If ever there was a movie that polarizes audiences into love it or hate it camps, it's Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, a black comedy so black that one could be forgiven for not noticing the humor and social satire. And it's finally available in an edition that has some choice extras, including a "making of" documentary, an examination of the impact the film had upon its release and its subsequent place in the history of international cinema, a meaty interview with star Malcolm McDowell, and last but definitely not least, there is at last a commentary track by McDowell, the main reason why I held out and didn't buy any previous DVD release of the film.
For those who don't know, it's a story set in a dystopian near-future Britain — I like to think of it as what was going down on Earth as a counterpoint to the more high-tech and cosmic goings-on in Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY — that centers on Alex, a teenage sociopath who, with his small gang of drugged-up "droogs," merrily goes about at night wreaking violent havoc on society at large.
Without an iota of conscience they rob, commit home invasions, beat the motherfucking shit out of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter them, engage in brutal warfare with rival gangs, and commit sickening acts of gang rape. The truly insidious thing about all of this is that it's related to the audience from Alex's point of view in slangy narration, and in the course of the story we see that he's highly intelligent, an appreciator of classical music and a true lover of life with an infectious joie de vivre, and we find ourselves coming to like the charming bastard in spite of ourselves, an aspect of the film that I doubt would have worked if anyone other than Malcolm McDowell had essayed the role.
Malcolm McDowell as Alex: proof that the Academy Awards don't mean a squirt of rat's piss.
Seriously, picture some douche like Tom Cruise in the part and the whole film collapses like a poorly built house of cards.
I think you see my point.
After a delirious first act in which we go along for the ride on an average night of terror and mayhem with Alex and his lads and see our "hero" enjoying his carefree hoodlum's life, Alex finally crosses the legal line and murders a bizarre “cat lady,” an act that lands him in real jail with hardened criminals possibly worse than himself. During his two years there, he sucks up to the prison chaplain and weasels his way into being a guinea pig for the Ludivico Technique, a method that through a regimen of drugs and conditioning will render him unable to commit violent acts, instead causing him to become physically ill when his base urges are aroused. Once declared fully reformed and released from prison, Alex’s world crumbles around him as he discovers his parents have rented his room to a border, finds all his ill-gotten possessions have been confiscated by the police as compensation for his victims, gets his ass handed to him by a gang of drunken derelicts led by an old man he and his gang assaulted for no reason at the beginning of the story only to be rescued by two of his former gang who are now cops and haul him out to a remote area to kick his ass some more, finally unwittingly staggering to the nearest house for help after the brutal bashing and not realizing it’s the home of a writer who he’d rendered a cripple while leading the gang rape of the man’s now-deceased wife while the writer was forced to watch. You can guess most of the rest.
Definitely not for all audiences and vilified by nearly every woman I’ve ever met who saw it, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE still holds a great power to simultaneously repulse and fascinate, initially luring many viewers with its reputation as something of a titillating, highbrow exploitation film stuffed to the gills with graphic sex and violence. Whenever it’s come up in conversation over the years, I’ve heard many who’ve seen it — mostly women — rail on and on about how it’s a nonstop avalanche of gratuitous gang rapes and beatings, complete with spewing blood, close-ups of knifings and teeth being socked out of the jaws of victims, and graphic penetration of the sort found in the rougher pornography that’s out there, and every time I’ve heard this outright horseshit I’ve pointed out that I’ve seen the film several times as opposed to their one viewing many years ago on a worn VHS copy in some pot smoke-filled suburban basement, and I always politely suggest that perhaps their memories are clouded by the passing of years and the way that elements in certain films have the tendency to become magnified when later remembered. In fact, a few years back I got into it about this with the editor-in-chief of a certain “dizzying” comic book imprint when she went off on the number of onscreen violations, and she became apoplectic when I attempted to correct her, steadfastly insisting that she’d seen what was the most crass and anti-woman work that she could recall. (It was especially frustrating because I knew what I was talking about while she clearly didn’t, coupled with the fact that I had to stop myself from cracking up in her face because she looked like an irate, anthropomorphized ferret.)
But many who see it for the first time are disappointed by the fact that while it does contain some very nasty and visceral elements and images, it’s so hyper-stylized that it’s not as grotty as it could be, which isn’t much of a surprise since the film was directed by a guy whose films are all art directed toward a sterile aesthetic, no matter the genre and no matter the setting (even the gladiators in SPARTACUS look grime-free). No, there isn’t blood fountaining all over the camera lens a la SHOGUN ASSASSIN. No, there aren’t lingering images of women being gang-raped for fifteen solid minutes at a time, a la I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. If you want that kind of stuff, here’s exactly — and I do mean EXACTLY — what you get:
• Alex and his droogs kicking the shit out an old derelict, seen from a distance and in silhouette, the sound effects making the visual far worse than it actually is.
• The home invasion that results in the crippling of the writer and the gang rape of his wife; the woman is gagged and has her clothing delicately cut from her body with a pair of scissors (while Alex desecrates “Singin’ in the Rain” for all future listeners) and we do see her nude, but the actual rape takes place off camera with no sound effects, just a disturbing shot of the writer being forced to watch, accented by a disturbing piece of synthesizer scoring.
• A cartoonish and slapstick gang fight between Alex’s lads and a bunch of far less stylish thugs; the thugs are just about to gang rape a naked, buxom, screaming brunette when Alex’s crew shows up and challenges the thugs to a scrap, during which the girl escapes, butt-nekkid, yet unharmed. The fight itself is tamer than anything seen every day on televised professional wrestling.
• A sped-up threesome with Alex and two very willing nubiles, to the tune of an accelerated synthesizer version of “The William Tell Overture;” it’s silly as hell, and is in no way the rape of two pre-pubescent girls that occurs in the book.
• Alex disciplines his droogs after an attempted shift in their gang’s power structure; there's a slo-mo kick in the nuts, and a slo-mo shot of Alex slashing a droog’s hand with a knife, which looks like something you’d see at an Alice Cooper concert circa 1975.
• Alex’s killing of the cat lady — using a phallic sculpture as the murder weapon no less — does not show the impact that presumably crushes her skull. We absolutely understand what’s happened, but we do not actually see it happen.
• Alex gets a full milk bottle in the face, shot in slo-mo, so it looks more artistic than just violent. And there’s no blood whatsoever.
• While in prison, Alex fantasizes about stories from the Bible, imagining all the violence, sadism and sexy bits in a more honest fashion than what they teach in Sunday school, but it’s like an episode of MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD when stacked against the Catholic porn excesses of Mel “Sugartits” Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. And, taken in context, the shit’s pretty funny.
• After the Ludivico technique, Alex’s gets pummeled by a bunch of derelicts and is unable to defend himself. I see worse than this every day just by walking around the corner to the local Associated supermarket.
• Now cops, two of Alex’s former droogs hold his head underwater for an almost unbearably long time while beating him with a nightstick, the blows punctuated by distorted synthesizer noises that in no way sound like anything real.
• There’s a fantasy shot of Alex cavorting with a nude woman on top of him that’s been eclipsed a million times over by anything found on Cinemax after 11PM.
That’s pretty much it, and not one bit of it wouldn’t be passed by the current board of the MPAA with an R rating; in fact, I dare say that CLASS OF 1984 would have less of a chance nowadays of being released the way it was than A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. So if you’ve never seen it before and are looking to wallow in unbridled carnage and sexual violence, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE probably isn’t for you, what with it being an egghead flick and all. All others are encouraged to check it out and judge for yourself. Me, I love it for its look, sound track, and of course Malcolm McDowell.
And one last thing: if someone ever adapted the book for what it really is and didn’t make the aesthetic and stylistic alterations to the story that Kubrick did, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE would indeed be the film for which the existing version is vilified.
Without the charm of McDowell to win us over — for better or worse — the story is really sick shit and could join I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and VIGILANTE as one of the most indefensible films ever made. It would be interesting, but the studio that released it would be burned to the ground and the director would be publicly executed, so put that in your bong and smoke it.