And would you believe it, o! my brothers and only friends? There was your faithful and humble narrator with two of his best droogs viddying Stanley Kubrick’s classic dystopia, A Clockwork Orange.
As I’ve often said, that period most beloved of critics, the late ’60s/early ’70s, is my most reviled period of cinema. It is a period of aesthetic atrocities, when the future, man, hope and love became unredeemable, and this is reflected in ugly films about ugly people doing ugly things. This is the part where I reveal my hypocrisy and confess my love for A Clockwork Orange, which is definitely an ugly film about ugly people doing things—but it’s a beautiful ugly film about ugly people doing ugly things.
The story, if you don’t know it, is about young Alex—in the book he’s 15, but he’s probably meant to be 17-18 here—who leads his gang on nightly rampages of terror: Gang fights, home invasions, rape, burglary, and so on, until treachery leads to his capture. He sees a chance for freedom in the form of a controversial rehabilitation program which trains him to be physically ill at the thought of violence (and, presumably, violent sex). The treatment “works” after a fashion, but he’s let loose into the same cruel world that he was made in, and he has many, many enemies.
And here comes the part where I justify my hypocrisy: The thing about A Clockwork Orange is that it doesn’t endorse any aspect of this. It’s fine (and even necessary) to present things that are evil, nihilistic, morally corrupt, etc. However, it’s wrong to endorse those things, which many of the movies of this period do. (This is a similar distinction I make between graphic violence and torture porn: In order to be the latter, it has to present torture as titillation.)
There aren’t a lot of admirable characters in Orange: The most admirable player in the film is Godfrey Quigley’s unnamed prison preacher. He’s the only one that points out that robbing a man of free will—the will to do good or evil—is a greater sin even than traditional methods of incarceration. Nobody can be bothered of course: They need a way to clear out prisons of hardened criminals to make way for the political prisoners they’re expecting. (Mentioned merely as an aside.)
You can look at A Clockwork Orange a number of ways: As a dystopic future, as brutal narrative of rape and violence, as a prurient sex-laden environment (there are many gorgeous women—all abused, as well as pervasive sexual decor), as a near perfect time capsule of 1971 styles and attitudes, or as a cinematic masterpiece. There’s a lot to be said about that last: This film was shot quickly (by Kubrick standards) on cheap equipment (compared to Kubrick’s previous film, 2001), and yet it says so much without saying a word.
All of the sequences are done in these narrow, confined, areas: Everything is skinny and deep. Even when they go outside, they end up in tunnels, or cramped prison yards. Almost as if they’re on rails.
But the real thing about this movie is that it’s still True. The “therapy” presented is nonsense of course, and aversion therapy has fallen out of fashion these days, though it was the height of so-called technique back then. But really, the only difference today is that we use drugs to make straightjackets—nobody can be bothered with the morality of it. Hell, we drug kids for minor educational issues, much less serious crimes.
The Boy and The Flower were with me. The Boy liked it quite a bit and more as time passed, as he began to reflect on various aspects. The Flower also liked it a lot, though she’s rather chary of that era, aesthetically. She declared it “awesome”, enjoying in particular the epitome of ’71 decor, the colors and the black humor. (What? No, I’m not the least bit worried that she shares much of my taste.)