A creator of films that are considered to be some of the most visually flawless art-house movies of all time, Stanley Kubrick is often hailed as both a genius and a madman. His most successful films may not share similar plotlines or themes but they generally all have two things in common; an intricate attention to detail in each and every frame, and an unapologetic thematic exploration of the forbidden and the taboo.
Kubrick’s films are an example of cinema both as an art form and as a political platform, social commentaries with iconic stills. Alex’s malicious glare directly into the camera in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Jack Torrance’s deranged head poking through the hacked down door in The Shining (1980), as well as multiple images from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). These intense frames are recognisable as not only characteristic to Stanley Kubrick, but also the gold standard for the art-house style itself. This contrast in genres causes there to be a strange conflict of interest in Kubrick’s work. A challenge is born – can a film be simultaneously enjoyed and consumed as something visually beautiful, and can this beauty be fully appreciated, when the message and story is so dark? From a purely modern perspective, there are films with far more brutality than Kubrick’s, and yet A Clockwork Orange in particular is still, by some, thought to be utterly abhorrent.
On the one hand, there are terrible scenes of violence, rape, and terror, as there is in so much contemporary film. On the other, these scenes are not portrayed as unquestionably terrible bouts of evil committed by characters that are shown to the audience as inherently bad. Instead, the boundaries are blurred. In A Clockwork Orange, the perspective is from the narrator’s point of view. Alex is given a voice and emotions, he is given his own song, and this makes for an uncomfortable experience in the eyes of many viewers, bearing in mind that the films was released in 1971. At the same time, it is visually alluring, comedic in parts and therefore even more sinister and dark than a film with the same level of violence but an obvious condemnation of it. This generates a feeling of vulnerability, a sense that in liking the film and appreciating it wholly, the audience is somehow siding with Alex and “The Droogs”.
Although I understand that for many A Clockwork Orange makes for such uneasy viewing, I disagree that this renders it artistically invalid. If the worst parts of society, the most unspeakable capabilities of humanity, cannot be reflected and shown back to us through the medium of film, then how can they be presented? Kubrick may have pushed the boundaries of what makes suitable viewing, but somebody had to. Film is accessible because it requires little translation; although interpretations differ, the plot and images and sounds all remain the same, unlike in a novel which is much more flexible in this way. After all, a film is just one person’s interpretation of a story. Kubrick’s interpretations are just a little whackier and more intense than most.
In film, the descriptor ‘shocking’ is not necessarily synonymous with ‘bad’, or ‘in poor taste’. Instead, shocking can be thought provoking. Shock-value can go one of two ways, it can be pointless or gratuitous and there simply to give the film some memorability, to make it stand out, or it can be used to strike a chord within the viewer, to express that the fear of a dystopian society, of corruption and gangs that could well become a reality. Kubrick explores human nature, and how we perceive criminals and thugs, and how the state may choose to intervene and deal with such people. Kubrick makes sure that, whilst we are afraid of the criminals, we are also profoundly uncomfortable with how the state deals with them on our behalf. Without the on-screen violence and scenes of rape, the film would make for easier but less meaningful viewing, allowing the cinematic style to overtake the content.
Kubrick may be as much a madman as he is a genius, not only through making A Clockwork Orange but also in turning Vladimir Nabokov’s highly controversial novel Lolita (1959) into a film, as well as commenting on the volatile subjects of war, artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons and insanity amongst others. This being said, he managed to seamlessly join together the evocative beauty of each scene whilst delivering critical reflections and commentaries on complex social issues.
Eliza Slawther is a journalist and writer based in the UK. She holds an MA in Journalism from City, University of London.