You remember how I said this summer I finished watching all the movies on the American Film Institute’s top 100 lists? Well, today’s movie, “A Clockwork Orange”, I saved for last. On purpose. I read a lot of things about this movie, even several years ago, that told me that this movie was pretty extreme. And by that, I mean, graphic and kind of explicit at times. I guess a lot of it could be called “appropriate” in terms of how it helps to convey the film’s message, but personally, I get annoyed by a movie where naked breasts are shown every fifteen minutes. It wasn’t a joy to sit through, but I’ve decided to talk about it today in order to introduce a topic that I’ll be looking into in the next month: predestination versus free will.
In “A Clockwork Orange”, Malcolm McDowell plays Alex, a teenager living in 1990’s Britain (though this film was made in 1971) who has three close friends and skips school to hang out with them. This doesn’t sound so bad once you put it like that. But when he’s around his friends, he goes around town drinking milk laced with drugs in a bar with statues of naked women, breaking into people’s houses and raping women, and beating other neighborhood gangs so badly that they put them in the hospital or worse. Alex and his gang—his “droogs”, as he calls them—are not off to a very good start.
Not only that, but Alex and his gang have developed their own sort of dialect based off of some kind of Russian… something. Whatever, just listen to the dialogue in the movie and you’ll notice it’s weird. So as Alex narrates the film in this dialect and calmly describes his acts of “ultra-violence”, we the audience are expected to believe that this is a normal way of life for him. And then, one night, when Alex tries breaking into another woman’s house, he accidentally kills her, and while fleeing, his gang (with whom he has just had a violent argument about the gang’s leadership) bash him on the head with a glass milk bottle and run off, leaving Alex to be picked up by the police.
When he is, he is sent to prison for murder, and while he is there, he is exposed to religion. In a very interesting scene, we see a re-enactment of Jesus carrying the cross on Calvary, with Alex seeing himself as a Roman whipping him as he walks. He narrates about how he saw himself in that position. At first, I watched this and thought: “Hey, maybe he’s repenting!” The next scene then shows him seeing himself in Old Testament situations, killing soldiers in battle and eating fruit held by bare-breasted women. Mixed messages much?
Anyway, Alex eventually approaches the priest in the prison and tells him he has learned about a new treatment that cures people of sexually violent nature for good. Long story short, Alex is selected for it and taken to another facility, where he undergoes what’s called the “Ludovico technique”. Alex is given some medicine and is forced to watch hours of film a day featuring strong and often sexual violence until he becomes sick of it. What makes things worse is when Alex realizes music playing in the background: Beethoven. Alex happens to be very fond of Beethoven music, and when he hears this accompanying the film, he starts to scream in surrender.
ALEX: Stop it, stop it, please, I beg you! This is sin!
DOCTOR: I’m sorry, Alex! This is for your own good. You’ll have to bear with us for a while.
ALEX: You’ve proved to me that all this ultra-violence and killing is wrong! Wrong and terribly wrong! I’ve learned me lesson, sir! I see now what I’ve never seen before! I’m cured, praise God!
Eventually, Alex leaves the facility presumably a cured man. But when he goes home to find his parents have pretty much neglected him, bums off the street that Alex beat long ago are returning the favor, and two of his “droogs” have become policemen and decide to drown him in water and leave him to die, Alex cannot react without feeling sick to his stomach, and it seems like he is almost dying. He is brought into the house of a local man named Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), who wants to help Alex—until he realizes that Alex raped his wife years before. Then he decides to turn on Beethoven music and let Alex fall out of the second floor window.
Alex survives, though is in a coma for a long period of time. But when he wakes up, his mind is back to normal—the Ludovico treatment’s effects on him are completely gone, and he no longer gets sick at the sight of ultra-violence. And the movie pretty much ends with Alex in the hospital with a grin on his face—suggesting that he’s probably gone back to his ultra-violent ways.
…WHAT?! Is this supposed to be a happy ending or what?! I heard an interview from Steven Spielberg talking about Kubrick’s films, including “A Clockwork Orange”, and he said he is convinced with Alex’s grin that once he’s out of the hospital, he is going to kill all the people that “wronged” him. That’s not nice! So how the heck am I supposed to feel about what I just watched?
Well, I’ve been thinking about it over the past few months. And I have a feeling I know what the real point to the movie is. Alex, under the Ludovico treatment, was unable to do something crucial to his human nature: he was unable to choose. It’s great that he wasn’t able to do others wrong in this state, but there’s a big difference between choosing to turn the other cheek and being physically unable to do anything but turn the other cheek.
Personally, I do believe that God gave me free will to choose how I will respond to the actions of others against me. He knows what choice I will ultimately make, however—after all, He created me and knows what I think, as Psalm 139 tells me. But as we read in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve, conflicted by God’s command and Satan’s temptation, chose to eat from the tree of good and evil. Humans are created, I believe, with the ability to choose for themselves what they will do. We can either follow God’s plan for us, or we can choose to go the other way.
This spring I was doing my devotions one day, and I came across a passage in Scripture that I never really noticed before for some reason. It was Matthew 19:11-12, where Jesus tells his followers about their ability to choose to follow Him (or, more specifically in this passage, their decision-making about marriage): “‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’”
So what does this mean? God gives us the ability to choose to follow Him? Does that mean there’s a balance between the two sides, between predestination and free will? I know theologians argue about this, but I don’t want to do that. Whatever God wants to do, it’s beyond me, and if I really want to know how we humans think, I’ll ask Him about it in Heaven. But I pray that in this next month, as I explore a few movies that provide both sides, you and I will be able to recognize our gift of choice—and how we might use that to follow God.