Neil Young’s Film Lounge – A Clockwork Orange

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

A Clockwork Orange

7/10

UK 1971, dir. Stanley Kubrick, stars Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee

A Clockwork Orange is about as good a film as could possibly be made out of a novel by Anthony Burgess – a first-rate critic, essayist and memoirist, but, when it came to fiction, a very minor talent, bizarrely over-rated. Not that Kubrick would have minded much. I’ve always felt it to be a waste of time to try to engage with this director – or, indeed, Burgess-as-novelist – on the level of ideas. His films after Spartacus only make sense on the level of technique, and any attempt to progress far below the tremendously flashy surface imagery rapidly ends up in a series of very short dead ends.

It’s Kubrick’s mastery of technique – his visual audacity, his love of extremes, his perversity – that makes A Clockwork Orange still so tremendously watchable today. That, and the astonishing central performance by Malcolm McDowell. Everyone else in the film is a cardboard caricature, puppet figures brought to an approximation of hammy life by a familiar crowd of early-70s British stage and TV performers, but McDowell won’t go along with Kubrick’s game. He emerges as the film’s rival, renegade intelligence, always operating at a higher level of irony and detachment from the scripts forced upon him by society (as a character, Alex) and by the director (as an actor, McDowell). I’d go as far to say that, with another actor in the role, A Clockwork Orange would look ridiculous to us now, 30 years on, when the film’s basic intellectual redundancy is revealed so blatantly.

Is there anybody who doesn’t know the story? In some unspecified country – Britain? Russia? – at an unspecified point in time – 1976? 1984? 2020? – young thug Alex freely indulges his passions of rape, ultraviolence, and the music of ‘Ludwig Van.’ Eventually falling out with his fellow gang members, he ends up in prison only to be released after undergoing an experimental form of aversion therapy. This is when his problems really start. Taken as a whole, A Clockwork Orange is dated and indigestible. As a succession of nightmarish scenes, however, its impact is startling. And, fortunately, the film is structured as a series of remarkable set pieces. Kubrick never holds back on the visuals or on the violence, and if that means that occasionally the film spirals out of control, so be it.

It’s a credit to Kubrick that even now this film comes over as pretty strong stuff – deliberately offensive, brutal and in-your-face, A Clockwork Orange seeks to strike out new ground for cinema. And it succeeds – the problem being, we soon realise, it has absolutely no idea what to do with this exciting new territory it has so brashly blundered into.

by Neil Young