Forty years ago today, a terrifying dystopian science-fiction film/pitch-black comedy hit American cinemas and changed movies forever. The film was A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s ultra-controversial adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel. Though widely acknowledged today as one of the great films of the ‘70s, initial critical response to the picture was mixed; Roger Ebert called it “talky and boring,” as well as “an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning,” while Pauline Kael criticized its “leering, portentous style” and accused its director of “sucking up to the thugs in the audience.” But The New York Times’ Vincent Canby set the tone for most critical responses, writing that Orange “makes real and important the kind of fears simply exploited by other, much lesser films.”
Audiences seemed to agree — the film grossed something like ten times its original budget in the States, its transformation into cult classic here and in England given an extra boost by its lengthy exile from availability in the UK. (Kubrick withdrew the film from circulation himself in the wake of possible copycat crimes.) Moreover, the picture’s iconic imagery and distinctive visual style made it a frequent touchstone for other filmmakers, musicians, and pop culture figures looking to inject a little droog mojo into their projects. After the jump, we’ll take a look at a few of the more memorable Clockwork Orange shout-outs in popular culture.
Guns N’ Roses: “Welcome to the Jungle”
One of the most enduring images from Clockwork Orange is that of Alex’s aversion therapy treatment (the “Ludovico technique”), in which he is drugged, strapped down, and forced to watch violent movies. GN’R’s breakthrough video, “Welcome to the Jungle,” aped this famous scene by placing Axl Rose in a straightjacket and head restraint while several televisions played violent news footage in front of him.
The Simpson clan has worked in plenty of Clockwork references over the course of its 20-plus seasons, including Bart posing as Alex in 1992’s “Treehouse of Horror III” episode and a shot-for-shot recreation of Alex’s press conference “testing” with a naked woman in the 1993 “Duffless” episode (with a pair of well-rounded cupcakes ingeniously replacing the breasts of Kubrick’s original). The aversion therapy sequence has been referenced twice on the show: Homer used an eye-opening device similar to Alex’s in the 1993 “Homer Goes to College” episode (as a study aide), while the 1992 “Dog of Death” episode found Mr. Burns and Smithers using the Ludovico technique to turn Santa’s Little Helper into one of Burns’s bloodthirsty hounds.
Trainspotting: The Volcano Club
Danny Boyle’s 1996 cult classic is chock-full of Clockwork influence, from the breathless style to the snarky voice-over narration of antihero Renton (Ewan McGregor). But its most explicit tribute to Kubrick comes in the “Volcano Club” sequence — look closely and you’ll find that the writing on the walls replicates that of the Moloko bar in Orange. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE: the song playing is by the band Heaven 17, which took its name from the Burgess novel (in the book, the fictional pop group Heaven Seventeen have a song at #4 on the charts).
Mad Magazine: “A Crockwork Lemon”
In its ’70s and ’80s heyday, Mad never missed an opportunity to send up the movies everyone was talking about — so that meant, in their June 1973 issue, taking on A Clockwork Orange with their parody, A Crockwork Lemon. Writer Stan Hart and artist George Woodbridge’s Kubrick spoof can be viewed in full here; thanks to the fine folks at Subterranean Cinema for the scans.
Though director Quentin Tarantino has frequently pinpointed Kubrick’s The Killing as a primary influence on his heist-gone-awry directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, the shadow of Orange is clear in the picture’s most notorious sequence: the bloody torture of a kidnapped cop, to the peppy strains of Steeler’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You.” The incongruence of the upbeat pop tune and the brutal actions of Mr. Blonde instantly recalls the sequence where Alex and his droogs kick the bourgeois writer and rape his wife, all the while crooning “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine is a proud fan of A Clockwork Orange, embracing the film to such a degree that he calls fans of the group droogies. The band even created a T-shirt that apes the original Clockwork Orange poster, with band mascot Vic Rattlehead in place of Alex — yours for only $27.99 (plus shipping and handling!) on eBay. But let’s be honest, you can’t put a price tag on style.
South Park: “Coon 2: Hindsight”
This season 14 episode of South Park finds Cartman’s alter-ego, “The Coon,” going all-out Alex with his vicious beating of “Mosquito” and “Mint Berry Crunch” in order to regain control of his band of crime-fighters. And just to make the parody crystal-clear, writer/director Trey Parker scores the sequence with an excerpt from the overture of “The Thieving Magpie” by Gioacchino Rossini — which Kubrick uses in Orange when Alex reclaims control of the droogs. (The entire South Park episode is here.)
Good Bye, Lenin!
Wolfgang Becker’s German comedy/drama (featuring, incidentally, a protagonist named Alex) features a tribute to one of Clockwork Orange‘s most famous sequences (and one that was partially responsible for its original X rating): the fast-motion orgy, scored to the “William Tell Overture.” It is aped here, but with a far less sexy purpose.
These are just a few of the countless Clockwork references in music, film, and television over the past forty years — feel free to add in your own in the comments.