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On the 10th anniversary of Kubrick’s passing: “A Clockwork Orange”

The previous installment of the Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999) retrospective is here.

In his excellent book Have you seen?, David Thomson comments on the England of “A Clockwork Orange” as a place ‘where young people have grown steadily more callous.’

Who could argue with this?

If you read any tabloid newspaper in this green and pleasant land, we have become a nation of pediophobes. The Midwich Cuckoos, hooded, loaded on cheep cider and wielding knives and guns stalk our island like extras from a Mad Max movie.

Our schools are little safer. Teachers are held to ransom by unruly students who plague them with violence and the threat of social workers and the police. At home, parents dare not raise a hand or take an innocent picture for the fear of being labelled a paedophile.

As a country we have always been afraid of uniformed gangs. The Vikings, Napoleon’s Grand Armee, and the Nazis have all entered our collective nightmares over the centuries. Kubrick exploits these xenophobic fears by dressing his thugs in variations of all of these guises.

We see our own children as just another foreign threat to be repelled. After all, they look different, speak another language, and don’t play by the rules – rules usually made by white middle class adults who have little contact with the urban mob they so fear. Through use of costume and the original Nadsat language of the novel, Kubrick helps to perpetuate this moral panic by having Alex and his droogs seem like totally alien entities when compared to the adults in the film.

“A Clockwork Orange” could only have ever been set in Britain. The fear of youth cults stretches from the Victorian Hooligan, to the post-war Teddy boy, Mods and Rockers, Skinheads and Punks, to the Football Casuals, and to today’s grime inspired Hoodies.

As an Anglophile Kubrick was well aware of this very English phenomenon. The original novel, written in 1961 by Anthony Burgess, dovetailed perfectly a decade later with the rise of more organised football gangs and the battles in the 60s between Mods and Rockers on Brighton beach.

picture copyright: Warner Brothers
picture copyright: Warner Bros.

Our present day mini-thugs now seem to have caught up with Malcolm McDowell’s uber delinquent Alex DeLarge in more ways than one. The English mass media reports his inheritors’ antics on a 24hr basis, over-analysing the causes again and again. Rape, murder, and drug taking – nothing surprises even the Daily Mail reader anymore, but everything scares them witless and boy do they want someone to blame.

Kubrick offers them up a number of candidates. On the surface, Alex’s parents seem polite and respectable enough. Their flat is well kept amongst the vandalised tower block they are held prisoner in that shows an inner civic pride. However, for all of their outer decency they are horribly complicit in their son’s crimes.

Alex has no curfew at night, no boundaries in the day and locks his parents out of his room and life. They are happy to believe his lies so long as he leaves them alone. Kubrick doesn’t show how this relationship has become so one-sided, but it is a believable arrangement. Mr and Mrs DeLarge seem more like grandparents than parents and this disparity in age may explain how ineffective they are when faced with such a physical and intellectual force as Alex. They simply haven’t the energy or intelligence to keep up with him.

As a consequence they dispense all parental accountability to the state in the guise of Mr Deltoid, the school inspector. Not only is Deltoid ineffective and out of touch with the young people he is supposed to help back into education, but he maybe abusing his power.

Like a vampire, he is invited into Alex’s home by the DeLarges to do as he pleases. He fondles Alex after an almost orgasmic climax to his rant whilst on his parents’ bed. Deltoid having crossed this line realises that someone of Alex’s capabilities may not keep quiet. Perhaps this is the real reason why Deltoid is so keen for Alex to be incarcerated after his murder of the Cat Lady.

The police are no better. Alex is only caught after being set up by his droogs. It seems the long arm of the law only reaches as far as its informers can help it. On the surface, little seems to have changed from the days of Dixon of Dock Green – uniformed officers eat cake and drink tea whilst trading niceties. In the cells away from this public facade Alex is brutalised.

Deltoid is even given carte blanche by Detective Constable Tom to join in with the violence. He refuses the invitation but decides to spit directly into Alex’s wound – perhaps the completion of his earlier, rebuffed sexual act.

Prison holds more unseen terrors. Why exactly has Alex become a trustee and the Chaplain’s aid? Is this the only way that he can escape the unwanted advances of other prisoners? Or has he once again used his angelic charms to avoid the real punishment that middle England would want him to suffer?

The Chaplain is the only moral voice in the entire film. He may be used by Alex as a means to an end, but he is the only one to really question the Pavlovian ‘Ludovico Technique’. He asks what real choice does Alex have after being merely conditioned to the good.

The Prison Governor is quick enough to off load Alex to the cut glass Government Minister and his blind devotion in Dr. Brodsky’s controversial Ludovico procedure. The custodial system then is once again presented as another target for the Daily Mail brigade baying for blood and crying their mantra – ‘soft on crime’.

Alex, now in the hands of scientists and psychologists, is perhaps subjected to the kind of torture that the Conservative public would approve of. Those he has perpetrated violently against in the past dispense his final justice. Yet perversely, as this treatment backfires, public opinion turns against the Government. The English people’s sense of fair play and outrage at overreaching leadership can help forgive the most heinous of crimes, so long as there is a ready made scapegoat.

Brodsky is given up and the Minister deftly employs Alex’s parents to help persuade him to speak up for his Government. They are hypocritical enough to take him back and receive the monetary benefits they were no doubt offered to do so.

In the end, we are all to blame. We are all complicit in the creation of Alex and his modern day counterparts. Alex is only 15 at the start of the film and has been taught the game by its corrupt players. He has bitten the hand that has fed him throughout his life and will continue to do so in his newly ‘won’ Government post.

Alex’s greatest trick of the film is to take all responsibility off of his own shoulders by his unreliable narration. By doing this, Kubrick has hoodwinked us all. Alex is a callous monster, cleverer than most of the adults he encounters throughout his journey. He pushes this as far as he can.

Someone very early on should have told him no. And stuck to it.

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Mark Farnsworth

Senior Film Writer Mark Farnsworth teaches Film in East London and is currently working on two screenplays, The Mysteries and Fair Access. He also writes the Oh/Cult section for Brokenshark.co.uk.

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