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A Clockwork Orange, the Masterpiece

Malcolm McDowell on set with Stanley Kubrick

Malcolm McDowell on set with Stanley Kubrick

Brief recap

A Clockwork Orange is the adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel (1962), directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1971.

Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is an « ultraviolent » 15 years old teenager in a futuristic Britain. He leads a small gang of teenagers, robbing, beating men and raping women. However, Alex gets arrested and convicted of murder and rape. While in prison, he learns of an experimental program, the Ludovico’s Technique, which is a kind of brainwashing.With it, Alex now associates violence with the nausea and headaches the injections provoke to him!

By going through this program, his sentence gets reduced and he comes back on the street sooner than expected. Now completely harmless, Alex has to face his victims, who definitely want their revenge! He ends up in the house of the man he robbed two years ago and raped his wife, who died. The man, a political dissident, recognizes Alex and tries to drive him to suicide, so he can blame the government. Alex finally jumps off a window, but the fall doesn’t kill him. Now at the hospital, state doctors undo Ludovico’s Technique and restore Alex’s old violent and vicious self, in exchange of his endorsement.

Violence and free will

The title

Such a weird way to name a book right? Actually, A Clockwork Orange refers to an absence of free will. It’s all about something organic which is made to work mechanically.

It can be understood as a metaphore of the main character, Alex, who is indeed "organic", alive and able to think but who behaves automatically, instinctively.

Alex DeLarge (Malcolm MacDowell), A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Alex DeLarge (Malcolm MacDowell), A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Opposition

There is kind of a symetry in this movie. Indeed, in the beginning and in the end, you’ll find violence (definitely the actual main character, isn't it?). However, at the beginning, Alex is the one who inflicts violence but finally, once he is cured, he is the victim, victim of the violence he initiated.

A Orange Clockwork tries to explain how free will defines the human experience. Alex may have taken bad decisions, but it was all by choice. No matter what you do, it is always chosen. Our character actually chooses to act immorally, even though it's a part of his personnality, he chooses to behave this way. There is an obvious conflict between choice and morality. So here, free will could be defined by the choices made, which would bring a feeling of freedom and invulnerability to the character, despite morality.

This movie shows a socitey of control against a society of freedom. On the one hand, you have the government who tries to reduce violence and wants to control everything and everyone, and one the other hand you follow a the young "ultraviolent droogs" who do whatever they feel free to do. It's once again an opposition between choice and morality.

Furthermore, this free will is associated to violence, "ultraviolence". But in this movie, isn’t this violence kind of an act of creation ? It seems like Alex isn’t violent just because he enjoys it, but because he feels like he is accomplishing and creating something. As an example, the sexual acts aren’t erotic at all, they are performances, another piece of art. And obviously, the classical music you can hear anytime a violence scene occures definitely brings sort of beauty to violence.

On set

On set

The music

The movie is structured with an electronic adaptation of classical music, such as Beethoven (who is actually an important character of the story as well), Rossini, Purcell… Anthony Burgess, the author, loved Beethoven’s music as much as Alex does ! "I accepted the Beethoven symphony as a kind of musical ultimate, something that the composers of our own age could not aspire to", he said.

Wendy Carlos, already famous for her albulm Switch-On Bach (an electronic adaptation of some of the famous Bach’s works), produced the both classical and futuristic music you can hear all along the movie. The film even opens with Carlos’s own composition called Timesteps, a slow and booming piece that sets an ominous tone for the entire film.

Also, the music is made to follow Alex’s emotional and mental states, and we can even notice that his behavior reflects the music played.

Kubrick on set

Kubrick on set

The illusion of reality

Kubrick used a lot of technical devices which break the narrative fluidity, and the illusion of reality: accelerated action, slow motion, ultra-wide angle lenses....
He tried to find a cinematic equivalent of Burgess’s literary style.


Kubrick and MacDowell

Kubrick and MacDowell

There are many sequences in which the camera is very still and the editing reduced to a minimum. You can see it, as an example, when Alex returns to his parents’ house or the prison.
According to Kubrick "If a scene plays well in one camera set up and there is no reason to cut, then I don’t cut. I try to avoid a mechanical cutting rhythm which dissipates much of the effect of editing."

Alternatively, the first three sequences are very striking, employing the same zoom pull-back shots, starting from a close-up and ending on the whole set. The scenes didn't require much preparation, as Kubrick said "The first thing to do is to rehearse the scene until something happens that is worth putting on film—only then should you worry about how to film it."

Kubrick also did a lot of hand-held camera work, especially for the action scenes.
As he likes to say, there are certain effects which can only be done with a hand-held camera.

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