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A Clockwork Orange - Novel by Anthony Burgess

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'A Clockwork Orange' was originally a novel by Anthony Burgess, published in 1962. The novel follows main character Alex De Large as he roams around with his gang comitting violent brutal beatings and rapes; "so we had her down on the floor and a rip of her platties for fun and a gentle bit of the boot to stop her moaning" (Burgess, 1962, p.5). The unusual protagonist is punished for his crimes by way of The Ludovico treatment, meaning he is subjected to a type of drug-assisted aversion therapy. The novel was adapted and made into a film in 1971, with Stanley Kubrick as the director. There is a great deal of difference between the novel and the film however, as 'Kubrick's vision is a good deal blacker than Burgess's' (De Vries, 1973, p.57).

The society in A Clockwork Orange is set in a time in the future where the country is oversaturated with carelessness, vice and crime. To see the reasoning behind this, we need to look at Britain at time of production. In The Observer, it was claimed that whereas the 1960's was 'the affluent society', the 1970's was 'the violent society'. Indeed there was a startling increase in criminality in comparison: 966,000 offences in 1962, compared to 2,000,000 offences in 1975 (oxfordjournals.org). There were also massive changes in the law in the late 1960's, including the decriminalisation of sexual acts between two males, legalisation of abortion, and the abolition of capital punishment. So Kubrick imagines a Britain that is pushed to a breaking point because of these changes, and so in a way to control those in society, becomes totalitarian. Society was in such disarray at the time that one journalist referred to A Clockwork Orange as 'a sick film for a sick society'. (Peregrine Worsthorne, cited in Robertson, 1993, p.149). A Clockwork Orange is said to be a film of its time, a product of 'the permissive society', an all-inclusive phrase which referred to the state of the society at the time.

As the film is directed by an American, it could initially be subjected to scrutiny as to whether as a film it does have an identifiable British national identity. Kubrick, however, had lived in England since the early 60's and a majority of the crew was British. If playing devil's advocate, it could be suggested that being an American gave Kubrick a unique outside viewpoint on the country and society he wanted to present. The film certainly related to very British problems at the time, such as crime and punishment, drugs, and shunning of authority. The generation at the time that brought in the relaxed attitudes to drugs and sex may have found more to identify with in the film. At the same time, some audiences may not have identified with the Britain projected in the film, as it would have meant taking a look at the darker side of their current society. Kubrick definitely incorporates the British habit of being very critical and satirical when it comes to class and authority in the film, as I will look into later.

Alex is the ringleader and instigator of horrific violence in the film, although the portrayal of Alex is not a conventional depiction of a villain, especially a villain who rapes and exacts unprovoked violence on people. Some critics have described Alex and the supporting cast in the film of being cartoon-like. Indeed the portrayal of the characters in general is possibly the most problematic aspect in many critics views. The characters in one view are described as

'banally conceived. Kubrick has played on just about every conceivable popular social prejudice. We have homosexuals, a Mom and Pop who can't control their child, mindless goons, mindless bureaucrats, a hell-fire and brimstone preacher who sees visions, an effete intellectual, a drunken bum, sexy teeny-poppers, and a health-nut. Anyone who wants to show us the badness of society has to be a bit more subtle than that' (De Vries, p.60).

The above quote chides Kubrick for choosing predictable characters to represent the dystopian society he imagines. What is also very problematic is the way Alex specifically is portrayed. Pauline Kael is very clear on what she sees as a sympathetic portrayal;

'Alex is the only likable person we see- his cynical bravado suggests a broad-nosed, working-class Olivier- more alive than anybody else in the movie, and younger and more attractive' (Kael, 1972).

Kubrick himself acknowledged the dichotomy of the character, claiming that 'Alex has vitality, courage and intelligence, but you cannot fail to see that he is thoroughly evil' (cited in Ciment, Michel, 1980, p.178).

I would agree certainly that if it wasn't for the crimes he commits, Alex would be a very likeable character- he is eloquent, passionate, and capable of being charming. I do not personally find it problematic that Kubrick chose to not portray Alex as a stereotypical ugly, uneducated monster. I find it almost humorous (and it is a credit to the writing in the novel) that Alex at first glance would be passable as an intelligent slightly eccentric 18 year old with a love for classical music.

Alex as a character is very eccentric, in a number of ways. Firstly his image suggests him to be much older than his supposed 18 years. His dress sense includes a purple velvet jacket with elaborate patterning on the sleeves and neck (see fig.1), but mostly he is seen wearing a white shirt with white trousers with white suspenders, and a black bowler hat. The cane he also uses projects sophistication, but is more likely to be used for purposes of violence. Rather less sophisticatedly, he wears a protective cup outside his trousers, drawing attention to his genital area.

Fig 1. Alex in a record store

It is not just Alex's dress sense that is visually interesting, but the whole world he inhabits. The Korova Milk Bar, a place where he and his gang go to take drugs, is an otherworldly cavern, with psychedelic writing over the wall, strange characters in the background, and female mannequins decorating the room in sexually provocative poses. This setting is in contrast with the setting of Alex's home, which is in a run-down working class area. Alex's parents have decorated the place so it is very drab, and the erotically-charged paintings on the wall, even though sexual, are less styled to be 'sexy'. The set design and the location choices in the film are very clear- Alex's world is colourful, interesting, loaded with sexual images and exciting visual metaphors. Other settings in comparison are languid and unimpressive. What does this say about the society Kubrick is portraying? In this dystopian society, will Alex's world be considered 'better'?



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