Second Chances: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Where and when we watch movies are crucial to how much we enjoy them. By rewatching a film, our opinion on it can drastically change. We can appreciate things we never saw before, feel like we’re watching an entirely new film, or our estimations can plummet, and we question why we ever liked it in the first place.
In this column, I’m going to be revisiting some of my least favorite movies. I want to work out what I disliked about it in the first place, and whether I find those aspects still troubling. I want to reflect on what about me has changed since my last watch, and whether or not I appreciate it more. I want to give a fair and balanced assessment to films I could very easily, completely write off and never think about again because every film deserves a second chance.
Everyone knows that Lady in the Water isn’t very good, and the community of die-hard Moulin Rouge fanatics is small enough that I wasn’t going to anger too many people by airing my lukewarm opinion. This is the first edition of Second Chances where I might actually annoy a couple of people.
Because I don’t like A Clockwork Orange.
I love Kubrick. He’s a genuine marvel. I was creeped out by The Shining, wowed by 2001, and I’m one of the rare few who ranks Spartacus amongst my favorites. I hadn’t seen a Kubrick film I didn’t enjoy until I saw A Clockwork Orange, and I’ve received a lot of flak from cinephiles when I make this viewpoint known.
It wasn’t that I was too young to appreciate it, or that I didn’t understand its richly layered satire. Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel just did not work for me. The film shows a violent, criminal miscreant Alex (Malcolm McDowell) volunteers for experimental behavioral modification to escape his long prison sentence, but I thought the story was overly stretched, and the runtime of 136 minutes was not justified.
A common argument I hear is that the book is superior, and reading it bolsters your appreciation of the film. I wouldn’t be a very good former English Literature student if I said I wasn’t interested in seeing how the book executed the interesting themes, but an adaptation should first and foremost stand on its own as a piece of film, and I couldn’t say A Clockwork Orange had enough merits to interest me.
I’ve found that when you’re trying to argue that a film isn’t very good, the best point to make is that you were bored when watching it. There’s no real comeback to it, it stumps most arguments. Your opponent can’t disagree that you weren’t bored, and nothing they can say can make you retroactively engaged in the narrative. I was genuinely uninterested in watching A Clockwork Orange for the first time. It was a few years ago that I tried it, and the only real emotion I remember feeling was discomfort. This is of course expected, and it isn’t the reason I disliked the film, I know films don’t have to be enjoyable to be considered good. But a lot of unpleasant films have a really gripping story, and if they don’t then their portrayals of grisly violence and grim characters can feel gratuitous.
I was rooting for A Clockwork Orange when I rewatched it. I wanted to see what other people saw. Was I impressed this time around? Did I finally get what all the fuss was about when I gave it a second chance?
The answer to both questions is a disappointing ‘no’. My opinion remains largely the same, but now I’m a little bit more aware of what it is I dislike and appreciate.
The film is clearly broken into three acts, each with a different setting and narrative goal. First, we see Alex’s gang (or ‘droogies’) prancing around trying to find a solution to their constant ennui, namely in violence, sexual assault, and classical music. The second act has Alex incarcerated and undergoing the treatment program where ultraviolence is pumped into his eyes, and the third act sees him uncomfortably trying to rejoin society now that he has been reportedly cured, and the shortcomings of his treatment are made abundantly clear.
I’m laying out the story like this because I want to transmit that A Clockwork Orange does have a clear, well-defined structure. But also, I want to show that the narrative is not overly complex, and can be easily condensed in a short paragraph. If a half-hour was allotted to each act, my problems with the film would be sizably cut down. But as it stands, the 2-hour-plus runtime is way too long. The last thing I want to do is tell the master of cinema Stanley Kubrick how to edit his films, but when your film filled with spurts of shocking, explicit violence feels like it’s dragging its feet, you have a problem.
It’s worth tackling this last point about the shocking nature of the film. At nearly 50 years old, A Clockwork Orange hasn’t aged badly. The assaults, brawls, and home invasions Alex’s gang carry out are still genuinely shocking, and Kubrick’s masterful composition and framing are pivotal to making us feel trapped in these violent episodes, as if, like Alex, our eyeballs have been pinned open and we are forced to survey the carnage. But while the film does have great macro-structure, with each act clearly separated and character development well signposted, the micro-structure is not as strong. I know that Alex’s life pre-prison is defined by a languid, purposeless wallowing in decadent violence, but if every successive scene is just trying to shock you more and more, their impact eventually feels somewhat lacking.
Outside of being dull, the film has some choices that are downright annoying. The grim 70s-era dystopia of the film includes a lot of English slang and lingo, what author Burgess denotes as ‘nadsat’. To see becomes ‘to viddy’, money becomes ‘cutter’, and sex is ‘in and out’. It certainly adds a lot of idiosyncratic personality to the film, and together with the classical music and bowler hats it gives Alex’s gang this bizarre faux-classiness to their debauchery, but its overuse eventually becomes irritating.
In one of the worst mistakes you can make when adapting a book, Kubrick uses a lot of voiceover from Alex to guide us through the story. It certainly gives a good insight into the twisted brain of our protagonist, but often it pointlessly describes exactly what we’re seeing. These images gorgeously shot and frequently striking, would be much more impactful on their own. (Also, this is just a personal gripe, but I find a narrator referring to themselves as a narrator extremely annoying.)
The final act is where the best ideas come into play. In Alex, now a shell of his former self, we see the effects of arrogant scientists who misunderstand rehabilitation and a society completely out of touch with the root causes of criminality. Our former ultra-violent is now victimized by his friends and forced to face the consequences of his harmful actions. The government would rather revert Alex’s mind back to how it was at the start of the film rather than admit their policies were ineffectual and damaging, and it’s a prescient point that still feels truthful today. Ultimately though, A Clockwork Orange is the rare Kubrick film that feels like a misfire, and although the impeccable filmmaking techniques are still admirable, it’ll be tough appreciating the full effect of the shocking content when you’re checking your watch every five minutes.