The Controversy Around ‘A Clockwork Orange’

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I realized that I actually never wrote anything about Stanley Kubrick’s work on this blog, which is surprising coming from a cinephile. Well, that is if you don’t count my article on Laurence Olivier’s performance in Spartacus. I was very inspired and proud of this text, but it still was more about Olivier than Kubrick. But why is that? Maybe out of fear? Let’s face it, Stanley Kubrick films are complex and not necessarily easy to approach. There is a lot to say about them and one can’t always know where to start. However, I had something in reserve to finally break the ice. During the second part of my film history class, I wrote an essay about the controversy of A Clockwork Orange or, should I say, the true controversy, the one we don’t necessarily suspect at first glance. My work was well-received with an A grade and my teacher wrote “Great job. You’ve not only shown understanding of the course material but you’ve provided insightful new research into the historical and production contexts of the film in relation to New Hollywood and Kubrick’s body of work. Well done!” So, I thought it would be a good idea to share it here. I hope that you’ll like it and that you’ll learn at least a few things!

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A Clockwork Orange is not a film we are soon to forget once we have seen it. Its graphic scenes shock and Stanley Kubrick’s impeccable direction impresses. Released in 1971, this film is a significant example of the New Hollywood films (films made after the abolition of the Hays Code in 1968, and the arrival of the rating system that we are more familiar with today). Despite its great critical reception and its success at the Box Office, A Clockwork Orange was the object of many controversies. Today, the film still makes people talk but remains a favourite among the cinephiles. The film is an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name, itself as much controversial as the film, or maybe even more. Films like A Clockwork Orange or Midnight Cowboy are some that couldn’t have been made during the Production Code era due to the numerous restrictions.

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In my future study of the film, I’m curious to answer the following question: What is the real controversy around A Clockwork Orange? And, in relation to that: Why is this film significant of the new Hollywood? To start answering that, let’s first go back to the 70s when the film was made.

A Clockwork Orange was a transition between Kubrick’s two major films: 2001: A Space Odyssey and a film about Napoleon that unfortunately never saw the day. Just like his previous film, 2001, A Clockwork Orange is set in the future[1], but a future that has something old. Indeed, fashion is very 60s and the use of type machines and vinyl records doesn’t create a very “new” ambiance. The futuristic atmosphere is maybe more felt in the apocalyptic vision of England (or the world) or in the modern and peculiar architecture.

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In the mini-documentary Making A Clockwork Orange by Gary Leva, we learn that, when the idea of the film was first proposed to Stanley Kubrick, this one was not interested and that was mainly due to the strange futuristic slang language that has been created by Burgess in his book. Because, according to Kubrick, people simply wouldn’t have got it. Ironically, when he changed his mind and decided to do the film (and write his own screenplay), Kubrick kept Burgess’s strange language that makes Alex DeLarge and his three droogs such inimitable characters.[2] With some exceptions, Kubrick’s film was mainly faithful to the novel. But, by adding his personal touch, Stanley Kubrick created an oeuvre that was faithful to him and that’s how, like all his other films, we can recognize that this is a “Stanley Kubrick’s film”. As it is also explained in the documentary, Kubrick’s brilliant visual work on the film served to support the narrative lines that had been created by Burges.[3] Indeed, if there is some incomprehensible language, the film remains comprehensible due to its visual power.

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Curiously, for a film of such wingspan, Kubrick managed to work with a quite small budget of less than 3 M $[4], small if we compare it to 2001‘s 12 M $ budget or The Shining’s 19 M$. Even if the story takes place in the future, the idea was to make it as much timeless as possible. As I’ve explained, it’s a future that doesn’t look as far as the period in which the film was made. To do so, Stanley Kubrick chose to do as much on-location shooting a possible. This was a way to use modern buildings of the 60’s-70s in a futuristic way instead of building a set with high-tech technology like it has been made for 2001.[5]

The film described as “a brilliant nightmare”[6] by a Variety article of December 15, 1971, was not about to leave its initial spectators cold. While it lighted the cinematographic passion of some, it also provoked the inner devil of others, and the apocalyptic portrayal of England in the film became reality. Indeed, not long after its release, people (with no moral conscience) saw something “cool” about the portrayal of violence in this film and used it as a criminal inspiration. It’s a probably highly disappointed Stanley Kubrick who chose to ban his film from England. It remains absent from the screens until his death in 1999[7].

To understand better the impact that A Clockwork Orange had and still has, let’s begin by exploring the effect of the transition between the “old” and “new” Hollywood. When the MPAA imposed the new rating system in 1968, it was an occasion for certain films that couldn’t have been accepted during the Production Code era to be developed, but still monitored[8], because we agree that not every film are made for everybody due to their content. For example, one wouldn’t present A Clockwork Orange to a five-years-old kid (!). Indeed, in Hollywood vs. Soft Core, Jon Lewis explains that:

“The rating system was the turning point in the new Hollywood not so much or not only because it so affected the look and sound of the films produced there, but because it reestablished a system by which the studios might continue to produce and distribute films under a set of mutually agreed-upon guidelines.”[9]

In other words, abolishing the Production Code imposed a certain possibility of creativity and freedom of speech that was missed from 1934 to 1967. We even saw in Lewis’s text that, by the late 60s, the Production Code was not used as much seriously as it once was and it began to be forgotten with the release of some films that went against the “don’ts and be carefuls” of the code such as Bonnie & Clyde with its violence or The Graduate with its themes of sexuality.[10]

The major debate for A Clockwork Orange was to rate this film R or X. As we saw in class if A Clockwork was first X-rated on its release in 1971, Kubrick himself cut 30 seconds of explicit content for a R-rated release in 1973. An R-rated film still can be “feared” by some, but, at least, it opens the door to a bigger public. Does it necessarily assure a bigger financial success? Not necessarily, since I believe it’s more a case-by-case matter. However, Lewis explains that, by the 70s, some X-rated exploitation films made more money than mainstream films made by major Hollywood studios.[11] Hollywood certainly had a new face.

We agree that A Clockwork Orange is, on the first sight, controversial for its violence and its sexual content that people were probably still not very used to see in 1971. If we refer ourselves to the first 15-20 minutes of the films, these shock. Indeed, a series of somehow explicit scenes scroll with an impressive rapidity, starting with Alex and his three droogs violently beating an old drunk tramp, then with Billy Boy and his droogs trying to rape a girl (what also shows on-screen nudity) and then being beaten by Alex and his gang and, finally, the famous “surprise visit” to the writer’s house: a key scene in the film where Alex sings Singin’ in the Rain, a very joyful scene, while beating the writer and raping his wife. But the violence doesn’t stop here and is present on many occasions in the film, as much in Alex’s head as in reality.

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But as it is explained in the documentary The Making of A Clockwork Orange, the real controversy is not necessarily the violence and the sexuality we see in the film, but the aura that is created around Alex DeLarge. Even if Alex makes terrible things, we are somehow guilty of taking his side.[12] That is probably due to the fact that he’s somehow presented as a gentleman, a polite and reasonable person. His sense of humour also sort of makes us forget his actions. In a Sight & Sound Magazine interview with Stanley Kubrick, an observation is made that the Alex DeLarge from the film is a depicted as a more sympathetic person than the Alex DeLarge from the novel.[13] Kubrick supports that by explaining that, even if Alex ” is the very personification of evil”[14], his winning qualities sort of prevent us to be totally against him[15]. As Kubrick also explains in the interview, our main reason for having a feeling of identification with Alex resides in the fact that he ” is within all of us”[16]. He sort of represents the darker side that we all have, but that, depending on each person; it will manifest itself on different levels. That’s what could make people angry and reject the film: for the simple reason that they don’t accept the fact that they could be identified with Alex, even if they are “saints”. This reminds me of something that Hitchcock had explained to François Truffaut in Hitchcock/Truffaut: that bad people are not necessarily all black and that all good or innocent people aren’t necessarily all white[17].

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The true controversy of A Clockwork Orange resides also in the vulnerability of the characters. The ones who have suffered are vulnerable to their anger and that doesn’t make them better people. Indeed, we should normally have a bit of sympathy for the writer who has lost his wife and turned crazy due to that, but, in opposition, he is presented as a repulsive character, who only seems to find a solution in acts of cruel revenge against his aggressor (Alex). This takes us back to what I’ve previously said about the fact that evil resides in each one of us and could be provoked at any moment depending on our level of tolerance. Alex is, one way or another, always against society: first by committing his immoral acts, but then by being victimized and becoming helpless as a child. He has, in no way, the occasion to redeem himself.

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This is supported by David Stewart in his text The Pulp of A Clockwork Orange. He writes something that goes totally in the sense of what I’ve previously written:

“In A Clockwork Orange, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) sacrifices his own free will and personal   choices by submitting himself into aversion therapy in order to have a shorter prison sentence. However, when Alex is free from jail, he is not necessarily free since his personal choices and free will are extracted from his mind.”[18]

As the Prison Chaplain says, ” Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”[19]

This finally takes us to the problem of the psychiatric cures that have always been judged controversial and often provoked many critics. The Ludovico Technique, this brainwashing that somehow reminds us of the Pavlov Effect, has never been used in England and remains a fictive element created by Anthony Burgess.[20] However, practices such as electroshocks or the more extreme lobotomy seem to have always been looked at with certain mistrust, and with valuable reasons. Even today’s medication that replaces the “ancient” psychiatric techniques has something artificial that seems to go against human moral. In the Sight & Sound interview with Stanley Kubrick, the interviewers Philip Strick and Penelope Houston observes that ” The violence done to Alex in the brain-washing sequence is, in fact, more horrifying than anything he does himself….”[21] Kubrick explains that it was important to create a balance between the wrong committed by Alex and the wrong that is done to him. First, because it wouldn’t be right to depict the government’s methods in a favorable light, because what they do to Alex is not better than what he does to his innocent victims.[22] And, most of all, as Kubrick concludes in his explanations, ” It is necessary for man to have choice to be good or evil, even if he chooses evil. To deprive him of this choice is to make him something less than human — a clockwork orange.” [23]

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A Clockwork Orange was not Stanley Kubrick’s first provocative film. Indeed, Lolita, the first cinematographic adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, also scandalized the audience. Unlike A Clockwork Orange, Lolita was made in 1962. That was during the Production Code era. A Clockwork Orange was a film that allowed itself many liberties and possibilities. The genius work of Stanley Kubrick makes it a masterpiece and its message, its controversy, creates its importance within the cinema history. In conclusion, A Clockwork Orange will always be seen with a certain critical eye and maybe not fully understood by its watchers. The film is a timeless one as its subjects and its message are timeless ones too.

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[1] A.H. WEILER. “Kubrick to Adapt ‘A Clockwork Orange’ for Screen.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 36. Feb 03 1970. ProQuest. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.

[2] Making A Clockwork Orange (Gary Leva, 2007)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Murf. “A Clockwork Orange.” Variety (Archive: 1905-2000) Dec 15 1971: 14. ProQuest. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.

[7] Ibid. note 2.

[8] Lewis, Jon. ” Hollywood vs. Soft Core.” Hollywood vs. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censhorship Created the Modern Film Industry, New York: New-York University Press, [2002], 2000.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. note 8

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. note 2

[13] Houston, Penelope and Strick, Philip. ” Interview with Stanley Kubrick regarding A Clockwork Orange.” Sight & Sound, 1972. http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0070.html. Dec. 8, 2016.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Truffaut, François. Hitchcock/Truffaut. Gallimard. 1993.

[18] Stewart, David. “The Pulp Of A Clockwork Orange.” Human Communication 14.1 (2011): 17-29. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

[19] A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

[20] Ibid. note 2

[21] Ibid. note 13

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

 

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