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Dissecting the Classics – A Clockwork Orange

September 23, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
A Clockwork Orange

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

A Clockwork Orange

Wide Release Date: January 13, 1972 (United Kingdom)
Written, Produced & Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Cinematography By: John Alcott
Edited By: Bill Butler
Music By: Walter Carlos
Production Company: Polaris Productions and Hawk Films
Distributed By: Warner Bros. and Columbia-Warner Distributors
Michael McDowell as Alex DeLarge
Patrick Magee as Mr. Frank Alexander
Michael Bates as Chief Guard Barnes

What Do We All Know?

Few films have a reputation quite like A Clockwork Orange. It’s both a fascinating character study of a young man without a moral center, and scathing political commentary. It’s gorgeously shot and richly detailed as only Kubrick can do, and the content of those images will likely scar a viewer for life. It’s venerated as a masterpiece of cinema; it’s criticized as being too violent and disturbing. For myself, it’s one of my least favorite Kubrick films while I acknowledge it may well be his best.

And when I call it “my least” favorite, I still like it more than a very large amount of movies. I just have to be in a certain state of mind to watch, analyze and critique a film that depicts rape, torture, sexual abuse of a fifteen year old, and police brutality all in the course of about three hours. I have friends that will never watch this film because of its content. But it is a masterpiece and rewatching it this week affirmed that belief even further.

What Went Right?

When it comes to plot, the film is surprisingly straightforward. Based on Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel about a near-future Britain, the film follows disturbed juvenile delinquent Alex DeLarge. It follows Alex’s violent crime spree, the betrayal of his “droogs” that leads to his arrest, his imprisonment and attempted rehabilitation, and his release. The actual details of each of those events are disturbing and unsettling. Alex goes from one of the most vile and deplorable (yet oddly charismatic) main characters to someone who suffers at the hands of the government and the people he hurt earlier.

The film’s impact is primarily how it attacks the viewer’s moral center and demands we ask ourselves tough questions. As Alex is tortured, stripped of his free will and assaulted, does he become sympathetic? And who is really to blame for Alex; his parents are neglectful and possibly sexually abusive, the government is the same way. Is Alex a product of his environment, or is he just evil at his core? Does either excuse his behavior? Is the government justified in brainwashing Alex into submission? Is the world just that crazy?

There’s a rabbit hole of questions that A Clockwork Orange proposes. Essays and entire books have been written on the subject; that’s a tribute to the impact the film has. Not many films are as thought provoking, and fewer still are as entertaining in the process. For those who might find David Lynch films or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to be too “artsy and pretentious”, this may be a film more to your taste. The narrative skeleton is still strong, the set pieces are interesting and there’s even an element of dark comedy to the film.

Lastly, I feel like special attention must be given to Malcolm McDowell. Kubrick worked with many great actors, but I think Alex DeLarge is the most fascinating character in his filmography. McDowell brings an unhinged energy to the role that makes it utterly believable. And he’s also able to turn around on the second half and generate sympathy. It’s a great performance that made McDowell’s career.

What Went Wrong?

Obviously this is a matter of subjective opinion, but I do understand the criticism that the film is somewhat hypocritical. Kubrick is criticizing government’s approach to dealing with violent crime as too negligent and then too extreme. But doesn’t A Clockwork Orange present the violence in a way that could normalize and desensitize the audience? Perhaps. I know I can’t watch the film without my stomach turning, but that isn’t everyone’s experience. I tend to err on the side of saying that art needs to depict humanity at it’s worse so that we can discuss it. But the other side is valid as well.

And In Summary…

The violence and disturbing imagery is probably always going to keep me from truly embracing A Clockwork Orange as a personal favorite. But as a film scholar, the film fascinates me and it’s a film I love talking about. To me, that’s the film’s true legacy; it’s ability to inspire meaningful conversation about tough subjects. It is not a film for everyone, obviously, but it is a special film and one that deserves the acclaim and analysis it has received.

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Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include The Seventh Seal, mother!, and both volume one of Kill Bill.