Revisiting Roger Ebert’s Clockwork Orange Review

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Earlier today, Matt Zoller Seitz paid tribute to the great critic Roger Ebert by choosing 13 of his best reviews on the anniversary of his death. As a massive fan of both Seitz and Ebert, I was excited to read the list. And that excitement turned into joy when I saw the first review Seitz praised: Ebert’s controversial pan of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1).

Kubrick’s 1971 film tells a tricky story where the protagonist Alex goes on a raping spree, gets caught, and is then subjected to a tortuous treatment that attempts to cure him of his sinful urges. From my viewpoint, Kubrick’s aim is to illustrate how vile and ugly it would be for the state to violently control its subjects from doing harm. Kubrick is arguing that a state which tries to improve its citizens’ habits through torture is no less criminal than the criminals it locks up.

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The problem, for many, is that in order to make this argument, Kubrick has to get us to empathize or feel for Alex. Moreover, as the film progresses, Alex rejects the state’s treatment and regains his desire to hurt others. That generated empathy for Alex, combined with his return to his unhinged primal self,leads many viewers to believe that Kubrick’s film cheers on Alex in his crimes just because he opposes the state.

Ebert found himself agreeing with Clockwork‘s critics. In 1971, he wrote:

What in hell is Kubrick up to here? Does he really want us to identify with the antisocial tilt of Alex’s psychopathic little life? In a world where society is criminal, of course, a good man must live outside the law. But that isn’t what Kubrick is saying, He actually seems to be implying something simpler and more frightening: that in a world where society is criminal, the citizen might as well be a criminal, too.

Since then, Ebert’s detractors have often trotted out this review to dismiss his work. Look at this idiot, they seem to say, can you trust the guy who thought A Clockwork Orange was a “right-wing fantasy?” 

For Seitz, however, the answer is yes. While he disagrees with Ebert, Seitz admires the review because it “keeps” him “honest.” It “nags” him, forcing him to dig deeper and think harder. It requires him to make sure he isn’t giving a pass to Kubrick’s film because he enjoys its surface, but that he’s grappling with its ideas, however disturbing they might be.

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Honestly, Ebert’s review doesn’t nag me much. Last year, I used his piece in a final for my Kubrick class, where I analyzed the relationship between Kubrick’s images and sounds to show that Ebert (and Kubrick’s other critics) got the meaning of the film backwards (2). Still, even though I disagree with Ebert’s claims, I can’t help but love his article.

What makes Ebert’s review so thrilling is how he conveys his passion for cinema through it. You get a sense of that passion in his writing. “What in hell is Kubrick up to here” isn’t a formal phrase, but it contains a sense of rage that’s missing from most critiques, which even when they pan certain films seem distant from them instead of being passionately opposed to them.

But while Ebert’s passion comes out in word choice and phrasing, you can really find it in his analysis of Kubrick’s craft. Consider:

Kubrick’s most obvious photographic device this time is the wide-angle lens. Used on objects that are fairly close to the camera, this lens tends to distort the sides of the image. The objects in the center of the screen look normal, but those on the edges tend to slant upward and outward, becoming bizarrely elongated. Kubrick uses the wide-angle lens almost all the time when he is showing events from Alex’s point of view; this encourages us to see the world as Alex does, as a crazy-house of weird people out to get him.

This is just stunning analysis. I’ve yet to come across another mainstream review that shared such insight into how Kubrick gets us inside Alex’s head to see what he sees and feels what he feels (3). I’d wager that most film reviewers couldn’t produce such an illuminating paragraph of formal analysis if their life depended on it (4). It requires a tremendous passion for film to learn about and understand the use of the wide-angle lens, and then it requires a deep engagement to pick up on its emotional impact in a specific text.

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But if a film reviewer has that passion and engagement, it produces wonders. Despite disagreeing with Ebert, his formal analysis (and his other words) has taught me more than the reviews that praise the film or the comments that sneer at its critics. Ebert’s analysis showed me how much thought and detail Kubrick put into every image. His words spurred me on to consider every frame, sound choice, camera angle/position/movement, and bit of dialogue in the film so that I could understand my reaction and why it was so different from his. His passion fueled my passion, forcing me to learn as much as I can to understand movies at the high level that he does. And lastly, his review humbled me: it showed me that even when a reviewer might get a film “wrong,” he can still share a mind-blowing perspective on it that you couldn’t dream of considering in a million years.

Ebert may not have “got” the fact that A Clockwork Orange was a masterpiece in 1971, but that didn’t stop him from producing his own masterpiece about it.


(1) I also felt joy that Seitz chose Ebert’s Crash review. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve always loved Roger’s review, which serves as the best defense against all the hatred that Crash’s fans receive. Nevertheless, it was, ironically, Seitz who wrote an angry take down of the film and its fans (and Ebert’s review!) back in 2006, and in doing so, produced his own masterpiece.

(2) I suppose I should put up that Clockwork essay considering how boastful I am about it. There are 3 problems, though. 1. It’s a dry piece of academic writing. 2. My saved copy is missing the last page. 3. It’s immaterial to my argument here.

(3) Yes, I’ve read Pauline Kael’s review.

(4) I should add that I couldn’t publish a paragraph this illuminating either. Well, unless the paragraph was a thousand words long.


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