Stanley Kubrick’s mesmerising 1971 classic paints an uncompromising picture of a broken near-future society, immersing the viewer right bang in the middle…
Stanley Kubrick’s mesmerising 1971 classic is an interesting beast. The film’s hallucinatory visuals – depicting a strange, nihilistic society of the future, steeped in seventies art deco and harsh, contrasting lighting – paint a bleak, uncompromising picture. Kubrick’s use of implied violence, death and cultural destruction throw the viewer into a hellish, emotional quagmire of pessimism and hate.
Yet we’re complicit in the violence as Malcolm McDowell’s Alex narrates the story to us as if we are his friends, the only ones he can open up to. It is in this that the violence becomes sanitised, that we don’t necessarily feel guilty, or pity the victims of Alex’s senseless crimes. Kubrick isn’t telling us that violence is okay, he’s telling the viewer that masculinity is a broken concept. The violence is an indication of pent-up sexual frustration, delivered callously and cowardly to anyone that gets in the way.
Alex Jack, in his essay on Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ commented that the director flaunted the idea that “masculinity is a sick idealised myth”. This interested me because of the phallic symbols, rape and mother theme A Clockwork Orange plays around with. Here, sex and violence are not two disparate entities that just so happen occur at the same time: sex equals violence, and this relates to the very opposing view that Kubrick was a misogynist.
There is an obsession with sex that permeates throughout the movie. Whether it’s Alex raping somebody, having consensual sex, thinking about sex, or being in a situation where sex is alluded to (the bar with the erotic, female shaped tables; his home with penis graffiti on the wall; the nurse and doctor at the hospital; the murder weapon at the woman’s house), the idea that it is a motivation behind art, crime and society’s general activity is constantly portrayed. This motivation is male dominated. Women are the ultimate harbingers of sexual desire, and it is only them who can suppress it. This power leaves the male ‘Droogs’ (Alex’s gang) inwardly feeling threatened, which in part leads to cowardly rape. The Droogs attempt to re-establish themselves (redressing the balance between the sexes) by choosing to take what females hold sacred. This “choice” is later explained by the priest who tells Alex: “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” They see nothing wrong in the choices they make but Kubrick mocks them as they return to feed on mother’s milk back at the bar – the drinks and the breast-shaped server asserting motherhood and female dominance.
Sexual obsession also appears in the non-criminal characters, for instance, the nurse and doctor who are caught in the act of ‘in out, in out’, or the murder victim with the giant penis ornament. The obsession is channelled in a different way, and a lot comes from an institutional perspective. Alex’s ex-Droog’s join the police force while he is in prison. When he comes out they use their frustration to beat him to within an inch of his life. The sexual obsession within the ‘adult’ characters now becomes cloaked behind the police uniform, or the warden at the prison, or the psychiatrists treating Alex at the hospital. As pillars of a failing community they do not have the “choice” so freely exploited by Alex and his gang, so they take it out in other, more “acceptable” ways.
Choice is a major aspect of the film because the male characters are seen to enforce this idea of masculinity, but Kubrick sees this as ambiguous. Alex Jack sees Joker’s callous killing of a wounded, female Vietnamese soldier as Kubrick saying: “You men need to tuck away your penises and surrogate penises (guns), because you will never get anywhere with them. Masculinity is a myth and a dead end.” The psychiatrists in A Clockwork Orange take away Alex’s freedom of choice through psychological manipulation, and therefore strip him of his own self worth. Choice is a freedom Alex is born with, but by being brought up in this society he has been conditioned and nurtured to think only one way. By taking away his ability to chose, society is being institutionally condemned to decay.
And how potent is this decay? Malcolm McDowell (who played Alex), speaking thirty years after the film was first released said, when asked about cinema violence mirroring real life: “Are we supposed to ignore the fact that we live in a very violent society?” He continued, “Maybe it’s frustration about the American dream gone sour. I don’t know what it is. It is the expectations of something that’s never quite fulfilled. There’s great anger and frustration around. There’s a lot of that.” Kubrick doesn’t condone the violence of the film, he uses it to example freedoms of choice. When Alex is cured, violence still finds him and it suddenly takes on a more disturbing tone. The audience, complicit with the immorality of Alex’s previous endeavors, begins to sense more unease when the violence is turned on the murderer. In most cases, this would be an uplifting but sadistic closure, as the villain gets the same treatment he gave out to many helpless victims. Yet this does not occur. Why? Because it is the sense of freedom the anti-hero has now lost which sticks. This is more damning than society meeting out revenge and torture. Anyone who claims this film made them take a gun into school and start shooting people, clearly wants a scapegoat for their own psychosis. In effect, issues like the Columbine High School massacre only underline the points Kubrick is trying to make.
It is interesting how Alex’s brainwash is the explicit indication of how Kubrick feels culture is dominated by the powerful, and how art has lost its authenticity. It could be argued that if power is gendered in A Clockwork Orange this must mean the women are “asking for it”, but I believe women represent Kubrick’s idea of the natural order of things. In this futuristic world, women have a power over the men. What Kubrick then investigates is how natural order is tainted by the powerful (politicians and the media) by their exploitation of sex and violence. Pop-culture in the film is full of sexual references, which as mentioned leads to violence, and when Alex needs curing, the doctors use extreme doses of “ultra-violence” and sexual activity to subdue his attraction to them. This doesn’t help Alex as his reintroduction to an outside world still dominated by sex and violence, leads to his victims taking their revenge. By being bludgeoned to nausea from something he once got a kick out of, Alex is forced to hate it. He loses his individuality and his freedom of choice. The film tries to tell us that pop-culture will eventually desensitize us to sex and violence to such a degree we won’t have any sensations left. Art simply dies, as exampled through Alex’s love of Beethoven, because as a drawback of the medical procedure that cures him, the music he loves creates in him the same sick and paranoid feeling sex and violence does.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin
Released: 1971 / Genre: Drama / Country: UK / IMDB