Victoria Lu

Minister: As I was saying, Alex, you can be instrumental in changing the public verdict. Do you understand, Alex? Have I made myself clear?

Alex: As an unmuddied lake, friend. As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, friend.

Can the minister really? Or can Alex trust the minister? To be fair, these questions aren’t really important. Both reliableness and its validity are trivialized in “A Clockwork Orange.” You can be nonchalantly greeted by your parents when back from prison and find out a lodger has already rented your room, so there’s simply no place for you anymore — nothing personal at all. In this British nightmare, anything is possible and anyone can do anything. Aimless lust for violence and all kinds of brutal actions vibrate the scenes. On the surface, the most innocent scene — the testing of a biological experiment to change the public verdict for well-intended reasons of stopping criminal individuals from performing acts of violence through sketching it onto a young prisoner — establishes the film’s ever-consuming power. The experiment shifts Alex from being an arrogant “droog” to an institutionalized guinea pig, a character who invokes both genuine disgust and unprecedented sympathy from the audience. He is no one else but the unforgettable protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 “A Clockwork Orange.”

Adapted from Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel carrying the same name, “A Clockwork Orange” is one of the best known works of Kubrick along with “The Shining,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “2001: A Space Odyssey, “Full Metal Jacket” and “Barry Lyndon.” Kubrick is often celebrated as one of the most prominent filmmakers in cinematic history with his dark humor, eloquent settings and use of suspenseful classical music. Set in a not-too-distant dystopian Britain, “A Clockwork Orange” is filled with vividly violent images that examine the state’s pedestals, from psychiatry to youth gangs to social, political and economical citizens — or more accurately, subjects. An unarguably disputable work, “A Clockwork Orange” was banned in various countries. Some viewers misunderstood the film as a celebration of violence, leading Kubrick himself to request that his work be banned in the United Kingdom in 1973.

As the stage opens with Alex and his group of “droogs” taking phallic sips of milk, the audience is instantaneously bombarded with multiple motifs: drugs numbifying the residents of the state, the stark contrast of daylight images and moony nights, the intelligible and locking glaze of Alex’s spooky eye — a confinement crescendoed by Kubrick’s expertise with a wide-angle lens.

The Beethoven soundtrack, Symphony No. 9, also indicates Kubrick’s familiar, delicate touch with music. Yet the protagonist’s feelings about it are quick to transform because the music is part of his experimental conditioning. His response to the music shifts from the warm appreciation of an “old friend, Ludwig Van” to “pain and sickness all over … like an animal”  triggered by a single note as he becomes obliged to want to act good, not necessarily because he chooses to want so.

Alex is now destined to hate Beethoven’s music, as it is associated with acts of rape, horror and violence in his brain, which the cocktail of experimental drugs has taught him to despise. Yet the process of this conditioning itself — sorrowful days of intoxication by various drugs while tied tightly in a chair, forceful exposures of disturbing violent imagery, deliberate redirection of personal emotions and the stark biological consequences he suffers from acting against the learned lessons — inevitably invokes the dilemma of free will.

Robbed of his human agency, Alex embodies an individual completely incorporated into the omnipresent Foucauldian biopower which turns idiosyncratic individuals into stereotypical subjects “of” rather than “in” the state. This is the antithesis of “Brave New World,” which reached this situation through employing a similar way of bioengineering. In both scenarios, individuals are the biopolitical entities of the state, expected to have nothing peculiar to themselves. Yet, the world of the novel doesn’t give chance for personality development — designing the unborn babies in the first place. On the other hand, “A Clockwork Orange” chooses a more painful way, giving and then retrieving the opportunity from a human being when necessary. As both end up in the same place, the only thing that seems to differ is their creators’ methods of irony.

Alex’s dehumanization is carried to a point that trivializes even the way his free will operates. The question of free will is invalidated, ceasing to be a matter of inquiry, given Alex is no longer a being anymore. An objectified entity, he is just one of the many mediums in which biopower reflects itself and executes its authority. Although his shaky, cryptic free will constantly struggles to be reborn from its ashes, it is doomed to bear a rapid nauseous death at every rebellious instant, doubling Alex over to a non-functioning state. It’s finally clear that Alex’s bodily liberation from the state prison becomes only a promotion to an ever-consuming captivation by the fundamental biopower institution. Unable to even respond to the treachery of his “droogs”, Alex is left without an alternative rather than to lie miserably on his bloodbath — ironically replicating the exact way he used to leave his victims behind in his past life.

This scene inescapably begs the question: Don’t the trade-offs of Alex’s transformation make any debate not worthwhile because the results were so beneficial? After all, his terrors of night robbing, raping and beating the citizens is inhibited in a most certain way. Yet, this is the point at which Alex begins to invoke pity. Empathizing with his battle to find a balance between his inner self and the self constructed by the state is the ultimate way of sympathizing with ourselves: an ode to our unconsciously imposed choices and struggles of finding the optimal boundaries between us individuals and the state to address greater issues like social justice and individual rights and freedoms. As long as the human condition remains uncertain, Kubrick’s masterpiece will continue to resonate with our society, offering an alternative, dystopic and perhaps an eternally futuristic point of view.

Gamze Kazakoglu | gamze.kazakoglu@yale.edu