Conversations with Kubrick Part 1: When Oranges are Clockwork
Stanley Kubrick was a pioneer in shaping the way we make and view art, especially film. In pursuit of meaning, we look both backward and forward at once, seeking present questions: don’t look any further. Kubrick already provided the answers.
The messages he delivered via his films were modern day myths to help us understand our place in the universe. If you were ready to hear what he was communicating in his films, you were awakened to some new truth you had not discovered.
Kubrick’s method of truth finding was thorough. He was a voracious reader. Before writing a word in the script, he would research the subject aggressively. He never wavered in his dedication to specificity and paid dogged attention to every detail, even those thought by some to be inconsequential. Through research for his films and in all areas of life, he came to clearly assemble an adult, complete view about a wealth of subjects by putting it together a piece at a time. Every news piece and political viewpoint. Every piece of art. Every weather pattern and climate change. Every story he could get his hands on.
Once a sufficient volume of information had accumulated in his creative well, then he could see all sides of the subject. The wisdom he acquired lives on in his interviews, and especially in his films. If you memorize his words reasonably well, then you have a script for life.
Read on for a couple of Stanley’s missives from one of my favorites of his films, “A Clockwork Orange.”
The Importance of Free Will
Kubrick asked questions about this topic in many of his films, but never so discernibly than in 1972 film, “A Clockwork Orange.” In ‘Orange’, Kubrick explores the necessity of choice via evil protagonist Alex, played with frightening realism by Malcolm McDowell.
Alex is a psychopath who revels in the pain of other human beings. He is an agent of chaos and an inspiration for Heath Ledger’s superbly insane yet not so insane Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (for any further evidence see Ledger’s patented Kubrick stare.)
Alex is deplorable and watching him causes emotional turmoil: he cheerfully engages in acts of grave violence. Yet we are drawn to him. Something primal in us responds to his honesty, his lack of hypocrisy, and his vitality.
And so the audience feels far more disgusted with the irresponsible leaders who barbarically turn Alex into something less than a person, with no choice in the matter about his behavior. No free will.
There’s a priest character in the film who spells it out after Alex has been mangled by the brainwashing:
He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, the fear of physical pain drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.
Alex is a monstrous person. We revile his choices. But, we cannot fundamentally alter a person by forcing the change on them–the change must be motivated from within, rather than imposed from without, for it to have moral value. The scientists in the movie can not redeem the people they do this to, just restrain them.
Kubrick helps shine a light on this facet of oppression through the story: If ever a governing force gains sufficiently superior control over those it governs, to the point where citizens’ freedom to choose right from wrong disappears, then this society is truly out of harmony with human nature, and nature, itself.
The Responsibility of Art
When “A Clockwork Orange” came out in theaters in the UK, the film caused an uproar in many parts of society. Conservative groups were shocked by its content and angry at Kubrick. Others were drawn to Alex’s cruelty and attempted to pay homage with real life acts of violence.
Even if not inspired to go out and copy Alex, audiences had visceral reactions to the “ultra-violence.” As a result, Kubrick was asked in a number of interviews if he didn’t bear some responsibility for any audience members who went out and committed violence in homage or something similar in response to the movie? Kubrick calmly explained that he didn’t think art had a “responsibility to be anything other than a work of art.”
He would list the causes of violence as best as he understood them, religious view, Marxist view, etc, and then point out that by directing media attention to whether films or television contribute to violence, politicians conveniently escape looking at these real causes, since dealing with those is much easier.
Kubrick dealt with hard questions like these his whole career. During press for “Dr. Strangelove,” he was asked if the film suggested he had contempt for the human race. He had to explain in that case that, “a recognition of insanity doesn’t imply celebration of it; nor a sense of despair and futility about the possibility of curing it.”
Kubrick changed the conversation about art. Or, rather, he improved the conversation by refusing to have any conversation but the right one. He wouldn’t ignore hard questions, but instead would provide a truthful, often brave answer, that halted and made egregious the line of questioning.
When asked a number of times about the responsibility he bore for acts of violence inspired by his work, he illuminated humanity’s relationship with art:
To try to fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to have the case put the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, or cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that even after deep hypnosis, in a post-hypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures.
Kubrick told stories that asked these questions, and in so doing, he improved cultural conversations. During World War II, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt broadcasted regular radio segments in which he spoke directly to the American public regarding his reasoning for social change and other decisions he’d made. These “fireside chats,” allowed the American public to feel regarded as a partner in the running of the country, and citizens appreciated the transparency.
In some magical parallel film-centric universe, Kubrick was elected the President of the United States, and if President Stanley decided to have fireside chats about his films, perhaps these are some of the topics he’d discuss.
I’ll post again as soon as I perceive anything new on the wireless from Mr. Kubrick.
Conversations with Kubrick is written by: Kathryn D. Moeller. Check out Katie’s X-Files podcast, The K-Files.