A Clockwork Orange

Thursday, August 02, 2007

It's not often that you're asked to sympathise with a murderer and a rapist, but in A Clockwork Orange that is most certainly the case. We're asked to feel sorry for a young man who commits the most heinous crimes. And in the end it's hard not to feel for Alex, as he's more humorous, more charming and more alive than any of the other characters.

The reason why Alex elicits sympathy is because, as immoral as he is, everyone else is that bit worse. Every authority figure, every person who should point the way, is either corrupt, self-serving, disingenuous or stupid. Just take Alex's parents. They're not bad people, but they're weak and lifeless; only a saint wouldn't take advantage of them. Then there's Deltoid, Alex's post-corrective adviser. He's a sneering, leering individual, who in a hilarious scene, grabs Alex by the privates (and then later he spits in Alex's face). Then you have the prison chaplain who spouts nonsense about hell and fireballs; the policemen who beat Alex when they interrogate him; the Minister of the Interior who wants to use Alex as a pawn to win votes; Mr Alexander who rescues Alex so that he can use him for his political campaign; Dr Brodsky who uses inhuman treatment to 'cure' Alex; and the Chief Guard in the prison who is a gurning fool. None of these authority figures inspire any confidence and none of them can be trusted.

So compared to this lot Alex doesn't seem so bad. Indeed, he seems more like a child who indulges every whim than an adult who callously breaks the law. Everything is a bit of a lark.

And it's hard not to derive a twisted sort of pleasure out of Alex's adventures. He does all the things people secretly fantasise about doing – stealing cars, smashing people's skulls, raping. And it's part of Kubrick's genius that he never judges Alex. He never wags his finger. Instead he shows everything from Alex's point of view – for him this is one giant laugh. And this also helps make the film more quietly disturbing. The rape scene, for instance, isn't at all graphic, but the joy it gives Alex and his droogs is genuinely unsettling. It's like Kubrick is challenging you to enjoy it, too, to prove that none of us are that far from behaving like animals.

Another excellent scene is the fight between the two gangs. With smashed bottles in people's faces, with people hurled through tables and with people chucked through windows, its presented like something out of professional wrestling; it's funny. And there lies the danger. Most of us are only kept on the straight and narrow by a very thin thread. If only we could unprogram our morality, or if we'd never had it installed in the first place, we'd act like animals too. And who knows, we might have a great time doing it.

But do the so-called civilised people behave any better? Not according to this film they don't. Perhaps the most despicable people are the doctors and scientists. They don't act out of cold-blooded wickedness, but instead out of a thoughtless sense of moral superiority. They want to eliminate crime but at the expense of freedom of choice. And who wants to live in a world like that? Yes misdeeds should be punished but goodness ceases to mean anything if it only becomes a self-protective reflex.

And then there's the Minister of the Interior. He doesn't really care about crime. He doesn't want to solve the problem to make people's lives better. He only wants to do it so that he can win votes. He's contemptible.

So in light of this it actually becomes something of a pity that Alex is conditioned against sex and violence. In the latter scenes you can't help but miss the old him. I mean, the old Alex wouldn't lick someone's shoe would he? But I have to say that this is one of my favourite scenes. I love how camp the actor is, how pathetic his insults are ("Hello, heap of dirt") and how twee the music is. Kubrick has a fantastic sense of humour. Plus it makes Alex even more pitiful.

Not quite as much fun, but just as effective, is the scene where Alex finds out that Dim and George are policemen. Dim's "Well, well, well, well, well" is priceless and the beating is absolutely brutal. Plus it further rams home the point about the police – what's worse, illegal thuggery or legalised thuggery?

And it's also quite amazing that we end up feeling more sympathy for Alex than we do Mr Alexander. After all, Alex rapes his wife and cripples him. But Mr Alexander is another person who claims to be morally superior while being anything but – the scene with the wine is a piece of comic genius; Magee's over the top acting, Alex's attempts to be cultured and his final face plant in the spaghetti always makes me laugh.

So therefore the end ends up being a celebration. I mean, ordinarily we should be upset that a rapist and a murderer has been freed, but compared to everyone else Alex is a ray of light. In a world where everyone is trying to control everyone else his freedom to be as viscous and vile as he wishes is a victory for all of us.

And I do have to say I'm glad that Kubrick didn't film the final chapter of Burgess' novel. In the book, after his triumphant cure, Alex decides to settle down. The point of the chapter is that this whole thing can be seen as a phase Alex is going through. But while the point is more than valid, the execution is lacklustre. It's more than enough just to know that Alex is free to choose his future.

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  1. This is a really good review. Thank you.

  2. "Hello, heap of dirt!" This is actually one of my favorite lines from the movie. One of my co-workers and I frequently greet each other with this phrase.