Although I’ve long maintained a definite lack of affection for many of Stanley Kubrick’s films, I’ve always found one definite exception to this rule: 1971’s A Clockwork Orange. 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 caused me to alter that feeling. While I’ve developed more respect for Kubrick's other films, there's still little chance that any of them will challenge Clockwork for supremacy among his works.
Lots of movies offer different experiences when you rewatch them, and lots of movies are open to radically different interpretations that depend 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 the actions 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 of the action seems slightly off-kilter that the realism 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 little sense. Also like Taxi Driver, the brutality 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 view how depraved he is and thus better understand him.
Not that we ever really do “get” Alex, however. 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.
Kubrick doesn’t try to address the causes of Alex's lack of humanity. He comes to us 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. O used to think that the scenes in which Alex and his "droogs" go on the rampage took up much more screen time. However, the vast majority of the film takes place after Alex gets arrested and starts on his "rehabilitation." I think I felt that Alex's violent excursions took more time because those were the moments that most stuck with me. 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 these 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-high 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.
Thirty years after its initial release, A Clockwork Orange remains a stunning piece of work. The film offers a sharp societal critique but never becomes heavy-handed or obvious. Kubrick maintains a solid pace throughout this brutal and horrifying but oddly whimsical piece. Others will definitely disagree, but I feel that Clockwork clearly represents the best of Kubrick’s work.
A Clockwork Orange appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite that drawback, I still was largely pleased with the new DVD, as it represented a significant improvement over the old one.
Look back at my review of the original Clockwork DVD from 1999 and you’ll see I called the transfer a “disgrace” and “shoddy”. I also indicated that Warner Bros. should have been embarrassed by it and that it “fails on every possible front.” Are you starting to think I wasn’t wild about it? Happily, I have many fewer complaints about the new image.
The new picture wasn’t flawless, but it certainly seemed quite good. Sharpness usually looked nicely crisp and concise. During a few scenes - usually interiors - I felt the image appeared slightly soft and fuzzy, but these concerns were very minor. As a whole, the movie seemed distinct and well-defined. At times I detected some examples of jagged edges and moiré effects. These seemed pretty modest, but they were more evident than during the other Kubrick remasters, as Clockwork looked a little too edgy at times.
Print flaws were a major problem on the old Clockwork DVD, but they presented many fewer issues here. Some defects still appeared, as I saw a smidgen of grain at times, plus the image also showed a few specks of grit and at least one small hair that cropped up toward the end of the movie. Nonetheless, the picture largely seemed clean and fresh, especially when one considers the age of the film.
Colors came across as generally accurate, but I thought they seemed slightly heavy at times. During the opening credits, I thought the red tones appeared a little thick, and on other occasions, the hues appeared a little bland and lifeless. On a few occasions, I found skin tones to seem a bit too red; this was mainly noticeable during the scenes at “Home”. Nonetheless, I had no substantial complaints in this area, as the colors usually remained well within the boundaries of acceptably, and much of the time they seemed rather clear and vibrant; for example, the scene in the record shop where Alex hooked up with the two girls looked nicely vivid and bold.
Black levels consistently appeared deep and rich, as the film’s many dark tones came across well. Shadow detail could be a minor concern, however, as some of the dim shots - not to be confused with Dim shots - looked a little too dense. For the most part, though, the low-light sequences were appropriately clear and visible. Ultimately, A Clockwork Orange offered a very solid visual experience. It didn’t look as good as most of the other Kubrick titles, but it still was quite satisfying.
Additional improvements were witnessed as I listened to the new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of A Clockwork Orange. The old DVD featured the original monaural presentation, and it seemed very rough and harsh. Those concerns vanished during the new track, as it seemed very fine.
Happily, the remix didn’t reinvent the wheel and go nuts with discrete audio. While the soundfield stretched the auditory environment, it didn’t depart tremendously from the audio’s monaural origins. Much of the mix remained firmly anchored to the center channel. Some effects spread modestly to the sides, but these were largely ambient in nature; I heard very little significant elements from the right or left speakers, though I did like the general atmosphere they provided. The surrounds featured some minor environmental reinforcement as well, but they didn’t show much activity in that regard.
Where the remix excelled, however, came from the delineation of the film’s music. The score showed fine stereo separation in the forward channels that really made those aspects of the track come to life. The surrounds also contributed fine support of the music that let the score breathe a bit. Ultimately, the soundfield remained a modest affair, but the broadening of the music meant that the remix merited inclusion.
Audio quality appeared quite good for a 30-year-old film. Dialogue could seem a little thin, but generally I thought speech was adequately natural and distinct. During the scene in which Alex enters prison, I thought the lines came across as a bit too rough and edgy, but otherwise dialogue sounded fairly positive. Effects were also a little drab due to the age of the stems, but they displayed no overt concerns and they appeared reasonably accurate and clean.
Again, it was the movie’s music that worked best. The score showed minor hiss at times, but otherwise it displayed a vibrant, brilliant sound. The synthesized music consistently appeared clear and vivid, as the track offered solid range. Highs were crisp and bright, while bass response seemed quite solid most of the time. On occasion I thought the low-end should have been a little deeper, but for the most part, bass was tight and distinct. For the best example of low-end, check out Beethoven’s “Ninth” as Alex watched the World War II film clips. All in all, the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange stayed reasonably true to its origins but it created a much clearer and more lively experience than was heard on the prior DVD.
Unfortunately, the new release simply duplicates the old one’s meager extras. We get a trailer and a brief listing of the awards for which the film was nominated. It’s a shame that Clockwork hasn’t received a full special edition treatment, as I’d love to see such a DVD.
Nonetheless, I was quite pleased with this new disc of A Clockwork Orange. After 30 years, it remains an amazing and powerful film, and I continue to feel wholeheartedly that it was easily Stanley Kubrick’s best work. The DVD offers tremendous improvements over the ugly and shrill old release, as both picture and sound are quite strong. Only the lack of supplements continues to disappoint. Nonetheless, I’m exceedingly pleased to have such a high quality version of Clockwork, as it looks and sounds very good.
Note: this new version of A Clockwork Orange can be purchased on its own or as part of a nine-DVD set called the Stanley Kubrick Collection. In addition to Clockwork, this package includes newly-remastered DVDs of Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learning to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, plus a repackaged issue of Eyes Wide Shut and a recent documentary called Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures. All of the movies are available separately, but the documentary appears only in the boxed set. List price for the package is $199.92, which almost matches the $199.84 the DVDs would cost separately. If you want all of the films, the “Kubrick Collection” is a great deal; fans should be more than happy to pay eight cents for the documentary disc.