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Revisiting A Clockwork Orange in 2020

I was so happy to find A Clockwork Orange was added to Netflix in early November. Big fan, real big fan. I first made a copy of the movie in junior high school (ca. 1989), when I saw that it was going to be on HBO one night from midnight to 2:30 in the morning–and in those days, we saw these things in print versions of TV Guide. At the same time we had a free week of Cinemax, and the word at school was that a dirty version of Cinderella was going to be playing that same night. But no, I went with the violent art film. Obviously you can tell that I was a jock who was focused on girls and beer.

Not so much. Anyway, I gingerly hit record on the VCR and hoped like hell my parents wouldn’t wake up, walk into the living room, and see me recording the first non-porn film I ever heard of with an X rating. Mercifully they slept as I captured the film. I think I wrote “Danger Mouse” on the VHS tape label, because no one I knew liked that show but me and so no one would ever bother to play that tape. Genius.

I must have watched Kubrick’s classic 30 times in high school and especially college, when I could enjoy the movie without fear of a family member or normal friend walking in one of the many infamous scenes. Read the book lots of times too. Had the soundtrack on cassette, and absolutely knew every word to “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper.” Had a gigantic poster of Alex, Pete, Georgy, and Dim at the Korova Milk Bar, in between my other gigantic poster from Reservoir Dogs and my normal-sized poster of Ace Frehley. Called my closest friends “droogs,” but only occasionally so not to be a weirdo.

And then I went on with my life and hadn’t watched it since then, a span of about 25 years. But: as I turned the movie on and Wendy (known then as Walter) Carlos’ score synced to the primary colors of the intro flashing on the screen, I knew such lovely pictures: I remembered every line, every action, every image, every aspect. The slang: real horrorshow. The well-known scenes: still on point, raw, shocking, and riveting. It didn’t feel dated or clumsy as some 50-year-old work does. 

I loved all of Alex’s soliloquies, telling his tale of woe in between acts of ultraviolence. I enjoyed the stranger monologues, like those from Mr. Deltoid and Mr. Alexander, so nasally and breathless and absurd. (“TRY THE WINE.”) Even the minor parts, like the chief guard reading out Alex’s possessions as he entered prison (“one half bar of chocolate”), or Furry-Turtleneck Joe the Lodger’s lambasting of Alex upon his return home, were so familiar and fun. I went to bed that night with that exhilaration we feel when meeting an old friend after many years but pick up right where we left off with easy conversation. This friend just happened to put fake eyelashes on one eye and assaulted half of England.

And so you must now surely be wondering why I, your friend and humble narrator, am sharing this random set of information with you for a theme of the 2020 U.S. election. Well, this early November movie night was four days after that election, and the night before Joe Biden got his 270th electoral vote, followed by a bunch more until he landed at 306: Landside/Blowout/Historic, as it were. My family and I celebrate this, while still enduring that unique dread that Trump creates in our lives. But most importantly, he’s out and Biden is in. It’s a new day.

Still, I wonder: where does a film like A Clockwork Orange fit into this new day? And where do those like me who enjoy it stand? I feel so close to the empowerment movements that have risen to highly visible boiling points in recent years. The coalition of the young, disenfranchised and fed-up in our society has been remarkable and inspiring, and surely they should get the most credit for Biden’s win (it sure ain’t my fellow older white fellas doing the right things—amirite, Chad and Brad?). It’s well past time for this, and I’m all in.

But what if those same folks that I feel so close to watched this film? What would they feel as they watched so much violence against women in between so much sexualization of women, with not much in between? Surely some have seen it, being inspired by cinematic histories, pop culture references, or overbearing arty boyfriends. Imagine how pathetic the explanations are: that the violence is ironic, or it’s artistic, or it’s political? Or worse, that they just don’t get it? 

I’m not here to apologize for my feelings for the film. The film genuinely is satirical and makes powerful points about free will, approaches to public safety, and the unique dangers of dystopian times—hell, some of those points are more relevant now than in any recent time. And it’s a part of film culture: this is not exactly a bootleg copy of Faces of Death.

But I am here to acknowledge that I don’t know what these feelings make me in the year 2020. The election does create hope over the cretinous and the loud. I know what side I vote for and support. I know which stories on social media and in the news hit me the most. And I know the future I want for my children, as well as the future I want for all children.

Am I really a part of the side I claim to be on? How can there be a place in this new world for someone with the pre-woke experiences of enjoying such a movie then? How can I change to be a part of the future, not a jumping-off point away from the past? I could start by apologizing, but I just said I wasn’t going to do that—not because I’m a dick, but because I don’t feel that in my heart. Is this the problem: a posturing brain covering for a gruesomely dark or permanently unrepentant heart? 

I know I’m not young: I still listen to Pandora and make that hand gesture of pinky and thumb extended and middle fingers curled in when referring to a phone call. I know I’m not disenfranchised: My people have had the vast majority of privilege and still get the most profits. 

So I guess the question is why am I not fed up enough to change? What’s it going to take? Do I and my fellow Gen Xers who have been where I am now have what it takes? 

This is a new day. For some of you, anyway.

3 responses to “Revisiting A Clockwork Orange in 2020”

  1. Avatar McKnight says:

    I feel you. I was peripheral to A.C.O. fandom, watched it more than once and was called “droogs” by my friends. I certainly extolled its virtues to others who may have been disgusted, or worse, by its sexual violence. I certainly don’t think we should burn copies of Burgess’ novel, but I am listening to the concerns and understand that we need to view these pieces with care, with a critical eye, and a hope that one day we will no longer need media that shocks to inform.

  2. Avatar llxtm says:

    Confession: I’ve never watched A Clockwork Orange. Can we still be friends???????

    Seriously, though, J-lay. Anyone who has privilege that isn’t questioning everything they’ve ever been told, every thought they’ve ever had, every media they’ve ever consumed (I could go on)… is part of the problem. I’m glad you’re on the side of moving forward, uncertain though the path may be.

  3. Avatar Tina says:

    I miss your writing, Jason. I hear your concerns and have some of the same questions myself.
    Where do we go from here?
    (And, really, William Carlos Williams? I haven’t heard that name in forever.)
    Looking forward to you publishing more of your thoughts.

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jasonleary About jasonleary

Jason Leary is liberalish, except regarding the Oxford comma; an occasional runner; and a part-time thinker. A happy family man, Jason also loves William Carlos Williams, liberty, and beer. He pulled this bio from his Twitter profile, @JasonLeary74.

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January 2021
What We've Learned