Sunday, May 06, 2007

As Queer as a Clockwork Orange

I thought I'd resume my blogging spree by reviewing Stanley Kubrick's timeless classic. The 60s saw a rise in freewill and unruliness amongst teenagers. The protagonist, Alex, is a representative of that, perhaps in an extreme and exaggerated way. We see the everyday orgies of sexual violence that Alex and his fellow "droogs" indulge in, the portrayal of which is darkly artistic. So is the setting of the Korova milkbar, a place frequented by the boys. Alex loves Beethoven and finds acute satisfaction in fantasizing about rape and torture. After one of their escapades, Alex is caught red-handed and is put into jail with charges of murder. The movie takes a turn when the fruits of modern medicine are used to "treat" this juvenile delinquent. His body is conditioned to experience terror and paralysis in response to violence. He can't take Beethoven any more.

Alex is discharged. His family refuses to accept him and he experiences bitter retribution in the hands of victims of his past brutalities. His agony reaches a peak when he is left to suffer in a room resounding with the melody of Beethoven. It is at this point of time that he chooses to end his life and jumps out of the window. But he survives the fall and ends up in a hospital with broken bones. He is in the newspapers *again*. And this time, he ends up as the center of a heated political debate about the justness of the so-called scientific cure for crime. He undergoes slow and careful treatment to annull the effects of the earlier treatment. The movie ends with a "special visitor", a minister, coming to meet Alex at the hospital. Posing for photos with the minister in front of crowds of journalists and cameramen with Beethoven playing in the background, Alex finds himself cured and gives a twisted smile as he indulges in sexual fantasies like before. 

The first half of the movie uses Alex as a representative of the rebelliously delinquent teenager. The grotesque yet artistic portrayal of the savageries somehow keeps you from hating Alex. The second half of the movie evokes in its viewers a deep sympathy for Alex. It shows the unpleasant consequence of using science to interfere with nature. It also fills you up with disgust for politically motivated government policies and shows the futility of it all.

So much for the plot. In my opinion, the theme is broader and more general: Whether for good or evil, free will is something natural and spontaneous and is an integral part of who you are. The central question posed by the movie is whether it is worthwhile to curb free will. The movie does not present a clearcut opinion on this. But, it definitely reveals Kubrick's bend of mind against the curbing of free will. The ending is not very conclusive. Alex's sexual urges are definitely restored, but we don't know if he will continue to be the brute he used to be. It is left for the viewer to decide. Thus, it is an open-ended work of art that leaves its viewers pondering. Someone looking for a clear-cut message might be disappointed.


  1. Good to see u blogging again!
    - Way to go

    So.. i have one question... do u believe in curbing your free will? :)

    Well.. i think we all do curb... but what is the deciding factor to which u would curb your free will?

  2. well, that's the hard part. there can't be any generic algorithm for making such decisions. but often, it makes sense to choose to use or curb freewill so that it would lead to greater good. but when we talk about "greater good" we are already in the fuzzy realms, because the perception of greater good will depend on personal priorities and how correctly we can predict the consequences of actions. for example, some people are more risk-taking than others. it could always be the case that an overly risk-taking person ends up taking a chance hoping things would turn out in a certain way, but they actually don't! this could happen in spite of the person having good intentions!
    decisions for whether or not to curb free will, in the case of grown-ups, are influenced by individual maturity (ethics included), law, and social norms. teenagers tend to be more impulsive and so, in their case, it is crucial that they trust some grown-ups (preferably their parents) and take their help in making such decisions. of course, with generation gap coming into the way, the kid might be stopped from doing what he/she wants most of the time. that happens often in indian society. for example, often indian kids end up choosing careers that their parents want instead of going for what they are good at. but the opposite of that as we see in the US isn't that appealing either. look at the numbers of teenage pregnancies for example!
    can their be a middle path? :-)

  3. is free will the same as impulsiveness ?

    in teenagers?
    what about adults?

    well.. i would think not. yes of course, if someone doesn't curb his/her free will, will definitely do more rash and spontaneous things. however, the converse is not true, and reduces the discussion to a very small subset of the general question.

    i don't think you've implied that in your response. I'm just mentioning the obvious, i think.

    so, i think that impulsive and spontaneous decisions can be quite dangerous. I think I'm spontaneous myself, in many areas, which has led to misunderstandings and/or long-term regret!

    However, the choice to curb Free will, at least as risen from the context of the movie, is heavily dependent on how you want to be seen by others. I am talking about normal people like us, who, if are even given complete free will, won't necessarily do any harm to others. however, we would feel conscious about exposing our truest and un-curbed selves.

    do u think that's why u might be curbing your "free will"?

  4. I am talking about normal people like us, who, if are even given complete free will, won't necessarily do any harm to others. [emph mine]

    Are you sure? :-)
    I guess that brings us back to the question of what is free will?

    I would like to hark back to an essay we wrote in high school - "Swatantrata Swachchhandata Nahin" - Independence is not recklessness. It talked about how free will with information/responsibility is the best thing.

    No, I am NOT for curbing free will. However, I am a strong opposer of actions that harm others.

    Taking JD's teen pregnancy example, I'd rather let my daughter roam free [after talking to her about the responsibilities she has towards her own self], than curb her freedom. The latter option can easily result in my finding out one fine day that she has not only gotten pregnant, but thanks to my being old-fashioned, has hidden it from me and tried a hazardous abortion! However, if my "free-willed" daughter likes beating up homeless people for fun - I should/would definitely step in.

    Speaking of deciding factors - here are mine:

    1. Whatever happens between two consenting adults in nobody's business.
    2. [Sanskrit]
    ashTadash puraNeshu Vyasasya vachanadwayam |
    paropkarah punyay, paapay parpeeDanam ||
    [English] In the 18 puranas, Vyasa said only two things: that you will get "punya" if you help others, and "paap" if you cause pain to others.

    ...end of rant... good post JD.
    P.S. Speaking of free will - here is something interesting that happened in Mexico recently.

  5. "however, we would feel conscious about exposing our truest and un-curbed selves.
    do u think that's why u might be curbing your "free will"?"

    -addie, as i said before, i would categorize factors influencing us to curb free will as: 1)maturity/ethics 2)law 3)society. what you said falls under 3. for law-abiding people (animesh, i think that's what addie meant by "normal" people), both 1 and 3 are instrumental.

    animesh, the idea of not harming people boils down to this: you choose to inflict pain on yourself (by curbing free will) instead of giving pain to others. makes sense!

    here's an interesting read on this topic:
    Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t

  6. so ... are we ready to re-write the vedas?
    - do harm to yourself, and others will do good to you, do good to others and others will do harm to themselves


    Very educational link... i had no clue Free will had been argued about for so long!

    And animesh.. like your deciding factors :)

  7. arre.... resume karne ka promise karke freeze?

    Enna Raskalaaaa... write it! :)