Rather than credits, A Clockwork Orange should end with a black screen, and printed upon it the word “Discuss.” I say this because for about a week now, I have been trying to figure out what I saw when I watched the film, and scouring for answers amidst the film’s mostly fanatical support over at Rotten Tomatoes has not gotten me much, if at all, closer to an answer.
It’s generally understood that in order to create affect, you need to have a relatable or admirable character with whom to identify or worship. A crucial question with A Clockwork Orange is whether or not this is how we are supposed to feel about Alex. The narrative suggests that we are, but there is a constant, unforgettable reminder that first-and-foremost, Alex is a thug and a rapist. At no point do we contend with the moral insufferability of the actions that he choses to participate in. The closest thing we get to an apology is some grasping-at-straws bullshit excuse that he is a product of his generation, or culture, or some crap like that. Rather, we see the opposite. Alex is punished for participating in the actions he chooses. This is not a society that encourages rape and pillage, it is, for all intents and purposes, a familiar, modern, Western culture that holds most of the same legal values as the ones of the current Western world. There is the possibility that the film is suggesting that society is to blame by endorsing and supporting a lock-em-up response to crime, but its alternative conditional behaviour therapy is fiercely criticized within itself.
When Alex is reprogrammed, becoming unable to commit acts of violence (including rape), he becomes an incredibly sympathetic character. Watching him writhe around in pain at the thought of touching a woman, or being forced to lick a man’s shoe when faced with the alternative of fighting him, we pity Alex and rage against the oppressive forces that have taken away his free will. Alex is met with hostility, rejection, and violence everywhere he goes and, since he is unable to defend himself, he bears little resemblance to the offender of the earlier parts of the film. Would the old Alex deserve to be treated like this? Almost inarguably, yes. Does this new, impotent, defenseless Alex deserve to be treated like this? Inarguably arguable. A huge question left on the table is the presence of free will and choice. But, the only time someone in the movie actually wants to discuss this issue (a priest at the demonstration of Alex’s rehabilitation), he is laughed down and dismissed for his impractical objections. Alex’s reprogramming provides results, and that’s what matters.
So maybe the movie isn’t about Alex after all, maybe it’s, as many people seem to argue, a satire of the society in which Alex (and therefore, we) lives. But to what end? The movie asks questions, acts like there’s an easy answer, but never actually provides one. Issues of free will, crime and punishment, and personal responsibility are presented, and when the film ends, you can picture Stanley Kubrick standing next to the screen, nodding, pleased with himself saying “Am I right? Am I right?” And, not really knowing what to do, people are saying “Well yeah, of course, look at all that… satire…” If this is supposed to be satirical, what, exactly are we criticizing? There’s no stance that A Clockwork Orange takes that I’m comfortable to say it entirely endorses. The closest thing to a real criticism is when Alex’s parents come to see him in the hospital after he nearly dies. In, what I think, is the film’s best moment, Alex rejects their concerns, only to have his father explain that they feel bad for mistreating him because they read in the newspapers that something awful happened to him. So sure, I’ll give you that A Clockwork Orange highlights familial disconnect, the power of media, and the satisfaction of ignorance, but somehow I don’t think that that’s what this movie is supposed to be all about.