Against Kubrick 7

This is part 7 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 3 of my discussion on…

A Clockwork Orange

In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. I added up the minutes spent on violence and sex versus satire and found more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter. I also organized the film in chapters like so:

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes)
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

In Part 2, I explored the quality of the filmmaking and assessed that Kubrick was most inspired when filming acts of cruelty and frankly uninspired when filming much of the satirical chapters. In this third and final installment, I will discuss the flawed nature of the satire itself, underscoring the premise that A Clockwork Orange is anti-humanist in its contempt for people and frankly dishonest for its intellectual pretensions.

At its very center, the film’s satire shows how in the face of endless corruption and weakness, pure evil becomes attractive, if not preferable to good. Purity becomes a virtue because it is a quality no one else in the film besides Alex shares. And the ending turns this already perverted notion on its head when even pure evil becomes corrupted.

Remember Alex mugging triumphantly for the photographers in his hospital bed? After a moment, he looks up, suddenly struck by an idea. He realizes that he doesn’t have to resort to ultra-violence anymore to harm or take advantage of others. He can use the corrupt system that the government has invited him into to do that for him. After all, he is getting away with murder, right? If he plays his cards right, with the powerful friends he now has, he can do it again.

And that last line: “I was cured, all right.” Basically, Alex was cured of his cure, as illustrated here.

This is part 7 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 3 of my discussion on… A Clockwork Orange In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. I added up the minutes spent on violence and sex versus satire and found more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter. I also organized the film in chapters like so:

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes) 2) Prison (24 minutes) 3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes) 4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes) 5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

In Part 2, I explored the quality of the filmmaking and assessed that Kubrick was most inspired when filming acts of cruelty and frankly uninspired when filming much of the satirical chapters. In this third and final installment, I will discuss the flawed nature of the satire itself, underscoring the premise that A Clockwork Orange is anti-humanist in its contempt for people and frankly dishonest for its intellectual pretensions. At its very center, the film’s satire shows how in the face of endless corruption and weakness, pure evil becomes attractive, if not preferable to good. Purity becomes a virtue because it is a quality no one else in the film besides Alex shares. And the ending turns this already perverted notion on its head when even pure evil becomes corrupted. Remember Alex mugging triumphantly for the photographers in his hospital bed? After a moment, he looks up, suddenly struck by an idea. He realizes that he doesn’t have to resort to ultra-violence anymore to harm or take advantage of others. He can use the corrupt system that the government has invited him into to do that for him. After all, he is getting away with murder, right? If he plays his cards right, with the powerful friends he now has, he can do it again. And that last line: “I was cured, all right.” Basically, Alex was cured of his cure, as illustrated here. I draw a dotted line here because it doesn’t have to be Alex committing the ultra-violence himself as long as he has the government covering for him. Hence, he is no longer as “pure” as he was in chapter 1. (Although exactly how Alex could suddenly stand listening to Beethoven again in the film’s last scene despite the Ludovico Technique was never made clear.) Regardless, Kubrick has to do two things to set up such a clever and ironic finale. First, he has to establish Alex as pure evil, which he clearly does. In fact, he may do it better than anyone in cinema, which is no mean accomplishment. More on that later. He also has to portray his victims and others around him in a negative light so we never gain sympathy for them and lose focus on the beautiful white-hot burning flame that is Alex. As soon as that happens, Alex’s fall and satirical rebirth become meaningless. So how does Kubrick do this? By portraying the dystopian world Alex lives in as being: A) hopelessly corrupt B) maddeningly banal C) awash in atrociously bad taste. In such a world, how could we not become spellbound by Alex’s harmonic malice? Unfortunately for Kubrick however, being corrupt, banal, and/or having bad taste are not heinous enough sins even when compounded to be punishable by rape and murder. First, there is the rampant corruption. The Deltoid character epitomizes this. He is presumably some kind of youth counselor, yet he grabs Alex by the crotch while lecturing him on how he should live his life. He also laughs maniacally when informing Alex that he is a murderer. The man is clearly a psychopath, yet he fits in just fine in Kubrick’s world. deltoid1deltoid2 Of course, the prison chaplain’s creepy hand-on-the-shoulder affection for Alex, Mr. Alexander’s vicious politicizing of the Ludovico Technique, and the government cover-up in the end add to this. Really, who in this film is not tainted by corruption? Maybe the chief guard of the prison, but he seems to be there more for cheap laughs than anything else. The signs of corruption everywhere are in images too (e.g., the phallic graffiti, the atrocious art). It seems that Kubrick really wants to portray humanity as some Gordian knot of corruption so that when Alex slashes it to pieces, we cheer. graffiti Second, there is the banality of Alex’s parents. These are two entirely sheep-like human beings. It’s as if they are so heavily medicated they can barely lift a finger. And they are stupid too. Anyone would go mad if forced to live with people like this. At least, that’s what Kubrick wants us to feel. Giving Alex any positive role models would only make Alex look bad in comparison. Finally, there is the atrocious style on display everywhere in the film, from hairstyles, to clothing, to artwork, to interior decoration. It’s all not just bad, but garishly so. Does anyone in Kubrick’s universe besides Alex have a sense of taste? See if you don’t disagree. Notice also how Kubrick deliberately films Alex’s main victims in an unattractive light. I mean, really. Is this necessary? The first screenshot is of the innocent middle-aged woman whom Alex senselessly murders. Do we have to see her in such an unflattering pose? The second screenshot is of Mr. Alexander when he realizes that his guest (Alex) was the one who had raped and murdered his wife and left him in a wheelchair. A little over-the-top don’t you think? So this is how Kubrick sets up his satire, by making humanity entirely repulsive. Hardly the work of a humanist. Also, I’d like to point out an additional tidbit of Kubrick-cruelty. Remember when Alex and his droogs steal a car and go joyriding? Playing “Hogs of the road”, as Alex put it. They run 3 vehicles off the road. So what happened to the people in those vehicles? Were they injured or killed? I wouldn’t be surprised if the guy in the motorcycle had at least broken a leg. But we don’t know because Kubrick doesn’t care to tell us. Those people weren’t important, you see. They were only human. Another way to look at the satire that is A Clockwork Orange is to take it at face-value. Let’s judge it on its own terms as a treatise on mind control and freedom. Again, let’s re-quote Kubrick:

…a

social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots.

and

It is a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is at the same time a running lecture on free-will.

This is frankly laughable. I love how Kubrick refers to Alex as a “delinquent”. Alex is not a delinquent. Alex is a serial rapist and murderer. Anything the government does to keep him from the electric chair is a mercy in my opinion. By giving him a second chance through experimental behavioral conditioning, the government looks good in my opinion. They chose the very risky path (for them and for Alex) of redemption when the path of least resistance would have been a swift execution. And yes, capital punishment had been abolished in England when the film was shot, and yes, they wouldn’t have executed Alex anyway for his status as a minor. But so what? This is the dystopian future. Laws can be overturned in dystopian futures. Here is an additional quote on the subject from the man himself, found here.

The idea that social restraints are all bad is based on a utopian and unrealistic vision of man. But in this movie, you have an example of social institutions gone a bit berserk. Obviously, social institutions faced with the law-and-order problem might choose to become grotesquely oppressive. The movie poses two extremes: it shows Alex in his precivilized state, and society committing a worse evil in attempting to cure him.

So the point of the satire is to make this kind of governmental mind control out to be a bad thing. It villainizes the government when it tries to (gasp!) hinder the free will of serial rapists and murderers. Well, you know what, Stan? Putting people in prison also hinders free will. How come you’re not complaining about that? And if you must have serial rapists and murderers walking the streets as free men, wouldn’t you want their free will to be hindered somehow? It’s either that or subjecting society to more rape and murder. Also, according to the film, the government reserves its “psychological conditioning” only to its basest criminals, not ordinary citizens. Doesn’t that make a difference? A Clockwork Orange is a far cry from 1984, and the Ludovico Technique is a far cry from the tool of a “totalitarian government”. Remember, Alex volunteered for the treatment. He could have said no at any point and gone back to the prison where he belonged. I suspect Kubrick simply didn’t think this satire thing all the way through. It’s either that or he really believed that allowing thugs to rape and murder is a small price to pay for free will. And I don’t think he did. When I knock Stanley Kubrick for his lack of humanism, I’m knocking the artist, not the man. Kubrick had two daughters. I refuse to believe he would have enjoyed watching what happened to Mr. Alexander’s wife happen to them. So A Clockwork Orange may glorify cruelty under a clumsy guise of satire, but I will say this for it: the first chapter is brilliant, and the film would have been better if that’s all there was to it. My friend (the same friend who challenged me to write these posts to begin with by claiming that Kubrick was a humanist) asserts that the first chapter of A Clockwork Orange is a priceless addition to Western art. He feels that by making evil both repulsive and attractive, it allows us to face any evil we have lurking inside of us. He calls to our attention the scene in which Alex reveals the breasts of Mr. Alexander’s wife with a pair of scissors. We have seen it before, but not like this. Hard to look at, isn’t it? That’s because this scene titillates as it horrifies. Only a filmmaker as adroit as Stanley Kubrick could have pulled off something this schizophrenic and this powerful. But when my friend says the first 43 and a half minutes of a A Clockwork Orange, viewed as a whole, is great art, I cannot entirely agree. True, the film’s juvenile and sloppy satire slathers an intellectual veneer over the violent chapters like a layer of grease. And when robbed of that, the film does become less dishonest. But even at his best in this film, Kubrick is just too snide, too cold, too vicious for me to champion. He shows not one iota of compassion for humanity in that first violent chapter. Lopping off everything after chapter 1 of A Clockwork Orange would put it in league with Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and Leni Riefenshtal’s Triumph of the Will as a masterwork of filmmaking, creepy as it is brilliant, but just too weird to be taken seriously or even noticed by the mainstream. And that would not be nothing. It would also be much more than what we have with the entire film, which is basically virtuosic evil masquerading as something highbrow, poignant, and funny. One interesting trick Kubrick kept from the novel was Alex’s constant use of the Russian word “Хорошо”, which, as a Russian adverb, means “good, fine, or well.” It’s pronounced in English as “Horosho”, or, as Alex likes to say it, “Horror show”. It’s a clever use of diction, full of meaning and irony in a dystrophic future in which the Soviets presumably won the Cold War – or at least made headway in England where young cockneys now salt their rhyming slang with choice Russian slovos. But it’s also a double-edged sword that can symbolize the film itself. A Clockwork Orange may seem хорошо with all its vaunted brilliance and satire. But really it’s just a horror.

Against Kubrick 6

This is part 6 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 2 of my discussion on…

A Clockwork Orange

In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. My evidence thus far has been mathematical. I’ve added up the minutes spent on violence and sex, and on satire. There are more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter.

For convenience sake, I split the film into the following chapters.

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes)
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

For more detail, please see my previous post Against Kubrick 5.

The second part of my argument is subjective: I argue that Stanley Kubrick is more inspired when someone is either doing harm to another or is about to do harm to another than he is when he is trying to be satirical. Further, in the satirical parts, he more often resorts to cheap tricks and shocking images. If I can prove this, then I think I can reasonably help strip away any notion that Kubrick is acting as some kind of humanist in A Clockwork Orange.

So to continue…

This is part 6 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise is basically that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with part 2 of my discussion on…

A Clockwork Orange

In Part 1 I argued that A Clockwork Orange is a cruel, nasty film in which Stanley Kubrick uses “satire” and other intellectual ruses as an excuse for his near-pornographic interest in violence. My evidence thus far has been mathematical. I’ve added up the minutes spent on violence and sex, and on satire. There are more than twice as many minutes dedicated to the former than to the latter.

For convenience sake, I split the film into the following chapters.

1) Ultra-violence (43.5 minutes)
2) Prison (24 minutes)
3) Ludovico Technique (where the satirical elements are introduced) (20 minutes)
4) Freedom and Fall (more ultra-violence) (33.5 minutes)
5) Hospital and Rebirth (more satire) (13 minutes)

For more detail, please see my previous post Against Kubrick 5.

The second part of my argument is subjective: I argue that Stanley Kubrick is more inspired when someone is either doing harm to another or is about to do harm to another than he is when he is trying to be satirical. Further, in the satirical parts, he more often resorts to cheap tricks and shocking images. If I can prove this, then I think I can reasonably help strip away any notion that Kubrick is acting as some kind of humanist in A Clockwork Orange.

So to continue…

The first shot of the film is unforgettable. Alex, our anti-hero, staring into the camera at the Karova milk bar. Eerie synthesizer music. Then Kubrick slowly tracks back, revealing the futuristic setting. Everything here is laden with meaning, foreboding. You can’t take your eyes off it.

acwo_openingshot

This is what I mean when I say profound cinematic idea. I’ll wager Kubrick didn’t consult any rules of direction or cinematography when devising this scene. Rather, he just knew. He knew that it would work because he saw it crystal clear in his mind’s eye before he shot a centimeter of film. This is talent. And odds are you can close your eyes and throw a marble at any scene prior to Alex’s incarceration and come up with something just as good. This is genius.

Here’s a presentation of a half dozen of these images, most from the first chapter of the film:

I love this image. The wide angle. The long shadows. The truncheon resting comfortably on Alex’s shoulders. It’s urban. It’s subterranean. You know something bad is about to happen, but the setting is so…inviting you can’t pull yourself away from it.

I can’t pull myself away from this scene either, but for entirely different reasons.

Now, we all should know what Alex is about to do with those scissors. He’s about to expose his victim’s breasts prior to gang-raping her. It’s horrifying partially because it’s entirely unnecessary. He uses the same pair of scissors to remove all of the woman’s clothes a few seconds later. What does he need to expose her breasts for? He does it because he can, you see. And because she’s a woman and has breasts that Alex the psychopath simply wants to take a gander at. All this and “Singin’ in the Rain”. Chilling cinema.

And who can forget the slow-motion bashing by the lake. Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” playing on the soundtrack. A real feast for the eyes. Notice also how Kubrick frames these last three examples in wide angle, with the boots of Alex and his droogs figuring prominently. For me, this brings to mind storm troopers and documentaries about Nazi Germany. I’m sure it would bring to mind something else for you, but whatever it brings, I’m sure it won’t be comforting. I would be shocked if this wasn’t Stanley Kubrick’s intent from the very beginning.

Then of course there’s this:

And this:

Hmm, I wonder Kubrick is up to here? And I mean that in a positive way. There is so much meaning in both of these screenshots that I’ll leave it up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions. Keep in mind that Kubrick filmed it so you could do exactly that.

By the way, the woman in this last screenshot is attacking Alex with a bust of Beethoven. Beethoven is Alex’s favorite composer, and Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” (Symphony #9) is Alex’s favorite composition. Of course, Alex’s self-serving hooliganism has no place in the peace and brotherhood promoted by Beethoven’s 9th, yet he loves Beethoven anyway. Beethoven also plays a very important role during the satirical scenes coming up in the film. So the levels of cinematic and narrative irony just keep piling on.

Perhaps my favorite shot in the entire film is this one, from chapter 4…

…which tracks back into this one:

So what’s going on here? After the Ludovico Technique, Alex is not only conditioned against violence, he is also conditioned against Beethoven’s 9th. That man in the middle is a writer known only as Mr. Alexander. He can be seen in the third screenshot above, about to watch Alex and his droogs gang rape his wife, the lady soon-not-to-be in red. Well, Alex stumbles into his home after being released from prison. To get revenge, Alexander locks him in a room and plays Beethoven’s 9th at full blast from the floor below, attempting to drive him mad. Alex screams in agony, but to Alexander it’s all sweet music.

But why is this sequence so mesmerizing, from the exaggerated schadenfreude on Alexander’s face to the apparent indifference of his co-conspirators? I don’t know. But I do know that it generates an emotional response in me that I cannot name. I also love the guy idly rolling billiard balls across the table.

So, I will ask you then, what do these all these scenes have in common? Well, yes, they are products of Kubrick’s stunning cinematic vision. But what else, my dear brother and only friends? What else do they have in common?

Answer: cruelty and violence. In all cases except the first, someone is in the process of getting beaten, raped, murdered, or tortured. And in the first, Alex reveals that whatever he and droogs decide to do that evening, it will involve “a bit of the old ultra-violence.” So if the violence ain’t happening, it’s certainly about to.

So, let’s compare all this great stuff with some of the conceits Kubrick comes up with during the other chapters in the film, namely 2, 3, and 5.

First, we have the chief guard of the prison.

With all his foot-stomping, order-barking, and anal retentive military etiquette, I never quite understood what Kubrick was going for here. And he must have been going for something since so much time is dedicated to this man. Is Kubrick lampooning the military? The British stiff upper lip? Not that it has anything to do with the story or anything, of course. I guess the prison chief is kind of amusing the first time you see him. After that, you’ll realize that Benny Hill did the schtick much better. So did Monty Python.

Then there are the moments that are just disgusting or placed in the movie for shock value. These are what I call cheap tricks, unworthy of their director. They command a person’s attention the same way a car wreck on the side of the road would. They require no sophistication to appreciate. They carry no meaning, present no vision. Here are some examples. See if you disagree.

So you have someone spitting in Malcolm McDowell’s face (Geez, I wonder how many takes it took to hit the lips like that), Michael Bates looking directly into Malcolm McDowell’s arse (Geez, I wonder if he really is pulling apart those arse cheeks), a close-up of Godfrey Quigley’s impossibly bad teeth (Geez, did Kubrick make him chew through a box of Oreos before shooting?), and a close up of Malcolm McDowell licking the sole of a shoe (Geez, I wonder if that’s a new shoe).

I use the actors’ names here and not their characters’ because what’s happening here is real. That’s not fake spit. That’s not a fake arse. That’s not a fake tongue. And if those are fake teeth, they’re real enough to convince. And I ask all those inane questions because they all relate to real life, in this case the act of filming, the very thing a director is supposed to hide unless his name is Jean Luc Goddard. Your reaction to these scenes would be almost identical to your reaction to them in real life. This is why I call these images cheap tricks. You can get them anywhere, and any director can come up with them. They require no craft, no art. Just competent lighting, acting, and camera work.

Now, what do these images all have in common? Little to no violence or cruelty, that’s what. The second and third images have none at all, the second being a routine prison inspection, and the latter being nothing more than a fire and brimstone sermon by the prison chaplain.

As for the first image, yes, spitting on someone isn’t nice. But is it cruel or violent? Hardly. And sure, Alex had just been roughed up by a pair of cops, but it was nothing compared to the ultra-violence he had been heaping upon Dystopian Britain throughout chapter 1. And that wound on his nose? Caused by one of his droogs hitting him square in the face with a loaded milk bottle, not the cops.

As for the last image, from chapter 3, it’s true that Alex gets slapped a couple times by a thug presumably paid to antagonize him on stage. The point of the scene is to show the public that Alex, being conditioned against violence by the Ludovico Technique, cannot retaliate. It is to show that he’d been cured and can thus regain his freedom. So when told to lick the thug’s shoe, Alex does it. Is this cruel? Well, if licking a man’s shoe is the price one pays for freedom, I doubt I’d call it cruel at all. Just the opposite, actually.

To be sure, there’s some good stuff in the satirical sections of the film. A straightjacketed Alex being forced to watch ultra-violent movies as part of the Ludovico Technique stands out, obviously.

And yes, that’s real physician, not an actor, making sure Malcolm McDowell’s eyes didn’t dry out during filming.

But as great as this image is, I wonder how much of it came from Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange the novel and how much originated from Kubrick?

Also, what images during chapters 3 and 5 aside from this one are particularly memorable? Maybe the final scene in which the government official feeds Alex while offering him a bribe. But what else? All the dormitory scenes during the Ludovico sequence are brief and used largely for exposition. What about Alex interrupting a hospital-room tryst when he wakes from his coma? Meh. His final rejection of his parents from his hospital bed? Nothing special there. The Rorschach’s test scene with the blue-haired psychiatrist?

clockwork-psychiatrist

While it was nice for Kubrick to have another woman in his film who doesn’t either get raped, murdered, or appear topless, this scene doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

Overall, I would say that Kubrick is at his best here when depicting scenes of violence and cruelty. His vision is singular and mesmerizing, just like it is in many of his other films. Further, I think the evidence shows that he is less inspired in the sequences in which people aren’t being particularly cruel and violent to each other.

So what does this amount to? Simply that A Clockwork Orange is a film about violence and cruelty first and a satire second. In fact, I could argue that A Clockwork Orange is almost as much softcore porn as it is a satire considering how many naked breasts it contains. I, umm, counted, actually. There are 62 female breasts in A Clockwork Orange, by my count. 40 are fake or in paintings. The other 22 are unique. That is, eleven different women appear topless in A Clockwork Orange. What this has to do with “satire” is anybody’s guess.

This concludes part 2 of my polemic against A Clockwork Orange. Part 3 will address how the very satire of A Clockwork Orange is problematic, further underscoring the idea that satire takes a backseat to violence in this very un-humanistic film.

But before I close, my dear brothers and only friends, I would like to leave you with this awesome image.

This is the first shot of the film’s prison sequence, chapter 2. Alex has just been betrayed by his droogs after his murder of the Cat Lady. Here he is being stared at by a police detective, who never says a word throughout the scene. I do love this image, but perhaps for reasons other than what Kubrick had intended. I love the boredom and contempt on the man’s face, as if to say, “You think you’re hot stuff, don’t you punk? With all your sex and ultra-violence. You think you’re so clever. But I see through you. I know what you really are, and it’s no big bargain.”

This is exactly how I feel about A Clockwork Orange.

Against Kubrick 5

This is part 5 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with…

A Clockwork Orange

If you had to pigeonhole 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, you can call it a dark comedy that is far darker than it is funny. In fact, it is a cruel, nasty piece of work that uses satire as a cover for its myriad sins.

AClockworkOrange1

Kubrick’s usual brilliance and vision is on display here most of the time, and when he runs out of ideas he shamelessly stoops to the lurid and shocking to keep people interested. But the film is a satire, you see. We can overlook such lapses because we’re always trying to fit the film’s scenes, no matter how brutal or crude they are, into some bigger picture.

My big problem is that, after 40 years of overlooking Kubrick’s lapses, it seems that people have actually come to celebrate the horrific crimes that take place in the film and somehow believe the government or the political class are the real villains of the story. This really does seem like the intent of the film (accomplished as much by Malcolm McDowell’s riveting performance as Alex the film’s anti-hero as by anything done by Kubrick).

Forgotten amid grand satire, of course, is the suffering of the story’s many victims. But don’t be surprised. With Kubrick, feeling compassion for your fellow man is usually kind of beside the point, is it not?

And this, my brothers and only friends, cannot possibly be the work of a humanist.

This is part 5 of my polemic against the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. My premise basically is that his great films had negative effects on the world and that Kubrick was anything but a humanist. I will go after his great films one at a time, continuing with…

A Clockwork Orange

If you had to pigeonhole 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, you can call it a dark comedy that is far darker than it is funny. In fact, it is a cruel, nasty piece of work that uses satire as a cover for its myriad sins.

AClockworkOrange1

Kubrick’s usual brilliance and vision is on display here most of the time, and when he runs out of ideas he shamelessly stoops to the lurid and shocking to keep people interested. But the film is a satire, you see. We can overlook such lapses because we’re always trying to fit the film’s scenes, no matter how brutal or crude they are, into some bigger picture.

My big problem is that, after 40 years of overlooking Kubrick’s lapses, it seems that people have actually come to celebrate the horrific crimes that take place in the film and somehow believe the government or the political class are the real villains of the story. This really does seem like the intent of the film (accomplished as much by Malcolm McDowell’s riveting performance as Alex the film’s anti-hero as by anything done by Kubrick).

Forgotten amid grand satire, of course, is the suffering of the story’s many victims. But don’t be surprised. With Kubrick, feeling compassion for your fellow man is usually kind of beside the point, is it not?

And this, my brothers and only friends, cannot possibly be the work of a humanist.

I’d like to begin with a quick discussion on satire, especially the dramatic kind. In most cases, a satire unfolds in a world that is clearly not our own, yet the characters in the satire act as if it is. This can be funny enough, but it gets even better when the immutable laws of this satire universe seem to contrive in a very human way against a fairly obvious target of some kind, often revealing truths about this target that can’t easily be said in real life.

A great example is the old Onion article originally titled Retirees Rise Up Against Gang Violence…All are Killed.

In the story the gang members commit horrific acts of rape and torture against a group of plucky seniors who only want to rid their neighborhoods of crime. They want to make a better world for themselves, just like they did when they came to America on boats during the Depression or fought during World War II or what have you. But as fate would have it, the gang members not only massacre the seniors, but become better people because of it. They learn to work together, you see, something they’ve never done before. And that’s a good thing, right?

Why is this funny?

Because instead of exonerating gang violence and wanton murder like the article seems to do, it’s really satirizing the hackneyed underdog/good Samaritan stories the news media is constantly pushing on us. Aren’t you just ready to gag on all that syrupy moonshine? I mean, how many times do we have to hear about some disadvantaged girl from the ghetto competing in a national spelling bee, or read about how a retired couple collects and recycles cans to aid a local animal shelter? If you’re as sick of that stuff as I am pretending to be, then this Onion article is for you.

onion

So what does this have to do with A Clockwork Orange?

Well, as you can see, the article is only one page long. Imagine if it had gone on for four pages describing horrific violence not in standard news prose but in virtuosic, almost poetic, language. Imagine the seniors being not a pastiche of ethnic righteousness but a bunch of shallow hypocrites with bad taste. Imagine further the gangbangers being led not by a thug but by a highly literate and charismatic psychopath with a passion for Beethoven. After a while it would occur to you that the article’s point is not satire but to use virtuosic language to describe and, by extension, condone horrific violence.

For nearly the first 45 minutes (about one third of the film), I believe that’s what you get with A Clockwork Orange. As the story goes, you basically have this:

1) Hoodlum performs “ultra-violence”. That is, he fights, rapes, and murders, and has wanton sex. (43.5 minutes)
2) Hoodlum spends time in prison. (24 minutes)
3) Hoodlum receives the experimental, government-sponsored Ludovico Technique to “cure” him of hoodlum-itis. Hoodlum is set free. (20 minutes)
4) Hoodlum is shunned by family and attacked by former droogs and victims. Hoodlum attempts suicide. (33.5 minutes)
5) Hoodlum is bribed by a government official to avoid embarrassment for failure of Ludovico Technique. Hoodlum accepts bribe, realizing that he’s still hoodlum at heart. (13 minutes)

The satire manifests mostly in parts 3 and 5. Although we see some residual effects of Alex’s cure in part 4, it’s nothing we haven’t already seen in part 3, and so really doesn’t count.

In Kubrick’s own words (from Saturday Review, December 25, 1971, copy-pasted straight from the Clockwork Orange page on Wikipedia) A Clockwork Orange is…

…a social satire dealing with the question of whether behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning are dangerous new weapons for a totalitarian government to use to impose vast controls on its citizens and turn them into little more than robots.

Kubrick also described the film thusly:

It is a story of the dubious redemption of a teenage delinquent by condition-reflex therapy. It is at the same time a running lecture on free-will.

Well, isn’t that nice. Kubrick dedicates around thirty-three minutes of a two and one quarter hour film to all the big ideas he throws around in his erudite quotations.

But what about the remaining hundred minutes?

We don’t even hear about the Ludovico Technique until an hour in. We don’t see it until the hour and eleven minute mark. And then later we take a half-hour break from the satire as Alex is ushered out of prison and forced to take big helpings of the ultraviolence he used to dish out. So is this film really a satire about “behavioural psychology and psychological conditioning”? Or is Kubrick using “satire” as an excuse to do what he really wants to do, which is to find new and ingenious ways to film acts of ultra-violence?

Well, the numbers support the latter proposition: 77 minutes of violence, cruelty, suffering. 33 minutes of satire. 24 minutes in prison, which is neither violent nor satirical in the spirit of the rest of the film.

But let’s look at the direction and vision of these chapters and try to judge where Kubrick’s heart is most at, so to speak.

There! Found it.
There! Found it.

I would argue that Kubrick is at his best in the first 43.5 minutes, with Alex running amok in Dystopian England. It is here, for the most part, where Kubrick has his most profound cinematic ideas, his most memorable scenes, his most daring vision. It is here, also, where he makes best use of music.

On the other hand, it is mostly during the satirical phases when Kubrick most often resorts to cheap cinematic tricks and exhibits less of the singular vision found in the violent episodes.

If I am able to successfully argue these points, then I believe I have solid ground to stand on when I say that A Clockwork Orange is really a cruel, soulless film that happens to have satirical elements rather than an important cinematic satire that only uses violence and cruelty to serve some higher purpose.

This argument will be presented in part 6 of my polemic against Stanley Kubrick, which will also be part 2 of my discussion of A Clockwork Orange. Stay tuned.