Alex’s Violence: Re-Interpreting A Clockwork Orange
By Greg Scorzo –
Part 1: Alex Never Lost his Free Will.
44 years after its initial release, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange has the reputation of being a ground breaking, envelope-pushing hall mark of 20th century cinema. This reputation is well earned, as the film is (at the very least) one of the most beautifully constructed, complex, iconic, and controversial films of the 70’s. More astoundingly, the film retains its capacity to thrill, puzzle, and provoke audiences today. This is not so much because of the film’s explicit portrayal of sexual and non-sexual violence. Audiences have since become accustomed to such explicit imagery in mainstream thrillers. What still makes the film an intense and perplexing experience for viewers is its attitude towards the violence it presents to the viewer. This is particularly true of the violence presented to us in the first 30 minutes of the film. Throughout the 44 years since the release of A Clockwork Orange, audiences have found the film’s attitude towards this violence to be a source of confusion. This explains part of the divergent amount of praise and hostility the film has received over the years.
A Clockwork Orange initially divided critics in 1971. While some film critics praised the film as a technically dazzling and thematically daring piece of cinematic provocation, other critics accused the film of everything from misanthropy and misogyny to an endorsement of extreme right politics.1 Outside the world of film critics, the film was seen by many public figures as a potential threat to public order.
The extremely stylized sexual violence of the film was, for a time, judged as the cause of a series of copycat crimes in the UK.2 Gangs of men engaged in acts of sexual violence often recited lines from the film to their victims. These men would later blame the film for their abhorrent crimes to courts deciding on appropriate prison sentences.3 Even the film’s critically acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick agreed to ban the film from being shown in the UK on advice of the police.4 This was less than two years after the film had won the New York Film Critics Award for best picture.5
In 1999, Kubrick’s death precipitated both a lift on the film’s UK withdrawal and a reassessment of the film’s critical status. Since then, the film has enjoyed a near universal acclaim.6 What is interesting about this acclaim is there is now a critical consensus regarding the film’s primary meaning. This consensus is that the film is best interpreted as a parable about man’s free will. According to this reading, A Clockwork Orange is a treatise on the indispensability of man’s free will to choose between good and evil actions. Whatever ambivalences are to be found in the film’s attitude towards the violence it shows in its first 30 minutes is a consequence of the film’s thesis. On this interpretation, the film is expressing the attitude that it is better for man to choose evil than to not have the capacity to choose his actions. As I will explain, this interpretation is at odds with what happens in the narrative of a Clockwork Orange. Moreover, if we are to truly understand the film’s violent first half-hour, we must look to what’s on the screen and not merely the plot that is common to both the film and novel.
It should be noted that the standard interpretation of A Clockwork Orange as “film about Free Will” is not accidental. This is the interpretation that has been given in interviews both by director Stanley Kubrick and star Malcolm McDowell.7 It is also the interpretation of Anthony Burgess who wrote the novel upon which the film is based.8 Even the title of the novel is a cockney expression which denotes a piece of fruit which appears organic but is in fact mechanical. Burgess chose this title because he intended it, in the context of his story, to be a metaphor for a man who is incapable of making free choices.9 The critical consensus regarding how to interpret the film is thus a consequence of critics taking the creators of the film at their word.
The problem is there are some cases where the understanding of a work of art can greatly benefit from an interpretation that is distinct from the intentions of the work’s creators. Sometimes this is because of reluctance on the part of the creators to attempt to understand their own work.10 Sometimes it is because the work of art actually fails to be what its creators intended it to be. In the case of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the film fails to function as a parable about the moral indispensability of man’s free will. This is because there is nothing in the narrative of A Clockwork Orange that clearly deals with the moral wrongness of depriving a person of their free will. This is true of both the novel and the film.
Both the novel and film tell the story of a teen psychopath (Malcolm McDowell) named Alex who is forced by the state to undergo aversion therapy in exchange for being let out of prison. Alex’s crimes include robbery, rape, accidental murder, and random beatings of homeless men on the street. After undergoing aversion therapy, Alex is conditioned to feel debilitating spasms of pain and nausea when he experiences urges towards violent or sexual behaviour. He is also (because of an accident during the aversion therapy process) conditioned to feel the same spasms of pain and nausea when hearing Beethoven’s ninth, a favourite of Alex. Once out of prison, Alex is beaten and tortured by his former victims without the ability to defend himself. After a suicide attempt, the government currently in power decides to perform an operation on Alex which will restore him to his natural state. Worrying about unpopularity in an upcoming election, the government gives Alex financial compensation for his suffering in exchange for his public endorsement. Alex agrees and rejoices in his ability to experience his former urges as well as his capacity to experience joy when hearing Beethoven’s 9th.11
The brutality displayed by both the state and Alex’s former victims is a chilling commentary on how victims of violence and brutality can easily become victimisers. Alex’s former victims are no less brutal than Alex in their attempts to enact revenge on him. The state which attempts to cure Alex of his anti-social behaviour makes him defenseless against their sadistic violence and psychological torture. Both the state and it’s critics are indifferent to this feature of Alex’s aversion therapy. There is only half hearted debate between a prison chaplain and a government minister about whether the aversion therapy deprives Alex of his Free Will. Alex’s safety is, for both proponents and opponents of his conditioning, a non-issue.
The narrative of A Clockwork Orange does not tell us anything about free will because the moral problems raised by Alex’s conditioning have nothing to do with his free will. They have to do with the fact that Alex has been made vulnerable to the brutal attacks of his former victims. They have to do with the fact that Alex has been deprived of the ability to experience either sexual arousal or the hearing of Beethoven’s 9th without spasms of pain and nausea. These are terrible features of Alex’s conditioning. However, these features do not constitute a negation of Alex’s free will. They are only negations of a range of his choices.
The important point is that there are still plenty of moral choices Alex can make. He can choose to vote Labour or Tory. He can choose his occupation and the set of people who he wishes to spend his life with. He can listen to most pieces of music and even most of the works of Beethoven. What has been prevented for Alex is his ability to defend himself from violence, have a functioning sexuality, and hear one Beethoven symphony. Although these limitations constitute moral problems for Alex’s conditioning, free will deprivation is not one of them.
Free will deprivation happens when a person is incapable of expressing their character through their actions. Free Will deprivation isn’t simply when a person is deprived of their ability to perform a range of actions. Some people can’t choose to eat nuts without suffering severe allergies. Other people can’t choose to have sex with individuals of the opposite gender without feeling repulsed. Still other people can’t choose to watch violent films like A Clockwork Orange without experiencing panic attacks. We don’t say any of the above individuals lack free will. We say they lack a range of choices.
We can imagine A Clockwork Orange’s aversion therapy happening without the limitations on Alex’s choices that we see in the film. We can envision a more sophisticated aversion therapy that doesn’t pair Alex’s pain with his experience of hearing Beethoven’s 9th. Likewise, we can imagine this therapy only conditions Alex to have an aversion to performing acts of unprovoked violence and rape. Such a sophisticated conditioning might leave Alex perfectly capable of performing acts of self-defence or sexual acts that are consensual. What is important here is that there is nothing in such a sophisticated conditioning that the film appears to have any gripes with. In the second half of the film, we sympathize with Alex because he can’t defend himself, is deprived of having a sexuality, and can’t listen to one of the great orchestral works of the millennium. We don’t pity him because he can’t enjoy unprovoked violence and rape without wanting to vomit.
If a sophisticated aversion therapy only prevented Alex from engaging in unprovoked violence and rape, would the film’s attitude still condemn this therapy? It seems unlikely, since one of the films main dialog motifs is the importance of moral choice.12 Moral choices are choices humans make in order to conform to moral norms. It’s not clear that a sophisticated aversion therapy couldn’t facilitate decent moral choices for Alex, choices that might otherwise not be possible. In fact, a sophisticated aversion therapy could be the very thing that allows a criminal who can’t control his homicidal impulses the chance to live and thrive in society. Here, aversion therapy wouldn’t be depriving the criminal of his free will. It would be allowing that criminal to successfully make a moral choice to be socially benevolent. It would allow the criminal to express aspects of his character that his homicidal impulses normally stifle.
This is why the narrative of A Clockwork Orange fails to constitute an argument for the preservation of man’s free will. But just because the narrative of A Clockwork Orange fails to constitute an argument of this sort, it doesn’t follow that the narrative fails as a story. Moreover, the film contextualizes the Clockwork Orange narrative in a highly specific, visual future that gives the story philosophical concerns not present in the book. This is why, if we are to truly understand the film, we can’t reduce it to a simple philosophical argument.
Part 2: Counter-Culture as Nightmare.
We need to look to the visual and sonic storytelling of A Clockwork Orange to understand the film’s quite distinct philosophical concerns. Unlike the book, the film uses the counter-culture of the late 60’s as its inspiration for constructing the future in which the narrative of A Clockwork Orange takes place. The novel obviously doesn’t do this because it was composed in the early 60’s, before such counter-culture existed. If we can understand how the film depicts this counter-culture, we can understand the uncomfortable ambivalences of the violence in the first half hour of A Clockwork Orange.
The main visual story telling technique of A Clockwork Orange is to present its narrative in the context of a garish, brightly coloured, post-60s dystopia. What makes this dystopia distinctive is it does not try to divorce itself from the iconography of the 60s (like Kubrick’s previous film, 2001: A Space Odyssey had done). Rather, the dystopia created by Kubrick is a futuristic exaggeration of 60’s counter-culture. Characters wear interesting and exaggerated variations of op art, psychedelic, and hippy fashions. The decor contains bright, multi-coloured patterns juxtaposed against functional (and often cartoon like) depictions of female sexuality. There are stark, neon-lit environments of indoor decadence in close proximity to noire-ish spaces of outdoor poverty and squalor. We see images of recreational drug use that suggest that such drug use is both a social norm and an instigator of anti-social behaviour. There are numerous images in the film that illustrate how the future society depicted is rife with crime, drugs, violence, decadence, political corruption, and narrow gender roles.
This is not a typical Orwellian dystopia that consists of a helpless population terrorized by some totalitarian government. This is a society that manifests a degree of social freedom that realises much of what 60’s counter-culture wanted to see in mainstream society. In the film, recreational drug use appears to be legal (night clubs actually sell recreational drugs rather than function as social spaces to illegally buy recreational drugs). There seems to be no puritanical norms governing sexual behaviour. There are no cultural norms that enforce a linking of sex with marriage, monogamy, or emotional intimacy. There is evidence that homosexual activity between women is tolerated to a much greater extent in this future society than it was at the time of the film’s release.13 The society depicted in A Clockwork Orange also contains a thriving and stylish youth culture.
Not only do hang outs for young people contain variations on the most interesting and stylish decor of the late 60s, they also contain paintings and sculptures of sexually explicit, erotic art. Such explicit imagery goes far beyond what was considered a socially acceptable form of decorating a public space in 1971. The music played in the film’s shops, street windows, night clubs, and government films ranges from psychedelic rock14 to pre-20th century orchestral music and avant-garde electronic music. The taste of mainstream youth in this future society is, in some ways, more daring and eclectic than the taste of the actual youth of the late 60’s and early 70’s.
In this society, technology has clearly advanced beyond the technology of the film’s release date. An early scene in the film where Alex beats a drunken homeless man suggests that the film takes place at a time when there is a highly developed space program. The aversion therapy that Alex undergoes demonstrates advances in behaviouristic psychology that did not exist in 1971. Yet in the film, both these technologies are used to harm rather than help members of the society they emerge from. The space program takes money and resources away from the solving of domestic problems like crime and poverty. The advances in behaviouristic psychology are used to deprive criminals of the ability to act on sexual impulses or defend themselves against street violence.
Similarly, the social freedom and youth culture of Kubrick’s future society wind up being used, throughout the film, to facilitate various forms of brutality. The drugs served up at popular night clubs help to motivate brutal gangs of young men engage in acts of violence and rape. The erotic images of women in the background of public spaces reinforce a social conception of young women as beings whose primary purpose is to gratify the sexual urges of young men. The music and art of the film do nothing but provide an aesthetic background of sounds and images to accompany the brutality that the characters engage in. In Kubrick’s future society, art provides the atmosphere for, rather than moral motivation against, brutality.
Hence, the future society that Kubrick depicts in A Clockwork Orange illustrates a problem with the social freedom sought after by the counter-culture of the late 60’s: Social freedom facilitates an opportunity for an increase in creative actions. Creative actions, by their very nature, are actions that involve remaking the world according to the desires of the creative actor. Creative actions range from the creation of great works of art to the destruction of other human bodies. Creative actions can include scientific technology that results either in cancer treatments or hydrogen bombs. Creative actions can be used in the realisation of counter-culture ideals like peace and love.
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange demonstrates, with a fierce intensity, that a counter-culture inspired, socially liberal society need not be a society that emanates peace and love. It may be a society that primarily emanates brutality. Such a society need not be fascist or communist. It can be a western democracy that values cutting edge art, social freedom, and brazen sexuality. It is a mistake to think that these values are antidotes to brutality, sexual violence, or urban squalor. It is also a mistake to think these social problems are exclusively tied up with society being drab, conformist, tacky, and sexually repressed.
Part 3: The Aesthetics of Creative Brutality.
Kubrick’s image and sound combinations illustrate this idea throughout the film’s first half-hour. The film opens with a close up of protagonist Alex staring menacingly at the screen. As the camera dollies backwards, we see his gang of fellow hoodlums sitting next to him. As the camera pulls further out, we see a stylish table made to resemble the nude figures of two naked, nubile women. Both Alex and his fellow hoodlums are wearing lipstick, despite the poses of aggressive masculinity they exhibit for the camera. The table in front of them is a beautifully erotic piece of sculpture. Yet it functions as a piece of furniture that reduces women to passive sex objects that exist for the pleasure of men. The music on the soundtrack is the dark, dazzling electronica of Wendy Carlos. We hear an atmospheric reconstruction of the Music for the Funeral for Queen Mary by Henry Purcell. Just seconds into the film, we are given a visually beautiful cinematic summation of the main elements of the society Kubrick will be presenting to us throughout the film.
We see a highly creative and free society that expresses its free creativity through various forms of brutality. It relishes in the freedom for men to wear lipstick like women do. At the same time, the act of wearing lipstick heightens the pathological masculinity of the gang of hoodlums who will spend the next few scenes beating and raping random citizens. The table nude that sits in front of them is both erotic and fascinating. The placement of the table in front of them belays a level of sexual openness with sexual imagery that seems progressive. Yet the table presents an image of a naked, aroused, and passive nubile woman. Such an image expresses a male sexuality that desires submissive women who are de-individuated as much as possible. Looking at the sculpture of the nude woman, we can see very little of the expression on her face. We see only that she is aroused. We can hear Carlos’s electronic background score which is dark, spacey, and beautiful. However, it functions primarily as an atmospheric addition to the menacing quality of the image we see before us.
The situation only gets worse as the dolly pulls back even further. We see that we are watching Alex and his fellow hoodlums in a nightclub. The sculptures of passive female nudes are both tables and dispensers of drinks laced with narcotics. The other clubbers sit passively in a state of drug induced stupor. As the dolly continues, we see the submissiveness of women become more pronounced in the club’s sculptures. Sculptures of naked women sit atop platforms with their hands tied behind their backs in chains and handcuffs. Sexuality is now being represented by images of naked, nubile women who are in a position of forced submissiveness. As the camera dolly reaches the end of a long line of these sculptures, we see two male bouncers (one black, one white) standing up, arms folded, looking over the nightclub’s sitting, intoxicated customers. Both bouncers appear quite menacing and yet both are wearing one piece leotard outfits that make each appear like particularly athletic ballet dancers. Alex is now talking to the audience in voice over. He informs us, using his futuristic nadsat slang, that we are looking at a night club that goes by the name of the Kerova milk bar. He also tells us that some of the narcotics dispensed by the night club “sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.”
Here we can see quite clearly that Alex is an emergent property of the society he inhabits. In his society, youthful gender bending and sexual freedom have become expressions of aggressive, anti-social behaviour. This is a society which tolerates an increased explicitness regarding female sexuality but only because such explicitness presents young men with an opportunity to aggressively dominate attractive women’s bodies. This is a society that eroticises male-on-female rape without much critical reflection. It is a society so pre-occupied with hedonistic pleasure that it seems to have become numb to pleasure. These conditions create a population that is largely oblivious to much of its own problems. One of the main problems is a youth sub-culture of male teenagers who seem to satisfy their desire for pleasure through the brutal domination of others.
These social elements coalesce in the character of Alex, who is a metaphor for the society in which he lives.
It would be very odd for a society such as the one depicted in A Clockwork Orange to not contain a person like Alex. As we see in the subsequent scenes of the film’s first act, Alex embodies the predominant elements of the culture in which he emerges. He is a horny, violent and brutal psychopath who is simultaneously a charming and witty person who relishes in the aesthetic beauty of creative actions. In this way, Alex represents the danger of romanticising both social liberalism and aesthetic daring. When we romanticise such political values, we ignore how effectively they can manifest the uglier sides of humanity.
Part 4: Enjoying Freedom. Avoiding Responsibility.
In A Clockwork Orange’s second scene, Alex and his fellow hoodlums (Pete, Georgie, and Dim) taunt and beat a drunken homeless man they find in a dirty, dilapidated tunnel. The scene opens with a close up of the homeless man which then pulls back to a wide shot of Alex and his gang hovering over the man in giant, menacing silhouettes. As Alex recounts in his narration, their sole motivation for beating this man is the fact that he is filthy, drunk, and loud. Before they strike the man with chains, kicks, and clubs, they listen to him profess an indifference to his own death. His reasoning is that he does not want to live in a society that is itself indifferent to the crime and domestic squalor of which he is a victim. The homeless man believes he lives in a society that is more concerned with its thriving space program than with the oppression of the old by the young. Alex and his gang listen to the old man in amusement before mercilessly beating him.
Here, we see that the social freedoms expressed in the Kerova milk bar do nothing to undermine the existence of extreme poverty on the street. The very social freedoms expressed in the Kerova milk bar deprive the rest of society from having the freedom to walk the street without fear of being brutally assaulted. The most vulnerable members of society wind up making the easiest targets for Alex and his gang. It is not only women but vulnerable people generally that have to worry about being the victims of teenage gangs. More interestingly, the old man the gang attacks describes youth itself as an oppressor class. He does not attribute the squalor and brutality of his society to rich businessmen or corrupt governments. He attributes it to the choices of the actual teens on the street attacking people like him.
What this shows is a reluctance within the film to simplistically reduce poverty and violence to economic conditions. Poverty may make it harder to make good choices. But the terrible choices of Alex and his droogs can’t be absolved because of their class. This, again, is because of the moral choice theme within the film. With moral choice comes moral responsibility. Regardless of whether Alex and his droogs are poor or live in a society which encourages them to brutalise others, they still have the freedom to choose otherwise. Plenty of young people in analogous conditions presumably do not choose to beat and rape. Thus, Alex and his droogs need to be held responsible for acts of violence they can refrain from doing. Until he is arrested for murder, the society in A Clockwork Orange encourages Alex to evade this responsibility by focussing only on the possibilities of his creative actions.
In the next scene, we see a derelict building with ornate greco-roman adornments surrounding an abandoned stage. This scene opens with a close up of a bronze figure of a bearded man’s face and then dollies out to a wide shot of this abandoned stage. On the stage is a rival gang of Alex’s gang headed by a military gear adorned young man called ‘Billy Boy’. Kubrick’s camera lingers on Billy Boy’s gang attempting to gang rape a naked, nubile young woman who resembles one of the statues in the Kerova milk bar. Juxtaposed against this, Rossini’s Thieving Magpie plays on the soundtrack. The juxtaposition of this brutal rape with the greco-roman visuals and 19th century orchestral music is ironic. However, it is not merely ironic. It is an illustration of the co-mingling of brutal violence with the creative arts present throughout the film’s future society.
Alex and his gang disrupt the proceedings, emerging from dark silhouettes once again. With a slang infested series of insults directed at Billy Boy, Alex prompts the two gangs into a quick and violent confrontation. What is unusual about the way this confrontation plays out is that both gangs leap into action with what seems like an exhilarating burst of joy. For Billy Boy’s gang, the prospect of a violent confrontation with Alex’s gang is more exciting than a mere gang rape of an attractive young woman. Members of both gangs laugh and yell “yah-hoo” and “yip-eee” as they punch, kick, and throw tables and smashed plates of glass at one and other. For members of both gangs, the violence is joyous because it is a way in which the teenagers creatively express themselves. Thus, it is no accident that such expressions happen in environments cluttered with sounds and images of the creative arts. Such creative arts, in A Clockwork Orange, constitute a motivating influence for violent acts. For the youth of A Clockwork Orange, violence, like art, is a form of creative self-expression.
As the fight progresses, it is clear that Alex’s gang is the winner. Alex relishes beating a twitching Billy Boy on the ground with a large black club while letting out a joyous scream. A siren slowly becomes audible above the soundtrack of Rossini’s music. Alex blows a loud whistle and signals for his fellow gang members to leave the derelict building before the police arrive. The film then cuts to a medium shot of Alex and his gang speeding a futuristic car down a dark country road. They scream and yell in fits of joy, purposefully driving into oncoming traffic. Behind them is an obviously matted background image of a country road moving at a speed too great to match the speed of Alex’s car. This produces a hyper-real effect, communicating to the viewer the drug effected qualities of Alex’s consciousness. While Rossini’s music still booms on the soundtrack, Kubrick cross cuts between shots of Alex and his gang and shots of oncoming cars and pedestrians. Alex narrates the proceedings as if he were narrating an exciting visit to an amusement park. He notes that the car he is driving, “gave you a nice, warm, vibraty feeling all through your gutty wuts.”
Part 5: Focussing on the Victim. Focussing on the Perpetrator.
At this point, we are watching a film that is portraying Alex’s violent actions as acts of creative expression that are exhilarating and fun. The film is cinematically emphasizing the experiential qualities of violence for the perpetrator, rather than the victim. This changes, in a disturbing and unexpected way, in the film’s next scene. Alex and his gang decide to play a game called ‘surprise visit’ where they trick a random home owner into letting the gang into their house. The gang will then proceed to beat and rob the unsuspecting home owner in an explosion of “laughs and lashings of the old ultra-violence.” The gang arrives at a swanky home in a posh neighbourhood, adorned with a sign in front of its stylish architecture that simply reads ‘HOME’.
Kubrick cuts to a shot of the interior of ‘Home’. We see a man (Mr. Alexander) writing away on his type writer as the camera pans rightward so that we see the futuristic decor of the house. Mr. Alexander’s wife sits reading a book in a chair that resembles a space pod. Off screen, the doorbell rings, announcing Alex’s gang with the prophetic chime of the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Mrs. Alexander leaves her chair and book to see who the visitors are. Peering outside her front door, she hears Alex tell her that his friend has just had “an accident” and is “bleeding to death.” Mrs. Alexander is somewhat suspicious as Alex pleads with her to let him in so that he can use her telephone to ring an ambulance. Mr. Alexander asks “Who is it dear?” from behind his type-writer in the living room. Mrs. Alexander replies, “There is a young man here. He says he’s been in an accident and wants to use the telephone.” Mr. Alexander responds, “Well I suppose you’d better let him in.” With this, Mrs. Alexander opens the door and the now masked Alex, Pete, Georgie, and Dim joyfully proceed to beat, restrain, and gag Mr. And Mrs. Alexander.
Once it becomes apparent that Mr. And Mrs. Alexander are reduced to a state of helpless acceptance, Alex begins to put on a performance. Parodying the famous dance sequence in Singing in the Rain, Alex sings and dances his way through the house, kicking and knocking over desks, tables, and bookshelves. Restrained and gagged by Pete, George, and Dim, Mr. And Mrs. Alexander look on at the proceedings in shock. Here, Alex is not merely performing an in-home robbery. He is using the in-home robbery as a forum for another spontaneous creative act. Alex punctuates the dance with a blow to the face of Mrs. Alexander and several rhythmic kicks to the belly of her husband. Noticing that Mr. Alexander is now restrained on the floor looking up at his helplessly restrained wife, Alex decides to rape Mrs. Alexander in front of her husband.
Alex keeps singing as he cuts off and removes Mrs. Alexander’s clothes. The camera cuts to a wide angled close up of Mr. Alexander, ball and gagged, watching in a frozen terror as Alex rips the clothes off his restrained wife. Kubrick’s camera then cuts to a shot of Alex, standing next to a nude Mrs. Alexander, undressing himself while singing and looking down at Mr. Alexander. This shot is from the perspective of the living room floor, containing both the helpless Mr. Alexander at the right of the screen while also containing Alex and the nude Mrs. Alexander at the left. The shot lingers statically as Alex ends his rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’ by pulling down his trousers and kneeling down to stare into the eyes of the helpless husband.
He taunts, “Viddy well governer, Viddy well.” Alex then proceeds to jump up and stand mischievously in front of Mrs. Alexander, presumably to begin a forced act of coitus. The camera then cuts back to the wide angled shot of Mr. Alexander staring up at the (now more horrific) action from his position on the floor. The last image we see from this sequence is a close up of the head of Mrs. Alexander. We see her wincing in pain, her mouth covered with tape, hearing her muffled screams as she closes her eyes in a helpless, horrified state of resignation.
Although the coitus is suggested rather than explicitly shown, this scene has become one of the most infamous rape scenes in cinema history. The scene possesses a particularly unpleasant resonance because it is the first scene in the film to focus on the experiential qualities of the victims of violence. There is no background music to illustrate how the robbery/rape is an exciting expression of creativity for Alex and his gang. The song and dance Alex accompanies his actions with quickly looses the sarcastic irony of the Rossini music during the previous scenes. The cinematic presentation of the violence is no longer grounding the violence in the decadent future. Rather, the film seems to be emphasizing, with a newly clinical and naturalistic style, that the violence perpetrated by Alex hurts his victims. We really see how this violence displays an inhumane sadism in the way it is predicated on the delight of causing strangers extreme forms of physical and psychological pain.
While the violence of beating up fellow gang members and a drunken homeless man is vicious, it lacks the psychological sting of Alex’s rape of Mrs Alexander. The drunken homeless man’s drunkenness may have partially shielded him from a detailed and visceral memory of his beating. Sadly, for such a man, being violently assaulted on the night time streets may not be something he is experiencing for the first time. With the gang fight, there is a sense of excitement and consent from both parties in the mutual decision to charge at one another in the derelict building.
Yet with the rape, it is not just the excitement of inflicting violence on random individuals that is grounding the pleasure that Alex and his gang gain from the activity. It is the thrill of inflicting violence that is presented through a traumatic and unexpected experience of psycho-sexual torture and humiliation. The film goes through great pains to remind the audience, throughout the scene, that Alex enjoys hurting Mr. And Mrs. Alexander. He enjoys hurting Mr and Mrs Alexander, both physically and psychologically, in the place they feel the most safe.
Simultaneously, there is an even more disturbing feature of this naturalistic examination of psycho-sexual brutality. Mrs. Alexander, despite being visibly older than Alex and his gang, is attractive by the standards of the futuristic society she inhabits. When undressed, it is apparent that her body also bears a striking resemblance to the naked statues in the Kerova milk bar. Because she is both gagged and in a state of submissiveness, the camera sees more of her wiggling naked body than behaviours manifesting resistance. Her gagged moans are so muffled in how they sound that they could easily pass for the sounds of orgasm. To many viewers, this scene comes across not just as horrific but also erotic. This, for most critics and writers, has traditionally been the most troubling aspect of the film. On the one hand, the rape is shown to be an extremely viscous act motivated by deliberate cruelty. However, the rape is also presented in a manner which shows why, for Alex and his gang, it is an erotic act. It is this ambivalence that has resulted in the film being labelled misogynist and self-undermining by many of its critics.15
According to the misogynist argument, the film is sexist (among other reasons) because it eroticizes its rape scene in having Alex rape a stereotypically attractive woman who showcases minimal resistance. The scene is presented, according to this reasoning, in such a way as to titillate the male audience. It plays into the male fantasy of a man being able to walk into the home of any adult female he finds desirable and sexually dominate her with minimal resistance. To a certain extent, there is a kernel of truth in this objection. It is partially these features of the rape that make Alex and his gang find it appealing and erotic. These features are uncomfortably showcased in the depiction of the rape. However, the rape scene does not only showcase these features of the rape. It also showcases the features of the rape that are physically and psychologically traumatic for both Mrs. Alexander and her husband. The presence of this duality is why the scene is so uncomfortable for the viewer.
However, the combining of emphasis on both the effects of the rape and its pleasure for the perpetrators is not evidence of misogyny. Rather, it is a brutal acknowledgement that eroticism does not carry with it a moral high ground. It is not misogynist to say that the brutal act of raping an attractive woman can be potentially eroticized either by Alex or the male audience of A Clockwork Orange. Rather, it is to acknowledge that eroticism itself can be violent and sadistic. In much the same way that the film illustrates how freedom and creativity can express themselves in acts of brutality, the film also illustrates how that same brutality can arise from expressions of sexual desire.16
This also constitutes a rebuttal to the argument that the film is self undermining. According to that argument, A Clockwork Orange is self-undermining because the stylizations with which Alex’s criminal actions are portrayed induce the audience to delight in them. This includes the eroticism inherent in the film’s rape scene. A variation of this argument is given, surprisingly, by controversial director Michael Haneke.17 According to Haneke, A Clockwork Orange is “a noble failure” because “you can’t make an anti-fascist film using a fascist aesthetic.”18 Here, Haneke means that the stylistic devices of the film used to show that Alex enjoys his violence have the effect of shielding the audience from the inherent brutality of Alex’s actions.19 According to this reasoning, the film’s exploration of the violence it showcases demands that the audience not be shielded from its brutality by stylistic devices. The film can only portray the violence honestly if the violence is portrayed in scenes evoking uniform repulsion.
The problem with this argument is it ignores the important repulsion that results from the stylistic devices used to portray the violence of the movie’s first half hour. The brutality and pleasure of Alex’s crimes being visually juxtaposed against one and other does evoke repulsion. It evokes repulsion even when the audience is titillated by these crimes. In fact, the repulsion is often a consequence of the audience being so titillated. We are repulsed when we view the rape scene partially because we are watching a vicious act of psychological and physical brutality. We are also repulsed for two additional reasons. We are repulsed because the brutality of the act fails to stop Alex from delighting in the sexual dominance of a woman he finds attractive. More disturbingly, we are repulsed because we can see that the brutality of the rape makes the sexual dominance of a woman Alex finds attractive an intensely pleasurable experience for him. The truly disturbing power of the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange is that it visually presents us with all of this information simultaneously. We do not merely see Alex gain pleasure from dominating and hurting a random stranger. We are able to see the specifically erotic pleasure that Alex gets from hurting a woman he sexually desires.
Part 6: We are Horrible. We are Wonderful. We are Horrible when We are Wonderful.
It is one thing to contemplate the sadistic pleasure a human being can get from hurting another human being. But when this sadistic pleasure is partially erotic, this gives the sadism a particularly grim sting. As human beings, we don’t like to contemplate the potential eroticizing of behaviours most of us (quite rightly) find morally repulsive.
Most of us like the role that eroticism plays in our sexual and mental lives. The thought of such eroticism being used to make horrific actions appear desirable makes eroticism seem potentially threatening. This, of course, plays into the overall strategy of A Clockwork Orange. A Clockwork Orange wants us to see our most human qualities (our creativity, our self-expression, and even our eroticism) as potential expressions of brutality.
The first half hour of the film is troubling for many audience members to digest because it illustrates the close links between brutality and our most human qualities. We don’t want to think of criminals as having refined and edgy taste. We don’t want to think of gang fights as consensual expressions of creative energy. We don’t want to think that certain erotic desires can allow us to gain pleasure from imagining the rape and brutalisation of an attractive woman. Naturally, when we see scenes of brutality grounded in such basic human drives, it is easy to think the film is just endorsing horrendous violence. Because the film is so mesmerising, we feel we have to absolve the film of this charge in an easy, simplistic way. So naturally, we accept a safe reading of the film that absolves it of its dangerous exploration of these uneasy connections. We accept the words of the creators. We look at every scene as a small piece in an argument for the preservation of man’s free will. The trouble is, there is little in the film to merit this reading.
A Clockwork Orange’s power resides in the fact that it seduces, twists, and confuses our fragile moral sensibilities. It does this by illustrating, in a variety of different ways, how the more inhumane tendencies of our species are very much a product of our humanity. It shows us how we are all capable of being monsters. It shows us how our most monstrous incarnations have human qualities that are desirable. It shows us how our desires to contain our monstrous incarnations can produce monstrosities of a different flavour. It shows us, painfully, how our worst selves are connected to our best selves and our best selves are connected to our worst selves. A film like this can’t be reduced to a simple argument for the conclusion that it is better for man to choose evil then to be deprived of his free will. It is so powerful precisely because it does so much more than merely preach.
When we see the crimes of the film’s first 30 minutes, we are not induced to condemn the violence. The film already takes for granted that we do. We are also not induced to commit similar crimes. The film already takes for granted that we know we shouldn’t. What the film wants us to do is see these crimes not as unusual events committed by an unusually monstrous psychopath. It wants us to see them as expressions of a free and creative, liberal democratic culture. And it wants us to see its monstrous psychopath as monstrous because he has so many of the qualities we find attractive about the post-60s west. A Clockwork Orange isn’t using these psycho-social relationships as premises in an argument whose conclusion the film is trying to convince us of. Rather, the film just wants us to contemplate these relationships so that we may come to our own conclusions. If the film had one simple take home message, we wouldn’t still be watching it. It would have lost its power and mystique over the last 44 years. Amazingly, it hasn’t.
- For positive original reviews of the film, see Murphy, A.D. “Variety Reviews: A Clockwork Orange.” Variety 15, 1971: n.pag, Cocks, Jay. “Cinema Kubrick: Degrees of Madness.” Time Magazine Dec. 20, 1971: 80, and Canby, Vincent. “A Clockwork Orange dazzles the Senses and Mind.” New York Times Dec. 20, 1971: 44. For a feminist influenced, negative initial review of the film, see Beverly Walker, “From Novel to Film: Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange,” Women and Film 2 (1972): 4. For an initial review charging the film with misanthropy, see Kael, Pauline. “Stanley Strangelove.” New Yorker 48 Jan. 1, 1972: 50-5. For an initial review charging the film with a right wing political agenda, see Ebert, Roger. “A Clockwork Orange.” Chicago Sun Times Feb. 11, 1972: n.pag.
- “Serious pockets of violence at London school, QC says”,The Times, 21 March 1972.
- See ‘Clockwork Orange’ link with boy’s crime”,The Times, 4 July 1973.
- Schmidt, William E. “British Test 19-Year Ban on ‘Clockwork Orange’.” New York Times, 6, 1993: n. Pag.
- See http://www.nyfcc.com/awards/?awardyear=1971.
- See the 91% rating on rottentomatoes.com. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/clockwork_orange/
- See Adair, Gilbert, Bonono Robert, Ciment, Michael. (2003). Kubrick: The Definitive Edition. United Kingdom: Faber and Faber. See Also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ua5aO3SHMSM. In this 1973 interview, McDowell interprets, before a hostile journalist, the film as a parable about free will.
- See “Anthony Burgess Interviewed in Italy in 1974 about: A Clockwork Orange (and other subjects in general).”http://www.masterbibangers.net/ABC/index.php/online-texts-and-resources/textes-by-ab/49-anthony-burgess-interviewed-in-italy-in1974-about-a-clockwork-orange.html
- This is particularly true of the work of director David Lynch. In interviews, Lynch routinely refuses to interpret his own work.
- See Kubrick, S. (1971). A Clockwork Orange. UK: Warner Brothers. See also Burgess, A. A Clockwork Orange. UK: William Heinemann, 1962.
- This is particularly true in the prison sequences where the prison chaplain speaks about the importance of moral choice. The prison chaplain states, “when a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man” when discussing the ludivico treatment with Alex in the prison library. The chaplain also mentions the importance of making moral choices when challenging the minister of the interior during the exhibition of Alex after his conditioning.
- We must remember that in 1971, lesbian sex was not yet the universal symbol of eroticism that it has become in mainstream heterosexual pornography and culture. Lesbian sex was still, by and large, viewed by western society as a controversial and repulsive act.
- One can see a Jimi Hendrix poster in the Kerova milkbar as well as a copy of Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles in the film’s record shop.
- See Beverly Walker and Wray, John. “Minister of Fear”, New York Times Magazine, September 23, 2007, 44-49.
- The film’s rape scene, in a sense, constitutes a rebuttal to the often proclaimed “truism” that Rape is about power, not sex. That scene and the rest of the film suggest that eroticism, among other things, is itself is about power
- Ibid., John Wray.
- Haneke’s own highly publicized ethos for dealing with on screen violence is that the film-maker should make the experience of violence uniformly unpleasant for the viewer. This, for Haneke, is the only way to deal with the subject matter of violence honestly.
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