Real Horrorshow

Posted by on March 15th, 2010 at 2:23 AM

I saw Stanley Kubrick’s movie of A Clockwork Orange again recently, and it brought to mind some thoughts while not specifically germane to comics are germane to morally ambiguous entertainment, which comics tend to be.  (I’m assuming you’ve all seen the movie; if not, I’m sure you know where Wikipedia is.)  The first thought that comes to mind is, what a terrific picture.  The second is, if you take it strictly at face value, there is nothing on the screen to indicate a moral point of view.  In order to infer one you have to assume there might be one and then try to guess what it is.  I think Pauline Kael misinterpreted the movie when she wrote “Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is not so much an expression of how this society has lost its soul as he is a force pitted against the society, and by making the victims of the thugs more repulsive and contemptible than the thugs Kubrick has learned to love the punk sadist,” but he does little to discourage her.  She was however completely dead on when she wrote:

Alex is the only likable person we see – his cynical bravado suggests a broad-nosed, working-class Olivier – and the movie puts us on his side. Alex, who gets kicks out of violence is more alive than anybody else in the movie, and younger and more attractive, and McDowell plays him exuberantly, with the power and slyness of a young Cagney. Despite what Alex does at the beginning, McDowell makes you root for his foxiness, for his crookedness. (Deeper Into Movies, p. 374)

Not to mention that he’s smarter than anyone else, and when addressing the audience is more honest and self-aware.  (Personally though I liked the social worker and the warder as well.)  Kael’s error is in assuming what we see on the screen is Kubrick’s point of view.  Rather, the dangerous game Kubrick was playing was to tell the story entirely from Alex’s point of view.  The moral point of view I infer is that the a society built on entirely utilitarian lines without firm opinions on good and evil disarms itself in the face of people like Alex, to say nothing of the politicians who rule it.  The only characters with a genuinely moral point of view are the warder and the chaplain in the more primitive confines of the prison.  The clockwork orange of the title isn’t Alex after treatment but the society as a whole.  Alex is not something the society created but a force it’s unequipped to contain.  Beginning with his parents he’s learned who he can intimidate and who he can game.  He chooses his victims not on the basis of what they represent but on how defenseless they are, and how much entertainment value there might be in tormenting them.  When Alex and company feel like a contested battle they seek out Billy Boy and his crew.  This conflict isn’t based on ideology or even territory as real world gang violence is, but on matters of style, dandies versus slobs, a battle along the old lines of Mods versus Rockers.  Alex has an instinctive notion of what can be gotten away with, and understands that when he crosses over from petty larceny into professional theft as his cohorts wish he will invite a deeper level of official scrutiny.  He’s no rebel because the way things are set up suits him fine.

Contrary to what Kael believed these victims are not any more “contemptible and repulsive” as Alex, or even nearly so.  When initially attacked there is nothing to indicate that the writer and his wife are anything but decent people.  The second home invasion victim acts intelligently and stands up to Alex when confronted.  What throws the balance of sympathy off has to do with the mechanics of a movie, and I think this represents a loss of control of his materials on Kubrick’s part.  Simply put, Alex is a character the audience cares about and his victims are characters the audience doesn’t care about, and this stacks the deck in a way I don’t think was intended.  Critics coined the term “Greeneland” to refer to the physical and emotional setting of Graham Greene’s novels.  Kubrickstan, the territory which Stanley Kubrick’s movies occupied from 2001: A Space Odyssey onwards, was a cold-blooded, well-lit place with lots of art direction.  It’s a country where the effects are skewed.

While Alex’s victims and antagonists are not morally equivalent to him they’re creatures of the clockwork world as well, and being victims of his crimes doesn’t ennoble them.  Until the writer realizes that Alex was the one who ruined him he’s perfectly willing to use him to further his political goals, and is just as willing afterwards so long as he can incorporate his revenge.  The regime has no more interest in punishing Alex than they are in reforming him, they just want him to cease to be trouble, and when chemically castrating him causes them more trouble they’re perfectly willing to reverse the process and set him free to prey on the defenseless once more.

But to say that Kubrick had a moral purpose in A Clockwork Orange is not to say that it had the effect he intended.  I seriously doubt that anyone comes away from the movie thinking it would be a worse thing to have Alex deprived of free will than to have him raping and murdering defenseless people, a class which most of us see ourselves as belonging to.  As a satirical examination of the plague of violence engulfing the industrialized world at the time (though not as a work of art) I think it’s decidedly inferior to a movie that came out the same year, Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, which attempted to get inside the heads of every social institution rather than looking down on them from a great height.  (Also panned by Pauline Kael, page 253.)  What we really come away from A Clockwork Orange with is the enjoyment of seeing evil triumph.  We enjoy it (or should I say I enjoy it) because we find the burden of maintaining a moral order an oppression even as we understand that once we’re not watching a movie we are mortally fucked without one.  Kubrick made his own judgment when he withdrew the movie from circulation in the United Kingdom (and nowhere else).  I believe the moral calculus of this decision was simple:  1. Young thugs were reportedly mining the movie for tips on their own escapades.  2. The movie featured home invasions of isolated country houses.  3. Stanley Kubrick lived in an isolated country house.

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One Response to “Real Horrorshow”

  1. patford says:

    Kubrick commented on many of the issues surrounding his film in an interview with Michael Ciment. The interview
    (and many others) can be read in full at:

    Ciment: How do you explain the kind of fascination that Alex exercises on the audience?

    Kubrick: I think that it’s probably because we can identify with Alex on the unconscious level. The psychiatrists tell us the unconscious has no conscience — and perhaps in our unconscious we are all potential Alexes. It may be that only as a result of morality, the law and sometimes our own innate character that we do not become like him. Perhaps this makes some people feel uncomfortable and partly explains some of the controversy which has arisen over the film. Perhaps they are unable to accept this view of human nature. But I think you find much the same psychological phenomena at work in Shakespeare’s Richard III. You should feel nothing but dislike towards Richard, and yet when the role is well played, with a bit of humour and charm, you find yourself gradually making a similar kind of identification with him. Not because you sympathize with Richard’s ambition or his actions, or that you like him or think people should behave like him but, as you watch the play, because he gradually works himself into your unconscious, and recognition occurs in the recesses of the mind. At the same time, I don’t believe anyone leaves the theatre thinking Richard III or Alex are the sort of people one admires and would wish to be like.

    And from another article at The Kubrick Site:

    “As to why Kubrick asked for the film to be withdrawn, Kubrick would never discussed the matter, not even with journalists like Alexander Walker and Michel Ciment who were good friends. Recently the reason for the ban was revealed by his widow in the Channel 4 documentary, “The Last Movie” shown in the UK. Christiane, sitting in the garden of Childwick Bury told Paul Joyce: “the reason the film was withdrawn was because we got so many threats that the police said we must do something and he withdrew it. [He was] both artistically hurt and also scared. He didn’t want to be misunderstood and misinterpreted and you don’t like to get death threats for you family.

    Paul Joyce
    It’s difficult to believe looking here at all this exquisite privacy that you thought your lives were in danger.

    That’s not paranoia, that was on paper many time over [..] it was uncomfortable; difficult for the children, and we wanted to stay in England, so… don’t show the film.

    Paul Joyce
    Was the withdrawal successful in stopping those threats.


    Kubrick didn’t have any legal power to withdraw the film, Warner Bros. did it at his request. Former CEO, Terry Semel explained, “It wasn’t a contractual request, [Kubrick said] “if you want to keep me safe and comfortable, don’t do it”.”