Remember how I said that Real Genius was one of the silliest, most enjoyable things I’ve watched all year? Well, apparently my subconscious wanted me to see the polar opposite of that movie, so I followed up Val Kilmer with this:
. . . wow, it’s fucked up.
If you’ve seen this film, then you either know or are probably not surprised to discover that it was originally rated an X. I may make mention to certain adult scenes, so if that’s not something you really need to read, you may want to skip this review.
This story takes place in a dystopian, vaguely futuristic Britain. Our charming narrator is Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a little teenage sociopath who likes to break into homes, beat the shit out of people, and rape terrified women. Eventually, he has to go to jail for this, but he’s selected for a new experimental therapy that’s supposed to cure him of his violent behavior. Naturally, there are some side effects. There are always, always side effects.
1. I’ve never read A Clockwork Orange, and I really didn’t have any idea what the movie was about. All I knew going in was that it starred Malcolm McDowell, and he wasn’t supposed to be terribly likable. I did have a strong gut feeling, though, that I wasn’t going to enjoy this one much, and as an incentive for watching the movie, I opened the Cherry Coke that I had been saving for a rainy day.
Good Christ, did I need it. The film gets a bit more bearable maybe forty-five minutes into the movie . . . but those may have been the longest forty-five minutes of my entire life. If this film had not been a part of my sci fi challenge, I think—no, I’m almost positive—I would have given up in the first twenty minutes.
2. Cause, you see, I like the female form as much as the next gal, but sweet Jesus. If you include the mannequins in the opening scene with their brightly colored hair down there, I do believe I got to see twelve different bushes in the first fifteen minutes. I’m pretty sure I could have watched a porn and seen less genitalia.
3. And while I’m normally all for using classic, wholesome songs in conjunction with brutal violence, watching Alex belt out, “Singin in the Rain” while raping this poor woman . . . yeah, there’s only so much of that I’m willing to take. And, if you want, we can get into that discussion about how not every movie’s supposed to be enjoyable, blah blah blah, but there’s a certain level of discomfort I’m okay with, and then there’s the God, I need a bath and the last two hours of my life erased level of discomfort. A decent chunk of the film fell under that category.
4. Here’s a funny thing: while I didn’t understand half the dialogue in this film, I didn’t spend much time trying to figure it out, either. It didn’t even occur to me that Alex wasn’t speaking, you know, British the whole time. (I blame this on China Mieville’s Kraken. I’m struggling through that right now, desperately wishing for a Universal Translator of some kind for all the dialogue that makes no FREAKING sense to me.) If pressed, I probably would have said that it was a stylized, vaguely futuristic Cockney-esque vocab, but I didn’t realize how big of a deal the whole Nadsat thing was, or that it was comprised of both English and Russian.
The only word I did get tripped up on was “gulliver,” mainly because I kept trying to apply it to different anatomical parts throughout the course of the film. But otherwise, I didn’t find the dialogue distracting or detracting in any way. I understood the basic gist, and that was enough for me.
5. I do know that I was ready to beat Malcolm McDowell upside the head with a spiked tennis racket if I had to hear the words, “Oh my brother,” one more time, though.
6. I can also say that Malcolm McDowell is very convincing as a sadistic little fuck
McDowell has always been sort of a hit or miss actor for me (more miss when you get right down to it, honestly) but I think his performance here is probably one of the more worthwhile things about this film. In general, all of the performances are very good in this movie . . .
. . . except Patrick Magee (playing Mr. Frank Alexander), who is ridiculously over-the-top and, you know, not in the good way. Yes, I know this was a deliberate choice by Kubrick and all, but the way Magee chews the scenery . . . apologies, the way he demolishes and then upchucks the scenery . . . kind of takes out the emotion inherit in the situation and just turns him into a crazy, unsympathetic old bastard.
Actually, I figure that’s what Kubrick wanted to do all along, surround Alex with even less likable characters than he is in order to manipulate the audience into feeling sympathy for their “hero”. Not that I think this worked. Alex could very well be the least sympathetic protagonist I’ve ever had to watch, and a supporting cast of vexing victims and enemies did nothing to endear me towards his better nature or the film as a whole.
7. Biblical sociopathic visions, though, are somewhat enjoyable. This, I must admit.
8. One of the better scenes in this movie is also one of the more iconic shots in the whole film, the “therapy” scene:
I do like the idea of the treatment. Actually, I like many of the ideas in the movie—more of which will be discussed in the Spoiler Section—but I don’t know that they all translated well or that they were enough to save the film from the other problems I had with it. Still, this scene in particular was pretty cool. Clamping open eyeballs? Yeah, that’s always creepy.
9. Also creepy? The codpiece. Actually, so many of Alex’s outfits are disturbing, like the one with the purple jacket and the yellow lace undershirt and the funny buttons, but nothing is going to quite beat out the codpiece.
10. Finally, before our Spoiler Section, I should just like to mention that of course a professional scientific demonstration proving the effectiveness of an experimental treatment would include a topless woman. Of course it would.
Freaking Kubrick, man. Were he still alive, I’d say that he and Roman Polanski should get together and go bowling. Honestly.
Okay, so let’s back up a bit: Alex and his droogs (buddies) like to beat up people and the like, right? Alex is supposed to be the leader of this little band, but there’s a bit of a mutiny going on. Alex tries to quell it by harming and humiliating a few members to show him who’s boss. They, in turn, double cross him, so that after Alex bludgeons a woman over the head with a giant cock statue, his friends incapacitate him and leave him at the crime scene for the cops. She dies, so Alex goes to jail. Again, he goes to jail for killing a woman with a giant cock statue.
For Christ’s sake, Kubrick.
Anyway, after some time in prison, Alex hears about this new experimental treatment the government wants to try out. Supposedly, it will cure a person of all his violent impulses, making them fit to reenter society. Alex gets himself volunteered for the treatment, not realizing that he’s going to be put in a straight jacket, strapped to a chair, and forced to watch videos of murder, rape, nazis, and other icky stuff over and over again. This might not be so bad, of course, except that they also shoot him up with this drug that makes him horribly sick, and over time, he starts feeling horribly sick anytime he tries to hurt or force himself on anyone. (Or whenever Beethoven’s 9th symphony plays, which is especially unfortunate for Alex because he’s a big fan of Ludwig Van.)
After a demonstration proving his newfound goodwill toward mankind (that’s the one with the literal boot-licking and the beautiful topless woman, like good God) Alex is sent free. But things aren’t going too good for him out in the real world. His somewhat useless parents have more or less adopted their smarmy, yuppie lodger, leaving Alex homeless. And then he runs into everyone he’s ever wronged in about the space of three minutes, including a homeless guy he once beat up, two old members of his gang, and an old man, Mr. Alexander, who he paralyzed (and whose wife he raped—and who later died).
Thankfully, Mr. Alexander doesn’t remember Alex because he was wearing a mask last time he came around. So Alex decides to have a Mr. Orange moment—that is, a suicidally STUPID moment—-when he starts singing, “Singin’ in the Rain” while taking a bath in the old man’s place. (I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t remember beating up the old guy and raping the wife. Did he really just forget what song he was singing at the time? Honestly? You’re an IDIOT, Alex.) Anyway, Mr. Alexander certainly remembers, so he and his buddies drug Alex and lock him in an upstairs bedroom with Beethoven’s 9th playing at full volume. Alex can’t stand to listen to it, so he jumps out the window and tries to kill himself.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Alex ends up at the hospital, where the government—who has faced some very bad press because of all this—apologizes and offers Alex a job. Alex has had some dreams of doctors messing around with his head, and when he doesn’t get sick while listening to Beethoven’s 9th symphony, he knows that he’s back to his good old, violent self. The film ends with Alex’s smug voiceover, “I was cured all right!”
Now, SPOILERS for the novel, but I read how the book ends, and I’m actually glad they changed it for the movie. Yes, I know it sort of ruins the whole Christian allegory about free will and change and whatnot, but I don’t think I’d have ever bought any kind of truly redemptive story for Alex, not in this version, anyway. If I’d had to watch him become a better person and settle down with a wife and kid . . . I don’t know, I think I might have vomited. It wouldn’t fly for me here, not an ending like that. I could never buy Alex’s redemption. In my opinion, the movie’s ending is one of the stronger parts of the film.
But the rest of it . . . oh Christ, I don’t know what the hell to grade this. Like I said before, I found the movie easier to watch after the first hour, but having to sit through Alex’s long bouts of ultra-violence with his friends . . . uck. Not my thing, thank you. It’s a bad sign if you want to give up on the movie less than half an hour in.
And while Kubrick is certainly a master of photography—there are some gorgeous setups and shots in this film—that’s not really enough for me to like it as a film. Some time away for contemplation might allow me to see this movie in a better light, but I highly doubt any amount of reflection will cause me to think that it’s a masterpiece.
THE MOST TENTATIVE GRADE OF ALL TENTATIVE GRADES:
Don’t rape/attack/try to kill people. These people have long memories and will not look kindly on you and your whole forced redemption bit. They will kick you when you’re down . . . and you’ll kind of deserve it.
Also: experimental therapy? Never a good idea.