Epigraph:“She was very badly raped, you see . . . for her the agony was too great . . . but I knew what it was! [She was] A victim of the Modern Age!” —from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange
Once I was young and had so much more orientation and could know a film emotionally and even physically rather than just intellectually; I could discuss films earnestly without all this type of confessional preambling, but this is an essay by a Modern-Age Man (a “victim” really), who needs to ruminate about Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange—about what that film says of the past and present, and what it may foretell of the future.
At least that nonsense about the past, present, and future is the skeleton of the plan that I have in my head as I type these letters that appear (as if by magic) on the screen I’m staring at—like some fiery finger scrawling out “The Word” on the Source Wall—which must be similar to the screen you, too, must be staring at as you now read these words, my brothers and sisters.
As you no doubt know, though, plans do not always work out. I am not a demi- . . . that is to say, I may not be able to make it cohere—but the beauty of this essay on Clockwork Orange(s) is not the madness of it though the errors and wrecks in it lie all about me.
The draft you are now reading, if you are still with me, is my third attempt to write about Kubrick’s 1971 film. In my two earlier drafts, I was going along well enough typing out my academic angle on the film’s position within the history of youth culture.
Yes, it was all going along quite . . . monotonously . . . unless you’re a stodgy old prof type whose idea of an incredible evening is sitting around govoreeting about Nietzsche as a proto-Postmodernist to anyone who will slooshy—which, of course I do love to do! (ah, the divine Friedrich).
After all, unless Managing Editor Paul pulls the plug on me, there will be plenty of time in the coming weeks for me to get all monotonously acade-enemic.
So then . . . on the evening of January 2, I was walking my dogs before bed, and I govoreeted to myself (not really though, because who actually govoreets to himself in such a manner, yes?)—I govoreeted, “Should I abandon all?” I didn’t actually govoreet aloud, of course, but I imposed onto the vague shapeless mass of my chaotic thoughts a symbolic linguistic structure that formed a series of questions in my gulliver:
- Should I abandon all?
- If I abandon all, how then should I write about said film?
- Well . . . what were the feelings I felt as I viddied it?
- Why don’t I focus on my immediate emotional response and write spontaneously about my emotions while swimming in a sea of language?
- Why am I such a gloopy malchick?
Ah, there’s the rub . . . Why am I such a gloopy malchick?
. . . no, wait, that’s not it . . . ah, there it is . . .
What were the feelings I felt as I viddied A Clockwork Orange on January 1, 2015? (It was my New Year’s Day treat to myself.)
You wanna know what I felt while I watched the film?
I’ll tell you what I felt.
Yeah, let me tell you about my feelings . . .
I felt nothing.
Nothing at all.
Does this mean Kubrick’s Clockwork is bad sinny?
No, not at all, my brothers and sisters and only friends; not at all. My lack of an emotional response says nothing about said movie. It does, however, say a lot about me.
I vaguely recall the first time I saw A Clockwork Orange. I was 19 years old or thereabouts. I may have been barely 20, but let’s say I was 19 because it’s a prime number, and I have this fetish for prime numbers—and there’s about a 47% chance I was actually 19.
So, at the tender age of 19 . . .
Tender age? What a stupid clichéd expression! “Tender age.” Was I “tender” at 19?
I was certainly more emotional . . . more raw. I lived closer to the surface in my reactions to stimuli . . . but tender? I wasn’t nearly as tender then as I am now (that is, if we can all agree to call ennui a type of tenderness).
So, at the hard and calloused age of 19—at a time when I would soon be attending Boise State University (which means I had not yet met my bestest and longest-lasting droogs whom I never see anymore and only “talk” to through digitized messages on technological devices), I went to a midnight showing of A Clockwork Orange with four friends of one of my former selves.
(Do you, Brothers and Sisters, recall midnight movies at your local theater? Do you recall the presentation of “cult classics” years after—perhaps decades after—they were initially released? It was at such midnight showings—usually by myself—that I first saw so many of my favorite films: The Story of O, Emmanuelle, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Rust Never Sleeps, et cetera.)
Anyway, these four old-timey friends of mine were siblings (three boys and a girl) ranging in age from three years younger than I (so 16) to five years older than I (24). They were my next-door neighbors until I was 130 months old, and their father was best man at my parents’ wedding—so, you know, we were sort of like family back in our grade-school-youth days.
I had only seen my old grade-school-youth friends sporadically after I moved from Boise at the age of 11 (I was actually 10 years and 10 months, but we shall say 11 because I have this fetish for prime numbers). While I still had several things in common with them with respect to their tastes in music and movies, they did not have several things in common with me with respect to my tastes.
I could enjoy the music and movies they enjoyed, but I also enjoyed music and movies they would never enjoy—for my tastes and interests had expanded while I’d been away.
I had always been attracted to alternative things—parallel universe stories in science fiction, alternative sports leagues (such as the WFL and the ABA), et cetera. Consequently, I had discovered counter-culture offerings during the intervening years—Beat writers (Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg) and Punk bands (with Young, Loud, and Snotty by Dead Boys as my first punk album). The tastes of my earlier self’s friends were still my tastes, but my newer self’s expanded tastes were not theirs.
For instance, I loved watching A Clockwork Orange that Friday night in that darkened theater until sometime after two o’clock Saturday morning.
They, however, did not.
I was thankful for the darkness in that theater—for several scenes in Kubrick’s flick elicited a physiological response that is quite common among 19-year-old hetero-malchicks when they viddy even a hint of the bare ptitsa flesh aged between puberty and 30-something. While those scenes were very choodessny, they weren’t really real.
Had they been really-real, they should have only aroused young malchicks who are very bolnoy in the gulliver—for only the creepiest of malchicks could ever find such really-real scenes physiologically horrorshow—so that is the one area where Kubrick’s Clockwork fails, but I’ll harp more on that later, my brothers and sisters. For now, my focus is on appropriate hormonal responses to inappropriate presentations.
My reaction that Friday night (or Saturday morning, actually) was physiologically and emotionally visceral. However, my old self’s friends didn’t seem to care much for the flick—and no one wanted to discuss it in the car after we left the theater—with the eldest of them only saying, “Well, that was different.”
Exactly, messeled I, it was different!
So they dropped me off at my domy on the way back to their family manor, and I went into my small apartment and didn’t fall asleep for hours as I messeled (and felt) about the amazing film I’d seen.
I then went to the midnight showing the next night by myself so I could viddy Kubrick’s Clockwork again alone in a darkened theater with magic on the screen while my 19-year-old intellect did its best to work out what it all meant.
Fast forward to when I was a student at the University of Louisiana:
Amidst several education VHS tapes, the English Department had a copy of A Clockwork Orange, so I took it home to viddy it. My reaction to my third viewing was much the same as it had been during my first two. I was hormonally bolshy radosty, but now watching it with a cheena.
However, I don’t recall if there was any in-out following the flick. I like to think there might’ve been, but I really don’t remember.
Regardless, there were definitely differences from the first two times I viddied the Clockwork. For one, I was able to intellectualize upon it as I contemplated its themes and motifs—albeit not actually govoreeting about it with anyone; I was just govoreeting about it with myself—within my own gulliver, as it were . . . but that is nearly always the way, yes?
Thus, the third time stimulated three levels—emotionally, physiologically, and intellectually—even if not all three levels were entirely satiated through the act of auto-propitiation.
Fast forward to January 1, 2015:
I viddied A Clockwork Orange by my lonesome on a cold Maryland day in a dimly lit basement living room. My only response was intellectual—nothing emotional or physiological occurred while I viddied (or after either, if you must know). Even worse—my intellect now saw a flaw in the film (the one mentioned earlier that I will now harp upon).
This perceived flaw is not enough to make me suddenly dislike this film; it’s still an interesting flick that evokes thoughts. Nevertheless, it’s flawed—and the flaw may have more to do with the era in which it was made than with Kubrick’s approach to the material from Anthony Burgess’s novel (but more on that in a while).
Early 1970s detractors of the film considered the Clockwork to be “filled with sex and violence.” In fact, one of my students recently told me that his visual arts teacher had told him, “the film is filled with social taboo after social taboo.”
Of course, filled with is a relative term, yes?
To some viewers in 1971 and 1972, the film must have certainly seemed “filled with sex and violence.” After all, it was given an X rating (the old version of today’s NC-17 rating), and the film was withdrawn in Great Britain where (according to online sources I’ve viddied) it was then not shown for decades.
When the studio re-released the flick in ’73, Kubrick replaced 30 seconds of footage with alternate footage to bring the rating down to an R. I have no idea which 30-second snippet Kubrick switched out, but I know my first three viewings of the film were of the re-edited R-rated version from 1973.
The studio only made the original 1971 version available to the public about 14 years ago. However, nowadays, that original X-rated version would only receive an R rating. In fact, I wonder how far it would be from receiving a PG-13 rating today.
Still, regardless of the rating it receives (and the era in which it receives it), we can agree that Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange contains sex and violence—and part of that equation is part of the problem.
I don’t care if a film has sex and violence in it. I don’t mind viddying fake violence on a screen, and I like sex.
Nevertheless, the sex in Kubrick’s flick is what I now find objectionable. The problem is that A Clockwork Orange should only contain violence.
There should not be any sex in the film at all—which means there should not be anything in the film that should arouse the hormones of “normal” malchicks (normal also being a relative term, of course).
I don’t make this claim against sex in the film because I’m some sort of Holy Roller type who believes that knowing about sex will lead us all into Satan’s sinister snares.
No, I claim there should not be any sex in the film because there isn’t any sex in Burgess’s book. Thus, including sex in the movie drastically alters interpretations of the story, and it conditions us into certain conceptions that are antithetical to Burgess’s intent.
“But wait,” you skazat, “the sex scenes in the movie were also in the book.”
To which I skazat back to you, “No, they weren’t.”
A friend of mine recently told me that 2001: A Space Odyssey was the only Kubrick film in which the author of the novel didn’t have a problem with Kubrick’s approach to the original material. I wasn’t surprised that Arthur C. Clarke didn’t have a problem with the movie because Clarke worked closely with Kubrick on the script.
However, before talking about the idea with my friend, I had not been aware that other authors had problems with Kubrick’s versions of their stories—nor do I now know any of the specific problems that any authors had with Kubrick’s work. Yet, I can now speculate what Burgess’s problem might have been with Kubrick’s treatment of his novel.
First, Kubrick did not include the last chapter of Burgess’s novel in his movie.
“But wait,” you skazat, “I’ve read the novel; it ended the same way the movie ended.”
To which I skazat back, “Then you must have read the American edition of the novel.”
Apparently, Burgess’s original novel (published in Great Britain) has a final chapter that the American edition does not contain. I say “apparently” because I only own a First American Edition volume that was published in 1962; I have never seen a British edition, so I am basing my assumption on what I have viddied online about the British edition.
As I understand it, the American publisher thought Burgess’s final chapter was not effective, so it was cut from the American edition. If the final British chapter actually is as I have viddied it described, then I completely agree with the American publisher’s decision to cut it.
It would seem Burgess might have attempted to appease British censors by tacking on a happy-ending chapter in which the main character, Alex, as an adult, has been completely and truly rehabilitated because he has outgrown the restless rebelliousness of youth.
Burgess’s ending in the British edition reminds me of Rene Descartes appeasing the Catholic Church by tacking on a non sequitur conclusion to Discourse on the Method about the universe being created through divine influence (even though Descartes’s true view was that his book showed that the presence of a divine being is not a requirement for creating a universe).
Similarly, it seems doubtful that Burgess truly believed that malchicks like Alex could throw off their love of brutality simply by “growing up.” Thus, I have my doubts that Burgess was truly upset by the ending of the film. A more believable situation is that Burgess was unhappy with the movie because Kubrick’s film prettified rape to the point of romanticizing it.
Burgess’s novel has rape scenes that are written in terms of what a rape actually is—an act of violence. Perhaps rape may be defined as “sexual violence,” but sexual is an adjective modifying violence. Thus sexual specifies the form of violence; it does not indicate a form of sex.
While Kubrick included most of the novel’s “rape scenes” in the movie, he did not actually film them as rape scenes. Instead, Kubrick filmed them as kinky sex scenes in which the women writhe about as if they aren’t quite certain how much of a struggle they should make and whether they should enjoy the experience.
I know women who have been raped. Based on what little they have told me about their respective confrontations, it is obvious that they did not enjoy being raped. Yet, that aspect of rape is not made clear in the way in which Kubrick filmed those scenes.
In his 1963 novel, Burgess attempted to convey the brutality of rape (whether he succeeded is another matter). However, rather than brutal, the “rape scenes” in Kubrick’s film seem sexy and somewhat enjoyable—not only from a hormonal male perspective but also based on the reaction of the female characters on whom the rapes are being perpetrated.
Of the rape scenes in the novel, the most deplorable alteration that Kubrick made is when Alex meets two girls in the record store and invites them back to his place to listen to music on his hi-fi (not his Wi-Fi).
In the movie, 26-year-old Malcolm McDowell plays a 17-year-old Alex who invites two young women to his room where they engage in multiple occurrences of consensual sex. While the two young female characters in the movie were probably meant to be 16 or 17 years old, these characters were also played by actors in their 20s.
However, at that point in the story, the novel makes it clear that Alex is 15 years old—and that the two girls are 10 years old (at the most): “These two ptitsas couldn’t have been more than ten.”
Additionally, it’s clear in the novel that the girls did not have consensual sex with Alex. Instead, he drugged them and raped them while they were incapacitated.
Burgess does not describe how brutal the actual raping of the two girls was. However, in describing the girls after he rapes them multiple times, Alex narrates, “They looked like they had been in some big bitva [fight], as indeed they had, and were all bruised and pouty [swollen].”
Obviously, the scene in the novel differs greatly from the fun-filled consensual frolic depicted in the flick, but the fault is probably not Kubrick’s (at least not exactly). Remember, Kubrick’s film earned an X-rating at the time. If he had dared to include actual brutal rape scenes—particularly of 10-year-old girls—the film could not have been distributed to theaters (and it probably would never have been made at all).
Thus, Kubrick compromised; he used actors in their 20s to play characters in their late teens, and he ignored the fact that the same characters in the novel were in their pre-teens and mid-teens. In this way, we might understand the creative choices Kubrick made. Nevertheless, those choices have had an effect on individuals within our society and on our culture as a whole.
Just as Alex was classically conditioned in both the novel and the movie to become sick at the thought (and sight) of violent acts, we have collectively been conditioned by our movies, television shows, and video games to be somewhat inured to violence—or, even worse, to be somewhat enraptured by it.
When the blood and gore depicted on the screens of our devices is romanticized to look amazing and awesome in some way or another, our senses become enraptured and our minds quickly follow—or, as Alex says in both the book and the film as he begins to undergo the conditioning process, “It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”
Rather than using our senses to experience the real world, we have slowly become a society during the past 125 years that experiences the world symbolically through moving images and special effects—which, in turn, has altered our conceptions of reality.
We have become classically conditioned to both perceive and conceive our lives based on the daily media we consume. As Aldous Huxley states in Brave New World Revisited about Ivan Pavlov’s work with classical conditioning, “these new behavior patterns seem to be ineradicable. The animal in which they have been implanted cannot be deconditioned.”
Thus, those of us who regularly consume media that beautifies and romanticizes acts of violence become more like Alex at the beginning of A Clockwork Orange—which means we can understand how Alex became the way he was when the story opened. He was a victim of the Modern Age in that he had been conditioned to be enraptured by violence.
When he was conditioned later to be repulsed by violence, he was not being “deconditioned.” Instead, he was being re-conditioned into a new type of conditioned response—which means there isn’t a “natural self” that Alex can ever return to.
Unfortunately, the same is true for all of us. There is no “natural self” for any of us, as we are all products of the symbolic conception of the world that has been instilled in us—and it has been that way in humanity throughout our collective history.
In fact, I am a good example of how such classical conditioning works, and how difficult it is to be “deconditioned” back to whatever is “normal.”
Throughout my life, I have had a response to a certain stimulus that has caused people to wonder (often aloud and to my face) just what the hell is wrong with me. You see, my brothers and sisters and only friends, I have had an adverse reaction to the sight of nail polish for as long as I can recall.
I remember clearly one day when I was about four or five years old being downtown with my mother and crossing a busy intersection when the pedestrian signal allowed us to cross. Being a child, I liked to walk on the white crosswalk line that extended across the street from one sidewalk to the next—which is what I did on this day with the cross-street traffic zooming past to my left.
My mother, fearing that I was too close to the speeding cars, reached out for me so she could pull me away from the traffic. However, she had red nail polish on her fingernails.
O brothers and sisters, I can still viddy it in my gulliver as clear as if it was yesterday. As those red nails reached at me, I leapt away so as not to be touched by the offensive fingers. In doing so, my left hand grazed the side of a passing car. Another inch further out and I might have left a red smear along the asphalt.
When she and I reached the other side of the street and were safely on the sidewalk, my mother grabbed me (again with those nails), shook me, swatted me, and shrieked, “What is wrong with you?”
Indeed, what is wrong with me?
Whenever I see nail polish, I have a slight sense of nausea and a shiver goes up my spine. As I have gotten older, I have managed to control the reaction so that I don’t immediately retreat from the colored nails; however, the physiological response of nausea and shivers up my spine is still present.
Finally, a few years ago, I learned the probable cause of my longstanding hatred of nail polish.
I was back in Boise, riding in a car with my parents when, in some way that I do not recall, the conversation turned suddenly to the topic of a babysitter my parents had employed when I was an infant. I learned that day that this long-lost babysitter had abused me.
When I displayed surprise at learning I had been the victim of abuse from a babysitter, my parents said, “Didn’t we ever tell you this story before?”
“No,” skazats I, “I’ve not heard this tale before.”
“Oh yes,” skazats them back to me, “We each left work early one day to come home so we could see what was going on because of how traumatized you always seemed to be as a baby.”
Brothers and sisters, I won’t go into details here of what my parents learned that day except to tell you it did not involve sexual abuse. All I will say is that it was of a more scatological nature, and I’ll let it go at that.
Suddenly I thought to ask Pater and Mater, “Did she wear polish on her fingernails?”
Mater skazats, “I don’t remember.”
However, Pater skazats, “Yes, she did. She wore red nail polish and always had red lipstick on, too” (lipstick being another of my phobias, but not as prominent as the nail polish phobia). Suddenly it all clicked into place in my gulliver. I had been classically conditioned to hate nail polish (and, to a lesser extent, lipstick). As an infant I undoubtedly viddied horrid red nails and lipstick while suffering all day—similar to Alex suffering from the illness-inducing drugs as he viddied various acts of violence.
However, learning the cause of my reaction to nail polish has not greatly helped in lessening that reaction—for I cannot be deconditioned.
The only way to reverse the response would be to re-condition me to love nail polish and lipstick. O brothers and sisters, typing the previous sentence just a moment ago about potentially loving nail polish caused a wave of nausea to sweep through my stomach. In fact, the thought is almost too much to bear.
You see, it’s just as Burgess wrote in the novel: “Poor poor boy, you must have had a terrible time. A victim of the modern age, just as she was.”
Yes, indeed, we are all of us victims of the Modern Age.
Some of us are conditioned to feel ill at the sight of nail polish, some of us are conditioned to be enraptured by images of violence and destruction, and some of us have been conditioned to be emotionally and physiologically inured to the sexual imagery in Kubrick’s Clockwork.