Site Map

Dr. Louis N. Sandowsky



Philosophy, Fantasy and Film





A Clockwork Orangefrom the Political to the Personal



A Clockwork Orange – VCV 607 + final chapter (7) of the novel by Anthony Burgess – PR6052.U38C4



1.                 Clockwork Film


Stanley Kubrick was an extreme recluse and a devoted Anglophile (sometimes known as the 'Mad Man of St. Albans') and he directed most of his films in Britain. The principal break with the USA occurred in the early sixties. It was not possible for him to produce his screen version of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita in America because of the paedophilic aspect of the story. He went ahead with the project and filmed it in Britain instead. The road shots in the film of the American countryside are merely inserts that were shot during a brief period on location.


On the whole, the intensity of Kubrick’s love for Britain as his living and working location was matched only by his contempt for Hollywood. Even the film Full Metal Jacket, which depicts the Vietnam conflict, was made in Britain. In fact, much of it was filmed in London’s old and dilapidated dockland area (compare some of the scenes with the early eighties films, Nineteen Eighty Four and Brazil – which were filmed at the same location). The only substantial cosmetic treatment on set was the placement of palm trees to give a South-East Asian feel to the environment. The constant cloud cover, which obscures most of the sunshine, is typical of British weather. However, the grey quality of light is also typical of the humid, rain-drenched atmosphere of a South-East Asian tropical rainy season.


The technologically and visually stunning film, 2001: a Space Odyssey – which was written in collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke – was made at Pinewood Studios in England. Due to the participation of veteran special effects wizards, like Wally Veevers, this film established a new set of standards in excellence for large screen visual extravaganzas. Pinewood, which was the primary location for the production of many of the James Bond films, became the premier studio for most of the American big budget special effects films of the seventies and eighties – e.g., Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, etc.


Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange (officially released in 1971) was made directly after 2001: a Space Odyssey. This story is actually set in England and it marks Kubrick’s mature views about some of the tribal elements that are particularly apparent in British culture and the character of the body politic. The novel gives a highly perceptive account of the watered down, but very influential, socialist methodologies at work in British society – a socialism that tends toward Absolutism. In one sense, it is Anthony Burgess’s own version of Nineteen Eighty Four. His views on individual and population control were attuned to the developing sixties era of drugs and youth revolution. The behaviourist discourse of this period owes little to the more Freudian psychological approach to conditioning in Orwell’s dystopic vision of a quasi-Stalinist – ‘Big Brother’ / patriarchal – regime of Absolutism (where 1984 bears more resemblance to the late 1940’s). The pivot of the story of A Clockwork Orange involves the application of a Pavlovian-like conditioning, which utilizes audio-visual technology and drugs, to make it impossible for the subject to commit a violent act. This raises the issue about what constitutes freedom of choice. The political pragmatics of this clockwork world are not concerned with issues of morality. Conduct / behaviour is all that matters.


The mechanism at work in the "Ludovico" conditioning technique, which aims at the prohibition of violence, is one which forces the individual to take up a diametrically opposed position to what they really desire. It is not to aim towards the good, but to choose the lesser of two evils – excruciating pain and nausea if one acts toward the fulfilment of the primary desire (violence) or fulfilment of the desire to nullify the pain by denying the primary desire (passivity). Thus, the question of effective choice becomes secondary, and the issue of ‘moral choice’ is completely nihilated. The story of A Clockwork Orange is narrated by a particularly vicious, but cultured, young man (a murderer) by the name of Alex who undergoes this conditioning in order to secure his release from prison. The technique involves strapping him into a chair in front of a cinema screen; his head is prevented from moving so that it is impossible for him to turn away from the images that are projected onto the screen ahead. Even his eyelids are held apart by clamps so that he cannot shut his eyes. A timed drug, administered earlier, kicks in at the moment that violent acts are portrayed on film, which produces an extreme sensation of nausea. After repeated sessions, an unconscious correlation is gradually generated between the violence and the accompanying feeling of sickness. The result is that the ultra-violence, which was formerly pleasurable and exciting for Alex, becomes a torment to him and produces a profound agony that makes him feel as though he is going to ‘snuff it.’ The ‘treatment’ sounds quite simple and direct in its effects, but it becomes apparent that the methods of conditioning also produce side effects that the scientists had not effectively predicted.


Within the context of A Clockwork Orange, we are given a whole new definition of what it is to suffer for art – where Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is literally endowed with the power to kill because it has been used as a film score for a particularly nasty cinematic portrayal of violence. The unconscious correlation that is established goes somewhat further than the scientists had intended. It is at this point that we, the audience, are required to take a strong look at the issue of justice, the role of punishment and, interestingly enough, the theme of sin – which is invoked by Alex when he realizes that his treatment will make it impossible for him to enjoy Beethoven's choral symphony ever again. Although the conditioning is meant to absolve the subject from recrimination and punishment by the society whose laws have been transgressed by former crimes, there remains a frustrated element of unfulfilled revenge. The most poignant symbolization of this is played out in Patrick Magee’s brilliant performance as the writer who is beaten by Alex and forced to ‘viddy’ him practice the old ‘in out’ on his wife.


One of the most striking aspects of Burgess’s novel (which was published in 1962), is the gritty realism and colourful form of the colloquial expressions that mark the synthesis between British popular youth culture and the Slavic influence that has imprinted itself on the psyche of a post Russian occupied Britain (Nadsat slang). His extraordinary gift for synthesizing different linguistic forms and other pre-linguistic modes of communication is also seen at work in the film Quest for Fire (directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud – which depicts the rapid evolutionary development in humankind and the shift in the balance of power between different tribes in relation to the use and control of fire).


Kubrick’s cinematic version of A Clockwork Orange remains faithful to the style of Burgess’s unique use of language. The scenario is set in the not-too-distant-future after a period of Russian / communist occupation and so the political climate is in ferment. There are hints of a new wave of authoritarian rule, which is developing new forms of population control. The principal protagonist and narrator, Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) is a sadistic, young gang leader who spends most evenings on a violent rampage with three young men, whom he refers to as ‘Droogs.’ Although his taste in lifestyle is somewhat primitive and brutal, he has charisma, imagination, and a refined taste in music, with a particular passion for lovely, lovely Ludwig. The opening scene of the film introduces Alex and his Droogs sitting together in a bar as a prelude to a night of fun, which consists in brutally attacking an old man in a subway, inter-gang, armed violence, the theft of a car, and the aformentioned rape of a woman in her home (who later dies as a result of the mental scars), while her husband, who is savagely beaten, is forced to watch – or as Alex puts it, to "viddy well." The "ultraviolence" is choreographed to the song "Singin’ in the Rain" and while it generates much pleasure for Alex and his Droogs, the victim is left a cripple (and, ultimately, also a widower).


The black humour of the film is handled masterfully. Kubrick creates a tension throughout the film in which the audience is suspended between extreme shock and curious amusement. He also captures some of the characteristic style of British youth culture. At the time of the film’s release, the media made a great deal out of its negative influences and charged Kubrick with having created a narrative of visual savagery that was seeping into the psyche of contemporary youth and manifesting itself in street violence. The question is: did Kubrick’s film really cause this violence or did it merely expose or anticipate that which was already there below the surface of the strictly regimented style of the culture and politics of the British people?


British football (or soccer) hooliganism is globally infamous. It is perhaps significant that it is so at odds with the British style of politeness and rigid moral conduct. Japan, which is even more socially conservative, is presently going through the trauma of increased street violence amongst its youth. Some of this is being blamed on violent comic ‘manga’ literature and other forms of media – e.g., Japanese anime (particularly the Hentai pornographic form), including certain commercial martial arts films, etc. – that are readily available. Manga means: whimsical pictures (at its best) or irresponsible art (at its worst). Up until recently, the Japanese consensus was that violence is not the product of art, but rather that art merely articulates that which is already at work in society. It is highly possible that the present shift in orientation will give rise to new forms of censorship.


It is not immediately apparent what Kubrick’s views were, regarding the role of art in relation to violence, but he eventually withdrew the film from public screenings after many violent threats were made against him and his family. He was able to withdraw the film because he retained full distribution rights. However, this was not a global withdrawal, but merely confined to Britain. For almost three decades, it was not possible to see A Clockwork Orange in the United Kingdom. However, if one really wanted to see it, then there was always the option of boarding a ferry for the nearest venue – France. The question is: why was every other country but Britain considered to be immune from its possible anti-social influences?


In the early nineties, however, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented a series of live performances of A Clockwork Orange in London. The stage-play of the novel did not infringe the ruling regarding the ban from showing the film in England. There is something that vitally distinguished The Royal Shakespeare Company’s interpretation of Anthony Burgess’s novel from Stanley Kubrick’s film. The stage performance included the final chapter (7) of the story, which was omitted in Kubrick’s movie adaptation.




2.       The (Missing) Final Chapter


To see the important difference in emphasis at work in the film, as distinct from the novel, we need to look at the meaning of the title. The expression "a clockwork orange" has a number of different senses. Anthony Burgess liked the cockney expression "queer as a clockwork orange," which means nothing more than a general and absolute absurdity, like ‘a fish needing a bicycle.’ Additionally, The clockwork element has a very obvious meaning with respect to the Pavlovian behavioural conditioning treatment that the main protagonist, Alex elects to undergo in order to be released from prison. In his essay, "Clockwork oranges," Burgess writes,When I began to write the book, I saw that this title would be appropriate for a story about the application of Pavlovian, or mechanical, laws to an organism which, like a fruit, was capable of colour and sweetness (1985. "Clockwork oranges," p.92).


Anthony Burgess also drew from his experience in Malaya, where the word for man is ‘orang’ (note: orang-utan means ‘man of the forest’). However, the ‘clockwork’ element has the most significance. In the Kubrick film, this is thematized purely in terms of ‘artificial’ conditioning, whereas in the final chapter of the novel, we find that there is also another crucial sense. The film is primarily interested in the macroscopic ‘political’ elements of the story. The final chapter of the book swings from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic – to the source, to the narrator, to Alex (a–lex: a law unto himself). It is in this chapter that he tells us how he finds himself getting bored. He decides that it is an indication of his developing maturity.


Yes, yes, yes, there it was. Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just like being an animal so much as being like one of those malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being like one of these malenky machines (Anthony Burgess. A Clockwork Orange. Chapter 7, p.148).


If freedom of choice is set against external control, what about the non-volitional dimensions of human maturation that play a regulative role in the kinds of choices that one is motivated to make – which is to say, one’s internal unconscious drives? In the final chapter, the limits of responsibility regarding possible choices with respect to our own drives and the evolution of who we are as maturing individuals is taken into account. Choice, responsibility, and knowledge are bound up with the issue of freedom – which can never take place in a void. Alex’s perception of his elevation from the primitivism of his youthful predilection for "a bit of the old ultraviolence,’ simply becomes a matter of a change in ‘taste.’ The macrocosmic political meaning of mechanical conditioning, as an act against the individual is at odds with that sense of the ‘mechanical,’ which describes the atavistic tendencies in play in each individual that are always already at work in our actions and motivations. The child / id clockwork machine is the father of the man / ego (orang).


Alex perceives himself becoming more than clockwork – which is, in a sense, just another manifestation of the clockwork programme that always already pre-existed the human spirit and even "Bog Himself." There is regret, but there is never any sign of remorse. He finds that his desires and tastes are simply changing. He even begins to yearn to have his own child. However, the question remains as to how to teach the child to avoid his mistakes…


My son, my son. When I had my son I would explain all that to him when he was starry enough to understand. But then I knew he would not understand or want to understand at all and would do all the veshches I had done, yes perhaps even killing some poor starry forella surrounded with mewing kots and koshkas, and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some bolshy gigantic like chelloveck, like old Bog Himself (by courtesy of Korova Milkbar) turning and turning and turning a vonny grahzny orange in his gigantic rookers (Ibid.).


A Clockwork Orange – as a ‘whole’ – presents the ‘human condition’ as a horizon without the real possibility of self-determination. Pure freedom of choice is a myth. It is always situated. It is nothing more than a negotiation of possibilities within a perpetually changing self-relation on the one side, and on the other, "A terrible grahzny vonny world, really, Oh my brothers" (Ibid. pp.148-9).


...But, what of responsibility?


...And, what of conscience?




* * *




We shall examine two more dystopic visions of the future, concerning the issues of individual and population control: Nineteen Eighty Four (VCV 1769) and Brazil (VCV 2794).





web assistance by: Shellstorm