Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The ignoble savage


by Bernard Weinraub
Special to The New York Times

At a restaurant near his home, he sat down wearing a heavy wind- breaker, polished off his lunch in 15 minutes, then absently removed the coat. He relaxed slowly and discussed A Clockwork Orange, which was taken from the chilling novel by Anthony Burgess.

"I was excited by everything about it, the plot, the ideas, the characters and, of course, the language. Added to which, the story was of manageable size in terms of adapting it for films."

The film itself is a merciless vision of the near-future. Roving gangs rape, kill, maim and steal. Citizens live in a vandalized pop art culture, gaudy, icy and filthy. Politicians and the police are vicious. The film's central character, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), is transformed by scientists from an underworld tough to a defenseless model citizen only to be resurrected, at the end, to his savage original state by the "good" forces.

"The story functions, of course, on several levels, political, sociological, philosophical and, what's most important, on a kind of dreamlike psychological-symbolic level," Mr. Kubrick said.

"Alex is a character who by every logical and rational consideration should be completely unsympathetic, and possibly even abhorrent to the audience," he went on. "And 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 produces the most enjoyable and surprising artistic illumination in the minds of an audience."

"I think an audience watching a film or a play is in a state very similar to dreaming, and that the dramatic experience becomes a kind of controlled dream," he said. "But the important point here is that the film communicates on a subconscious level, and the audience responds to the basic shape of the story on a subconscious level, as it responds to a dream."

Man in Natural State

"On this level, Alex symbolizes man in his natural state, the way he would be if society did not impose its 'civilizing' processes upon him.

"What we respond to subconsciously is Alex's guiltless sense of freedom to kill and rape, and to be our savage natural selves, and it is in this glimpse of the true nature of man that the power of the story derives."

As an artist, Mr. Kubrick has a point of view that is undeniably bleak. "One of the most dangerous fallacies which has influenced a great deal of political and philosophical thinking is that man is essentially good, and that it is society which makes him bad," he said. "Rousseau transferred original sin from man to society, and this view has importantly contributed to what I believe has become a crucially incorrect premise on which to base moral and political philosophy.

by Craig McGregor

"Man isn't a noble savage, he's an ignoble savage," says Kubrick, reaching for the iced water. "He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved - that about sums it up. I'm interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it's a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure."

Like what? "Well, many aspects of liberal mythology are coming to grief now -- but I don't want to give any examples or I'm going to sound like William Buckley...."

Kubrick's vision of society is just as bleak -- it can make man even worse than he naturally is. "The idea that social restraints are all bad is based on a utopian and unrealistic vision of man," he says. "But in this movie you have an example of social institutions gone a bit berserk. Obviously social institutions faced with the law-and-order problem might choose to become grotesquely oppressive. The movie poses two extremes: it shows Alex in his precivilized state, and society committing a worse evil in attempting to cure him."

Though A Clockwork Orange is ostensibly about the future, Kubrick thinks it is of immediate relevance to cities in the United States. "New York City, for example, is the sort of place where people feel very unsafe. Nearly everyone seems to know someone who's been mugged. All you have to do is add in that a little economic disappointment, and the increasingly trendy view that politics are a waste of time and problems have to be solved instantly, and I could see very serious social unrest in the United States which would probably be resolved by a very authoritarian government.

"And then you could only hope you would have a benevolent despot -- rather than a Stalin of the Right."

In A Clockwork Orange, then, Kubrick feels he is satirizing both Man and Society. The trouble is, for most of the film, it's impossible to tell from what standpoint the satire is being made; Kubrick has deliberately changed Anthony Burgess's novel to make all the victims of Alex's aggression even more detestable than Alex himself. Such values as appear to exist are shifting, ambiguous, perverse: satire is a moral act, but Kubrick's film ends by being glitteringly amoral.

The closest it gets to a point of view is the prison chaplain's thunderous proclamation of the need for choice, which has the weight of Kubrick's own deeply held belief behind it: "It's the only non- satirical view in the film, I mean he's right!" says Kubrick. But the film's ending which also celebrates free will, is "obviously satirical -- you couldn't take it seriously." We (and Alex) are back to where we started.

Given his despairing view of man and society, it's hardly surprising that Kubrick has turned away from the contemporary world. He immerses himself in his work. His last three movies have been set in the future, his next will be set in the past. And in recent years he has moved into his own private form of transcendentalism.

"2001 would give a little insight into my metaphysical interests," he explains. "I'd be very surprised if the universe wasn't full of an intelligence of an order that to us would seem God-like. I find it very exciting to have a semi-logical belief that there's a great deal to the universe we don't understand, and that there is an intelligence of an incredible magnitude outside the earth. It's something I've become more and more interested in. I find it a very exciting and satisfying hope."


"Well, I mean, one would hate to think that this was it."

How did Kubrick come to such a pessimistic view of mankind? "From observation," he replies laconically. "Knowing what has happened in the world, seeing the people around me." He says it has nothing to do with anything that's happened to him personally, nor with his Jewish background. "I mean, it's essentially Christian theology anyway, that view of man."


  1. In A Clockwork Orange it was quite difficult to determine who was the Left and who was the Right! Do you have any opinions?

  2. Actually, I've never seen the film. I only know it by reputation, which made the interview with Kubrick illuminating. Clockwork Orange was a controversial film. Some reviewers positively hated it. The usual view seems to be that Kubrick was a directorial genius who made two masterpieces (Dr. Strangelove; 2001), then lost his touch and become increasingly eccentric, such that his later films were, at best, flawed masterpieces, with a touch of genius, but jarringly uneven--all of which may be true.

    Liberal reviewers like Ebert hated the movie because they rightly saw it as a savage satire on liberal humanism. Kael was conflicted.

    Yet, looking at the film from 2005 instead of 1971, it is eerily prescient of the maurading street-gangs which terrorize the urban English landscape.

    As to where to range the directorial viewpoint along the ideological spectrum, the movie appears to be a many-layered thing.

    First of all, England, back in the Sixties, had no religious right to speak of--still doesn't. So, if you remove the Christian component, there's not a whole lot of difference between right-wing statism and left-wing statism, fascism and marxism.

    Likewise, Kubrick seems to be opposing one Enlightment ideology to another, siding with the Hobbesean view as over against Rousseau. Hobbes was a secular totalitarian who regarded despotism as the lesser of two evils--by suppressing the even greater evil of man in a state of nature.

    Finally, as Ebert points out, Clockwork Orange is actually a satirical commentary on 2001, where Kubrick deconstructs the SF humanism of 2001 (and Arthur Clarke) by making the Space Child (as the hope of humanity) evolve into Alex, the psychopathic star of Clockwork Orange. The secular Savior becomes the punk saddist!

    In Ebert's words:
    << And then Kubrick makes all sorts of references at the end of "A Clockwork Orange" to the famous bedroom (and bathroom) scenes at the end of "2001." The echoing water-drips while Alex takes his bath remind us indirectly of the sound effects in the "2001" bedroom, and then Alex sits down to a table and a glass of wine. He is photographed from the same angle Kubrick used in "2001" to show us Keir Dullea at dinner. And then there's even a shot from behind, showing Alex turning around as he swallows a mouthful of wine.

    This isn't just simple visual quotation, I think. Kubrick used the final shots of "2001" to ease his space voyager into the Space Child who ends the movie. The child, you'll remember, turns large and fearsomely wise eyes upon us, and is our savior. In somewhat the same way, Alex turns into a wide eyed child at the end of "A Clockwork Orange," and smiles mischievously as he has a fantasy of rape. >>