Monday, June 15, 2009
Kael on Violence in Cinema
[Let’s kick off Pauline Kael Week with excerpts from her review of A Clockwork Orange. Kael wasn’t a fan of the film or its director, Stanley Kubrick, but she makes several arguments here that transcend the film in question. Please read and react in the comments section. Let's get a discussion going!]
The following is excerpted from “Stanley Strangelove,” by Pauline Kael, originally published in The New Yorker, January 1, 1972. It has been anthologized in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, pages 414-418. (In some cases, paragraph breaks and ellipsis have been added. All other punctuation is faithful to For Keeps.)
Stanley Kubrick’s Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is not so much an expression of how this society has lost its soul as he is a force pitted against the society, and by making the victims of the thugs more repulsive and contemptible than the thugs Kubrick has learned to love the punk sadist. The end is no longer the ironic triumph of a mechanized punk but a real triumph. Alex is the only likable person we see – his cynical bravado suggests a broad-nosed, working-class Olivier – and the movie puts us on his side. Alex, who gets kicks out of violence, is more alive than anybody else in the movie, and younger and more attractive, and McDowell plays him exuberantly, with the power and slyness of a young Cagney.
Despite what Alex does at the beginning, McDowell makes you root for his foxiness, for his crookedness. For most of the movie, we see him tortured and beaten and humiliated, so when his bold, aggressive punk’s nature is restored to him it seems not a joke on all of us but, rather, a victory in which we share, and Kubrick takes an exultant tone. The look in Alex’s eyes at the end tells us that he isn’t just a mechanized, choiceless sadist but prefers sadisms and knows he can get by with it. Far from being a little parable about the dangers of soullessness and the horrors of force, whether employed by individuals against each other for by society in “conditioning,” the movie becomes a vindication of Alex, saying that the punk was a free human being and only the good Alex was a robot.
The trick of making the attacked less human than their attackers, so you feel no sympathy for them, is, I think, symptomatic of a new attitude in movies. This attitude says there’s no moral difference. Stanley Kubrick has assumed the deformed, self-righteous perspective of a vicious young punk who says, “Everything’s rotten. Why shouldn’t I do what I want? They’re worse than I am.” In the new mood (perhaps movies in their cumulative effect are partly responsible for it), people want to believe the hyperbolic worst, want to believe in the degradation of the victims – that they are dupes and phonies and weaklings. I can’t accept that Kubrick is merely reflecting this post-assassinations, post-Manson mood; I think he’s catering to it. I think he wants to dig it. …
When I pass a newsstand and see the saintly, bearded, intellectual Kubrick on the cover of Saturday Review, I wonder: Do people notice things like the way Kubrick cuts to the rival teen-age gang before Alex and his hoods arrive to fight them, just so we can have the pleasure of watching that gang strip the struggling girl they mean to rape? Alex’s voice is on the track announcing his arrival, but Kubrick can’t wait for Alex to arrive, because then he couldn’t show us as much. That girl is stripped for our benefit; it’s the purest exploitation. Yet this film lusts for greatness, and I’m not sure that Kubrick knows how to make simple movies anymore, or that he cares to, either. I don’t know how consciously he has thrown this film to the youth; maybe he’s more of a showman than he lets on – a lucky showman with opportunism built into the cells of his body. The film can work at a pop-fantasy level for a young audience already prepared to accept Alex’s view of the society, ready to believe that that’s how it is.
At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact desensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don’t believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there’s anything conceivably damaging in these films – the freedom to analyze their implications.
If we don’t use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us – that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerns with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it’s eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it’s worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what’s in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?
(Not sure these are even necessary. Please feel free to go your own way.)
Does this 1972 review seem prophetic or dated?
In general: Does graphic imagery in cinema desensitize us to horrific violence, or does it expose its ugliness?
Do so-called “torture porn” films, like the Saw franchise, support Kael’s argument?
Is it exploitive or at least hypocritical to artfully romanticize or eroticize violence in a film intent to condemn violence?
In this specific example, is it possible that we can admire Alex and truly despise his actions? Do we become accomplices by becoming enthusiastic voyeurs of Alex’s crimes?
Could this line now apply to Fight Club and Tyler Durden? -- "The film can work at a pop-fantasy level for a young audience already prepared to accept Alex’s view of the society, ready to believe that that’s how it is."