camera slowly zooms out to give the viewers a look at the oddities surrounding Alex, with Henry Purcell’s ‘Funeral for Queen Mary’ playing in the background. The unusual and outlandish clothing, the nude mannequins that serve as milk dispensers and the brightly coloured wigs add to the general anxiety of decline and degradation which is further defined by the lack of cleanliness in the film. This degradation of the surroundings alludes to human nature and the human mind which is ravaged by irrepressible thoughts of sex and violence. Alex’s room is a classic example where the walls are adorned with raunchy pictures. As he plays his favourite 9th symphony, the camera pans around the room, showing his pet snake before jarringly focusing on the hilarious statue of four crucified Christs dancing together, in tune with the notes of the song. It heightens the general air of anxiety, which is further accentuated by the series of images that pop into Alex’s mind soon after; the images are intense and brutal and show the decaying human mind. 

(Credit: Alamy)

Kubrickian filmmaking has its niche. Having been criticised for being sympathetic towards a notorious criminal like Alex, personally, I feel like Kubrick’s intention has, somehow, being misinterpreted. The artist would aim to convey the point(lessness) of his art. Kubrick emphasises how society’s criminal nature induces the criminal in all of us. Alex’s probation officer Mr Deltoid has some kind of a sexual attraction towards the boy and slaps his crotch. Billy-boy and his gang are on the verge of raping a young woman when Alex and his band of droogs interrupt. The aversion therapists inject Alex with drugs and make him endure the living torture of having to watch gruesome films for hours, robbing him of his free will and freedom. In my opinion, Kubrick intended to expose the hypocrisies of society. Whether the audience feels pity for Alex is a matter that should remain independent and personal. 

The rape scenes were particularly scarring. While the voluntary sex scene with the two women was a deviation from the novel which involved a more vicious and vile concept, Kubrick was clever enough to shoot it in the timelapse mode. Perhaps Alex was disinterested in retaining the memories of it and wanted to get over with it quickly? When Alex rapes Mr Alexander’s wife, the sadistic fiend sings ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, which was an addition by McDowell after Kubrick complained of the brutality in the scene being “too stiff”. It turned out to be one of the most horrifying yet defining moments in the film. As Alex humiliates the woman and cuts holes into her clothes, it ominously forebodes the humiliation and degradation Alex is about to face shortly. 

Kubrick has an Orwellian approach in which the dystopian society has a totalitarian government that will unhesitatingly indulge in experimentation and testing, ignorant of how cruel and barbaric that might be. The animosity is pervasive and palpable via the actions of civilians. In his little group, Alex poses as the authoritarian regime which quickly incurs the displeasure, ending in a civil war and subsequent overthrow. While his band of droogs, equally malicious, ruthless and perverted become civil servants, Alex is left to rot in the prison cell. Subject to relentless abuse and torture, it is funny to note how brutality was employed to correct brutality. Alex grows to hate the one thing in the world that symbolises beauty amidst the insanity and anguish. The 9th symphony is unbearably traumatising, hellish and agonising. He relentlessly bangs his head against the floor asking Mr Alexander to stop playing the tune, but the latter is overcome by revenge for the death of his wife at the hands of Alex and keeps increasing the tune which increases Alex’s pain and suffering. Death seems to be the welcome release for him.

Alex is never cured. He is still a vicious dissident and degenerate whose mind is flooded by disturbing images. Even as the Minister, now under probation for abatement of suicide and blamed for having experimented on Alex like he was a lab rat, strikes a deal with Alex, his mind seems to have unruly, perverted thoughts. As the cameras flash, clicking pictures of the new ‘friends’ smiling together, Alex rolls up his eyes, visibly fantasising about the images of raping a young girl while others watch on. The menacing voiceover is the final icing on this brutish cake, and the perversion and violence cannot be cured by state-controlled power. The decline of the ruinous human nature is unavoidable and is happening at this very instant. One might escape but never avoid it. The audience’s disgust increases tenfold once they can interpret Nadsat, which is as evil as the functioning of the human mind.

(Credit: Alamy)

It is interesting to note that although Alex loves Beethoven, Kubrick employs Rossini themes mostly. All the scenes that involve frenzied action are accompanied by Rossini’s theme. The Ludovico technique, which should have cured and civilised Alex, is an example of societal madness and fear. Critical of social conditioning and behavioural psychology, the novel, and subsequently the film, is told from Alex’s point of view to emphasise societal madness. While Alex is the embodiment of corruption, evil, perversion and inhumanity, minus any redeeming quality despite his sharp wit and knowledge, the society is equally brutal, cruel and sadistic.  

Kubrick is at his finest in the film, heightening the anguish and anxiety of the viewers. Even after 48 years of its release, A Clockwork Orange remains popular and relevant. Why would I not like to rewatch it, you ask? It is merely because of the jarring and incongruous soundtrack and the scenes of graphic violence that sends shudders of shock and panic through me. While it will remain one of my favourite Kubrick films, I will never be able to get past the torture inflicted by and on Alex. It is not a pleasurable experience to sit through the epic brutality. The Alex’s of the society were, are and will never be cured. A shroud of pretence will hide their animal instincts which will burst forth when promised state protection. The political hypocrisy and the anxiety of losing the ballots resonate today’s world. I cannot “sloshy” ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ without imagining the violent act that coexisted. A poetic film with graphic violence and wordy dialogues, it has received mixed reactions from critics. All I would say is, thank you, Kubrick, for scarring me with images yet gifting me a thought-provokingly nasty film that prompted me to ponder over it days and weeks after the end credits stopped rolling. 

“I was cured, all right!”

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