Friday, July 17, 2015

Film Review: A Clockwork Orange

"A Clockwork Orange"  *** (out of ****)

It is a violent world in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971).

What if I told you we can eliminate violence in the world. It might require a little brainwashing but individuals would be repelled by acts of violence and sex. Would you think it is a good idea to proceed? If you live and breathe you probably would. Yes of course no one approves of brainwashing. And yes of course someone could make a case about our civil liberties being violated. But what if the government countered with the defense "we are doing this for your own protection. To make the world safe. It is in our national interest." The public would then change its mind. You could convince a lot of people it is a good idea.

You don't believe me? Why? Look how much people are willing to give up in the name of safety when it comes to terrorism. Look at the patriot act. Look at what Edward Snowden revealed. We live in a world where everything we do is known by someone. Who you are talking to on the phone, what you buy, what you search for on-line, your exact position at any time during the day or night (your cell phone is a tracking device. Don't fool yourself). We even have televisions that store data of which programs we watch. Not to mention all the cameras recording us.

Why wouldn't people be in favor of eliminating crime and violence?

Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" is a satire which examines society, free will, a government wanting to "help" people and psychology. You might not see all of it upon your first viewing as the violent images and sex scenes may distract you. But, it is all there if you are willing to look for it.

The setting is sometime in the future in England. Violence is rampant. Streets are occupied by droogs (this movie's name for a gang of thugs). One group is lead by Alex (Malcolm McDowell). Alex enjoys violence, beating up innocent people, raping young women and listening to Beethoven, especially his 9th symphony. His partners in crime are Dim (Warren Clarke), Georgie (James Marcus) and Pete (Michael Tarn).

An enjoyable evening for Alex and his friends involves them engaging in a night of "ultra violence" which means breaking into someone's house, pretending they have been part of a car accident and need to phone the police. The unsuspecting victim allows them to enter their home and there the droogs beat and rape the owners. One incident involves a middle-aged writer, F. Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his wife (Adrienne Corri). The thugs beat Mr. Alexander to the point of crippling him for life and rape his wife in front of him while Alex sings "Singin' in the Rain".

One night however, after breaking into the home of a wealthy woman (Miriam Karlin) and attacking her with a large phallic statue, which the woman owed, the police capture Alex after his friends ditch him. He is sent to prison to serve a fourteen year sentence. After serving two years Alex learns of a experimental program being used in some cities which will rehabilitate criminals by using a form of therapy. If Alex volunteers he will be given a shorter sentence and set free after the therapy is completed.

The therapy, which is known as the Ludovico technique, conditions the criminal to grow an aversion to acts and violence by strapping the individual to a chair, propping his eyes open and supplying him with drugs in the form of eye drops as he watches violent images on a movie screen. The drug will cause a nauseated feeling which the person will be conditioned to identify with the violent images. This will condition the person to become sick at the thought of violence.

The government fully backs the program and was elected on their promise to erase violence and the success of this therapy. After two weeks of subjecting Alex to this treatment the Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) presents Alex to the public as an example of what can be accomplished.

When I was in college I took a psychology course, which actually became very meaningful to me, despite being a film and journalism major. In the class we discussed Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, who is best known for his experiment "Pavlov's dog" and B.F. Skinner, an American physiologist. Both men believed in behavioral conditioning. The idea that a stimuli, if repeated often enough with a specific act, will become associated with that act and condition our behavior. Skinner referred to "reinforcement" as a way to explain it.

I mention all of this for a reason, believe it or not, during the late 1940s and into the 1950s Skinner was actually well known for his theories and it is these theories which are being criticized in "A Clockwork Orange". The movie strongly argues against the effectiveness of conditioning stating, you are taking away free will. Conditioning a person not to engage in negative acts is not the same as a person choosing not to engage in negative acts. The outcome may be the same - no negative acts, but by taking away their ability to make that judgement for themselves you are taking away what makes us human.

Watching "A Clockwork Orange" again though I also began to feel there is something being said about the nature of man. Are people essentially good or bad? What makes a person like Alex commit violent acts? Is it just their nature? Are they responding to their environment? It is a mixture of both? After Alex is conditioned, through an unbelievable series of events, he meets each person he wronged and while he no longer has a violent nature, each person wanted revenge on him. This made me think conditioning criminals is one thing but look at the violent nature of the people who aren't criminals. Which confirms my belief that people are essentially mean, vengeful, selfish, hateful creatures. If Alex is just another "bad seed" what is everyone else's excuse?

Besides violence the movie also comments on the hypercritical nature of sex. Wealthy people, like the woman with the phallic shaped statute are respectable but Alex and his "pornographic art" are vulgar. The rich have their kinks they just hide it or give it a different name but they are no better than the people they frown upon.

Critics of the movie however see more ugliness in the movie in the treatment of women. Some say the acts of rape are supposed to titillate the audience. They say Alex is presented as a likable character and so the audience approves of his behavior. This doesn't quite make sense to me because I never found Alex to be a likable character. If that was Kubrick's intention it didn't work on me.

What "A Clockwork Orange" becomes to me is a study of a society which is trying to create "the perfect world", a demonstration in population control and a showcase of the games our minds can play on us. Most of Kubrick's movies are about the mind though. Look at "The Shining" (1980), a hotel possesses a man and drives him crazy. "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999) about the sexual mind games we play against and with each other. "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) about the psychological effects war has on a soldier.

A lot of praise for "A Clockwork Orange" will go to Malcolm McDowell for his portrayal as Alex. He is the most dominate force on-screen but as I say, not a likable character. Because I saw no good in him it took away an emotional involvement I had watching the movie. That is not to say you cannot make a movie about an unlikable character, but usually movies try to humanize the person. "A Clockwork Orange" doesn't do that. There is no redemption in Alex. He is a bad person at the beginning of the movie and a bad person at the end, which was deliberate on Kubrick's part.

The movie earned four Academy Award nominations including best picture and best director. It was Kubrick's third of four nominations in the directing category. The movie lost the best picture award to "The French Connection" (1971).

"A Clockwork Orange" has a lot to say about society and is one of those movies you'll need to watch more than once. It is a strong movie because of its ideas but it is not an emotionally rewarding one. Still, like all Kubrick movies, it should not be avoided.