A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Film Analysis

Film Poster. Note the pyramidal structure, mirroring the structure of society, with the perceptive eye of the elite at the top.

By: Jay A Clockwork Orange is another installment in the Kubrick canon, and ranks as yet another crucial film rife with deep social and psychological meanings.  The film is adapted from the famous novel that places Alex DeLarge in a dystopian future where society has degenerated into a trashy, concrete mess.  Gangs of thugs titled "droogs" run rampant, and Alex himself is a young gang leader.  The film will raise the question of the use of mass pyschological warfare and control techniques from behaviorist psychology as a means for creating a populace controlled by a scientific elite. Kubrick considered his film a piece of social satire that would question the notion of totalitarian regimes brainwashing the public into an android state. If the subject could be conditioned through a kind of shock therapy, the loss of willpower would ensue and the "droog" of the future - the future man, would be a controlled slave.   However, my analysis differs from what you see in the typical approaches to reviews of clockwork.  I think Kubrick presents another angle - a Nietzschian/elitist angle that the totalitarian scheme is, in fact, the norm. In the opening milk-bar scene with the mannequins, the bar is full of sexual imagery.  The film continues this motif throughout, combining sex with violence as the social norm.  Alex's parents are completely docile and impotent, having no idea of the actual state of world affairs.  Strangely, Alex has an affinity for Beethoven, despite his predominate brutishness, which often plays over scenes of violence or sex, including rape. Alex and his "droogs" engage in "ultra-violence," and end up raping the wife of a liberal activist who opposes the state's draconian control measures.  Later, Alex attempts to rape a wealthy woman who lives in a country estate and is caught.  What we see here is a prophetic view of the future of man's world.  A globalized, 1984-style slum, where a few elites and intelligentsia live outside the urban areas. The intelligentsia like the writer and the behaviorist therapist seeking to cure Alex have a faulty view of human nature, and this is the key.  The film is full of sexual (and other bodily function elements) images which display the fact that most men are led about by their bodily desires, and contribute nothing to society.  The liberal activists and therapists continually try to make Alex a "productive" member of society and seek to influence him with religion and other salves.   However, the crucial point of the film is that Alex remains Alex. 

He begins a “droog” and ends a “droog.”  As such the film becomes a powerful commentary on the unavoidable nature of classes.  There will always be classes because there will always be well-bred and ill-bred men.   Nietzsche wrote of master and slave morality, and that is appropriate here.  The misguided placement of blame by the liberal writer ends up leading to his own demise, as the people he writes to defend and protect from what he views as the manipulative political class, end up raping his wife.  In short, he has an unrealistic view of human nature and action, as do all “liberals.”

My view is confirmed by the fact that at the end, Alex is co-opted by the system, as he has been all along. Alex jumps out of a window and injures himself, becoming a martyr for the “people” (who hate the governing class), while the writer who captured and imprisoned Alex for raping his wife, is put away.  Alex is then offered a job within the system, and is pictured with the politician who has offered to reimburse him.  He then dreams of everyone watching him have sex in the snow.  He chides that he was “cured alright.”   In other words, having been run through cleansing/brainwashing of the system, he now becomes a cog in the system.

But all along, all he wanted was to continue his nihilistic savagery, and the final scene lets us know he hasn’t changed or been cured, just more adept at mischief.  The politician and the therapist had made promises that “science” would “cure” Alex and make him a productive member of society.  However, this failed, and Alex remains what he is – a monster.    London recently exploded into riots run by a bunch of droogs.  This was, of course, planned, and co-opted by the system as Alex and his droogs were.  The system relies on the foolish utopianism of the masses to believe the lies they are told, particularly when it comes to “science” perfecting man, and making him into a “new man.”

No, no human means of do-goodery or feel-goodiness will ever perfect man or make him into the state’s archetype.  Men are either well-born and well-bred, or they are savage.  So no, no mystical esoteric doctrines here, aside from the fact that film’s imagery stresses the eye at the top of the pyramid, and given my analysis, I think it means the elite view is that there will always be a caste.  You can’t change the nature of man, and no amount of blaming society or other ills, will ever lead to the “curing” of man in this world.  Understanding this is understanding the nature of the system itself.  As a friend pointed out, an orange is organic, and to try to treat it like a machine (clockwork), is a failed enterprise.

8 Comments on A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Film Analysis

  1. Great article, love your psychological analysises of movies…only thing I agree but also disagree with is “you cant change the nature of man”..this is true, you can’t change it but you can certainly manipulate it…I think the only way to cure someone who was born into a system and has lived in it for a long time is for them to leave the system and live somewhere else where you’re forced to live in a way that opposite of what you’re used to…this is why I admire Amish people

  2. “Men are either well-born and well-bred, or they are savage…You can’t change the nature of man, and no amount of blaming society or other ills, will ever lead to the ‘curing’ of man in this world. Understanding this is understanding the nature of the system itself.”

    I thought one of the main themes of Clockwork Orange was that the well-born and well-bred are merely the same savages but in their own maniacal and menacingly evil of ways, that this distinction between savagery and refinement is flawed as you put it in your own analysis here. If this is so, then what of “human nature” have we been trying to tragically change this whole time if we haven’t even gotten to the root of the problem of human nature yet and instead have been stuck on surface pleasantries (or unpleasantries)? Depending on how one defines what exactly “human nature” is will determine how one answers this question.

    I agree that when the state, market, corporation, or whatever system imperative steps in to prune about human nature that it is for evil savage intent, regardless of how refined the package is. But then government and capitalism are only noxious byproducts of that savage shallow side of human nature; I wouldn’t reduce and consign the entirety of humanity to nothing but market administration and administrative marketing forever…We have yet to see more, really. The game isn’t over yet.

    We haven’t even seen humanity when it is freed and at its best- when there are no systems, no governments, no markets, no organizations, no formalities, no pretenses, no artificial rules & regulations man-made needlessly… I mean, surely a loving God would never intend us to be banished in this fiery hell of capitalism and government for the rest of eternity? How depressing would that be if we had to be stuck with mathematician assholes running their governing matrices backwards and forwards between markets and states for the rest of eternity?? I would go crazy!!! You can’t scare me with fire and brimstone! Damn it, I’ll take the pain-inducing distractions of hell-fire and even the ear-deafening eternal isolation from God if it meant I didn’t have to spend 2 seconds with the biggest squares on Earth!

    There is no hell worse than that!!! No way!!! What if we are already in hell right now amidst all of our stiflingly rampant organizations public, private, and non-profit but we are meant to bring the kingdom of heaven here to Earth to radically change the world (and finally even finding the depths of human nature) via redemption??? What if God was such a left-libertarian? If Jesus was any reflection of God, he seemed the biggest left socialist-libertarian out there walking the land in robes, sandals, with a beard like a hippie.

    But if God was a capitalist, bureaucrat, or some other tool, surely he would take kindly to the notion that heaven/hell are beyond the horizon entirely and forever separate from Earth? Capitalists, bureaucrats, and politicians always sacrifice logic and reason when suggesting war, strife, and violence are necessary to export manufactured democracy and neo-liberal/neo-con policy around the world in the name of expanding markets and the state into the infinite unknown (beyond the horizon in other words), just like how those who advocate a separate spirituality away from the Earth Plane also sacrifice logic and reason, because where is the logic and reason in that?

    See, I can fall back on logic and reason on my political, ontological, and spiritual philosophy…however, capitalists, statists, and those who advocate a beyond-the-horizon spirituality must sacrifice logic and reason, all of which have disastrous irrational and illogical outcomes- the Holocaust, warfare, religious persecution, colonization, slavery, lawyers, atrocity, etc…because why not engage in a Holocaust when one’s fuzzy Orwellian reasoning makes him absurdly believe that the annihilation of entire swaths of humans will somehow make life and society better?!

    I deplore how mathematicians and modernity have made logic and reason so narrow-minded and stuffy. But I’m against giving up on logic and reason altogether like how religion has done. I feel if we continually and consistently challenge logic and reason, we’ll arrive at the truth, and thus, God. But this challenging must be of a epistemological radical nature, not a reformative nature that modernity has past demanded. Reform has always broken from logic and reason in history- and it has always been the Radical to bring back logic and reason.

  3. Inetresting… Today I stumbled upon this rewiev (I was actualy searching for Donnie Darko. Where is Donnie?) and this is the first time that I really see the poster for this movie. For me, it was always some mean face in a shape of triangle. Now I see it’s not only a triangle but two (or more) triangles. I see there is an Eye and a Blade… The smaller triangle is probably a Cup turned over.
    I’m not much of a philosopher (more like traveler) so I’m not able to say pretty smart things about people and society or anything else. However, last spring I had 20th anniversary high school reunion and all I can say is that people don’t change. After 20 years I see the same people that sat in my classroom. Yes, some have gray hair, some are bald, some are thicker some are married and some are not but the way they talk and the way they act remained the same. Their eyes are same as 20 years before.

  4. I suppose this interpretation holds together, but I’d scoff at calling it “Nietzschean/elitist”, as if those two things were synonyms, and as if “Nietzschean” meant anything at all in the first place. I won’t pretend having a great understanding of Nietzsche but you do understand that he was not exactly sympathetic to the elite of modern times, political or otherwise. I suspect he would think that these petty bourgeois elites have far too much degenerated from the old aristocratic ideal, which was not tainted with a constant fear of the populace or a need to lie and manipulate.

    The real elites are the inspirational men, the one who live according to their own rules and create rules for others, by the strength of their personality and charisma. Political power in itself has nothing to do with Nietzsche’s vision of what the elite is supposed to be, I feel like this is a common misunderstanding. Artists like Shakespeare and Stendhal, or Nietzsche himself, are considered to be superior men. The real mark of the elite is the capacity to evolve, adapt and surpass oneself. Saying that there is some thing as “human nature”, and that it doesn’t change, is perhaps true, but it’s also what could be called a slave belief, imposed by the manipulating elites, as it limits the potential of men. Nietzsche’s plan was always to fight nihilism, in other words to fight the flattening of human emotion. His praise of classes is rooted in classical ideals, not modernity. I feel it has more to do with psychology and esthetics than actual political power or social issues. What is important about “elites” is their character, how they face life, how rich their experience is, the intensity of their emotions. Nietzsche was after all a philosopher, he understood life primarly from an internal perspective.

    That being said, I’m not sure if ACO has anything to do with Nietzsche’s thought, at least a non-bastardised version of it. Stendhal’s novel, The Red and the Black, presents what I feel is a very telling example of Nietzsche’s ideal of what the elite is supposed to be – the book presents a young peasant that rises to the rank of noble by the strength of his character and intellect. Alex on the other hand has practically none of these virtues – his rise to “power” is rather pathetic, to say the least. He does not surpass the vulgarity of his character, if anything he embraces it and is rewarded for it.

    • Nietzsche promulgated nihilism. He plainly rejected metaphysics (lambasted as “Platonism for the people”), and constantly argued against any kind of metaphysical knowledge pertaining to absolute categories of being. I would have thought that, on this basis alone, His philosophy rather fosters a crisis in man which emerges from the scientific or rationalist humanism of the Enlightenment, which, indeed, in the context of the Spirit of the Nineteenth century in which empiricism and so on was in vogue, was nothing less than nihilistic, and none of which he sought rebuke.

  5. Crimson pilled // December 23, 2015 at 7:42 am // Reply

    Tony’s character in ‘The Sopranos’ is another example of a criminal psychopath type undergoing years, in his case, of psychotherapy, and instead of changing for the better, simply becomes more effective at manipulation.

    Similar to ACO in that sense, but in ACO it’s more a case of there being no technological solution to a spiritual problem, as Jay points out.

  6. Just found you, spectacular.. this the milk bar scene as a very revealing of the 3 “milks” one is DRENCHROME which is adrenochrome the oxidized blood of children.. this is the first mention I could find in the movies since fear and lothing.. wonder who all this gets in the movies and I would love to know if you knew of any more references you know of..

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