The Horrorshow Sinny “A Clockwork Orange”: Stanley Kubrick’s Subversive Defense of Free Will

In A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick means to make you uncomfortable.  The magic of the film is that it can show terrible things and then making us care about the mind of the man responsible for them.  Kubrick accomplishes this titanic task through three main techniques, each of which will be detailed in this piece:  heightened stylization, a uniquely likeable non-hero in Alex, and the unification of every aspect of the film into a potent thematic statement:  Free Will is sacrosanct.  These aspects make A Clockwork Orange an undeniable classic film, as important today for what it reveals about humanity as it was in 1971.

Part I:  Cinematic Stylization of the Extreme

A Clockwork Orange oozes an extreme style from the very first shot:  a close-up of Malcolm McDowell as Alex transitions into a long dolly shot as Kubrick reveals Alex’s trusty droogs seated in the Korova Milk Bar, a scene dripping in surrealism, bizarre sexuality, and style.  Kubrick employs many keen stylistic choices in the film; we’ll specifically look at the surrealistic visuals, over-the-top performances, the creation of a perpetual near-future through language and set design, and of course, the music.

Surrealistic Visuals and Situations

Kubrick relies on extreme visuals and surrealistic or bizarre choices throughout the film, mostly as a way to soften the savagery performed by Alex and his droogs.  The first time we’re exposed to such manipulation from Kubrick, the camera is languidly considering the edifice above a stage at a derelict casino as Rosillini’s “The Thieving Magpie” plays.  It’s an artistic and sophisticated union of image and sound.  Until we start to hear scuffling, the camera zooms out, and we see Billyboy and his Nazi-adorned droogs assaulting a woman, throwing her back-and-forth before eventually tearing her clothes off and throwing her on a bare soiled mattress on the stage.  The camera lingers and the discomfort is palpable.  But, just before the rape can take place, Alex chimes up and taunts Billyboy and the two gangs engage in some silly over-the-top fisticuffs set to the classical score.

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Observe the painting in the far corner of the room:  a woman wearing a top with the two breasts cut out, just like in Alex’s first attack.

Kubrick peddles in this kind of surreal conflict between what we see and hear, and how we see it.  In the old “Surprise Visit” where Alex and the droogs beat the writer and rape his wife, Alex sings “Singin’ in the Rain” and kicks and punches to the rhythm of the song.  Kubrick’s camera doesn’t hide the beating, and offers up the violence and the sexual assault as a kind of exuberant enjoyment.  It’s sickening, but funny; serious but absurd.  It’s also a kind of anti-redemption.  After Alex and his droogs save a woman from a rape, one considers whether they are some kind of vigilante group, fighting evil with evil.  Once they instigate their own beating and rape of another woman, it is clear that the plight of the young devotchka was not important – most likely, Alex just wanted to ruin his rival’s fun.

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The Catlady and her workout room.  The red boots / leggings on the woman in the painting (later to be used for the money/kill shot) are the same worn by Alex’s mother later.

The same surrealistic extremism can be seen when Alex attacks and kill the Catlady.  The room where they fight is vibrant with color and adorned with multiple sexually explicit paintings, some of which communicate with the audience on subliminal levels.  One of the paintings is wearing the same red leather boots as Alex’s mother does later in the film, and another features a woman wearing a top with two circles cut out to reveal her bare breasts – just like writer’s wife in the prior attack.  And, of course, Alex kills the Catlady with a large plaster penis, with Kubrick’s editing making clear that he very likely crushed her mouth.  Again, though the act is savage, terrifying, and unforgivable, Kubrick casts it as colorful, playful, almost dance-like.

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Yes, he’s just killed a woman with this plaster penis.  Could this shot be any more ridiculous?

Kubrick makes these choices for a reason:  to alter the savagery of Alex into something cartoonish.  Thought the subject is abhorrent, the style in which it is presented is engaging and sufficiently strange to keep us watching, and maybe even wondering at the realness of what we’re seeing.  Kubrick’s vision is so strained, over-the-top, and surreal that the audience is practically forced to distance itself from what it is seeing, realizing on a subconscious level that is it obviously artificial, and for an artistic purpose.

Over-the-top Performances

 A Clockwork Orange may be home to the hammiest performances in all of Kubrick’s filmography, and this is coming from a man who made Dr. Strangelove.  There are a number of over-the-top performances in this film, but the most crucial ones all come from men who hold power over Alex at an important point in the story.

First up is Aubrey Morris as P. R. Deltoid, Alex’s probation officer who shows up in the middle of the morning to grab Alex’s junk and warn him about his nighttime deeds.  The scene with Deltoid is static as can be, mostly framed as a two-shot with Alex as the pair it on his mother’s bed.  Even when Alex gets up, the camera stays on Morris’s performance, which uses a comic accent with bizarre rhythm to it.  The man even makes a direct fool of himself, drinking the water that was soaking some false teeth.  Here, the absurdity exists to show just how far ahead of the authorities Alex actually is.  This man, though intelligent and far closer to understanding Alex than his clueless parents are, is still an outright fool.  He does utter a key philosophical and sociological question, though:

What gets into you all? We study the problem. We’ve been studying it for damn well near a century, yes, but we get no further with our studies. You’ve got a good home here, good loving parents, you’ve got not too bad of a brain. Is it some devil that crawls inside of you?

Deltoid means, “What makes a young man into a delinquent?  What makes a man enjoy violence and evil?”  Later in the story, we’ll learn that the answers to these questions have become academic and irrelevant, as the Ludovico Technique promises to fix everything regardless of the “source” of Alex’s delinquency.

But before that, Alex meets Michael Bates as Chief Officer Barnes, an authority figure of even greater ridiculousness than Deltoid.  He’ practically Pythonesque in his mannerisms, telling Alex to pick up a bar of chocolate and “put it down properly”, objecting to slang term like “C of E” for “Church of England”, and almost choking on the word “homosexual”.  He also has some wonderful paradoxical statements, like screaming, “How about a little reverence, you bastards” in the prison chapel.  And, when he finally transfers Alex to the experimental hospital, the transition is so painfully to-the-letter and bureaucratic that it is hilarious, especially with “Pomp and Circumstance” playing on the soundtrack, celebrating Alex’s “graduation” from prison.

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LOTS of orange in this shot.  The writer seems just as mechanical as Alex at this point.

The final true over-the-top performance comes from the writer Frank Alexander, played by Patrick Magee.   When we meet him in the third act, he positively pops with excitement over Alex, as eager to use him as a political tool as the prime minister was a few scenes earlier (and will be again a few scenes later).  Then, once he remembers who Alex is, the performance reaches new levels of absurdity.  The blurted lines, “Food all right?” and “Try the wine”, both of which appear to force Alex’s heart into his throat, are always hilariously timed and thoroughly ridiculous on the surface.  Instead of characterizing Alexander as powerless against Alex, this over-the-top performance instead shows how the author’s psyche has been fractured after realizing that Alex was the attacker responsible for his wife’s death and his crippling earlier in the film.

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TRY THE WINE!

Nadsat and a Derelict Future.

An interesting aspect of A Clockwork Orange is in how it still feels like it takes place in a run-down near-future, despite being released over 45 years ago.  Kubrick accomplishes this mostly through two techniques:  lifting Anthony Burgess’s “Nadsat” (Russian for “teenage”) from the novel, and using an aesthetic for the set design that manages to look both futuristic and dilapidated.

The spectator slooshies Nadsat just before viddying Alex and his droogs dressed in their platties, and though this teenage lingo is foreign, Kubrick allows the visuals and the narration from Alex to fill in the context.  Thus, though the film opens with, “There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim and we sat in the Korova milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening”, we immediately understand “droog” and “rassoodocks” from the context.  Besides distancing Alex from the spectator by placing a slight linguistic barrier between them, Nadsat creates the illusion that Alex is out-of-time, belonging to a world where such a hodge-podge of Russian and rhyming slang has developed into a full argot.  Also, it just makes Alex a little cooler, hip to the lingo of the day that the audience has to struggle to understand.

Then, the details of Alex’s surroundings slam home the run-down nature of the future.  It is a kind of urbanite dystopia, sexual graffiti on the walls of sterile apartment risers and garbage in all the streets.  But, there’ clearly affluence in this world as well, evidenced by the “Health Camp” and the sophistos at the Korova, one of whom sings a bit of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  But mostly, the look of A Clockwork Orange is positively grim, a lawless and broken down society where thugs like Alex and his droogs can run rampant.

Music

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick discovered the utter power of using classical music to convey thematic elements.  For A Clockwork Orange, the director continues along the same path, allowing key pieces of the Western canon to develop crucial thematic and narrative concepts in the film.  Of course, it begins and ends with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but Kubrick also employs other easily recognizable pieces:  The William Tell Overture, the aforementioned “The Thieving Magpie”, “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” and “Singin’ in the Rain”, and the major theme of the film, which is an electronic synthetic version of “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary”, arranged by Wendy Carlos.

William Tell and Pomp and Circumstance are used similarly:  for satire.  The former plays in a ridiculously up-tempo sequence where Alex has sex with two young girls in fast motion, a ridiculous ode to the sexual appetite and stamina of teenagers.  The later plays when the prime minister visits the prison and then later when Alex leaves the prison.  There’s also a distinctly tongue-in-cheek utterance of a “popular” song from the day, “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper”, the kind of mindless saccharine radio tune that the foolish masses adopt as an anthem – and thus perfect for Alex’s parents.  Kubrick’s masterful command of satire is so complete that the audience actually buys Alex assaulting and raping to “Singin’ in the Rain”, one of the most iconic and classic musical numbers in the history of Hollywood.

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But, as I’ve said, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony dominates A Clockwork Orange.  By my count, it is heard seven separate times, each dictating crucial narrative turning points.  First, in the Korova Milk Bar where Alex hits Dim and sows the seeds of discord with his droogs.  Later that night, he embraces the symphony, capping a wonderful night in absolute ecstasy.  The next morning, as Alex trods through the record store, we hear a poppy synth version of the fourth movement (and also see a copy of the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack for sale; proof that Kubrick even pokes fun at his own films).  Later that day, walking in slow-motion near the Thames, he hears the symphony through a window and attacks, reclaiming control over his droogs (at least on the surface).  A vast expanse of screentime elapses before the next time Alex hears the Ninth:  during the Ludovico treatment.  Here, the doctors realize that their conditioning technique isn’t quite as polished as they thought it was and Alex is accidentally conditioned against what is arguably the greatest piece of music in the entire Western canon.  Thus, The Ninth is used to urge Alex to commit suicide by the writer, and then again in the final shot of the film, just before Alex’s final words are uttered:  “I was cured, all right”.

As one can see, Alex’s character arc and story is completely told with reference to his various sessions hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a fact that will become clear when we analyze the character of Alex DeLarge more in Part II.

Part II: Our Old Droog, Alex DeLarge

Alexander DeLarge is the ancestor of the modern anti-hero.  In this part, we’ll look at the essential characteristics that define Alex and draw the audience to him, the power and importance of first person narration (and why Kubrick uses it so extensively) and then finally detail Alex’s character arc.

Essential Characteristics

The essential characteristic that allows Alex to be both relateable and despised all at once is that he is a man that embraces paradoxical ideologies.  He’s a gleeful savage, an intellectual thug, equally likely to  invade a home and rape a woman as he is to defend her honor when one of his friends burps and interrupts her performance of the Ode to Joy.  He’s incredibly intelligent, running circles around every adult in the film, at least up until the Ludovico treatment gets him.  He’s also got a dry wit about him that trades in paradoxes, saying things like, “Initiative comes to them as waits”.  A smarmy and smart trickster in a world full of depressing and boring adults is easy to empathize with.

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Still, it isn’t even proper to classify Alex as an anti-hero, because he does not participate in any heroic acts or even really champion any specific philosophy besides enjoyment of the immediate moment.  The closest he comes to any kind of distinction is his victimhood – first of the Ludovico treatment that robs him of his free will and his love of the Ninth, and then through the string of people that he has hurt before:  the tramp, his droogs, and the author.  One could even consider these just desserts, given his terrible past.  But, crucially, there is one transgression against Alex which we cannot abide:  he is stripped of his agency, of all volition.  He can’t choose to fight, even when it is self-defense.  He can’t engage in sex, even if consensual.  And, worst, he can’t experience his highest artistic pleasure:  Beethoven’s Ninth.  Now, not everyone enjoys classical music as much as Alex, who describes listening to this piece as:

“O bliss, bliss and heaven, oh it was gorgeousness and georgeosity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a space ship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures.”

But, for a moment think of a pastime that brings you such joy, and then consider that joy being replaced with physical sickness.  This is the plight of Alex.  Despite the horror of his personality, we instinctively recognize his right to have one, planting us firmly on his side.

First-person Narration

We’re especially on Alex’s side due to a stylistic choice in storytelling that Kubrick adopts from the novel: first-person narration.  Though eminently unreliable, first-person narration nonetheless firmly establishes the audience on Alex’s side, even though he’s a terrible person.  We get to see his cleverness, his intelligence, and the finer sides of his personality.  We also get to see how severely he suffers, and because of our closeness to him that suffering becomes our own.  Indeed, Alex reminds of Iago or Richard III: conniving, intelligent, and mad, but nonetheless quick to use the audience as confidant.  Thus, we feel we’re privy to something we shouldn’t be:  the musings of a delinquent madman.  And, when the government comes for that madman, we balk, for he is our madman.

The Arc of Alex:  From Scoundrel to Clockwork Orange and Back Again

Alex’s arc thoroughly floors the spectator, despite the fact that there isn’t any true growth to it by the end of the film.  As previously detailed in the section with Beethoven’ Ninth Symphony, Alex’s arc is punctuated by the Ninth, a glorious and joyous piece of music often considered the single greatest composition in all of Western music.  After we’ve already established the horrid nature of Alex and his droogs, we’re caught off guard by his defense of some random sophisto devotchka, just because she’s singing his beloved Ninth.  Back in his room, we empathize with Alex’s unadulterated appreciation of the full symphony later in his room (and, marvel at Kubrick’s “Dancing Jesus” cutting techniques, lending some strong satire to the adulation).

Alex’s fall from “grace” also kicks us right in the yarblokos, because he is not bested by the cocksure adults who have studied delinquents like Alex “for years” and gotten nowhere.  He’s betrayed, with the extra irony that it is moloko that blinds him and leaves him for capture.  We also must consider the deep sexual abuse subtext that exists early in the film, from the groin-grabbing parole officer to the bizarre connection between the Catlady’s hyper-sexual workout room, Alex’s mother, and Alex’s assault and rape of the author’s wife.  Then, he experiences sexual attacks in prison, from the routine bureaucracy of the officer checking his genitals, to the kissy-faces of the larger inmates.  None of this is to excuse Alex’s behavior, but it does work to soften our evaluation of him on a subconscious level, and start to feel a little sorry for him.  Still – it’s all just desserts at this point.

Then, the turn:  The Ludovico Technique.  At first, we see the old Alex at work, manipulating his way around authority and finding a corner to cut in his 14-year sentence.  After the first session we begin to understand what is happening, but we still think that he is being clever and was lucky to be chosen for this experimental treatment (even though the eyelid machine will never not make me squirm in my seat).  But, watching footage from World War II and its concentration camps, the realization dawns on him that he is hearing his treasured Ninth accompanying the horror he sees on screen . . . and the sickness he feels in his stomach.  Alex’s shriek curdles the blood, as he feels his greatest joy being sacrificed on the altar of his “rehabilitation” and “salvation”.  All in service of some “public good”.  It’s a chilling thought.

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The conclusion follows a similar pattern:  Alex is rejected and shamed by his parents, attacked by bums, and beaten and emasculated by his old droogs before finally being driven to suicide by his once-beloved Ninth.  Thus, all the people whom Alex has wronged revisit his savagery back upon him, as the third act and final piece to his arc completely punish his misdeeds and leave him for dead.

Except not.

In the end, Alex survives the fall and cozies back up with the old Pee and Em and the Prime Minister (another “P” and “M”, perhaps?).  And yet, Freddy is brazen in his exploitation of Alex again, this time as a media example that the government has recognized their mistake (or, as he says, “The press has chosen to take a very unfavourable view of what we tried to do.”)  But, it’s obvious that Alex is just another tool.  Hence, he moves from a tool of the government, to a tool of the revolutionaries, back to a tool of the government.  This time, there’ a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the whole relationhip, as Alex smacks his food and is fed by Freddy in a brilliant visual metaphor of the new arrangement between the two.  Then, Alex repeats the same manipulative bromide we’re heard before:  “As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, Fred.”  Finally, Alex hears the Ninth for one last time, and is once again able to experience the joy of the music.  He’s cured, all right.

Alex DeLarge is one of the greatest characters ever shown on screen, not quite a villain, not quite a hero, and not even a true anti-hero.  He’s paradoxically charming and psychopathic, intelligent and savage.  He exists primarily as a conduit through which Kubrick can explore this parable on free will.

Part III:  Theme:  Free Will and the Evil of State Violence

The themes of A Clockwork Orange are many, but the central theme focuses around a defense of free will and the evil of State-sanctioned force.  It shows that governments will always manipulate their citizens in an effort to control the masses, but so will revolutionaries.  But more than anything, the film defends the idea that  a man is a man because he can freely choose, not because of what he chooses.

Kubrick’s thematic statement is born from a masterful manipulation of the plot, the main character Alex, and a satirical stylization that generates a peculiar tone for the audience.  The gameplan is simple, but seems impossible to pull off:  show the audience an irredeemably evil monster, rob him of his free will, and then make the audience pity the monster.

Kubrick first uses the brutal violence to set insurmountable odds against “our humble narrator”, Alex.  Though he has positive qualities like intelligence and a love for classical music, how could we ever be on his side after seeing the things he’s done?  Fortunately, Kubrick knows that he can alter the brutality of the violence and the sexual assaults into something absurb and almost funny – at least in a deeply unsettling way.  These heavy stylistic choices, which we’ve detailed above, sow the seeds for Alex’s eventual salvation in the estimation of the audience.  Because he’s so affable and smart, and the things he does are cast in such an absurd and practically cartoonish light, Alex is not beyond redemption.

Similarly, the comic and satirical tone throughout the film allows the audience to stomach the violence, even though it is unsettling.  This is because we recognize it as a choice of style, meant to make some grander point.  Violence for its own sake is often exploitative.  It can glorify the acts and remove the humanity from their targets, as though they are mere sources of entertainment.  Kubrick’s depiction of violence in the film is so strained and over-the-top and artistic, that we’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, so long as he delivers on it.

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The purpose comes from the Ludovico Technique and Alex’s immediate downfall after being subjected to it.  As the prison chaplain explains, the treatment means Alex, “Ceases to be a creature capable of moral choice”.  He is compelled towards good only through physical pain (and has lost his precious Ninth, to boot).  The minister doesn’t care, “Father, these are subtleties.  We’re not concerned with the higher ethics.  The point is that it works!”  This blatant pragmatism could be ripped from the mouth of any one of the presidents or prime ministers that has served since the release of A Clockwork Orange.  And, it is as evil today as it was back then, to default to “it just works” without any regard for the underlying principles of freedom, rights, choice, or any speck of individualism.

Humans are defined by their ability to reason, to rationally consider any situation.  But, all the rational consideration is for naught if one is not freely permitted to act upon it.  The evil of the Ludovico Technique, and the government that champions its use, is that it transforms a man from a fully thinking individual full of life into something mechanical, operating through a series of gears and pulleys – a clockwork orange.

This is why Kubrick’ depiction of Alex’s arc is superior to Burgess’s in the novel, where one more chapter exists.  This chapter contains Alex wandering through a mall contemplating his delinquent ways, finding himself bored by the prospect, eventually deciding that he has grown out of it.  Burgess has stated that this shows that Alex eventually will choose to be good, as a contrast with the “forced goodness” of the Ludovico Technique.  Kubrick probably never read a copy with this final chapter before the film was done, and Malcolm McDowell said that Kubrick later told him not to bother reading that version.

To my mind, it is clear why:  Burgess’s ending shows that free will exists, and that a man can eventually choose to be good.  Kubrick’s ending shows that free will is good, and must be defended at all costs.

Conclusion

A Clockwork Orange is a yet another absolute masterpiece from Stanley Kubrick.  The film is all at once a surrealistic vision of a dilapidated and violent future, a haunting character study, and a treatise on the importance of free will.  This is Kubrick at his finest, a cinematic master with the audience in the palm of his hand, exploring his own sardonic view of humankind, governments, and the hard-to-swallow paradox of free will:  it must be defended most especially when it is used to do something you don’t agree with.

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