There’s a scene early in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange where Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of “droogs” run into a rival gang midway through engaging in an evening of “ultra-violence”. Alex and the droogs stop what they’re doing (raping a group of women) and fight the rival gang. While the scene unfolded, I couldn’t help but think of a of a quote from the seminal Australia young-adult novel, Tomorrow When the War Began. It reads:
“People, shadows, good, bad, Heaven, Hell: all of these were names, labels, that was all. Humans had created these opposites: Nature recognised no opposites. Even life and death weren’t opposites in Nature: one was merely an extension of the other. All I could think of to do was trust to instinct. That was all I had really. Human laws, moral laws, religious laws, they seemed artificial and basic, almost childlike.”
I thought of this quote because at it’s core A Clockwork Orange is a film about how laws and labels affect our understanding of morality. It is natural then that Kubrick was the man to make the film (an adaption of Anthony Burgess’s novel of the same name). Kubrick specialises in creating films that explore and challenge the fundamental elements of human existence whether it be family, The Shining; sex, Eyes Wide Shut; or the existentialism of our existence, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A Clockwork Orange shares a lot of similarities to those films I just mentioned. It has a lot to say with a lengthy runtime of 136 minutes, during which we track the (anti)hero’s journey of Alex, experiencing his failures, triumphs, and pains. It is imbued with Kubrick’s unique stylistic sensibilities that take fully real sets made up of mundane elements and elevate them with a unique blend of filmmaking language. It is considered to be a classic, like many of his other films.
However, there is one major separating difference between A Clockwork Orange and Kubrick’s other classic.
Namely: that A Clockwork Orange is not a good ©
. It’s a bad film. Maybe even a terrible one.
That’s not to say that A Clockwork Orange is not an iconic film because it is certainly that. The films first image of Alex looking directly into the camera existed in my mind long before any concept of the film did. What is often forgotten however is what comes next. The camera slowly pulls out to reveal Alex and droogs sitting in a silent tableau in a room full of pornographic statues of women.
It’s telling, I think, that we remember the first half of that image but not the second, because A Clockwork Orange is about the second. Set in a dystopic and totalitarian version of England, A Clockwork Orange follows Alex as he commits a spree of crimes as a way to live his life to the fullest. This leads to his arrest and incarceration. While in prison the totalitarian government selects him for psychological reprogramming (re: torture) which will stop him from committing crime in the future.
Like every Stanley Kubrick film the behind the scenes stories become just as famous as the film itself, if not more famous. It was banned in England due to the controversial way Kubrick depicts its protagonist. Alex is treated like any other protagonist, good things and bad things happen to him throughout the film we’re expected to empathise with him, take his side in every plight. To Kubrick, Alex is just like many other heroes throughout fiction, he just wants to be his most authentic self.
I take issue with this however because Alex’s most authentic self is a violent murder and rapist. The society Alex is in is just as bad. The police as brutal, torture is practically legal, the government is a totalitarian regime that can get away with anything. Alex is no better or worse than them, he’s just as bad in a different way. Kubrick doesn’t want to judge Alex, he’s saying if everyone else is bad, then you can be bad too as long as you’re your most authentic self while doing it.
This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising coming from Kubrick, this is the man after all famous for torturing his actors in the name of authenticity. Kubrick made actors do take after take of brutal rape and murder scenes until they were ‘good enough’. In the psychological torture scene Kubrick made Malcolm McDowell have his eyelids pried painfully open because it was the most authentic version of the image he wanted to create. Not the safest, the most authentic.
Marvin Gaye once said that “Great artists suffer for the people”. There is truth in that certainly. I do not however think great artists make other people suffer for their art, which is what Kubrick always did. In that way A Clockwork Orange ends up Kubrick attempting justifying his own filmmaking style. He doesn’t say anything critical of Alex because if he were to then he would also have to reflect on himself, and Kubrick was not willing to do that.
“Labels are a human creation”, claims the quote I cited earlier. On this A Clockwork Orange and I agree. If that’s the case, then labels can be challenged. We label A Clockwork Orange a classic. I want to challenge that. If your art cannot be made without explicitly making others suffer, then don’t make it.
A Clockwork Orange should not be considered a classic. It’s just pretentious torture porn that fails to justify its own existence.
What do you make of Josh’s thoughts on A Clockwork Orange? Leave your thoughts in the comments box below. We’d love to hear from you.