Registering the Registry 2020: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, frequent registry inductee and film buff favorite Stanley Kubrick comes round with a look at a young man whose principle interests include rape, ultraviolence, and Beethoven. It’s A Clockwork Orange from 1971, and we’re gonna get our hands dirty on understanding just how the film examines and condemns the ills of a collapsing social order through the eyes of one exceptionally sick protagonist. Read on and find out how!
Being as A Clockwork Orange is and will likely long remain one of the most widely seen and discussed films inducted into the National Film Registry, I should hardly think anyone sufficiently interested as to click through this article needs detailed plot summary. Teenaged Alex beats and rapes his way through a dystopic society until he pushes too far, gets thrown in the slammer, undergoes a torturous form of forced aversion therapy, and is thrown back into the world to suffer a mirror version of his actions from the first act while physically crippled by the thought of violence and the sound of music. There’s a ton of classical pieces on tap, realized both traditionally and electronically, and the head-on, balletic depictions of violence and cruelty remain disturbing fifty years strong. Much more is so entangled in the imagery and specific language of the film as to be readily familiar to any who’ve watched it, and difficult to communicate in words to those who haven’t. Give the title an image search and watch this recap from venerable mid-2000s web phenomenon 30-Second Bunnies Theater if you need an even dirtier crash course.
Besides, why should we waste our time re-lionizing a work of art so commonly and highly praised as a work of genius? We’ve the fertile grounds of CONTROVERSY to mine!
But oh oh oh, which Clockwork Orange controversy to discuss? There’s just so many! The media firestorm around the film on its initial release, moral guardians amongst the press and public alike eager to blame any sign of moral decay in Britain on a film so raw in its presentation of violent sexual crimes? The copycat crimes and tendency to claim inspiration inspiration from the film amongst criminal youth, which eventually led to death threats against Stanley Kubrick and in turn his pulling the film from release in the UK until his 1999 death? The film’s continuing legacy as a misunderstood work — misunderstood here meaning the all-too-common trend of young men watching without groking and championing Alex as all all-time great protagonist for his refusal to follow society’s rules or consider anyone a worthwhile person outside himself, in the “proud” tradition of Tyler Durden and the Joker? The debate over exactly how necessary the rape scenes are to the film’s function in terms of whether their sheer level of brutality meaningfully contributes to its effectiveness? The undercurrent of homosexual imagery presented as dangerous and degenerate? The matter of a film based on a British book starring British actors and shot in Britain from a director/screenwriter who spent the entirety of his artistically-fruitful period in the UK making the American National Film Registry by virtue of its American production company/distributor?
All worthy possibilities, excepting the last; I threw it in there for a minor bit of levity. While we shall return to the most pressing of these controversies in good time, my interest (as you may suspect) lies in a literary controversy. Specifically, original author Anthony Burgess’ disdain for the film. His negative reaction to any popular film version of A Clockwork Orange existing at all is understandable; Burgess wrote and published the manuscript in a three week flurry purely for the money, convinced he was dying of a brain tumor and needed to provide for his wife, and long regarded it as a trashy, salacious piece of no importance compared to his massive body of literature, literary criticism, and musical compositions. It was a work derived from personal experience, being inspired in part by a WWII incident when American GIs beat and raped his wife during a scheduled blackout, but he expressed little love for the final product in every retrospective he conducted in the following thirty years. The film’s massive popularity overwhelmed every other (to his mind better) piece in his extensive bibliography for the last few decades of his life, and the early years of its release saw a great deal of the media frenzy against the film aimed towards his head despite his total lack of involvement. Nobody can blame the man for bitterness in the broad terms. The particulars of his objection, however, require some small expansion on our part.
See, on initial publication in America, Burgess’ overseas contact convinced him to delete the final twenty-first chapter, as to better suit the country’s taste for dark, ambiguous endings. Where the American edition (and ONLY the American edition; no such deletion occurred anywhere else in the world) ends on Alex listening to symphonic orchestral music and imagining scenes of ultraviolence, wryly noting he’s cured of his behavioral programming, Burgess’ intended ending sees Alex grow up. Though he returns to his life of gang activity and aimless terror in the night, the final chapter tracks his thoughts as he grows bored with these distractions, meets an old droog who got out and got married, and comes to contemplate the virtues in a proper job of his own choosing and a quiet life with a wife and infant son. To go by Burgess’ stated intent in later editions’ forward, the novel A Clockwork Orange is nothing without this pullback from the black depths it otherwise plumbs. He saw no value to the work, no constructive element, no smidgen of good to this vison of vice and sin and ultraviolence if he could not make his overtly evil protagonist realize the pointlessness of his actions and grow out of his wayward ways. Not by means of a state-backed manual conditioning that renders him the titular clockwork creation, but the natural development possible in all young men. If we believe Burgess, A Clockwork Orange ended with Alex intent on a return to evil and all the world cast as equally ugly, incapable of true change, is A Clockwork Orange with its only redeeming factor stripped away. What good is there in insisting a man is defined by choice if he is never given the chance to choose different?
Let’s explore the question. What good IS there in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, on its own merits? Well, there’s Malcolm McDowell as Alex himself, across narration and physical presence alike. In the former, he’s this spine-tingling way of verbally striding through the text, sounding simultaneously the single most self-centered boor in the world and your closest bosom-buddy confidant, chewing every word to make the simple act of hearing and groking feel special and private. In the latter, he’s often disturbingly relaxed when kicking and ripping his way through friend and foe alike, made further distressing when he conducts himself with much the same casual affect around those who know what he’s capable of and are openly terrified at the close proximity. When actually cornered and made lesser by the horrendously violating Ludovico technique in combination with subsequent revenges from all he wronged, though, he embodies a suitably harangued and half-broken persona, made ALMOST convincing if not for the prevalence of Nadsat slang in his speech and narration. The dialect, derived from phonetic Russian and childish twists on rhyming Cockney, reveals a disdain for any felt or expressed human emotion outside the narrowly accepted hateful ones, even regarding his own suffering. All guile he employs to disarm the viewer, victims, and vredset vonny jailers is like an advanced take on a child’s trouble-dodging act: too effective to fully deny, too obvious to ignore as put upon airs. It’s enormous credit to McDowell that he plays all the comedy and horrible experiences to such high effect without generating a gram of sympathy for his part.
Related to Alex, there is the music, in its classical and corrupted forms. They are one in a pair, the boy and the notes, hints of something real and beautiful in the strains of Rossini and Beethoven made distorted and almost comical by their insertion over acts of callousness — here’s “The Thieving Magpie” over Alex beating his gang into line in loving, crotch-slap highlighting slow motion, there’s “Pomp and Circumstance” scoring parodically militaristic bureaucracy in the prisons, elsewhere you’ll find “Singin’ in the Rain” sharing space with the lead-in to particularly cruel rape or else serving as trigger to memory of the same. And then at turns, Wendy Carlos’ synthesizer experiments, these crashing, foreboding renditions of “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” and a farcical take on the “William Tell Overture,” speaking to a mind which admires the music for its threatening, violent power above the sweetness in woodwinds and strings. Though one finds the classical masters across many of Kubrick’s latter-period successes, here they serve as microcosm for Alex’s condition in relation to the world around him. What should be slooshied as sweet and beautiful is forcefully mingled with the vulgar and kroovy, until its normal self is torturous and its altered form indicative of this heavy, dooming sound like the whole world crashing in from the intolerable presence of one grahzny bastard.
There is the world Kubrick and production designer John Barry derive from London location shoots. Very little of Alex’s world is studio-bound, so when he stalks his away across the space between flatblocks strewn with trash, thrashes in agony before pictures of Nazism and war inside a disused theater, perverts the already carnival-like atmosphere of the Chelsea Drug Store’s basement, there’s this sense of near-dystopia pulled from ordinary oddities of urban development and decay. Garish tastes rule the hip spaces, worse still for those coded as out of touch, unyielding concrete the penal, gray days of weak sun and bleak streets between all these. What Kubrick and his crew do import into their setting is wholly of the salacious and distressing, all cutting edge fashionable furniture for the smashing, phallic and yonic artwork made weapons and recipients to assault, a line of Christs off his cross dancing the can-can as Alex masturbates to Beethoven. It’s only fitting we begin in the Korova Milk Bar, where the white stuff with knives in is served through the nipples of marble feminine statues in poses of ecstasy, order kept by burly boys with prominent bulges, for everything Alex sees and hears is viddied and slooshied as either the perfect compliment to this openly twisted place where sex and violence cavort as one, or else an iron-shouldered, stone-faced rejection of it all happy to wear a guise of the ordinary if it means getting their pint of blood in private.
And, of course, we have Alex’s perception of his world. I should note before we start into this point, we do not mean Alex’s perception tells us any lies, implies he is not seeing the world around him as it truly is. Kubrick’s filmic techniques in cooperation with cinematographer John Alcott and editor Bill Butler DO distort, what with the singular focal point shots engendering an emphasis on dominating center frame as the truest expression of dominance, the wide-angle lens for perspective shots making towering figures and terrified faces a warped mockery of themselves, all the running about in the midst of fights and staring straight on as scissors clip close to bared breasts and sped-up orgies serving to make the taboo simultaneously routine and all the more heart-pounding. Alex does not see the world as his captors and doctors wish, and it is a matter of extreme doubt whether he holds the capacity to see any different. Even when the Ludovico technique has crippled him against engaging in any ultraviolence or in-out-in-out himself, Kubrick never lets up on the cutting between aged faces cracked with rage, or the half-interested gaze on a beating-drowning, or tossing a camera out the window to put us right in the midst of a suicide. The sociopathic attitudes which defines Alex’s character, the revelry in that which most would call evil, are wholly divorced from the behavioral patterns which make him a petty thief, an assailant, a rapist, a murderer, a monster. He will see the world as warped and hateful and deserving a tolchicking by the nearest able-bodied malchick no matter what.
What matters here is, per Burgess and Kubrick alike, choice. Not in the micro, the moment-to-moment choice of whether to continue acting the monster and endure deathlike sickness or turn the other cheek and take the beating. The bigger picture choices, those whom one chooses as peers, one’s innermost desires, those driven by a condition of character. It’s there ever-so briefly in the film’s text, when Alex and the prison chaplain read aloud from Proverbs 24:1–2: “Seek not to be like evil men, neither desire to be with them: Because their mind studieth robberies, and their lips speak deceits.” One must understand, though Alex be impelled against evil, we know he sought the path of the Ludovico technique for the express purpose of getting back to the actions inspired by thoughts of himself as the man who whipped Christ on the path to the cross, who stood at the head of great armies slitting throats before returning home to lie amongst his harem. The boy’s ideal life is one with a false front, all goodness mere mask to enable the taking and ripping of whatever he pleases. It only follows one finds gaudiness and abused power and horrid sights and sounds wherever Alex treads. In his choice to follow such a path no matter the consequence, even when rendered a hollow shell of himself, he can only ever find the old men who want a go at youth, the warped picture of criminals made police officers, the political revolutionary whose idea of progress is torturing a young man to suicide with a dash of revenge on the side. One who seeks and bathes in the evils of the world will only ever find a world of evils.
This, I think, deals with a great deal of the controversies surrounding the picture. Though extreme and discomforting no doubt, study of its contents and perspective reveals it builds a world and outlook largely confined to the experiences of the wicked. A world in which any expression of sexuality is worth disgust, in which the eye will naturally greedily drink in the worst acts against one’s fellow man, in which horrors upon horrors are the order of the day all day every day. If we could step away from Alex for but a second, walk round the corner and forget the boy and his droogs and all their crimes ever existed, we might find a better, brighter perspective on the world, where kindness and love and all the great Christian values may blossom and flourish. We are, however, here for the boy and nothing but the boy. He commands the narrative, he dominates the image, his outlook colors the camera’s view, his disdain for and mockery towards all things so extreme as to make his own the target of ridicule and breaking strain. Here is the scum, self-glorifying and oh so proud of his cultured ways as he stamps at the world with his boots, and then creeching and boohoohooing for his sorry self when the very mean and nasty elements he courted are the only ones who’ll come to his side, control his being, wreck him in turn as he wrecked them. It’s a heavily stylized peek into a very dark, very disquieting corner of society, but it is just that. A corner.
Or, it would be, if the horrible reflective vices Alex finds all round him were merely of the public sector. As we’ve touched on in passing multiple times by now, Alex’s greatest and most common enemies who walk the same path as he are those tied into the politick. Mr. Deltoid the social worker, his zoobies white and wide and gleaming as he savors a moment of causing Alex pain, or else lords a murder charge from on high before spitting on his bloodied lips. The prison guards, prominently the one played by Michael Bates, so in love with shouted orders and precision control and invasive deconstruction of a body that they and he read as supercharged extensions of the Flatblock Marina exercise in dominance. The doctors who stretch their rots into smiles a mile wide as they assure their patient his treatment as a malfunctioning bit of machinery against all evidence of pain and suffering is for the good of the public. The police who now draw from the ranks of street gangs to keep a broken law and order with their own tortures in the countryside. Frank Alexander, political radical who plotted the death of one he deemed a “victim of the modern age” when he had no means of knowing his target’s true crimes, and then hatefully cherished every single second of his agony on learning the truth. We find some exceptions in the bums who take revenge on Alex for attacking their friend, or Joe the lodger, but the ugliness Alex courts and finds turned against him is to near-exclusion housed in the hearts and minds of those who have political power or seek to gain such. All that darkness of the human soul, happily confined to the holes a raping piece of shit like Alexander DeLarge would frequent, instead revealed as squatting amongst the highest echelons of society, casting a shadow long and deep over all we just identified as pure and true.
And worst of the lot, the one who means Alex no harm at all, the one who calls him friend. Anthony Sharp as Frederick, Minister of the Inferior or Interior, who sees all the qualities of the worst his country has to offer within seconds of meeting little Alex, who proudly boasts of how the technique his government sponsors has made all the hypocritical lessons of prison taught to the incarcerated completely moot, who comes to Alex’s hospital bedside in the finale and talks of silencing opposition and cooperation with the wronged, the intent to use and abuse anyone who’ll further his prospects in the upcoming election clear on his face. Yet his words are sweet, honeyed, betraying no small part of what he really means to any except those tuned into his wavelength. If one watches McDowell’s face in the finale, it’s plain Alex understands he is to be used for another’s designs… yet there is also a hint of approval, and so he plays along, popping his jaw for every carefully carved and fed piece of politicking bullshit. Here are all the lessons of prison the Minister blasted as the result of the Old Way — “the false smile, the rubbed hands of hypocrisy, the fawning greased obsequious leer” — in action by way of a champion for the New Way. Here is a power he attempted to wield over his droogs to betraying disaster, framed and elevated to a position where it cannot have such backlash. Here is an outlet for what he hears in lovely lovely Ludwig van’s explosive music, demon teeth and destruction and executions and fawning, applauding approval for his every depraved act before the public eye. To make the long short, the Minister of the Inferior or Interior is exactly the kind of man a monster like Alex can be if he learns to walk the walk and grow up, the politician who can oversee a collapsing nation, prod it to crumble a little faster, and come away with landslide victories and ever-greater responsibilities poured upon his lap.
The hell of it is, in this view, Alex does grow up, as Burgess intended. Only instead of the novelist’s fantasy of so irredeemable a person simply growing bored with his vicious nature and joining polite society like any good citizen, there is the implication he will find better, more rewarding outlets than razrezing anyone he likes and driving a stolen Durango 95 through the infinite landscape of a rear projection. Ultimately, the sociopath finds and rises to his kind, and rather than the comforting thought that all such persons will forever lurk in seedy bars and grimy tunnels and trash-strewn apartment blocks, well away from polite society, we find the matured Alex friend to the government, positioned to rise until he too is in a position to pass laws and punish who he likes and take and take and take whilst promising the world to his subjects. No more a clockwork orange, no more an aimless youth forced into automaton by those looking to exert control and make some pretty polly off the effort. Now he’s the one who can leave the world a place full of broken, dirty corners, where grow another batch of young men who come to see it as a distorted hell for the pillaging by singularly cultured and clever persons like themselves, until they too cross a line and are rendered clockwork, until they too break and are offered a good deal to stay quiet and maybe rise in the ranks, and on and on and on and on. They all remain creatures capable of change and choice once through the crucible, of course; it’s just they change into our leaders, captains of our fates and faiths, rather slinking into the background to become one of us.
The image is beautiful, a photographer’s eye ensuring it is all framed and captured with maximum impact across color and shape and perspective. The subject is warped as you can get, the monster we imagine behind others’ eyes given flesh and free reign, his only punishment a temporary halt. The takeaway, a hard-jawed, steel-eyed admission all this business about outsiders and outcasts and rapists in the night is mere prelude to the lives of those who keep the kingdom sullied and suffering. Alexander DeLarge, the monster hated by all for his unrefined selfish terrors, now beloved by most for his silvered tongue and knowing companionship amongst those he will hurt the most. He was cured, alright, at the expense of all who truly need curing. God help us, amen, and all that cal.
We find ourselves in dark, despairing waters this week, O my brothers, for my promise to avoid too much Nadsat in the piece went completely unfulfilled. Hopefuly it proved an enlivening read all the same, and gave you some thoughts of your own to share down below. Be sure to stay tuned for next week’s piece, when we jump back to films made in America for Melvin van Peebles’ extremely low-budget work in Los Angeles to serve all the brothers tired of the Man’s boot up their asses a radical new kind of film by any means necessary… including some questionable practices involving his own son. It’s 1971’s blaxploitation kickstarter, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (three a’s and five s’s in Baadasssss, very important), which you can find for streaming through Fandor and Kanopy, or rental through Alamo On Demand. Catch you then!