Kubrick’s Brilliant Vision
From the beginning, he has struggled to control both his work and his world, as if the uncertainties of the human condition would rip him to pieces if he relinquished his hold for even so much as a second. But it is precisely this inexhaustible drive to orchestrate even the smallest details of his life and his art that has made Stanley Kubrick the most provocative and brilliant of today’s American directors.
At forty-three, the creator of Paths of Glory, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and the visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey has earned his place beside Bergman, Buñuel, Truffaut, Fellini and a handful of others. Now Kubrick has a new movie called A Clockwork Orange, taken from the brilliant and shocking novel by British writer Anthony Burgess. The film is not without its small failings, for a man who makes as many daring artistic leaps as Kubrick is bound to slip from time to time, just as he is insured against ever boring us. A Clockwork Orange is also a characteristically frosty piece of film-making, shorn completely of sentiment, working through brilliant ironies and dazzling dramatic ideas that please us, provoke our laughter, galvanize our intellects, win our admiration—but never touch our hearts.
But then, no director has it all—tenderness and crystal detachment, a sure feel for sentiment and Olympian brilliance. It is enough that A Clockwork Orange works on its own terms, as the kind of tour de force of the intellect and imagination that marks Kubrick as a true genius of the cinema.
The film moves on many levels at once—social, psychological, moral and mythical. It is set in a London of the near future in which roving gangs of Teddy boys rule the night, venting the frustrations and boredom of their lives in acts of rape, robbery and wanton beatings. Alex, the hero, is a prince of this adolescent underworld, leading his three “droogs,” as pals are called in the special slang the teenagers talk, in endless acts of mayhem—mugging drunks for sport, grabbing girls for what Alex (who narrates the film) calls “the quick in-out, in-out,” breaking into houses on “surprise visits” to rape, maim, kill and steal.
Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Alex is despicable in what he does, but graced with a wit, energy and demonic imagination that make him superior to any other figure in his world and make him a perversely winning character. Kubrick is careful to protect our reluctant allegiance to Alex—by stylizing the acts of brutality he commits, by making his victims unpleasant, by distancing the audience from what would otherwise be an intolerable level of violence through an inventive use of music.
Kubrick turns a savage, hard-crunching battle between Alex’s droogs and a repulsive rival gang into a ballet by Jerome Robbins gone mad. In another episode, Alex breaks into the house of a writer and brutally rapes his wife—all the time singing and soft-shoeing an insouciant version of “Singin’ in the Rain.” On another surprise visit, which leads to Alex’s capture by the police, there is a battle of the sexes in which he clubs a tough health-club lady to death with her own outsized phallic sculpture—all choreographed to the antic strains of Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” overture. Kubrick scores a super-speeded-up orgy between Alex and two nymphets with the feverish strains of the “William Tell” overture, turning an already clever characterization of casual teenage sex into a brilliant comic ballet. His use of the satanic second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony captures in its angry humor, its demonic energy, its bitter but affirmative spirit, the essence of Alex’s character.
As a hero, Alex has a great deal more than music going for him in gaining the loyalties of an audience. As Kubrick points out, “the most interesting and often engaging characters in any film are the villains.” More important, Malcolm McDowell imbues Alex with his own winning arrogance and charm in a performance of extraordinary vitality and intelligence. And as a fantasy figure Alex appeals to something dark and primal in all of us. He acts out our desire for instant sexual gratification, for the release of our angers and repressed instincts for revenge, our need for adventure and excitement.
The elegance that accompanies Alex’s penchant for what he dubs “ultra-violence” is the pivotal paradox of the film. Its shocking content has earned it an X rating, but Dr. Aaron Stem, the film industry’s code administrator, believes there should be special ratings for X films of such exceptional quality. “Violence itself isn’t necessarily abhorrent,” says Kubrick. “From his own point of view, Alex is having a wonderful time, and I wanted his life to appear to us as it did to him, not restricted by the conventional pieties. You can’t compare what Alex is doing to any kind of day-to-day reality. Watching a movie is like having a daydream. You can safely explore areas that are closed off to you in your daily life. There are dreams in which you do all the terrible things your conscious mind prevents you from doing.”
Violence is a common denominator in all Kubrick’s films. In every one of his movies, someone is murdered. “Although a certain amount of hypocrisy exists about it,” he says, “everyone is fascinated by violence. After all, man is the most remorseless killer who ever stalked the earth. Our interest in violence in part reflects the fact that on the subconscious level we are very little different from our primitive ancestors.”
Alex is finally caught, ironically done in by his one bit of humanity, a love for Beethoven that sets his gang against him. In a scene characteristic of the film’s clarity and economy, we watch Alex as he enters the penitentiary systematically stripped of his clothes, his effects, his name, his swagger—his self. All that remains of his freedom is his fantasy life, which he puts to good use. He studies the Bible to score points with the prison chaplain—all the while imagining he is whipping Christ on the way to Calvary, killing Romans, basking in a bevy of naked handmaidens.
But soon even his fantasy life is confiscated. He is transferred to a reconditioning center where he is injected with a nausea-inducing drug and forced, with his eyelids clamped open, to watch films of violence and sex until the very thought of his old diversions makes him gag and retch. The government, proud of this new solution to crime in the streets, makes a display of Alex as the star guinea pig of this new therapeutic behaviorism. In a “scientific” demonstration Alex is pushed around by an actor and teased by a nude girl— and his only reaction is to lick the actors shoe and grovel retchingly at the girl’s feet. The close-up of tongue on leather, like the frames of Slim Pickens riding the suicidal H-bomb in Dr. Strangelove, shows Kubrick’s genius for fixing an aspect of the human condition in a single image, here Subjugation itself.
Alex is returned to the world, where he meets all those whom he has abused and is mercilessly beaten for his transgressions. We accept these coincidences, for Kubrick’s stylization of the story has clearly cast it in mythical terms. ‘Telling a story ‘realistically’ is such a slowpoke and ponderous way to proceed,” says Kubrick, ”and it doesn’t fulfill the psychic needs that people have. We sense that there’s more to life and to the universe than realism can possibly deal with.”
In A Clockwork Orange this mythic realism has produced an icily brilliant vision of an imminent future in which Western society has become a mod slum, super-technologized and squalid at the same time. Culture has collapsed into a pervasive pop-art bad taste: Alex’s prole parents are caricatures, Dad with his big lapels, Mum with her violet hair and micro-skirts. Politics too has been reduced to caricature—there is no middle ground, only warfare between advocates of anarchy and of total control. Alex and his droogs hang out at the “milk-plus” bar, swigging doped milk at tables formed of erotic sculpture. They speak a lingo that reflects a vicious decay of feeling: ubiquitous television has turned “see” into “viddy”; the adjective of approval is “horrorshow”; money is “deng,” with its excremental connotations.
But at its most profound level, A Clockwork Orange is an odyssey of the human personality, a statement on what it is to be fully human. Alex’s adventures are, in one sense, the adventures of the id itself. Alex embodies all of man’s anarchic impulses. Shorn of his individuality in the penitentiary and of his fantasy life in the conditioning program, he ceases to be a human being in any real sense. His resurrection at the end, as he regains his ability to act out his lusts and aggressions, represents an ironic triumph of the human psyche over the forces that seek to control or diminish it.
Newsweek, January 3, 1972