Your Friend And Humble Narrator: Kubrick, Compassion And A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

On the very real empathy in Kubrick's films.

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Editor's note: the author of this piece requested to remain anonymous - es

It’s easy to look at the iconoclastic storytelling that runs through Stanley Kubrick’s films, and the indefatigable precision of his technique, and mistake the filmmaker for being “cold” or “unemotional.” His takes on war (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket), technology (2001), and sexuality (Eyes Wide Shut) certainly earn him that reputation – at least, on the surface. He often prioritizes larger themes, and seldom seems interested in making viewers privy to his characters’ points of view. 

But there is a great passion roiling in his approach to material that lends his films their singularity, their urgency, and their continued relevance decades after their initial release. He is curious, outraged, even desperate for a certain sort of emotional connection between his characters, and by extension, an understanding of them by his audience. And it’s precisely this deceptive and yet engaging approach that makes A Clockwork Orange not only controversial, but deeply profound and powerful: against all odds and common sense, Alexander DeLarge might very well be the most sympathetic protagonist Kubrick ever created. 

As the architect of what is possibly the angriest (and in my opinion, best) war movie ever made, Paths of Glory, Kubrick developed this sense of compassion early in his career. The three scapegoated wretches chosen to answer for the poor strategy and rich hubris of their commanding officers in that film, are, surely, all deeply sympathetic. But the true main character is Colonel Dax, and he serves as the director’s proxy as he seeks desperately to prevent a travesty of justice, and inevitably, come to terms with a tragic and meaningless loss of life. 

Kubrick’s incredulity at such an outcome – manifested immediately in Dax’s disgust, and later in recurrent stories of personal and philosophical crisis – should not be taken as resignation. The remainder of his films serve in one way or another as a reminder of our foibles, and an of affirmation of life – even if, as in the case of Clockwork’s DeLarge, its value was, to say the least, questionable. He regards his characters with a skeptical, but ultimately hopeful affection: can they overcome their essential fears, desires, and weaknesses? Not always, but sometimes.

A Clockwork Orange examines this notion particularly vividly, by presenting us with a despicable specimen of humanity and then asking us to identify with his pain. Though he is perhaps indisputably “evil,” he narrates his adventures with a theatrical flair that, for a few minutes, seems almost fun to watch – interrupting the rape of a beleaguered young woman to pummel her scruffy attackers in a showdown that feels delightfully staged, then racing fearlessly down darkened roads in a compact, overstuffed sports car as oncoming traffic dives frantically out of the way. His true cruelty is of course yet to come, but even those acts of violence showcase the lack of guidance – parental, scholarly, and eventually, authoritarian – that he obviously needs. 

The purpose of the first 40 or so minutes of the film is to place us squarely, often uncomfortably, inside Alex’s head. He possesses intelligence and self-awareness – such as when to use the carrot and when the stick with his disgruntled “droogs,” for example – but lacks the capacity for self-reflection, which leads to their betrayal of him. Suffice it to say it’s largely impossible to feel sorry for him when he’s left covered in milk and blood on the doorstep of a house where he’s just killed a woman, just a few scenes after he’s brutally raped another woman. But by the time he enters prison, we understand him: a young man from a poor area with loving but inattentive parents enjoying a life of irresponsibility and puerile luxury as he claims control over a world that’s largely indifferent to him, even as it gave birth to him.

But then, The Ludovico Technique. Alex obviously volunteers for the treatment because he thinks it’s a shortcut to get out of prison. What he soon discovers is that the rehabilitation process makes him both superficially miserable – ruining his appreciation for his beloved Ludwig Van Beethoven – and more substantially transformed, as he loses his ability to choose between right and wrong. That standing up for himself becomes a punishing act of humiliation to replace his earlier instinct to attack first feels like no accident from Kubrick; an authoritarian society that restricts and controls choice itself, the filmmaker contends, is a violation infinitely worse than any of the crimes that Alex has or might have committed. 

Importantly, Kubrick photographs the demonstration sequence from Alex’s point of view as his impulses are tested, and we are forced to experience his dehumanization first hand. Where his experiences were previously documented with an artful detachment, here they’re purely, inescapably visceral; the actor enlisted to attack him looms menacingly as Alex is instructed to lick his boot, while the nude actress feels like a voluptuous siren, improbably volunteering her body only for him to succumb to sickness and revulsion when he accepts. How does that constitute rehabilitation, we’re meant to ask. His thoughts and feelings haven’t been changed, Kubrick points out, but his physical ability to engage in the world on the terms it presents to him.

Of course, the Technique backfires spectacularly within a matter of days for Alex. His parents, spineless and unhelpful as ever, waffle between their obligation to their son and the manipulations of a new lodger who they may rightly prefer. His victims, and former associates, turn on him, revisiting earlier cruelties without having the opportunity to defend himself, or escape. And finally, he gets picked up by an anti-government organization for use as a political weapon, and is subsequently tortured into attempting suicide both to serve their purposes, and in order to escape the discomfort of his aversion therapy. Notwithstanding some broader notion that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” Kubrick is asking us to care about him like we would ourselves, and feel sorry for the pain he endures.

Mind you, Kubrick doesn’t make it easy for viewers to empathize with, in this case, a sociopath – and he isn’t trying to. His compassion is often as theoretical as it is visceral: In Full Metal Jacket, he creates a Private Pyle as a well-meaning outcast, and simultaneously, a clumsy irritation, and Tom Cruise’s Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut is, alternately, responsible parent and husband and an emotionally careless philanderer. He makes you work for their redemption, and then he questions if it was worth the effort. But that’s what made this film so provocative when it was released in 1971, and it’s what makes it so relevant – and challenging – to this day. A Clockwork Orange is, in the parlance of Alex, a real horrorshow; to Alex, that term means “excellent” or “cool,” while to us it describes something repugnant and deeply upsetting. Somewhere in between those two definitions lies not only this film’s ultimate emotional substance, but a true understanding of Kubrick’s instincts, and his sensitivity, as an artist.