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“It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.“- Alex DeLarge
On April 5 this year, one of the most controversial and groundbreaking movies of the 20th-century returns to cinema screens – the incendiary A Clockwork Orange. A gratifying tribute – marking 20 years since the death of its director Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket) – it will reopen across Ireland and the UK for a limited run, in conjunction with the event Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition. The latter runs from April 26 to September 15 at London’s Design Museum. Preceding the re-issue of A Clockwork Orange is a brand-new trailer, heralding it fully into a new digital era.
It is a violent masterpiece born of a violent world. Adapted from the book of the same name by the late author Anthony Burgess, the film received an outright ban in Ireland on its original release in 1971. Although by 1973 Kubrick had himself pulled its release from most territories. This was due both to the level of controversy the film drummed up and in response to allegations that the film was responsible for copycat crimes. However, A Clockwork Orange did finally get a release in its uncut form a year after Kubrick’s death in 1999. It found an audience in Ireland spurred on by the cult and legendary status of the movie.
Set in a dystopian future Britain, A Clockwork Orange follows the exploits of the Beethoven loving teenager Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell). Throughout McDowell wryly narrates the thoughts of his character, giving audiences an insight into a corrupt mind. Surrounded by his gang, or collection of Droogs, together they take part in heinous nightly adventures which are essentially a crime spree. These involve acts of violence, murder and rape, with the film exploring anti-social behaviour and gang culture. With such controversial topics as this, the very premise saw the movie’s rejection by the censors here in Ireland. Indeed, even with the 2000 re-release on these shores, the words ‘rape’ and ‘ultraviolence’ were removed from the cinema posters.
The imagery though within the film is powerful. Notable is the drug-laden milk the droogs consume in the futuristic bars, with white becoming a statement of the innocence that is devoured without thought. Another cinematic marvel is the score, wrapped in a futuristic soundscape of synthesizers by innovator Wendy Carlos. Indeed, the music served as a precursor to such futuristic affairs as Blade Runner, giving A Clockwork Orange an otherworldly depth and quality.
Kubrick also cleverly kept the original novel’s dialogue. Though not easily comprehensible, it also serves as a world building tool. The emphasis on futuristic slang – “We were all feeling a bit shagged and fagged and fashed, it being a night of no small expenditure.” – mirrors the distinct lingo at the center of every youth collective of every generation.
A Clockwork Orange’s opening 25 minutes are some of the most revolutionary film making of that era, pushing headfirst into the very heart of humanity’s violent nature. Alex is betrayed by his three followers. They become fed up with his dominance and want more. During a planned home invasion where Alex bludgeons a wealthy lady to death with a phallic sculpture, he receives a bottle to his face and is left behind by his Droogs for the authorities to arrest. It is through his rehabilitation the basis of the story comes to light. The contentious point with A Clockwork Orange is not the graphic nature of the content. It goes deeper than that.
A controversial method of control is used, asking the question can a mind engulfed in violence be changed, programmed into becoming something better? Alex is strapped to a chair with hooks opening his eyes. He is then drugged and forced to watch violent films on a big screen. The effects of the drugs make him physically sick and the very sight of violence eventually becomes a source of pain to him.
Regardless of the violence within the character, Alex being robbed of his free will and the ability to make choices voluntarily – the basis for humanity – is the essence of A Clockwork Orange. Reformed and rehabilitated he is released back into society, this time unable to defend himself from past victims, his droogs and others’ attacks. During this portion of the film, Alex’s narration gives the audience an insight into his feelings of desperation and hopelessness, feelings which before were predominantly evil. When even his beloved Beethoven is used as a weapon against him, Alex is completely broken.
“Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man”. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange.
After a suicide attempt, Alex awakens dreaming of both sex and violence once more. Stanley Kubrick ended it here, where Burgess’ novel had another chapter showing the character growing out of his sociopath tendencies and instead maturing, leaving that life behind.
A Clockwork Orange is submerged into a world which goes beyond comprehension at times, as Stanley Kubrick skillfully argues that violence and ultimately evil within human existence cannot be changed or controlled. It simply exists. As such, it digs deeper into the soul than the other cinematic works by Kubrick and is a brave form of storytelling to project onto the big screen. Although it’s 48 years since A Clockwork Orange’s original release, the questions it raises are still being explored today.