Pop Nihilism at the Movies

by David Denby
directed by Stanley Kubrick
Warner Brothers
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange opened the week before Christmas with a media send-off second only to that given earlier in the year to Jesus Christ Superstar: cover stories in Newsweek and the Saturday Review, photo layouts in Playboy and Time, a special essay by Time’s art critic, a place for the film on innumerable year-end “ten best” lists, and, eight days after the opening, the New York Film Critics Award as the best film of 1971. To be sure, the movie quickly received a pasting from critics as diverse as Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Richard Schickel, and John Simon, but more is at stake here than the balance of critical opinion regarding one movie out of the 450 or so released last year. A powerful part of the mass media has settled on this movie as the best our cinema has to offer; and given the subject of A Clockwork Orange—the ironic triumph of a sadistic young thug—the choice is a landmark in the history of American mass culture.
There’s an air of bravado in the reviewers’ praise: the movie is admitted to be far-out, “dangerous,” clearly not for everyone. Despite many nervous bows toward the spirit of irony and the complexity of art, the raves foster the impression that Kubrick’s daring is a triumph in itself. Perhaps the studios will take the cue, and criminal destructiveness will emerge as a positive value in a host of new movies. Decadence has become fashionable even the Saturday Review is dabbling in it.
After 2001: A Space Odyssey I don’t know how anyone could regard Kubrick as a profound thinker or as anything but an ambitious cinema technologist, but many of the reviews present him as an acute diagnostician of the ills of modern civilization. You can lose faith in Kubrick as a director but still be profoundly impressed by his ability to create a personal mystique: his slowness (three films in ten years), meticulousness, and choice of grandiose subjects seem to give off the aura of genius at work. When a mystique is at work, a strange thing happens to some of the reviewers: the new movie is taken completely at face value, at the level of its intentions; some of the most enthusiastic reviews of A Clockwork Orange consisted of little more than plot summaries laced with the word “brilliant.”
There is brilliance connected with this project, but the praise belongs to Anthony Burgess, whose 1962 novel has been mangled in the adaptation. Both book and movie are extremely violent, but Burgess’ work forces us to consider our attitudes toward violence with greater honesty (an admirable result), while the movie simply gives rise to feelings of repulsion and dismay. The novel is an account of the adventures of a murderous young thug and is set in a demoralized nearfuture in England when life will be controlled by roving street gangs and government repression. Alex, its hero and narrator, is a jocular young sadist, an aesthete of violence who beats, robs, rapes, and finally murders for pleasure.
Burgess plays maliciously on the responses of the liberal, well-meaning reader of novels by making us feel a certain solidarity with Alex; the book is disturbing because we identify with him more than conscience tells us is proper. How is it done? Alex narrates his unspeakable acts in an extraordinary teen-age slang that the author has compounded out of English, Russian, cockney jargon, and Gypsy words, and as we learn what the unfamiliar words mean from their surrounding context, we are gradually assimilated into Alex’s point of view. Thus when Alex picks up a couple of ten-year-old girls he describes them this way: “They saw themselves, you could see, as real grown up devotshkas already, what with your old hip-swing when they saw your Faithful Narrator, brothers, and padded groodies and red all ploshed on their goobers.” When we learn to understand talk like this we feel relieved to be on the inside; moreover, Alex’s chummy tone insinuates that we feel as he does, and many of us probably do—Burgess knows that the love of violence has replaced sex as the dirty little secret of our time. If we read very much of this book we realize that our conventional distaste for violence is fairly hypocritical.
After a murderous spree Alex is imprisoned and brutally conditioned so that he cannot act out his violent impulses—turned into a robotized human, a “clockwork orange.” Thus the reader is given the added pleasure of seeing violence turned against the aggressive hero—a standard mechanism of gangster novels and movies, which usually end with the gangster’s death, releasing us from any guilt we may have felt over our enjoyment of his aggressions. But Burgess has set a trap.
As Alex’s prison chaplain points out, in a scene which is clearly the moral center of the book, Alex will no longer be exercising freedom of choice if he is conditioned against evil. Since he cannot choose the bad, he has lost the possibility of leading the ethical life. Ironically, when he returns to his vicious society, his old victims take advantage of his helplessness, tormenting him to the point of madness and suicide, until finally Alex’s fate becomes an embarrassment to the “benevolent” ruling powers and he is deconditioned, returned to his former bliss of rape and mayhem.
We experience this denouement with considerable chagrin (we’ve had our fun, we want a return to a more orderly world), but we must accept it if we really believe in free choice. Thus Burgess makes his case for a voluntary ethics in a way that is morally heroic and extremely demanding, especially since it’s obvious that Alex will never “choose” anything but destruction. Alex becomes an albatross hanging from our well-meaning , necks; we’re stuck with him, and the joke is on us.
In 1962 Burgess could count on a conventional distaste for violence covering a secret fascination with it; he plays the game shrewdly and artfully by distancing the mayhem through the use of that marvelous made-up language, so we never turn on him and reject him as a mere exploiter. The book is a brilliant balancing act.
But in the interim ten years we’ve entered a posthumanist phase of total violence in the movies, and most of the old hypocrisy has been stripped away by brute force and repetition. Those who hate violence have stopped going to the movies, or they go and suffer, while millions of others are openly enjoying the freedom from restraints. Such virtuosos in realistic gore as Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man) have gone as far as possible in showing the horror of what may be done to the human body. To show any more would be pornographic.
Thus Kubrick has a real problem in adapting this tricky book, and I sympathize with his difficulty almost as much as I loathe his solution. If Penn and Peckinpah have tried to make us feel the pain of violence, Kubrick has done just the opposite: he works in a coldly repulsive and kinky style, using freakishness and mod decadence to alienate us from pain. Just so we know what we’re talking about: When Alex and his friends break into the house of a writer and his wife, they tie up the writer, stick a rubber ball in his mouth, tape it over, and then Alex slowly scissors off the wife’s clothes while kicking the writer in the groin and singing “Singin’ in the Rain.” Kubrick spares us the rape which follows, but the perverse details in the scene are his own invention; he’s obviously trying to dissociate violence from feeling, a miserable ambition. We can’t examine our feelings about Alex’s crimes because it’s insulting even to watch scenes like this. In Kubrick’s hands, Burgess’ pessimistic Christianity collapses into chic nihilism; where Burgess made us feel like hypocrites, Kubrick simply makes us feel sordid.
The movie’s pervasive pornographic pop-art decor is an analogue to violence without pain—eroticism without warmth or personality. The decor has been construed by sympathetic critics as a comment on bad taste, but I think the pornographic paintings and furnishings function as a signal to the young audience (the only audience that can make the movie a hit) that it may assume a contemptuous attitude toward art. This future society doesn’t try to surround itself with objects of beauty or spiritual value, and for many of the young that’s cool; it liberates them from the aspirations of their parents and teachers.
The director’s use of classical music confirms the point. Burgess has Alex enjoying his most violent fantasies while listening to Beethoven—a satire on shallow “humanist” cant about the improving influence of art on those who love it. Kubrick ruins this modest idea by plastering classical music across all the scenes of violence, to the point where associations of pleasure are removed from the music. A rape scene is set to Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” overture; what is being satirized—rape? Rossini? In another scene, Alex smashes one of his victims over the head with a giant sculpture of a phallus. The aggressive pointlessness of such moments is precisely what turns people on; meaninglessness is like a drug—it puts one in a state where there’s no reason even to try to sort things out morally and aesthetically. But this is not the way one responds to art.
As A Clockwork Orange ticks on, it gradually becomes clear that Kubrick has made a grotesque extension of the youth movie. Rather than an antihero who wins our reluctant and selfmocking acceptance, the movie Alex is an actual hero, and for all his violence, not so different from recent types presented for audience identification. He’s more sensitive and honest, bolder, and infinitely more appealing physically than anyone else. Malcom McDowell is sensational as Alex; he has all the insolence and eroticized self-confidence of Mick Jagger in front of a live audience, and because of his performance we are reconciled to Alex without irony: we are made to admire him.
The sexual tyranny of the young was always a suggested threat in the youth movie, and now Kubrick has made it explicit and given it a positive value. By shifting Burgess’ notion of adult moral corruption to physical unattractiveness as well, Kubrick is catering directly to the sexual snobbery and narcissism of the young audience. He has cast unappealing actors in the adult roles (topped off by Patrick Magee, who is downright ghoulish), gotten them to give freakish performances, and photographed them with wide-angle lenses from above or below, so that they look deformed or monstrous. This also holds true for the prison chaplain, Burgess’ one sympathetic character and raisonneur, whose key speeches have been cut to a few random remarks that carry very little weight. If the chaplain’s role had been sustained, one might understand from the movie how our freedom is tragically connected to the liberty of thugs, and the movie might make some bitter, dangerous, but comprehensible moral sense. Instead of Burgess’ rationale for freedom, Kubrick has provided a thug’s rationale.
Kubrick’s last three movies have been marked by a progressive reduction of human feeling and solidarity; the mask of the ironist and savage parodist has fallen off, and behind it is revealed the face of a thoroughgoing misanthrope. Dr. Strangelove, one of the most brilliant of American films in the sixties, was peopled exclusively by caricatures, and the long central section of 2001 turned on the conceit that a computer could be more human than a group of astronauts. Now, in A Clockwork Orange, we are not allowed to feel affection for anyone or anything but a sadist. Such a bitter view of humanity could be justified only by the depth and range of a genuine satiric intention, but Kubrick has failed as a satirist. There’s no structure of values in his recent films, no standard of humanity by which inhumanity may be judged, no better life implied by the miserable one we see. In A Clockwork Orange the director has submerged himself in horror and given up a possible vantage point from which he might survey and judge it; clearly he was drawn to the images of violence themselves rather than any meaning which might emerge from them. Kubrick’s supporters say that he has a unique insight into the grinding inhumanity of the modern world, but he must like what he sees; a man who devotes ten years of his life to making movies without human beings in them has obviously found the world in which he wants to live.
The acceptance of A Clockwork Orange by a significant part of the mass media means that a great many people have given up fighting the brutalization of the movies. Journalists are under tremendous pressure to accede to a current fashion, and when it’s necessary to take the high line they can always say that what’s happening in movies is “symptomatic” of our times. True enough, but how can anyone distinguish the symptom from the disease? The awkward, tedious, and possibly unanswerable question of whether brutalized movies can affect audience behavior is one that every critic avoids, but it preys on some of our minds like a recurrent nightmare. One would like to have the question settled once and for all, but the empirical evidence from the social sciences is fragmentary and inconclusive. Without a conclusive answer a critic can ignore the whole question or pretend that it doesn’t matter, or find deep meanings in the atrocities that pass across our screens, thereby justifying them as art.
Movie art! I’m convinced that the current American audience, perhaps for the first time in movie history, is eager to support an extremely toughminded, demanding, and even tragic type of popular art. In the past decade or so, with its assassinations, riots, and mass killings, and with its endless, murderous, losing war, we have all had some taste of “extreme” experience, some intimation of chaos. The American audience has been prepared by experience for an art comparable to the Italian neo-realist cinema after World War II. But so far the stress of recent American experience seems to have demoralized the movies; all sorts of atrocities are being justified by film-makers with their talk of this-is-the-way-we-livenow. And critics, who are supposed to know something about aesthetics, are supporting some of these movies by an appeal to “reality” and “this is where it’s at.” The extremity of the times is being used as an excuse rather than as a possible resource.
Perhaps a part of the audience (including some critics) has simply stopped resisting the disintegration of American life; for these film-goers, movies without extreme violence or an aura of decadence must seem lifeless and unreal. They will find their reality in genre movies like The Anderson Tapes and The French Connection. in which cops, crooks, and victims are equally corrupt and deserving of one another’s violence; in racist movies for black audiences like Melvin Van Peebles’ hit, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which openly exploits the desire for revenge against whites; in Ken Russell’s movies The Music Lovers and The Devils, which turn biographical and historical material into pornographic pageantry; in endless attacks on the uptight middle class which are crueler than even the most complacent bourgeoisie might deserve.
One irony Burgess may not have considered is that the type of hypocrisy his book so neatly punctures does provide certain restraints on behavior. The old-fashioned hypocrite, who needed to live in society, hesitated before revealing the nastiness of his true feelings. Now, with the shift in audience and media attitudes, movie rabble-rousers can celebrate their liberation from restraint without fear of repudiation. In fact, they may wind up on the cover of earnest liberal journals. With that kind of encouragement, nihilism is well on its way toward becoming the complacent mass culture of our time.