It’s truly a shame that the X rating (now NC-17, which is equally frowned upon by the general American public) has only become associated with pornography. Once upon a time, back when it first debuted in 1968 along G, M (later GP, then PG), and R, it was actually a classification for films that weren’t at all suitable for children, but at the same time, still intended for the general public. Though the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy was also successful because of this, perhaps the best example of an X-rated movie that took advantage of this in the best way possible would have to be Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange*, a film every bit as shocking and potent today as it was back in 1971. [NOTE: REVIEW CONTAINS HEAVY SPOILERS, WHICH ARE CLEARLY MARKED]
After the strikingly colored opening credits, A Clockwork Orange’s haunting first image is of a fedora-wearing, eyeliner-bearing punk glowering at the camera. His name is Alex DeLarge, and he and his band of “Droogs” get their kicks off of narcotic-laden “milk plus”, old songs (most memorably, “Singin’ in the Rain”), and “ultra-violence”, which they carry out against rival gangs, homeless drunks, and even the hapless residents of sprawling mansions. These senseless crimes are no doubt a reflection of their rebellious, chillingly evil nature, but could also be a symbol of the (vaguely) futuristic, yet undeniably dystopian world they inhabit: cold, cruel, and empty of any morality whatsoever.
The film’s semi-authoritarian government doesn’t get its citizens high on drugs (as imagined in Brave New World), or keep a watchful eye on every single one of them (as envisioned in 1984), but rather mentally breaks down its criminals to the point where they no longer have any free will, or the power to make their own decisions. Of course people like Alex shouldn’t be free to rape and kill as they please, but there’s arguably an even bigger inhumanity to brainwashing them to the point where they can no longer even function properly.
[MAJOR SPOILERS] When the Droogs’ sudden betrayal of Alex, brought on by his violent attempts to assert himself as their true leader, results in him finally getting arrested, he eventually chooses this treatment himself as a speedy “way out” of prison. This leads to one of the most iconic scenes in film history, when Alex is escorted to an empty theater room, strapped down in a front-row seat, fitted with a device that pries his eyes open, and forced to watch extremely violent and sexual films on the screen.
At first, this seemingly pleases him, but over time, seeing all those graphic images paired with his favorite music (particularly Beethoven’s “9th Symphony, 4th movement”) eventually sickens him to the point of crying out “I’m cured! Praise God!…. I see now that [my violence and law-breaking] is wrong!”
But is he? He certainly gets a severe psychological reaction (that being uncontrollable nausea) upon trying to indulge in his old ways, but at the same time, he’s still somewhat driven by the need to do so. Unlike the original source material (Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name, which ironically features even more disturbing content than its film adaptation), his evil never fully goes away—it’s just buried between layers and layers of mental damage, and even those don’t prove to be especially long-lasting. The “cure” isn’t really a cure after all. [END SPOILERS]
Would A Clockwork Orange have worked without Stanley Kubrick? I highly doubt it: besides him solely penning the brilliant screenplay, he adds so much rich visual detail behind the camera that it’s impossible to see anybody else making the film as visually or narratively brilliant. Certainly, a film with this amount of obscene, disturbing content might not even get made today to begin with, but that’s another matter.
Not unlike the man’s previous 2001: A Space Odyssey, we’re presented with images that are striking, unusual, yet also strangely beautiful—though in this case, they’re even more abstract and bizarre. The Korova Milkbar, where the Droogs get their “milk plus” fix, is littered with nude statues, including that of a seductive woman that, with the push of a button, can produce milk from her breasts. A large penis-shaped sculpture is present in an artfully designed house. Hazy colors fill the screen in a surreal record store. A car nearly overturns as the Droogs joyfully speed down the road, Alex rebelliously smirking all the while.
All these extraordinary elements—the story, the images, the music, the Droogs’ unforgettable way of talking to each other—combine to form a startling, gorgeous, soul-shattering whole, a masterpiece of off-kilter futuristic nightmares.
I certainly cannot see everybody liking A Clockwork Orange, and the fact that Roger Ebert misunderstood it as “[a celebration of] the nastiness of its hero, Alex” [NOTE: LINK ALSO CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS], is understandable (albeit completely incorrect). What I can’t see, however, is anybody who sees the film ever forgetting it, no matter how hard they may try.
*Both Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange were later re-rated R, though for years on end, the R-rated version of the latter film had 30 seconds of sexually explicit footage replaced with less graphic imagery. Thankfully, the uncensored version now carries an R as well, and the censored version is all but gone at this point.