“He will be your true Christian: ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify” ~ Minister of The Interior
Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange began as a troubling book and it becomes perhaps an even more troubling film full of volatility placed in the hands of Stanley Kubrick.
At its core are many deep-rooted issues of violence, morality, and free will all coming to the fore because of one teenage hoodlum and his rehabilitation from a life of savage juvenile delinquency.
Whereas Burgess created this parable in all sincerity to consider these very issues of morality, it’s easy to get the sense that Kubrick simply found this moral conundrum a fascinating exercise in itself. You only have to look at Dr. Strangelove to see his proclivity towards wicked wit or only to venture with 2001 to observe his penchant for deep philosophical paradigms wrapped up in the science fiction.
A Clockwork Orange has all of that and it’s a perturbing practice in both satire and science fiction. It hums with classical music and synths, shot with distorting wide-angle lenses, while also modeling Kubrick’s perfectionist tendencies.
Malcolm McDowell’s voice-overs as the main hoodlum Alex DeLarge are a major component of the film’s structure, recalling the phraseology and world developed in Burgess’s original source material. For instance, Beethoven becomes Ludwig Van. Droogs are friends. Horrorshow is good or well. Then, Ultraviolence and the old in-out don’t need much explanation.
In fact, during the course of this film, Alex takes part in equal measures of both, causing havoc with his friends and bedding a pair of girls. There is seemingly no end to his depravity and the fascinating part is that he seems to enjoy it all.
That is, until, the government steps in to reform him. Alex is sent from prison to the Ludovico Medical Facility where he is to be issued a new variation of aversion therapy. And this is where, rather ironically, the famed sequence of Malcolm McDowell, eyes wide, screaming at the images passed in front of him entered the public consciousness. His corneas actually getting scratched in the process and the images forever ingrained in our society from that point forward.
But all of this early depravity, followed by his rehabilitation are only the beginning. And it’s in these interludes that Kubrick tries to impress upon us the idea of Alex being our hero. It’s a difficult thought to deal with. But that’s of little consequence compared to the moral issues that hang in the balance here.
You cannot watch this film and not only feel somewhat dirtied but also saddened at what man is capable of doing. And it’s not only in the case of one man to another, or a small group to another. But, in this case, an entire bureaucracy of people systematically ridding their streets of crime. It’s a strange question maybe, but the question must still be asked, at what cost is all of this? It deserves our attention.
And to try and tease out some answers it seems crucial to look back to Burgess because although these are questions that undoubtedly intrigued Kubrick as well, but it was Burgess who first brought them to the fore. In this case, the author’s own religious background seems to have telling implications for this moral tale that he wove. He intended A Clockwork Orange to be a parable of what defines free will and forgiveness from a Christian perspective in particular.
What is goodness or forgiveness if we lose our free will — if we are only machines — functioning without beating hearts and all that is human within us. What kind of good would the greatest act of love in the universe be if it was done out of compulsion — not genuine love and charity?
In the case of Alex DeLarge, he no longers craves ultraviolence or his former lustful desires for women, but it has nothing to do with a change of heart. He’s simply learned to be repulsed by them. Kubrick’s picture is darkly perverse and the film ends not with the promise of the novel but a thoroughly downbeat ending that rings hollow. It becomes obvious that Alex’s core desires have hardly changed. He’s simply been conditioned to know what is “good” and “bad.” That’s perhaps an even more terrifying reality than one of violence and evil.
The story goes that when Gene Kelly crossed paths with Malcolm McDowell he coldly walked away because it was in this film that his iconic tune “Singin’ in the Rain” was notoriously tarnished. But really this entire film is a dark blot and it’s truly horribly dismal to watch at times. I cannot even manage to watch it in its entirety. Not simply for its graphic nature, but the tone that it endows. While Alex DeLarge is far from a sympathetic protagonist, it’s hard not to pity him — poor fool that he is.