Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange part 1

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Put most simply, A Clockwork Orange is about a viewer who gets jerked around by a movie. It is altogether fitting that it, itself, is a movie about jerking a viewer around. The protagonist of A Clockwork Orange is a young man, Alex, who wants what any young man wants — to beat, steal, rob, rape, listen to Beethoven, dodge authority and boss people around. Do we like Alex? Are we supposed to like Alex? Does Kubrick like Alex? Can one even imagine a studio in the 21st century hearing a pitch for A Clockwork Orange? “Likability” and “Relatability” are what filmmakers hear every day from studio executives, but Kubrick couldn’t be less interested. Dr. Strangelove had three sexually crippled men who want to blow up the world as its protagonists, and 2001 had a bunch of invisible aliens. And a computer. A Clockwork Orange gives us Kubrick’s most complex, most paradoxical protagonist yet.

We meet Alex and his droogs in the eerily silent, still Korova Milk Bar. They’re frozen in a state of grace, a perfect moment. Alex is happy, he’s in the prime of his life, he’s attained equilibrium. This makes him powerful and compelling, if not exactly likable. He’s a leader: charismatic, forward, direct. He’s another alpha-monkey, descended from 2001‘s Moonwatcher. The important thing about Alex is not just that he’s young, but that he is a young man — his maleness is key. As if to underline the point, the women in the Korova are literally furniture — tables for the young men to set their glasses of drugged milk upon. A grotesque, flamboyantly misogynist sexuality pervades the alternate-universe culture of Clockwork.Does Kubrick support that culture, or parody it? If the question is “Why is Alex Alex?” one could say that the degradation of women, seen everywhere in the culture, is a contributing factor. Especially when one considers that part of the movie’s message is in regards to art’s effects on people’s minds. (How ironic that Clockwork spawned copycat crimes in the UK, leading to its being banned there — with Kubrick’s blessing.)

Hopped up on their spiked milk (the perfect drink for Alex, who is both child and adult) Alex and his droogs head out into the night. The first item on their list is to savagely beat an elderly bum under a bridge. Why do they beat up the bum? Alex tells us: he can’t stand it, cannot stand it, when he sees someone inebriated, or singing, or both. And yet, Alex himself is currently inebriated, and later we’ll learn that he’s also a music lover. What, then, makes him so despise the old bum? Well, it’s his age, obviously — the old bum has reached the logical end of a life ill-lived. One could even imagine that the old bum is Alex at the end of his career of hooliganism. Perhaps Alex wants mostly to expunge this vision of his future self — he’s in his perfect moment, he’s young and virile and in perfect equilibrium, and one of the symptoms of what my wife calls “Young Man’s Disease” is a sense of all-pervading rightness, an arrogance bordering on Napoleonic. (No wonder Kubrick ached all his life to do a movie on Napoleon.)

What does the old bum think is Alex’s problem? He thinks it’s societal — “there’s no respect for law and order any more,” he pines. Even with a club pinning him down, the elderly drunk doesn’t blame Alex for his actions, he blames society. “Men on the moon,” he gripes, “but no attention paid to earthly law and order.” So one could even imagine that the alternate future of A Clockwork Orange is taking place at the same time as the alternate future of 2001 — Alex beats up his bum while Dr. Floyd soft-soaps the Russians.

Next on Alex’s docket is to go beat up a rival gang. The gang, led by “Billy Boy,” is in the process of gang-raping a young woman on the stage of a derelict casino. The stage is grand, with trompe l’oeil balustrades and cherubs on the ceiling. The performing arts, it seems, have fallen — the theater is squalid and the “play” being presented is chaotic, violent and brutal — a true theater of cruelty. Alex interrupts the gang-rape and he and his gang proceed to get all Moonwatcher on the Billy Boy’s ass. They aren’t fighting for the honor of the young lady, she runs off without a word, they’re fighting because they like to fight. The whole first section of A Clockwork Orange is, essentially, “Alex Does What He Likes.” And so Alex and his droogs beat the ever-loving shit out of Billy Boy and his team, then flee when the police — the reigning “authority figures” — arrive.

Alex then steals a car and drives out to the country, for what he likes to call “the surprise visit,” but which we would call “a home invasion.” How does Kubrick want us to feel about Alex up to this point? Alex is certainly charismatic, even charming — magnetic in his pursuit of young-man thrills. He does exactly what he wants, he’s free, unstoppable even — who would not get swept up in the energy of that? And then he leads his team into the house of a middle-aged writer, where he proceeds to beat the writer, destroy his work station and brutally rape his wife. And the viewer is torn. Alex is so clearly enjoying himself — he literally sings and dances as he beats and kicks his victims — that we still kind of like him, and yet his actions are so incredibly appalling and repellent. Which is, of course, the point. Kubrickis saying “That energy you liked? Here’s what it means. Alex is bursting with free will, here it is, the end result of free will — home invasion, torture and rape, contempt for intellect, life as a brutal, meaningless joke.” It doesn’t matter whether the viewer “enjoys” watching Alex rape and torture, the very act of watching it makes the viewer complicit. No one likes to say they like violence, but of course people like violence — it’s part of who we are, part of what makes us human. Kubrick places the viewer in this really weird place, where you don’t want to see what Alex is doing, but you have to watch, even though it’s repellent. And then, of course, he’ll later put Alex into the exact same position in Act II.

And again, Alex’s aggression is strictly young and strictly male — he kicks the middle-aged writer down the stairs and then rapes his younger wife, all while wearing a clown mask with a big phallus on it. “Out of the way, pops, the woman is mine!” is his attitude. It’s the same attitude that drives the characters in Dr. Strangelove and 2001, the alpha-monkey’s prerogative to beat and kill to satisfy his sexual urge.

Alex and his droogs head back to the Korova (Dim meekly apologizes to a woman-shaped milk dispenser), where we see another side of Alex: the music lover. An opera singer lets loose with a burst from Beethoven’s 9th (strange that she reads it off a piece of sheet music — what opera singer would be unfamiliar with the “Ode to Joy?” and Dim responds with a raspberry. Alpha-monkey Alex harshly upbraids Dim for his lack of manners and composure. Lack of manners and composure! Alex just broke into a man’s house, savagely beat and tortured him and raped his wife, and now he criticizes his friend for his lack of manners and composure! And yet, now, not a minute after watching that horrific scene, now we suddenly kind of like Alex again. He’s not all bad, he knows and appreciates classical music! Dim is at first angered by Alex’s public punishment, but as soon as Alex asserts his Alpha-monkey authority, Dim backs down.

As morning breaks, Alex moseys back to his filthy, futurist slum. The courtyards and foyers are filled with garbage and the heroic mosaic in the lobby is covered with obscene graffiti. Alex chided Dim for blowing raspberries at the Ode to Joy, but he seems to have no trouble with the graffiti in his lobby. The context of the art is everything — the opera singer in the Korova was a mystical bird showing up in an opium den, but the mosaic in the lobby is an institutional piece of art, placed in a spot where everyone had to see it, intended, no doubt, “to inspire the downtrodden masses.” In any case, no wonder Alex is Alex — look at his environment, it’s squalid and filthy!

Alex heads upstairs to his apartment, goes to his bedroom and empties his pockets of loot — apparently he and the droogs robbed a number of people we didn’t catch on film tonight. And we get a sense of Alex’s aesthetics: he’s got an obscene painting of a woman spreading her vulva for the viewer, a portrait of Beethoven, a sculpture that turns the suffering of Jesus into a kitschy chorus line, and a pet snake. He sits down to appreciate some Beethoven, and we see now why he so greatly appreciates it — it gets him sexually excited, which makes him think of young girls being hanged, buildings exploding, himself as a vampire, and cave people caught in an avalanche. In other words, remember that guy you liked a moment ago, who was defending Beethoven against the unwashed? Well, guess what! He liked Beethoven because it reminds him of horrific violence, which gets him off! And in spite of everything, we still kind of like Alex — Kubrick presents his gothic fancies of violence as a cheeky, comic set-piece.

Next thing we know, it’s the next morning and Alex is late for school. School! We meet his parents, who are both working-class drones without a thought in their heads (“Have a good day at the factory, mum!”). Alex’s mother is particularly alarming, an older woman with an appalling wig, dressed as a schoolgirl. Is Alex’s mother meant to be a comment on the “youth energy” that was threatening to overturn things when the movie was made? Is she dressing decades younger than her age out of a misguided fashion sense, or is she hoping people will actually mistake her for a schoolgirl? That is, has she surrendered her dignity because the elderly bum at the beginning of the movie is right, there is no respect for old people in this world? In any case, yet another brick in the answer to “Why is Alex Alex?” is placed: his parents are vacant, helpless and broken down by work and social pressure, he wasn’t raised properly.

Alex drags himself out of bed some time later and moseys out into the living room (where they have an electric piano — live music is apparently not dead in the homes of this alternate future). Mr. Deltoid, Alex’s truant officer (“corrective adviser” is his title) waits for him in his parents’ bedroom. Deltoid is here to put the squeeze on Alex — “I’ve got to save you from yourself!” he says, punching Alex in his genitals, in case we were confused as to the seat (so to speak) of Alex’s problem. What Deltoid is saying is “You’re not an idiot, why do you do these things?” But he’s presented as a buffoon and a letch, and all we hear is “Why can’t you conform, be like everyone else?”

Alex saunters over to the record store, dressed in his finest Carnaby Street fashions. Charming and likable again, he picks up a couple of girls, one of whom can barely be bothered to look at him, and takes them back to his place for an afternoon of sex, an event Kubrick presents as a high-speed joke. Suddenly, Alex’s life is the subject of giddy comedy and we’re once again confused as to what to think of this young man. But we also think, well, Deltoid is kind of right — Alex has everything going for him, youth, looks, skills, intelligence, why doesn’t he try to do something, anything, positive with his life?

After his afternoon of sex, Alex lazily descends the stairs and finds his droogs waiting for him amid the garbage in his lobby. Dim, and now second-in-command Georgie, have decided to challenge Alex’s authority. Georgie wants to move up to “the big jobs,” he has ambitions to be a career criminal, not just a juvenile delinquent. Alex, strangely enough, finds himself in the position of defending the status quo. Everything is perfect just the way it is, he argues. He’s living in a state of grace, he gets to do anything he likes, he steals what he wants, beats who he likes, rapes who he wants, why would anyone feel the need to turn that into anything as boring and distasteful as a “career?” And yet, Georgie feels that Alex’s gang are still mere “boys,” it’s time to step up and perform a “man-sized crast,” but Alex is still having too much fun being a boy.

Of course, it’s not enough for Alex to merely re-assert his authority, he must back it up with a beating. And so, as his gang heads out for the night, inspired by hearing some Beethoven playing from a nearby window, he smacks Georgie in the crotch with his cane and then kicks Dim into a fountain. And again, one is reminded of Moonwatcher at the watering-hole in 2001, defending his territory from the craven and stupid. Alex then takes them all out for dinner to show there’s no hard feelings. This young man who hates authority becomes a quite stern and vindictive authority figure when his own authority is challenged. Heavy lies the crown of the alpha-monkey.

Meaning to toss his wounded droogs a bone, Alex agrees to go with them on a robbery out in the country. And so we meet the Cat Lady in her home, a bizarre house with weight-lifting-machines in the living room and more pornographic art on the walls. Another scrawny older woman trying to look younger in a bad wig, we find the Cat Lady and her lifestyle repellent and comic. Alex even finds her comic and repellent, but she defends her taste in art by saying that her collection is full of “important” works of art. Ah, so even the fine arts in A Clockwork Orange are peddling filth. The society is corrupt from top to bottom — the museums and galleries are apparently filled with women flaunting their genitals and big plaster penises. Who could blame Alex for asserting his desires to rape and torture? The Cat Lady attacks Alex with, of all things, a bust of Beethoven. Alex, of course, grabs the big plaster penis, and the battle is on — High Culture vs the Big Penis. Beethoven lands the first blow (so to speak), but the Big Penis soon turns the tables and fulfills its ultimate demand — Alex smashes the Cat Lady’s head in. Whatever we thought of Alex up ’til this, he now seems irredeemable.

The police arrive and Alex bolts, but his droogs have one last surprise for him. They smash a milk-bottle against his face, blinding him, and take off, leaving Alex to be arrested. Once again, in the space of seconds, Kubrick flips our sympathies for his protagonist, which he will continue to do for the rest of the movie.



21 Responses to “Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange part 1”
  1. squidattack says:

    I’m excited for the rest of this, particularly your thoughts on the ending, and how it differs from the author’s intent (like the American release of the book).

    • Todd says:

      I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read the book. I know there was a controversy regarding the ending of the different editions, but I’m not an expert on the subject.

      • I’m sure there will be any number of people who are familiar with both the book and the controversy willing to chime in when you get to the end.

        I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film, so I’ll be largely just sitting back and reading.

      • squidattack says:

        Oh! Woops, I’m sorry, it was actually somewhat presumptuous on my part.

        To be brief, the main difference (and a pretty important one) was that the last chapter was excluded from the American release of the book (and, as a consequence, the movie). The last chapter shows Alex feeling disinterested in going out for another night with the droogs and considers changing his ways– leaves the gang, etc. Pretty much leveling out, beginning to age.

        Anthony Burgess, the author, actually disapproved of Kubrick’s version of the story, because he felt that changing (rather, omitting) the end changes the theme.

        Either way, I’m still excited about hearing what you have to say!

        • Todd says:

          What’s kind of impressive is that the book’s American publishers decided to go for the bleaker, darker ending. I would have thought the opposite, I would have thought they’d demand that Alex get over his impulses and grow up a little.

    • From DragonConL

      According to Malcolm McDowell (who was told by Burgess himself), the “lost” 21st chapter is hogwash and the novel is supposed to end with “I was cured all right,” just like the movie. The missing chapter that reforms Alex was created at the behest of American publishers to soften a rather bleak conclusion. All that talk of ruining the ending was Burgess being publicity savvy.

  2. misterseth says:

    It’s interesting that the opening for this film is in contrast to the ending of 2001. The enlightened Starchild vs the ultraviolent youth.

  3. leonardpart6 says:

    This might just be faulty memory – I haven’t seen the film in fifteen years or so – but I don’t recall the milk being “spiked”. I always thought it was wholesome, good-for-you milk, all part of another joke on the film’s part.

    • Todd says:

      The Korova sells “milk-plus,” which is milk spiked with various drugs, as explained here.

      • Todd, did you ever go to the Korova Milk Bar in Manhattan when it was open?

        • Todd says:

          I didn’t! In fact, I didn’t know it existed until I looked it up on Wikipedia the other night for this very piece. Did it look like the one in the movie? I can’t imagine that establishment would meet fire codes.

    • popebuck1 says:

      No, it’s made clear both in the book and Alex’s narration in the movie that you can get the milk spiked with any number of tasty drugs.

      Which makes it the same joke, of course (these are good kids, drinking their milk!), just on a different level.

      • Todd says:

        What I just found out is that the Korova sells milk because it’s non-alcoholic, which means that it’s okay for the under-age Alex and his pals to drink there.

  4. Anonymous says:


    I read the book when I was 15, which made the whole story more creepy since Alex is 16 at the beginning. I get the message that Burgess was going for concerning free will (which you’ll no doubt go into in the next part), but could never really sympathise; I, for one, never liked the character and was frankly on the side of the Ludovico guys. The intelligence, love of classical music (which I shared), and anti-conformism were appealing but…damn, the kid sings while raping people! That isn’t exactly good PR for free spiritedness, though that may be the point.

    The copy-cat crimes committed after the movie was released just go to show how many people can watch something that is blatantly, obviously trying to make you think and completely ignore everything but the most sensational. Idiots.

  5. Wow. I greatly enjoyed this, as well as your other recent writings about films.

    On an unrelated note, I watched Alien for the first time last night.

    And, this is the user formerly titled PanickedZebra. I hope you are well. Thank you for creating these writings about films.

  6. ethan_joe says:


    In my early 20s I developed a throat abscess which the doctor claimed had no known source, and was simply a “young man’s disease” and not that uncommon. Good to see I’m not the only one using that phrase, as it has always cracked me up.

  7. Do we like Alex? Are we supposed to like Alex? Does Kubrick like Alex?

    From DragonCon:
    When Malcolm McDowell was discussing CLOCKWORK, he spoke of how Kubrick pretty much left him to his own devices, giving Malcolm carte blanche on how to portray Alex. Malcolm was having a difficult time figuring out how to make such an amoral character engaging to the audience, if not likeable or sympathetic, so he spoke to his friend Lindsay Anderson (who had directed him in If . . .) and got the key to Alex. Lindsay reminded Malcolm of the scene in If . . . where Mick (Malcolm’s character) walks into a room, knowing he’s about to be beaten, with a wide smile on his face and said, “That’s how you play Alex.” Someone with a perpetual smile, no matter what.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Marat Sade – Clockwork Orange

    Sorry to be late to the postings, but I would like to add to your excellent analysis two points that could have also informed the audience mindset at the time, at least by my experience, as I was watching it when it was (briefly) out in the cinema:
    The book was well known among a certain younger audience, Burgess certainly so, the film rights were once considered by Jagger as a vehicle, the book’s formidable work new syntax, complete with lexicon, appears to inform Bowie’s “Ziggy” era character (droogies etc..) and so on. So at least the UK audience would probably look to the film to adhere to a large part of it. In that respect, it was a great adaptation, keeping a central motif of the book, which was the new syntax (complete with lexicon), that was so worked out as an expression of the way this new youth aggression had even altered and then been accomodated by language itself.

    As a side issue, when I see Patrick Mcgee, the well-known UK Royal Theater actor who plays the feebled husband at the home where Alex then rapes his wife, I can’t help but consider his one starring role three years earlier (after having started it on stage) in another UK movie, “Marat/Sade” – as Sade of course. It seems almost intentionally ironic, that the actor who earned reknown for his role as Sade, the author, actor and director of “Marat/Sade”‘s play within a play, is now reduced to being beat up by ill-educated, violent youth, and forced to watch his wife’s rape.

    There is a double-bill sensibility there, if only one could sit through the amount of hours.

    — Arthur F.