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rrramble retrospective: A Clockwork Orange (film)

This month, we travel back in time (ooooooh) to review Stanley Kubrick’s highly controversial, critically acclaimed and Academy Award nominated A Clockwork Orange – an adaptation of classic dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess, with the same title. Today, A Clockwork Orange is fast approaching 50 years since its original release, and is still widely acclaimed as a seminal work of film (and the inspiration for many men’s Halloween costumes). Do our writers think that it still has a place in 2021, or is it time to give A Clockwork Orange the boot? Only one way to find out…

Content Warning: sexual violence, rape, violence, nudity, explicit sexual scenes.

A artistic representation of a still from the film A Clockwork Orange. The character Alex stares intensely at the camera, wearing a black bowler hat, his long eyelashes stylised and black. He holds up a glass of milk. A slightly disturbing image.
Milk, anyone?

Lucy May

There is no escaping the fact that A Clockwork Orange is a film made by men, for men. There are so many penises that I at points I wondered if the film had slipped literally inside the protagonist’s perspective, showing us the world through his warped, teenage eyes. Not a world I particularly would like to live in.

This is a film about free will, and how if you take away somebody’s free will then they are nothing more than a clockwork orange, so the saying apparently goes…? All I knew to expect was milk drinking and long eyelashes worn on a singular eye. I knew that it was banned, for a while. I definitely see why.

More or less immediately, my eyes were assaulted by a depiction of a near rape. It’s unnerving, grounding us in a colourful dystopia where nasty gangs of youths do as they please and everybody else suffers the consequences. I believed (mistakenly!) for a moment that perhaps Alex and his cronies, when they strode on screen, were about to liberate the poor woman from her perpetrators. Alex and the Droogs beat up the rival gang – a punishment! Yes! Do gooders! Alas, no. Alex goes on to perform exactly the same act himself in a following scene.

So, Alex is an evil psychopath who gets his thrills through literal rape and pillage. As I watched him have his sinister way with only the second or third woman to appear onscreen whilst wearing an enormous phallic nose, I tried reminding myself that this film was made in the late sixties/early seventies. Moreover, we are not supposed to like Alex. The story is him getting comeuppance for his nasty ways.

Film old. Seventies. Before women were invented. 

I see how it would make an interesting book. The anglo-russian language, the aesthetic, the social satire…it hasn’t gone over my head. I understand this is a Ye Olde horror classic, but still I am seething at the little array of women onscreen. 

The sole function of most of the female characters in Clockwork Orange is, please excuse me, to be (rape) victims. They are plot devices for demonstrating the sadism of the main character, and not much more. 

In light of the cinematic themes and subject matter – whether Alex’s awful tendencies are innate and can be altered (and if they be, should they be?), I was content to observe the violence to an extent. Although I can’t help but examine the sex scenes (if you can call them sex scenes…) through a contemporary lens, and ask more questions of how they are directed: detached, cold, and scored by classical music

Yes, the intention is to disturb. Perhaps this is inevitable of me, having re-watched I May Destroy You  three times and my being a young woman in the age of Phoebe Waller Bridge, but I really hated the diminutive attitude towards violence against women in this film. It tainted the viewing experience almost beyond repair, and at no point did I pity Alex. Was I meant to? Be sick at Beethoven, young rapscallion! You deserve it.

I bet, if we had a female-directed remake of this film, the violent scenes would feel extremely different. They would still be disturbing, of course, (rightly so) but they wouldn’t be steeped in archaic orientated values. I wouldn’t be able to smell the Male Gaze. The time of trivialising violence against women is long gone, friends. Make way for the raging feminist remake. 

Alex and his Droogs sit on black, high backed bench seating. Alex stares intensely at the camera, wearing a black bowler hat, his long eyelashes stylised and black over one eye. He holds up a glass of milk, and looks menacing. His Droogs wear similar attire with varying make up, and look away from the camera with their milk in hand, looking sad.
Droog life

Abbie

I’ve had a few run-ins with A Clockwork Orange in my life so far. On my sixteenth birthday, my Uncle dressed as Alex for my fancy dress party. A few months later, in an AS Level English class, my teacher played the first ten minutes on the projector in class without warning (for Clockwork newbies, you should know that this is the most violent part of the film and I can’t imagine Ofsted would be happy). Next, my boyfriend when I was eighteen – a Kubrick fanboy – raved about the film as he played it without consultation, gushing about the camera angles and the sound and Kubrick’s direction (in retrospect, this should have been a clear enough red flag for me to have run for the hills immediately).  A year or so later, I half-watched the film as I studied, desperately trying to spot the buildings on set after being told that some of it was filmed on my University campus. And here I am watching it again, for you. You’re welcome.   

Let’s cut straight to the point. I can safely say that, throughout all of my encounters with A Clockwork Orange, I have not found a shred of insight, commentary or meaning that doesn’t feel masturbatory and gratuitous. I’m baffled that this film received FOUR Academy Award nominations. I’m even more baffled that this film is still receiving 5 star reviews today, and has recently been the subject of multiple articles from major outlets about how it still holds up as one of the best films of the past 50 years. I really do feel that if my eyes were capable of rolling all the way into the back of my head, they would do so irreversibly within the opening 5 minutes of this film.

Now I’m not a total spoilsport, and can see that there are certain aspects of this film that hold up. Namely, the hyper-stylised design and costuming are solid. I’m not sure the visual world-building is consistent across the locations within the film (in both aesthetics and quality), but perhaps that’s the point. Either way; when the world-building hits, it hits hard. The Korova Milk Bar stands out as one of those successes, as well as the writer’s house. The fantastical, retro-futuristic costuming adds an interesting and necessary texture to the film, not only delivering striking aesthetics but also serving to heighten the clash between the characters representing ‘law and order’ and the rogue, amoral youth. If there’s anything to gain from watching A Clockwork Orange, it’s the visuals.

But really, what are visuals without substance? I could tear apart this film for hours, but I’d like to be clear: it really is just the film that I have the issue with. I loved Anthony Burgess’ novel, and think it’s very much still an important read. Critics claim that Kubrick’s film sticks close to the source material, and on paper it does, but the perspective and tone feel starkly different; a dangerous line to walk, which does not pay off. A Clockwork Orange is a failure of direction; not only because it’s pompous and inflated, but because there are more women who are fully naked in this film than women who speak, because his creative team were notoriously treated badly, because his leading actor was nearly blinded due to unsafe procedures on set, because Kubrick weaseled out of paying the same actor for a week’s worth of work, because Gene Kelly was never paid the rights for Kubrick’s use of Singin’ in the Rain… 

I’m sick of this culture in film where the Kubrick’s of the world are repeatedly excused for disgusting behaviour in return for them delivering ‘groundbreaking’ cinema, which is made even worse by the fact that it’s rarely groundbreaking at all. Kubrick should have done us all a favour and left this alone – A Clockwork Orange should have stayed firmly put on the page, or at least have been put in much safer hands.

Alex looms over the camera, dressed in his bowler hat and all-white cricket attire, with the groin protector on the outside of his clothing. He wields a black baton, and looked frenzied and aggressive.
Anyone fancy a game of cricket?

A Clockwork Orange is available on most major streaming platforms (for a small fee).

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