If you’re a sensitive soul, you’re probably acutely aware of the way violence is depicted in movies. Violence tends to be – in classifiable genre movies like action and horror films – glorified. When James Bond shoots a bad guy in the face, we cheer at the man’s death. When Jason Voorhees rips a nude woman in half with a crowbar, it’s meant to be exhilarating. Mr. Tarantino’s movies, one may have noticed, are chock full of bloody violence, which is presented with such a gloriously expanded style, that it plays as both brutal and exceedingly thrilling.
The perpetrators of “exciting” violence, one may have observed, is reserved for heroes. Heroes – tonally, at least – don’t commit brutal acts of violence. They commit fun and cathartic acts of violence. When a hero shoots someone in the face, we cheer. When the villains commit acts of violence, even if they are also shooting someone in the face, it’s dark, cold, and harsh. Hero violence = good. Villain violence = bad.
To clarify, characters like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees may structurally be the villains in their stories, but they also serve, in practice, as antiheroes. When slasher villains do violence, we’re meant to cheer. To heck with the nubile youngsters they are slaying. We want to see the antiheroes succeed.
Which brings me to Alex DeLarge from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, playing at The New Beverly from Wednesday, December 14th through Saturday the 17th. Alex DeLarge is a unique case in the world of antiheroes, as he is aggressively despicable, and proves, through his extensive narration, that he has no morality in his soul whatsoever. Alex is played indelibly, of course, by the amazing Malcolm McDowell who is still defined handily by this role decades later. McDowell was already in his late 20s by the time he filmed A Clockwork Orange but his youthful face and bouncy demeanor allows you to see Alex as much younger. Indeed, in Anthony Burgess’ original novel, Alex is meant to be 15.
By 15, Alex has learned only one thing about life: That it’s something to be manipulated for his own amoral hedonism. “If you want a motorcar,” he says to his sub-thugs, “you pluck it from the trees.” And when it comes to women, he declares “if you want pretty Polly, you take it.” Other people are tools for his own debauchery. He steals when he wants, beats people when he wants, and rapes people when he wants. There is only regret when he is caught, and not necessarily for his victims. It’s only a panic that he will not be allowed to continue in his life. Alex DeLarge is perhaps even worse than the Marquis de Sade. Sade knew he was doing evil things, and defied God and the world to stop him. Alex, meanwhile, only knows pleasure, and doesn’t give a damn. He is the purest version of a sociopath.
Even when a gentle priest, hoping to straighten Alex in prison, points him toward the gentleness and sacrifice of Christ, hoping he sees a better life model, Alex seems himself – in a definitive fantasy sequence – as one of the Roman soldiers beating Jesus during the crucifixion. The only way to assure Alex is made into a gentle, decent human being in this universe is to essentially take away his free will. The prison system cannot stop Alex from having his dark, violent impulses; he is nothing without them. But they can assure that his impulses are caged.
Alex is effectively deprogrammed, and he is left in a position of “decency.” He’s only well-behaved on the outside, of course, but that’s enough for the squares. He is a ripe, round piece of pleasant fruit, but inside, he is mechanical, hence the title. He is now, in the eyes of “society,” a real human. This speaks strongly to the way society wants to deal with its more violent members. Some people in our world are simply violent. Kubrick and Burgess seem to believe that there are people in this world who are, even by age 15, well beyond hope of redemption or change. And, the question arises, what do we do with these people? Killing them off is wrong, so deprogramming them seems to be the best choice, even if that too is morally iffy at best. Do we hate the criminal, or try to love him? If he’s legitimately irredeemable, how are we meant to feel about him?
Kubrick, oddly, leaves Alex in a position of odd sympathy. We’re not meant to love him, but Kubrick assured us that we don’t hate him. His violence is too much fun, and he takes too much glee in life. McDowell’s impish smirk is infectious, and we kind of admire Alex’s sociopathy in a way. Indeed, A Clockwork Orange is legitimately hilarious. Critics have often accused Kubrick of being cold and inhumane, telling stories that appeal to the intellect rather than the heart, but watching the energy and humor of A Clockwork Orange stands counter to that. It’s certainly not a warm film, but its humor is infectious and immediately evident. Kubrick understands how to make people laugh, even if it is a dark laugh. It’s why so many young people respond so positively to it to this very day. There is a freedom to Alex’s evil life, and it’s thrilling to watch. The dark humor is something many adolescents can relate to.
But does that humor undercut the film? Some have said that, by depicting Alex in such a humorous light, that it kind of glorifies him and makes the film morally complicit in his awful behavior. Is Kubrick encouraging this sort of evil behavior? Well of course not. Only a dangerous psychotic would be encouraging this, and only the more cynical movies about dark violence (torture porn films, for instance) tend to see the violence as something that is enjoyable for its own sake. The humor takes the edge off. It makes the hero sympathetic, but that sympathy allows us in. It allows a perspective. Alex is not an intellectual construct. He’s a real person.
So even though A Clockwork Orange is about a dark, aggressively immoral sociopath, its humor is kind of necessary. It’s the blackest of humor, but it’s the only way “in,” as it were.
The ultimate conclusion of A Clockwork Orange is, in true Kubrickian fashion, a damning satire of society. The violent person cannot be killed, but society also demands violent retribution for his crimes. Given the chance, society would do violence right back to Alex. His power is gone, his ability to do violence is robbed of him. He is nothing without his immorality, and the people are now ready to match his evil. In order to protect the perpetrator from his victims, The Man has no choice but to program him again. Give him back his violence. The Man wants to use Alex as an experiment, to use his place in society as some sort of statement. Alex, meanwhile, doesn’t give a damn. Kubrick seems to be arguing that a society obsessed with controlling violence kind of requires inherently violent people. They are the argument for. The political statement. They are the ones we can warn our children against. They can be used for our benefit, and for our detriment. The brilliance of the film is to tell that commentary from the perspective of the violent person.
Will you find A Clockwork Orange funny? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It’s an acidic film to be sure, and the images are rather extreme. But, at its heart, A Clockwork Orange is a comedy first. If you’re unsure as to whether or not you can laugh, I hereby give you permission. It’s o.k. to giggle at Alex, to kind of like him, even as you hate him. And even if the result is ultimately damning, it’s o.k. to cheer when Alex becomes a horrible person again. He is the very definition of an antihero, and he is one of cinema’s best.