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40 years of A Clockwork Orange

Last updated on: June 2, 2011 14:29 IST

40 years of A Clockwork Orange

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Raja Sen in Mumbai

It's been 40 years, my droogs. Forty years since that Stanley Kubrick made an incendiary adaptation of what has come to be the best regarded of Anthony Burgess' work. A film that redefined not just "the old in-out in-out" but also all our attitudes towards ultraviolence in general, Big Brother specifically, and the anti-hero.

A Clockwork Orange, one of the finest English language films of all time, is 40 now, and a brand new commemorative Blu-Ray disc is making its way to shelves near you. I recommend saving up for it, and here list just a few personal reasons why this controversial classic is a film to be loved.


Image: Poster of A Clockwork Orange

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The language, the language.

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Kubrick made a career on spectacularly adapting completely unfilmable novels, but Burgess' sensationally unputdownable novel was a masterwork of treatment set in a language all its own. Nadsat, an original melange of Russian, Cockney slang, German and words invented solely by Burgess, made his novel not just intoxicating but also helped suck the reader into the dystopic future the book was set in. It is a book to be read out loud, over and over as you, via repetition and context, learn that 'tolchock' means push and 'to viddy' means to see and to realise.

The ever-defiant filmmaker toned down the use of Nadsat for the screen adaptation, but only just. The result was dramatic and startling, setting the film free of both time period and geographical boundary. The intoxication remained, and for those who didn't get it, there were no appy polly loggies offered.


Image: The language was fantastic

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'A bit of the old ultra-violence'

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Clearly even a bit of something ultra goes a long long way, and Kubrick's film is a brutal, relentless assault. There is deviance and rape and much, much sickening violence, but the director's attack on the audience is subtler and cuts deeper: Props change position and many intentional continuity errors are thrown in to disorient the viewer.

In a film already incredibly disturbing and provocative to begin with, this serves as the last straw. The barrage of violence continues even with the scarlet-loving colour palette and choices of classical music, making sure the graphic is merely the graphic.


Image: A scene from the A Clockwork Orange

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Alex DeLarge

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As witnessed so memorably with Nabokov's Lolita, eloquence lifts the most depraved of antiheroes to near-acceptibility.

Kubrick's Alex -- played iconically by Malcolm McDowell -- is both fearsome and fascinating, a nightmare but a consummately charming one. Alex is as cool as the milk he drinks at the Korova Milk Bar, and it is hard not to be overwhelmed and, indeed, taken in, by this loathsome lover of Beethoven.

Neither his 16 years or his verbal dexterity and innate leadership justify his actions, but Kubrick and McDowell ensure we root for Alex, despite all our moral hypocrisy -- and this when the film controversially skips the moral redemption present in Burgess' final chapter.


Image: A scene from A Clockwork Orange

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The theme, the music

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A Clockwork Orange is the least dated of Kubrick's films, and that's not just because the master filmmaker cannily set it in an unspecified future. It is not a film about deviance and justice, but a film about freedom of will and expression against governmental or parental interference. It does not condone Alex's actions an ounce, but he is certainly not painted as the villain of the piece.

And then there's his obsession with his "old friend Ludvig Van, and the dreaded Ninth Symphony." Beethoven runs through the film marking Alex's thirst for beauty -- "Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now," he described the experience of listening to the Ninth -- and in the end it is the removal of this very joy that subjugates him even as the state forces his eyes open.


Image: A scene from A Clockwork Orange

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The gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh

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All that said, this is also a glorious film to behold.

Visually striking, it is consistently audacious and unexpected, clever and defiant. There is dizzyingly high contrast and, as said, unreal obsessions with colours in thematic ways: white, red, orange. Nothing is an accident in a Kubrick picture, and these fantastical visuals -- complete with surrealist art-forms and highly imaginative backdrops and architecture -- make the film simultaneously a waking nightmare and a jawdroppingly superb looking film. A film to watch in hushed wonderment even as it scares the bejeezus out of you.

"We were all feeling a bit shagged and fagged and fashed, it having been an evening of some small energy expenditure, O my brothers. So we got rid of the auto and stopped off at the Korova for a nightcap."

O brother Stanley, many a thanks for this cinematic nightcap. Happy 40th, all my droogs.


Image: A scene from A Clockwork Orange

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