An Elegant Trap

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange

It’s disconcerting to realize that you owe your life’s work to a film that sickens you.

I was probably sixteen when I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. It had never occurred to me before that night that films were really made — they always just seemed to exist there on the screen to watch once, enjoy, and forget about. The best ones were fun, but the idea that a movie could be as personal as a novel or a song, could do more than just tell a story, was a revelation. Over the next few years, I saw the movie as often as I could, at midnight screenings and rep theaters, usually double-billed with other Kubricks.

25 years on, I’ve built my professional life around movies: I teach editing and film history, I occasionally write about cinema and I’ve worked as an editor. I’m fairly certain this all goes back to that first night with Alex and his droogs: however much I may go on about the impact of Breathless and The Wild Bunch, they came much later, after Kubrick had opened up the territory. A Clockwork Orange was my first real taste of cinema’s potential, and though I came to love The Killing, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining and Lolita as well, it was for years the most important film in my life.

Watching it now, A Clockwork Orange seems shrill and static, as pompous and overbearing as it is airless. At the time, though, it was pure heroin: a world of sensation designed to appeal to everything reptilian and grotesque in a teenage boy’s fantasy life, with a handsome, powerful young protagonist who speaks in a self-created lingo that only he and his friends can understand, raping and pillaging his way through a futuristic London that oozes 1970. (The clothes and décor suggest Carnaby Street mod gone garishly psychedelic, making for the grooviest dystopia imaginable.) Alex simply couldn’t be any cooler — he is every teenage wannabe-sociopath’s fantasy image of himself, the poster boy for aggression.

A Clockwork Orange taught me that movies can say one thing (Alex and his droogs are, after all, point men for an argument against overreaching governmental control) and mean something quite different by virtue of mise en scène (at the time, that translated to “this is the coolest looking movie I have ever seen!”); and performance (Malcolm McDowell is so charismatic that his fine, long career really seems like a footnote to these two hours). Kubrick is fully aware of this, of course, and the weight of the film’s moral position is tested throughout by the very things that were so appealing to me at sixteen: allowing psychologists to control behavior is so very bad an idea that even this unregenerate beast deserves better, the film says on its surface. What I took in, though, and what makes the film so repugnant to me now, was instead something closer to this: if you carry yourself with sufficient style, brutality is funny, rape is your due and your lack of regard for other people is not repulsive but attractive. Figures of authority will ultimately thwart you, and that is sad, because you are young and handsome and arrogant, and damn it, you deserve to do whatever you please.

On a purely intellectual level, I understand that the film requires precisely this sort of intense identification with Alex: if we don’t sympathize with him during the Ludovico treatment, if we can sit back and say, “the little prick deserves worse” (which the film demonstrates to be true in every sequence), then the stakes would be drastically lowered. We need to feel his Pavlovian taming as a personal loss for the altogether radical stance the film takes — that freedom trumps enforced morality, even to the point that nihilist violence is preferable to state control — to carry such weight.

And I did; Alex, once neutered, is an abject figure, at the mercy of his victims and former compatriots, and however repulsive his actions before, we’re led to feel endless empathy for him as he finds himself no longer able to murder and rape. The sadistic glee of the scene in which a tap dancing Alex beats a man nearly to death to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain” is a setup: so much fun, such laughs to be had by subverting a corny old tune, only to have it all cruelly taken away. (Of course, any film that invites its audience to feel superior to Gene Kelly at his most sublime shows its hand: generation after generation of boys cackle at the beating and weep when his victim takes his revenge then go out in to the night whistling and pretending to kick the prone heads of imaginary writers on the way home.)

I know I’m dangerous territory here — my reaction against the film is not based on its weaknesses but its strengths. Worse yet, what disgusts me now about the film — its edge of nihilism, its reveling in the joys of violence and aggression — are values I admire in, say, the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” or Godard’s Weekend. Yet for all the brilliance of its conception — it dramatizes a complex ethical dilemma in a way that forces the audience to see (and more important, to feel) both sides — it’s a film that leaves a rancid taste.

Perhaps, if I am honest with myself, it’s that I still identify too strongly with Alex: the glamorized, fetishistic appeal of his brutality and his wailing self-pity continue to resonate uncomfortably, reminding me of sides of myself I prefer to pretend do not exist. A Clockwork Orange lays an elegant trap for its audience: that we would never behave like Alex is beside the point when Kubrick so cunningly made us wish that we could, if only for two hours in the dark.