Today I watched Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Based on the Anthony Burgess novel of the same name, this is the story of Alex DeLarge, a violent youth offender in dystopian England. He and his crew get high on drugged milk before getting involved in all sorts of violent behaviour, from abusing the homeless to rape. Alex is an abusive leader though, so the loyalty of his ‘droogs’ soon comes into question and one night they leave him for the cops after breaking and entering into a country house. Incarceration does not suit Alex and his sentence is quite long considering that the woman whose house he broke into died after his assault, so he tries buttering himself up to the chaplain in hopes of a reduced sentence. But it is not from good behavior that his liberation comes, it is from a new, scientific program which aims to ‘cure’ the criminal. This cure is much more like a torture though as it indoctrinates Alex to respond to all violent and sexual impulses with extreme revulsion, in the process also turning his love of Beethoven against him.
Kubrick’s filmography is incredibly diverse, leading to one interpretation of his ouvre as a series of genre experiments. The theory goes that each of his films is an attempt to dig into and understand one particular genre, from sci-fi to erotic thriller. I like this analysis quite a bit but when it comes to this particular film, it raises the question of what genre he was going for here. A Clockwork orange is an incredibly diverse film that trades equally in allegorical humour and psychological horror. It is also a near future, proto-cyberpunk dystopia filled with harsh social commentary and lurid sexual violence. It seems to then fit in with the late 60’s, early 70’s exploitation films, even then it breaks new ground in terms of dystopian film making.
Some are quick to label this film as fascist, but I think that’s just because it is so quick to critisize liberal nonsense. The concept of reform is front and center here, along with questions of choice and morality, and the film seems to be heavily inspired by the philosophical work of Foucault who first pointed out the barbarism of civilized social services like this. The film posits that reform is no more humane than punishment as it forces societal norms on a person, and who is to say that society is actually good? Certainly the society of this film is not ‘good,’ it’s a run down nightmare of a world. Of course one need look no further than it’s portrayal of the conventional prison system to see that these criticisms are also leveled at the more authoritarian perspective as well.
There is poetry to this film’s radically anti-societal musings, as anarchistic and violent as it may be. It is quite an engrossing film that does a wonderful job of blending the truly horrific psychology on display with the social satire and humour of the film. It really is a classic exploitation film as it captures the genre’s tongue in cheek use of camp for effect and the rawness of over the top performances when contrasted with harshly realistic acts of evil. It is also one of Kubrick’s most iconic and the style here is extremely on point, future sci-fi allegories like Logan’s Run, Death Race 2000 and countless cyberpunk works owe this film a huge visual debt. I think it goes without saying that a film of this notoriety and depth is absolute essential Kubrick. 5/5