In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This weekly column will explore my thoughts on select films from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is A Clockwork Orange (1971), #70 on the list.
The overwhelming acclaim for A Clockwork Orange has always perplexed me. I often find that shocking/provocative art that aims to challenge the status quo is blindly celebrated – films that are thought-provoking or difficult to immediately process are more rapidly deemed masterpieces without exploring them via thoughtful analysis – and Clockwork certainly fits that description, even though its message isn’t even particularly profound. Even beyond that though, I think there’s a “can’t lose” mentality that’s been projected onto Kubrick’s (undoubtedly strong) career, especially in the early 70s, with this film falling directly in the middle of a series of extravagant, acclaimed works. A Clockwork Orange is often cited as one of his best films, but I emphatically disagree. Not only do I think it’s by far his weakest film (omitting his first three which I haven’t seen), I think its biggest flaw lies in his direction.
An argument can be made that Burgess’s novel is borderline unadaptable, that its core strength is tied to its prose and that any adaptation would diminish the thematic impact in translation, but even taking that into account, Kubrick – a noted meticulous perfectionist – can’t seem to get out of his own way. Alex, the film’s ostensible protagonist, should be a repulsive character, and the early scenes of him perpetrating brutal violence should be rendered the film’s most stomach-churning moments, but Kubrick can’t help but make these sequences exciting and heavily stylized. The hyperkinetic and visually-striking first half stands in sharp contrast to the film’s second half, after Alex is released following his incarceration, when the film’s pacing notably grinds to a halt. Even worse, Alex becomes the film’s most sympathetic character, with everyone around him depicted as just as sadistic as him, though less cognizant of their cruelty. In fact, the closest thing the film has to a traditional villain is in one of Alex’s earlier victims – played by Patrick Magee in a cartoonishly sinister performance that’s easily the worst I’ve seen in Kubrick’s catalogue – who torments him to the verge of suicide.
Sure, the violence Alex commits in the (compartively brief) scenes at the beginning is disturbing, but Kubrick cuts away from the horror, most notably showing the lead-up to the rape committed by him and his gang but cutting away before the act itself; whereas the film’s lengthiest and most unflinching depiction of sexual violence is in a video that Alex is forced to watch during his “treatment.” We share in Alex’s horror and repulsion as he’s force-fed images of depravity, and we want it to stop, just as he does. His oppressive, brutal “treatment” is portrayed more realistically than any of the earlier violence (much of which is offscreen or obscured) – there’s no tonal discordance through non-diegetic music to heighten to the horrors on display, no editing techniques to make it more palatable or superficially stimulating – instead, his psychological abuse is grim and horrifying.
The film’s most evocative and enduring image is not of his violence against others, but of his own suffering as he’s strapped to the chair with his eye-lids pried open. “This is the real weepy, and like, tragic part of the story beginning,” he says in voiceover after having been detained – a line that should be sarcastic and darkly humorous, but instead proves too accurate. A Clockwork Orange has a major issue with perspective – whether intentional or not, it offers more sympathy for Alex than any of his victims, painting the world around him as even more monstrous as him – and no amount of gorgeous cinematography or lavish set design can change that.
Does it belong on the list?
Absolutely not. In fact, I think it’s one of the worst films on the list. Kubrick already has 3 others on the list (though I’d also remove two of those to make room for Eyes Wide Shut), and I’d argue A Clockwork Orange’s cultural significance is marginal, especially compared to the other 3, so it’s an easy one to lose.