“It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”
Saturday, March 6, 2010
A Clockwork Orange: Social Order Within the Moral Perimeter
In what may be perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s most controversial feature presentation, A Clockwork Orange, an adaptation of the Andrew Burgess novel of the same name, is one of those films that provokes our deepest comprehension about ourselves and challenges our well-established notions of what is moral, and what makes us free, and what makes us human.
Revolving around the story of a young hoodlum living in a not-so-distant dystopian future where violent crime is not only rampant and commonplace, but where the government of such a society is willing and capable of inhuman repression in order to stop the anarchy.
In its initial screening in the United States, it was slapped with an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for its graphic depiction of “ultraviolence” – rape, murder, and torture which for even today are still regarded as taboo imagery in films. Nevertheless, the film is celebrated as one of Kubrick’s masterpieces, garnering both popular and critical acclaim, having been nominated for four Academy Awards and scoring well in the box office. The film remains to be cult classic and is even touted as one of the greatest films of all time.
At face value, what really made this film stand out and made it gain so much public outcry and controversy is because of the very explicit portrayal of the crimes committed by the main character on screen. The film explores the deepest and darkest recesses of human nature and one way for us to be able to explore and experience it is for the film to really incite our senses and perceptions, and to very well mirror reality – that man in his most primal and base nature is capable of doing such atrocities to his fellow man, and that very nature is inherent in everyone. Arguably, the film is trying to show us that the fact of the matter is, there is only but a thin line that separates us, the audience, from the main character, and perhaps this brings us towards the discussion on morality.
Of what is good and what is evil, and of what is just and what is unjust, is also examined in this film. Morality, as established clearly during our class discussions, is and will always be critically intersubjective, heavily relying on the context of the environment and the specific behavior of the actors. As such, it is indeed difficult for the viewer of this film to make a fair value judgment on whether or not the acts committed by the main character could be considered as moral. Obviously, for us who have watched this film, we are understandably disgusted of the things that we see and consider such acts as evil and immoral. We live in a society that clearly decries such behavior, and we have the law and the fear of societal banishment which prevents us from committing such acts in the first place.
Do the same standards apply in the society where the main character resides? I don’t think so. If you look closely, it becomes increasingly apparent that the main character’s disposition towards sex and violence is not so much uncommon in that society. He isn't so much an anomaly in an entire society that takes glee in depravity and debauchery. His own urges and behavior are equally displayed by people all around him; the homosexual undertones of many of the characters, the seeming acceptance to hypersexuality as seen in the motif and backdrops of the residences of the people, and the violence both state and non-state actors engage in order to achieve their interests. Putting all these together, it is easy to see that the main character is a product of a decadent society- both present in its highest echelons down through its entirety. How then could we say that the main character is “immoral” and “evil” if upon this context, he is clearly doing what is expected from him? Again, we must question ourselves on what really constitutes morality, and more importantly, who gets to decide what is good and what is evil.
While the film did not explicitly advocate or condemn a certain political ideology or agenda, we could say that it is a critique of the two extremes in the political spectrum – the idea of absolute liberty for individuals against absolute order for the state.
The first part of the film clearly shows the perils of absolute liberty as we see the main character giving in to his most primal nature – he rapes and plunders merely because it provides him the highest pleasure for himself. On the other hand, the latter part of the film portrays the complete opposite. The state, in its bid towards absolute order, does whatever means necessary to bring law and order in that society, even going as far as to dehumanize its citizens to become mere drones incapable of making a choice.
We could clearly see that Kubrick is making a stand against the unfettered use of power, both at an individual and state level. To that end, perhaps, Kubrick is speaking out against the destructiveness and dangers of both anarchy and totalitarianism.
Finally, another important aspect that we must look into in this film is the notion of humanity and what makes us human in the first place. The prison chaplain puts it plainly:
“When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”
“Choice. The boy 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.”
The prison chaplain raises an important point regarding this issue. The only thing that separates us from being mere animals driven by our primal instinct for self-preservation is the fact that we are capable of making choices. Humans, we could say, exist a cut above animals because we are not driven by instincts alone, but rather have the intelligence and the capacity which enables us to decide the paths that we take.
The main character’s cruelty is a choice he made for himself. The same way the other characters in the film also had the choice to be good or to be evil. When the treatment eliminates his ability to do evil, he becomes less of a threat to society, but also, less human. He is not truly good because he didn’t choose to be good, and that choice we have to make is vital to being a complete human being. Free will is indeed what makes us human, and as we saw in the film, if devoid of that essential nature we become lesser than humanity – a clockwork orange.
Ultimately, the film raises some fundamental questions regarding the way we envisage ourselves and reality. Beyond its provocative and polemic nature, and its graphic imagery and content, the film not only challenges our well established norms and standards, but also provides us a more critical assessment and snapshot of the true state of society as well as our humanity.