Décor as Theme: A Clockwork Orange

In this essay, Sobchack explores Kubrick's use of décor to emphasize the theme of violence in A Clock­work Orange

In the following essay, Vivian C. Sobchack explores Kubrick’s use of décor to emphasize the theme of violence in A Clockwork Orange

by Vivian C. Sobchack

. . . The film . . . manages to make poetry out of doorknobs, breakfasts, furniture. Trivial details, of which everyone’s universe is made, can once again be transmuted into metaphor, contributing to the imaginative act.
. . . Emphasized or not, invited or not, the physical world through the intensifications of photography never stops insisting on us presence and relevance.
—Stanley Kauffmann1

Because cinema visuals are intellectually clumsy (having no prepositions, conjunctions or grammar to speak of) the commercial cinema’s natural tendency, at least in its present stage of development, is to disguise metaphors as props, decor, setting, plot-symbols, locale, and so on.
—Raymond Durgnat2

In his adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick has purposefully used the film’s decor to cinematically say what the novel only suggests: Art and Violence are two sides of the same coin, both the expression of that anti-social urge toward self- definition which equally characterizes the artist and the criminal. Through the commentative function of the film’s decor which is most emphatically located in the various forms of fine art present in the mise-en-scene. Kubrick is able to articulate and develop this theme in a manner unavailable to the novelist in general, and to Burgess in particular. since the latter has limited himself to the confined interests and selective vision of his first-person narrator. The film is full of paintings and statuary which are not present in the novel. And. whether they be classical, baroque, rococo, impressionist, or modem, these works of fine art most often make their presence felt on the screen in the same moments and in the same frames with acts of violence or with violent characters. Conversely, in those scenes and in those frames which convey the most institutionalized. the most socialized, aspects of the film’s futuristic world, works of art are significantly absent or they are purposefully mocked by the presence of poor and presumptuous imitations. Thus, the decor with its particular emphasis on painting and sculpture is a significant element of A Clockwork Orange and its use in that film should make us aware of the significance of decor to all films. As well, because the film has been adapted from a novel, its translation to the screen allows us to examine the process by which the filmmaker has altered and elaborated upon the novelist’s decor and invested it with thematic significance.

Certainly, the filmmaker’s act of decoration may be one of the, most creative in the adaptive process. No novelist—however detailed his descriptions of places and objects—can ever capture in linear prose the continual density, complexity, and simultaneity of the physical world. As a result of this literary limitation, the filmmaker must visualize and concertize the world of the novel far beyond the material the novelist has provided. It is in the filmmaker’s freedom to create a total and communicative decor that certain interesting questions arise concerning the nature and purpose of that decor. How, for example, does the decor relate to the novel? Are its roots to be found in the text, extracted from description and reference or extrapolated from mere suggestion? Or is the decor more a product of the filmmaker’s interpretation of the text or his imagination than it is of the text itself? As well, one might ask how the decor finally functions in relation to the film as an independent and discrete work itself, and how it functions in illuminating the novel which occasioned its invention. Because of the omnipresence of objects in the visual medium of film, an omnipresence which may be either insistent or insinuating but which always makes itself felt, the film’s decor will invariably and silently support, contradict, or redistribute the thematic emphasis of the original literary work.

Both the process of cinematically decorating a novel and the process of using the elements of decor to make a thematic statement are illuminated by consideration of both Burgess’ and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. As well, the work makes decor more apparently visible, for the action of both novel and film takes place in futuristic surroundings and locates both reader and viewer in relatively exotic space. While the film viewer is finally affected by the cumulative texture of the visualization of a known and ordinary mimetic world, the decor of such a familiar world does not automatically command more than his passing visual interest, does not inherently call attention to itself. The filmmaker can present such ordinary decor emphatically or he can present it and ignore ii. This choice, however, is not so easily available when it comes to presenting on screen the decor and artifacts of an unfamiliar and exotic world such as the one posited by A Clockwork Orange. Because it is itself strange, or because it is familiar but displaced, such a decor is by nature emphatic. It is not possible for such decor to exist solely as cinematic texture, as a relatively uninfluential background for action and dialogue and characterization, for—by virtue of its novelty—it will insistently force itself into the foreground of both the image and the viewer’s consciousness. It will continually make its presence felt as a strong dramatic force, coequal rather than subordinate to the film’s other elements. If such a decor, then, is going to attract the viewer’s conscious attention, the filmmaker must choose purposefully to make it say something—for it will speak with or without his permission. Thus, the choice and function of the decor in Kubrick’s futuristic world in A Clockwork Orange is consciously employed, the settings and furnishings, the paintings and statuary, illustrating and expanding upon the themes of Burgess’ less-decorated novel.

There is relatively little description of places and objects in Burgess’ book. The first-person narrator, Alex, is more interested in describing action and people, in describing his own feelings and the textures of music. His most specific descriptions of objects concern clothing in “the height of fashion” and the mechanisms to which he is subjected at the Ludovico facility. Because there is so little description of decor provided by the Burgess text, it is instructive to note not only where Kubrick has invented the decor, but also where he has departed from or radically altered what little has been specified by the novel. There are three instances where the setting for the action or the decor within a specific setting have been substantively changed, and these changes reveal Kubrick’s purposeful manipulation of decor to achieve thematic content.

The first alteration concerns the setting for the gang fight between Alex and his “droogs” and Billyboy and his adolescent followers. The setting has been transferred from the Municipal Power Plant of the novel to an old Casino which has a theater stage upon which much of the action takes place, and above which we see—in close-up—a gilded, baroque, and elaborately-painted proscenium arch. Indeed, our initial entry into this violent episode is accomplished by a direct cut from a long exterior shot of Alex and his droogs beating up a derelict drunk to a close-up of delicately painted and quite beautiful flowers which are revealed to be part of the painted proscenium. In the novel, not only is the location of the fight different—but it is completely undescribed. Kubrick has chosen not to elaborate upon the decorative possibilities suggested by the novel’s brief mention of the power plant; instead, he has placed the action in a setting of his own invention, one which allows the camera to focus on art as it focuses on violence.

The second major alteration in decor has to do with Alex’s room at home in the “municipal flatblock.” The novel provides some description:

. . . Here was my bed and my stereo, pride of my jeezny, and my discs in their cupboard, and banners and flags on the wall, these being like remembrances of my corrective school life since I was eleven. O my brothers, each one shining and blazoned with name or number: SOUTH 4; METRO CORSKOL BLUE DIVISION; THE BOYS OF ALPHA

The little speakers of my stereo were all arranged round the room, on ceiling, walls, floor, so lying on my bed slooshying the music.3

Of course. Kubrick has retained the stereo and speakers so crucial to the novel and film’s use of music. It is interesting to note, however, that while the above description implies a certain overwhelming and cluttered presence of the sound equipment in Alex’s room, Kubrick has placed that equipment more modestly within a room which is both aesthetically-pleasing and rather ascethically furnished in comparison with the other rooms in the family’s apartment. Indeed. Kubrick has transformed Alex’s room into something quite different from the room suggested by the novel. The corrective school banners and flags in the text arc stripped from the walls and replaced with a huge brooding picture of Beethoven, an erotic but definitely aesthetic poster of a woman, and a chorus line of glazed ceramic Christs on the bureau—their agonized heads at variance in angle and tone with the Rockette choreography of their feel. In so altering the decor of Alex’s room, Kubrick has extended Alex’s aesthetic taste beyond his musical appetites and has, again, introduced examples of fine art into the mise-en-scene.

The third major alteration of the text concerns the home of the Cat Lady. Again, the novel gives a minimum of description. Looking through a window, Alex tells us: in the room you could viddy a lot of old pictures on the walls and starry very elaborate clocks, also some like vases and ornaments that looked starry and dorogoy.”4 When he breaks into the house through an upper window, he finds himself in a room “with beds and cupboards and bolshy heavy stoolies and piles of boxes and books about them.’’5 And, as he sneaks downstairs, he finds himself “admiring in the stairwell grahzny pictures of old time— devotchkas with long hair and high collars, the like country with trees and horses, the holy bearded veck all nagoy hanging on a cross.”6 Limited as the description is, the novel suggests an uncared-for house filled with dusty relics and paintings and photographs which are less on display than they are merely the accumulation of a lifetime. The home of Kubrick’s Cat Lady, however, is filled not with the undisplayed momentoes and antiques of the novel, but rather with a collection of erotic painting and sculpture emphatically on display and omnipresent during the violent confrontation between Alex and the Cat Lady. Indeed, in this last instance of alteration, the works of art themselves play a much larger part in the action than they do in the novel; the art becomes forcefully, visually, implicated in the violence. In the novel, only Alex has a physical and emotional connection with the presence of art during the confrontation; he sees a stone bust of Ludwig Van and, in his eagerness to get it. trips over dishes of milk and cats and. finally, amid the confusion, does the old lady in with the silver sculpture of a girl he has picked up in the hall after admiring it. Unlike in the film, the novel’s Cal Lady simply uses her cats and her cane as weapons and is. thus, dissociated from any of the aesthetic decor which might surround her. In the film, however, both Alex and the Cat Lady fight to the death with art objects as their weapons, a change which shifts the emphasis of the scene so that it becomes quite different than its counterpart in the novel. Instead of wielding a silver sculpture of some delicacy, Alex kills the Cat Lady with a visually-dominating sculpture of a penis—and instead of using the bust of Ludwig Van as the passive object of Alex’s desire. Kubrick has the Cat Lady wield it as her weapon. The death of the Cat Lady is metaphorically rather than graphically represented on the screen by an accelerating montage of details from the various erotic paintings hung about the room, linked together by the recurrent image of an open mouth from one of them which seems to be visually screaming in paroxysms of orgasm and death. In this instance, as in the previous two, Kubrick has altered the novel’s given decor and has changed it so that the comparable scene in the film will give him ample opportunity to display classic and contemporary works of art.

As well, in his extrapolations from the novel, Kubrick has expanded and invented the novel’s undescribed decor in a similar manner, tilling in the empty rooms and locales of the book with various kinds of art which, in their coherent use. accrue thematic significance. The HOME of the novel, for instance, described by Alex merely as “a nice malenky cottage.”7 becomes visually beautiful in its use of architectural space, fine wood, graceful furniture, filled bookshelves, and lovely prints and paintings. It is against the background of one large yet delicately-colored painting that a violent rape and assault takes place; in fact, at the sequence’s beginning, one of Alex’s droogs stands—Mrs. Alexander slung over his shoulder—contemplating the painting at some length. And. at the point when Alex returns unwittingly to HOME, a victim himself, the same painting can be seen behind him, now hanging in the dining area, Kubrick has also used the decor to visually separate Alex’s room and the rest of pee and cm’s apartment. When Alex’s room is somewhat ascetic in decoration and color but indicates an inhabitant of some aesthetic taste, the rest of the apartment is garish, filled with unpleasantly clashing colors and textures and fabrics and exuding a sense of cheap and cluttered faddishness. The big-eyed paintings of girls on black velvet are reminiscent of the kind of “art” which is sold by size in suburban shopping malls or which hangs in unethnic Mexican-American restaurants or piano bars; they are a final note of discord in the apartment’s cacaphonic mediocrity, more pervasive but less amusing than the plastic and smiling brown-eyed daisy which beams from its pot placed in the middle of the breakfast table. In better taste is the room at HOME in which Alex is driven to attempt suicide later in the film; in the novel it is left undecorated by Burgess, but in the film it is filled with French provincial furniture and decorated in restful colors (recalling a similar setting at the end of Kubrick’s previous film, 2001: A Space Odyssey). Below this room with its balanced and reasoned aesthetic decor. F. Alexander and political cronies achieve a more sinister symmetry as they drive Alex mad with Beethoven’s Ninth. Behind them on the wall hangs a large baroque painting, everyone in the scene but the billiard player looking upward at the ceiling and the unseen Alex, but directing our attention upwards at the painting on the wall as well.

Does the introduction of this wealth of art into the film have its source in the Burgess novel? And what is its function in the film? Those critics who have commented on the film’s decor and its use of art have tended to fixate primarily on the erotic art presented in the film, ignoring to a large degree the presence of other, if less sensational, kinds of art. Robert Hughes, for example, sees the decor of the film as suggesting, visualizing, total decadence and empty eroticism, art finally robbed of human meaning and connection with life.8 Gene D. Phillips refers to the film’s “pornographic painting”9 and its “decadent art objects.”10 In most reviews of the film, much was made of the sculptured penis and its battle with the bust of Beethoven. The general conclusion this skewed emphasis has led to is that Kubrick has introduced his own Swiftian statement to the film, his own “addition” to Burgess’ statement of dilemma rather than condemnation: an erotic society which enshrines and frames its own eroticism will come to bad ends, i.e. penis does Beethoven in. Unfortunately, however, this narrow’ view ignores the reality of the film’s total decor which—constantly enhanced and elaborated upon by another art form, music—shows us art in all its forms. Thus, the film posits no simplistic battle between eroticism and moderation, between hedonism and asceticism, between classical virtue and modern vice. Kubrick doesn’t single out erotic art (although the audience might); it is only part of an entire decorative construct which needs consideration as a whole.

There have been a small few broader interpretations of the function of art in the film, but they have generally been made in the context of a discussion focused elsewhere and so their implications have not been explored or finally related to specific imagery and its devolution in the film. Ken Moskowitz quite aptly points out that “art objects are abused to serve base, selfish ends. They are cogs in the conditioning process.”11 And he later states: “Art. like technology, isn’t always a positive force, but rather is amoral or neutral, to be employed wisely or unwisely depending upon the society.”12 Thus, Moskowitz recognizes the function of art in parts of the film, but finally implies it is a tool, a product, rather than a mode of expression—a tool which can be ultimately separated from its creator and “used” by others. In another context, Neil Isaacs links the notion of art with violence:

. . . Alex’s extreme willfulness is abhorrent in its violence. and yet it is redeemed because Alex’s bloody dreams are also works of art. products of the individu­al’s imagination. His love of music is the symbol of that assertion of the individual self against some tribal oversell, and the accidental perversion of that love by the state is no accident at all.13

Isaacs, in linking both music and Alex’s “bloody dreams” as artistic manifestations which assert the preeminence of the individual, suggests that art and violence are motivated by a similar anti-social desire. But Isaacs does not pursue this relationship between art and violence beyond the film’s central character and into its relationship to the film’s central character and into its relationship to the film’s mise-en-scene.

If Kubrick makes a statement in his A Clockwork Orange, it is an enlargement of. an elaboration upon, a less-developed but subtly omnipresent theme already in the Burgess novel: Art and Violence spring from the same source; they are both expressions of the individual, egotistic, vital, and non-institutionalized man. In the Burgess novel, several motifs and passages present this theme both subtly and blatantly—always filtered, of course, through the limited consciousness of the first-person narrator. There is throughout the continual link between Alex and Beethoven, the latter’s music encouraging Alex to violent and anti-social fantasy; this relationship between art and anti-social behavior is implied, however, rather than stated. More overt, although again introduced without comment, is the link that exists between Alex, the violator of a despised society, and F. Alexander, the writer (an artist) whose work criticizes the society and who is finally driven to violence. (This similarity between the two goes further in the film than it does in the novel because of the visual treatment. Not only do Alex and Alexander have similar names and functions, but Kubrick treats them visually alike as the opening reverse tracking shot from a close-up of Alex’s face is repeated in composition and movement back on F. Alexander’s face as he relishes Alex’s pain and madness later in the film.) Twice, the novel openly presents us with a consideration of the relationship between Art and Violence—and both times Burgess suggests that they do not oppose each other, but, indeed, are integral parts of the same urge to personal expression and individual preeminence. Alex, in the one instance, has to “smeck”—laugh—remembering an article he’s read

. . . about how Modem Youth would be better off if A Lively Appreciation Of The Arts could be like encouraged. Great Music it said, and Great Poetry would like quieten Modem Youth down and make Modem Youth more civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up. O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my ha ha power.14

Alex, himself, is proof that music docs not have charms to soothe the savage breast; it exists in that breast along with the savagery, a part of it. In a later section of the novel, this theme again becomes overt in its presentation. During the Ludovico treatment when Alex is conditioned to get sick not only at violence but also at music (it is particularly telling that Beethoven’s Fifth is accompanying a film about the Nazis who were supposedly “great art-lovers,’’) Dr. Brodsky, when apprised of the accidental results of the treatment, muses:

. . . ‘Delimitation is always difficult. The world is one, life is one. The sweetest and most heavenly of activities partake in some measure of violence—the act of love, for instance; music, for instance, . . .’15

Burgess, through Brodsky, overtly slates that even the most sublime activity is linked, is one, with violent activity.

In adopting the first-person narrator. Burgess has sacrificed some of his possibilities for articulating his themes through literary devices which emphasize contrast or simultaneity; he has, of course, gained in exchange Alex’s marvelous diction (the slang of Nadsat which is musical, lush and coarse, and onomatopoeic in sound and in visual print) and his alien sensibilities. Yet because Alex is the constant narrator of the novel and must be consistent in his use of language and his vision of the world, Burgess’ union of Art and Violence can only be occasionally articulated as clearly as in the moments described above. In the novel, due in part to Burgess’ chosen voice and in part to the linear movement of literature, the idea that Art and violence are constantly and inextricably linked together gets lost to some degree because it cannot be emphasized through contrast, variety, simultaneity, or through what would amount to uncharacteristic introspection by Alex. Alex uses the same language to describe the institutional monochrome of his prison experience as he does to describe his colorful and bloody escapades. Always that language is vital and musical.

Kubrick, however, unlike Burgess, is not confined to Al­ex’s uniformity of expression. He has the objective camera at his disposal to heighten what remains in the novel a theme subordinate to the more articulated theme of Free Will. Like Burgess, Kubrick uses Nadsat and Alex as first- person narrator. But simultaneously his camera extends beyond Alex’s consciousness to objectively offer the viewer that visual union between Art and Violence which the book can only suggest from time to time. Kubrick can allow’ the decor to naturally—and silently—say something which if more stressed in the novel would seem terribly contrived, purposefully heavy, and certainly inconsistent with the narrator’s character. Since the simultaneity of seeing determines the way we respond to film (as the linearity of reading determines the way we respond to literature), what we see makes its own comparatively “natural’’ statement. appearing less contrived and emphatically selected and more spontaneous than it would be selectively described in a novel. Extremes of aggressive behavior and w hat is generally considered “good” art are visually joined in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. They appear in the same frames together or they are intimately linked in the editorial process, and their either close or simultaneous presence communicates itself to the viewer at the same time its articulation places no untoward demands on Al­ex’s sensibilities. Using the supposed objectivity of the third-person camera. Kubrick can change the decor from scene to scene without having to alter Alex’s subjectively consistent perception contained in the soundtrack. Thus, another dimension and voice is added to the novel: we are simultaneously offered first-person narration (what we hear) and third-person narration (what we see). As a result, Kubrick is able to heighten what has been only a subordinate theme in the novel.

In the novel, for instance, the language Alex uses in the prison sequence is the same as the language he uses when he is with his droogs or alone thinking to himself. There is, therefore, little contrast between the prison sequence and other sequences except in events and in the introduction of new- characters and. through them, new diction through dialogue. Over all the difference, however, Alex’s sensibilities and voice tend to dampen the impact of any potential contrast. In the film, the presence of the third-person camera allows for a stronger contrast in environments. There is a distinct change of the decor from one location to another and it is clearly linked to the presence or absence of examples of fine art. There is no fine art present in the prison sequence, in the Ludovico facility sequence and in the hospital sequence. As in the book, during these sequences Alex’s vital narration remains a constant and does not alter to fit a physical contrast he is unaware of, but, unlike the book, the film images provide a contrast. They tell us through the decor—not Alex—that institutions avoid art like the plague, that art is the expression of individuality and is. therefore, anti-social and dangerous to society’s institutions. Witness, for example, the vital sexual scrawling and graffiti on the homogenized mural in Alex’s flatblock apartment house, a mural actually present in Bur­gess’ book and faithfully translated to the screen:

… In the hallway was the good old municipal painting on the walls—vecks and ptitsas very well developed. stem in the dignity of labour, at workbench and machine with not one stitch of platties on their well-developed plotts. But of course some of the malchicks living in 18A had. as was to be expected, embellished and decorated the said big painting with handy pencil and ballpoint, adding hair and stiff rods and dirty bal­looning slovos out of the dignified rots of these nagoy (bare, that is) cheenas and vecks.16

The civilized, socialized, citizens who live in the municipal flatblock—citizens like Alex’s pee and cm—have internalized institutional norms and no longer comprehend the individuality and inherent violence of artistic expression. They have come to accept as a substitute art robbed of violent impetus: a bland, asexual and mediocre mural.

It is only in moments of violence in the film that what is generally considered to be “good” art makes its presence felt. And that “good” art covers a range of aesthetic options and styles from the classical to the baroque, from austere to erotic, the vitality missing in Alex’s parents pee and em. from the prison personnel, the Ludovico facility staff, the hospital doctors and nurses, and the government officials is conveyed through a lack of vitality in the film’s decor, in an absence of good art in their presence and on their home ground. Those moments when we view’ blood and beatings, rape and murder. The two most violent scenes in the film—the rape and assault in the Alexander home and the murder of the Cat Lady—are filled with works of art.

As well as simultaneously linking works of art and acts of violence in the same frames. Kubrick also carefully controls the use of the film’s decor so as not to contrast Art and Violence, so as not to suggest that they are opposing forces. Those characters connected with art in the film are finally as violent as Alex: the Cat Lady who is a collector and F. Alexander, the writer. Music and books and statues and paintings become weapons. And, heightened by the use of editing and extreme close-ups of that classic lithograph. Ludwig Von’s stare is anything but beatific or benevolent.

Kubrick then, has not used the decor of his A Clockwork Orange to make the personal statement which some critics have seen as the pitting of classical values against modern decadent ones. Certainly, the film is not the novel and Ku­brick’s choices from among the options of the film medium have altered the original work’s means and meaning. Yet Kubrick’s use of decor in the film adaptation is neither arbitrarily or personally motivated. What Kubrick has done with the decor is expand upon a secondary theme in the Burgess novel, a theme particularly suited to visual treatment. In this sense. Kubrick has altered the novel but has used its own suggestion in doing so. What results is a film which is perhaps richer in texture than the novel upon which it is based for it unites the two themes of the book, something which the novel strives toward but which— because of its narrative and literary limitations—it cannot quite fully achieve. Because film is visual as well as literary, simultaneous as well as linear, a filmmaker of Ku­brick’s skill and sensibility can consciously make the dé­cor speak in a way which is impossible for it to speak in a novel. Indeed, the process of adaptation from novel to film only emphasizes by way of contrast what is true of film in general: decor is as crucial an element of cinematic communication as is lighting, composition, camera movement, editing, and dialogue. As much as does any other element of film, the decor contributes to the works meaning and themes.


1. Stanley Kauflmann, “The Film Generation,” in A World on Film (New York: Delta Books, 1966), p. 417.

2. Raymond Durgnat. Films and Feelings (Cambridge, Mass.: M. I. T. Press, 1971), p. 226.

3. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (New York: Norton Paperback. 1963), p. 36.

4. Ibid., p. 59.

5. Ibid., p. 61.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., p. 26.

8. Robert Hughes, “The Decor of Tomorrow ’s Hell.” Time (December 27, 1971), p. 59.

9. Gene D. Phillips, Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library Film Series/Big Apple Film Series, 1975), p. 162.

10. Ibid., p. 164.

11. Ken Moskowitz, “Clockwork Violence,” Sight and Sound 46 (Winter 1976-1977), 24.

12. Ibid., pp. 24,444.

13. Neil D. Isaacs, “Unstuck in Time: Clockwork Orange and Slaughterhouse-Five. Literature/Film Quarterly 1 (Spring 1973), 126.

14. Burgess, p. 45.

15. Ibid., p. 116.

16. Ibid., p. 35.

Source: “Decor as Theme: A Clockwork Orange,” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. IX. No. 2, 1981. pp. 92- 102.


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