Is Alex cured all right?
At the end of A Clockwork Orange (1971) Alex (Malcolm McDowell) goes into some kind of paroxysm. He has just sealed a pact of dubious friendship with the Minister (Anthony Sharp), who promises him a 'good job on a good salary,' if he is 'instrumental in changing the public's verdict' about the government's mistreatment of him. Such contracts with patriarchal power are important in Kubrick's films, whether it is selling one's soul to the Devil, as in The Shining (1980), or making a Faustian pact to keep one's mouth shut Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Then as Alex's beloved 'Ode to Joy' from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony swells from monolithic speakers in his hospital room, his face, revisiting the film's opening demonic close up, contorts into a lopsided grimacing smile, his eyes turn upwards in ecstasy and there is a hard cut to what cinematic convention tells us is subjective fantasy. In medium long shot a naked man--presumably Alex--and a beautiful young woman (Katya Wyeth) thrash in slow motion on artificial snow, between two lines of applauding spectators in Victorian-style costumes. The music cuts off and the curdled tones of Alex's echoing voiceover announce, 'I was cured all right.' Another hard cut follows, this time to bright orange as 'Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick' fills the screen and the closing credits play out to the jaunty accompaniment of Gene Kelly's 'Singin' in the Rain.'
On the face of it, this final shot is easy enough to read as an ironic happy ending. Alex, now cured of the aversion to Beethoven accidentally induced by the Ludovico Treatment, is no longer psychically castrated. The young scoundrel is free to enjoy the old in-out in-out once again and the spectators, while oddly got up for a movie set in the near future, are welcoming back his old criminality. This chimes with the ending of the novel, or at any rate the American version Kubrick adapted, in which Alex viddies himself 'carving the whole litso of the creeching world with my cut-throat britva.'1 2 At the same time the shot poses a number of mind-twisting visual and aural riddles. Why is Alex cavorting publically in fake snow of all things? That is assuming it is in fact snow; John Baxter's biography of Kubrick describes it as 'sawdust'3 and the transcribed release script 'polysterene'4. And precisely why are the men wearing grey top hats and frock coats and the women long dresses and carrying parasols, as if dressed for the enclosure at Ascot? Could this be a proleptic glimpse of Kubrick's next film, the costume drama Barry Lyndon (1975)? Kubrick's films often end with teasing enigmas that refuse the satisfactions of narrative closure, for example the floating interstellar baby of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the narratively unmotivated track at the end of The Shining into the photograph of Jack (Jack Nicholson) on Independence Day 1921, the bizarre chorus of 'The Mickey Mouse Club' song in Full Metal Jacket (1987), and the curt 'Fuck' that closes Eyes Wide Shut (1999)5. Such bewilderments are intrinsic to Kubrick's elliptical, oneiric and symbolically loaded style, which invites feverish over-interpretation and the kind of hermetic cult readings reported in Room 237 (2012).
Alex's fantasy is both surprising and ambiguous. Music had previously triggered dreams of rape and brutality, as when he masturbated at home to 'a bit of the old Ludwig Van' and 'knew such lovely pictures' as a bride being hung, people crushed by falling rocks (a clip from One Million Years BC (1966)), and himself as a vampire. This tableau, however, is one of energetic but consensual love-making with the girl enthusiastically straddling Alex (the release script, however, as Kramer notes, calls it a 'rape fantasy'6). He may seem sarcastic in his lip-smacking announcement of a cure, which will only sharpen him up for new adventures in rape and ultra-violence, but his vision implies that it is a genuine cure that has sublimated his 'natural' violence into harmless erotic pleasure. Alex is reborn indeed, as Bowman is reborn at the end of 2001 and Jack is reborn into the past in the photograph, but, like the Star Child, he has also evolved and been remade into a new kind of being, at peace with the world and his applauding masters.
The snow initially seems tricky to interpret, though Kubrick aficionados have noted the relevance of whiteness to the film's colour scheme (milk, the droogs' costumes, Alex new 'purity' after his cure), the anticipation of the wintry maze at the end of The Shining, and that the snow's obvious fakeness undercuts the set up's believability.7 The spectators surely represent the ruling class, whom Alex naively imagines in the posh garb of the upper class from some classic novel or old movie (perhaps the Ascot scene from My Fair Lady (1964) or, given the snow and Dickensian costumes, an adaptation of A Christmas Carol). Alex does tend to see life through movie tropes. As Elisa Pezzotta remarks, 'Alex's thoughts are like a parody of the classical cliches of Hollywood films.'8 When he reads the 'Big Book' in prison he casts himself as a soldier 'dressed in the height of Roman fashion' in a Biblical epic or Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), whipping Christ and tolchocking yahoodies. Alex craves an audience, so it makes sense that, having sold out to the ruling class, he should eroticise the transgressions he will carry out under its indulgent gaze. No greater 'Joy', no 'gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh', could this hedonist imagine.
From the opening reverse tracking shot in which Alex holds us in his gaze, he imagines himself an actor controlling each new theatrical space from the deserted casino to the cat-lady's home, an all singing, all dancing hero of the movie playing in his head. But after the Ludovico Treatment he becomes a spectator, no longer able to perform and dominate his surroundings. In a significant change from Anthony Burgess's novel his free will does not return accidentally through a blood transfusion, but by brain surgery on his 'gulliver.' Lobotomised into freedom, he is now the creature of the Minister and a contract star for a corrupt state. His fixed smile, like Jack's as he rises into the frame after the axe murder and Private Pyle's just before he blows his brains out in Full Metal Jacket, announces the moment when power takes possession for good.
Sardonic social comment is doubtless intended here. A Clockwork Orange was released as the revolutionary youth culture of the sixties gave way to the consumerism of the seventies. The promise of easy access to beautiful women--already imagined by Alex when he is fed grapes by topless 'wives and handmaidens' in his Biblical fantasy--signifies the 'repressive tolerance' by which male rebellion was bought off by 'permissive' sex and an easy life of mindless consumption. In fact, it is appropriate that A Clockwork Orange should end with a live sex show, with the girl sexily dolled up in long black gloves, a choker and stockings, for the film edges always towards exploitation and the frankly pornographic.9 The final scene is just what it looks like--a gratuitous sex scene from a movie rather like A Clockwork Orange, designed to entertain a decadent bourgeoisie with spectacular transgressions. It is a role for which Alex's porn star surname, De Large, perfectly equips him.