Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.

Stomping, whomping, stealing, singing, tap-dancing, violating. Derby-topped teddy-boy hooligan Alex has his own way of having a good time. He has it at the tragic expense of others.

Alex's journey from amoral punk to brainwashed proper citizen forms the dynamic arc of Stanley Kubrick's future-shock vision of Anthony Burgess' novel. Unforgettable images, startling musical counterpoints, the fascinating language used by Alex and his pals - Kubrick shapes them into a shattering whole. Hugely controversial when first released, A Clockwork Orange won the New York Film Critics Best Picture and Director honors and earned four Academy Award nominations, including best picture. The power of its art is such that it still entices, shocks and holds us in its grasp.

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Adrienne Corri, Aubrey Morris, James Marcus
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Film Editing. 1972.
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio English Digital Mono, French Digital Mono; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 36 chapters; rated R; 137 min.; $24.98; street date 6/29/99.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Stanley Kubrick Collection - | Novel - Anthony Burgess

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/C-/D-

At the risk of provoking a firestorm of vicious flames, my reviewer's integrity (well, the little that I have) forces me to offer this confession upfront: I never have thought much of the work of Stanley Kubrick. Yes, this is cinematic heresy, I know, but it's how I feel.

Admittedly, I haven't seen all his films, but those that I have watched largely left me cold. Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove seemed okay but unspectacular. The Shining I loved as a kid - I even made a Super 8 parody called The Shoeshining - but doesn't do much for me now (or at least the last time I saw it, which was a few years ago). Full Metal Jacket offered nothing that previous Vietnam/war films hadn't already done, and done better, and as for 2001 ... well, since I AM a little paranoid about flames, I'll just "no comment" that one.

Maybe I should give these movies another shot. I mean, I haven't seen most of them in quite a while, so it's possible the extra maturity I've developed since then (yeah, right!) might offer me a new perspective. Now that they are available on DVD, maybe it's time for me to give them another shot.

While I may not care for much of Kubrick's work, there was always one movie of his that I did think lived up to his legend: A Clockwork Orange. At this time, I can't even recall when I first saw it - probably at a screening in college - but I immediately responded to it and thought it was a brilliant movie. I've seen it a few more times since then - most recently via the new DVD - and nothing has happened that has caused me to alter that feeling. Eventually I may have more respect for Kubrick's other films, but I think there's little chance that any of them will challenge Clockwork for supremacy.

Lots of movies offer different experiences when you rewatch them, and lots of movies are open to radically different interpretations depending on the viewer's perspective, but Clockwork may be one of the most malleable films ever made. It can be seen in so many different ways that it's not even remotely possible for me to detail them here. Suffice it to say that it offers a very broadbased commentary on the way that society views crime and punishment and the rights of the individual.

Of course, that's how I feel today. I could watch Clockwork again tomorrow and think something different about it. That's the beauty of the film. It functions as something of cinematic Rorschach; what the viewer brings to it will be reflected in how they interpret it.

The funny thing about Clockwork and the thing that sets it apart from other malleable movies like Blade Runner is the fact that so much of it SEEMS to be very blatant and obvious. It's a surprisingly graphic film; rape, murder and other atrocities are displayed pretty openly in front of the camera. As such, it isn't a surprise that so many people see Clockwork as sensationalist trash.

That perspective misses the point(s). For one, Clockwork offers such a surreal view of what appears to have been a near-future society that it's frequently hard to take all of what's happening completely seriously. Much of the world presented seems so quirky and odd - sexual art predominates living environments, and milk from the "milk bar" pours from the breast of a statue - that the audience's perspective gets set slightly askew; enough seems slightly off-kilter that the realism of the actions becomes muted.

Also, Kubrick presents the material with very little adornment. There's almost no flashy editing or wild camera tricks; the horrible acts are presented calmly and plainly, which makes them seem much less sensational than they otherwise might. For all the graphic violence, the film never even remotely glorifies it or makes it lurid; it's just there and is presented in almost a documentary style. Between this evenly measured approach to filmmaking and the somewhat over-the-top unreality of the film's world, I think Kubrick was able to show a lot that he otherwise would have had to cut.

And more power to him! Like Taxi Driver and many other films, Clockwork is one of those movies that is almost unimaginable in edited form; the violence is so integral to the story that without it, the picture would make damned little sense. Also like Taxi Driver, the violence serves a true purpose; this isn't your Friday the 13th style gratuitous violence for violence's sake. Only by depicting the actions of Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in a realistic fashion can we truly understand how depraved he is and thus better understand him.

Not that we ever really do. In the climate of today, everyone wants to know who's responsible for horrible people like Alex. Is it schools, parents, media, red M&Ms? Everyone has a theory, but no one truly knows. (The South Park crowd's betting on Canada, though.)

Kubrick try to address the causes of Alex's lack of humanity. He comes as a young but fully formed monster, and we receive virtually no cues as to how this happened. Sure, we briefly see his parents, and they seem to be rather detached, weak individuals; maybe they were too uninvolved in his life, and that started him down that path. Then again, maybe they seem so meek because they've tried to help Alex but he's simply fallen farther down the spiral. Who knows? Kubrick certainly doesn't seem concerned about it.

Really, his main focus is on society as a whole and how it deals with these issues. Before I rewatched Clockwork this afternoon, I thought that the scenes that depict Alex and his "droogs" on the rampage took up much more screen time. Really, the vast majority of the film takes place after Alex gets arrested and starts on his "rehabilitation." I think the reason why I remembered Alex's violent excursions as taking more time is because those are the moments that most stick with you. That's why so many people only think of Clockwork as a sick, horrid exploitation film; the first 40 or so minutes contain the most shocking material, and it can be hard to look past them.

However, since Kubrick wants to focus mainly on the way the modern world treats Alex and his ilk, the film really concentrates on what happens to him AFTER he gets caught. Strangely, Alex becomes something of a victim, and the question of how much punishment is appropriate arises in important ways. The hypocrisy of the way society treats offenders also gets its due, plus all sorts of other things.

I can dabble in the issues but Clockwork simply puts too much on the table for me to even remotely cover its different facets. Suffice it to say that the movie provides an incredibly stimulating experience and stands up to vast amounts of discussion and dissection. Love it or hate it, you can't ignore it.

Special notice also has to be given to McDowell's amazing acting. It's his movie to win or lose; obviously Kubrick needed to fulfill his side of the equation, but McDowell is the only character of any substance in Clockwork, so if his work faltered, so would the movie. Thankfully, he offers a career performance as Alex. The depth and subtlety he brings to the character are nothing short of astonishing. Alex remains a fairly caricatured creation, but that makes him no less fully realized. Even if he never acted again, McDowell would have occupied a special place in film history for his work here.

Take the fact that after almost 30 years time has yet to diminish the impact of A Clockwork Orange and all the hullabaloo surrounding Kubrick at this point in time (less than two weeks before the premiere of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, by the way) and combine that with the strong investment Warner Bros. have made in quality DVDs, you'd have to assume the this DVD is a real keeper, right? Wrong! They really screwed the pooch on this sucker.

The DVD:

The DVD of Clockwork largely fails on every possible front. The 1.66:1 aspect ratio image looks pretty good at time but usually suffers from any number of problems: softness, grain, scratches, hairs, and spots are just a few of the many flaws I saw. Colors often look blah and the picture sometimes seems washed out and flat. It's not unwatchable, but considering the quality of the film itself, this transfer is a disgrace.

The mono audio for Clockwork doesn't fare much better. In general, dialogue is intelligible and effects and music sound decent. Speech often seems overly harsh and distorted, however, and the whole presentation seems a little weak, even for a 28-year-old mono mix. The sound isn't as big a disappointment as the picture - it couldn't be, since I expect so little from a mono mix to begin with - but it still falls short of what it could have been.

Even worse is the almost complete lack of supplementary materials on the Clockwork DVD. We get a trailer and a brief listing of the awards for which the film was nominated. (The DVD box states that the disc contains production notes; I guess that the award listing is supposed to fulfill that notice, because no other information is included.) That's it. That performance is beyond weak; Warners should be ashamed of themselves.

Really, Warners should be embarrassed by this whole package. A Clockwork Orange remains an amazing and powerful film, and it deserves much better treatment than it has received through this tremendously shoddy DVD. While I recommend the film itself wholeheartedly, this DVD is one to avoid unless you can get it for very little money. The movie's clearly worth owning, but this DVD isn't worth much of an investment. Here's hoping that public sentiment affects Warner Bros. and they go back and redo this one.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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