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.

Author: rcspeck

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I’m a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station and posting on the WCPE blog, I’m finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don’t be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

6 thoughts on “Against Kubrick 5”

  1. This “polemic”, which ammounts to the usual argument that “Kubrick is a cold film-maker”, is wrong on all accounts. You’ve just mistaken “anti-humanism” for “misanthropy” and “immorality” (Kubrick was a moralist) and labelled most philosophers in the history of the universe “immoral” and “not a humanist” because they rightfully do not conform to an ego-centric (the ego does not exist), human-centric and anthropomorphic (read: wrong) view of the universe. Kubrick was concerned with ethics and humanity. Additionally, what you mistake for “humanity” in other supposedly “humane” film-makers, is often the most harmful sort of irrationality.

    Read: http://kubrickfilms.tripod.com/id29.html

  2. It’s also worth remembering that many philosophers – Freud, Marx, Heiddegger, Schopenhauer, Foccult, Derrida, Nietzsche and company – viewed “humanism” as a misguided form of both dehumanisation and theism. These thinkers – all truly concerned about humanity – were vocal against the term. Nothing has harmed more people, removed more rights, and breached more ethics, than “humanism”, which is what Full Metal Jacket deals with, Joker embodying a kind of neo-imperialist “killing” in the guise of humanitarian “mercy, democracy and humanity”.

    1. Interesting. So you agree with my position that Kubrick was not a humanist, but disagree with me when I say that this is a bad thing. Of course, I disagree with you.

      For you, “Nothing has harmed more people, removed more rights, and breached more ethics, than “humanism”.” Well, this can be quantified. What has harmed the most people and removed more rights and breached more ethics? Easy answer: Communist regimes. Now communism does share a kind of anti-religious attitude with humanism, but that’s really about it. Humanism also concerns rights and dignity of men, democracy, freedom, etc. Communism does not. Now maybe you can say that communism came from humanism. Perhaps communists started out as a bunch of militant athiest humanists who believed in sacrificing rights, freedom, and democracy today for a utopian tomorrow. But guess what? That means they stopped being humanists.

      You also say Kubrick was a moralist. I am baffled by this. If he were truly moralistic he would have satirzed the Soviet Union in Dr. Strangelove (you know, the country that murdered 55 million by 1953) rather than the relatively benign United States.

      Another thing you said confuses me. You gave a list of philosophers who say that humanism is a misguided form of “theism”. But how can that be when humanism explicitly rejects all religious dogma?

      Finally, you say this about Full Metal Jacket: “Joker embodying a kind of neo-imperialist “killing” in the guise of humanitarian “mercy, democracy and humanity”.” Well, perhaps you will revise your opinion of Joker when you think of the truly evil intent and practice of the North Vietnamese. Many Vietnamese in America don’t share your opinion because they see Americans (for all their purported ‘neo-imperialism’) as far preferrable to the North Vietnamese who after the war imprisoned a million South Vietnamese in re-education camps where 165,000 of them died and countless were tortured and abused. And this is only the beginning of their crimes.

      I think in the end, Ockham’s Razor tells us that the reason why Kubrick features so much violence and cruelty in A Clockwork Orange is not for any fancy intellectual reason but because he just didn’t like people very much and enjoyed doing vicarious harm to them from behind the camera. He could have had much less of this in his film and still made it an effective satire.

      Please check out my posts on 2001. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about it. Thanks.

  3. “Easy answer: Communist regimes.”

    Communism has never been practised. The crimes committed under “communist regimes” are the same crimes committed under all Power.

    “Now communism does share a kind of anti-religious attitude with humanism, but that’s really about it.”

    Communism is not intrinsically anti-religious. Likewise humanism.

    “Humanism also concerns rights and dignity of men, democracy, freedom, etc. Communism does not.”

    Communism does.

    “You also say Kubrick was a moralist. I am baffled by this. If he were truly moralistic he would have satirzed the Soviet Union in Dr. Strangelove (you know, the country that murdered 55 million by 1953) rather than the relatively benign United States.”

    The film makes no distinction between the Soviet Union of the 60s and the US of the 60s because their manifestations of Power are indistinguishable.

    “Another thing you said confuses me. You gave a list of philosophers who say that humanism is a misguided form of “theism”. But how can that be when humanism explicitly rejects all religious dogma?”

    Humanism doesn’t necessarily reject religious dogma. I mean “theism” in the sense that it is a cult. It has a set of very false and misguided beliefs. Which is not to say that its tenets of “humanitarianism” or questions of ethics, morality and “easing suffering” are wrong. But such noble things can be found in even the most rediculous religions.

    “Well, perhaps you will revise your opinion of Joker when you think of the truly evil intent and practice of the North Vietnamese.”

    Which has no bearing on anything.

    “Many Vietnamese in America don’t share your opinion because they see Americans (for all their purported ‘neo-imperialism’) as far preferrable to the North Vietnamese who after the war imprisoned a million South Vietnamese in re-education camps where 165,000 of them died and countless were tortured and abused. And this is only the beginning of their crimes.”

    http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/198210–.htm

    You seem to want to assign blame (ie “those evil North Vietnamese are more barbaric than the Southerners!”). You can not talk about Vietnam without talking about Vietnam before Vietnam, and the French Empire’s role in the region before the US supported and then transplanted France.

    Regarding, Clockwork Orange, you are taking Kubrick’s interview comments at face value and not going further into the film. A Clockwork Orange is only about man’s “right to choose to be evil or good” on the surface. Below it’s about the inability of choice, and the way the soft facism of repressive desublimation necessitates ultra violence. When all objects, art, creativity etc has been rendered impotent, stripped of context, meaning and all political agency, then the artist/criminal is forced to transcend violence. Hence all the film’s violence being performances, performed for the eye, taking places on stages, is followed or preceded by applause etc. The film echoes thinkers like Herbert Read and Erich Muhsam who recognized that a society is only as free as the artists within it. The readiness of the likes of Stalin, Mao, even Fidel Castro, to purge their countries of dissenting artists and writers, either through incarceration, exile, or murder, is well documented. What Kubrick realized, though, is that such tyranny under techno-capitalism takes a different form. Simply put art everywhere and you neutralize it. Kubrick called this “psycadelic fascism” the tyranny of objects. Note that Alex’s brainwashing doesn’t only “make him hate evil”, but “hate art”. The film is itself a Ludovico film for the audience and everything that occurs in the film’s narrative itself pops up in the Ludovico film within the film…

    http://kubrickfilms.tripod.com/id3.html

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