A Clockwork Orange: a political and social comedy satire relying too much on audiovisual shock tactics

Stanley Kubrick, “A Clockwork Orange” (2013)

Not a bad film but for what it is, “A Clockwork Orange” is fussy and relies too much on shock, bright colours and the juxtaposition of apparent high-brow symbols and low-brow brutality and violence to wow viewers. The main character Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is an out-of-control working-class teenager running wild in a near-future London where law and order have broken down. Leading a gang of three others, all of whom and he dress in the same outfits of bowler hats, walking sticks and bland suits, Alex fights other gangs, vandalises buildings, rapes women and breaks into the houses of rich people to trash the furniture and beat up those who get in their way. Alex’s friends eventually tire of his self-indulgence and lack of respect for them and they set him up to be captured by police. While in prison, he volunteers to undergo aversion therapy which leaves him completely broken, unable to defend himself or cope with life after he leaves prison. After a failed suicide attempt, the British government “acknowledges” that it has treated him badly and takes him back under its wing – to act as a tool of its surveillance of the general population.

Seen from the point of view of Alex himself who narrates the film’s proceedings in a neutral and emotionally drained voice, the film has an oddly remote style and so much of the real shock that Kubrick could have inflicted on audiences is blunted. Had audiences been forced to be complicit in Alex’s crimes, by hearing his descriptions of how he felt during his acts, the shock of the victims’ sufferings could have made a much greater impact on viewers. As it is though, viewers are more or less expected to feel pity for Alex once he has undergone aversion therapy and is victimised by the various people he has abused in the past, in a circular pattern common to Stanley Kubrick films.

McDowell puts in a great performance as Alex and the role may have typecast him as a villainous baby-faced anti-hero. Other actors play a constantly shifting parade of stereotypes around Alex; there is great political and social satire in the way these characters behave towards Alex. Alex’s former thug friends end up in the police force, people who express horror at the way prisoners are abused change their tune when they meet Alex and recognise him, and the government minister who approved Alex’s “rehabilitation” and carried it out enthusiastically later admits his error and then happily returns him to his brutal and thuggish ways in a way that insinuates the youngster will do so on behalf of the State.

The main worth of the film is that it presents a moral dilemma about social and cultural breakdown and the ways in which society deals with its consequences. None of the characters appearing in the film is at all attractive and all are mean-spirited and debased in some way. Even the intellectual writer who might be expected to show some compassion for Alex is revealed as vengeful and small-minded; ironically he ends up in the tender embrace of the British prison system which appears as an adulterated version of a World War II concentration camp. Several contradictory themes are presented: coercion and conditioning of people to make of them conformist and compliant versus allowing them to express free will and choice; the use of technical fixes to clear up problems in the short term but which create more problems in the long term; the role of violence in modern society as a tool of control and how the public views it (good when used to put away criminals, bad when inflicted on law-abiding or helpless individuals) and the issue of nature versus nurture in the making of Alex himself. Is Alex a product of the family that reared him or of the society in which he lives? Was he really born bad and should his moral compass, which inclines him towards violence and self-indulgence, be taken away from him?

For all the questions the film asks, there is nothing that questions the society itself and how it is that everybody in the world Alex lives in has ended up as selfish and self-absorbed robots in their differing ways. While the comedy template drives home the unsympathetic brutal anti-hero nature of Alex, it also has the effect of distancing audiences from the characters and action and I wonder if that was done mainly to get the film past the censors at the time than as a necessary vehicle to carry the plot and action.


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