Motion pictures can depict humans as thinking, breathing three dimensional characters or make stick figures of us. In the former case the film is not only entertaining us but helping to illuminate what is so special about the human condition.
There, I've just addressed my enduring interest in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971).
I watched it today (how many times is that since it's release? at least a dozen) with not the slightest notion that I'd subsequently be writing about it. After all I'd previously written a post on this blog on A Clockwork Orange in 2008. But today I was struck by the question of why I so very much love a film about so horrible a main character. Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is charming -- like many a sociopath -- but he is a murderer, rapist and thief who cares not a wit about anyone else. What's to like about a film centering on such an ogre?
As it turns out, plenty.
Alex is, to put it mildly, only human. For better or worse (mostly worse) he's the only fully formed human character in the movie. From the safe distance provided by fiction and the celluloid, he's fascinating to watch, if repellant to contemplate in real life form.
It's striking to note how intentionally facile or one dimensional Kubrick made the rest of the cast.
The one slight exception is Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) who early in the film is the victim of one of Alex's break-ins and subsequent beatings and must endure watching the brutal rape of his wife. Alex stumbles across him later in the story after having been "cured" by the government sponsored aversion therapy. Mr. Alexander leaps at the chance to help the poor lad as a means of exposing the government. He soon realizes that it is this same young man who sent him into a wheelchair and his wife to an early grave. Watching him face this realization and then gleefully drive Alex to an attempted suicide is one of the film's high points.
But this is the exception that makes it a rule. Alex's parents, fellow gang bangers, prison mates, victims and all assorted law enforcement and government officials and healthcare providers are caricatures. This is actually a trademark of Kubrick films. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the computer HAL has as much personality as anyone else. Barry Lyndon (1975) is much more about the scenery and the numerous gorgeous set pieces then any of the actors. Even lead Ryan O'Neal is less interesting than a wall hanging.
So we are allowed (forced) to focus on and thus contemplate Alex. Against our better judgment we take his side and root for him. We want him to have the better of his rebellious gang members, and to escape the clutches of the law and rejoice in his ultimate "cure." We want that because he's relatable. Like us a person of free will, of varied interests and talents. Alex is living in the world as his own person, making his own rules excersing every ounce of his free will. That's what we all want. Oh sure we hope and pray that our fellow travelers will choose to practice the credo of doing unto others, but damn it all this is fiction. Let us revel in his individuality and celebrate our access to this most interesting character's travails. Plus the young man's doing what he wants to do, not what is expected of him. That's and admirable trait in a film character.
Really this is one of the beauties of film, the exploration of a character as she or faces the various highs, lows and curve balls that life has to offer. Too many modern film directors forget that character is king instead emphasizing action and special effects. Ingmar Bergman was the master of exploring individuals in various situations. In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick has placed someone within a futuristic context (albeit one that is easy enough to imagine) and allowed us to see his responses to all manner of circumstances.
While the events are often extraordinary, in terms of people Alex is surrounded by the exaggerated and bland. What a great way to look at him.
The very essence of the film and novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, is the notion of free will. For better or worse we must all be allowed to make our own way in the world. When Alex is programmed to be repulsed by sex and violence he has lost the a birthright that we all hold dear. Who points this out in the film? The prison chaplain who says: "Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man." Someone in the service of God is acutely aware that a disciple who is forced or programmed to serve is no disciple at all.
A Clockwork Orange remains a fascinating film nearly four decades after its premier. Visually it bears the Kubrick style. It's bleak view of the future, so colorfully rendered, is powerful. It poses important questions about human nature. But ultimately I believe much of its appeal is in the character of Alex. Cruel, brutal, Beethoven-loving, over-sexed and charming. His own person. Utterly, totally and completely human. Perhaps the Minister or the Interior says it best: "He's enterprising, aggressive, outgoing, young, bold, vicious. He'll do."
Quite nicely as a matter of fact.