Since so many different interpretations have been offered about A Clockwork Orange, how do you see your own film?
Stanley Kubrick: The central idea of the film has to do with the question of free will. Do we lose our humanity if we are deprived of the choice between good and evil? Do we become, as the title suggests, A Clockwork Orange? Recent experiments in conditioning and mind control on volunteer prisoners in America have taken this question out of the realm of science-fiction. At the same time, I think the dramatic impact of the film has principally to do with the extraordinary character of Alex, as conceived by Anthony Burgess in his brilliant and original novel. Aaron Stern, the former head of the MPAA rating board in America, who is also a practising psychiatrist, has suggested that Alex represents the unconscious: man in his natural state. After he is given the Ludovico “cure” he has been “civilized,” and the sickness that follows may be viewed as the neurosis imposed by society.
“Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. 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.”
–Stanley Kubrick, 1972
“Well, as you know, when Singing in the Rain came out, for generations of people, [Gene Kelly] swinging around that lamp post and slapping in that water, and singing…it’s one of the most euphoric moments we’ve ever seen on film. So when I had to come up with something for this sequence, which involved my character in a very brutal situation, that’s when he’s happiest. So Singing in the Rain just popped out. I just started singing it, and [Stanley] Kubrick bought the rights and we redid the whole thing and incorporated it.
A footnote to that is that a year afterward, when the film had been out and it was a big hit, I was invited to come to Hollywood by Warner Brothers. I came out and it was very nice to meet everybody. I had never been to Hollywood before. And some guy who was my minder said, ‘Hey, there’s a party in Beverly Hills tonight, Malcolm. Do you want to go, there’s going to be lots of stars there?’ And I went, ‘Yeah! I would love to!’ I was like a kid in a candy store. And we go and he said, ‘Hey, you won’t believe this. Gene Kelly’s here. Would you like to meet him?’ And I went, ‘Oh yeah!’ (laughs)
So he had his back to me and he tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Gene, I’d like to introduce you to Malcolm McDowell’ and he looked at me and…then turned around and walked off.
But you know, I totally got it. I totally understood. I took his glorious moment and put a different spin on it. I guess I kind of ruined his moment in a way. But of course, it was an homage to him, because it was so amazing. And so indelible in me as a person, that I blurted it out and started singing it [while filming the scene].”
–Malcolm McDowell (via)
Q. What was your attitude towards violence and eroticism in your film?
Stanley Kubrick: The violence in the story has to be given sufficient dramatic weight so that the moral dilemma it poses can be seen in the right context. It is absolutely essential that Alex is seen to be guilty of a terrible violence against society, so that when he is eventually transformed by the State into a harmless zombie you can reach a meaningful conclusion about the relative rights and wrongs. If we did not see Alex first as a brutal and merciless thug it would be too easy to agree that the State is involved in a worse evil in depriving him of his freedom to choose between good and evil. It must be clear that it is wrong to turn even unforgivably vicious criminals into vegetables, otherwise the story would fall into the same logical trap as did the old, anti-lynching Hollywood westerns which always nullified their theme by lynching an innocent person. Of course no one will disagree that you shouldn’t lynch an innocent person, but will they agree that it’s just as bad to lynch a guilty person, perhaps even someone guilty of a horrible crime? And so it is with conditioning Alex.
Q. In your films, you seem to be critical of all political factions. Would you define yourself as a pessimist or anarchist?
Kubrick: I am certainly not an anarchist, and I don’t think of myself as a pessimist. I believe very strongly in parliamentary democracy, and I am of the opinion that the power and authority of the State should be optimized and exercised only to the extent that is required to keep things civilized. History has shown us what happens when you try to make society too civilized, or do too good a job of eliminating undesirable elements. It also shows the tragic fallacy in the belief that the destruction of democratic institutions will cause better ones to arise in their place.
Certainly one of the most challenging and difficult social problems we face today is, how can the State maintain the necessary degree of control over society without becoming repressive, and how can it achieve this in the face of an increasingly impatient electorate who are beginning to regard legal and political solutions as too slow? The State sees the spectre looming ahead of terrorism and anarchy, and this increases the risk of its over-reaction and a reduction in our freedom. As with everything else in life, it is a matter of groping for the right balance, and a certain amount of luck.
-excerpted from Kubrick: The Definitive Edition by Michel Ciment, Gilbert Adair, & Robert Bononno
Q. Alex loves rape and Beethoven: what do you think that implies?
Stanley Kubrick: I think this suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Hitler loved good music and many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men but it didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good.
via Kubrick: The Definitive Edition by Michel Ciment, Gilbert Adair, & Robert Bononno