A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Stanley Kubrick: A Cinematic Odyssey. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
With A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick crafted what is now a most iconic, infamous, and oft referenced depiction of violence. Based on the same-titled book by Anthony Burgess, Kubrick brought to vision what the author once fostered in the American imagination. A film, like so many of Kubrick‘s others, which projects fantasy and future into a present setting, A Clockwork Orange at once cuts to the core of human experience as well as hyperbolizes it. This is the power of affect, which Kubrick’s filmmaking so proudly attests to. Images of a hyperbolic nature, images which stand alone and depart from the normal senses, implant the viewer’s mind with new ideas. They generate emotional responses beyond what is normally experienced. With 2001, Kubrick realized the potential of awe; with A Clockwork Orange, he realized fear.
With A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick crafted what is now a most iconic, infamous, and oft referenced depiction of violence.
This fear is not of a single dimension, nor of the kind that would typically define fear. As a “horror’ film, A Clockwork Orange is quite abnormal. It is not traditionally a horror film; in fact, it could hardly be labeled within that genre. Nonetheless, the film disturbs; it infects the mind in a way which parallels the affective value of the violent films which Alex is forced to watch during treatment. It comments on social fear, on fear of the unknown, on fear of violence, and most importantly on fear of self.
A highly psychological, psycho-sexual, and psycho-violent film, A Clockwork Orange uses contrast to engender new, complex emotional responses riddled with the conflicting ideals of pleasure and pain. A film chronicling the experience of a young, perhaps sadistic criminal absent of any moral insight, Kubrick shifts dynamics by making the viewer feel and care for him. Contrasting the horror of criminal activity with the horror of governmental activity, Kubrick blurs the line of social morality and normalcy. For him, evil arises through many forms, including those passive and underrepresented.
These forms of evil are often conveyed vis-à-vis material forms, objects which speak to the psychological constraints of human behaviour. From images of Jesus on the cross to objects of phallic orientation, Kubrick increases the tension and emotional capacity of his scenes by placing morally ambiguous elements throughout. The effect of his conflicting ideals and imagery is a confused and mentally stirred energy, an energy right only for viewing and interpreting Kubrick’s emotionally inciting yet profoundly emotionally detached sensibilities.
The “coldness” often ascribed to Kubrick’s rhythmic tendencies is thus misinforming. Though Kubrick’s calculated efforts result in seemingly detached, analytical compositions, they are paradoxically entrenched in emotional power. Its through affective imagery that Kubrick fosters depth, a range of profound emotions which arise from the dark, oft ignored areas of conscience. This is Kubrick’s cinema, a cinema which challenges the viewer to face the dark recesses of the unconscious.
A highly psychological, psycho-sexual, and psycho-violent film, A Clockwork Orange uses contrast to engender new, complex emotional responses riddled with the conflicting ideals of pleasure and pain.
A way in which he develops conflicting ideals is through the juxtaposition of film and music. In no less than three scenes of abhorrent, unrelenting violence, a beautiful soundtrack engages the audience. A mix of pleasure and pain, the viewer is meant to feel conflicted emotions. When Alex dances and sings “I’m Siiiiiinging in the Rain”, the viewer faces a haunting moral dilemma. To feel pleasure as a response from the music feels wrong when simultaneously faced to watch beatings and rape. In slow motion, when Alex attacks his droogs by the waterside, a glorious orchestral piece expresses joy and victory. The audience comes to identify and even like the charismatic criminal, for pleasure was received during his horrendous actions, thus nullifying the now-camouflaged presence of evil.
Due to this identification, it is easy to empathize with Alex after his treatment. Even the most malicious of criminals, remorselessly responsible for the death of two and the paralysis of another, is undeserving of the rather more horrifying act of controlling one’s conscience. Treated by experimental techniques actually used during MK Ultra trials in the 1950s and 60s, Alex is robbed of his dignity and free will—in other words, his life. For Kubrick, this is far more harrowing an ordeal.
A cynic of governmental practice, Kubrick’s satirical agenda is empowered in his cinematic manipulation of emotions. He manages to critique the system while presenting a character who would otherwise justify it. Death of the mind is made more alarming than death of the body. Conflicting resonances between pleasure and suffering, glee and terror, form a haunting illustration of morality. It blurs the lines by conveying the right as wrong and the wrong as right. It complicates the idea of an absolute social morality. It turns a sociopath into a hero. In doing so, A Clockwork Orange surmounts ideas of right and wrong by defending the value of individual liberty. Though we may fear Alex and what he represents, Kubrick celebrates his life by conveying a more frightening image: the loss of control of one’s own mind.
A Clockwork Orange surmounts ideas of right and wrong by defending the value of individual liberty. This is Kubrick’s cinema, a cinema which challenges the viewer to face the dark recesses of the unconscious.