The first time I saw any frame of footage from ‘A Clockwork Orange’, I would have been 13 or 14 years old. It was during a Tae Kwon Do class (no really, I have a blue belt in Tae Kwon Do) and our instructor had brought in his laptop to show off this new technology that had just come out called a DVD. We all gathered around his computer, students and parents, fascinated to see what all the fuss was about. On the screen were a group of strangely dressed young men, driving a strange car at breakneck speed with classical music playing in the background. Our instructor was clearly chuffed showing off his new toy, but ominously told us we were all way too young to see this odd-looking film. It would be another four years before I finally saw ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for myself, but from that day I became fascinated by this film I wasn’t supposed to see. For my teenage brain, it became covetously notorious.
That seems an apt description for Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel. Watching it, even 45 years after its release, you still feel like you’re watching something you shouldn’t, something perverse and uncomfortable and utterly exhilarating. There’s no denying its position as a masterpiece, but there’s also no denying its infernal power, one of those rare films that seems to be watching you as much as you watch it. We are faced with a furious succession of moral conundrums, and rather than being complacent observers, we are forced to participate in the most perfect cinematic anarchy.
Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his Droogs spend their days and nights indulging in ultra-violence, gleeful intimidation and classical music. However, when a break-in goes horribly wrong, Alex is chosen as a subject in a conditioning experiment to rid him of his anarchist tendencies. However, while the treatment is objectively successful, it reduces Alex from a titanic figure of power and terror to a pathetic, vulnerable animal.
Kubrick’s films always courted controversy in some capacity, but none caused the seismic cultural and social shock of ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Burgess’ book was not yet considered a classic in 1971, but its film adaptation instantly captured attention. Part of this was Kubrick’s considerable reputation, but it was its depiction of acts of extreme violence with an almost gleeful enthusiasm that shocked audiences. Over the past 45 years, many of these moments have become part of popular culture, but the rape scene during which Alex sings and dances to ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, for example, still packs just as much of a punch today for its sheer audacity. This film is shocking, crude, ridiculous, uncompromising and (for the time) uncomfortably graphic. What makes it an impossible film to ignore though is that it’s also just flat-out, gob-smackingly brilliant.
Stanley Kubrick is my favourite director. I’ve poured over every frame of his films, tearing them to pieces and marvelling at their endless perfection. Of all of them though, I’ve probably seen ‘A Clockwork Orange’ the most. It isn’t my favourite of his films (that’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’), but ‘Clockwork’ distinguishes itself from the others by being both artistically exhilarating and endlessly entertaining. Kubrick had proven himself more than adept at comedy with ‘Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964), his sublime satire on the Cold War, but here he uses the rhythms and energy of comedy like a knife, sharpened to perfection. What might have been lost on audiences reeling from the shock of the film back in 1971 was that, even though the characters revelled in their anarchy and violence - and the film plays much of its violence as bizarre, almost slapstick comic set pieces - the film does not share in that gleefulness. Kubrick always positioned the camera as an observer rather than as a participant, and even though he uses breathtaking cinematic flourishes like slow-motion and speeding-up, electronic classical music and endless visual gags, this isn’t as an endorsement of the lifestyle of its protagonist but a way for us to see from his perspective and judge for ourselves. ‘Clockwork’ doesn’t hold back from depicting its violence with frightening accuracy, even if it is occasionally stylised. As entertaining as the film is (and it’s undeniably, disturbingly entertaining), it balances this with a searing comment on youth culture and the intoxication of violence. The serious moral quandary it throws at you is that we as human beings not only have the capacity for violence and anarchy, but the capacity to actually enjoy it, and watching ‘A Clockwork Orange’ forces us to walk the fine line between being horrified by it and intoxicated by it.
And that’s just the first half of the film. Once we come to Alex’s conditioning, a whole new set of moral questions are thrown at you. Logically, it seems like the right thing to do, take someone predisposed to violence and alter that predisposition, but in the process Alex is stripped of his personality, his creativity and, most importably, his free will. What makes him a human being essentially disappears. Alex becomes fodder for a political and social system that would rather drastically alter his personality chemically than seriously deal with the circumstances that created him. The world Kubrick creates in ‘Clockwork’ is a future out of balance, the gap between the young and the adult like a chasm, where both refuse to acknowledge, learn or live with the other.
There’s no doubt both its form and its commentary were ahead of their time.
It’s no wonder this horrified its audiences. The action of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was right outside their doors, the 70s seeing an explosion of gang violence and youth protest, young people both rebelling against and taking advantage of the failure of free love in the 60s. The world was slipping into economic crisis, the aristocracy were hopelessly out of touch with the common people and after the cultural politeness of the 50s and openness of the 60s, those predisposed to violence practically erupted. After its release, there were a string of crimes that seemed to imitate the film, young men seeing the film as inspiration rather than satirical commentary. For this reason, Kubrick did something no other director had ever done before - he asked to have the film banned. While he didn’t get his wish in the United States, the film was removed from release in the UK, the country where most of the copy-cat crimes were happening. The film would remain practically impossible to see outside the U.S. until Kubrick’s death in 1999, the ban lifted around the time I saw those first few frames on that DVD.
Today, the film is totally embraced by audiences and critics. There’s no doubt both its form and its commentary were ahead of their time, and now it seems that audiences have gotten the joke - we can fall in love with Alex, but we don’t have to think what he does is right. We also now marvel at it as a piece of filmmaking, one of Kubrick’s finest technical and narrative achievements and featuring a performance from Malcolm McDowell as Alex that is so utterly iconic that he’s never been able to step out of its shadow. The film has its place in popular culture firmly assured, but in the process it hasn’t relinquished its capacity to inspire debate and discussion. That it still feels vital and relevant after 45 years is a testament to how potent its observations are, that they’re still necessary.
I utterly adore everything about ‘A Clockwork Orange’. I adore its endless visual flair, I adore its cheeky use of music, I adore its sharp and erudite screenplay, its preposterous performances, its shocking violence, its endless invention and its refusal to compromise on a single atom of its being. All of this is little surprise when the artist in charge is Stanley Kubrick, probably the finest filmmaker who has ever lived, but no matter how many times I watch it, I still find myself shaking my head at it in amazement. What I’ve written for its anniversary doesn’t even scratch the surface of this endlessly fascinating film. I’m still as exhilarated, intoxicated, horrified, confronted and entertained by it as the first time I saw it. I had no idea when I was 13 or 14 in my Tae Kwon Do class (no, really) that those first few frames would signal a love affair to come, both with the film and its creator, but its a love affair that I doubt will ever wane. Even after 45 years of burning itself into our minds, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is still an important, vital and infernal masterpiece.