With 2001, Stanley Kubrick seemed to exhaust all movement and conflict in the name of a seamless cosmopolitan future in outer space. With A Clockwork Orange, he recovers movement, but as an antisocial impulse, drawing on – but also substantially changing – Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name. Like a dystopian sequel to 2001, A Clockwork Orange also takes place in a near future, where law and order has vanished, and young men roam the streets in gangs of “Droogs,” committing ultraviolence for pleasure at every opportunity. Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, is the alpha Droog in his corner of London, delighting in the music of Beethoven – which he describes as “silvery win in a spaceship” – since it conjures up prospects of delirious violence against everyone vulnerable within society.
While Burgess’ novel laments the decline of high culture, Kubrick instead frames all canonical, cosmopolitan and civic art works as frustrated expressions of a polymorphous libido that has been entirely unleashed in the future he envisages. In that sense, A Clockwork Orange is a film about the end of the art – the exhaustion of aesthetic appreciation as a guarantor of civic responsibility, and the further exhaustion of subcultural style as a site of meaningful resistance. It’s oddly appropriate, then, that the film was censored and largely unavailable for many years, since it’s a self-consuming art object, so bound up in its own oneiric pleasure that it barely needs an audience (and has therefore retained its shock value half a century later).
This vision of aesthetic apocalypse manifests itself as an escalating tension between the stately depth of Kubrick’s compositions and the extreme width of his lenses. Classical framing is always on the verge of bending into convex or concave perspectives, and from there descending into the hand-held sequences that corresponds to the ultraviolence that gives Alex and his Droogs so much pleasure. To that end, Kubrick also alternates between upper-class and lower-class 60s styles – curvaceous textures for the rich, and a brutalist housing estate that seems to stretch on forever for the poor. The result is a similar sense of space to 2001, as we move through small pockets of warmth separated by a vast void that makes them seem totally incommensurate with one another – a prison-industrial complex, a public housing estate transformed into an entire city, that relegates the last few vestiges of middle class life to a highly stylized dwelling, named “Home,” in the midst of a notional countryside.
For the first act of the film, Alex and his droogs drift from one act of sexual violence to the next. While the imagery is certainly explicit, Kubrick’s taste for obscenity is even more remarkable, taking us from one perverse configuration to another until Alex is eventually apprehended by the police. Since his movement is inherently antisocial, the justice system has to curb movement – and they do so by dissociating movement from sight, and disembodying sight, to try and return him to the lilting curvatures of 2001. In this case the sequel to HAL’s disembodied eye is the Ludovico Technique – a new process for “curing” antisocials that is being tested on Alex, whose eyes are pinned open as he forced to watch atrocity after atrocity in the hope that this will repel him from the temptation of ultraviolence.
The Ludovico Technique thus aims to transform Alex into the clockwork orange of the title – only alive in the most mechanistic sense, and incapable of autonomous movement – and to quell any possibility for antisocial movement by forcing him to continuously watch movement at its most antisocial. While Alex still wants to commit ultraviolence, his body turns against him whenever he tries to translate sight into movement, leaving him stranded, eyes wide shut. Accordingly, the third act takes us back through the prison-industrial complex of the first, as Alex relives each of his previous ultraviolent tableaus, but with sight now dissociated from movement. Before, he took what he saw, but now he becomes a disembodied eye himself, as he is beaten up by the homeless man he assaulted, and then by his Droogs, who have since become police men, by a river he pushed them into to assert his Droog dominance.
No surprise, then, that the Ludovico Technique also dissociates high culture from ultra-violence. By playing Beethoven over the scenes that Alex is forced to watch, the legal system ensures that he can never again fuse his favourite composer with his own sexual violence, meaning that art is restored as the arbiter of civic and moral value. Within the logic of the film that means that the middle-class home – “Home” – is restored, and permitted to absorb all of Alex’s polymorphous energies under the guise of bourgeois tastefulness. In that sense, Kubrick is far more cynical than Burgess about rehabilitation, right down to his brilliant ending, which rapidly cuts from Alex’s sarcastic insistence that “I was cured” to “Singin’ in the Rain,” which played over the middle-class “Home” assault at the conclusion of the first act.
In that cut, and the incongruity of the music with the lurid fluorescent title cards, Kubrick dissociates his own film from any pretension to moral arbitration – and the gesture worked, given how strenuously it was censored in the two decades after he was released. Even half a century later, it’s still a disturbing and shock work, and extraordinary in that it manages to craft a vision that’s every bit as unique as 2001. In fact there’s an incredible continuity between Kubrick’s 70s output generally, since just as 2001 ended in a futuristic 70s that feels like a prequel to A Clockwork Orange, so this film nowconcludes with a dream sequence that gives us the first glimpse of how Kubrick will further disembody our eyes with Barry Lyndon.