Stanley Kubrick’s, A Clockwork Orange is a film that many love to hate and others love for all the wrong reasons. Its hyperbolic, stylized violence nauseates many while turning on the unthinking and conscienceless. It is certainly not a film to inspire indifference, nor is it easy to dismiss. The controversy around it inevitably comes down to questions of Kubrick’s misanthropy, and whether his approach is justified.
The “triumph of the human spirit” is a recurring theme in soft-centered humanist art. The situation usually involves a character suffering melodramatically for some ideal or cause in the face of society’s indifference or cruelty. Kubrick stands that formula on its head: Alex (Malcolm McDowell), brutally and cynically manipulated by the government, certainly “triumphs” over his suffering, but the “human spirit” he embodies embraces murder, rape, theft, mendacity, hypocrisy, and violence for self-gratification. Alex is, in short, everything negative in human behavior. The question thus becomes whether the effort to control the impulses Alex indulges gives others the right (effectively) to castrate him?
That the violence in the film is stylized and hyped enough to make it visually attractive and exciting underscores our complicity with Alex’s actions, thereby deepening the ambiguity of Kubrick’s approach. The morality of the situation is made even murkier by the fact that the violence inflicted on Alex is the most affective in the film. If anyone deserves brutal treatment by the state, it’s Alex, but does he? If the film’s visceral excitement proves our complicity with his behavior, isn’t our outrage sheer hypocrisy? And even if we are repulsed by his actions, isn’t the desire to punish him just another expression of the very sadistic impulses he represents? (Questions all very relevant in today’s world of “enhanced interrogation” techniques.)
The film’s ponderously deliberate, ultra-explicit and didactic style raises its own questions. The movie repeatedly punches us in the eyes with its pointed ironies. No character is spared the relentless glare of Kubrick’s brightly lit, static camera setups. Even as the style subjects everyone and thing to this withering scrutiny, however, the dogged execution in the most extreme scenes (such as Alex’s vicious beating by his former “droogs,” now employed as police) possesses an almost hypnotic quality. The transfixed stare Kubrick imparts to these scenes suggests that the director himself has not come to terms with these tortuously conflicted feelings.
Thus, A Clockwork Orange is a difficult nut to crack because it is possible to enjoy it by allowing it to cater to our basest instincts. (Pauline Kael’s description of Kubrick “sucking up to the thugs in the audience” has more than a shred of validity.) If there is any solace to be gotten from the film, it comes from the belief that no one attempting anything this complex is likely to be serving the worst of humanity. That there is ample evidence to make the accusation credible, however, testifies to the film’s unresolvable ambiguity of purpose.