In one of the film classes I took in college, A Clockwork Orange was screened for us. I had a friend who decided to skip this film, he just shrugged it off. At the time it surprised me, just deciding to skip one of the topics that would surely show up on the exam. I never asked him why, maybe he had seen it before, made other plans, whatever. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a moral dilemma that made him decide to skip the film.
So many people are instantly horrified by this film. Nudity, sexual assalt, young men gleefully enjoying a bit of the ultra violence. It was initially given an X rating in the United Kingdom, though I’d personally rate the DVD version as a very hard R, one fast-forward scene away from NC-17. Is that enough to dismiss one of the most artful and morally compelling pieces of film ever made? Let me explain.
Directed by the great Stanley Kubrick and based off of Anthony Burgess’s novel set in a not too distant future Britian, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the teenage leader of a vicious gang. He and his droogs go out nightly, hyping themselves up on drugged milk and then go and make mischief, from beating a homeless old man, to breaking into homes and brutally raping women in front of their bound and gagged husbands. One night, Alex’s gang turns on him and he’s arrested for murder. In prison, he sucks up to the priest, pretending he wants to reform, but what he really wants is a way out. He is selected for a new treatment, one that will have him reformed and out in the world in only two weeks. But the treatment is torture and only leaves Alex physically sick at just the thought of violence. True, he’s incapable of harming people, but he has no choice about it. Even worse, when confronted violently, Alex is stricken with illness and cannot defend himself against his old enemies.
The fact is that morality is a choice, not a force we cannot control. That choice between good and evil is what makes us human, perhaps men in God’s image. When that choice is made for us, morality and humanity is taken away. It’s these ideas and issues that A Clockwork Orange truly opens up for us. All those violent images can be seen as a test. But the great Kubrick throws a little wrench in there to make things less distinguishable.
You see, many of the scenes of ultra violence are beautifully photographed and accompanied by soothing Beethoven symphonies. As we watch Alex viciously attack, our eyes and ears may conflict emotionally with what we see and how it is shown. Since Alex is our narrator and an avid fan of Ludwig Van, we can assume this is how he interprets his actions.
Throughout his nightly activities, it’s safe to say that Alex has become desensitized to the horrors of violence, and perhaps we’re less sensitive to it when only shown on screen and that beautiful music can help the medicine go down. In treatment, Alex is given drugs, restrained and put in a helmet to keep his eyes open as she is shown horrific images. As the drugs set in, they start to make him feel sick and in danger. With enough treatment he is “cured” by associating any act of violence with the crippling feeling of panic and sickness. Unfortunately, he’s also accidentally been conditioned against his favorite Beethoven symphony. Are Alex’s doctors any less sadistic?
I understand if you don’t want to see this film, I even understand if you find your morals keeping you far from it. But for those who have a genuine passion for film, this shouldn’t be so easy to dismiss. I can think of films that have disgusted me much more than this: Pink Flamingos, Cannibal Holocaust, American Pie. If you want to expand your Kubrick vocabulary, but feel awkward with this film, don’t go it alone but be selective in your crew. I thankfully had a great first experience with my college class who enjoyed singing along with Alex’s rendition of Singin’ in the Rain and found a lot of humor in some of the odd props, especially the murder weapon.
“It had been a wonderful evening and what I needed now, to give it the perfect ending, was a little of the Ludwig Van.”