Classic Musings: Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange'

Though I've seen Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange numerous times in my stretch as a purveyor of cinema, I doubt I've ever seen it the same way twice. It's not because of alternate cuts or tweaks, changes in color or intentionally altered states of perception, but because of the subversive nature that churns underneath its lurid, sardonic imagery. A large phallic decoration used as a bludgeoning weapon. A milk dispenser shoots "moloko" from the extremities of a female statue. Hearing "Singin' In the Rain" while a gang of black-hat, jockstrap-wearing "droogs" violate an innocent couple in a hyper-modern house. The images Kubrick orchestrates dig deep into the corners of the human psyche, toying with our observation in the context of an inimitably bleak dystopian future. It challenges through sensory provocation and stylized violence, yet, remarkably, the unsettling rawness can still to this day rock the foundation of fervent cinephiles with the bizarre, meticulously-crafted observations coursing in its veins.

Kubrick adapts Anthony Burgess' early-'60s novel of the same name, which starts by pulling back from a close-up on vile, sex-driven sociopath Alex (Malcolm McDowell), holding a glass of milk while he stares with fuming eyes and an unquenchable vigor. Voiceover enters the soundtrack, where our humble narrator, Alex himself, speaks in an infantile broken slang -- Russian-and-Gypsy infused "nadset" -- as he describes the setting and his compadres, with synth music powering the slow pull-away to reveal erotic statues in their "den". This straightforward, faultlessly composed shot establishes a calm-before-the-storm tone that'll pervade the spikes in violence and the backlash accompanying said violence, chronicling the elevation of Alex and his droogs' sadistic tendencies against Kubrick's methodical composition of a grimy ultramodern landscape. But, more importantly, it makes palpable the fabric of Alex's lurid brain, his stream-of-consciousness guiding towards a crash-and-burn point where he answers to authorities for his vulgarity.

Alex's sadistic nature shocked audiences in the '60s when they first glimpsed upon his black lashes, vivacious body language, and knee-jerk jostles towards "ultra-violence", yet this also occurred in a time when the boundaries of cinema's aggression in the public's eye hadn't been fully stress-tested. Kubrick's talent as a provocateur doesn't err towards simple, once-off shock gags and single-note symbolism, though, instead using his penetrative awareness of deep-rooted panic -- the mental instability of real sociopaths, the guise of safety created by the walls of one's home, and the resilience of our own cerebral space in terms of our inherent behavior -- to incite the nerves through the droogs' volatile travels. This adaptation of already aggressive source material knows how to reach deep into a malevolent mindspace and pull out raw subject matter that's often equal measure darkly humorous and unsettling to behold, centered on painting our narrator as a lost cause to the whims of anarchistic abandon.

The world around Alex, shot by Kubrick's long-time collaborator John Alcott, feels something like a mentally-unhinged kid in a candy store. Their razor-sharp eye for detail and ephemera sketches out a candy-coated atmosphere around the tumbledown thugs, with a stimulating variety of abstract palette flickers and costume flare that think forwardly but feel uninfluenced by the era -- and, looking back, endure because of it. The attentiveness to even mild ephemera becomes magnetic, from Alex's pyramid-pointed bedspread and walls slathered with hand-sketched carnal sexuality in a woman's home to the droogs sporting cricket cups outside their full-body white drapery. He creates an avant-garde portrait of post-London powered by classical music and heavy synth scoring, swapping acts of the old ultra-violence when they music clashes with the scene and, eerily, when they merge together into a disquieting synergy. Kubrick broadly researched architectural curiosities and aesthetics, yet none of it feels overworked or bluntly creative; it disconcerts as a surreal dystopian future because of the matter-of-fact way it's made up, eccentric but tactile.

It's often astonishing how jovial A Clockwork Orange can be as it pursues its commentary through a gauntlet of violence. Action after brutal action depicts Alex and his cohorts storming houses, driving chaotically, and attacking mercilessly in the night with no rhyme or reason other than to be without rhyme or reason, rendering a clear portrait of chaos through the lavish palette choices and bravura camera angles. The artistry behind Kubrick's maneuvers paints the parade through Alex's reign as the frenzied patriarch with broad strokes of mania, shaping him into a crazed yet intelligent entity that makes wrapping one's head around his unruly mental state quite a brilliant affair. Adding to this, the austere humor accompanying the collision of glee and aggression never ceases from making the environment feel in-your-face erratic, such as the merry woodwinds of "The Thieving Magpie" backing a "devotchka" having her clothes vigorously torn from her body, continuing through Alex's debauchery.

A Clockwork Orange meticulously focuses on this rush of brutality as an appallingly blissful lead-in to the film's more seditious contemplations, which arise once Alex is forced to face the repercussions of his lack of control under law enforcement's lock and key. Watching how he copes with solitude and a lack of access to his cherished ultra-violence ignites the psychological exploration in the film, where we look into Alex's brain and see what he culls from the prison's mundane demoralization and glimpses into the Bible--which, of course, he imagines himself in the violent and salacious periphery scenes instead of the redeeming ones. But the memories of the moloko bar, a sullied woman in a tattered red jumpsuit, and a bloody slow-motion brawl between the civil-warring droogs are the images that sit in our minds as our narrator undergoes the Ludovico Treatment, an archaic display where the viewer is subjected to violent, perverse, and sadistic images with their eyes pried open by a pair of clamps, resulting in illness whenever they experience urges.

The aversion treatment -- and watching the aftereffects on Alex -- becomes the bedrock to A Clockwork Orange and its cynical outlook on free will and human nature, and why its thematic context rearranges and challenges in varied ways upon each viewing. One might see the ultra-violence, Alex's treatment, and hear the film's final derisive line, then walk away feeling as if the fibers of human nature can't be hot-wired towards civility, shaping it into a portrait of the futility of changing one's internal make-up. A subsequent absorption of the content could have a different psychological effect, instead captivating as a confrontational glimpse into the maniacal vividness stirring within a sadistic mind that can't be controlled. A Clockwork Orange is one of those films that, undying due to its punctilious details, seems to morph and mold alongside the cerebral make-up of those who viddy it, and Kubrick's brilliant stranglehold on the human mind's perceptions of decency and comfort assure it'll continue to challenge for years ahead.

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