A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – Review by Don Daniels [Sight and Sound]

2017-08-21T15:21:59-07:00 August 21st, 2017|Categories: CINEMA, STANLEY KUBRICK|Tags: , , , |
  • A Clockwork Orange [1971] - Alex (Malcolm McDowell)

by Don Daniels

Stanley Kubrick’s films seem to provoke the kind of mindless praise and attack that is called ‘controversy’ these days. In the case of A Clockwork Orange, the responses have ranged from ‘brilliant’ to ‘boring’, with special attention to the film’s depictions of violence. If the viewer responds to nothing else, he is sure to notice the sensational subject matter. Of course, violence is a difficult subject for visual treatment. The question must be, does the work provide a context that can safely hold such distracting materials? Kubrick has been careful to offer such a container. But if the viewer refuses it, he is left holding the inevitables – violence, sex, death – at least as far as chatter and film criticism are concerned.
A Clockwork Orange has a number of things to say about violence. It shows the victim’s pain. Only the naturalistic details of suffering in Bonnie and Clyde are comparable in this respect to Kubrick’s work, and Kubrick’s is the more daring stylistically. The film also shows the joy of the attack, especially in the balletic gang-fight. But the parody there of bar-room brawls alerts us to the very special point of view even as we enjoy the feral grace. The beating of the tramp is nastiness seen darkly, peripherally. We all know it happens, but what to do? The attack on the HOME is the scene everyone will remember. Like Bonnie and Clyde’s set-pieces of extempore chaos, part of the power of the scene is the anything-can-happen surprise of the visit. But Kubrick combines the gang’s brutal improvisations with Alex’s calculated song and dance: realistic detail and stylised action that reinforce one another and indicate the state of mind that is the subject of the film. Some have found only a technique of estrangement in the stylised violence. I find myself distanced and touched. Somehow the artificiality makes the violence more painful, Alex’s coolly committed acts more evil.
Then there are those reviewers who have found Alex the only ‘attractive’ figure in the film. But surely evil is alluring; and ungenerous, too – an important point when the immediate vision we get is Alex’s. Would the death of the rather attractively tart Catlady be the more appalling if it were not the obscene obliteration from Alex’s ecstatic consciousness that the film records? Alexander De Large must not only conquer his world. He must unify it, no matter how distorted the final vision. His habit coincides with Kubrick’s attempts to give a motion picture a complexity of visual coherence, to create a system of visual correspondences that will illuminate its theme. To complain of Alex’s singular attractiveness is to indicate a naivete about the role and to compliment Malcolm McDowell’s rendering of evil’s various charms. Kubrick’s future society is ‘Alexed’ into a child’s refuse-strewn playground.
The child keeps meeting fragments of himself in his career of crime; even his costume – white overalls, boots, bowler hat – looks borrowed from the technicians, guards and politicians he encounters. Alex is characterised not only by his actions against society, but in the actions of the State against Alex. The two are equated in the film, his charm reproduced in its durance, the principal difference – a perhaps considerable one – in the State’s coarsely institutional and indiscriminately committed immoralities that Alex can only practise on a restricted scale. Those critics who find special pleading for Alex in the State’s depredations against him ignore the equation, a real accomplishment in so carefully structured a work. Not only do each of the initial scenes of gang violence return in the retribution sequences at the end; they also set up the chief spheres of conflict throughout. The tramp is Alex’s representative of an indifferent society; Billyboy’s rival gang a prefiguration of Alex’s mutinous droogs; and Mr. Alexander, in his very name, an indication of Alex’s self-directed destructiveness. Just as Alex forces Mr. Alexander to watch the unspeakable, so Alex will be forced by the State. Both Alexanders are enemies of the State and share a name that means ‘defender of men’. When Alex is interrogated by the quartet at the police station, he ironically invokes the law, just like the tramp at the mercy of his four tormentors. The martinet Chief Guard at the prison is Alex the gang-leader, and he inflicts inhumanities on Alex as Alex does on his victims. When Alex comically mimics him at the Medical Institute reception centre, he only punctuates the careful parallels of individual and State which we have seen all along.
The psychological mechanism behind Alex’s unifying vision is that of ‘projection’. All Alex’ s victims are outside society – the tramp, the gang, the radical – and when he punishes them, he unknowingly punishes himself. The ‘mirror defence’ of projection works to throw outward, to spit out, the consciously disowned aspects of the personality by ascribing them to others. The mechanism is itself unconscious. When Alex commits evil, he enjoys the pleasure of the act itself, the knowledge that it is considered wrong by society, and the unconscious justification of the act through projection. Thus, Alex rapes, ensures there is a witness to the rape, and punishes the ‘complacency’ of the victim. Evil is honoured, sharpened and justified. Alex levels the social ranks of his victims. A ballet of hoods implies a foregone conclusion: masculine power is questioned only to be affirmed. The drunk’s rhetorical complaints are Alex’s own: he hears just what he wants to hear. Throughout the film, figures of authority (Deltoid, the police, the Chief Guard, the doctors and the Minister of the Interior) are all versions of the gang leader. As the equation is perfect but in one respect, Alex is conscious of his evil – horribly so – except in his need for self-justification. How reviewers could have missed the comedy of childish egotism is a kind of perfection in itself. The infantile fantasies show Alex’s blindness to his own psychology through a masochistic dream in which he always triumphs despite indignity, torture and ‘suicide’. Men court him, newspapers celebrate him, Hitler apes him. The lovely bird motif throughout the film -the Beethoven frissons in Bar and lair; the malchick screams at the Medical Institute’s sinny; the gull over the Thames; and the growing boy eating from the Minister’s hands – not only indicates the variety and integration Kubrick achieves through motivic relationships, but Alex’s pathetic desire for freedom in the midst of blind dependence. Just an ordinary boy, with a stash, a pet and a love of Beethoven.
Kubrick has appropriated theme, character, narrative and dialogue from Anthony Burgess’ novel, but the film is more than a literal translation of a construct of language into dramatic-visual form. Kubrick’s film refashions the materials of the novel, and the rigour of the reworking gives the film a poetic compression and resonance that the novel lacks, despite its disturbing narrator, intricate structure and brilliant language. ‘Nadsat’ figures primarily in only the first third of the movie, but Kubrick has included much of Burgess’ narrative invention, and as a result the Alexanders of film and novel conquer similar empires. The unifying parallels between citizen and State and the mechanism of projection are taken from the novel, although Kubrick finds new ways of communicating them visually.
There is a psychological name for the kind of ferocious insanity directed at the fabric of society that Burgess and Kubrick portray. It is ‘Alexanderism’, agriothymia ambitiosa, and it designates the desire to destroy nations. Alex is murderer, rapist, thief, hood – a Bad Bad boy. The film assumes the evil of his acts to be evident. What is condemned specifically is not the act but the mental dynamics that led to it. The shouts of the gang in their frolickings are mechanical, self-advertising, a bit joyless; obviously another kind of pleasure is being had in addition to simple sadism. When Alex moves to Rossini against the rival gang, or his own gang, or the Catlady, he mirrors his State’s political conflicts. For the corrupt citizen and State, violent conflict is a necessary instrument of self-creation.
Burgess’ novel is a fictional expression of this idea from the psychological writings of Franz Alexander, the neo-Freudian noted for his studies of psychosomatic diseases. Towards the end of his life, Alexander studied the use of motion pictures to create stress in victims of hyperthyroidism (Psychosomatic Medicine, XXIII, No. 2, 1961, 104-114). But the generative materials of the novel can be found in the psychologist’s earlier work, The Psychoanalysis of the Total Personality. The orange is clockwork because of what Franz Alexander would term the ‘mechanism of neurosis’. For him, social expressions of violence mirror the conflict within the individual of ego, id and super-ego.
In the healthy personality, the super-ego aids the economy of the psyche with automatic, unconscious repression of the instincts. But in the neurotic, the super-ego is rigid and schematic in its automatic censorship, like an unbending totalitarian state. This unconscious part of the ego is formed by social laws and parental restraints. When the id threatens to invade the conscious mind with its anti-social desires, the super-ego represses without the ego’s awareness of the repression. And in the neurotic, suffering becomes a method of obtaining instinctual release. The super-ego aids the id through over-severity. According to Alexander, ‘Clinical experience taught me that the ego makes use of the satisfaction of the need for punishment in order to free itself from the super-ego and surrender itself to the repressed forces.’ The corrupt State is ‘a macrocosmic repetition of the ego-structure,’ for as radical parties war for the sake of conflict, so do id and super-ego. Energy is expended internally rather than expressed. Violence becomes an end in itself. The neurotic drama of id, ego and super-ego is not just a metaphorical one for Alexander; he calls them ‘part-personalities’ and charactenses the super-ego as a ‘corrupt official’, outwardly severe but privately bribeable. The super-ego conspires with the id and punishes the ego. The neurotic suffers in order to ‘pay’ for subsequent instinctual release. Punishment rids the ego of the prickings of conscience and adds zest to subsequent expression of instinctual desires.
In novel and film, Alex’s career is an allegory of the disguise of instinctual impulse in neurotic symptom, of punishment endured to facilitate crime. By suffering, the ego absolves itself of sin and justifies its commission. Alex has learned the formula well that sees pain as part of pleasurable fulfilment; in fact, a licence to it. With Deltoid and the Minister the arrangement is as clear ‘as an azure sky of deepest summer’. Each of Alex’s triumphs is preceded or followed by defeat. The ‘perfect evening’ and the orgy must be paid for by Deltoid’s visit and the mutiny of the gang in a series of pleasure-pain, manic-depressive rewards and punishments. Justice demands an eye for an eye. When Alex kills, he goes to prison. The Minister complains that the prisoners ‘enjoy their so-called punishment’ and counsels Alex on his way to the Medical Facility, ‘Let’s hope you make the most of it, my boy.’
The self-punishment is signalled in the film by the ‘Adagio’ from the William Tell ‘Overture’. The home-coming scene is almost straight from the novel and beautifully played: Alex punishes himself, is punished by his parents (and Joe the Boarder, the Good Good Boy), and punishes Pee and Em in a family circle of guilt. Absolution comes in the near-drowning, nature’s purifying rain, and Mr. Alexander’s bath. When Alex’s groans in the hospital are mixed with those of fornication, we hear Alex’s pleasure-in-pain; the exorcism of restraint through punishment allows for masochistic delights as well.
Franz Alexander quotes Schiller’s ballad ‘The Ring of Polycrates’: ‘Therefore if thou desirest to ward off suffering, pray to the Invisible Powers that they add pain to happiness.’ The universal sense of foreboding in the midst of joy is visualised in the film in the Last Supper that Kubrick has arranged for Alex – an ancient symbolic intimation of the pleasure-pain principle . Alex is the scapegoat (like the three condemned men in Paths of Glory), the sacrificial lamb, and his story is mythic – that of Osiris, Dionysus, and Christ. Death and suffering lead to absolution and resurrection. In the hospital, ‘Eat me’ on the fruit basket from Alex’s parents is both obscene and sacramental. The film is Alex’s masturbatory fantasy. When he listens to Beethoven, four suffering Christs dance. And he commits ‘suicide’ for his own ends. Alexander quotes Freud (The Economic Problem of Masochism): even self-destruction cannot take place without libidinal satisfaction.’
For Alexander, the Oedipus complex is ‘the nuclear or root complex of all psychoneuroses.’ The child must learn to sublimate the love and hate for his parents in tenderness, but there is always some destructive energy left over to be turned against society or against the self. The introversion of the death instinct Alexander sees as ‘the primary process in the formation of the neurosis.’ Alex provokes hatred in order to justify his anti-social acts and to punish himself. In the compulsion neurosis, Alexander suggests, that the father is often identified with the strictness of the super-ego. Alex’s parents have not only lost all authority; they have been raped and crippled at HOME. Alex commits symbolic incest (Kubrick carefully does not allow his crime to become matricide in the film) and, indirectly, patricide. With sets and lighting Kubrick has emphasised the rational realm of HOME. The conscious ego is unaware of the secret plans of the instincts. In fact, Kubrick allows Mr. Alexander to prompt his wife to let the forces in. When the ‘father’ is forced to watch the rape, it is the ‘son’s’ revenge, the sinner watching his sin in all pride, and the id defining its power through the agency of the super-ego.
The Catlady is not so trusting. Her Health Farm is the very locus of the super-ego, all instincts honoured in domestication, like her cats and erotic art. Franz Alexander outlines the relationship of the super-ego with the id, both beyond the ken of the ego, but each aware of the other. The super-ego is not fooled by the disguises of desire. In the film, Kubrick has the Catlady call the police, unlike Mr. Alexander, thus allying her with the State and clarifying that the gang merely takes advantage of the call, having offered the attack on the Farm as a bribe to their tyrannical leader. Alex and the Catlady recognise each other immediately. Kubrick turns their fight into a dance in which the unconscious forces of the id (the phallus) battle the conscious personality (the bust of Beethoven). The bust is a symbol of instinct sublimated into the socially useful energy of artistic expression. When the Catlady strikes Alex, the ego is punished because of the id’s threat of instinctual release. Having suffered, Alex can then overwhelm the personality and triumph.
Alex’s roles are three. In attack he is the id’s ever-renewing energies; in command he is the super-ego’s ancient despotism; and in pain he is the neurotic ego. In the prison and final HOME sequences, Alex meets the leaders of the State’s warring gangs – a new Mr. Alexander and Frederick, the Minister of the Inferior (his name, Kubrick’s contribution, means ‘peaceful ruler’). The ego is to the super-ego as a citizen of a totalitarian state is to his government. He is unaware of the government’s machinations. And the State is indifferent to him. When Alexander De Large meets Frederick De Large in the prison, still another version of the crime-punishment contract is signed, to be honoured in Alex’s conditioning and final rehabilitation. The coda between them in the hospital is another of Kubrick’s scenes of duplicity and degraded language. Speech becomes a conspiratorial purr, a litany to console and corrupt, like Dr. Branom’s promise, between injections, ‘By this time tomorrow, you’ll be healthier still,’ delivered with that obsessional faith it is Kubrick’s gift to record exactly.
Alex and Mr. Alexander, two ‘victims’, return again at the end of the film. Kubrick has Alex cripple Mr. Alexander, who becomes an enemy of the State and the very personification of the uninhibited instincts. By removing information about Mr. Alexander before the attack, Kubrick makes his politics and his madness seem even more its result. Having suffered, he derives his radical opinions from personal impotence and a liberated desire for revenge. Thus, Mr. Alexander’s insanity reveals the same dynamic that is at the root of Alex’s hatred of the world and himself. As Franz Alexander suggests, the outwardly directed destructive energies of the unconscious, when turned upon the self, become the super-ego’s sadism. Like General Mireau’s retaliations for military defeat in Paths of Glory, Alex and Mr. Alexander revenge themselves on each other. Kubrick has combined in Mr. Alexander the various roles Alex alternates throughout the film. His Mr. Alexander is the crippled neurotic ego, the government of the super-ego, punishing Alex, and the power of the id, revolting against all order. Like Dr. Strangelove, he beautifully and boldly summarises the madness of the subject. I am thinking of his orgasm of pain and hatred upon recalling his crippler, and the final shot of him madly torturing with the ‘Ninth’ while surrounded by his co-conspirators.
Kubrick has compared Alex’s craft and guile to that of Richard III. But the comparison cannot go very far, for Alex is unconscious of his clockwork. Free will necessitates self-knowledge. Alex is lost in the funhouse mirrors of the narcissist, in the doubles of his victims, in the mirrors of HOME, and in the water imagery throughout the film. There is that magnificent shot of Billyboy the pirate that leads to Alex’s marine discipline of his droogs; and later the suicide thoughts by the Thames, the watery bit of corporal, the cleansing rain and bath. The socialist state is a little boy’s playpen (Kubrick has made certain the prison doesn’t look all that uncomfortable).
One of the director’s crucial decisions was his very faithfulness to Burgess’ narrative structure. The compression inevitably makes the psychological entrapment all the more obvious. In the novel the neurotic formula might possibly be overlooked. On screen, the hyperbolic structure undercuts and exposes the mechanism. The rhetoric is even more heightened than in the novel, but not coarsened. And Alex’s litany, ‘Clear as an azure sky’, never seemed more desperate or ironic.
How ironic too that while Alex’s masturbatory dreams are clips from Grade-B horrorshows, the Institute’s sinnies look like parodies of ‘realistic’, Grade-A Hollywood (Straw Dogs, for example). While Alex comments on the realism of glorious Technicolor, Dr. Brodsky monitors the death of consciousness. When Walter Carlos’ beautiful electronic transcription of the ‘Joy’ theme’s ‘Turkish’ march variation that accompanies Alex through the Bootick re-enters beneath the ‘unstaged’ scenes of World War II devastation, the frame of the film widens startlingly. The mirror images multiply from the neurotic, to the gang, to the State, to the paths of glory. Consciousness and freedom lie in ruins.
Alex toasts us, fellow patrons of the Korova Milkbar, at the start of the film. The Vice needs his audience. Kubrick has visualised the ego’s self-dramatising habit with actor-audience scenes throughout. Billyboy’s near-rape is enacted on-stage. Alex then arranges a rape for an audience and later becomes an audience for rape. The State dramatises Alex’s redemption at the Passing-Out ceremony (the Min of the Int: ‘At this stage we introduce the subject himself’). An Ascot audience applauds Alex’s fantasy-rape at the end. And the film has as many eyes as 2001, from eyelashes to cuff-links, to Alex’s surgically clamped gaze.
Alex is seen as blind to the interdependence of the individual and society. The imagery of theatre and vision reveals that Alex insists on breaking down that unity to step aside for the voyeur’s sense of power. The State punishes him for this separation, initiates him, but – if his vision can be trusted – into a corrupt society. In its punishment of the neurotic personality, the super-ego disrupts the unity of the psyche but preserves the integrity of the suffering ego. ‘The world is one, life is one,’ muses Dr. Brodsky in the novel. In the film, the newspapers champion ‘Alex Burgess’. The citizen of a British borough is his own enemy.
The comparison to Richard III may be another Kubrick red herring (although Alex is recognisable in Richard’s ‘Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass/That I may see my shadow as I pass’). The closer Shakespearian comparison that Burgess and Kubrick surely have in mind is Iago (the brainwashing technique is Ludovico’s). Like Iago, Alex is guide, teacher, and ‘play-wright’, even to conditioning. As in Othello, his chief victim goes mad for revenge. Alex acts out the violence of Iago’s language. Both take pride in their evil. And the HOME rape may well be intended as a version of the Act IV, scene I playlet that Iago stages with Cassio and Bianca for a gullible Othello. Othello, after all, projects his fantasies on to Desdemona and luxuriates in self-torture. There is Stephen’s description of the ‘hornmad Iago’ in Ulysses, ‘ceaselessly willing that the moor in him shall suffer.’ Both Alex and Iago are like Genet’s Saints of Evil, creating self through crime – and utterly unpunishable. The Anti-Christ is vampire, lost in the bonds of theft.
The ending of novel and film leaves Alex free to choose new or old ‘freedoms’. If we get a ‘cleaner’ Alex in the movie – no pedophilia, no ‘matricide’, no prison murder – it is because his first sin is against himself. The cause of much confusion among his critics has been Kubrick’s ability to make us privy to Alex’s vision, to show us its seductive beauty while carefully keeping all hands clean. More than a visual investiture of a novelist’s or a psychologist’s conceits, A Clockwork Orange is not a simple film. We watch with no little admiration as Alex demonstrates the coherence he can achieve with a hoodlum artist’s exploitation of everything at hand to shape the self. We watch the Alexandrians attempt the formality of dance without ever truly achieving the Dionysian ecstasy that liberates, the ‘fantasy’ that frees. But the director – who has always been alive to the rhythms of structure – contrasts the locksteps of self-enslavement with the organic beauty of the movements of his film, to suggest something like true freedom from the very heart of fantasy and mechanism.

Sight and Sound, Winter 1973

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