Or, the AFI List Project #70: A Clockwork Orange
I want to talk about violence today, not because A Clockwork Orange is a violent movie, but because in a more profound way it is a movie about violence.
That is a statement that may come off as facile or trivial – what violent movie has ever been made that isn’t also about the notion and meaning of violence on some level? The difference, one might argue, is that different films have different views of the subject, and that they approach different aspects of it, movies like Peeping Tom or The Silence of the Lambs examining the dark connection between violence and sex while movies like Schindler’s List are more about institutional violence. And so on and so on – you get the picture.
What sets A Clockwork Orange apart, to me, is the completeness, and the malevolence, of its treatment of the topic. That’s because, though many movies have violence as a topic, it is very rarely the central topic. Look again at the titles I cited above: Peeping Tom and Silence of the Lambs are about sex and perversion; violence is an accessory, not a motivator. Schindler’s List, in macroscopic terms, is about good in the face of evil; violence is an external, monolithic force unto itself that motivates our peek into Oscar Schindler’s soul rather than serving as a subject itself.
The only parallel that I can think of to A Clockwork Orange’s declared theme of ‘ultra-violence,’ however, is Fight Club, David Fincher’s dark, disturbing tale of middle class discontent. Yet Fight Club’s celebration of the freeing power of violence, seemingly a new iteration of the glee that Alex experiences wielding his knife and cane at the beginning of A Clockwork Orange, nonetheless becomes concerned with violence as a means to an end. Not so in Kubrick’s film: here is malice for the sake of malice, violence studied beyond its meaning in the context of individual actions or motivations but as a force, permeating psychology, sexuality, politics, society, and art.
And art, indeed: let us discuss for a moment not ultra-violence but meta-violence. Has there ever been a more directly self-referential scene committed to film than that of Alex undergoing the Ludovico treatment? That is to say, we watch Alex watching scenes of ultra-violence that ourselves are also watching; we have also watched Alex as a sort of actor in such films in the acts that he commits at the beginning of the movie. Here, it seems to me, is a powerful commentary on notions of desensitization and aestheticization. Ironically, the inventors of the Ludovico Technique seek to use images of violence as a method of creating sensitivity to violence – a sensitivity, however, that is purely biological and conditioned. This of course is the very opposite of many contemporary concerns about how watching violent films makes us trivialize it. Implicit in Kubrick’s film is, I think, the suggestion that such concerns are superficial – or, perhaps more accurately, that they are overly concerned with practical outcomes. What is concerning about sensitization or desensitization, he argues, is not whether or not they result in our being more willing to engage in violence. Rather, the processes themselves are a form of violence – a sort of psychological violence that seeks to reshape how we think and behave. Thus the symbolic importance of Alex’s love of Beethoven. Kubrick (or Burgess, I suppose) might have chosen almost anything to serve as the unintended condition that would become significant later in the movie. That is, if we regard Alex’s conditioning to Beethoven merely as a plot point that would affect the later developments of the film, there is no reason that the 9th Symphony should have been that object. It might just as easily have been birdsong.
No, the 9th becomes important because it is autonomously a great work of art, and however we as an audience feel about the Ludovico Technique – that is, even if one believes that turning Alex into the titular clockwork orange is a justifiable and justified approach to his behavior – it seems to rob him of something more profound if he is also no longer able to listen to music: at least this is a violence done against him. It is also violence done against us, because in this at least we, too, are sitting strapped to the chair with a technician putting eyedrops in our eyes. Kubrick, following Fritz Lang’s use of Hall of the Mountain King in M, reshapes the meaning of the 9th Symphony by turning it into the anthem of ultra-violence. In doing so, he also makes the uncomfortable observation of the inevitable connection between art and violence.
All this, however, has perhaps gone too far in a film studies direction – perhaps because there is so much material to mine here. Let us pull back to a more general view, however, and briefly take in what I believe to be the film’s bold, pessimistic thesis: that violence is the mortar and base state of human organization. On the one hand, we must necessarily view as perverse the aesthetic and sexual pleasure that Alex takes in his acts of ultra-violence. Yet, in Kubrick’s vision, that specific, particular pleasure does not vanish in Alex’s conditioning. Rather, it is channeled into a more generalized societal violence that imposes its will on the individual predisposition towards malice. Hence the discovery that Alex’s ‘droogs’ have become policemen, which work they have found that they relish: violence is only subversive as long as it does not serve to maintain the societal fabric. Society and government don’t quash it. It just moves further up the ladder.
I don’t know if I agree with that, but nor do I know that it is something to which one agrees or disagrees; it may be that to really explore the meaning of violence and malice one must be willing to construct a world where they are the central facts of existence. And this, not any particular political or social argument, is what is really important about A Clockwork Orange. No one cares whether Kubrick believes that man is fundamentally evil: that is something to agree or disagree with and then leave alone. But the surprisingly courageous assertions that violence and malice are real – that they are a part of our day-to-day existence – and that they can be understood even if they cannot be systematized: these I have rarely seen through all the films that I have watched.