Coming Home
A Clockwork Orange Unbound
feature by Gregory Avery

Clockwork Orange reveals itself to be about self-determination. Alex chooses to commit crimes, because they excite him. He could do otherwise, but does not. He is arrested and sent to pay the proper price for his actions. He maneuvers for the chance to be "reformed," on the double, and it is granted to him. But the chance turns out to be a trick, one that does not serve his needs but those of a few who want to hold on to their high position in society. (Thus, one's initial stirrings of sympathy towards Alex.) Even more so, it seriously robs Alex, in ways that are not fair, and leaves him incapable of functioning as a person. (Hence, our further sympathy for him.) And, in the end, everyone pays the consequences: nobody gets off easily. If Alex is the protagonist of the story, then inhumanity, in both its corporeal and non-corporeal forms, is its antagonist.

Alex, a figure who commits abhorrent acts at the beginning of the story, becomes, in the film's second half, a character with whom one feels, not only sympathy, but even compassion and pity. The film's ofttimes vituperative reception, which contributed to Kubrick's unease over it, can be laid partly to this. Audience members either praised the film as insightful -- or, realizing how they were reacting towards it, rejected it outright, cutting off their feelings towards the film altogether.

In contrast, Natural Born Killers, the only other film to use extreme violence in order to make dramatic and moral points, winds up in the end in a different place altogether. It, too, deals with characters who were made, or have become, twisted by circumstance, only, in the case of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), they find a measure of happiness in the love and devotion that develops between them. The film also has, in the form of Harrelson and Lewis, two talented performers who depict their characters in ways that, at times, touch the level of brilliance.

But the film's conclusion ends up saying that the source of the protagonists' troubles is not murder, violence, and pathological abnormality (like Alex, Mickey and Mallory seem to find violence and homicide exciting, as well as a way to act out their deep emotional disturbances). It's the media, which encourages violence so that it can find continual grist for its exploitative and perversely celebratory mill. In such a way, the film sidesteps having to say anything conclusive, one way or the other, about the characters' actions -- and, unintentionally or not, seems as exploitative and perversely celebratory as the media that it ostensibly seeks to condemn.

Clockwork Orange seeks compassion for Alex, but it does not condone the wrongful things that he does. (If anything, they are illustrative at most, rather than something to make the fans in the bleachers roar.) If Alex's final comments at the end of the film, and the images that accompany them, provoke a laugh or two from audiences, it is a laugh of recognition, that both we and Alex know, even if the others don't, that they've let a tiger loose in their midst, and have no idea what they're in for. (Burgess' 1964 novel ended with a concluding chapter that showed Alex in middle-age. This chapter was dropped from U.S. editions of the book and replaced by a short "nadsat" glossary to allow readers to follow what was going on in the story. The concluding chapter was not included in U.S. editions until the 1980s -- causing people to rummage madly through boxes and closets for their 1970s paperback copies of the novel, because the new editions had dropped the "nadsat" glossary.) Would Alex have gone on to end up calling for people to give him "the power," as Christopher Jones did in Wild in the Streets? Maybe not, but I wouldn't put it entirely past him, either.

So, how will modern audiences react to the movie, this ice cold martini-with-a-chaser that Kubrick has concocted? Will a Planet Hollywood-style chain of Korova Milk Bar franchises suddenly spring up, like toadstools, across the nation? An exclusive cable channel where "droogs" can, at home, "glazzy" 24-hour broadcasts of "real horrosho" programming? Glossy monthly magazines written in "nadsat" and displaying the latest styles in "droog"-wear by Vivienne Westwood and "droog" home furnishings by Damien Hirst?

Well, people didn't start merrily crashing their cars into each other once Crash passed the hurdle erected by a London borough counsel and started showing on theater screens, there. Britons have been a little touchy about screen violence. The condemnatory wave towards "video nasties" in the Eighties swept many titles off the shelves of retailers and rental shops overnight, films that had already received certification for showing. (Films in Britain must receive a certification, which "rates" the film for exhibition, for theatrical showing, and then certification from another board for release on video.) And the tabloids raised enough of a ruckus over whether the two boys involved in the James Bulger case saw a video of Child's Play 3 (and it was later proved that they had not) before they murdered a third, younger boy, that the video ended up being banned in the U.K.

From a U.S. perspective, that may not seem like much of a loss. But Clockwork Orange is, in fact, not only a considerably better film, but in essence a considerably more humane piece of work. As Philip French, esteemed critic of the London Observer, put it, "It is ironic that a powerful multinational corporation such as Time-Warner should have been taking such draconian actions over a picture so morally concerned with the oppression of the weak by the powerful and the defense of free will." His February 27 article also quoted Luis Buñuel as having observed that "it is the only movie about what the modern world really means." Its return to Britain could very well be greeted in jubilant terms.

And, who knows...they could even do a remake ...

Buy Clockwork Orange at
Buy the Original 
Movie Poster from

  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.