Thoughts On: A Clock Work Orange
This satirical sci-fi by Stanley Kubrick follows Alex, as a gangster, through the futuristic streets of England, through a judicial system, as a prisoner, where conditioning is used to correct offenders, before he’s let back out into the world again, not quite himself to say the least.
After taking a look at Grizzly Man and then Irreversible I wanted to return to lighter material. And so, I chose this. What does that say about me? Well, let’s find out. But, I really enjoy this film. I know this is not what Kubrick would have wanted, well… actually, I don’t. This film is a perfect example of how to create a likeable bad guy – in other words an antihero. It all comes down to what you show and how you show it. Now this sounds obvious, but, think of all the ‘heroes’ that have failed to resonate with you. Before I continue, I know there are some who are completely disgusted by this film and Alex respectively. I can see why, but that doesn’t mean I understand you. That means for part of this I talk mostly to those who stand with me and find Alex somewhat likeable, but, in the end, this is all about you, so stick around. Here we go, the antihero has always interested me as a writer. I watch films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Gone With The Wind, Dark Night and I’m drawn to what are clearly bad guys – the Don Corleones, Henry Hills, Scarlett O’Haras, Jokers. These characters make for fiendishly entertaining films, even endearing personas. The likes of Scarlett O’Hara, Alex or Anton Chigurh have directly influenced me in the way I write. More than making entertaining movies, I think antiheroes allow you to explore a wider field of concepts and moral standings. The word ‘hero’ just means rules in my mind. With the likes of a Harry Potter movie you can judge what’s going to happen, what the goals of each situation are. If you watch Fight Club that first rule, second rule, any rule, doesn’t mean much. With a little moral ambiguity we are kept guessing throughout good gangster pictures. You just never know who’s going to come at you, smiles or not. SOME LIKE IT HOT! What the hell is going on there? No, not as a gangster picture, but as a Marilyn Monroe picture. Same with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Awful Truth, My Fair Lady, The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, Ball Of Fire, Young Frankenstein (Fronkunshtein), His Girl Friday, the list goes on and on. Screwball comedies are my major weakness if you couldn’t tell. Here’s where the antihero became popular though, where cinema really figured out that ‘bad’, that moral ambiguity, sells. But, with the likes of Some Like It Hot or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes we don’t just get to spend time in the grips of the alluring Miss Monroe, Wilder and Hawks can also teach a little bit about tolerance. How does Some Like It Hot end? ‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’… And why shouldn’t Jack Lemmon take it tush from his old man once in a while in exchange for a comfortable living? Marilyn in the same respect–you even–if you wanted to?
Kubrick uses the concept of an antihero to lure you into the very core idea behind why we like them. In short, he gets us to contradict ourselves so we can stand back and ask, ‘Well, why not?’. Now, how an antihero works is, as I said before, all to do with what you show and how you show it. Let’s take a quick look at Goodfellas. The film opens with a few familiar faces and then a murder. We get De Niro’s cool and dangerous (even when sleeping) facade, Joe Pesci’s squat, already a mark below boiling, figure, bubbling in the back ground, as well as Ray Liota’s charm and suave. Then… knock, knock… uh-oh. Yeah, trouble. But trouble with best friends is just a bit of mischief. It’s fun. And soon enough the knife’s brandished, blood squirts, splurges with a gargle, ‘look at my fucking eyes’, and BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.’ THUNK. Freeze frame. BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM-BOM Tony Bennet swings in hard with Rags To Riches. MM! Perfection. But what just happened? Yeah, we just witnessed a murder… but so what!? The opener gets better and better every time you rewatch the film. This is because none of the characters are ever shown to be doing anything bad without Scorsese justifying it or making it fun. Scorsese may say he’s against violence, but Goodfellas is another thing. Henry can sell drugs, cheat on his wife, kill, just… I swear on my fucking mother, if you touch her again you’re DEAD!… that scene does something primal and wrong to me, I don’t know about you. Fuck those assholes! Right?… I don’t know (Lorraine Bracco, it’d turn me on too (P.S. 1990 Lorraine Bracco, marry me, please! (anyone else, hasn’t she got one of the sexiest accents ever? (I don’t know (excuse me))))). Anyway, the point is, we get to live in a world of mischief. This is where everyone gets it wrong, we don’t get to be in the world of a gangster for a while when we watch Goodfellas, we get to be in a world of ineffectual mischief. The film is the equivalent of your mother telling you, ‘Its fine, yeah, you and your brother can smash each other in the face. Just be careful and wear the boxing gloves.’ There’s no true malice behind wanting to blast you ass-face brother in the mouth–just mischievous delight. You’ve got to be with me on that one.
On top of not showing the truly heinous acts an antihero commits and showing the ‘bad’ ones with a fun tone (music helps so much with this–Scorsese and Kubrick alike provide perfect examples), an antihero needs to be a mark above you – the friend you’d follow to the end of the Earth because you’re secretly in love with them. Could Superman ever break the fourth wall? No. Could the Joker. Of course! Why? Because the smart-asses break the fourth wall, and only those who exude devilish charm can get away with that. You don’t have to be bad to do this, simply charming. I mean… Ferris Bueller… there’s my point in itself. Enough said. I don’t even know why I’m making a case for antiheroes, I know you love them. But, with Alex and A Clockwork Orange we can dive deep into what that means to us. A Clockwork Orange’s moral message is entirely in the hands of an audience member. The narrative is in the complete control of our dear narrator and protagonist, Alex. That means everything that happens is seen through his perspective. When he’s beating the old man we look down on him as he spews on and on about space and no one paying attention to worldly problems. With Alex, us literally looking down on the old man, we don’t hear or care too listen to what he says. As dictated by Alex, we decide to not care about about themes in other films we’re bound, If we look at a later scene of similar dynamic after Alex has been detained, we are taken down to his level. What leers over us is the crotches of the police officers – who are really just pissed that this 15 year old kid has killed someone. But, the old woman was nothing more than an annoying hag and we don’t see her die. Moreover, we’re told by the creepy pedo, Deltoid. In short, with camera positioning and tone of characters we feel sorry for Alex and only because we’re forced to see things through his perspective. What, I’m sure you’ve noticed, has happened is we’ve been turned against the system of police officers and the seed of our mistrusts has been planted. The film has basically got us to wrap our own questionable moral around it.
Through the course of the narrative Alex is then used and abused. And we feel sorry for him. Why? Because he’s the only consistent character. People hate flip-flopping in general. Contradiction, lies, hypocrisy are all traits of the ‘real bad guys’ in cinema. Alex has his messed up ideals and sticks to them, and so when he’s not taking us through the narrative, we’re supporting him. The only character who doesn’t really contradict himself is the Chief Guard, on top of that he’s nuts, so we kind of like him too. But, what prevents us from completely liking him, and the priest as well, is their link to the system that we’ve already been turned against. Throughout the film we’re turned against the judicial system and then the media. This is because these are the systems that use Alex to push their own prerogatives. This is what reveals a lot about an audience – you. We have an inherent mistrust for the faceless and nameless that extends to anyone connected to the anonymous system. This is why we all hate politicians. They all stand for a system that essentially has responsibility for our lives (the government). Our, mostly irrational, distrust of faceless systems allows us to take the side of what most would consider the ‘real enemy’. Try this for me, think of the following personas either appearing on the news or living next door to you. A 15 year old sadist who rapes, assaults and is just an anarchist in general. A good looking 20 something year old who does drugs, sells drugs, has witnessed many murders, been to prison, cheats on his wife, neglects his kids and can sleep soundly at night. Picture those two living on either side of you, or try to imagine seeing their faces on the news… You don’t like them, you can’t see Ray Liotta or Malcolm McDowell, can you? How do we let cinema bridge this gap then? Beyond showing what you need to and in the right way, an antihero is made likeable because he or she is a lot closer to heart than we think.
Remember the bit where you agreed that you’d love to blast your brother (or insert anyone person close to you that is annoying)? Well, we put all of that down to mischief, not true malice. But here’s the thing, mischief and malice not too far apart. Antiheroes appeal to the wish fulfilment aspect of cinema. In the same way we all love Shawshank Redemption because we all believe that, if we were wrongly imprisoned, we should be able to escape, we love Godfather because we all believe in an idea of family and looking after the ones we love. Don Corleone appeals to the side of us that would happily rob a pharmacist for the medicine our sick daughter needs. However, in the film we are doing the foot work, we implement the sick daughter. We imagine Don Corleone’s past as a kid with nothing who worked his way up through a savage and unforgiving world. What keeps him the antihero and not bad guy is the link to us through family. There’s always a basic instinct that antiheroes appeal to. In Wolf Of Wall Street we’re fending off poverty, we’re paying off problems, we face them in a $5000 suite, a sparkling Rolex, rocking up to the place in a brand new Lambo. In Rambo we’re breaking the arms, we’re stabbing, slicing, blowing up every single person who refuses to understand us. Cinema is so good at appealing to problems because of its dire need for conflict. If we look at something like… I forget what they’re called… the Sweet 16 or 18 or 21, whatever they are, programs. We watch the spoiled brats try and construct they’re ‘perfect day’ just hoping it all goes wrong and they end up in tears. These people appeal to our dreams of a great party with a billion friends and a millionaire father paying or it all, but, the conflict they face isn’t real. We couldn’t care less if the asshole 16 year old has a good day or not because nothing is truly at stake. Henry Hill’s life is always in the balance, in the hands of other psychos, I mean… ‘How am I funny? In what way do I make you laugh?’… We’re laughing in the end of that for the same reason Henry is, because we just came inches from death. For the same reason can stand with Alex – we know he’s just a kid and those Droogs are in no way to be trusted.
So, we’ve come full circle again. We couldn’t imagine the evil 15 year old kid on the news, but now we’re sympathising with him again, lost in how good Wolf Of Wall Street or Rambo was. This is why A Clockwork Orange is the key focus. What it demonstrates is the malleability of people and more importantly the audience. The question the film poses is. is freedom and individuality more important than a controlled and safe system? The film’s answer is yes. As is yours if you’re satisfied when Alex is gleefully back to his old self telling cartoons to shove eggywegs up their asses or dreaming of naked women wrestling in the snow surrounded by a crowd of weirdos. Here’s the crux of it all. We prefer individuality to conformity and social contortion because it’s all about me, me, me. We are scared of a world where Alex can be conditioned against the sight or thought of sex or violence because even though it may make sense that rapists can be made to not want to rape, there’s the idea of control. You see this all the time in the world, America is the archetype of this blind need for individuality. Liking Alex is the equivalent to wanting to bomb the whole of Iran or Afghanistan because… TERRORISTS! It’s the same as absolutely hating the current teen heart throb because… I don’t know, they make you feel insecure, or you fee you’re sister, mother, wife, girlfriend, daughter might love them more than you. You may object to being one of those people, but I bet you love an antihero. If it’s not Alex, it’s Rambo, Jordan Belfort, Ferris Bueller, Scarlett O’Hara, Henry Hill, Travis Bickle, The Joker, Lorelie Lee, Derek Vinyard, Jim Stark, Holly Golightly, The Man With No Name… the list goes on and on and on and I assure you, you like at least one of them. Liking the antihero is the same as fearing terrorists or God or ‘the system’ because we all put ourselves in the centre of the world. We assume that all the good and all the bad in the world is at our doorstep. Paradoxically, we also forget the dangers of the charming antihero.
This is all about power. Antiheroes let us feel powerful and we like them because we’re allowed to be on their side. Bad guys are bad guys because we’re told they’re against us. This is all a question of ‘us’. What A Clockwork Orange is really asking you, with its twisted moral end, is, where do you feel safe? A Clockwork Orange is about fear – just as all films with antiheroes are. They are about vicariously facing our fears and maybe just winning. Is this a bad thing? Is liking Alex wrong? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. We’re all just clambering for friends and security in life. Cinema just gives us that opportunity – the fantasy that the word is a forgiving place, even to the worst parts of us, and even when the film ends and our antihero didn’t quite make it… well… we get to go home or turn the T.V off anyway. Who is you’re favourite antihero? What’s the best film that uses one? Tell me in the comments and tell me why you like them.
Irreversible – Inevitability As Perceived
Raging Bull – The Futility Of Small Hands
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