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.
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.
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:
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 stillÂ hoodlum at heart.Â (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…
Kubrick also described the film thusly:
Well, isn’t that nice. Kubrick dedicates around thirty-three minutes of a two andÂ 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.
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.