A contribution to Jim Emerson’s (Scanners) Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon
A thief, rapist, and murderer residing in England at some unidentified point in the future, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the bloodthirsty and Beethoven-loving protagonist at the center of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Throughout the film, Alex, like his victims, will be subjected to much pain and suffering—a great deal of it under undeserving circumstances—but even at his most heinous he is presented as a diabolical anti-hero, someone to side with and root for. We know this because it is indicated in his voice-over narration: he comments upon the unfolding events as if recalling them from some point in the future, regarding the audience as a fellow chum ready to take part in some of the ’ol ultraviolence.
Real horrorshow, yes, but Kubrick’s orchestration of so much mayhem is lacking a much-needed ideological backbone. On a technical level, the creation of this not-so-distant-future is certainly impressive, and Kubrick’s godlike control of his camera, sets and actors is as impressive as ever. It’s an unparalleled orgy of colors and sights and sounds, the sick entertainment value of which quickly evaporates, taking with it any semblance of importance. Context is nonexistent (How did this society come into being? How did Alex get to where he is today? How is this state of affairs allowed to perpetuate?), so we’re required to accept Alex’s brutal instincts at face value. With little to contrast against all the mayhem, the beatings and riots quickly take on a light, comical tone.
Maybe that’s the point, but Kubrick never takes the necessary next step in subverting the violence he engages us with. The role-reversal is obvious when Alex is subjected to the government’s own brand of torture, but this serves only to celebrate his destructive yearnings (which, in turn, represent nothing more than surface-deep characteristics). He’s not even a type-A stock persona, but a walking criminal report—a stick figure to project upon—and, like Alex’s criminal instincts, the degradation of society is also an unexamined given, existing only to legitimize our protagonist’s ruffian behavior. It’s a self-reinforcing circle of shallow justification and, worse yet, the film never aims to criticize us, the audience, for getting off on it all in the first place.
Kubrick’s series of unfortunate events is a striking façade built on a shaky foundation, jumbling recognizable, contradictory elements together in a manner meant to shock and titillate, albeit in a purely knee-jerk fashion. Pornographic artwork is commonplace in the home environment (a sculpture of giant penis lies casually on a table and seemingly defies physics when touched), women suck passively on cock-shaped lollipops, and a chorus line of four naked Christ figures adorns Alex’s shelf while he fucks two girls silly, the William Tell Overture blaring in the background.
This is all eye-opening at first glance, but what is it supposed to mean? Kubrick might turn some heads by playing classical music and popular tunes atop scenes of rape and torture, but it amounts to less in the way of commentary than it does simple contradiction (and without anything in the way of subtext, all this once-scandalous rah-rah pornography appears fairly tame by today’s standards). Much less is read into A Clockwork Orange than is merely projected upon it, and Kubrick’s level of engagement with these moral quicksands (freedom of choice, nature vs. nurture, self vs. the system) lies just barely outside the realm of black and white.
Kubrick was often unfairly characterized as a cynical director—an understandable reading of his attentiveness to our frailties, for sure, but one that also disregards his obsession with our potential for greatness beyond our generally regarded limitations. Here, however, his better instincts seem to have failed, and it’s not for lack of familiarity with satire. Dr. Strangelove found humor in oncoming nuclear disaster by scrutinizing our world leaders’ flailing about like fish on a hot plate and, in the midst of it all, asking why such a thing was allowed to come to be. By comparison, A Clockwork Orange accepts the violence at its core as the product of a failed society, only to spend the duration sitting back and grinning at the proceedings, patting itself on the back for thinking it knows better. Alex’s parents, counselors, teachers and government officials may have indeed failed him, but for all the finger-pointing, the film never rises above its angst-ridden misgivings.
With a sensational work such as this, classification as satire can all too easily be used as a means of broad-sweeping legitimization, something that seems indicative of an absence of closer scrutiny. What, exactly, is Kubrick satirizing? Our collective obsession with violence? Lazy authority figures who allow chaos to run amok? The ease with which the masses are swayed by the press? These issues and many more are obvious causes of the film’s envisioned world (and ones very much in need of discussion in our own), yet all we are allowed to glimpse are the effects they bear, thus robbing the work’s social analysis of a much-needed dimension.
To be fair, something about the inherent hypocrisy present in the film’s ironic conclusion suggests that Kubrick himself regards it all with some degree of contempt—how else to react to such a vile creature as Alex being pampered and heralded so gloriously (even if the society that glorifies him isn’t all that much better)? Without anything to confirm or deny this supposed attitude on the part of its director, A Clockwork Orange only succeeds in recreating these very hypocrisies rather than deconstructing them. Kubrick knew very well the power of the critical mind, but for once in his illustrious career he managed to create a film that was outright unproductive in its cynicism.
House contributor Robert Humanick’s writings have appeared in Slant Magazine and on his blog The Projection Booth. He also works sporadically with fellow Slant critic Paul Schrodt at The Stranger Song.