Eyes Pried Open
By John Cochrane
The movie begins with a shade of bright orange flooding the screen. The music kicks in — sounding stately and somewhat familiar, but it’s played through a moog synthesizer with ominous effects and echoes — causing a mechanical feeling of impending doom. After three title cards in alternating orange and blue that announce the distributor, filmmaker and title of the film, we are confronted with one of the most unnerving close-ups in movie history — Alex DeLarge gazing back at the camera. Alex DeLarge — charismatic gang leader, Beethoven aficionado, rapist and murderer. He does not talk. He does not blink. The camera pulls back to reveal him sitting with his friends — known as “droogs” — in the back of the Korova Milk Bar — a surreal bistro with alabaster tables and statues resembling naked women. The Korova specializes in serving its patrons drug-laced milk called “milk plus.” As Wendy Carlos’ arrangement of Henry Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” continues to play over the soundtrack, Alex begins to tell his story in voice-over — presiding over his territory like a modern day Richard III. Like most nights, he and his droogs are gearing up for a night of terrorizing the community — or as Alex would put it “a bit of the old “ultra-violence.” By the end of this first zoom-out, the audience knows it’s in for one hell of a ride.
The film is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), still to this day one of the most controversial movies ever released by a major motion picture studio. Based on the 1962 novella by Anthony Burgess about freedom of choice and the inherent evil in human nature, it tells the story of an intelligent but unrepentant juvenile sociopath in a dystopian future England, who is imprisoned for murder. Scientifically conditioned by the government using the new Ludovico Technique to be become physically ill at the sight or thought of sex and violence, he is then released back into society — helpless to defend himself against potential attacks from former victims and associates looking to settle old scores — and also with an unfortunate aversion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A Clockwork Orange celebrates its 40th anniversary of its U.S. release today. Some people might argue that it has lost its ability to shock viewers to the same degree, through its entrance into the mainstream — demonstrated by numerous cultural references. But for many others the movie retains all its visceral power due to its iconic elements, expert craftsmanship and timeless storytelling.
When A Clockwork Orange is brought up in conversation, the response usually tends to be either one of high praise or revulsion. So why is the film considered so disturbing by so many people? First, is Malcolm McDowell’s tour de force performance as Alex. McDowell is in almost every frame of the movie, and he runs the gamut from being persuasively likable to bone chillingly frightening to pathetically sad. His frequent, spirited narration greatly helps the audience to understand Burgess’ created language of Nadsat, which is a combination of Russian, Slavic, invented words and cockney slang. The role of Alex also is a very physically grueling one. McDowell endured a scratched cornea from the lid locks that held his eyes open during Alex’s Pavlovian conditioning, as well as a broken rib from being stomped on during the Ludovico demonstration after the character has been cured. Alex is often reprehensible — an unreliable narrator and lead character who is a vicious criminal. But because he is the only real constant presence in the film, the audience is forced to identify with him — creating conflicting feelings when he appears sympathetic, particularly in the film’s third act. Kubrick first saw Malcolm McDowell as one of the rebels in Lindsay Anderson's …if (1968), a harsh and sometimes avant-garde critique of the English boarding school system, and couldn’t imagine anyone else playing Alex. After seeing the film, most people would agree Kubrick was right. It’s a career role, securing McDowell’s place in film history as one of its great villains.
Second are the acts of violence, and the sequences that show forced sex as an act of power. Everyone remembers them — particularly in the movie’s very stylized first 40 minutes — but in reality Kubrick deceptively cuts away from most of the payoffs. The audience sees a naked woman getting pulled back and forth during an attack by a rival gang, but she’s forgotten and quickly runs off when Alex and his droogs show up. The deeply unsettling home invasion sequence, where Alex sings “Singin' in the Rain,” ends before the rape of the author’s wife actually takes place. The murder of the cat lady cuts away to what looks like a painted clown face, just as Alex bludgeons her. The threesome in Alex’s bedroom is more hedonistic than an act of power, but it is sped up and complemented by a comically fast electronic rendition of the "William Tell Overture." The Ludovico films that Alex is forced to watch while nauseous drugs are pumped into his system show violence that is almost cartoon-like, when they aren’t cutting away to World War II footage. These moments remain uncomfortable to watch because the scenes are either edited or choreographed to music that creates in the audience the feeling of euphoria that Alex feels during his conquests. Or in the case of the home invasion and Ludovico scenes, they psychologically play off of the viewers’ fear of helplessness — being attacked at home, which is supposed to be a refuge — or being paralyzed and unable to move. The audience struggles to retain its objectivity, while being invited in as a participant or a witness. Compared to more recent torture porn, A Clockwork Orange probably does show a lot less — but like Hitchcock shooting the shower scene in Psycho (1960), Kubrick understands that the audience will fill in the gaps of what they see with their imagination, and that will be much more powerful than explicitly showing it on screen.
Third, A Clockwork Orange is in many ways a black comedy — with many bizarre jokes and details in it that some audiences are afraid to laugh at. The gang’s strong but slow-witted droog Dim (an excellent Warren Clarke) has a conversation with one of the Korova Milk Bar’s statues before dispensing milk from its breasts. Sexualized artwork seems to be pervasive in society — even in the homes of respectable people. The two girls Alex meets at the Chelsea Drugstore before taking them home enjoy very suggestively shaped popsicles. Alex kills the cat lady by smashing her in the head with a large porcelain phallus, after she reprimands him for playing with it. Alex’s 60-year old mom, whose personality is weak and conservative, walks around in brightly colored wigs, skirts and go-go boots. Both the performances of Alex’s truant officer (Aubrey Morris) and the head guard (Michael Bates) at the prison are ridiculously over the top. Bates in particular seems to be channeling Michael Palin from Monty Python. Also exaggerated is the character of author Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) who is now a widower and quite insane when Alex unwittingly comes to his home (clearly marked HOME on the outside) a second time after being let out of prison. When Alex returns to his parents after his release only to find they’ve rented his room, what should be a touchingly sad scene is complimented with the Erika Eigen’s chipper ditty “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper.” Alex comes out of his coma at the hospital, interrupting a doctor and nurse mid-coitus behind a partition. And when Alex’s parents offer their bedside apologies to him, the frame also contains a food basket containing a box with the words “EAT ME” prominently displayed. Sick, but funny.
Fourth, the film darkly addresses human nature, with an ending that leaves Alex more or less as we found him at the beginning. The movie seems to say that free will is essential to human existence — that we must be able to choose to be good or bad, otherwise we cease to be little more than slaves or robots. Some people are inherently good, or evil, or weak — and there’s not always an explanation or solution for it. The government does not fare much better, in the film’s eyes. They try to fix Alex, not because it is the right or humane thing to do, but to control him. When Alex’s torture and suicide attempt are publicized and the government criticized for their actions, they reverse the treatment and cure him to remain popular. Principle is not involved. Even Frank Alexander has plans to use Alex for his own left-wing political objectives until he realizes who he really is, and seeks retribution.
In the final scene, the Minister of the Interior offers to help Alex get a good job, if he works together with them in their façade of public relations. In the book’s last chapter, Alex grows tired of his violent way of life. Upon a chance encounter with one of his old droogs Pete, who is now married and a quiet member of society, Alex decides that he too should grow up and find a wife to start a family with. This epiphany in the book seems somewhat rushed, but Burgess preferred it — saying Alex’s change of heart at the end made the story a novel, whereas Kubrick’s omission of the chapter made the movie a fable — and considerably more pessimistic. Burgess’ ending may make sense for the novella, but it’s pretty hard to imagine the movie finishing any other way than Alex in the hospital, hearing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” while he imagines himself fornicating with a young girl in the dead of winter — with an approving crowd looking on.
A Clockwork Orange was released at a time when movie studios weren’t afraid of distributing more adult-minded, but artistic fare such as Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs and Last Tango in Paris. Like Cowboy and Tango, A Clockwork Orange originally received the X rating before being later downgraded to an R after brief cuts, but the X classification wasn’t automatically associated with pornography like it in today’s industry of double-standards. The movie was one of the biggest hits of Kubrick’s career, but polarized audiences and critics. Vincent Canby of The New York Times raved about it, while Roger Ebert, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael all disliked the film. Garnering seven BAFTAs and four Academy Award nominations among other accolades, it also was by some estimates, Warner Bros.’ biggest moneymaker to date at that time, with the exception of My Fair Lady (1964).
Further controversy would envelope the film later on in the United Kingdom though, when a number of copycat crimes were pinned to the movie. The British press had a field day, pointing fingers at Stanley Kubrick and his picture — placing blame on its seeming glamorization of rape and violence, while overlooking the picture’s obvious themes, and irony of the situation. After several death threats and increasing pressure upon his family, Kubrick asked Warners in 1974 to withdraw their very profitable film from British distribution — which they did. It was a remarkable display of artistic power. A Clockwork Orange played in London’s West End for 61 weeks and in outer markets only briefly before disappearing. It would not be legitimately shown again in England for another 26 years, after Kubrick’s death. But the seeds were sown — breaking cinematic taboos and influencing such later striking social commentaries as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1990 in the U.S.), and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s frequently banned critique of fascism, Salo (1975).
Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) only made 13 features in a career that spanned 46 years, but even with that small output, it was enough to place him in the upper echelons of great directors. At least two of his movies, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) are usually considered among the greatest films ever made. A perfectionist who never repeated himself, he made movies slowly, overseeing most aspects of production like a master chess player. Kubrick is often called a cold, detached filmmaker — which is not entirely true. His films are realistic — perhaps pessimistic when compared to someone more upbeat like Steven Spielberg — who took over Kubrick’s unfinished project A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and made one of the most beautiful and underrated films of his career. But most of Stanley Kubrick’s movies do make you feel strong emotions — either when the characters are involving — like Kirk Douglas’ impassioned Colonel Dax in the anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory (1957), James Mason’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1962), and Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange — or through the iconic marriage of great visuals and music. Great directors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are often celebrated for their stylish use of soundtracks, but who can forget the use of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “The Blue Danube” in 2001, Vera Miles’ “We’ll Meet Again” at the end of Dr. Strangelove, Wendy Carlos reimagining Purcell, Beethoven and Rossini or the ad-libbed use of “Singin' in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange, or the prostitute swaggering down the street to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” in Full Metal Jacket (1987)? Are these music cues sometimes dark, ironic or provocative? Yes. But the audience is too involved in the moment to write off the filmmaking as cold or detached. (2001 and Barry Lyndon (1975) actually are detached pieces of cinema, but that remoteness was a large part of the point of 2001, and the character Barry Lyndon, as seen in that film, is not an enlightened protagonist.)
Stanley Kubrick’s style isn’t for everyone, but to his admirers his films are rich tapestries of impeccable technique that improve on successive viewings. In many ways A Clockwork Orange may be his most quintessential film — sometimes beautiful and exhilarating, sometimes strangely funny, often thought-provoking, and still disturbing after all these years. Burgess grew tired of defending what he considered one of his minor works, and he eventually resented being known primarily for the film — instead of his prolific career as an author, composer, critic and linguist. Journalists granted a rare interview with Kubrick were instructed not to bring A Clockwork Orange up unless the director did first. But it remains an unforgettable combination of visuals, music, ideas and performances. For many Kubrick fans, it is almost like we are Alex strapped into the chair — sometimes fascinated, nauseated, or frightened. But we can’t look away.