A Clockwork Orange (1971)

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I have been writing reviews for this blog for a few years now. One thing I have always believed is that no film should go unreviewed. Every single film I watch will be reviewed, regardless of how good or bad it is. It is a logical rule, and a principle that has never really bothered me too much – there is something to say about absolutely any film. That is, with the exception of one. There is a one film I saw for the first time around 2008 or so (a few years before I started writing reviews), and one that I saw two more times in the subsequent years. It was a film I loved – but one I was always too scared to write about. How do you go about reviewing one of the most iconic and controversial films of all time? It is most certainly not a simple task, but it is one that I decided needed to be done, because not only is this particular film a truly legendary piece of cinema history, it is also a personal favorite of mine. As you’ve probably gathered, that film is A Clockwork Orange.

I am truly dumbfounded as to what to say about this film. There is a wealth of discussion to be had about A Clockwork Orange – but rather, how can one say anything new about this film? It is a film that has been discussed in the hallowed halls of the offices of some of the most important people in the world. It is a film that was banned in countless countries. It is a film that has created a huge fanbase. It is a film that has tragically caused some people to be the victims of copycat crimes after deranged individuals took this film a bit too seriously. One thing I can say is that yesterday when I undertook my first rewatching of A Clockwork Orange in about three years, I was captivated all over again. From the first moment, when the iconic theme starts playing, when the words “A Stanley Kubrick Production” appear on the screen, when the film cuts to the deranged face of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) – I was in cinematic heaven. I was positively brimming with excitement because A Clockwork Orange is truly one of the most brilliant pieces of cinema I have ever seen and something that captivates me at the very thought of it. A Clockwork Orange is such a brilliant film, even thinking about it just excites me and sets me off into a frenzy of excitement. Having said this, I hope you will forgive me for composing this review of some seemingly random threads of conversation and ideas detached from a central body – A Clockwork Orange is a film that has been reviewed in the “traditional” manner more times than can be counted, so I’d rather look at some aspects of this film that I find most interesting, and hopefully we can come to the same conclusion that A Clockwork Orange is a truly extraordinary film, by way of looking at it in a way that isn’t quite conventional.

There are a few undeniable truths in this world – water is wet, the Sun is hot and Stanley Kubrick was a genius. What may be a contentious comment, but one that I stand by without hesitation, is that Mr. Kubrick was the greatest filmmaker to ever live. I have yet to encounter a rendezvous with the cinematic mind of Stanley Kubrick that I didn’t utterly enjoy and consume like a child consumes candy on Halloween (curiously, I have often dressed up as Alex DeLarge on many a Halloween, which is apparently quite unsettling to see on a teenager, but I digress). The Shining is the one film I have watched more than any other (right now, I am sitting at 26). I had to be huge fines to my local library because when I took out the video cassette of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, they weren’t very happy that I exceeded the two-week lending period (I had it for around two years) – needless to say, Stanley Kubrick and I go back a long, long time. A Clockwork Orange may be Kubrick’s masterpiece (but that is a conversation to be had another time) – it is a film that proved to be Kubrick’s most complex piece – darkly comical, overly ambitious and utterly riveting in every way. I haven’t met someone who hasn’t had a truly visceral response to A Clockwork Orange in every way.

In order to give this review some sense of coherence, I will talk about two very important themes that I believe A Clockwork Orange does better than literally every other film of its kind – namely, violence and language. However, before we get to that, let us draw our attention to the true heart of A Clockwork Orange – Malcolm McDowell. If there was ever a star-making turn, it was Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Do I honestly need to explain why this is such an extraordinary performance? From McDowell’s unbridled rage to his unbelievably hypnotizing charisma, to the fact that he was able to make us despise his character, but also feel complete sympathy toward him as this film progresses? McDowell seamlessly plays both the perpetrator and the victim of the problems plaguing British society, and the world as a whole. Is there really anything to say about McDowell here that hasn’t already been said? If the fact that McDowell’s character is amongst the most iconic in cinema history, firmly rooted in the canon of great performances, isn’t enough to convince you, then I am not sure anything can. I won’t even bother talking about the rest of the performances in A Clockwork Orange because while they are good, none are as remarkable or iconic as McDowell’s Alex DeLarge.

As I mentioned, I want to discuss two major themes. The first is the idea of violence. I have explored violence theory before, and how it is represented in film, and when done right, even the most brutal and graphic of violence can be artistically resonant. A Clockwork Orange was the great mainstream influence of all the subsequent films that make violence into something artistic. A Clockwork Orange (the novel) is known for a whole bunch of terms it coined – most notably, the concept of “ultra-violence” – violence that is so brutal, graphic and uncompromising, it is so shocking, it reverts all the way around to something the enters the realm of sheer beauty. I can honestly say, and please don’t mistake this for some repressed psychopathic impulses within your humble writer, that the violence in this film is actually so beautiful. It is almost mesmerizing. I do not think this is a mistake or a by-product, because I think Kubrick truly did intend to make the violence in A Clockwork Orange as hypnotic as possible, because the sequences of the most brutal attacks are shot in such a beautiful manner – Kubrick truly ensures that the visuals of A Clockwork Orange are eye-poppingly gorgeous, with the camera being played like a fine instrument, capturing the strange beauty of the acts of deranged brutality in a way that is almost calming. In a world where violence is used to shock, how is it that one of the most violent films ever made actually uses violence to calm the audience? Perhaps I am the only one who feels this way, but there was such a complex beauty to the way Kubrick used violence in this film.

The second theme is language, but I don’t mean it in the way many would assume – rather than discussing the foul language used in this film, I want to discuss something that fascinates me far more than it should. Much like Anthony Burgess, who wrote A Clockwork Orange, I am a linguist – thus, I was naturally going to be drawn to the innovative nature of the language of this story. Writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin are known for creating complex languages in their novels, but very few people recognize the true brilliance of Anthony Burgess’ forays into language, something I would argue is as complex and intricate (even more so, perhaps) than what was done by Tolkien. Whereas Tolkien and Martin created entire languages and dialects (yes, there is a difference), Burgess played around with slang, creating an entire culture. Believe me when I say that creating a fictional language is difficult – but creating a slang is even more difficult, as you need to find a reason for every single slang word and expression. Burgess used Russian as his root-language in creating the slang, adding elements of various other languages such as French and German, while looking towards dialects such as Cockney, and established slang like schoolboy-talk, to create an utterly original and highly innovative slang that is highly quotable, and if anyone is interested, it is well worth your time to look up Burgess’ lexicon of the slang that is widely available online. I understand that this is more of a discussion of the book than the film, but believe me when I say that the slang plays just as much of a vital role in the film as it does in the book – hearing these words said out loud creates something so poetic – even if some of the words don’t seem very clear from the outset, the rhythmic poetry behind them is just so beautiful. How Kubrick managed to work with this invented language, inserting it into the film in a way that was natural, contrastive to how it is portrayed in the novel, is a work of sheer genius.

The music in A Clockwork Orange is also something that has helped define the film. Whereas one could expect such a film, which is set in a dystopian future, to have a more futuristic soundtrack, the decision to score this film with mostly classical music, was a brilliant decision. Alex’s obsession with Beethoven (who he affectionately refers to as “Ludwig Van”) is one of the defining features of his character, but it isn’t only the use of the Ninth Symphony that made A Clockwork Orange so memorable in terms of music – it is the haunting opening theme, the ironic pop music and the beautiful pieces of classical music played throughout. However, perhaps it is the final moments of this film, which lead to the credits where “Singin’ in the Rain” is played, that make the biggest impact. That moment never fails to make my heart skip a few beats at its sheer shock value. Music is something Kubrick used in ingenious ways, throughout most of his films. It is uncanny how wonderful his ear for music is, and it often blends with the images to create a horrifying but riveting experience.

There have been countless opinion pieces and think pieces about what A Clockwork Orange means, in terms of its social implications. I won’t say much on that topic – it is something that many others have said things that are far more profound than I could ever say. However, I see the true value of A Clockwork Orange, not as a piece of violent cinema or literature, but rather as a cautionary tale. Alex DeLarge is a tragic character – he is a terrible individual, but he is also someone desperate for a second chance – and whereas the mantra in society is that everyone deserves a second choice, things become a lot dicier when you enter the real world and look at reality. Very rarely is someone as forgiving as the story implies prior to Alex’s treatment and release. It may be a terrible thing to say, but I actually felt slightly bad for Alex, not because he didn’t deserve to be punished, but because he suffered from a cruel society when he was genuinely looking for a second chance, and an opportunity to redeem himself and have his redemption. Many have taken fierce opposition to this film’s optimistic ending, where Alex is actually a celebrity of sorts, headed towards a much happier life. Some have said this is a bleak ending, as it allows evil to win. Yet, the central theme of A Clockwork Orange is the fact that Alex DeLarge was an evil individual, but also someone who was a victim of a far more sinister evil – society as a whole. A Clockwork Orange ends in a slightly ambiguous manner, which leaves the audience with many questions. It is one of the greatest pieces of literature (and by extent, one of the greatest film)  ever created precisely because of its debates on society and the place of the individual within an unforgiving modern society.

There is so much to say about A Clockwork Orange. However, it is perhaps better to simply say that it is a complex film that truly deserves its reputation as a controversial film – it is violent and not easy at all to digest. It is shocking beyond belief and remains that way, nearly half a century after its release. It is a brilliant piece of cinema, and just further proof that Stanley Kubrick was an utter genius, and in my eyes the greatest filmmaker of all time. A Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece, and I have to say that there is so much more that can be discussed about A Clockwork Orange. It is a film that has many questions surrounding it, in terms of its themes and meanings, but I do think that it is a historical piece of art that deserves to be discussed. It is absolutely magnificent, and I really can’t wait to watch it again and again, as I have been doing since I saw it all those years ago. I love this film so much.

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