in 1971 there could have been little doubt that A Clockwork Orange
was destined for endless late night reruns at film fests organized by students.
Based on British author Anthony Burgess's novel about a dystopian
future riddled with youth gangs, it introduces us to thirteen-year-old Alex (Malcolm McDowell
in a stunning debut performance he has never been able to repeat) and his "Droogs".
Speaking a largely invented (by Burgess) slang, Alex happens to be into Beethoven
(a sly reference to Wagner-loving Nazis?) and ultraviolence. And ultraviolence
is what the audience experiences for rest of the movie.
A Clockwork Orange is an assault on the senses. It is loud - in
both music (classics redone by Wendy Carlos on the synthesizer) and
garish 1970s colors. The violence and rapes have lost none of its intensity that
made seventies' audiences squirm in their seats. Its impact, even after two decades
of audiences getting used to all kinds of ultraviolence on the silver screen,
is an uncomfortable movie to watch. It preys perhaps most on our deep-seated fears
of being the victim to unwarranted crime - not the person who comes to steal our
hi-fi set, but the criminal who comes to torture us and sadistically rape our
loved ones while not even bothering with the hi-fi set! But the film also carries
Burgess's very Catholic concerns with sin and free will. In the film, Alex is
subjugated to a treatment which creates a total aversion to violence within him
- he becomes physically sick when exposed to scenes of violence. But it also creates
the same symptoms to listening to Beethoven as well. The obliteration of Alex's
free will leaves behind merely the husk of an individual - one who will never
experience genius, madness, what constitutes a human being. In Burgess's eyes
this even a worse sin.
Stanley Kubrick, who changed the face of cinema a few years before
with his previous sci-fi effort, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), has created an excruciating,
yet ultimately powerful, film. It may not make for escapist viewing but cannot
be missed by serious filmgoers.
Review by James O'Ehley from The
Sci-Fi Movie Page.