It is not a series of legible images or a black screen that opens A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s operatic adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ classic dystopian novel; but an overlay of colors. First a burning red fills the screen, a color often evoking associations with rage, danger and power. It raises one’s blood pressure, accelerates the heart rate and elicits erotic feelings. Then the image flips to a deep blue, generating the opposite effects of red: calm, truth, and sincerity. It cuts back to red before resting on Alex, (played by Malcolm McDowell), a delinquent who chooses a life of crime. His dangerous yet youthful beauty is as contradictory as the interplay of colors. Already this display of colors provokes emotional conflicts. But the music that plays against these emotions just might fuel them, as our film opens against English composer Henry Purcell’s 1695 Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, reimagined for synthesizer by electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos. In bringing her own specific flourish to classical composers such as Purcell, Beethoven, and Rozzini, Carlos works at distorting the films use of music in order to manipulate the way in which we engage and interact, ultimately controlling our free will through a marriage of sights and sounds.
These images and sounds work against one another in a discordance that helps define the central themes–good vs evil, freedom of choice and order–of A Clockwork Orange. At the same time, what we see and hear influences our central thoughts on the film’s antihero. Before witnessing Alex’s heinous acts, we are unable to determine where we stand and how we feel within the world of Alex; it is determined for us. As Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary plays – a song that sounds both familiar yet disturbingly alien due to Carlos’ punctuated synthesizer – we struggle with the discordance that works within the score, feeling an unease that is further underlined by Alex and his gang’s uncomfortably hypnotic gaze.
Alex and his Droogs, as he calls them, beat, steal, and rape their way through society, acting through primordial instincts rather than reason, doing so to the likes of Rossini and Beethoven, as well as Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain. The reason that the classical accompaniments of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony work congruously is our disassociation from its visual static, immediately recognizable to our ears, but with only an orchestra and a conductor being the associative images. Uniquely, Singing in the Rain is the only piece of music in the film that carries its own widely recognized imagery. Thus this number, played during a brutal rape scene, reinforces the disjuncture between Alex’s violent modus operandi and the fairytale world he lives in.
It is difficult to focus on a love-struck Gene Kelly, umbrella in hand kicking through rain-water down a city block after witnessing such a blatant act of savagery set against its melody. Kubrick even places Alex’s victim in a red one piece, as if to recall the emotional turbulence wrought by the opening credits. Correspondingly, the music highlights Alex’s total abandonment of reason and free thought, acting on an instinct to rape and ruin spurred on by reds association.
Conversely, rather than freely feel what we want to hear–the harsh and horrifying sounds we associate with images of violence, we’re forced to accept the melodious sounds to conflicting sights. This is, after all, the future. It is no longer our world, but Alex’s. As he acts out his crimes with ease, we involuntarily bear witness to his vision and their auditory accompaniments, represented in Alex’s ideas of hanging, murder, and rape conjured from within his own psyche by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
These wicked thoughts, conjured up from Beethoven’s magnum opus, wind up mirroring our own, as we witness the heinous acts of Alex’s own thoughts. Just as Beethoven’s work extracts ferocity from Alex, so too does Alex’s character from us. To our naked eye, lovely Ludwig and Alex become one, their faces and sounds intertwined in destruction. When Alex later breaks into a health retreat, the owner attacks him with a bust of Beethoven, hitting him over the head and knocking him to the floor. Beethoven acts as Alex’s violent catalyst, further driving into his mind the association between music and brutality. Here Kubrick amasses empathy for our lead Droog, as we too now know nothing but violence from these classical arrangements.
Calling for empathy, Alex is imprisoned for two years, in which he volunteers to undergo corrupt tests known as the Ludovico technique; the Minister of the Interior’s experimental rehabilitation. Alex is subjected to and unable to escape images of war, violence, and hate, specific analogues of the flashes of red during the opening credits. Upon the second day of treatment, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plays, highlighting the imagery and ultimately contextualizing what both the sights and sounds mean. Enraged at the disservice that is being done to Ludwig’s masterpiece, Alex exclaims that it’s a sin to use Ludwig like that, and that “he did no harm to anyone! Beethoven just wrote music!” Alex’s interjection both contradicts and brings awareness to his own subconscious behavior, fully manifesting his inability to define sin and violence, suggesting that imagery is intrinsically linked to particular sounds. Sometimes it’s just impossible to escape the two.