Movie Review: A Clockwork Orange
How I got here was that I was reading this article, which references a famous scene from this movie, and I got to thinking that I'd seen numerous references to this movie throughout pop culture, which prompted me to rent this to find out more. Some of the references I've seen include the beginning credits in Robot Chicken, a comment made by Tyra Banks in an episode of America's Next Top Model (about the signature eyelash look associated with the film's protagonist), and that famous bottom eyelash look was even sported by Maggie in an episode of The Simpsons.
I had tried to read this story because I'm very interested in science fiction, especially dystopic fiction, and the book was recommended to me in high school but I found the book annoyingly difficult because of the unusual slang. It isn't even real British/Cockney slang, it's a slang language the author created for the book that is, according to TV Tropes, influenced by Russian. In the movie, it's easier to understand because, obviously, the visuals of the film format allow the viewer to more clearly see what the speakers are referring to. A lot is easily picked up by the context of a scene; however, the book is narrated by the protagonist who also thinks in terms of the slang language being used, which makes comprehension difficult for the reader.
Anyway, so pop culture references and an interest in having the plot unveiled to me in a way that didn't necessitate as much intellectual heavy lifting prompted me to rent and watch this movie (although I probably should read the book because TV Tropes said it contains an additional epilogue chapter that was left out of earlier American editions of the book and consequently, of the movie adaptation).
Plot Summary (Warning: Potential Spoilers)
Alex is a violent sociopath who is shown skipping school to go out to a truly horrific-looking place called the "milk bar" where him and his gang drink future-y sounding drinks that contain potent drugs. They then proceed to engage in acts of "the old ultra-violence". They beat up an old homeless man, get in a fight with another gang, steal a car, and ransack a house, beating up a man and raping his wife in front of him. Alex's parents know nothing of this or other nefarious activities he carries out, believing him when he feigns illness as a reason for not going to school.
Alex's ways soon land him in prison, however. When members of his gang, who are growing older, demand to go after some real money, he beats them up to assert his dominance, but gives into their demand and plans a robbery of an eccentric, rich cat-loving woman. When the robbery goes badly, his "friends" desert him, and he ends up fighting her. Her walls are covered in lewd erotic art. One piece of "art" she owns is a large ceramic sculpture in the shape of a penis. Since the object is big and heavy, Alex ends up fighting her with it, and she ends up unconscious on the floor. Alex is arrested and the woman later dies in a hospital, making Alex a murderer.
However, despite Alex's lack of regard for rules and order in the outside world, he soon becomes a model prisoner. He enjoys reading The Bible (because of all the sex and violence therein), and cooperates freely with "the program". He is making a fairly convincing show of being reformed (sociopaths are really good at saying what they think you want to hear). When he hears a rumor about an experimental new treatment for crime, he jumps on board, wanting to volunteer for a treatment that promises to cure him of evil impulses over the course of just two weeks.
What they do to him (the famous scene with the eyeballs held open by a mechanical apparatus) is force him to watch scenes of his old violent actions, but with a drug in his system that makes him feel sick and nauseous. They successfully "cure" him of any and all desires for sex and violence. He becomes someone who won't fight even in self defense, and won't even touch a woman, even when they have one walk up to him wearing nothing but panties. Inadvertently, the treatment also made him loathe what used to be his favorite music, Beethoven's 9th symphony.
He gets let out, a free man. He returns home only to find that his mother and father have rented his room to a stranger, which upsets him greatly. When walking out to try to make it on his own, he gets confronted by the homeless old man his gang beat up on, who in turn gets a bunch of homeless guys to beat Alex up. He finds that his old friends have become cops, who also beat him up. Alone and distraught without much sanity or will to live left, he ends up passing out on the front porch of a man he had victimized in the past, who takes him in and cares for him because at first he doesn't recognize him (the gang who beat him and raped his wife were all wearing masks at that time).
The man is a writer, and it turns out the beating put him in a wheelchair and the rape drove his wife to suicide. He had read about Alex's recovery from sin in the paper, and thinks that it's awful, that treating criminality in this way is totalitarianism, robbing people of their free will (a priest in an earlier scene had expressed the same concern).
So Alex ends up some time later, having recovered and taken a bath, eating a lunch provided by his new host. The man at this point discovered who Alex is. He doesn't do anything immediately, but he has a few important people come and ask Alex some questions. He obliges, out of gratitude for the man's hospitality and because his radical treatment has made him much more docile than he used to be. They end up finding out about how he's become as conditioned against Beethoven's 9th as sex and violence. They then end up torturing Alex by putting him in a locked upstairs bedroom and forcing him to listen to it. Feeling sick and revolted, he screams for them to turn it off. When they do not, he can't handle the pain and tries to end his own life by jumping out the window. The writer and his co-conspirators had planned to drive him to suicide to show that the government's program was a failure and stop the current leaders from winning re-election.
He wakes up in a hospital bed. He's sustained severe injuries but gradually recovers. He seems cheerful and upbeat in spirits as he gets better. Then a psychiatrist comes in and tells him she's going to show him some images and ask him to respond. They are a series of simple pictures, each one a simple scene with some simply drawn figures and speech bubbles. There is a blank speech balloon in each one, and the psychiatrist asks him to say what pops into his head to fill them, what he thinks that the person in the scene would be saying. At first his responses are nonsensical, but they quickly become laced with his previous (before the brainwashing) mental disposition towards sex and violence. In other words, he's been cured.
The Film's Aesthetics
This movie has a very interesting "retro future" look. This is exemplified well in Alex's parents' house, the house of the writer, and the house of the cat-lady Alex murdered. This film is probably worth a second or third view just to get a look at the truly interesting background details. I found myself finding bits of interior decor inspiration here and there, which felt like a strange thing to be thinking about at the same time one is watching a movie about a killer madman.
Not-at-all-subtle erotic art is found almost everywhere, but more prominently in the beginning. In fact, the movie opens in the "milk bar", which is decorated primarily by nude, anatomically-correct female statues in lewd poses, whose bodies make up furniture. When Alex returns home after his treatment, his pet snake is gone and his disturbingly graphic art has been replaced by more tasteful paintings, and his room has been redecorated in bright, cheerful colors, symbolizing the way the treatment has castrated him, cutting off his natural desires. The cat-lady's home is also decorated with lots of explicitly erotic art. I think this might symbolize the future's moral decay, art becoming something debased, that exists only for the purpose of expressing crude lust.
The prison has a totalitarian, dystopic look, spartan and concrete. It seems to symbolize the cruelty of the government, which is pushing prisoners like Alex into the experimental treatments only to make room for more political prisoners in the future. However, Alex was relatively free to decorate his prison cell with some favorite objects such as a crucifix, pornographic pictures, and a small ceramic figurine of Beethoven.
There is a lot of creativity and symbolic depth in the scenery that truly makes this film a work of art. There is even a shout-out to another famous work by Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Try and spot it for bonus points. :)
The Philosophical Implications of The Film
This movie is also deeply fascinating from a philosophical point of view. The main character is morally repugnant, and yet I still felt myself moved by his suffering, however much he might have deserved it. Then there's the question of are there any true "good guys" to be had in the story. I don't think there are, only people whose motives are more just than others. The closest that comes to mind is the writer. At first, he seems motivated to do good out of compassion and concern for the plight of a man who was psychologically tortured by a cruel government. However, he is later revealed to be motivated less by true compassion and more by revenge and politics. He is even willing to do the torture he condemned, as his plan was to torture an already damaged mind, driving a man to suicide and blame the government for uncertain political purposes. The other possible candidates for "good guys" are Alex's parents, but in the beginning they were weak and ineffectual in stopping or controlling Alex. They seem like good people, but unable to handle their son or help him with any of his problems. It's also the fact that they turn him out into the world after being cured of his violence that lets him get beat up and then tortured. When they visit Alex in the hospital, he's understandably upset with him.
The central philosophical question of the story is that of what to do about criminals. At the time when this was being made, people were starting to spark a debate about rehabilitation and more humane treatment for prisoners, who before this time were not considered to have human rights. The idea was that abiding by the laws was what gave someone rights, those who broke the law broke a sort of contract and were considered to have nullified any claim to their previous rights as a citizen. This began to change in the 60's and 70's as experimental programs of therapy were tried as proposed alternatives to punishment. The belief was that we could find a way to use psychiatry to treat criminal behavior as if it were any other disease. Most of these programs failed, some succeeded, but it was the first time we were really discussing the possibility of eradicating crime through treatment or therapy. The moral philosophy of this is intriguing. If we can cure criminals with treatment, should we? Does it deprive the individual of free will?
The question is an important one. In both England and the United States, our laws are heavily influenced by the preconceived supposition that every individual is born with free will, that is, they can either choose to abide by the law or not. If a person loses that free will due to a government rehabilitation program, as described in A Clockwork Orange, does that signify a government that's too authoritarian or an end to free will? And, if you suppose that people should be free to choose criminal behavior, are you then condoning the violent and brutal acts of this despicable young man and his gang?
I suppose that over time, rehabilitation will gain ground and make more progress in curing criminals. Many governments use therapeutic programs to treat criminals with varying success. I believe that many criminals desperately want to get better. If they want to get better, the treatment will work, and if they don't, it doesn't work. The treatment must be entered into voluntarily, with the patient understanding all the personal risk and responsibility involved. In A Clockwork Orange, it really wasn't. They forced him to sign up for it without reading what he was even signing. He wasn't free complain about, let alone to opt out of any part of the treatment that caused him too much discomfort or pain. As a result of this harsh, authoritarian approach, he predictably got sent back into the world psychologically broken. The same government then only made sure he became "cured" of that brainwashing when it proved politically convenient.
What I find interesting/ironic about this whole thing is that in the field of criminal psychology, we've made great strides since the time this movie was made in treating everything except sociopaths (those with Anti-social Personality Disorder). We've developed advanced systems to wean drug addicts off their substances of choice, sex offenders have been proven to be treated effectively by chemical castration (some have begged for this treatment because they felt otherwise helpless to control their perverted sexual desires). Cognitive and behavioral therapy is also sometimes effective in treating criminals. And yet, there is a very small percentage of criminals that, though not for lack of trying, psychiatrists seem to be able to do nothing about. Talk therapy doesn't help a sociopath because they're manipulators at heart; they say exactly what they think they're supposed to say to get through the program and get the freedom they want. They've also failed to find a biochemical cure for their behavior. It seems that sociopaths simply lack a certain brain function that is currently impossible to restore or artificially produce.
The film certainly contains interesting fodder for debate about what society's approach to criminal behavior should be.
This film is interesting and complex. I'm glad I watched it because it is truly a work of art, even if it is a graphic, insane, and disturbing one.