Kubrick Contra Nihilism: a Clockwork Orange

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KUBRICK CONTRA NIHILISM: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

Much critical ink has been spilled over the question of whether the world-view of archetypal auteur Stanley Kubrick is nihilistic or not, and appropriately so. To my mind, this is one of the most important questions we can ask about genuine artists and their oeuvres. If auteur criticism is to have any validity, from a philosophical perspective, it must address such issues. True cinematic geniuses (e.g., Bergman, Antonioni, Wertmuller, Hitchcock and Cronenberg, to name only a few) have something to teach us about the meaning of life, and in uncommon instances, their explorations can be genuinely philosophical. This is the case in several of Kubrick’s films, but most especially in his treatment of Anthony Burgess’ dystopic classic, A Clockwork Orange. Burgess declared his own intentions in a new introduction to the 1988 edition of the novel, which he entitled “A Clockwork Orange Resucked”. While admitting that “I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy” the author continued: “But the book does also have a moral lesson and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice.” Indeed, Burgess proceeded to speak deprecatingly about his novel for its didacticism in making that point. But then Kubrick, and Malcolm McDowell, created such an indelible portrait of “little Alex” that their film continues to spark controversy to this day. Copycat crimes were so rife in Britain after its release that Kubrick himself withdrew it from U.K. markets for over two decades. The director came in for the usual moralistic condemnations for the way the film seemed to valorize Alex’s rapacious taste for ultra-violence. As is often the case, the howls of execration were based on an incomplete understanding of the director’s intentions. Ironically, I find A Clockwork Orange to be one of Stanley Kubrick’s most life-affirming works, second only to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The final scene, where a chastened Prime Minister has an impressive sound system wheeled into Alex’s hospital room, the chorale finale of the “Ode to Joy” booming in the background while Alex fantasizes about raping a young woman as a Victorian-era upper crust applauds in approval, is one of the most ambivalently exhilarating sequences in the history of cinema. Alex is granted the last word: “I was cured, all right!” What he was cured from was the inhibitory effect of the Ludovico technique. His attempt to “snuff it” had caused him sufficient trauma to free him from this nightmarish conditioning process (as his hilarious responses to cartoon images shown him by the woman psychologist in a previous scene had foreshadowed). No longer nauseated at the prospect of sex or violence, Alex was free to resume his sadistic ways. In my view, Kubrick celebrates Alex’s recovered freedom of choice here. No matter how monstrous Alex was, more monstrous still is a State apparatus that can rob the individual of his free will. With that free will, as Christianity has preached since Paul, must come the capacity for doing evil. It is the price even God had to pay for granting humans the dignity of moral responsibility. LITTLE ALEX: ID MONSTER

A pat Freudian psychoanalysis of the behavior of Alexander DeLarge is clearly suggested by the filmic text. His father is precisely the type of weak figure that would have been unable to generate castration anxiety in his son, hence failing to trigger the primary repression from which the super-ego is said to result, according to Freud. Indeed, Alex is depicted as a classic sociopath, taking his greatest pleasure from the pain of others while dealing with few pangs of conscience thereafter. Compounding his psychosexual difficulties, his credulous mother is an overindulgent woman addicted to “sleepers”, who dresses in outlandish fashions and purple wigs and totally accepts Alex’s lame explanations for what he does at night to bring in all that...
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