by Robert Hughes
Some movies are so inventive and powerful that they can be viewed again and again and each time yield up fresh illuminations. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is such a movie. Based on Anthony Burgess’s 1963 novel of the same title, it is a merciless, demoniac satire of a near future terrorized by pathological teen-age toughs. When it opened last week, Time Movie Critic Jay Cocks hailed it as “chillingly and often hilariously believable.” Below, Time’s art critic takes a further look at some of its aesthetic implications.
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Stanley Kubrick’s biting and dandyish vision of subtopia is not simply a social satire but a brilliant, cultural one. No movie in the last decade (perhaps in the history of film) has made such exquisitely chilling predictions about the future role of cultural artifacts – paintings, buildings, sculpture, music – in society, or extrapolated them from so undeceived a view of our present culture.
The time is somewhere in the next ten years; the police still wear Queen Elizabeth II’s monogram on their caps and the politicians seem to be dressed by Blades and Mr. Fish. The settings have the glittery, spaced-out look of a Milanese design fair – all stamped Mylar and womb-form chairs, thick glass tables, brushed aluminum and chrome, sterile perspectives of unshuttered concrete and white molded plastic. The designed artifact is to Orange what technological gadgetry was to Kubrick’s 2001: a character in the drama, a mute and unblinking witness.
This alienating decor is full of works of art. Fiber-glass nudes, crouched like Playboy femlins in the Korova milk bar, serve as tables or dispense mescaline-laced milk from their nipples. They are, in fact, close parodies of the fetishistic furniture-sculpture of Allen Jones. The living room of the Cat Lady, whom Protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) murders with an immense Arp-like sculpture of a phallus, is decked with the kind of garish, routinely erotic paintings that have infested Pop-art consciousness in recent years.
The impression, a very deliberate one, is of culture objects cut loose from any power to communicate, or even to be noticed. There is no reality to which they connect. Their owners possess them as so much paraphernalia, like the derby hats, codpieces and bleeding-eye emblems that Alex and his mates wear so defiantly on their bullyboy costumes. When Alex swats at the Cat Lady’s sculptured schlong, she screams: “Leave that alone, don’t touch it! It’s a very important work of art!” This pathetic burst of connoisseur’s jargon echoes in a vast cultural emptiness. In worlds like this, no work of art can be important.
The geography of Kubrick’s bleak landscape becomes explicit in his use of music. Whenever the woodwinds and brass turn up on the sound track, one may be fairly sure that something atrocious will appear on the screen – and be distanced by the irony of juxtaposition. Thus to the strains of Rossini’s Thieving Magpie, a girl is gang-raped in a deserted casino. In a sequence of exquisite comedie noire, Alex cripples a writer and rapes his wife while tripping through a Gene Kelly number: “Singin’ in the rain” (bash), “Just singin’ in the rain” (kick).
What might seem gratuitous is very pointed indeed. At issue is the popular 19th century idea, still held today, that Art is Good for You, that the purpose of the fine arts is to provide moral uplift. Kubrick’s message, amplified from Burgess’s novel, is the opposite: art has no ethical purpose. There is no religion of beauty. Art serves, instead, to promote ecstatic consciousness. The kind of ecstasy depends on the person who is having it. Without the slightest contradiction, Nazis could weep over Wagner before stoking the crematoriums. Alex grooves on the music of “Ludwig van,” especially the Ninth Symphony, which fills him with fantasies of sex and slaughter.
When he is drug-cured of belligerence, strapped into a straitjacket with eyes clamped open to watch films of violence, the conditioning also works on his love of music. Beethoven makes him suicidal. Then, when the government returns him to his state of innocent viciousness, the love of Ludwig comes back: “I was really cured at last,” he says over the last fantasy shot in which he is swiving a blonde amidst clapping Establishment figures in Ascot costume, while the mighty setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy peals on the soundtrack.
Kubrick delivers these insights with something of Alex’s pure, consistent aggression. His visual style is swift and cold – appropriately, even necessarily so. Moreover, his direction has the rarest of qualities, bravura morality – ironic, precise and ferocious. “It’s funny,” muses Alex, “how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” It is a good epigraph to A Clockwork Orange. No futures are inevitable, but little Alex, glaring through the false eyelashes that he affects while on his bashing rampages, rises from the joint imaginations of Kubrick and Burgess like a portent: he is the future Candide, not of innocence, but of excessive and frightful experience.
Published in Time, December 27, 1971
Republished in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Edited by Stuart Y. Mcdougal. Cambridge University Press, London, 2003, pp. 131-33