WE LOVE VIOLENCE

February 5, 2007

Over years I used to see A Clockwork Orange at arthouse cinemas. It was a midnight favourite. I saw it every time it was screened and everytime came away with the same revulsion. I hated it. And when it was rescreened I’d go see it again. Like a junkie not strong enough to shake the addiction. A fascination shot through with guilt.

I’d read the book of course. The intellectual distance between reader and text doesn’t exist in film. Cinema surrounds you. It’s galactic imagery and soundtrack flood the senses. A film enters your psyche at a sub-mental level like a dream. You can only think critically about it after the emotional effects have waned. So watching Alex inflict damage assaults you in a way that reading about it does not.

There are many much more violent pictures. The late 60s and early 70s period (to which A Clockwork Orange belongs featured a series of films which intentionally did away with the Hayes code era of prohibition on violence. How violent a picture is, is subjective. How to measure it? By the number of violent scenes? By the quantity of blood? By this criteria A Clockwork Orange would rank behind many a b-grade horror.

What sets it apart?

Most violent films have the good guy, the bad guy. The good guy deals out punishment, the bad guy starts it. That’s how it goes. The violence is morally authorized. You are allowed to enjoy watching Bruce Willis throw Alan Rickman off a tall building at the end of Die Hard because Rickman is a bad guy; a terrorist. He hijacked a Christmas party, threatened Bruce’s wife, he has it coming.

In an interview with Bernard Weinraub for the New York Times Kubrick said: “Alex is a character who by every logical and rational consideration should be completely unsympathetic, and possibly even abhorrent to the audience… yet in the same way that Richard III gradually undermines your disapproval of his evil ways, Alex does the same thing and draws the audience into his own vision of life. This is the phenomenon of the story that produced the most enjoyable and surprising artistic illumination in the minds of an audience.”

Before he’s caught by the cops Alex perpetrates four separate violent acts. Only one of which is ‘morally justified’. This is the second episode where Alex and his droogs confront another juvenile gang getting ready to gang rape a girl. Rescue has nothing to do with it. He fights because he wants to. Within minutes he’s getting set to rape someone else, famously ‘singing in the rain’.

It’s fun.

The reason for the fascination and the revulsion: Alex likes violence. So do we. That’s it. But whatever social controls are instilled in most of us are absent in Alex. He enjoys violence; sexual and otherwise. There’s a complete absence of empathy. We usually watch violent movies without any moral uneasiness precisely because the story sets up a situation in which the hero is compelled to act violently for the greater good. This excuses us the bad feeling in enjoying bloodshed. A Clockwork Orange does not give us this out. Our hero’s all charm but no virtue. He’s cool, but he’s no good guy. He goes around will he nil he inflicting damage and we enjoy watching it. At the same time, aware that everything that’s happening is bad, we feel profoundly guilty. The paradox of A Clockwork Orange in respect to the standard violent movie is that it does not let our bloodlust off the hook. We can’t pretend it’s anything else.

First Alex perpetuates his crimes, then he’s caught and becomes the chaplain’s protégé. Then he submits to the Ludovico Treatment which renders him ‘good by being paradoxically compelled toward evil’. Every time he wants to hit someone he gets sick. And he’s released where, confronted by his former victims he is beaten and almost killed.

Humans are violent. The Darwinian point of view is prevalent here. Young primates are known across species to attack older males in packs; witness the beating of the drunk and the writer. This behaviour is sexually motivated; witness the corresponding rapes. Then there is the religious thing: free choice between heaven and hell. But religion itself is awash with violence, Alex reading the Bible is not inspired toward heaven. He’s ‘kept going’ by the gratuitous violence particularly of the Old Testament.

Think of the ‘dancing Jesuses’ sequence in Alex’s bedroom early in the film. A chorus line of post-crucifixion Christs dance to the second movement of Beethoven’s ninth inspiring Alex with ‘lovely pictures’ of death, disaster and mayhem. Many dislike this sequence: not it’s violence but its black humour and blasphemy. It’s simply a matter of attitude. Devout Catholics everywhere hang realistic statues of the crucifixion in their bedrooms, living rooms; in the rooms of their children. An horrific way to die on display. No-one objects as they might object to a similarly positioned depiction of death by electrocution or guillotine.

When Alex chooses to submit to the Ludovico Treatment he’s instilled with an aversion to anti-social behaviour by programmed association between witnessed violence and drug-induced illness. This, as the government minister responsible says, works. The chaplain objects that the ‘boy has no real choice’ and indeed he doesn’t. But I wonder if the religious spectrum of heavenly rewards for the virtuous and hellish punishment for the wicked is real moral choice. Is a life lived according to scriptural prescription truly good? Or is it just a long range form of self-interest; like a rich man who gives generously to charity and advertises the fact?

As Nietzsche and others have stated justice is an elaboration on vengeance. That recent innovation of human systems of punishment and crime control – rehabilitation – is perfectly realised in the Ludovico Treatment. Take violent offenders, condition them, they cease to be violent. But the punishment element is erased. Alex is released cured but not forgiven. He must face his victims: the drunk, his droogs, the writer who’s wife he raped. None of them hesitate to inflict violence on Alex and he is unable to defend himself. The treatment, supposedly advanced, brings us back to square one. Instead of an impersonal governmental apparatus designed to rationally determine guilt and distribute punishment, we simply set up a perpetrator to be the ideal target for revenge.

There is punishment in A Clockwork Orange. Alex’s one saving grace is his taste in music, particularly Beethoven. This is partially spoiled for him because one of the films he has to watch undergoing treatment is soundtracked by the ninth symphony’s fourth movement: The Ode to Joy. Delicious irony. Alex piteously and strenuously objects and the treatment’s supervisor Dr. Brodsky mutters “here’s the punishment element perhaps”.

This I think is the film’s larger message. Beethoven’s music is wild. He was the Rolling Stones of his day and his music is massively Dionysian. Many hate Wendy Carlos’s moog synthesizer recital of the work for the same reasons that people hate contemporary-set Shakespeare. I loved it. For the sci-fi scenery it was perfect. And, as the anti-modern Shakespeare purist dolts keep failing to realise, it makes the classics new to younger generations, perpetuating them.

But enough, Beethoven’s music is wild, dangerous. As is Alex. There is a link between the demonic impulses that lead Alex to destructive behaviour and those that create music like lovely, lovely Ludwig van’s. Is it possible to have one without the other? Imagine all great works of art and take the sex, violence, darkness out of them. Try to re-imagine them. What’s left? Disneyland?

The last chapter of Burgess’s book has Alex slowing down. He switches from Beethoven to easy listening, too tired to go out for the old ultra-violence. This chapter has been omitted in many editions of the book. Kubrick himself thought the author obliged to insert it by the publishers. However the last scene of A Clockwork Orange does in some ways go the same way.

Alex, appeased by the government with a good job (interesting comment on political ‘morality’ that) is presented with massive speakers blaring the ninth’s final bars. Alex imagines what many critics have mistakenly called a rape scene. The scene is not rape or even violent. It depicts Alex having sex with a girl (on top0. She’s definitely in control. A social circle resembling a wedding party look on and applaud. This scene seems to signify that Alex has been civilized after all. His sexual instincts are re-instated but they are socially adjusted. Perhaps Kubrick’s suggesting that old chestnut – marriage: the solution to male aggression.

A Clockwork Orange has been vilified, banned, condemned on artistic grounds and yet it survives. Easily one of Kubrick’s most popular pictures. Why? Scan the blogs and you’ll find it among many a favourite film listing, boys, girls both. Why? It’s well liked is why. We like it, we love it. It’s in our fibre, it’s part of who we are. That’s what it says: we love violence, by itself, for its own sake. Deal with it.

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