Though A Clockwork Orange is certainly Kubrick's most controversial film, it is so for a rather banal, if legitimate, reason: that it depicts extreme violence. Clockwork should be controversial for the questions it poses (and does not answer) about man and about his society. This is especially true for a society which prides itself on being free. Kubrick summarizes the question posed by Clockwork: In order to avoid fascism, does one have to view man as a noble savage, rather than an ignoble one?
I feel as if I do some injustice to the director and his movie to start with his description of it rather than my own reaction but one cannot cut any more clearly to the essence of Clockwork. Man may be born free without being born good. If he is not to be restrained, then what will his nature carry him toward? Can he be restrained in a legitimate fashion? The subtext of all of these questions is this: where does the good, in man and society, come from? Too we may ask, how do men relate in its presence and, more problematically, its absence?
This dichotomy between man and society, and more fundamentally between man and other, is neatly mirrored in the first and final acts of Clockwork. In the first Alex is unconstrained in what can only be described as post civilization. He commits wanton and terrible acts of violence unconstrained by himself, his cohorts, his parents, or others citizens. The opening shot sets the stage: an extreme close up, zooming out. The close up is humanizing, forcing an intimacy with Alex, but as the shot zooms out the alien surroundings distance us. We see in place of tables and common decor that the bar is filled with hospital-white nude mannequins in varieties of suggestive positions, all in sharp relief against a black background. Yet Alex and his cohorts blend in strangely well with their white get-ups. Alex is certainly comfortable, with his feet up. His first words set the tone for this half of the film, "there was me." Of course, this is his world. All is him. The music of course unnerves and alienates as well, synthesized as it is, but more importantly is the fact that the piece is funerary music. Yet who has died?
In one way the following scene shows us who by providing a scene of complete contrast to the preceding. An old drunkard lying on the street sings an old tune. Unlike Alex he speaks in a tone and with a vocabulary familiar to us. Too his song is more familiar and comfortable for us than the synthesized funeral music from Alex's introduction. Whereas Alex sat comfortably with his feet up this man is sprawled out on the floor. Alex drank milk with stimulants to heighten his senses, the old man drank to dull his. The old man complains about the lack of law and order and the ruthless youths as Alex prepares to go out for, "a bit of the old ultra-violence." As Alex beats him the fundamental contrast is laid bare: between self and other.
The following scene sets up the social world of Clockwork, beginning (again with a close-up) of an elegant theater arch, set to the overture to La Gazza Ladra. Yet this will be another contrast of extremes. As the camera zooms out the theater is seen to be in disrepair and on its stage, littered with dilapidated theater props, a gang is about to rape a woman. Alex and his droogs intervene but of course not to rescue the woman but to challenge the rival thugs to a fight. So Alex with his boys in their white jumpsuits and Billy with his in fatigues and Nazi insignias fight in the burned out theater. It is a post apocalyptic, post civilization scene that would not be out of place in Mad Max. The elegant overture plays on providing a constant counterpoint to the violence and depredation.
The following scenes in Act I all serve to emphasize two observations: Alex's actions are brutal and unconstrained. The first point being fairly evident we may consider the second by means of observing the characters. Clearly Alex has no control over himself but clearly no one has any control over him either. His droogen followers though they try to adjust the power structure remain beholden to him while his parents are wholly unaware of what he is up to and. His mother's purple hair, the way she recounts Alex's excuses as if they are plausible, and the bizarre decor of the home all suggest they are not only hopelessly unaware of Alex's actions, but hopelessly distracted. The scene where Alex, home from school, receives a visit from the delinquency officer is also subtly significant. Denuded except for his underwear Alex is quite vulnerable in the scene. (Seeming especially vulnerable are his genitals, a fact we only notice due to the extremely large covering usually covering them.) Alex enters the room with his usual bravado, leaning against the door frame and daintily crossing his leg. The character of Mr. Deltoid introduces the last new character of Clockwork. We might call it the state, or perhaps we might call them the guardians. Either way, they are entrusted with, or claim, the use of force. His physical ways with Alex, culminating with a punch to the crotch, emphasize this and are prelude to next act. These people are in charge and they're going to come for Alex. Deltoid says,
If you have no respect for your horrible self you at least might have some respect for me, who has sweated over you. A big black mark I tell you, for every one we don't reclaim. A confession of failure.The statement is a very telling one. First, it implies Alex ought to respect himself. How would Alex know this? From school, his parents, by nature? How should he know what is respectable? Second, it is a confession of the need and right to "fix" people. Somehow Alex is a failed person and these people are going to right him. (We ought to bear these questions in mind later when we consider how one might right Alex without the tactics depicted in the movie.) Yet the histrionics of Mr. Deltoid also convey a certain impotence, an admission that his nice-guy measure have failed. As he drinks a glass of water he discovers, after we do, a pair of dentures sitting in them. Sure enough in the following scene in the record store Alex is at the top of his game. With the Turkish march from Beethoven's 9th playing he struts around a circular chromed record store dressed as an 18th century dandy, walking stick and all. The march, far from being prelude to the chorale (i.e. communal) finale of Beethoven, is here a sort of solo parade for Alex as he strides through the store, his reflection bouncing about everywhere as he peruses the wares. The lighting and synthesized music give the scene a carnivalesque feel.
At last, though, Alex is set up by his spurned droogs and, having just committed a murder, arrested. The imagery of the murder, along with Alex's attire, all suggest the libidinous (more in the Latin sense of a wanton drive than any strictly sexual desire) and appetitive urges driving Alex.
Repulsed as we are by Alex now, what will we see in the state and society's treatment of him?