This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the original release of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange. And I don’t use the word ‘masterpiece’ lightly. But I do use it cautiously, realizing there are people who, when they first saw this film, leaped from their chairs in shock and disgust and raced from the theater. Unfortunately, one of those people happened to be my date for the evening, but we’ll get to that later.
To say that A Clockwork Orange is controversial is like saying Charlie Sheen is a raving lunatic; no one disputes the fact. The film was so inflammatory when it first premiered in London it was banned in the United Kingdom and stayed banned for 28 years. And Kubrick, who happened to live outside London that entire period, understood what powerful stuff he had unleashed and basically said, “I get it; I’m okay with that.”
Based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange takes place in England in the not-so-distant future, where gangs of vicious, costumed youths terrorize a society incapable of restraining their activities. Alexander de Large (Malcolm McDowell) is the 15 year-old leader of one such gang of his fellow ‘droogs,’ whose nightly excursions of ‘ultra-violence’ include beating a homeless man into oblivion; raping a woman in between choruses of “Singing in the Rain” and brutally kicking her helpless husband; and murdering a yoga-practicing woman living alone with her cats by using a huge white penis sculpture to bash her head in.
Or, as I like to call it … just another night on the streets of L.A. in the 1980s.
That the book and film so accurately predicted the rise of a younger and younger gang culture loyal only to destruction and each other, was a prescient foreshadowing back in 1971. The gangs in this film and those to come made the Jets in West Side Story look like the cast of Glee on estrogen. Well, to be fair, even back in 1965, the Jets looked pretty damn gay.
Alex’s abuse of his fellow droogs cause them to ambush him and he lands in federal prison for the woman’s murder. After only two years in prison, he learns of a new treatment, designed to rehabilitate criminals within a two-week period. He gets chosen for the “Ludivico” treatment by a high-ranking official of the new, liberal government. Alex is conditioned against violence by having his eyes pinned open, nauseating drugs administered, and forced to watch film after film of obscene violence conditioning him against such acts. Once released, Alex, the rehabilitated criminal, becomes the victim of all his former victims to the point where he attempts suicide. The film ends with the official of the liberal government soliciting Alex’s favor at his hospital bedside in front of the press in order to restore his government’s tarnished reputation for using the treatment, while Alex fantasizes about returning to his ultra-violent ways as Ludwig Von Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy” swells over.
How’s that for a popcorn picture? But for any fan of cinema, it was the ultimate feast of sights and sounds prepared by a master filmmaker at the peak of his power to entrance and disturb and say something at the same time.
Here’s what a skinny young freshman at the University of Miami wrote about it on his essay in Communications 403:
“A Clockwork Orange remains to date one of the most perfect films ever made. It is a technical masterpiece; composed; acted; lit; and scored into an incredible achievement of choreographed cinema. The stark violence, sex, and the political and social overtones and undertones of this picture reach an impact that demands an opinionated commitment from the audience; either in firm support of the picture, or repulsively against. There is no room for middle ground or indifference. Stanley Kubrick combines the technical marvel of his past films with the complex social nightmare of an Anthony Burgess novel to create a film that entertains and horrifies at the same time.”
And I can also attest to the fact that most women fall into the ‘repulsed’ category, and have a very difficult time getting past the images to appreciate any deeper cinematic value that might exist. I did indeed take a first date to see this film somehow believing that she would be overwhelmed by its brilliance and maybe have some of that perception spill over to her date. Well, I guess it did, because after she stormed out of the theater and I drove her home in silence, she never went out or spoke with me again.
But stubborn youth only takes such rejection as a sign that ‘she must not be the one.’ And lo, many years later, when I met and eventually married the wife I am with today and have been for 28 years, I just made sure she got to know me a lot better before I every sprung this film upon her. I probably didn’t even show it to her for a couple years. She hated the film, of course. But she could somehow wrap her mind around the idea that a student of cinema might see something of intrinsic value in this film – enough at least not to flee our apartment at the time or immediately file for divorce.
With the 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition of A Clockwork Orange coming out this week, no doubt my Paradigm subwoofer will soon be rumbling with the strains of Beethoven’s Ninth and Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain” again as Alex and his droogs do their ultra-violent damage.
Does she still love me enough? I could be pushing it.
— A. Wayne Carter