Wednesday, July 6

‘A Clockwork Orange’ at 50: a film that maintains its shocking power due to its nihilism

The only thing Stanley Kubrick really wanted to talk about was how men were primates driven by the urges of primates: the violent acquisition and subsequent hoarding of sex, food, and shelter. Exploration, construction, civilization is only one tributary of this seminal artery and the history of man is completely reduced to this viscous and vicious reduction. Kubrick is our most essential, immediate and unapologetic Freudian director. It’s the reason he’s a good choice as a shepherd for a film noir over an unlucky welterweight (Killer’s kiss), a manned mission to Jupiter (2001), a desperate author prone to drinking and child abuse (The glow) and a sexually confused doctor wandering through an onanistic fever dream of New York at Christmas (Eyes wide Shut). His first movie, Fear and desire, about a quartet of soldiers thrown into a dark forest on a mission of murder and survival, he set the pace and never strayed very far from it. The reason A Clockwork Orange It never gets old not because it is a work of prophecy but because, like all works of supposed prophecy, it is really just exceptionally sharp evolutionary anthropology or, frankly, primatology by any other name. What seems prescient is actually just a careful chronicle of who we are, have always been, and always seem like we will be, and the Dawn of Man sequence of 2001 It’s all you know and all you need to know

That is why, about a third of the way to A Clockwork Orange, the soundtrack of 2001 (On vinyl, no less!) Appears in the film. Our hero Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is shopping at a record store and branding two precious beauties; We’ll see him later, to the sound of the “William Tell Overture,” taking turns in bed and in concert while spinning some records during another lost afternoon. Alex’s days and nights are dedicated to the pursuit of sex and acquisition. He hangs out at Korova Milk Bar with his “droogs”; there, on drafts of drugged libations, they invent their “rassoodocks what to do with the night”. In many future constructions, notably that of Joss Whedon Firefly universe, a Chinese patois transforms the language; here, he is Russian, speaking obliquely to an authoritarian socialist state at odds with a certain progressive hope about preferring one kind of organizing principle over another. At Kubrick, the only things that really matter are 1) Who is holding the bone and 2) How big is it?

The film opens with a series of title cards in bright primary colors – its first shot is an extended, stepping back down an aisle of Allen Jones-inspired tables and milk dispensers, all in the life-size form of nude women in various positions of subjugation or sexual arousal. Alex and his boys only see women as objects that are one thing or another: resources to be stolen and possessed. People like to mistake protein swaps for romantic dinner rituals and maybe which drink to follow. Kubrick doesn’t.

Throughout your images are images like this – maybe none that immediately shocking, but check the mannequin warehouse at Killer’s kiss where the murder takes place, or more directly to the point, the way Peter Sellers’ Quilty reveals himself to be a sleeping chair in the early moments of Lolita. It is not so much that objects are sexually dangerous in Kubrick’s films, it is that man-made objects are functions of the libido. Consider all the slow coupling sequences in 2001; the quivering sequence of penis refueling that opens Dr. Strangelove; of course, filling a glass of milk in A Clockwork Orange of a porcelain nipple, attractively offered. The image of the breasts as an exclusive function of male desire is repeated during the rape sequence in the shot of the writer’s house in Skybreak, Radlett, Hertforshire, during which Alex, while singing “Singing in the Rain”, frees the breasts of the wife (Adrienne Corri). of his monkey. All of our outer forms are expressions of our most basic functions. There is a suggestion in A Clockwork Orange that Alex’s beloved Beethoven, whose Ninth Symphony spins with a sacred bow on a beautiful hydraulic reference turntable from the transcriber in his bedroom, one of which is filled with speakers, is proof by itself of the man’s possibility of transcend his bestial nature. But then it is used as background music for the atrocity movies that the government uses to try to “fix” Alex through aversion therapy and becomes the final provocation that leads Alex to his suicide attempt. All this without forgetting that Beethoven, in his time, was declared dangerous by the passions that his music ignited among the impressionable youth.

In any case, the impact of A Clockwork Orange It has only metastasized in the fifty years since its troubled release, when it was widely condemned for its ultraviolence and non-consensual in-out / in-out graphic. Time has confirmed its excess as only a reflection of what we are when we do not pretend to be what we are not. He maintains his power due to his nihilism. There is no hope for us as a species because we will not have who we are: animals ruled by a court of monkeys. Why expect something from us that we wouldn’t expect from a band of baboons? Alex, like Scorsese’s impending Travis Bickle, is the archetype of the hero: brutal, lustful, maliciously ignorant, and used by those in power as a tool to first frighten and then hold as a standard in our Judeo-Christian mania for stories of redemption. The message of the piece, as it was for so many films of the 1970s, is that there are no real consequences for the bad guys. Even more heartbreaking, the villains will be turned into heroes by powerful men and the media they keep enslaved. A Clockwork OrangeIn any case, it is a warning about the apparatus designed to make martyrs of convenient deviants. The way he does it is downright fascinating for his persistence of vision and purpose. It’s easy to forget what a movie made by a genius looks like, and in matters of short men’s lizard brains, in the west, there’s first Hitchcock and Lang, and then just Kubrick.


Walter Chaw is the senior film critic of His book on the Walter Hill films, with an introduction by James Ellroy, will be published in 2021. His 1988 MIRACLE MILE film monograph It is now available.

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