The Dark Fun of A Clockwork Orange
Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange posits a dystopian British society where teenagers speak a secret and rebellious slang and run amuck in the night, drunk on alcoholic milk called “milk-plus.” After the proper amount of libating, they roam the streets, reveling in the sick pleasures of rape and “ultra-violence.” The book was later adapted by the surreal auteur director Stanley Kubrick in 1971.
The story is told in the 1st person, from the perspective of its main character: Alex. It is a stream-of-conscious, impassioned re-telling, looking back on the past with a wry wisdom. The movie, too, incorporates Burgess’ prose as voice-over narrations; often, while his voice-over plays, Alex will look directly into the camera in that wry, smart-aleck way.
One of the story’s defining charactersitics is the strange modern lexicon Burgess creates for this dystopian world. Burgess’ inventive speech is difficult to digest; much of the dialogue between characters is almost undecipherable. Still, it’s surprising how much these alien words convey simply by the way they feel – the way they sound and the way they look.
Kubrick uses his directing power to brilliantly enhance this feel. The look of his world is distorted and mismatched. This is created partly by his extensive use of a wide lenses. The cinematography adds a tableau of mismatched patterns and colors, my favorite example being some of the rooms’ strange wallpaper designs. There are a plethora of genital parts throughout the film, in framed pictures on walls, in the shapes of statuettes and handheld toys. Even the violence is stylized. The real sounds of violent actions are dampened and covered up by a soundtrack of classical masterworks (mostly Beethoven). Kubrick also over-directs the actors into creating strange, unnerving facial expressions. They look compulsive and about to burst at any moment with some explosive combination of all the emotions of humanity. Kubrick’s quirks extend Burgess’ bizarre dream in a deliciously weird way.
There is one drastic distinction between the book and the film: the ending. Burgess’ novella ends just after Alex has regained his moral freedom – the ability to choose to be “morally” bad (an ability he lost through a (literally) eye-opening brainwashing scheme). Though Alex originally feels excited and compelled to exercise his new obscene freedom with a night of more “ultra-violence”, he stops himself. Suddenly (in a way that does feel a bit too convenient), Alex realizes something like an older, redemptive sense of maturity, and naturally recognizes this “ultra-violence” as the human evil it truly is.
Kubrick’s film, along with the American edition of Burgess’ (UK published) novel, lacks Burgess’ final redemptive chapter. Instead, the film ends in the midst of chaos, as Alex relishes those first few moments of dark freedom, with a devilish grin on his face. The film’s closing images are glimpses into Alex’s mind; glimpses beneath his evil stare, where he is romping with a woman in a cloudy dream-world while a crowd of well dressed strangers watch.
This is a controversial discrepancy. Without it’s final, redemptive chapter, some people interpreted the film as a gross quasi-anthem to reckless, hedonic mayhem. They argue that Kubrick’s graphic magnification of sex and violence contribute to the very desensitizing effect of which Burgess’ story is a partly-cautionary tale against in the first place.Concern over what our society’s youth should and shouldn’t be censored from is an age-old pastime. Today, the paranoia is directed towards the vivid violence of first-shooter video games and the increasingly graphic and gory films churned out by Hollywood (case in point: the Saw franchise).
Do these influences desensitize us? Are future generations irreparably corrupted, bound to escaping boring reality via “milk-plus” and “ultra-violence”? Concerned parents might argue the recent phenomenon of Four Loko and other alcoholic/energy binge drinking is a grave warning.
Even when Alex is at his crudest, he still holds one fragility: his love for classical music. In one scene, he pauses his “milk-plus” binge because a woman at a nearby bar table begins singing. He shushes up his brain-dead comrades (who he refers to as “droogs”) and looks up at the woman with a less-evil, more-pure smile. Renowned move critic Roger Ebert, who didn’t like the film (he awarded it 2 out of 4 stars), criticized this affinity as just another “cute, cheap, dead-end dimension.” I think it’s more significant than that. That even in the case of such a tortured, demented soul as Alex, there is still room to appreciate and revere the beauty of music is a nod to the stamina of life. It is the representation of the human spirit clawing on for life in a deeply dark world.
I think Kubrick appropriately extends Burgess’ original effort, helping us to feel and better understand that underlying rage and recklessness which is so expressed and enjoyed by Alex; which exists to some (hopefully much milder) degree in each of us; which our responsible selves consciously choose to restrain. As Kubrick’s blaring and brightly colored credits begin rolling, I don’t feel more reckless. I don’t feel like bursting out of my apartment and onto the streets to play with mayhem. Instead I feel a comedic recognition of life’s spontaneity and irrationality. Because even though the story’s exaggerated and contorted nature isn’t completely satire, it shares many absurd qualities.
At the core of the story, and its sinister brainwashing experiment, is a question common to many modern dystopian novels: Can we forget our humanity? Alex’s world is dark, but he can still find a bit of light.