Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange part 3

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Alex has been released from prison. He’s been cured of his violent impulses (and his sexual ones, which society, for some reason, equates) . How do we feel about him now? The Ludovico Technique is harsh, but what will be the effect? Act I was about Alex striking out at society, Act II was about society striking back, now what will happen, now that Alex is all better?

Alex comes home, chipper and guileless ("I’m completely reformed!") to find that his parents have replaced him with a lodger named Joe. Joe’s never met Alex, but he’s heard all about him from Alex’s "P and M," so he feels it’s all right to judge him for his past actions. In spite of Alex’s apparent eagerness to re-join the fold and be a "good son," his mother and father aren’t comfortable with the idea. But rather than just tell him no, they rely on Joe to do the harsh work for them. Alex has no home here, the police have confiscated his personal possessions. His parents have even killed his snake, his symbol of youthful virility. They’ve suffered under Alex, and now they’ve had their passive-aggressive revenge. Revenge will form the spine of Act III of A Clockwork Orange — now that Alex is helpless to retaliate, society will be all too happy to attack him, at many different levels.

Alex goes to a bridge and contemplates suicide (which, oddly, he seems capable of doing, even though it, too, is an act of violence, but more on that later). By sheer chance, he runs into the elderly drunk from the top of Act I, who recognizes Alex and then proceeds to lead an attack on him by a gang of old homeless people. "It was old age having a go at youth," says Alex. Even though he only beat up the one old drunk, he’s now being beaten up by a dozen. He’s never met these people before, he’s only a symbol to them. Age fears youth because youth makes age feel helpless, but now that youth is helpless age happily turns to cruelty to repay the fear.

Alex is rescued from the melee by two policemen, who turn out to be Dim and Georgie, his old droog pals. They have apparently gotten their wish, man-sized jobs for grown-ups. Dim has what he always wanted, to be an authority figure, able to beat whomever he pleases with no fear of punishment. The government is apparently hiring vicious, directionless thugs with no future to be policemen, an idea that will be echoed later in Barry Lyndon: who enforces the white-gloved policy of the oppressive government? The Minister of the Interior character we met in Act I, Dim and Georgie are now his hands. Alex is helpless against state-sponsored torture — they take him out to the country, beat him and almost drown him.

Lost and frail, Alex makes it to the "Home" of the writer he attacked in Act I. The writer, now in a wheelchair, has a huge body builder, Darth Vader himself, for a housemate. Alex is carried in, "like a babe in arms," helpless if not exactly innocent. The writer, who’s a political dissident, doesn’t recognize Alex and is delighted that he’s shown up at his door — he’s just the tool he needs to land a blow against the new government. Alex was a product of his parenting, then of society and culture, now he’s a product of the penal system, soon he’ll be a tool against oppression. Has he ever really been free? Has he ever really had a choice?

Alex realizes where he is and is relieved the writer doesn’t recognize him, and is given a bath, where he proceeds to give himself away by singing "Singin’ in the Rain." He apparently doesn’t remember singing it in this house earlier. On the other side of the bathroom door, the writer realizes who Alex is and forms a plan to murder him to his political advantage. "Justice" would say that Alex has repaid his debt to society, the Minister himself has declared him "cured" (the Minister isn’t really interested in justice, only cutting down on crime and clearing the prisons), but the writer has a rather large axe to grind. He believes Alex murdered his wife. He didn’t, she died of pneumonia during an epidemic, but the writer is aggrieved and Alex will pay. And so the writer drugs Alex and brings in his own team of droogs, a pair of fellow dissidents, and proceeds to enact his plan.

Now how do we feel about Alex? He tortured the writer and raped his wife, but he didn’t kill her. Is this justice? Does motive or intent count? Alex’s actions, even the murder of the Cat Lady, were made out of recklessness and brutality, but the writers’ actions are carefully considered and enacted at a safe remove. Alex could justifiably argue that he didn’t know what he was doing, but the writer knows exactly what he’s doing.

And so Alex is driven to suicide, for the second time in the movie. Perhaps he’s able to inflict self-violence because he doesn’t see it as violence at all: he doesn’t say he wants to kill himself, only that he wants to "fly away" from this horrible world, "for ever and ever and ever" (a phrase that, strikingly, comes back in The Shining.)

Alex awakens in the hospital. He hasn’t died. His parents come to see him, having changed their minds about him. How have they changed their minds? They lived with this horrible child, suffered under his abuse, for years — why have they decided they like him now? Well, because the newspapers suggest that they should, a reminder that the media also forms the way people think, even about their own children. Are any of the characters in Clockwork really free? If so, who? Is the Minister even free, or is he doing what he must to keep his job? Even the hands on the tillers of society are controlled by fear.

Some time later, a psychiatrist comes to visit. She shows him slides to test his personality. His "answers" to the slides start off as incoherent, then turn funny, then, finally, turn aggressive and nihilistic. Alex is, apparently, back to "normal."

The Minister himself comes to visit Alex. Alex, more helpless than ever in his multiple casts, is indeed a baby again, having been re-born, so much so that the Minister, his new father, must feed him like one. And so a new family unit is formed,and Alex gets a new home. The Minister effectively promises Alex that he’s going to be a good father, and Alex, happy to have his aggression back, cheerfully agrees to be a good son. He has very little idea what the Minister is talking about, but he does see that he’s got the advantage over him and he presses it, with great cheek and disrespect. It is now the Minister who is helpless before Alex, who has, somehow, improbably, triumphed. He’s been through hell and been restored to his original, blessed state, except now, for some reason he can’t understand, he’s now got an important job "helping out the government." The Minister is going to use him as a tool to crush dissent (he’s already imprisoned the writer who tried to kill him) but as far as Alex is concerned, this is a dream come true. He’s now better than ever, he’s still young, he’s still full of anger and aggression and sexual impulses, but now he’s at the top of the heap. He’ll never again need to beat an old codger under a bridge, now he’ll be able to practice political violence on millions of people. Which suggests, of course, that this is what drives the Minister, and all politicians like him, as well — aggression, lust for power, and a disdain for society beyond anything Alex has ever contemplated.


23 Responses to “Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange part 3”
  1. voiceofisaac says:

    I really, really, really need to watch this movie. It’s been on my list of classic movies to see for years, but I’ve never gotten around to it. I need to fix that.

  2. swan_tower says:

    Hmmmm. It’s been a long time since I saw A Clockwork Orange, so I can’t actually gauge your reading of it; it rings true, though. At least as an analysis of what the film is saying. I cry foul on the message, though: at no point do I recall liking Alex in the slightest, whether the film wanted me to or not. I didn’t find him appealing, I didn’t root for him, and if I’m being asked to accept that oh, he’s a product of his society and never had any choices, that’s where I check out. And things like this:

    Even though he only beat up the one old drunk, he’s now being beaten up by a dozen. He’s never met these people before, he’s only a symbol to them.

    He’s met one of them before: the one he inflicted pointless violence on. I don’t remember how the scene’s presented in the movie, but this summary of it makes me read their violence as very, very different than Alex’s. “Even though he only beat up the one” — what, the only people allowed to complain about a crime are the ones directly hurt by it? This feels like I’m being asked to pity poor Alex, being beat up by people he never did anything to, but I just don’t.

    • Todd says:

      I think that’s a perfectly sound response. Alex is, in many ways, unredeemable. And even if he did beat up only “the one old drunk,” that was just one night, he’s responsible for many other acts of violence. But I think what the movie is asking is, well, where does this violence come from? Why does it happen? Is Alex responsible, or are there larger forces at work? Or, rather, is violence in us all (or in all men, anyway, Kubrick doesn’t seem to have an opinion one way or the other about women), from the thug to the prime minister?

  3. I kind of wonder if Kubrick would have been interested in making a film that was more faithful to the original version of the book as opposed to the truncated U.S. publication. The ending of the film seems like a better fit with what I’m gathering is a very dim view of human nature on Kubrick’s part. It also seems to me that the book makes more of a case that what was done to Alex was wrong because he did have the capacity to stop being a monster even without the aid of mental castration. Kubrick, near as I can tell, is a bit more ambiguous on whether Alex and society in general are better off either way.

    • Todd says:

      From what I understand, Kubrick became aware of the missing chapter after he had almost finished his own screenplay. So he knew it existed but he had already made up his mind about what his movie was going to be about. Anthony Burgess was angry about that, but I’m sure he didn’t mind the sales the movie generated.

      Also, Kubrick was a major-league pessimist.

  4. woodandiron says:

    I wonder what you think of all those who adopt the dress and style of Alex and his droogs. For example, Rob Zombie had a song and video about Clockwork Orange where he positions himself in the Alex role.

    I think there is a certain attraction young males have towards this film in nearly an emulation aspect. You can say these people miss the point of the movie but I think there’s something to Alex’s free will and just wanton destruction of society that appeals to people.

    This is similar to all the assholes in my high school who loved American History X because of the racism in the movie and completely disregarded the anti-racism message.

    • Todd says:

      Well, yes. People dress like Alex because Alex is cool. He’s rebellious and cocksure and intelligent and vicious and brutal. He’s rock-n-roll. I don’t think I ever emulated him exactly, but he certainly presents a powerful statement to young men.

      First, he’s charismatic and blessed, getting away with all manner of bad behavior, then he’s manipulated by the system, then he’s rewarded for the same bad behavior he was earlier punished for. What’s not to like for a young man? Even the pessimism of the story is appealing to young men — it’s dour and ugly and completely accusatory.

      For me, as I say, I never dressed up as Alex exactly, but sure, he’s a hugely appealing character, that’s what gives the movie its tension (Kubrick has said that if Malcolm McDowell didn’t want to do the part he wouldn’t have made the movie). It’s only now that I’m a middle-aged man with a wife and children that I can look at Alex as a deranged, uneducated sociopath caught in the gears of a sick society.

  5. curt_holman says:

    One of the things I remember most about the Burgess book is that each of its three/four sections begins with character asking “What’s it going to be then, eh?” I believe the only time the line turns up in the film is during the chaplain’s sermon.

    Is ‘Clockwork Orange’ the first time Kubrick filmed characters with that predatory “Kubrick face,” that looking-up-from-beneath-lowered brow-with-maniacal-grin expression? Alex does it, Jack Nicholson does it in ‘The Shining’ and Private “Gomer Pyle” does right before shooting his drill sergeant in ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ I wonder if it turns up in any other of his films.

    • Todd says:

      That’s an excellent question. I halfway-considered scouring my Kubrick DVDs and seeing how often “The Kubrick Look” comes up in the early movies (Bowman does it in 2001 when he’s coming for HAL) but I’m too lazy.

      • I could easily be proved wrong, but I’m guessing that it doesn’t show up in Dr. Strangelove since the film is largely about conflicts that play out indirectly and not the directly combative characters who tend to get this look.

        • Todd says:

          It’s funny that “The Kubrick Look” has caught on as an identifiable idea. We use the term around my house all the time, my kids even know what it means, and they’ve never seen a Kubrick movie.

      • curt_holman says:

        When I think about comparable shots in earlier Kurbrick, I imagine low-angle shots of Sterling Hayden, looking menacing and craggy in ‘The Killing’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove.’

  6. pbastien says:

    I love this movie except for one major reason. The music. Where the music in many of his other films (2001 especially) flowed and ebbed with the pace of the film that made it into a form of audio visual poetry, His choice to synthesize many of classical music tracks began to grate on me to a point where it came close to lessening the experience of the film with me.

    But maybe that is what it is. This film, it seems to me, is in many ways an antithesis (is that the right word?) to 2001.

    Where the music flowed and painted in 2001, it grates and unsettles in clockwork
    Where 2001 was an examination of violence’s place in human nature, clockwork shows us the mindless pointlessness of violence.
    where 2001 beautifies and shines a positive light on the future of mankind, clockwork seethes with hatred for human nature and never gives a single positive aspect of it.

    Though the plots of the two movies are remarkably similar.
    if you think of Moonwatcher/Floyd/Bowman/Starchild as less of a set of characters and more like stages or faces of the same archetypal character. This character would be representative of mankind or rather the span of ‘mankind’s’ education from child to adult. This is paralleled in Alex

    Moonwatcher and pre murder alex represent chaotic, violent, aimless human nature with no context or direction, acting out of sheer impulse. This can be equated to a child or toddler. They both receive an necessary gift to build upon themselves with, this is essentially intelligence. in 2001, it was sentience. In clockwork, it was the understanding of hypocrisy and consequence.

    Floyd and Post murder prison alex represent the informed child. They act with both civility and grace but really have not changed deep down underneath. They wander about and they delude themselves because they think the entire universe can be manipulated to their will (technology in 2001 and good behavior in clockwork). They are smarter than they used to be but are now spoiled by the gifts bestowed to them. Another gift is bestowed upon them, the gift of purpose. In 2001 it was finding TMA-2 (jupiter monolith) and in clockwork it was becoming productive in society after being psychologically castrated.

    Bowman and post procedure alex represent the intelligent child with purpose. An intent that drives him to the end of the track, whether they are aware of it or not. They are much like the teenager who has overcome the foolishness and aimlessness of childhood (i personally don’t agree with this viewpoint, but it seems to be consistent between the two works). The teenager has purpose, but lacks the maturity to understand it. This leads to him grating with the universe and the universe grating back (hal in 2001 and old acquaintances in clockwork). After the universe nearly destroys the teen he is given a moment of respite and safety before he dragged kicking and screaming outside the vale of childhood (both juxtaposed with death in these films). Beyond the vale of death, the greatest gift is given to teen. This is the supreme wisdom to be understood. It is ‘context’, true understanding of one’s place and purpose and nature.

    The starchild and post recovery alex represent the adult. It now understands itself, its abilities, its purpose and its context within the universe. It has matured to a point where it can handle the final gift. This is the gift of power over both the universe that seeked destroy him in stage 3 and power over other people. For bowman, it was godlike commandment of space and time to enact his will upon the people of earth. And in clockwork, it the power to control the country around him and enact his sociopathic tendencies upon others on a grand scale. The adult is simply left there, completely overwhelmed with infinite possibilities in front of them.

    • Todd says:

      I’m not fond of the whole “synthesized classical orchestra” thing, but it was very “new” in 1971, and Kubrick probably thought it sounded “futuristic.” And, as you point out, it cheapens the music, makes it sound plastic and hollow, which I’m sure was part of his aesthetic decision.

  7. Some time later, a psychiatrist comes to visit. She shows him slides to test his personality. His “answers” to the slides start off as incoherent, then turn funny, then, finally, turn aggressive and nihilistic. Alex is, apparently, back to “normal.”

    Alex’s responses are entirely improvised by Mr. McDowell. The original scripted answers were rather uninspired and in one of Kubrick’s infamous multiple takes, McDowell asked if he could just ad lib.

    Also, the mouth popping in the scene where the Minister feeds Alex is something McDowell just improvised on the spot when he noticed that Kubrick was less than enthused at how the scene was going. A little character bit to help make Alex a bit more likable.

    • Todd says:

      Kubrick loved actors who could come up with something “interesting” on take 45 or so. The fact that McDowell’s answers are improvised doesn’t take away from it being Kubrick’s scene — he simply waited until something useful happened, that was part of his process. Another director would have stuck to the script and that level of the scene would have been lost.

  8. greyaenigma says:

    The writer, now in a wheelchair, has a huge body builder, Darth Vader himself, for a housemate.

    Tempting to consider this another Strangelove reference with the other Vader, but it would be another few years before those actors were playing the same role.

    • Todd says:

      Well, both Lucas and Spielberg were hugely influenced by Kubrick, I’m tempted to think those casting choices were not entirely coincidence. Lucas put Lt Zogg in Star Wars and Spielberg put Major Kong in 1941. James Earl Jones definitely got the longer end of that stick.