“I can’t stand violence. I… I loathe it! And one feels so responsible putting an act of violence down on paper. If one can put an act of violence down on paper, you’ve created the act! You might as well have done it! I detest that damn book now.”
It’s funny how the colours of the like real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.
-Alex, A Clockwork Orange
In an interview for Newsweek magazine Stanley Kubrick said that ‘Although a certain type of hypocrisy exists about it, everyone is fascinated by violence… Our interest in violence in part reflects the fact that on the subconscious level we are very little different from our primitive ancestors’. It is this “fascination” with violence and its implications that Kubrick saw in A Clockwork Orange which ultimately led him to adapt it into film.
With this insight, this article will analyse the representation of violence throughout Kubrick’s adaptation through his cinematic techniques and his satirical viewpoint. In addition, this article will discuss the destructive power that the topic of violence had on both Kubrick and Burgess.
Anthony Burgess openly hated his creation and Kubrick pulled the film from distribution in England after its release, because he was concerned about the real-life violent acts attributed to viewings of A Clockwork Orange. With this topic, both the issue of censorship and the power of the adapter will be brought into question through examination of Kubrick and Burgess’ relationship with the story, and the self-imposed censorship that Kubrick attributed to one of his most famous films.
Classic Kubrickian slow-zoom
Marsha Kinder argues that A Clockwork Orange is ‘not personally threatening because we are not turned on by the violent spectacle or longing for its return, even if Alex is’. This view is reinforced immediately in the film with the opening scene in the Korova milk bar, in which Kubrick sets up a safe emotional distance from his protagonist with a classic Kubrickian slow zoom-out shot.
The smooth backtracking motion of the camera slowly removes the viewer from the action on screen, placing them as a voyeure, rather than a droog themselves. This opening scene proves that audience are not implicitly linked with Alex and his droogs; they are rather omniscient observers waiting to be disgusted, or enthralled, by the ultraviolence that follows.
The effect of Kubrick’s shot movements are discussed further by James Naremore who comments on his use tracking movements which he utilised to ‘create a rigidly geometrical feeling’ to the the shot frame. Furthermore, he comments that Kubrick set these carefully composed tracking shots against ‘his repeated use of handheld shots, often positioned at bizarre angles, which usually depict violent combat’. He notes that ‘these techniques have the effect of slightly alienating the audience and [that] this alienation is consistent with Kubrick’s intent to eschew melodrama or sentiment’.
The most striking example of Naremore’s observation, comes in the scene where Alex attacks and ultimately kills the ‘old baboochka’ or Cat Lady. The fight between the two is filmed on a handheld camera by Kubrick with varying ranges of close-up to medium close-up shots from disjointed low and high angles.
Taking both critics’ views, we understand the viewer’s separation from the violence on show. Kubrick’s alienation of his audience from the violence on display, through his camerawork, separates his audience from being implicit with the violence, giving them a voyeuristic distance as they revel in the violent spectacles on show.
Kinder also suggests that ‘the ironic distance of satire…mocks any easy identification with brutal popular heroes’. This view is echoed through Kubrick’s use of music during the most explicit scenes of A Clockwork Orange. For example, Alex’s rendition of “Singing in The Rain” whilst brutally attacking a man and his wife, or the accelerated sex scene between Alex and two young girls which is set to the William Tell Overture.
Classical music becomes the soundtrack to these deplorable acts thus creating obfuscation between high culture and violence, both making the scenes comical and detracting away from the true violence that is displayed. The music not only softens the sex and violence by making them darkly comic, but also serves as a satire of classic popular culture, as the classical works of canonical composers and well-loved musical songs ‘continuing incongruity with the brutal actions’ they accompany allow the audience to ‘savour the artfully designed irony’ that Kubrick is displaying.
Naremore reiterates this view suggesting that ‘most of his films are obviously satiric and are focused on flawed, criminal, or even monstrous protagonists’. Kubrick uses his ‘monstrous’ protagonist’s violent actions as a satirical tool by aligning them with high culture to highlight the past oppression of high cultural traditions on the lower classes, that have led to the dystopian, violent world that Alex lives in.
Kubrick’s satirical intent is reflected in his own words during an interview for The Daily Express, in which he says:
“It’s not good arguing that law and order is a fake issue raised by neo-fascist elements who want to exploit it… One of the serious moral questions raised by A Clockwork Orange is whether the evil of the government’s method in finding a ‘cure for crime’ is worse than the individual evil of Alex.”
The most explicit example of the message behind Kubrick’s satire in the film lies in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Alex is obsessed with “Ludwig Van” and it his love for Beethoven and his ‘deep and poetical sensitivity to music’, which is erased and replaced with a feeling of sickness by the Ludovico treatment as a punishment for his crimes. The administrations of government are painted in a negative light as they are erasing the last shred of decency in Alex’s personality. Satirical criticism is also evident here as Alex has become “dehumanised” by the administrative powers that have experimented on him and eliminated his power of choice.
Furthermore, Peter Hoyng notes the ambiguities inherent within Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and how Kubrick incorporates this work of art to highlight the ambiguities of the nature of violence. He notes the fact that ‘…the symphony was performed both on Hitler’s annual birthday celebrations and at the memorial concert of 2000 in Mauthausen, Austria’s main concentration camp’, and argues that this ‘serves as a stark reminder of how one can (mis)understand this music’s meaning and brings to the fore the symphony’s paradoxical nature’. The ambiguities that are concomitantly linked with this piece of music are integrated by Kubrick into this film as he ‘abundantly exhibits acoustic and visual representations of Beethoven, especially of his Ninth Symphony, but also unveils the links of both to the ambiguities, and in some cases, certainties, of violence’. Further weight is given to this view by Kubrick himself who explicitly links Beethoven to the Nazi party, when he said ‘people have written about the failure of culture in the twentieth century: the enigma of the Nazis who listened to Beethoven and sent millions off to the gas chambers’.
Beethoven’s visage is evident throughout the film, most notably in the scene in Alex’s bedroom, on a curtain, watching over him whilst he listens to the symphony and imagines “such lovely pictures” of violence.
The music conjures images of violence within Kubrick’s protagonist and Beethoven’s portrait mixed with images of blasphemy, hangings and destruction reiterates Hoyng’s point but also highlights again Kubrick’s satirical intent. As well as linking the music with violent imagery, with the portrait of the composer, he is linking Beethoven himself with the violence. He becomes an omniscient god-like figure overseeing Alex’s brutal lifestyle but remaining a passive figure, willing to soundtrack the savagery rather than intervene. The obfuscation between high culture and violence is evident once again, but in this scene the passivity of institutions, and society in genera,l to the brutality is attacked.
Self-Censorship: The power of violence
The flawed and monstrous protagonists in the novels he adapts are what draws Kubrick to make these films. Calder Willingham, an early collaborator with Kubrick on Spartacus said that he had a:
“near psychopathic indifference to and coldness toward the human beings in the story… He doesn’t like people much; they interest him mainly when they do unspeakably hideous things or when their idiocy is so malignant as to be horrifyingly amusing.”
The protagonist which encapsulates the monstrous and hideous ideal which Kubrick is looking for is unarguably Alex, a fifteen year-old delinquent who rapes, steals and kills all with the blackest of humour.
Kubrick’s view, cited earlier, that society’s fascination with violence is complicit with the subconscious anxiety that ‘we are very little different from our primitive ancestors’ is echoed through his protagonist and his satirical softening of violence; but what must be addressed is the responsibility the adapter holds when portraying these highly violent images into the public medium of cinema.
Kinder’s argument that Kubrick distances his audience from his ‘brutal popular hero’, with his satirical standpoint placing them as observers rather than participators, is challenged through the fact that Alex becomes the most sympathetic figure of the film.
Jackson Burgess writes that ‘Alex, who has chosen to be evil, is better than all the mealy-mouthed others in the film who have either chosen evil pretending it is good or have timidly not chosen at all’. This sentiment reflects Kubrick’s intended message in the film, that violence is inherent at a subconscious level within the human condition.
However, the moral message which was intended to be displayed was, in many cases, strongly misunderstood by the film’s audiences.
The release of A Clockwork Orange had a ‘chilling effect in England… critics and community groups were appalled by the film’s violence [and] copycat crimes of rape and murder were attributed to it’. One incident involved a sixteen-year-old boy, who was obsessed with the film, being ‘convicted and sentenced to be detained indefinitely after he kicked a sixty-year-old tramp to death’.
Judge Desmond Bailey, who sentenced the sixteen-year-old, said that ‘we must stamp out this horrible trend which has been inspired by this wretched film’.
This reception was not taken lightly by Kubrick, as he asked Warner Bros. to stop distributing the film in England, making it illegal to show it anywhere in the country. Kubrick had become “concerned about his family’s safety and the impact that his film had on his immediate surroundings”, and saw no other alternative than to put a self-imposed ban on his work.
Anthony Burgess also learned to loathe his work, not because of real-life violence being attributed to his novel, but through his feeling of being implicit with the violence he had written. Burgess wrote the novel as a way to ‘exorcise the memory’ of the savage attack on his first wife, which led to the loss of her child and a later suicide attempt. Speaking about the writing process Burgess said:
‘I was very drunk when I wrote it. It was the only way I could cope with the violence… I saw that the book might be dangerous because it presented good, or at least harmlessness, as remote and abstract… while depicting violence in joyful dithyrambs’.
Burgess’ foresight of the dangerous potential of his books depictions of violence seems to have been overlooked by Kubrick in his film. The director was embroiled by the intent to display the “fascination” with violence, that he understandably did not foresee the consequences of portraying these acts on the screen. His decision to ‘try and see the novel from Alex’s point of view, to show that it was great fun for him, the happiest part of his life’ (LoBrutto) was ultimately misinterpreted by his audience, as they too were implicit in Alex’s debauchery, and acted this out in real-life.
Kubrick, in effect, only retrospectively saw the poignancy in his own protagonist’s words that ‘the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on a screen’.
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, (London: Heinemann, 1962) p.105
Jackson Burgess, “A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Spring, 1972)
Peter Hoyng, ‘Ambiguities of Violence in Beethoven’s Ninth through the Eyes of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange’, The German Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Spring 2011)
Marsha Kinder, ‘Violence American Style: the narrative orchestration of violent attractions’, Violence and American Cinema, ed. by J. David Slocum, (London: Routledge, 2001)
LoBrutto, Vincent, Stanley Kubrick, (London: Faber, 1997)
PS. Always set out the terms of employment before starting any line of work.