A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick has no shortage of controversy in his filmmaking career, and probably the most incendiary of his films is this adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 satirical novel about a violently out of control youth culture. In reflecting on my rewatch of this movie in the context of Kubrick’s body of work, I think it is shortsighted by people who are offended by the picture to push it aside so brusquely. The director has composed a movie that sits as a discomforting companion piece to Paths of Glory, asking some tough questions and making sure that our contemplation of these inquiries is not an easy task. The most important aspects of our society should be very hard to address and tackle.
Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is evil personified. He leads a gang of youths who cavort in violence and rape. There is nothing redeemable about Alex. The first act of the film simply presents his day to day life, skipping school, brutalizing those weaker and older than him, and reveling in it all. In the midst of this, he has a profound love of classical music, notably Beethoven. After coming down too hard on his droogs, Alex is betrayed and left to be capture by the police. Inside the prison, he fakes a desire to redeem himself, gaining the chaplain’s affirmative approval. However, when leaders from the newly elected right-wing government come looking for a guinea pig for a new behavioral correction treatment, the Ludovico technique. Seeing this as his get out of jail free card, Alex volunteers and finds that he is not the evilest bastard in the world.
In Paths of Glory, Kubrick asks us to contemplate the absurd cruelty of systemic violence perpetrated by our society’s institutions. The murder of three soldiers is seen as virtuous by the military commanders because the fear it would create transfers into “boosted morale” and soldiers throwing themselves into the paths of the enemy’s bullets. It is effortless to sympathize with all three condemned men because they are presented as “undeserving” of this brutality. Kubrick refuses to let us off that easy though, so in A Clockwork Orange, he asks the same questions, but this time using a protagonist who he even admits is irredeemably monstrous. Does someone like Alex deserve to be brutalized into civility by the society he was born into? How can we expect someone like Alex to exist when he never really holds a desire to not hurt his fellow human beings? Which is worse: the violence of the individual or the violence of the institution?
I love how Kubrick remains neutral on the matter. While Alex is our protagonist, he isn’t sympathetic. You might feel slightly bad for him when the treatment ends up turning classical music into a poison that makes him want to die, but you never dismiss his crimes. The adults that operate in Alex’s world aren’t much different from him, they have badges and titles that allow them to be cruel with impunity. The irony when Alex encounters two former droogs turned police bobbies is an obvious point that so many of our officers of the law are state-sanctioned sadists. His probation officer, Mr. Deltoid, is a creepy, predatory, fiend who has no interest in setting Alex on the “right path.” Deltoid revels in Alex’s apprehension for murder and the thought of the youth being sexually brutalized in prison. Deltoid doesn’t seem much different from Alex.
The representatives of conservative and liberal politics are both easily swayed to abandon principles to claim power. By the end of the film, Alex is a useful idiot caught in their tug of war. Neither of them ever expresses honest interest in helping him, he serves a propaganda purpose, and you can bet when he’s no longer useful to the scrap heap he goes. Alex is too stupid to realize them and the image of him being fed like a nasty little baby hammers that point home. Alex’s parents are passively cruel, ensuring he has no home to go to when he’s let out of prison. Yet even then, Kubrick has characters give voice to the parent’s point of view. Why should they let the rotten shit back in their home?
The question remains: What do you do with someone like Alex? There are brief comments that hint to the larger world outside of Alex’s purview. He’s a narcissist unaware of the greater world, but if you pay attention, you can tell that there has been significant political upheaval and a comment that the prison is being cleared of felons and convicts for political prisoners that are expected to roll in soon. Mr. Alexander, the man who was victimized by Alex and then uses him for political purposes, is implied to either be imprisoned or killed by the state in the final scene. Think of how differently leadership reacts to unfocused random crime versus targeted political rioting and protesting.
There is no answer within the film A Clockwork Orange, merely the complicating of a question asked in an earlier film. Kubrick personally seemed to be a pessimist about humanity. I am not sure these days where I lie. I think humanity is capable of great good and creating non-coercive or manipulative rehabilitation systems that could help someone like Alex become productive without comprising his fundamental nature. It wouldn’t be something that could be accomplished quickly, but I think it is doable.
On the other hand, I don’t think my own society can implement that kind of system. The United States has quadrupled down on the punitive carceral state that you can’t even begin to have this conversation. Even the most “progressive” mainstream leaders seem unwilling to bend on the idea of legalized prison slave labor. The answer to Kubrick questions won’t come from our current dominant philosophies, but hopefully, some future nation or culture will move us closer to that day.