A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange

I would say this hasn't aged well, but it seems like it
was wrong from the start

dir: The Great Almighty Stanley Kubrick


Kubrick routinely is praised as probably the greatest director who ever deigned to pick up a camera and yell at people in order to get them to do what he wanted. Who am I to shit on the great man’s legacy?

Nobody, that’s who. Sure he’s made a stack of good films, and a few bad ones. I will say though, without fear or favour, that A Clockwork Orange is probably the crappiest of his holy, vaunted oeuvre.

That’s right, I’m saying it’s worse than Eyes Wide Shut.

A bad Kubrick flick is better than most other director’s best flicks, but it’s still a chore to sit through. And I say this as a fan of the man and his directorial vision. I love many of his films. Hell, I’ve even voluntarily sat through Barry Lyndon a few times and roundly enjoyed it. And I’ve probably seen 2001 more times than the average footy player / actor goes through rehab unsuccessfully.

I first saw A Clockwork Orange back in 1992, on the big screen with a girl who I adored. We saw it at an old movie house called the Valhalla, and were expecting some kind of transgressive masterpiece. She was no shrinking violet to be sure, and had previously watched films with me like Betty Blue, The Company of Strangers and, I’m ashamed to admit, Basic Instinct. Truly was she prepared for anything from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the sacred to the profane. Truly must I say that I was more profoundly bored than even she was.

The only positive that I can remember to the whole A Clockwork Orange experience was that sex eventuated out of it more in spite of its effects rather than because of them. And perversely, for years after we frequented a decent nightclub called Clockwork Orange at the Chevron (back in the days before the owners were jailed for cocaine trafficking and the place was turned into yuppie apartments), which was far more enjoyable than anything this flick has to offer.

Fifteen years have elapsed since then, and since I was on a bit of a Kubrick kick over the last few months, I bought a copy of A Clockwork Orange and decided to sit through it in the privacy of my own lounge room, in the comfy chair with my baby daughter asleep on my chest. Goddamn did I envy her sleep whilst the film played. So much more a productive use of time.

What does ACO have going for it? Notoriety? A reputation for being a video nasty banned in Britain because of the fear it would inspire roving gangs of disaffected youth to take to the streets and start butchering people at random? An undeserved reputation as a prescient look into the future that really didn’t seem like more than a farce set in the 70s focused on the middle class's fear of teenagers? Whatever it’s got, it’s not a lot, and I’m no fan.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) leads a band of merry morons he calls his droogies, speaking to us in a perpetual voiceover laced with neologisms and Russian words maladapted into the Queen’s English. Their uniform – white long johns and bowler hats – is recognisable even to people who’ve never seen the film or read the book. The image of Alex looking straight down the barrel of the camera, with a look of unrepentant menace across his one fake-eyelashed face, is even more well known.

Although the world looks like a slightly dirtier contemporary England, it’s meant to be a little in the future (at least from the point of view of the 70s, which is when it came out). As such, Alex and his droogies drink in a futuristic looking milk bar which serves drug laced milk filled with kitsch furniture shaped like prone women, but pretty much everything else looks like the dismal Britain of the era. We are meant to get a sense that the youth of the day have gone crazy and are lashing out in great numbers against the innocent oldies. Thing is, though, apart from Alex and the other morons preying on the innocent, there doesn’t really seem to be much revolution going on.

But if the story tells us something is happening, then I guess we have to believe it in spite of the lack of evidence. Youth crime is so prevalent, or at least the fear of it, that a radical new technique has been dreamed up by the social engineers and societal welfarists who dream of human perfectibility and butter that spreads easily straight out of the fridge.

With this technique, an otherwise monstrous criminal and sociopath can be turned into the most docile and law-abiding of common drones. Ah, the Ludovico Technique: envy of parents, educators and cinemagoers forced to endure other people’s children the world over.

After a string of vicious crimes against a homeless dosser, another gang, a bourgeois husband and wife, his own gang, and finally beating a woman to death with a giant ceramic cock, Alex is jailed and undergoes the technique in order to shorten his sentence. In a real turn up for the books, it doesn’t work out quite like everyone expected.

In some ways I’m convinced that Kubrick intended for the film to be less cautionary prophecy and more of a satirical comedy. The thing is, though, apart from a few witticisms in the voiceover narrative, the rest of the flick is painstakingly lame and laborious. Kubrick’s films aren’t known for their rapid pacing, and it’s not the pacing that’s the problem. The tone is wildly inconsistent, and can’t decide whether it’s being cheeky or vicious, often in the same sequence or scene. Above all, it just doesn’t come across as a very believable story regardless of what it’s trying to say.

Maybe it works as a dark fairy tale, maybe the exaggeration of 70s British socialism means its essence is parody and not something to be taken seriously. I just don’t know. Even after multiple viewings I still find that the flick doesn’t work for me.

I get transgressive films. I understand how this could be meant to be a transgressive flick. I just don’t get that the flick gets any merit from aspiring to be so. Alex is a pure sociopath, but articulate, so I guess we can put him up on a pedestal with the other pure, articulate sociopaths like Hannibal ‘Cabana Boy’ Lecter, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, or Elizabeth II in The Queen. The problem is, though, he’s just a sadistic, arrogant, arsehole. There is no trenchant psychology at play, no existential malaise, no social commentary (regardless of what the screenplay believes), no deeper significance to anything that he does or thinks or that happens to him or anyone around him.

Apart from the lacklustre manner in which the plot grunts and flops along, the excruciating soundtrack further distracts and irritates, making a tiresome experience even more painful. The big scenes are punctuated with synthesisers gone berserk in ways you previously never thought possible or ever wanted. The synth versions of Beethoven’s greatest hits are particularly galling. I think I would have preferred sitars, dulcimers, those sticks covered in hundreds of bottle caps producing the music, or even plunged into my ears repeatedly instead of having to listen to that crap.

The problem isn’t in the main performance, in that McDowell’s characterisation is quite charming and occasionally amusing. The problem is that the character is as much of a retard as the other retards he is surrounded by, and he (as are we) is forced to endure scenes of progressive retardation as time wearily rolls on. All the people Alex de Large has wronged in the first part get to conveniently, and in the same order, have their revenge, in a plodding and uninspired manner as dull as anything the dullest minds of an entire accounting firm could have imagined in their mildest dreams. All of them are cheese and ham badly acted and don’t seem to know what kind of film they are in. I guess Kubrick didn’t yell at the actors as much this time, unlike his other ‘brilliant’ directorial efforts.

I will give a modicum of credit where it might be due. Since it’s based on a great book by Anthony Burgess, the way it plays around with language is of great interest to me. Of course, what works in book form doesn’t always translate to the screen. The scenes of the actual behavioural modification / aversion therapy are well done, and look like they would have been as painful for McDowell to endure as they were for me to watch, if not more so. The scenes would have made BF Skinner, the father of behavioural studies and operant conditioning, very proud. Or possibly not, since he was opposed to that kind of thing.

Other than that it is a painfully dull experience for me to sit through; one that doesn’t engage, doesn’t amuse, doesn’t entertain in the long term. For me this is like Kubrick trying to make an extended movie out of a few farcical sketches of the Benny Hill show, only it’s less enjoyable and less believable over the long run and possesses less subtlety. It’s quoted and referred to in a million pop cultural places, but it’s just a boring chore to sit through for me. Kinda like the Bible.

It ain’t funny, it looks like crap, it says nothing of significance, it sounds like crap and yet because Kubrick made it, it has this hallowed reputation as the king of video nasties. If it had been made by anyone else it would have disappeared into the murk of oblivion a long time ago.

As it is, it’s still watched and talked about, and even reviewed occasionally, especially by shmucks like me. When I think of the great transgressive films that dare to you to peer into the abyss and see yourself looking back, or to see something you may not be prepared for: The macabre works of Dario Argento, the more highfalutin’ highbrow stuff like Pasolini’s films, the sheer insanity of Takashi Miike, or the down and dirty magic of Taxi Driver; I don’t really see Clockwork Orange sitting comfortably amidst their ranks. Far from it. Very far from it. Like across the room, on the shelf reserved for the minor works of Russ Meyer, Roger Corman and Signor Stephano Spielbergo, Steven Spielberg’s Mexican non-union equivalent.

5 times people should shoot silver bullets and stakes into Stanley Kubrick’s grave just to make sure he doesn’t come back to make more films out of 10.

“You needn't take it any further, sir. You've proved to me that all this ultraviolence and killing is wrong, wrong, and terribly wrong. I've learned me lesson, sir. I've seen now what I've never seen before. I'm cured! Praise god!” – Alex, A Clockwork Orange.