I have dedicated a healthy proportion of my recent film viewing to filling in the gaps of my filmic knowledge. At times it seems as though I’m trying to use Polyfilla to plug up some gaps, before realising the whole wall needs replastering. The more blank spots I cover, the more I realise I have missed whole directors’ bodies of work. I was therefore thrilled when the opportunity came up via Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second to follow this Kubrick Project and even contribute, with my take on the much vaunted A Clockwork Orange; a film that had until now eluded me.
The worst thing about this recent purge on established film canon is that from time to time, ‘classics’ completely underwhelm and disappoint. I won’t mention any specific films here, for fear of dislocating you, the reader, rendering you incapable of completing this article due to pure fury at my lack of respect. I couldn’t be happier therefore, to say that A Clockwork Orange didn’t fall into this category.
I am glad that I never saw this film as a teenager, when I would have approached it simply to see some ‘ultra-violent’ spectacle for taboo-defying sake. I would have completely underappreciated what a work of art the film is. Rather, I have come to it at a point in my life where I am (marginally) less interested in mere spectacle and am better able to identify this piece of art as an expressive comment on society, as felt at that very specific point in history.
Being released in 1971, it bears a close temporal and ideological proximity to May 1968 and the fallout of that decade’s fading intellectually revolutionary fervour. Having grown up in an apathy-riddled era (eighties to now), firmly situated in the postmodern spectacle, I am really interested in that period, where mindless commoditisation and passive consumerism were being severely contested on a grand scale. Through the course of the piece I’ll try and show how A Clockwork Orange not only illustrates this paradigm shift, but that it also highlights the widely believed failure of this period to stem the tide of apathy that was increasingly enveloping most public arenas.
I had probably best summarise the film; that’s customary in this sort of film coverage isn’t it? Malcolm McDowell plays Alex DeLarge, who along with his gang of ‘Droogs’, wanders the streets looking for what is referred to as “a spot of the old ultraviolence” (rape, beatings, robbings, breaking and entering and the likes). After Alex quells the potential mutiny of his Droogs, they set him up to be arrested and subsequently imprisoned. DeLarge manages to worm his way into early release by way of taking part in some experimental science, as controversial new procedures are applied in order to destroy his impulses for violence and sex. This hegemonic manipulation of society and suppression of individuals’ freedom of expression is very much in tune with cultural theory of the 1960s.
To help situate A Clockwork Orange as a post-68 critique of the establishment as well as a critique of the failure of the ‘intellectual revolution’ it helps to see the film as a spiritual descendent of Lyndsay Anderson’s If… This not only rests on the presence of Malcolm McDowell as lead (although I am sure he was chosen by Kubrick for this very reason) but it was released during that culpable year of 1968, when post-structuralist optimism was high. This is encapsulated in If…’s deconstruction of tradition, ritual and existing institutions, as it is set in the hierarchically tyrannical boarding school, a symbol of the sort of closed, structured institution that the post-stucturalists critiqued. It shows the beginning of this youth breaking out, making their own rules, even literally killing the older, controlling generation (well OK this scene was debatably a dream sequence). The characters in A Clockwork Orange seem to be this very generation, having moved further and began to impose their belief that they are the rightful narrators of society, making and following their own rules with no regard for others; particularly those older generations, as typified by the fact that the first piece of ‘ultraviolence’ is carried out on an elderly drunk. Alex, showing complete contempt for the bloated, older generations that presided over the consumer booms that have helped create the society of the spectacle, states: “One thing I could never stand, is to see a filthy, dirty old drunky… I could never stand to see anyone like that, whatever his age might be, but more especially when he was real old like this one was“. The self importance of this youth is made clear through Alex’s voice over commentary, immediately making the point that this is ‘his’ narrative. Does this symbolise the self absorption of the youth? Or does it symbolise the fact that the youth do control the narrative? This is just one of the questions that the film suggests answers to, but leaves largely ambiguous.
A brief aside here, must refer to the novel A Clockwork Orange on which the film is obviously based. I have not read the novel, but I do understand that it was released early sixties, which shows that these themes were prominent throughout the sixties, but in this article I will be solely dealing with the film. I have read up on some of the differences, which in most cases seem to confirm that Kubrick’s vision took a more definitively post-68, rather than pre-68 position. Having not read it myself, I will say no more on the matter, but would love to hear from somebody who knows both texts and could shed any light on the matter.
Post-structuralism is basically a movement that gained momentum throughout the sixties, which worked as an awareness and rejection of the structured approach to society that had risen to prominence throughout modernity. The term is often associated with the postmodern, only without the same levels of theoretical abstraction, or the tendency to descend into nihilism. Postmodernism is an even more elusive term, but again one that can very simplistically be defined as the awareness of previous states of society and systems of control, along with a rejection of their importance and use in an age of postmodernity. It should be instantly clear how these brief definitions are so relevant to A Clockwork Orange, a film very critical of the establishment and very much interested in the new narrative being created by the youth.
One specific writer and a highly influential part of the general intellectual trajectory of this movement is Guy Debord, specifically of the Situationist movement. Debord is somebody – like the film itself – that I have been meaning to catch up on for some time now. To restrict the convolution of this article I will stick to limited reference material, using only texts that are freely accessible and keep the analysis on a manageably linear track. First I went to Bradford Central Library (use your local library, they’re great and free!!) and booked out Debord’s seminal Society of the Spectacle (first published in 1967 and translated into English in 1970). Everything I had heard about the book led me to believe that I would find some correlation between its themes and those found in A Clockwork Orange. As a companion to this sometimes abstract and poetic – yet without losing relevance and potency – text, I found an essay freely accessible online (click here) by Best and Kellner; two chaps I have come across on numerous occasions in previous study, who effortlessly ground much of postmodernism’s abstractions within a reasonable and understandable context. In this essay they illustrate Debord’s influence on those early postmodern theorists (particularly Baudrillard), and explain why his work is still relevant today. I will use some of Debord’s wisdom to situate (no pun intended… situationist… situate… not funny?) some of the issues raised in A Clockwork Orange within this post-structuralist movement.
If I can try and succinctly summaries what Debord defines as the spectacle and how it appropriately defines the societal backdrop of A Clockwork Orange I would take this quote from his book: “The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence” (Debord #24). This issue isn’t blatantly and obviously addressed in the film, but this notion of society is important to the consideration that the youthful protagonists exist in complete rebellion to the society of the spectacle; their complete disregard for the system and refusal to conform, instantly puts them outside this desired effect of the spectacle. Again, to focus specifically on the time of release is important as the reality of this counter-cultural fervour was only a very recent memory. As an illustration of the era’s failure to quell the spectacle (which will later be shown to be evident in A Clockwork Orange), living now in contemporary society there is more a need to concentrate and actively pull oneself out of the charade, as Best and Kellner here state: “Economics, politics, and everyday life is still permeated with the sort of spectacle that he [Debord] described in his classical works, and the concept of “spectacle” has almost become normalized, emerging as part and parcel of both theoretical and popular media discourse”. The success of the spectacle on the current state of society is what makes that period of the film’s release so important. The spectacle’s success was far from confirmed, but the shift from If…’s optimism to A Clockwork Orange’s scepticism shows how the signs were becoming clear, and Kubrick read it perfectly.
For a less succinct, but slightly more comprehensive definition with specific reference to what Debord believed was at the heart of the spectacle; the loss of individual choice or development of ‘pseudo-needs’, which are both issues relevant to A Clockwork Orange:
“The victory of the autonomous economy must at the same time be its defeat. The forces which it has unleashed eliminate the economic necessity which was the immutable basis of earlier societies. When economic necessity is replaced by the necessity for boundless economic development, the satisfaction for primary human needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs which are reduced to the single pseudo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy”.
What this mainly illustrates in light of A Clockwork Orange is the situationists’ insistence on creating ‘situations’ as pockets of resistance to this onset of the apathy-stricken spectacle. Well this is exactly what this gang of Droogs have accomplished. They have completely rejected the spectacular system of mindless commodity consumption. For example, their all white Droog-attire is as far from branded commodity as you could get. Instead, they have created their own rules and their own situation in an attempt to satisfy real ‘needs’ as opposed to the ‘pseudo-needs’ described above by Debord. It is then the system’s aim for the rest of the film to destroy Alex’s ‘needs’ and to replace his more intellectually challenged Droogs’ ‘needs’ with ‘pseudo-needs’ beneficial to the system. This was already evident with their greedy aspirations for “big money” leading to Alex’s demise, yet not really knowing why they wanted it. Then in Alex’s absence, this is topped off with them being subsumed into the system as crooked police officers.
The Droogs’ belief that they can simply create their own situation introduces the film’s simultaneous critique of the system, as well as the critique of this critique. There are few people that could look upon the Droogs with sympathetic eyes, or excuse their shenanigans. From the home invasion of the rural, middle class academic’s house, (a character I will come onto in a minute), to the murder of a pretentious cat-lady with a massive phallus-prop. No, these are not sympathetic characters and for this reason, it steers away from preaching an angle, from ramming meaning down the viewer’s throat: something like ‘look at these heroes of the youth defying the system’. Rather, it is much more ambiguous, constantly asking questions of the viewer.
By taking this self-critical position, as well as creating this film in the first place – as the controversial piece of cinema it was always destined to become – gives it a real situationist feel, and separates it from the theoretical abstraction that Debord despised:
“The critical concept of spectacle can undoubtedly also be vulgarized into a commonplace hollow formula of sociologico-political rhetoric to explain and abstractly denounce everything, and thus serve as a defence of the spectacular system”
This line directly resonates with the portrayal of the academic, whom Alex and his Droogs beat; destroying his house and raping his wife, whilst forcing him to watch. Still, Kubrick masterfully portrays him as such a pretentious abstraction of a human that it is still difficult to really sympathise with him. As a direct comment on that one scene, it is telling how the unstructured world of the urbanity in which these youthful Droogs live is contrasted with this pristine, rural setting, obsessively structured and ordered with a real modernist aesthetic. It really is as though this new, unfathomable (to the establishment) force (post-structuralism/postmodernism) is defecating this pristine, preserved system, propped up with academic elitism (structuralism/modernity). The caricature of this academic and the film’s contempt toward him becomes especially clear in the latter stages of the film, as his ‘liberalism’ takes Alex in after his ‘readjustment’ (liberalism is in quotes because this character is a perfect embodiment of the sort of liberal hypocrisy described so frequently by the eccentric contemporary Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek).
The most important comments that the film makes on power in this period are to emphasise its hegemonic manipulation of opinion and reclaiming of that declining narrative. Hence, the spectacular system seeks to manipulate and negotiate with its subjects, as opposed to ruling by force.
“Also influenced by Gramsci (1971), the Situationists saw the current forms of social control as based on consensus rather than force, as a cultural hegemony attained through the metamorphoses of the consumer and media society into the “society of the spectacle”. In this society, individuals consume a world fabricated by others rather than producing one of their own”.
Best and Kellner
Well, this could not be any clearer than this whole narrative that centres on the brainwashing of Alex, this symbol of youth so dangerous and fractious to the spectacle’s domination. Of even more significance here is this idea that it is the use of the media that the spectacle employs. It is precisely this device which is used to neutralise Alex. The way his eyes are clamped open and he is forced to watch these relentless images on screen; clearly a statement on the bombardment of images in such a consumer culture and how their hyperreality imposes itself to replace actual reality (like a Baudrillardian simulacrum). At this point in the film Alex, with reference to the vibrant onscreen blood (or vino as he refers to it), says pretty much exactly that “It’s funny how the colours of the real world, only seem really real, when you viddy them onscreen”. Contrary to the onslaught of political correctness that came along to ban the film for large parts of its life, what the film says is that these spectacular images of ‘ultraviolence’ serve to pacify the public rather than heighten violence. That being subjected to such intense imagery relieves this youth of the need to create its own situation; their ‘needs’ (and experiences) are supplemented by ‘pseudo-needs’ (and pseudo-experiences). This is summarised by Best and Kellner: “the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticization”.
Just as the Droogs come from a chaotic urban space to descend on the academic’s modern home, a similar contrast is clearly evident in all forms of authority that subsequently combine to wear Alex down into submission to the spectacle. The way the prison is shot is quite unmistakably structured and rigorous, followed then by a similar aesthetic in the hospital, and completed by his return to that home of modernity at the academic’s residence. All these, part of the spectacular system, leave the lost, lonely figure of Alex to be broken down and built back up how they would see fit, ultimately accepting a job and being completely subsumed by this system.
As I referred to a number of times regarding the ambiguity, I understand that the latter stages of the film can be read differently to this, but this again is the genius of the film; not only being an ambiguous and entertaining narrative, but speaking of a period, becoming a historical and cultural document.
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