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Nice Boy From the Bronx?
by Craig McGregor

So what is a nice Jewish boy from The Bronx like Stanley Kubrick doing making bizarre films like A Clockwork Orange? Well, says Stanley, everybody starts off being a nice boy from somewhere. He smiles. He has a good sense of humor. He is eating halibut in a restaurant, he is wearing his habitual drab olive flak jacket, and with his brooding, bearded face he looks not unlike the Napoleon he is going to make his next movie about. He doesn't look like a genius, no apocalyptic lumina haloes his head, and with his soft New York accent he could almost still be that mythical nice boy from the Bronx.

But by the time you're 43, and Movie Director of the Year, and a Cult Figure as well, you change. You live in a big manor house with a high wall around it, and you drive a Mercedes, and communicate through a radio-telephone, and what you do see of the real world you often don't like; and so you end up, years later, making a movie like A Clockwork Orange: a macabre, simplistic, chillingly pessimistic film whose main themes are rape, violence, sexual sadism, brutality, and the eternal savagery of man.

"Man isn't a noble savage, he's an ignoble savage", says Kubrick, reaching for the iced water. "He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved - that about sums it up. I'm interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it's a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure."

Like what? "Well, many aspects of liberal mythology are coming to grief now - but I don't want to give any examples or I'm going to sound like William Buckley."

Kubrick's vision of society is just as bleak: it can make man even worse than he naturally is. "The idea that social restraints are all bad is based on a utopian and unrealistic vision of man", he says. "But in this movie you have an example of social institutions gone a bit berserk. Obviously social institutions faced with the law-and-order problem might choose to become grotesquely oppressive. The movie poses two extremes: it shows Alex in his precivilized state, and society committing a worse evil in attempting to cure him."

Though A Clockwork Orange is ostensibly about the future, Kubrick thinks it is of immediate relevance to cities in the United States. "New York City, for example, is the sort of place where people feel very unsafe. Nearly everyone seems to know someone who's been mugged. All you have to do is add to that a little economic disappointment, and the increasingly trendy view that politics are a waste of time and problems have to be solved instantly, and I could see very serious social unrest in the United States which would probably be resolved by a very authoritarian government."

"And then you could only hope you would have a benevolent despot rather than an evil one. A Tito rather than a Stalin - though of the Right."

So Kubrick's kept away. He's been living in England for 10 years now. He hasn't been back to New York for four years, even to fly through it - though he keeps talking to "refugees". About the closest he ever gets is San Diego, where his parents live; he sees them a couple of times a year. Has he ever thought of going back? Kubrick shrugs the idea off. If he did, it wouldn't be to New York City - "I guess one could always live in, heaven forbid, Connecticut or Long Island!"

In A Clockwork Orange, then, Kubrick feels he is satirizing both Man and Society. The trouble is, for most of the film it's impossible to tell from what standpoint the satire is being made; Kubrick has deliberately changed Anthony Burgess's novel to make all the victims of Alex's aggression even more detestable than Alex himself. Such values as appear to exist are shifting, ambiguous, perverse: satire is a moral act, but Kubrick's film ends by being glitteringly amoral.

The closest it gets to a point of view is the prison chaplain's thunderous proclamation of the need for choice, which has the weight of Kubrick's own deeply held belief behind it: "It's the only non-satirical view in the film, I mean he's right!" says Kubrick. But the film's ending, which also celebrates free will, is "obviously satirical - you couldn't take it seriously." We (and Alex) are back to where we started.

Maybe one of the problems is that all the people in A Clockwork Orange, aggressors and victims alike, are merely caricatures, cardboard targets for Kubrick's satire; even Alex and his "droogs" remain clockwork cutouts with no history, no character, nothing to relate them to the society which nurtured them. We learn nothing from them: no insight into the way man's violence may be created, triggered or changed by the world he lives in, not even anything about the nature of violence itself. In his last three films Kubrick has portrayed hardly a single normal relationship between people. HAL, the computer in 2001, is probably the closest he has come to creating a human character.

Yet Kubrick maintains he doesn't feel "isolated" from people. "I have a wife, three children, three dogs, seven cats. I'm not a Franz Kafka, sitting alone and suffering." In fact, he says he would like to make a movie, sometime, about contemporary life - if only he could find the right story. "A great story is a kind of miracle", he says. "I've never written a story myself, which is probably why I have so much respect for it. I started out, before I became a film director, always thinking, you know, if I couldn't play on the Yankees I'd like to be a novelist. The people I first admired were not film directors but novelists. Like Conrad."

As for the critics - "I find a lot of critics misunderstand my films; probably everybody's films. Very few of them spend enough time thinking about them. They look at the film once, they don't really remember what they saw, and they write the review in an hour. I mean, one spent more time on a book report in school. I'm very pleased with A Clockwork Orange. I think it's the most skillful movie I've made. I can see almost nothing wrong with it."

Given his despairing view of man and society, it's hardly surprising that Kubrick has turned away from the contemporary world. He immerses himself in his work. His last three movies have been set in the future, his next will be set in the past. And in recent years he has moved into his own private form of transcendentalism.

"2001 would give a little insight into my metaphysical interests", he explains. "I'd be very surprised if the universe wasn't full of an intelligence of an order that to us would seem God-like. I find it very exciting to have a semi-logical belief that there's a great deal to the universe we don't understand, and that there is an intelligence of an incredible magnitude outside the earth. It's something I've become more and more interested in. I find it a very exciting and satisfying hope."

Why? "Well, I mean, one would hate to think that this was it."

How did Kubrick come to such a pessimistic vision of mankind? "From observation", he replies laconically. "Knowing what has happened in the world, seeing the people around me." He says it has nothing to do with anything that's happened to him personally, nor with his Jewish background. "I mean, it's essentially Christian theology anyway, that view of man."

He's wrong, of course. Kubrick's concept of man as essentially evil is straight Manichean, one of the most perverse yet persistent of Christian heresies, and it's hardly an accident that he should seize upon a novel from the tortuous Catholic conscience of a writer like Burgess; says Kubrick, "I just found I responded emotionally to the book very intensely."

He doesn't believe that a work of art should have as its primary purpose "a political or philosophical policy statement", and Burgess's novel had everything: great story, great ideas, and a main character, Alex, who summarizes what Kubrick thinks natural man is all about. "You identify with Alex because you recognize yourself", he says. "It's for this reason that some people become uncomfortable."

And so, for the first half of the movie, Kubrick throws endless, garishly imagined scenes of sadism, gang rape, torture and terrorism onto the screen, dwelling on each with loving and lascivious detail. To the criticism that this is gratuitous, because it has little intellectual and no satiric point behind it, he has a standard reply: "It's all in the plot." He continues: "Part of the artistic challenge of the character is to present the violence as he sees it, not with the disapproving eye of the moralist but subjectively as Alex experiences it."

Kubrick believes the cinema is a sort of daydreaming, wherein we can enact fantasies which our conscious mind normally represses. But for some reason or other he doesn't believe he's doing that in A Clockwork Orange, neither for himself (though he admits he is fascinated by violence) nor for those who might like a bit of the old vicarious rape, torture and ultraviolence in superscreen glory-color. "That wasn't my motivation, I don't think it has that effect."

Yet surely the violence and sexual sadism was one of the reasons Burgess's novel appealed to him? Kubrick is plainly ambivalent about that. "Anyway, I don't think it's socially harmful, I don't think any work of art can be", he concludes. "Unfortunately, I don't think it can be socially constructive either."

But don't works of art affect people at all? "They affect us when they illuminate something we already feel, they don't change us. It's not the same thing." Art doesn't influence us? "I certainly wouldn't have said my life has been influenced by any work of art."

So what does that leave Stanley Kubrick doing?

Making entertainments, I guess. And, come to think of it, that's all A Clockwork Orange is: a marvelously executed, sensationalist, confused and finally corrupt piece of pop trivia, signifying nothing. The old horror-show (Burgesspeak for "good") has always been a surefire theatrical recipe, and Kubrick's mod sci-fi movie will probably be a great success. It's like a high class Russ Meyer pornyshow (no wonder those lipsmacking stills should seem so perfectly at home in this month's Playboy) with some Andy Warhol freakery thrown in for shockpower. But, like 2001, its intellectual poverty limits it to popfad art. Ultimate effect? None.

And, saddest part of all, that's just how Stanley Kubrick seems to think it has to be.

The New York Times, January 30, 1972

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