Clockwork Orange
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Clockwork Orange

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A lot of movies cannot be fully appreciated unless you consider the particulars of the time and place surrounding its initial release. This is not to say that such films cannot be timeless classics, they often are but a greater understanding can be achieved by a deeper understanding of the circumstances and historical perspective surrounding the story. A prime example is the works of Shakespeare. The themes are enduring and universal but much of the dialogue takes on an increased clarity when you understand the language and the society that used it. One relatively recent example is an undeniable great film that benefits from such temporal placement is ‘A Clockwork Orange’. When first released in 1971 the generation gap was at its widest. The ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’ concept was enforced with frequently explosive results. Vietnam was draining our society on every level; protests on campus, the nightly news bringing violence directly into our family living rooms. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ spoke to this generation on intimate terms. A film about the disenfranchisement of the youth at the hands of an uncaring, impotent governmental authority played directly into the prevailing sentiment of high school and college aged members of the audience. The love and peace generation was feed up and violence was simmering just under the surface; a topic well explored by this film. Drugs altered the consciousness and dull the unbearable reality but provided no lasting solutions. This is a dark, frequently painful to watch film the echoed the hollowness of a generation. It was a dystopian epic played before an audience cut adrift, uncertain of our future. I recall the first time I saw this film. With my brand new draft card in my wallet severing as a symbol of a potentially short future that this little cardboard rectangle made possible. This was an incredibly powerful film that has now reached its fortieth anniversary. Although our society no longer has mandatory military service and the generations have called an uneasy truce the feelings of dissatisfaction remain prevalent with the youth. Many of the themes examined here; violence, sex, rebellion and drugs are still major factors that drive our culture. There is still a potential to reach the dark, menacing future world depicted in this film. In some ways we are closer to it than we were four decades ago.

The original novel of the same name was authored by Anthony Burgess and had been an underground hit for years. The cult status was enhanced by American publishers refusing to include the 21st and final chapter of the novel. This added a sense of forbidden fruit to the work perfect for the anti-establishment oriented audience. Providing the screenplay and directing this film was one of the greatest masters of cinema, Stanley Kubrick. Several of his previous works became cult classics drawing in the youth demographic. ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ ridiculed the arms race and cold war that dominated global policy. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ showed a much different future awaiting mankind a polar opposite of the one depicted here. It was also a favorite among members of the audience with the perchance for the use of pharmacological enhancement of the cinematic experience. Kubrick would continue to speak to the young people with his take on the futility of war in ‘Full Metal Jacket’. The main character in the story is Alex (Malcolm McDowell). You really can’t call him the hero of the piece since one of the key components of the movie is it is devoid of anything even remotely resembling heroic is present here. There are influences and persons that can assume the position of villain but no hero is provided to offer balance. Balance and moderation is unknown to Alex and his droogs; Pete (Michael Tarn), Georgie (James Marcus), and Dim (Warren Clarke). Many words used here are slang derived from a mélange of English and Russian representing the merger of two cultures that were diametrically opposed. The film is set in a bleak futuristic England were the nights are owned by marauding gangs of young toughs. Each one adopts a specific, theatrical look to differentiate them. The gang that Alex leads favors bowler hats white shirts and paints adorned with suspenders and elaborate eye makeup. When not out applying ‘the old ultra-violence’ to any that had the misfortune to cross their paths the hang out in a bar that specializes in Milk-Plus; a concoction of milk and extremely potent drugs. A night of beating a homeless man, smashing a rival gang stealing a car barely sated their lust for sociopathic violence. They break into a suburban home brutally beating the elderly owner and savagely raping his wife. Ironically Alex is in trouble for truancy. After the home invasion his droogs turn on him knocking him out leaving him to be captured by the authorities. A few years into his sentence Alex is placed in an experimental program designed to ‘reprogram’ him from his anti-social tendencies. The question remains whether the treatment was successful or was Alex too ingrained as a psychopath to ever change.

Every aspect of this film was crafted to perfection. Kubrick was one of the most visually innovative filmmakers in the history of the art. His use of shadows, lighting and backgrounds give the film a unique texture that can now be better appreciated with Blu-ray release. The clean white costumes that Alex and his gang sport play against the usual use of white to denote the good guys. Alex is completely devoid of anything beyond his own gratification and need to dominate others well past any imaginable level. He goes beyond sadism of Schadenfreude the point where the infliction of pain and humiliation is an almost religious fervor to him. When Alex reads the Bible he thinks it would be fun to impale someone or whip the slaves. The message of love and tolerance is indiscernible to his myopic world view. The music used here was integral to the mood it sets. It utilized the electronic sound of the Moog synthesizer played by Walter Carlos employing a combination of original compositions and reinvention of classical music. The author had stated that the enigmatic title refers to the imposition of the mechanical upon an organic system or being. The authorities attempted to reprogram Alex as if he was a machine but his true, organic nature could not be so easily modified. Alex is an exaggeration of a side in many people who follow the rule of society not because it is right but because they are forced to conform. The questions raised by this film; behaviorism, nature versus nurture and the substance of anarchy remain just as import and as unanswered as they were 40 years ago.

Posted 06/05/11

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