My first viewing of A Clockwork Orange 30 years ago left me lost on the message. A hardened criminal receives the opportunity for a quick, psychologically based reform, but the dehumanizing treatment endured almost makes his crimes seem forgivable. Not sure who to side with and put off by the chaotic presentation, I was indifferent. Nonetheless, a later more open-minded viewing got my nod, but the ideological mish-mash remained, and a meaningful critique here, would require the insight of others.
Slightly future based, Alex is a vile British hooligan. Leading a quartet of “Droogs,” the protagonist orchestrates the brutal beating off a defenseless drunk, gang rape of a Samaritan and the murder of an English socialite. Nothing short of cinematic horror, if this weren’t Kubrick, switching it off would be understandable.
As expected, little Alex lands in jail, but a propensity for violence, doesn’t mean he’s dim. Delving himself into the bible to angle for a softer incarceration, he seizes on the chance for freedom by submitting to the Ludovico Technique.
A fictional aversion therapy, the offender becomes violently ill at the prospect of violence. Exposing the prisoner to graphic scenes, experimental drugs are administrated until the desired effect occurs.
For me, sorting out the penal ethics was missing the point. Perusing past articles, I found Roger Ebert off base also. This “dystopian future” says if society is criminal, the citizen simply follows. Accusing Kubrick of simply glorifying Alex, I was taken aback by the harsh critique.
I wouldn’t have to be so bold. I seized on Ebert’s “dystopian future” remark, and realized that Clockwork isn’t future, it’s present. Therein lies my interpretation.
We learn applying this therapy to the criminal element will free prisons up for the more pressing concern of political dissidents. The application doesn’t apply today – save Bradley Manning and all the whistleblowers President Obama has prosecuted – but the need to neutralize does.
Stepping outside the mainstream and the partisan politics of today means a 24 hour cable news onslaught that makes one wonder if even Martin Luther King could have risen above it – much less citizens concerned with all our undeclared wars.
But back to the so-called future, England’s Minister of Interior understands the power of theatrics over substance. Heading the program, his public demonstration stoops Alex over in pain at just the inclination of violence.
In contrast, the prison preacher correctly foresees the unsustainability of the technique. “He has no real choice and only defers to avoid pain.”
“Subtleties,” replies the minister. “It works and the people are only concerned with restoring Law and Order.”
We don’t need to look to the future to find superficial show driving policy.
Kubrick doesn’t spare liberals either. The very husband of the rape victim gladly puts aside his pain to further his political agenda through Alex. He also comes with a typical arrogance that believes the masses must be steered to a just society because they lack the sophistication to understand the issues.
The left media then seizes on the negative outcome of Alex’s experiment with the type of sensationalized headlines and stories that never give partisan politics a rest.
Finally, with Alex’s base origins restored and the sitting government damaged, the party forms an alliance with Alex as easily as legislators make policy in accordance to the highest bidder. “Public opinion has a way of changing,” the minister tells Alex. “This partnership is an understanding between friends. And friends help each other.”
Alex gladly complies.
In the end, Roger Ebert’s boldness is not necessary - especially since artistic masterpiece means finding something different every time you see it.