A Clockwork Orange
The Metaphysics of Punk
What is a punk aesthetic, and can we incorporate within it filmic examples that precede its proper historical moment? Punk was a mid-to-late seventies movement exemplified of course by the Sex Pistols, but much that could claim to be punk also had its roots in Mod culture. Bands like The Clash and The Jam had their base in the Mod movement, a musical wave of the mid-sixties epitomised in the images of youths going from London to Brighton on their Mopeds, and turned into Quadrophenia in 1979. Franc Roddam's film captured two moments at once: the swinging punches of the mid-sixties and the ferocious flurry of frustrated energy that punk unleashed. It was a film capturing the past but felt equally at home in the present. Alongside The Great Rock n' Roll Swindle, Rude Boy and Breaking Glass, it was a film that showed the influence of music and mayhem on cinema culture.
This is by way of an introduction to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, made in 1971, which is itself an adaptation of Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel, a novel Paul Cook,The Sex Pistols drummer, could admire though he didn't care for books: In Vincent LoBrutto's Stanley Kubrick, the biographer quotes Cook saying: "I hate reading. I can't stand it. I only ever read two books. One about the Kray brothers. And A Clockwork Orange." The film's central character Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the sort of disaffected figure who could easily have been in either Quadrophenia or Rude Boy, but of course, Kubrick is no social realist capturing the times, but a cinematic metaphysician looking to ask higher case questions. As Luis Bunuel noted, again quoted in LoBrutto's book: "A Clockwork Orange is my current favourite. I was very predisposed against the film. After seeing it, I realized that it is the only movie about what the modern world really means."
It would be all very well for us to insist that Alex is a character who anticipates the punk movement and was reflecting the recent Mod craze but, taking into account Bunuel's remark, let us open up the problem much further and say what interests Kubrick is the nature of the brain. As Gilles Deleuze says in Cinema 2: The Time-Image: "for Kubrick the world itself is a brain, there is identity of brain and world..." This doesn't make Kubrick the brainiest of filmmakers as many of his admirers insist; he is, however, a director more concerned than most with the workings, and malfunctionings, of the mind in its various manifestations. This might be the computer Hal and the apes in 2001, the perverse sexual desires of Humbert, Humbert in Lolita, Private Pyle cracking up in Full Metal Jacket, Jack losing the plot as he fails to write his novel in The Shining, the brigadier general in Dr Strangelove who lets loose nuclear annihilation. To reduce Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange to a sociological reading would be like reading the bible as a piece of ethnography: we bypass the metaphysics and arrive at the prosaic.
It was horribly apt that the novel came out of Burgess's own problem with the brain: "in 1959 at the age of forty-two, Anthony Burgess was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he had one year to live." (Stanley Kubrick) He wrote feverishly and one of the books that came out of this frenzy was A Clockwork Orange. But what is Alex's brain-problem? It resides in a very specific notion of the pleasure principle aligned to what the film calls ultra-violence, and what we might call, borrowing from Freud, the death drive. Alex's principle of pleasure resides in using others for his own ends: whether it is beating up a tramp or raping women, the desire is properly single-minded and thus finds no regulating principle in the pleasure and pain of others. "We have said", Freud says, "that the ego is weak in comparison with the id, that it is its loyal servant, eager to carry out its orders and to fulfil its demands. We have no intention of withdrawing this statement. But on the other hand this same ego is the better organized part of the id, with its face turned towards reality." Talking of the death drive Freud believes, "if it is true that - at some immeasurably remote time and in a manner we cannot conceive - life once proceeded out of inorganic matter, then, according to our presumption, an instinct must have arisen which sought to do away with life once more and to re-establish the inorganic state." (New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis) This is the type of metaphysical ambition Kubrick possesses as he works with the problem of finding justifiable regulating principles for our instincts. How can we make a healthy brain? Kubrick's answer is as usual far from optimistic, but there is a metaphysical optimism in the ambition as he works the problem out in aesthetic terms.
But for the moment let us leave aside Freud's psychoanalytics, and the broader metaphysics, and say a little bit about the film and its form. "Actually, film operates on a level much closer to music and to painting than to the printed word", Kubrick says, "and, of course, movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words." (The Film Director as Superstar) How to convey the pessimism of this vaguely futuristic world in images and sounds, we might wonder? It becomes a question of sound design, both diegetic and non-diegetic, lens length and mise en scene. Like in many a sci-fi film sound dissonantly hints at a world not quite our own, but this isn't the hushed audio of electric vehicles and rapidly rising lifts. The diegetic sound here is often echoing and authoritative, an Orwellian future that takes from our own less the advances in technology than the perfection of power. Sound seems divorced from nature: it becomes a property of man at his most brutal and abrupt. Whether it is the heels clicking on the floor as the writer's wife goes to answer the door to Alex before the abuse, or later in the film the barking commands in the prison, this is an audio system as aggression. But sometimes the sound is exaggerated: as in the scene where Alex is pushed into the cattle trough, full of water, and with each beating he receives, we hear the baton as an electronic, metallic sound. It segues into the non-diegetic music: modern sound meeting 18th century church organ. It captures well Kubrick's cultural/historical disjunctiveness, apparent of course in 2001's use of classical music in outer space. But it is used in both films partly to suggests the breadth of being: the problem of the brain through time.
The film's mise en scene is a combination of the realistic and the futuristic, with the futuristic dimension often no more than pretention. Whether it is the writer's residence or a wealthy, cat-loving woman's home, these are environments we could call the futurist absurd, evident in their interior design. As we hear the bell ringing, the film laterally tracks from the writer typing to his wife reading in a small pod. As she goes to answer the door we see black and white tiled floors and mirrored walls. It gives to the violence we then see a muted, aloof quality: as though we can't quite take seriously these people who live in such a home. Alex might be abusing the owners, but we may wonder if it is 'deserved' because of how these people live. If Alex is in some way a product of his environment, as we later find out he lives on a rundown estate, are the couple apt victims of their environment as we are mildly amused by the characters' lifestyle?
Though Kubrick gives the locations a futuristic aspect, most of them are found realities. Locations include Thamesmead South for the housing estate in which Alex lives and Brunel University for the Aversion Therapy. According to The World Wide Guide to Movie Locations, "Virtually the only purpose-built set, the 'Korova Milk Bar', was constructed in a factory just off Borehamwood High Street near to the MGM Studios (where 2001: A Space Odyssey had been shot.)" Perhaps because Kubrick wanted much of the film's futuristic dimension to come out of the camerawork as much the environment. As Vincent LoBrutto says, Kubrick was looking for a zoom lens that would allow the director to go from very near to very far in one continuous zoom out but was worried that he would lose lighting quality as a consequence. Kubrick explained to camera expert Ed Di Giulio that he would take an Angenieux 16mm 20:1 zoom lens and put a two times extender behind it so that it would cover the 35mm format. "But of course you lose two stops of light in the process because of the two times extender so that makes it pretty slow." (Stanley Kubrick) Kubrick discovered that there was a way of achieving the camera movements he needed with the technology available and surprised Di Giulio. This is Kubrick's famed obsessiveness and technological knowledge at work, but what is interesting is that, like Hitchcock, Kubrick was a filmmaker who was always interested in where the technology happened to be so that he could know where he could go aesthetically. In Barry Lyndon, LoBrutto talks of "shooting at such low-light levels [which] made it impossible to see the image through a conventional viewfinder equipped with a prism. Kubrick and [cameraman John] Alcott adapted a viewfinder from an old Technicolor three-strip camera and mounted it on to their already converted BNC Mitchell." (Stanley Kubrick) In The Shining, the shots following young Danny through the corridors of the hotel would have been impossible ten years earlier: they were courtesy of the Steadicam invented and operated by Garrett Brown.
This is saying merely that Kubrick wanted to find in technology new possibilities in the aesthetic, but the question is always bigger than the technological (which is why if cinema is an industrial art the operative word should surely be art). While numerous filmmakers are up on the technology (James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan) few more than Kubrick seemed to see the technological aspect of film as part of evolutionary consciousness. Michel Chion in his short bfi book on Eyes Wide Shut goes so far as to see Kubrick's interest in form reflecting a certain evolutionary selfishness. "Kubrick's very particular way of using a tracking shot with a wide angle lens to follow someone walking down a corridor, through a maze or a narrow passageway, and giving the character's progress an epic, fatal, conquering or irresistible air - which first came to general attention in Paths of Glory - often seems to mean: there is no loving space for two men, I appropriate the space I cross, I clear the space before me." This would be partly why Kubrick became fascinated by the Steadicam, and why though Kubrick's The Shining wasn't the first film to use it, it became the film synonymous with its use.
Chion's comment holds good for A Clockwork Orange too; maybe it exemplifies the remark more than any other Kubrick film even if Kubrick works with the zoom over the yet uninvented Steadicam. When the Droogs return from some ultra-violence, we watch them moving through the wide-angled spaces as if possessed of a limited perspective: a fish-eyed selfishness. Yet, equally, Kubrick manages to suggest that the same wide-angle can be used to indicate the opposite: that Alex lives a cramped, limited life. After his night out Alex returns home. He is as confident as ever as he twirls his custom Irish walking stick, an object used to abuse others rather than for supporting himself. But the apartment block is a rundown concrete housing estate with the flat in distinct contrast to the roomy house they had earlier invaded. The wide angles here don't suggest a man of authority, but someone from a restricted environment. As his mum knocks on his bedroom door we realise that Alex is still a kid as she tells him he needs to get up and go to school: he might be the lord of all he surveys, but only as a narrow-minded, wide-angled nocturnal thug.
This isn't a world too far away from Stephen Frears' Bloody Kids, made in 1980 as Thatcherism started to impact on working-class lives, and in some ways a film consistent with the punk aesthetic we opened with. But Frears is a realist, capturing Southend with a sociological precision that Kubrick resists. If there is a sense that Alex is a product of his environment, then it isn't a narrowly socio-political moment in time; it reflects an odd evolutionary development: as if an ape had thrown a bone in the air and it had turned into a housing estate. The match cut in 2001 is understandably seen as one of the great match cuts in cinema history, but its audacity is matched by the director's metaphysical sweep: we can say of many films by the director that it goes from the bone of descendence to modern life, as if trying to capture exactly what Freud proposes in his comment about a certain approach to the death drive.
Indeed we might wonder if Alex's stick isn't a little like 2001's bone, with the limited environs in which he finds himself not the bone thrown forward into the future, but the stick Alex's determination to return to primal being: the death drive and the search for an immeasurably remote time. Alex wishes perhaps to be a throwback, someone for whom a bit of ultra-violence is central to the species and vital to survival. An aspect of being we might want to eradicate, but to do so would be to deny an element of primal force in the human species. But without a regulating principle that is part of his geneticmakeup, what should society do with such a young man? The answer is to turn his instincts against him. After one night of particular ultra-violence where Alex bludgeons a wealthy woman to death with a giant piece of phallic sculpture, his fellow Droogs desert him and the police promptly arrive and make their arrest. Sentenced to fourteen years in prison, Alex is offered a way out: if he's willing to undergo radical experimentation.
The experiment gives us one of cinema's great images of self-reflexivity: alongside the telephoto lens in Rear Window, the eye slit open in Un Chien Andalou, the camera with the spike on it from Peeping Tom. Here we see Alex strapped to a chair undergoing the Ludovico treatment with his eyes held open by speculas. He is forced to watch violent images, all the while a doctor administers eyedrops that make Alex find the violence increasingly difficult to take. The rehabilitated Alex is ready to enter the community again, but now lacking the capacity to defend himself. He still has the impulse for violence, but quickly turns sick and weak when tempted to go in for a bit of aggression. This is all very well as it counters Alex's aggressive urges, but what happens when he needs to survive in difficult environments? If the first section of the film shows him wandering around meting out beatings, and the second Alex imprisoned, the third shows him back in the community and ripe for abuse. The very people, who were at the mercy of Alex's force, can now easily fight back. He returns home only to find his parents have replaced him with a lodger around his own age who is like a son to them, gets beaten up by the tramp he earlier abused, runs into his former friends who are now police officers who half drown him, and then finds himself returning to the house where he had beaten up the writer and his wife (the wife subsequently dying).
Central to the Ludovico treatment is Alex's inability to listen to Ludwig van Beethoven's ninth, a piece of music that he adores. The writer after drugging him and locking him into a bedroom plays the music loudly and Alex, desperate to escape, throws himself out of the window: "to blast off for ever out of this wicked, cruel world." It was of course not a wicked, cruel world when Alex would go around beating people up, and a lesser filmmaker than Kubrick would make more of the irony evident in Alex's acceptance of human values when a number of the more violent ones have been curtailed in him. But it is as though Kubrick has taken the idea of doing unto others as others would have done unto you, and wants to say while this might seem like an acceptable formula for mutual well-being, that wicked, cruel world Alex talks about is much more lopsided than that. The film can be seen as a critique of behaviourist psychology on the one hand and capital punishment on the other, as Kubrick accepts that what surely matters most is that one avoids becoming a clockwork orange. The title of the book and the film comes from a Cockney phrase. As Burgess would say: "I had always liked the Cockney expression (as queer as a clockwork orange) and felt there might be a meaning in it deeper than a bizarre metaphor of, not necessarily sexual, queerness." What matters is surely to remain organic: to remain a 'real' orange. Under the punitive this is possible; under the preventative, it would seem not to be, even if the latter would appear much more humane than the former.
Central to behaviourism is the desire to turn the human into someone whose behaviour can be modified in advance, and thus prevent the need for the punitive, for long prison sentences and capital punishment. As its most famous exponent B. F. Skinner says inBeyond Freedom and Dignity: "In short, we need to make vast changes in human behaviour, and we cannot make them with the help of nothing more than physics or biology, no matter how hard we try...twenty five hundred years ago it might have been said that man understood himself as well as any other part of his world. Today he is the thing he understands least." Later in the book Skinner believes: "a culture, like a species, is selected by its adaptation to an environment: to the extent that it helps its members get what they need and avoid what is dangerous, it helps them to survive and transmit the culture." But many saw Skinner's behaviourism as emasculating, with William Barrett saying "Skinner's thinking, if not totalitarian, is always total; and his program is a total one - and a proposal that we submit ourselves completely to the "technology of behaviour" and so change ourselves and our society from the ground up." (The Illusion of Technique)
The techniques in A Clockwork Orange are of course punitive as well as preventative, but if they are consistent with a certain behaviourist discourse it lies in trying to change the nature of man. If Freud invokes the depth charge of humanity in his comment about the death drive, Skinner also throws himself back in time but for a rather different purpose. While Freud could say that "the theory of dreams has remained what is most characteristic and peculiar about the young science [psychoanalyis], something to which there is no counterpart in the rest of our knowledge, a stretch of new country", for Skinner it is about creating narrow borders, so narrow one of his experiments was called the "Skinner box". Here he would test certain hypotheses concerning positive and negative reinforcers. Testing for example on pigeons, he could see that "positive reinforcers are stimuli that strengthen a response if they follow that response. They are roughly equivalent to rewards...negative reinforcers are unpleasant stimuli, such as pain, boredom, or too much heat or cold." The point for Skinner was to create environments where behaviour could be altered very simply and externally. This had nothing do with trying to understand someone's childhood, their inner motivations, their singular needs. By experimenting on animals and birds he could understand much about the human. It is behavioural because it is observational. It deals with what can be observed; not what can be probed and implied. If the famous image in Freud is of the couch; Skinner's is the behavioural box.
Skinner's approach is to avoid the punitive by emphasizing behaviour in given environmental factors. As J. Daryl Charles says: "To speak of retribution is to dissent from prevailing social-scientific models of human behavior." B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity contains, he says, "what is perhaps the most forceful attack on the traditional understanding of personal responsibility. Tellingly, many psychotherapistsbe they behaviorist or non-behavioristagree with at least the baseline of Skinner's message: Punishment is bad and personal moral responsibility is mythical." ('Capital Crime and Punishment') However, some might insist that it is better to kill someone who acts on an impulse many thousands of years old than to try and turn the individualinto a modern experiment in social science. The latter becomes no more than a clockwork orange. The problem of the brain becomes too easily resolved. How, Kubrick might be asking, does the brain remain itself; retain its evolutionary impulses over too contemporary restrictions?
After the social experiment Alex gains his apparent freedom (he is no longer imprisoned), but the punitive becomes internalised: he cannot act according to his desires because the treatment he received immediately turns those aggressive instincts into nausea. Instead of giving Alex his freedom back, the treatment takes from him the internal rebellion that no matter how restrictive the demands placed upon him by external authority he can still practice at least in his mind, and in his actions - even if in a carefully, externally regulated society those actions can be quickly curtailed. The utopian society of behavioural transformation becomes the person's hell of interior collapse. In the first third of the film Alex is rigorously himself however aberrant we find his behaviour; in the third he is a man whose behaviour is acceptable but where we see a much wider dystopia. We notice that Alex when healthy was practising power; when weak others are willing to take advantage of him. Kubrick doesn't see this simply as punishment: he sees it as a reversal of power: it is revenge. Now of course revenge often functions as punishment, but if we accept that punishment and revenge are not one and the same, we can see that those with whom he comes into contact don't want to punish him; they wish to avenge themselves. The tramp, the friends and the writer all take advantage of the power they have over him, and so society has gained little from the experiment except to show up what happens when people have power over others. In the early stages Alex has power over everyone else; in the third section, everyone has power over Alex and abuses that. Of course, some would insist that the tramp, for example, would be unlikely to go and attack Alex indiscriminately as Alex and the Droogs attacked him. But the nature of vengeance often reveals an aspect of equivalent power abuse. We should remember that it is after Alex gives the tramp some money that the tramp recognises the young man: rather than seeing someone who has changed his ways, he sees instead a person whose weaknesses he can prey upon. Any treatment that removes the aggression from the individual, and reveals the vengefulness of the society, doesn't seem like much of an improvement, and can seem an awful lot like capital punishment in slow motion. When Alex finally jumps out of the window after a series of encounters with bad Samaritans, who would cross the road to give him a kicking, this can seem like capital punishment by other means. Like capital punishment, it reveals not just the rotten core of the individual who must be eradicated but exposes the values of the broader society.
We needn't pretend Kubrick has any kind of solution to the problem, but he might share with Barrett the idea that man suffers from "cosmic alienation": a state Barrett believed was absent from the Greek spirit. "Stone, plant, animal, stars and planets - all belong to the one cosmos in which man too draws his breath as a natural being." A clockwork orange is a being enormously stifled, whose freedom of feeling has been removed. Kubrick wouldn't deny there isn't a problem with the brain, and while he might agree with Barrett about our cosmic alienation, it would probably be for different reasons. As he says discussing 2001. "The idea of neurotic computers is not uncommon - most advanced computer theorists believe that once you have a computer which is more intelligent than man and capable of learning by experience, it's inevitable that it will develop an equivalent range of emotional reactions - fear, love, hate, envy etc." (The Film Director as Superstar) But this suggests not the limiting of man, but the expansion of technology: even the computer will develop problems with the brain.
Kubrick has never been an optimistic auteur. What does this mean, and who might we give as examples of affirmative filmmakers? Let us not overly simplify, but Malick, Kiarostami and Sokurov, for example, all possess something of Barrett's cosmic consciousness as positive force: as being encapsulated by stone, plant, animals, stars and planets. Kubrick though wants to explore the nature of malfunction: where nothing is quite aligned. As Deleuze says: "the insane violence of Alex...is the force of the outside before passing into the service of an insane internal order." (Cinema 2: The Time-Image)A Clockwork Orange shows a society where the internal and external have lost their coordinates: where youthful energy becomes thuggery, where behavioural treatments lead to brainwashing, where punishment is enacted as revenge. This is societal chaos hinting at the cosmic but peopled by those too narrow-minded to see it for what it is. Kubrick's constant use of the zoom lens wants to probe into this world, a device that says it wishes to get close but also to keep a healthy distance. Think of the scene in the disused casino where some rival gang is ready to perform some "in-out" on a young woman. The camera slowly zooms out from the top of the proscenium arch and moves downwards as we witness the gang taking the girl's clothes off from far away. Kubrick's cosmic position has nothing to do with Malick's or Kiarostami's, which hints at the order of the universe through the presence of nature or the sense of a benign cosmic unity, and suggests our enfolding within the broadest possible notion of world. Kubrick's vision suggests the cosmic order is very much out of sync, curiously unaligned.
The ambition of the director's project is manifest here. Around the same time there were punk films in Britain, there were gang films in the US: The Warriors, Escape from New York, The Wanderers and Boulevard Nights. Of course, there are gang films going much further back too (A Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One and even the musical West Side Story). But the films of the late seventies and early eighties, like the British films of the same moment (whether contemporary or period set), captured an ethos behind punk. This was a movement of contrary impulses that could not hope to present itself as a positive vision of the world (as we might say of the hippie movement) but wanted to acknowledge a hazardous youthful energy that would reveal itself in a punk ethos. However, where for many punk behaviour and gang warfare would be a symptom of social malaise, Kubrick's film is easily the most ambitious work incorporating a punk perspective and a gang mindset. In most of the other films we feel that the notion of the punk or the gang was subject enough for the films, even if The Warriors for one drew on Xenophon's Anabasis. None of them pushed as far into the metaphysical question behind the film's subject.
What exactly is that metaphysical question we might wonder, and Deleuze partly answers it when addressing Kubrick's interest in the brain and its malfunctions. It is also a question, though, of a society malfunctioning as a consequence of its own self-preservation. Part of the film's irony is that society wants to protect itself from the likes of Alex but reveals, in its determination of controlling society's aggressors, an even worse quality in other people. If Alex is the figure of reckless energy who wants to unleash his youthful vigour wherever he can (evident in the almost balletic moment when beating up the writer and his wife to 'Singin' in the Rain'), the tramp and the writer are ageing figures of resentment happy to administer revenge. Some might understandably insist they have been wronged (the writer as we have noted has even lost his wife), but if society cannot distinguish between justice and revenge, then it becomes a much greater problem than an individual who cannot separate youthful enthusiasm from aggressive impulses, from knowing the difference between right and wrong. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche says of Justice: "I'd sooner have people steal from me than be surrounded by scarecrows and hungry looks. That is my taste. And this is by all means a matter of taste and nothing more." Nietzsche's remark is as profound as Kubrick's film: it wants to muse over the individual misbehaviour against a general social injustice. Better the former than the latter, Nietzsche appears to say, and Kubrick's film would seem to agree. Of course one could insist, in the sort of tired language used sporadically throughout the film (parental style cliches to contrast the youthful neologisms), that it only takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel. But the film suggests much more that turning one young man into a clockwork orange means you might end up going far further still and turning society into a clockwork grove. Wouldn't we have behaviourally to re-programme also those who mete out violence to Alex?
By the film's conclusion, Alex has survived his suicide attempt. His parents visit with a bedside gift: a compendium of cliched care (grapes, dates, bananas and of course oranges) to match the truisms they like to use ("keeping out of trouble you know"; "when all said and done") as they tell him he can come back home. The government accepts its social experiment with Alex hasn't turned out too well, and for entirely pragmatic reasons decides better an Alex with deviant impulses working for the government (aren't the other Droogs now police officers?) than a failed social experiment all over the newspapers. "Certain people wanted to use you for political ends", a government official tells Alex as he lies in the hospital bed: Alex's death would have been politically useful for the opposition. Instead, the government so obviously wants to use Alex for their own ends and decides to give him a job. The film gives us a happy ending for Alex but an unhappy one for broader being. The film concludes on an "understanding between two friends" as Alex is prepared for a photo shoot, and we can expect that, rather than being a punkish rebel, he will become a governmental thug. Justice has once again not been served: we can expect the line between revenge and justice to become very blurred indeed. The clockwork orange has been avoided in the meantime, but the pessimism of the conclusion rests on us wondering whether it might be only a temporary stay of, so to speak, execution. The metaphysics of punk is still present; only now cynically contained.
© Tony McKibbin