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:
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 filmâ€™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 doesnâ€™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: â€œI was cured, all right.â€ 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, Alexâ€™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 Alexâ€™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. 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. 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:
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.
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.
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 “Ð¥Ð¾Ñ€Ð¾ÑˆÐ¾”, 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 Ñ…Ð¾Ñ€Ð¾ÑˆÐ¾ with all its vaunted brilliance and satire. But really it’s just a horror.