A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Review / analysis
by Rob Ager 2007
Note - unlike some other book to film adaptatiions by Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange's storyline remains almost identical to that of Burgess's book. Therefore, although I mainly refer to Kubrick in this review as the creator of the film's themes, almost all of my observations can equally be attributed to Anthony Burgess. It is also important to note that Burgess apparently wrote Clockwork in a frenzied rush as he thought that his life was about to be cut short by a medical condition. Why he chose this story as a would-be deathbed tale shows just how important he considered the themes to be.
A clockwork orange is possibly the most intelligent and blatantly honest studies of violence ever to hit the screen. The basic premise of the film seems to be that although man's capacity for violence can manifest in the most horrendous of behaviours - rape, torture, murder, to name a few - it nevertheless is an essential part of his survival mechanism. To completely eradicate a man's capacity for violence would leave him, and his family, at the tender mercies of the environment, his neighbours and even his government.
Alex DeLarge's contradictory nature in this film illustrates the point. He loves and respects classical music, a trait normally found in upper class "respectable" folk, yet engages routinely in rape, muggings, fighting and whatever antisocial opportunities present themselves.
One of the common criticisms of this films narrative is that the main character's tendency toward violence is defended as a civil liberty - as if Alex's freedom to express himself as an individual is more important than the pain and suffering his victims endure.
The difficulty with analysing Clockwork's themes is that the violence is so brutal and undisguised it makes us want to turn away from the screen and deny its existence. Rather than switch off the film it is tempting for audiences to label Alex as evil, barbaric, inhuman, psychopathic ... any label that allows us to feel separate from him so as to deny our own capacity for similar behaviour.
Author Burgess and director Kubrick are aware that to understand and respond to violence we must be able to look it straight in the face. We must witness it in its most repulsive forms and respond with rationale rather than emotion. This gesture in Clockwork is easy to mistake as a glorification of violence.
Something that becomes increasingly apparent in the second half of this film is that Alex's attitude to sex and violence are actually part of his generation. He isn't so much an abomination as a simple common lad caught up in an entire society that takes glee in depravity. His own urges and behaviour are equally displayed by people all around him, regardless of their social status. Examples of this paradigm are numerous:
Alex's youth worker / probation officer clearly has a homosexual attraction to him and goes so far as to grab Alex's testacles in a painful grip.
The prison preacher also has sexual designs upon Alex, mistakenly talking to him about understanding the urges that can afflict young men deprived of the company of women.
Alex is unable to escape the writers house because of a camp body builder, who appears to only wear pink shirts - more homosexual innuendos.
The woman who Alex murders has her home adorned with phalic ornaments and paintings that depict women as objects of gratification. One of her paintings even shows a woman with the breasts cut out of her clothing - exactly as Alex had cut holes out of an early rape victim's clothing. Does she share Alex's violent fantasies? Is her "art" any better than the sexual graffiti seen near the elevator shaft in Alex's flatblock? We are not even sure exactly what alex's intentions are for breaking into her house - he doesn't open the door to let his droogs in, and she attacks him first. In true fascist manner, she shouts at Alex "I'll teach you to break into real people's houses".
The dehumanising prison system, which even labels Alex with a concentration camp style number instead of a name, and it's "brutal warders" are equally as cruel as Alex in that they crush the human spirit and demand conformity. He is even wearing a red arm band.
The systematic infliction of drug-induced trauma at the hands of experimenting doctors. They even go so far as to play the ninth symphony, which is a favourite of Alex's, while inflicting pain upon him. Are they not displaying the same contradictory tastes as Alex?
The hallway in Alex's parents flat are adorned with pictures of sexually alluring naked women.
Alex is beaten and humiliated on stage to the cheers of politicians and scientists. This isn't far removed from the gang fight early in the film, which also took place on a stage. Both scenes also depict females as sex objects - in the gang fight a woman is being raped and in the later scene a woman is leered and cheered at by wardens and politicians simply for having presented herself naked. The politicians are blatantly displaying their sexual desires, while Alex is so crippled from the treatment he has become incapable of reproductive behaviour.
The police recruit Alex's old gang mates and pay them to inflict the kind of violence that he has been punished for.
As Alex awakens in hospital after his suicide attempt, the doctor and nurse are disturbed while having sex on duty.
Alex is twice used as a political pawn. Once by being driven to attempted suicide and then in a staged propaganda stunt with the minister of the interior. Did the minister go so far as to imprison the "subversive" writer with full knowledge that Alex had indeed raped the writers wife, thus using his political stature to conceal the crime?
When you put all these elements together it is plain to see that Alex DeLarge is a product of a decadent society. That decadence is present at the highest levels of the social hierarchy and naturally filters down through the system.
And this brings us to a parallel theme, in which Kubrick resorts to cryptic metaphors as he treads the same dangerous waters that Dr Strangelove and Eyes Wide Shut explored ... the concept of conspiratorial agendas in the corridors of western power. The conspiratorial parallels between all three of these films are uncanny and, if the assertions of conspiracy are true, could give justification to Kubrick's secretive work methods and widely perceived paranoia. Let's not forget that Kubrick withdrew the film from British release because of unspecified threats upon his life. Threats which he took seriously.
The conspiratorial ideas that Kubrick weaved into his films have persistently gained in popularity since the 1980's and especially since the turn of the millenium. The internet is now overflowing with websites and downloadable documentary films on the subjects of the "new world order", "the illuminati" and other elite secret society concepts, but back in 1971 Kubrick, as always, was ahead of his time.
Dr Strangelove depicted rogue military commanders trying to kickstart world war iii and also showed us a german scientist openly continuing the Nazi agenda from within the very heart of the pentagon. Eyes Wide Shut surprised us with it's depiction of a seemingly satanic occult meeting attended only by the rich and powerful. It is belivieved by many that the ritualised orgy scene was Kubrick announcing his belief in the illuminati conspiracy or perhaps some similar group. Some even believe Kubrick was assassinated for having made the film, hence his death a few months prior to release and Warner Bros re-edit in the interim. As far as I can tell, no hard evidence has emerged to support this assassination idea, but its interesting that to this date there has been no release of an Eyes Wide Shut directors cut.
This is all scary stuff, but several of Kubrick's films contain such blatant references to modern conspiracy ideas that the topic cannot be ignored if we are to understand Stanley and his films. Clockwork ties in with this. The symbol of the illuminati is claimed to be an illuminated all-seeing eye inside a triangular capstone at the top of a pyramid. This symbol has historical significance in freemasonry, has also been depicted on the US dollar bill since 1933 and also pops up repeatedly in corporate logos to this day. The artwork used in Clockwork's marketing campaign, designed to Kubricks specifications, shows Alex looking out at us from within a black triangle, his hand extending toward us with a knife ... and guess what? An imitation eyeball hangs from Alex's wrist in the centre of the triangle (we do see this eyeball bracelet on his wrist in the film). There is also a smaller white triangle within the larger black one, from which the eyeball seems to be falling, as if it has been severed by a sweeping slash of Alex's knife. Is it possible that Kubrick sneakily placed the eye in the triangle symbol on Clockwork's marketing campaign as some sort of deliberate warning to the audience? It's a very strange piece of marketing and the only other potential meaning suggested for this triangle graphic is that it may be a gigantic letter "A", forming part of the films title, which would non-sensically read "A ... Stanley Kubrick's ... Clockwork Orange." Of course this still does not explain the presence of the eyeball hanging from Alex's wrist.
However, the masonic / illuminati interpretation gains more credibility when we observe the top half of the wall in the prison courtyard scene. Faintly visible, but blatant upon recognition, is a gigantic pyramid and capstone etched into the brickwork. The prisoners walk in anti-clockwise circles beneath it. They are made to stand silent and obedient as the minister of the interior paces around explaining that most of the prison space will "soon be needed for political prisoners". Tellingly the crippled writer talks of defending liberty, yet is imprisoned for writing "subvertive" literature.
Another strange shot, which could be a masonic reference is that the writers living room leads up to an unusual mirrored hallway that reflects an expanse of black and white chequered floor tiles - Masonic tracing board perhaps?
Even the New World Order conspiracy concept (an alleged global secret society consisting of publically opposed poilticians, international bankers, media tycoons and the freemasons / illuminati) may be a part of Clockwork's message. Alex's droogs talk to him about an ambitious and greedy "new way", which he violently rejects and is betrayed and imprisoned as a result. While signing up for the Ludoviko treatment, the prison chief talks disapprovingly about the "new way" of replacing punishment with conditioning. He speaks the peculiar line "the new ridiculous ideas have arrived ... but orders are orders". New ridiculous ideas = New World Order. A long shot, but considering Kubrick's other frequent conspiratorial references it's a possibility worth considering.
More easy to identify are the references to government sponsored mind control experiments, historically documented as a Nazi phenomenon and which continued after wwii with the employment of Nazi doctors and scientists in the west (operation paperclip). These experiments continued under various names and have since been partially declassified, the most famous of which is Project MKULTRA. In Alex's narration during the opening shot of Clockwork he talks of getting ready for a bit of the old ULTRA-VIOLENCE. Considering the mind-control subject matter of the film this term "ultra-violence" could be a reference to Project MKULTRA.
A clockwork Orange makes it's statement about mind control very clear. The doctors conducting Alex's suffering could easily pass for Nazis experimenting on concentration camp victims. They drug him with "exp serum 114", suggesting that the experiments conducted on Alex are part of a much larger program. Serum 114 also shows up in other Kubrick films, for example the emergency code prefix device in Dr Strangelove is called the CRM114 DISCRIMINATOR. So what is the significance of this? Well, in computing CRM114 DISCRIMINATOR is a piece of pattern recognition software. Was Kubrick including these CRM114 signs as a reference to some computer software or did the creators of the software take the name from Kubrick's films? (it has also appeared in other famous films).
Further Nazi references can be found in the fight scene in Clockwork's opening, where the rival gang are wearing combat gear and nazi paraphernalia. Ironically, Alex and his droogs, in their act of savagery against the nazi thugs, actually save a young woman from being raped.
Incidentally the mind control treatment, which is called the Ludoviko Technique, could be a pun on "Ludwig" Beethoven, who was a German composer (there's that Nazi reference again) and whose ninth symphony plays over the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will during Alex's treatment sessions. This concept is paralelled at other points in the film. The crippled writer is sat at a pool table taking glee in Alex's torment while blasting the ninth from a set of large speakers. He looks remarkably like an animated version of Beethoven. Alex's murder victim tries to attack him with a statue of Beethoven. The minister of the interior, while walking the prison corridor finds himself curiously drawn into Alex's cell when he see an identical statue, save the color. He lifts and feels the statue, looks admirably at the Beethoven portrait on the shelf and then proceeds to select Alex from a lineup for application of the Ludoviko technique.
Another interesting aspect of Clockwork is the visual similarity between Alex's mother and other women throughout the film. The nurse who questions Alex in hospital, the female statues in the Korova milkbar, the barmaid in the Duke of New York, the woman who alex murders with a phallic statue and the woman being raped by four droogs in the Ludoviko treatment video ... these all have the same awful dress and hairstyle sense as Alex's mother. The annoyance of Alex's mother even extends as far as her dreadful taste of decor in the home ... her bedroom window sill adorned with wigged mannequin heads that wouldn't look out of place in the Korova milk bar. By contrast, the rape victim in the gang fight scene, the goddess looking woman who tempts Alex on stage, and the young girls he takes back to his bedroom for a romp do not bear this mother resemblance. We find that the women throughout the film consistently appear as either frustrating mother figures or as sexual objects. Is this far from modern societies attitude to women?
Yet another parallel theme is that Alex, after release from prison, seems to suffer in ways that are almost identical to what he previously did to his victims. Alex and his three fellow droogs atteck the writer and his wife in their home. Later, in the same location he is the victim of four political "droogs" who question him at the writers dinner table before driving him to a suicide attempt. Do these people posess any moral authority over convicted murderer Alex De Large? In the tramp beating scene we see a harsh blue light in the background of the shot, which silhouette's Alex and his droogs as they beat up the beggar. The composition of the shot is very similar to when Alex is beaten on stage in front of politicians and scientists - again, blue stage light shining down, victim lying on the floor left screen and perpetrator of violence standing right screen. Alex is also beaten by the tramps at one point, his pet snake and belongings are taken away by the state, and he is beaten by the fellow thugs who he used to bully. They half drown him, but remember that earlier in the film he stamped his authority by beating them and throwing them in a pool of water. And in the ultimate irony, Alex may have been singing in the rain when he beat the writer and raped his wife, but he is later seen crying in the rain as he crawls on his hands and knees back to the writers house.
By the time we reach the end of the story Alex has had as much violence inflicted upon him as he originally dished out. Once the Ludoviko conditioning has been undone, he can start afresh. He may still have his sexual and violent fantasies, like the rest of us do, but having experienced very real punishment for his crimes it is unlikely he will turn back into the thug he once was.
Probably Kubrick's most controvertial film, A Clockwork Orange also seems to be his most ferocious attack on the authoritarian establishment which he so clearly distrusted. It was a sudden shift of tone from 2001: A Space Odyssey, shot during the lead up to the US moon landings. Some conspiracy theories claim the moon landings were faked and that Kubrick was hired to film the fake footage for the US government. If this was the case then Kubrick may well have come face to face with political corruption that became weaved into his films from that very point. In The Shining, little Danny sports an "apollo" rocket on his sweater, possibly suggesting that the moon landings are a child's fairy tale ... and the drunk tramp in clockwork also talks of men on the moon and things spinning around the Earth, before taking a severe beating fom the droogs.
An interesting aspect of this is that a french mockumentary was aired in 2002 called Dark Side of the Moon (aka Operation Lune) that discredits the idea of Kubrick having filmed fake footage of moon landings. The bizarre thing is that this mockumentary features interviews with political heavyweights such as Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger, admittedly speaking scripted dialogue. Why would these political heavyweights take time out of their schedules to act in what is essentially a comedy mockumentary?
Kubrick apparently received death threats in Britain for releasing Clockwork Orange. As a result he personally withdrew the film from general release in Britain only for it to be rereleased after his death. The nature of the threats against Kubrick and his family still remain unspecified. The film's controvertial violence could have brought threats from an assortment of social or political groups. But a much more sinister possibility is that if Clockwork is indeed an attempt to expose corrupt social engineering projects then the threats could have come from the very people whose agendas he attempted to expose.