Film Analysis – A Clockwork Orange

Clockwork OrangeMany critics miss the mark with A Clockwork Orange.  Some consider the film one that a) deals with the moral depravity of youth in their trends toward graphic societal violence, b) is some highly veiled attempt at New World Order conspiracy theory, or d) a simplistic glorification of violence.  These critiques are not completely accurate.  One needs look no further than deep down into the depths of their own internal self as A Clockwork Orange progresses on screen.  Therein lay the true nature of the overarching significance of the message conveyed by this film.  Kubrick taps into something that we are not readily able to admit.

What is that message?  What is it that Kubrick so brilliantly and subtly touches within us?  “What we respond to subconsciously is Alex’s guiltless sense of freedom to kill and rape, and to be our savage natural selves, and it is in this glimpse of the true nature of man that the power of the story derives,” said Kubrick in a New York Times interview.[1] It is the raw, primitive animalistic revelry and zeal of the human nature.  It may very well be malleable, yet in the end, it is indeed indestructible.  This nature is a part of us that we hide from everyone else, the darker part of man’s soul and nature.

When the film begins, we treat it as any other cinematic escape.  As each graphic scene passes us by, we initially react with discomfort.  Eventually, something else quietly takes over.  We begin to smile.  We chuckle.  We are soon engrossed in devilish delight as we begin to revel in the violence.  The wit of McDowell as he portrays lead character Alex De Large leaves us with a sense that he is literally a ‘cat that has swallowed the canary’.  He gets away with vile acts.  He enjoys it.  Through him, we begin to fantasize about letting our darker selves out to play.  We wonder what it would be like to ‘get away with it’, and subsequently enjoy it.

To acknowledge our lust for the dark side of human nature is quite embarrassing in a world full of moralistic judgment, is it not?  Kubrick certainly thinks so.  In an interview with Michel Clement, he speaks to this subconscious dark side within people.  “I think that it’s probably because we can identify with Alex on the unconscious level,” said Kubrick. “The psychiatrists tell us the unconscious has no conscience — and perhaps in our unconscious we are all potential Alexes. It may be that only because of morality, the law and sometimes our own innate character that we do not become like him. Perhaps this makes some people feel uncomfortable and partly explains some of the controversy that has arisen over the film. Perhaps they are unable to accept this view of human nature.”[2]

With so many scenes are ripe for analysis, there is one particular grouping of shots that ties strongly to the overarching point of Kubrick’s commentary on human nature and society.  The government-sponsored brainwashing of Alex De Large, called the Ludovico Technique, is a major plot point in the exposition of the film. Note the separate attachment to this paper for shot sequence. [3]

In the sequence, a doctor restrains Alex, hooking him to the brainwash machine with his eyes held open by clamps.  Their goal is to sensitize him to violence in such a way as to evoke a complete disdain and physical repulsion to it in the future.  It is highly symbolic of our society.  We, the viewers, have sat back over time and watched the growing glorification of violence in all of mediums of mass media consumption.  As societal morals and norms constantly compromise with the passing of time, we too, as a society, have also desensitized ourselves to violence.  We now accept that which we once thought completely unacceptable.  We watch with eyes wide open the violence enveloping our entertainment in media, news, television shows and film.  We, like Alex De Large, are slowly being changed, but in the opposite fashion.

Using the shot sequence, the following is a brief analysis illustrating three key Kubrick directorial techniques that make this scene so strong.  Kubrick uses sound, closed form shots and the strength of his primary actor to illustrate the themes of the film.  First, two key sound techniques help keep the theme of the movie in the context of the moment.  Alex narrates throughout much of the process, giving a first person perspective of exactly what thoughts are going through his head as the process runs its course.  His insights show how the process is horrific to him as his inner nature fights against the change.  What is most revealing is his narrative insight that overlaps between shots eight and nine in the first brainwash sequence.[4] “Colors of the real world only seem really real when you view them on the screen,” comments Alex.  This goes directly to the overarching theme that our dark human nature and violence breeds on what modern forms of media feed it, with society becoming more and more desensitized and accepting of violence as media becomes more and more violent.

Kubrick’s use of sound is also significant in the various uses of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement.  Early in the film, this is Alex’s signature music piece.  Not only is it ironic that he would have a love of classical music, but equally ironic that doctors use the same music to turn him.  In shot five of the second brainwashing sequence, Alex first realizes that his favorite tune is in the background.  He later becomes sick to his stomach every time he hears it, showing the effective reversal that comes from the government brainwashing.  Further, note that the music style changes for the Beethoven piece starting in shot one of the second sequence.[5] It is no longer orchestral but synthesized.  It sounds a bit sped up.  This denotes happiness.  Kubrick, however, juxtaposes the music to scenes of Hitler and Nazi fighting in World War II.  The change in musical style accents the conflict between the happiness that Alex derives from violence versus the desired result of order and happiness imposed on him.

In addition to sound, shot framing is important in this particular sequence.  The entire scene features alternating one-shots, two-shots and interspersed film footage shots that highlight the uncomfortable confinement and struggle of the event itself.  First, every shot in the sequence features no camera movement.  There are no pans, tilts or changes in angles.  The camera remains stationary throughout.  This enhances the closed form feel of this sequence, and the tight confines of the theatre.  Alex, and the audience, cannot escape.  We must face the violence of our primitive nature.  As we, the audience, have watched with eyes wide open throughout life as violence pervades society, Alex too must watch with eyes wide open, staring into his own violent nature.  The shots of film footage (shots six, eight and ten in sequence one) are reflections of his own nature and actions, as most of the figures within the early sequence are droogs, just like Alex.[6] Finally, close-ups of Alex’s eye symbolize the window into his nature, the window through which society is trying to force conformity and change.

Finally, Kubrick relies on the great performance by Malcolm McDowell.  “In terms of working with actors, a director’s job more closely resembles that of a novelist than of a Svengali,” said Kubrick.  “One assumes that one hires actors who are great virtuosos. It is too late to start running an acting class in front of the cameras, and essentially what the director must do is to provide the right ideas for the scene, the right adverb, the right adjective.”[7] One can only imagine what adverbs and adjectives Kubrick gave to McDowell before shooting this sequence.  McDowell truly looks terrified as the brainwashing goes on and on.  His yells and screams hit the audience like nails scratching a chalkboard.  The doctors are raping him of his nature, and it is painful and terrifying.  McDowell helps us feel it.

Yet, is it necessary for a government or authority to try to remove this from human nature?   What are the consequences?    Does something within us die?  The doctors surely indicate this during the sequence, equating the process to “death, a sense of stifling or drowning” (shot fourteen, first brainwash sequence).[8] In reality, Kubrick ties it all back together in the end.  Indeed, human nature may be malleable, but it is indestructible.  The government did not succeed in permanently converting Alex De Large into an “Orange” that runs like “Clockwork” within society.  The message – we cannot deny our primitive human nature, regardless of how hard we try to ignore it.  Perhaps neither the politicians nor the doctors had anything to do with the reversal of the brainwashing and societal conformity imposed on Alex.   Rather, the indestructible and primitive human nature was never destroyed.  It simply healed itself.

 


[1] Weinraub, Bernard. Kubrick Tells What Makes ‘Clockwork Orange’ Tick, New York Times.

[2] Interview with Michel Clement : http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/interview.aco.html

[3] See shot sequence attachment

[4] See shot sequence attachment

[5] See shot sequence attachment

[6] See shot sequence attachment

[7] Weinraub, Bernard. Kubrick Tells What Makes ‘Clockwork Orange’ Tick, New York Times.

[8] See shot sequence attachment

 

Shot Summary – Brainwashing Sequence

  • Part 1 – Brainwash Sequence – stationary camera positions throughout

o    Shot 1: Full 2-Shot.  Film theatre – Alex, Doctor, lower screen in foreground with panel of doctors slightly out of focus deep in the upper background behind – Note: Alex Narration begins

o    Shot 2: 1-Shot Close up – Alex’s face, Doctor attaches clamps

o    Shot 3: Back to Full 2-Shot – Brainwash movie begins, doctor adds drops to Alex’s eyes

o    Shot 4,5: Medium and Close up on doctors in rear of room

o    Shot 6: Full Shot – Movie Scenes – Man beaten by thugs dressed like Alex’s droogs

o    Shot 7:1-Shot Close up – Alex

o    Shot 8: Full Shot – Movie Scenes – Man being beaten still

o    Narration overlap – Alex: “Colors of the real world only seem really real when you view them on the screen.”

o    Shot 9: 1-Shot Close up – Alex

o    Shot 10: Full shot – Next brainwash film sequence – rape/orgy scene by droogs  (3 clips)

o    Shot 11: Full 2-shot – Brainwash movie begins, doctor adds drops to Alex’s eyes…Alex begins to show horrified expressions on face

o    Shot 12: 1-Shot Close up – Alex with sick look on face

o    Shot 13: Alex starts to talk in the shot instead of narration – says he’s going to be sick

o    Shot 14: 1-Shot Close up –  Male Doctor talking about description of what’s coming from process – “like death, sense of stifling or drowning”

o    Shot 15: 1-Shot Close up – Female Doctor

o    Shot 16: 1-Shot Close up – Male Doctor

  • Interval between brainwash scenes – Room with female nurse/doctor – Low angle shot of her talking down to Alex – right to left direction.  He is in bed. – stationary camera position throughout
  • Part 2 – Brainwash Sequence – stationary camera positions throughout

o    Shot 1: Full Shot – Starts with film scene on screen – Hitler/Nazi footage – Note: Music is now a different, synthesized style of Beethoven music…very cheerful music juxtaposed with Nazi invasion/military destruction shots

o    Shot 2: Alex – 1-Shot Close up

o    Shot 3: Alex – 1-Shot Close up continued – Alex’s facial expressions as pain grows, more narration

o    Shot 5: Alex notices that music is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, 4th Movement

o    Shot 6: Full Shot – More brainwashing film footage

o    Shot 7: Alex – 1-Shot Extreme Close up of Alex’s eye – He screams

o    Shot 8: Alex – 1-Shot Close up – Alex continues to scream

o    Shot 9: Full 2-Shot.  Film theatre – Alex, Doctor, foreground lower screen with panel of doctors slightly out of focus deep in the background upper screen, and Alex is yelling.

o    Shot 10: Medium 2-shot of the 2 lead doctors, Alex continues to shout, music still

o    Shot 11: Full 2-shot of Alex, doctor, panel of doctors in back of theater – Alex yelling to them

o    Shot 12: Female Doctor  – 1-Shot Close up

o    Shot 13: Alex – 1-Shot Close up

o    Shot 14: Female Doctor – 1-Shot Close up

o    Shot 15: Male Doctor – 1-Shot Close up

o    Shot 16: Alex – 1-Shot Close up

o    Shot 17: Medium 2 shot – male and female doctors

o    Shot 18: Full 2-shot of Alex, doctor, panel of doctors in back of theater – Alex still yelling

o    Shot 19: Male Doctor – 1-Shot Close up

o    Shot 20: Female Doctor – 1-Shot Close up

o    Shot 21: Medium 2-Shot – Alex, doctor.  Alex yelling/begging to stop…music continues

o    Shot 22: Alex – 1-Shot Close up – again he’s yelling

o    Shot 23: Male Doctor – 1-Shot Close up

o    Shot 24: Alex – 1-Shot Close up – he’s telling them “he’s cured”…telling what he thinks they want to hear to make it stop

o    Shot 25: Male Doctor – 1-Shot Close up

  • Transition to next sequence – group meeting to see results of Alex’s treatment