The way the system works

State violence encounters criticism in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”

Tom Horgen

Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” has been lauded for its gorgeous, almost poetic vision, but disdained for its flirtation with merciless, predatory violence.

Concentrating on the masturbatory camera work and stylized brutality can only get you so far when engaging Kubrick’s 1971 film. Kubrick’s hyper-stylization of the beatings and rapes is meant to draw us away from the notion that his film is solely a meditation on actual violence.

The relevance of “A Clockwork Orange” actually lies in the story Kubrick is telling. The movie is based on Anthony Burgess’ novel, but cinema history has judged this story to be essentially Kubrickian.

The world of Kubrick’s film, while seemingly based in the future, does not look any more futuristic now than it might have in 1971, rather it is a pastiche of different aesthetics – what could be and what has been.

Our guide in this world is Alex, a hoodlum who leads his small gang on nightly jaunts of ultra-violence. The story doesn’t really settle into anything solid until Alex is arrested and imprisoned for murder. In prison, Alex agrees to take part in a procedure that will rid him of his violent and sexually deviant tendencies. The corrective process, which includes watching violent movies, will later on make him sick when confronted with any profane behavior.

It’s at this point in “A Clockwork Orange” when Kubrick’s film seems to move toward a meditation on free will – Alex can no longer choose his emotions. But there are indications that suggest this is not the actual focal point of the film either, as it is the silly prison chaplain who is the film’s primary voice for damning this extinction of Alex’s free will.

“A Clockwork Orange” is working toward something much broader, and much more damning. Kubrick has created a film that illustrates in a miniature way the protocol that Western governments follow when faced with perceived opposition. He’s taken a broad relationship – the government, its people and a threatening situation – and has personalized it with Alex at the center.

In Alex, the government is faced with problems that need fixing. In response to Alex’s violence, the government reacts with knee-jerk fury. The repeal of civil liberties and the willful disregard for the protests of its citizens characterize the government’s response.

But when the government’s solution doesn’t go as planned, the press reports that Alex is just another example of how the government’s policies aren’t helping at all. And the people call for a change. A high ranking government official visits Alex during this unrest and says his party might not win re-election. Measures must be taken to ensure that it does.

The official tells Alex that the government is his friend and then guarantees him a job. In exchange, Alex must pledge his support to help the official’s party win re-election. But pledging support means embracing complacency.

Kubrick not only showed a penchant for exploring U.S. politics in his films, but also an awareness of the way power is structured. With “A Clockwork Orange,” he demonstrated how pervasive corruption becomes when the power of a ruling party goes unchecked.