A Clockwork Orange centers around an anti-hero, whose name is Alex. The story takes place in a dystopian future of Great Britain, where Alex is the leader of a youth gang. Alex and his friends spend most of their time drinking in “Korova” milk bar and committing petty crimes. Alex lives with his parents; he likes to listen to classical music and he is a ladies’ man. One night Alex and his friends break into the house of a writer Mr. Alexander, beat him, and rape his young wife while singing “I’m singing in the rain.” In his gang, he has a conflict with his friends, Georgie and Dim, who Alex defiantly beats. After this conflict, Alex and his gang attempt to rob a house where Alex kills a woman. Afterward, his friends betray Alex and leave him behind on the crime scene, and he gets in jail for murder.
In prison, Alex tries to behave, he pretends that he is fond of religion, and in the end decides to take part in a scientific experiment, which can supposedly cure his violent behavior. Alex thinks that this is an easy way out of the prison. Alex is treated with experimental medicine and is shown films with sex and violence, accompanied by the music of Beethoven. His eyes are always kept open, so he cannot look away. As a result of the treatment, Alex is psychically unable to commit acts of violence and feels sick when he is tempted to do so. This physical reaction is also caused by listening to his favorite music, and when he is experiencing sexual desires, Alex is unable to do anything he was enjoying. Alex is released from the prison, but as he returns home, he finds out that his room is taken by a tenant and his parents are not happy with his return, so he is left homeless. In the street, Alex runs into a homeless person he has once beaten. He is saved by his former gang-friends, who became police officers. They also beat Alex and humiliate him while he is unable to resist.
Beaten, cold and miserable Alex finds shelter in the house of the writer he assaulted at the beginning of the film. The writer’s wife died and he is crippled, but he does not recognize Alex as one of the attackers. The writer knows from the newspapers that Alex is a victim of the government experiment and promises to help him. The writer hears Alex singing, and remembers who he was. The writer and his associates, who are in opposition to the government, decide to use Alex as an instrument in their political struggle and force him to commit suicide by making him listen to Beethoven. Alex throws himself out of the window, and as a result of the head injury, the treatment is reversed. The government uses Alex to fix their reputation damaged by their fiasco with the treatment of criminals. The film ends with Alex fantasizing, surrounded by press, as he declares that he is finally cured.
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The reviews of A Clockwork Orange differ greatly in their attitude towards the film: from disgust to adoration. The two reviews taken into consideration were written when the film was released and almost thirty years later respectively, so the response to the film differs greatly. The review by Roger Ebert was written in 1972 and was very critical towards the film. In his review, Ebert writes that the film was hugely overrated and criticizes it for its glorification of violence represented by the main character Alex and the author’s inability, or conscientious refusal, to define his moral evaluation of characters’ behavior. Ebert criticizes the director for “celebrating” Alex character and deliberately making the audience not only roots for the homicidal rapist but identifying with the character. Ebert mentions that “Alex is violent because it is necessary for him to be violent in order for this movie to entertain in the way Kubrick intends” (Ebert).
Regarding the social criticism of the movie, Ebert is questioning Kubrick’s approach for not explaining why the society in the film is so corrupt and violent, and describing it as a caricature just to provide a background, on which Alex could seem more “normal.” Considering the artistic decisions of the director, Ebert describes them as merely visual gimmicks. Ebert is famous for his negative attitude to morally ambiguous films, which later become cult classics, and this review is not an exception.
The review from the Slant magazine, written by Jeremiah Kipp in 2007 looks at the film from the historical and cultural point of view. While Roger Ebert might be slightly biased towards the film because of its popularity amongst some critics, Kipp is more objective in his review, as the film earned its place in film history since then. As Kipp mentions, the acts of violence in the film were never aimed to entertain the viewer, as they are still shocking and horrible despite the way they are shot. Unlike Ebert, Kipp thinks that Kubrick is not glorifying Alex and his behavior, but is rather leaving it for the viewer to judge. The reviewer dwells on the description of institutionalized violence against Alex, the topic Ebert ignored in his review. He also addresses one of the main ideas of the film, the issue of free will:
“Alex is not being taught that these acts of violence are wrong; he’s being brainwashed to have a physical aversion to that violence and the ability to choose between right and wrong has nothing to do with it.” (Kipp)
Both critics compare the film to Kubrick’s other masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but when Ebert just compares the visuals in the last scenes of both films, Kipp describes A Clockwork Orange as “a sort of sequel about our planet rotting away from the inside”. Although both reviews have their strong points, I think that Ebert was a little prejudiced toward the film. As an example, he devotes the last passages of the review criticizing not the film itself, but the other critics praising it. As for Jeremiah Kipp’s review, it provides more historical and cultural context, mentions the great performances, and is far more objective.
A Clockwork Orange is a great film which requires a number of views. Despite the violence, the films still have enough irony, plot-twists, great acting, and enough visual and artistic merits to satisfy film-snobs. I admired the visuals that Stanley Kubrick created in the film. The set design is surreal and the atmosphere of the dystopian future is unique, unlike in any other film. The framing and the usage of wide angle lenses also help to create this unusual, surreal world. The director also masterfully uses music and editing with some experimental touches which seem innovative even now. Although there are some scenes in the film that drag a little, the overall pacing of the film is close to perfect. The artistic merits of the film are definite, but the viewer’s appreciation of the film is dependent on two factors: attitude to screen violence, as depicted in the film, and viewers’ thoughts on the main character, Alex.
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Alex is a very interesting character, he is disgusting and ruthless and at the same time somewhat charming. This creates a conflict inside the viewer whether to root for this character or to despise him, but Malcolm McDowell’s performance is amazing. A Clockwork Orange is a very violent film even by today’s standards. The acts of violence are horrific and shocking, but they are shot in an artistic manner, sometimes even beautifully as if the director wanted to glorify violence committed by Alex. If the viewer is ready to overcome disgust from all the horrific scenes, a number of great ideas will be presented for his/her consideration. The ideas are the most important thing about this film, the director’s considerations on the society and the role of violence in it, the political manipulations and their victims and, most importantly, the question of the free will. What makes a person: his true nature or what society makes of him? This is a great question and A Clockwork Orange provides enough ground for discussions. Although the film was surrounded by controversy and received mixed reviews when it was released, it proved its cult status. I have seen this film not once, each time noticing different aspects from the set design, music or cinematography, and I definitely recommend it not only to film fans but to casual viewers who are brave enough.