Thursday, June 16, 2011

Movie Review: A Clockwork Orange (Part II)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1971.

The central act of Clockwork revolves around Alex's punishment, of which we might make three distinctions: incarceration, his study under the prison chaplain, and his medical treatment. The significance of the first is obvious enough but worth mentioning. Yes, the prison functions first to keep Alex away from "ordinary peace-loving citizens," but its regimen and the screaming, stomping warden are designed to break Alex of his tendency to do what he pleases. This seems to affect his current behavior but not his character, given his "biblical daydreams."  His study with the chaplain is more complicated, for on the one hand the padre tries to instill fear of divine punishment into the congregation of criminals and on the other he tries to get Alex to comprehend his sins and consciously do good. Ironically, he will later criticize Alex's treatment because it forces the patient to do good merely out of fear and removes his choice to embrace good. 

The scenes of the treatment remain the film's most infamous, featuring as they do scenes of Nazi parades set to Beethoven's Ninth, the "sacrilege" Alex complains about. The irony of these scenes is of course that Alex loves Beethoven and the ultra-violence. Such is the message of the chaplain and Clockwork. Too the doctors condition him against the good without even realizing it, a most significant accident. Is it possible the doctors do not realize the significance of Beethoven? Too, they were really going to use Beethoven, and the 9th, as background music?  Now while they might have realized and dismissed the fact that they were removing Alex's choice to do good, they did not realize they were destroying his ability to see and enjoy the good even in the absence of evil. Therefore the scene in which Alex is brought before the committee of bureaucrats, a scene staged in a theater-like environment to emphasize how the scientists and politicians are parading and debuting him like a trained specimen, Alex is capable only of debasement. 

The final act of Clockwork is antithesis to the first. Where Alex was at large in Act I, raping and pillaging society, here society has its revenge on him. He has been replaced by his family, who has let a boarder move into his room. (Amusingly, their house is redecorated and the mother's hair is another color, as they've moved on to the next fad. They continue in their obliviousness.) Alex is beaten and robbed by a group of elderly indigents and abused by his former droogs who now, with the authority of the state because they are police, get revenge. In the scene where the former-droogs water-board Alex, one stands on each side of him and you can see their officer numbers: 665 and 667. Alex, between them, is clearly the enemy of society. 

After all his former acquaintances have reaped their revenge Alex at last falls prey to two political groups. First is a cabal who hopes to use him as an example to damage the current administration. Yet the leader of the group turns out to be the writer Alex beat and whose wife he raped in Act I. Overcome with rage the scorned author exploits Alex's conditioning and seeks revenge, blasting Beethoven into the bedroom in which Alex is confined. Coming full circle, the current administration, amidst a brewing scandal about their treatment of Alex, finally bribes him. Alex is once again free and the final shot suggests what he will do. Alex went from a raging id ignored by society, to a criminal imprisoned, to a creature experimented on, to a criminal scorned, to a criminal exploited, to a criminal sanctioned. 

A less-optimistic counterpart to 2001, Clockwork shares with its predecessor one key feature: a lack of any specifics about where the good does come from. We see this too in Barry Lyndon, where the titular character, a peregrinate and self-interested pleasure-seeker, occasionally does good. Precisely why. . . All three films leave this question in the hands of the viewer. Too Clockwork, a more politically conscious movie than either Barry Lyndon or 2001, asks what is the appropriate, and legitimate, response to such acts? At last we can probe the question with which we began:

In order to avoid fascism, does one have to view man as a noble savage, rather than an ignoble one?

If man is not born good (the noble savage) then how is he going to become good? It is certainly easy to see in Clockwork fascism, but we also see weak and foolish parents, a cultural wasteland, and a lack of piety and tradition. As we have asked before, might these be, or be part of, the remedy we seek, and the alternative to the state? What exists between the extremes depicted here, between a crumbling society with a depraved Alex at large, and a clockwork of oranges?

Clockwork surely leaves us with many questions about man in society, but also many questions about man himself. Whence, whither? Noble? Savage? How from one to the other? Is the journey ever complete?


  1. I've always thought that the book was much better than the movie but your analysis makes me want to see the movie again to enjoy some of the nuances you point out. In any event, the theme is more timely than ever.

    I think the opening credits with Purcell's Funeral for Queen Mary playing while the scene moves from Alex's derby is one of the most effective movie openings ever.

  2. It's been some time since I've read the book, I should probably revisit it. And timely indeed, though this time I really was struck by the fact that it (and 2001) really don't give us the answers we're looking for. They both show what is good and bad in the human condition, but not what impels in either direction. Clockwork, though, offers more hints since it paints a wider picture of society.

    So we still ask: Is the monolith the cause or the maguffin? Is the man at the end the overman or the last man? And what is man, if anything, by nature? Noble or ignoble? Savage? How do we foster nobility and restrain evil? And is there ever a costless way? Ever a wholly legitimate and wholly effective way?

    I agree about the opening: one of the greats! I never realized how tightly all of the elements, music, video, and words, form the essence of Act I.

    Due to the scope of the ideas and strength of the imagery, and overall density of the film (which is somewhat obscured by its unity of effect), especially Clockwork, I'm inclined to concur with what Scorsese said shortly after Kubrick's death, that though he made not quite so many, each film is worth quite a few.

  3. I'm sure many a Film Studies dissertation has been written on Kubrick's use of music but he definitely had a touch. I wonder if Barry Lyndon would be the same film without the music.

    In any event you got me thinking about Clockwork Orange and one of my favorite utterances of all time. It comes when the rival gang guys are assaulting the girl and Alex and his buddies stop them. He challenges the leader by saying: "Come and get one in the yarbles, thou eunuch jelly, thou!"

  4. That's a good question about Barry Lyndon and maybe 2001 too: the pacing of both films really seems to depend on the music and the music is often what pulls the scene (and the often *long* takes together.) I can't imagine the scene outside the card game and the final duel without the Handel sarabande.

    On the one hand I'd like to think the film could stand without the music, but it really is quite tightly integrated. At any rate I don't think he could have sustained the length of certain scenes, and thus their strangely transporting effect.

    And that's a classic from Clockwork! For my part I can never suppress a chuckle when Alex says, flirting with the popsicle girls in the music store, "what you got at home little sister to play your fuzzy warbles on?"