Year: 1971
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick (from Anthony Burgess’ novel)
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates

In Boys Don’t Cry, Brandon is impelled to dress as a man. Stella Raphael in Asylum experiences guilt and shame over her sexual trespasses but cannot control them. Bob Crane in Auto Focus is equally unable to stop himself; even Last Exit to Brooklyn’s Tralala uses sex to further herself because it’s all she’s got. They are, in a sense, all victims of their own uncontrollable sexual urges; none of them actively seeks conflict with their host society. A Clockwork Orange’s lead character, Alex DeLarge, is diametrically different. Brilliantly played by Malcolm McDowell, Alex is a charismatic hoodlum who acknowledges no social conventions and whose principal interests are “rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.”

Alex lives in a retro-future British dystopia where law and order has significantly broken down, delinquency is widespread[1] and a whole new language is emerging. From the opening scene of Alex drinking moloko (milk) with his three droogs (lackeys) in a milk bar where the tables are sculptures of nude women, A Clockwork Orange is superbly created, acted and directed throughout. The early scenes flit through a typical night in Alex’s life: beating up an old drunk, fighting a rival gang (inadvertently rescuing a woman from being raped) and, more significantly for the plot, breaking into the home of political dissident Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) to beat him and rape his wife (Adrienne Corri, in a very brave performance).

The rape of Mrs Alexander, barely ten minutes in, is perhaps the most disturbing scene in A Clockwork Orange. What makes it particularly unsettling is that, instead of quickly removing her clothes, Mrs Alexander is stripped in a leisurely, even theatrical manner.

A Clockwork Orange

The playful removal of Mrs Alexander’s jumpsuit—first cutting holes for her breasts to jut through before fully denuding her, all to an offhand rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’—shows Alex’s disregard for traditional sexual covenants as well as his sense of impunity. A world where thugs roam the countryside leisurely committing traumatic sex crimes is a nightmare scenario—a scenario that our sexual covenants are expressly designed to prevent. This is quite literally a return to the Dark Ages, when the strongest males seize sex by force and rape is the price paid when a community is unable to stave off its aggressors. This represents the loss of centuries of advances in personal rights and is clearly a massive retrograde step from our current position, however undesirable and increasingly untenable it might be.

The next sequence introduces Alex’s neurotic family and his love of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But all is not well in Alex’s hedonistic world; tired of his overbearing manner, his droogs are mutinous. Alex quells the mutiny with a little ultra-violence, but the droogs are not as dumb as they look (which is admittedly pretty dumb). When Alex murders a woman during a break-in—using a massive sculpture of a phallus, reflecting the film’s theme of unrestrained male sexuality—the droogs knock him unconscious and leave him to the police.

The middle section of A Clockwork Orange is devoted to Alex’s time in jail. The first encounter between Alex and Chief Guard Barnes (a delightfully austere Michael Bates) sets the tone: “Are you, or have you ever been, a homosexual?” Bates’ razor-sharp delivery leaves no doubt about his views on the subject; his internal stress is reminiscent of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s tightly wound Marcello Clerici in The Conformist. From a wilderness where he usurped sexual covenants at will, Alex now finds himself in a place where not only is sex impossible but no deviance from traditional sexual orthodoxy is tolerated.

After two years of deprivation from his chief interests Alex learns of a new process, the Ludovico technique, which reforms ‘immoral’ prisoners in a fortnight. He volunteers to be the guinea pig for this controversial therapy during a prison visit by the Minister for the Interior (Anthony Sharp). The treatment involves a drug that causes Alex to experience the same emotional and physical responses to violence and sexual violation as ‘moral’ people: nausea, disgust, fear, that get-me-out-of-here urge—all the feelings already associated with sexual transgression and shame, seen in many characters from John Lotter (Boys Don’t Cry) to Erika Kohut (The Piano Teacher) to Connie Sumner (Unfaithful) that cause people to revolt against any form of sexual expression that violates their boundaries. Alex does not currently experience these feelings because of his insensitivity. His lack of empathy for others allows him to violate their sexual boundaries without experiencing the myriad unpleasant symptoms of sexual shame. The Ludovico technique will change all that.

A Clockwork Orange

In A Clockwork Orange’s most iconic moment, Alex is strapped to a chair with his eyelids wired open while a beating, a gang-rape and World War II combat footage screen in front of him and music pumps from a PA. When Alex realises what he’s listening to—the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony—he screams in pain. The drugs administered under the Ludovico technique have made him hypersensitive and he suddenly makes a profound psychological association between his new feelings of intense nausea and the rape, violence and music that bombards him at that instant.

As Alex recovers from this distressing experience a doctor informs him that, “When we’re healthy we respond to the presence of the hateful with fear and nausea.” This is how our covenants currently operate: fear, nausea and self-disgust—all profoundly disturbing experiences—have been normalised as healthy responses.

As Alex recovers from this distressing experience a doctor informs him that, “When we’re healthy we respond to the presence of the hateful with fear and nausea.” This is how our covenants currently operate: fear, nausea and self-disgust—all profoundly disturbing experiences—have been normalised as healthy responses. The modus operandi of the Ludovico technique is to enforce Alex’s adherence to societal norms by triggering nausea on the brink of shameful behaviour, causing him to remain within accepted social boundaries instead of crossing them. Accurately based on genuine physiological responses to shame, the Ludovico technique is a brilliant fictional device.

The ability of the Ludovico technique to restrain Alex’s impulses for sex and violence is then tested. Alex is put on show for various dignitaries, including Chief Guard Barnes. Alex waits on a stage while the Minister for the Interior vilifies a prison system that fails to rehabilitate perpetual offenders and sings the praises of medically driven reform such as the Ludovico technique. A heavy then enters and insults Alex, but not even the humiliation of having to lick the man’s shoes—much to Barnes’ pleasure—goads Alex into a fight.

The heavy withdraws; the low growl of a synthesiser presages another of the film’s memorable sequences and the entry of a statuesque woman dressed only in briefs. The scene is brilliantly directed; Kubrick’s control of the angles and cuts—including Chief Guard Barnes’ mesmerised face—is masterful. The woman advances on Alex with the inexorability of a Panzer IV. Alex, realising his test has only just begun, drags himself to his knees. The woman towers over him, proud nipples a short reach away.

A Clockwork Orange

A sudden desire for some in-out (Alex’s reductive term for sex) floods his senses but is instantly counteracted by a wave of nausea. Alex fights it off and reaches for the woman’s breasts. She watches with detached interest as Alex’s shaking fingertips stop just short of their prize; he teeters then collapses to the floor and, echoing Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher, dry-retches. In fiction at least, the Ludovico technique has won: human beings can be artificially rewired to conform to society’s sexual covenants.

Alex is released from prison only to find his parents want nothing to do with him. Shamed by his sexually wayward behaviour, they reaffirm membership of their community by rejecting Alex in the same way that Lynda’s father publicly repudiated her in Wish You Were Here and Big Joe punched his daughter’s deflowerer in Last Exit to Brooklyn.

A series of unlikely events drives the story forward but in Kubrick’s cartoonish future-Britain this is easily digested. Alex encounters the old drunk he beat up early in the film and is set upon by some homeless men, only to be rescued by two policemen—by coincidence his former droogs—who drag Alex into the woods for a thrashing. Alex begs shelter at a nearby house—that of activist Frank Alexander, now confined to a wheelchair since his beating and the rape of his wife, latterly deceased from pneumonia. Frank doesn’t realise Alex was his attacker (Alex was masked at the time), but Alex’s bathroom rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’ gives him away.

A Clockwork Orange

Frank locks him in an upstairs room while Beethoven’s Ninth blares from a huge stereo. Alex cannot stomach the distressing, shame-based feelings and throws himself from the window.

The film ends with Alex in hospital after his fall. Alex’s fate has turned the public against the Ludovico technique, prompting a visit from the Minister for the Interior, now desperate to boost the government’s popularity. Frank Alexander has been “put away” and the Ludovico medical team will follow. Alex’s sex crimes are ignored in the interests of political capital. Alex fantasises about frolicking with a nude woman while the cream of society looks on and applauds. “I was cured, all right,” he sniggers.

A Clockwork Orange portrays a conflict between a retro-conservative society—the sexually repressed Britain of the post-war era, championed by Chief Guard Barnes—and the help-yourself hedonism of Alex’s lifestyle. Like Last Exit to Brooklyn this is a fight between those who uphold traditional sexual covenants and those who breach them. The film ultimately fails to resolve this conflict; instead Kubrick makes the Machiavellian suggestion that a society’s sexual covenants, its traditional, sacrosanct inhibitors of untoward sexual behaviour, may be expendable in the hands of unscrupulous leaders.

The next film takes Kubrick’s suggestion a step further by showing what can happen when sexual covenants are entirely revoked by autocrats whose shame is so extreme they commit sexual excesses with impunity. This is Salò, the final film by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Released in 1975, Salò was only approved for UK distribution twenty-five years later, although it was rejected in Australia as recently as 2008. Pasolini was murdered prior to its completion, possibly trying to recover some stolen reels from the film. The circumstances of his death have never been satisfactorily resolved but he left behind one of the most notorious films in cinematic history.

Next: Salò (120 Days of Sodom)


[1] With the 2011 Tottenham riots it doesn’t seem such an improbable future.

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