Friday 9 August 2013

Movie Review: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A glossy journey into a warped future consumed by sex and violence, A Clockwork Orange is a trip to the edges of societal sanity. Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novella is an often provoking and sometimes repulsive movie experience.

In a deranged London of the future, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) leads a gang of violent youth who call themselves the Droogs. Alex loves the music of Beethoven (whom he calls Ludwig Van), and fuels tendencies for ultra violence by downing "milk plus", a spiked beverage that triggers immense aggressiveness. In just one wild night, Alex and his buddies viciously beat a homeless old man, engage in a brawl with a rival gang, and break into the swanky house of writer Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee). Alex repeatedly kicks Frank, crippling him, then proceeds to rape his wife (Adrienne Cori) while Frank is forced to watch.

In the following days, Alex fends off a challenge to his leadership from his own gang members, ignores threats from a probation officer, and enjoys a threesome with two girls he picks up at a music store. The Droogs then invade the house of the wealthy cat-woman (Miriam Karlin). The burglary spirals out of control, and Alex is captured by the authorities. A stint in prison will be followed by an aggressive rehabilitation program using an unconventional and controversial new treatment.

A Clockwork Orange is a pessimistic portrait of a society that has reached a dead end. From the highest levels of government down to the local youth engaged in routine thuggery, there is nothing worth salvaging. Middle class people like Frank and the cat-woman are just too easy to victimize, while Alex's lower-class parents are clueless and useless as a bulwark against his behaviour. With the politicians looking for any advantage they can gain from uncontrolled crime, the prison system seems to work, but then sends Alex on a journey of attempted rehabilitation that proves to be psychologically and physically on par with the damage caused by his crimes.

Kubrick presents a future London dominated by sex and violence, humans reverting back to the basics of the animal kingdom. Sexual imagery in the form of explicit statues and paintings surround Alex's world, and either in the form of violent rape or consensual playfulness, Alex receives sex on demand. The regular threats, beatings and fights that occupy the rest of his time are a normal part of his existence. Fuelled by the latest “milk” substance to supercharge male aggression, Alex thrives on ultra-violence, and he describes it with gleeful anticipation.

The film's frank depictions of sex and violence generated controversy, bans, X-ratings, condemnations and withdrawals. The shocks are more pronounced as Kubrick contrasts the ugliness of the acts with a beautiful aesthetic, and depicts crimes as artistic performances, best exemplified by Alex's recital of Singin' in the Rain while raping Frank's wife. The gang-to-gang fight is choreographed like a ballet and seems to leave no physical marks on Alex, as he cruises through a cool life unperturbed by the carnage left in his wake.

The Droogs are nattily dressed, with alluring make-up and classy bowler hats. Many of the interior sets are dramatically imaginative, the modernistic art design of the future emphasizing bulbous shapes, vivid colours and a glossy white. The soundtrack of classical music and vigorous crunchy chords adds to the unsettling violence-as-art aura. It is a doubtlessly attractive depiction of crime, finally coming to a sudden halt when Alex is caught and incarcerated.

Then he is just a young lost youth swallowed by the prison system, and soon the state turns the tables and the violence starts to flow in reverse, under the guise of treatment. And here A Clockwork Orange asks difficult questions about the efficacy of a cure that strips away the spirit and denies free will, the acceptability of a treatment when it destroys a man's ability to act naturally when faced with external stimulus. Even for a monster child, it is unsettling when individual emotions are sacrificed in favour of societal rights to recast a personality.

Malcolm McDowell delivers one of the performances of his career, cat-like in his movements and alertness, the streak of brutality barely hiding behind smiling eyes full of malicious intent. Alex is the future of many men once unchained, personal anarchy as a product of a decaying society, an evolution both impressive and terrifying.

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