Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange part 2

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So Alex has become a murderer. That’s pretty bad. Hardly anybody likes murderers. And yet, we didn’t particularly like the woman Alex murdered — she was kind of a jerk. Mostly, the viewer at this point is caught in the grip of a seething bundle of contradictions: Alex seems pretty darn bad, but the world he lives in seems worse — one can, in a way, see Alex’s response to his world as a valid one. The world has taught him that life is a meaningless, cruel joke and nothing has any meaning, who could blame him for acting in kind?

So Alex has been betrayed by his gang and arrested by the police. We find him being interrogated by detectives. When they get violent, Alex sneers "I know the law!" One of the law-enforcement officers deadpans "Knowing the law isn’t anything," as another presses his thumb against Alex’s wound. So there you have it: why do laws against violent behavior exist, if they are enforced through violence? Alex sees through this conundrum immediately, and viciously grabs the testicles of the offending detective. Which, of course, leads to an escalation of blows: Alex has challenged authority, and he knows better than anyone what happens when one challenges authority — one gets stomped down.

Mr. Deltoid shows up to give Alex the kiss-off. He trades pleasantries with the other law-enforcement folk — law-backed torturers are nothing if not civil to one another. Alex insists he’s innocent: "I was led on by the treachery of others!" he squeaks, unconvincingly. He also insists that the accusation of murder is "some new form of torture," that the law is practicing mental violence on him to get him to crack. Little does he know. Deltoid, confident he is not to be attacked, spits in Alex’s face and says that he hopes the guilt of being a murderer tortures him to madness. Again, little does he know.

Now Alex is in prison. There’s a long scene, later echoed in the first act of Full Metal Jacket, that shows Alex systematically broken down, step by step, from an individual to a number. His pockets are emptied, the contents are filed away, his clothes are taken and mothballed, his anus is subject to inspection. Act I was about Alex striking out at society, Act II is about society striking back. Act I is about Alex’s flamboyant individuality (honestly, he wears a bowler, a false eyelash, white clothes, combat boots and a dance belt on the outside of his pants — that’s pretty individual), Act II is about how he’s turned into "everyone else." How, then, does society turn an individual into "everyone else?" The act presents three forces: law, religion and government. Alex, once imprisoned, goes to work for the prison chaplain. The chaplain preaches from his pulpit while the men in the chapel blow kisses at one another and blow raspberries at the word of God — apparently the church isn’t doing a great job changing the men’s minds. The chaplain warns against spending one’s life "in and out of institutions like this," and he’s talking about the prison but the words apply to the church as well — it’s just another way to control people, another prison for the mind. Alex, meanwhile, shams "being good" — he leads the congregation in a hymn about the error in being a "wandering sheep" (and one is reminded that Alex sneered that his droogs were sheep for relying so much on his leadership).

Alex likes working with the chaplain — has he decided to be good? Mmm, no. Inside, Alex is still the same brutal, vicious killer. He reads the Bible because it’s full of violence — he imagines the story of the Passion, but from the point of view of one of the centurions flogging Jesus (echoes of his "dancing Christs" sculpture in his bedroom).

Alex asks the chaplain about "the new treatment," the Ludovico Technique. He doesn’t know what it is or how it works, he only knows that it gets you out of prison fast. What does Alex plan to do once he gets out? Who knows? He tells the chaplain he wants to "be good," but does he? Does he even know what that means? Alex doesn’t seem to give much thought to the future. That’s part of his charm, if that’s what it is: he lives in the moment, he lives by his wits, he may not be educated, but he is quite smart.

Soon enough, as the prisoners literally walk in circles, the Minister of the Interior shows up to pick a prisoner for the Ludovico Technique. There’s apparently recently been a governmental upheaval in England, and the "new broom" has a mandate of curbing violence at any cost. Before he gets to the prisoners, the Minister stops by Alex’s cell. He’s intrigued by the bust of Beethoven displayed. Why, we’re not told, but I like to think that he knows something we won’t for a little bit, that the Ludovico Technique involves lots of Beethoven (well, after all, it is called the Ludovico Technique).

The Minister brays to the prison authorities about his expertise on violent crime as "Pomp and Circumstance" plays. He is the ultimate authority figure in the narrative, the alpha-monkey of the watering-hole. Don’t punish the criminal, he smugly declares, cure the criminal. Alex rebels by sucking up to the Minister, agreeing with everything he says. The ruse works, as far as Alex is concerned anyway — the Minister picks him for the treatment. "He’ll do," he says to the warden, and Alex thinks he’s received a compliment. The warden, oddly enough, disagrees with the Minister’s new penal plan (they need to clear the prisons of criminals to make room for political prisoners — that doesn’t sound positive), and, for a moment, of all the law-enforcement personnel Alex deals with in Act II, suddenly here’s one that actually seems wise.

Alex is transferred to the Ludovico facility, a sprawling, evidently well-funded institution. He meets Dr. Branom, who calmly lays down the new rules for Alex while a nurse injects him with "Experimental Serum 114" (a callback to Strangelove‘s "CRM-114.") "We’re going to be friends," she offers, the kind-yet-firm face of parental authority — do what we say, and we’ll be nice.

Alex then finds himself in much the same position as the viewer of A Clockwork Orange — he’s compelled to watch violent movies while feeling very conflicted with what he’s seeing. The viewer is held by the grip of narrative, while Alex needs stronger stuff: he’s straitjacketed into his seat and his eyes are pried open, while Serum 114 courses through his veins. "I used to feel good watching violence!" he yelps, helpless, as the aversion therapy works its magic on him and he starts to feel sick. "This is how you should feel," says Dr. Branum, "Violence is a very horrible thing." That is, how dare the viewer enjoy watching Act I of this very movie, it was filled with horrible, horrible things.

The violence shown in the Ludovico Technique then accelerates from gang-related violence to war-related violence, from the crimes people inflict on one another to the crimes nations inflict on one another. The Ludovico Technique, in other words, seems to be about not just making criminals into model citizens, but making them into pacifists as well, a curious choice to be made by what seems to be a new totalitarian government. They score the WWII footage to Beethoven, which makes Alex lose his cool. "It’s a sin!" he cries, saying that Beethoven never hurt anybody. And yet, we’ve seen in Act I that Beethoven does, indeed, have a strong effect on Alex — it inspires him to all manner of sexual and violent fantasies. Dr. Brodsky, who runs the program, doesn’t seem to understand Alex’s objection; the music chosen to score the movie seems to have been an afterthought. And yet, it is called The Ludovico Technique, and the Minister of the Interior was intrigued by the bust of Beethoven in Alex’s cell. It seems that Kubrick wants to say that anything, even Beethoven, can be used as a tool of oppression, can be used to "cure" us of our impulses. "The choice has been all yours," intones Brodsky to Alex, which, of course, is the whole point of the movie– the choice has never been Alex’s, first he was a product of his environment, then he was a product of the penal system, now he’s a product of the Ludovico Technique.

Alex makes it through the treatment, and is released. There is a ceremony marking his release, where the Minister of the Interior presents Alex as though he were a new line of auto. In a way, the scene is related to the earlier one where Alex and his droogs fight Billy Boy in the abandoned casino — it’s another gang-rape on a defiled stage, only this time the victim is Alex. He’s humiliated and beaten by an actor, then tempted by a naked woman, but is unable to either defend himself or follow his impulses. He’s been denatured, effectively castrated by the government, for which he receives a round of applause. When the abasement is over, he stands up and eagerly asks the Minister "Did I do well?" as though he’s waiting for his grade on a spelling test. He is now the obedient sheep.

The chaplain is the only dissenting voice. "He has no choice!" he complains. And one is reminded that, yes, the chaplain’s business, faith, is based in free will. God does not reveal Himself because He doesn’t want sheep, he wants people. If God wanted us all to unquestioningly worship Him, all He’d have to do is just show up in Times Square and say "Here I am, guys, check it out" and He’d have no problem with followers. The whole point of faith is that one has an alternative, that there is room for doubt. Any fool can believe with proof, faith is belief without proof. In any case, the chaplain’s argument falls on deaf ears: "We’re not concerned with higher ethics," the Minister grouses, honestly enough. "He will be your True Christian," he says, trying to buy the chaplain off, implying that the True Christian is an obedient sheep, an unthinking cog in an oppressed society. And thus is Alex thrust back into the society he wronged.


9 Responses to “Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange part 2”
  1. ndgmtlcd says:

    On the other hand I think Kubrick made a great movie out of a lesser book when he did “The Shining”

    The way you describe it, “Clockwork Orange” could have been a great movie.


    Are you available for the remake?

  2. Strangely enough, I had just been thinking about what Alex goes through as being kind of a “mental castration.” (I still haven’t seen the movie, but I also haven’t been living in a hole in the ground, so I know the basic plot.)

  3. Act I is about Alex’s flamboyant individuality (honestly, he wears a bowler, a false eyelash, white clothes, combat boots and a dance belt on the outside of his pants — that’s pretty individual)

    That isn’t a dance belt, that’s a guard for cricketers.

  4. moroccomole says:

    Pardon my ignorance, but what’s the Beethoven/Ludovico connection? Is that a reference I’m missing?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Doesn’t want sheep? But he has a flock.

    Doesn’t God offer the same “free choice” as totalitarian governments? In matters of religion what matters is that you either accept or suffer damnation. Its a choice but pretty much the same as looking down the barrel of a gun.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Doesn’t want sheep? But he has a flock.

      In this instance the goverment dosen’t even offer that choice- you can’t choose the gun even. Spiritual morality, especialy theist, has always been based on the concept of free will as it esssential in any form of moral judgement.