Over forty years after its release, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange retains all its aesthetic and visceral impact. Cinephiles would expect this of anything by a perfectionist auteur like Kubrick, but as it usually goes, works of popular art that grow instantly famous for their shock value tend not to hold their artistic value. How this particular picture managed that trick makes up the implicit subject of the 30-minute documentary Making A Clockwork Orange, available to watch on YouTube. Here was a film controversial enough, and allegedly inspirational of enough real-life crime, that Kubrick himself pulled it from distribution in the United Kingdom. What did the director and his many collaborators have to do to make a film whose own tagline calls “the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven” obscurity-proof? Making A Clockwork Orange’s answer: they had to think hard and work long at every single aspect of the cinematic craft.
Offered a comparatively low budget of $2.2 million, Kubrick and his team had to construct an ambiguously futuristic dystopian London and an entire wayward youth culture within it. Former members of this team describe the director as a “sponge,” hearing every last idea anyone could offer him and adapting them to his and Burgess’ hybrid vision. He worked not from a script but straight from the novel, exhaustively attacking each page from every possible visual approach. He and his designers sat down with stacks of architectural magazines to find the ugliest possible midcentury buildings in which to shoot. Applying to protagonist Alex deLarge a single set of false eyelashes came from a hunch by the makeup specialist. And Alex belts out “Singin’ in the Rain” during he and his gang of hoods’ fateful assault on the home of an elderly writer — a scene that assures you’ll never quite hear Gene Kelly the same way again — because it’s the only song star Malcolm McDowell happened to know. Violence, crime, punishment, and even the Beethoven: A Clockwork Orange presents them all at the height of stylization. This assures a permanent purchase on our consciousness that gritty, effects-laden explicitness can never attain.