There has always been violence in art
The erotic decor in the film suggests a slightly futuristic period for the story. The assumption being that erotic art will eventually become popular art, and just as you now buy African wildlife paintings in Woolworth’s, you may one day buy erotica. 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.
What is your opinion about the increasing presence of violence on the screen in recent years?
There has always been violence in art. There is violence in the Bible, violence in Homer, violence in Shakespeare, and many psychiatrists believe that it serves as a catharsis rather than a model. I think the question of whether there has been an increase in screen violence and, if so, what effect this has had, is to a very great extent a media-defined issue. I know there are well-intentioned people who sincerely believe that films and TV contribute to violence, but almost all of the official studies of this question have concluded that there is no evidence to support this view. At the same time, I think the media tend to exploit the issue because it allows them to display and discuss the so-called harmful things from a lofty position of moral superiority. But the people who commit violent crime are not ordinary people who are transformed into vicious thugs by the wrong diet of films or TV. Rather, it is a fact that violent crime is invariably committed by people with a long record of anti-social behaviour, or by the unexpected blossoming of a psychopath who is described afterward as having been ‘…such a nice, quiet boy,’ but whose entire life, it is later realized, has been leading him inexorably to the terrible moment, and who would have found the final ostensible reason for his action if not in one thing then in another. In both instances immensely complicated social, economic and psychological forces are involved in the individual’s criminal behaviour. The simplistic notion that films and TV can transform an otherwise innocent and good person into a criminal has strong overtones of the Salem witch trials. This notion is further encouraged by the criminals and their lawyers who hope for mitigation through this excuse. I am also surprised at the extremely illogical distinction that is so often drawn between harmful violence and the so-called harmless violence of, say, “Tom and Jerry” cartoons or James Bond movies, where often sadistic violence is presented as unadulterated fun. I hasten to say, I don’t think that they contribute to violence either. Films and TV are also convenient whipping boys for politicians because they allow them to look away from the social and economic causes of crime, about which they are either unwilling or unable to do anything.
Alex loves rape and Beethoven: what do you think that implies?
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.
Contrary to Rousseau, do you believe that man is born bad and that society makes him worse?
I wouldn’t put it like that. I think that when Rousseau transferred the concept of original sin from man to society, he was responsible for a lot of misguided social thinking which followed. I don’t think that man is what he is because of an imperfectly structured society, but rather that society is imperfectly structured because of the nature of man. No philosophy based on an incorrect view of the nature of man is likely to produce social good.
Your film deals with the limits of power and freedom.
The film explores the difficulties of reconciling the conflict between individual freedom and social order. Alex exercises his freedom to be a vicious thug until the State turns him into a harmless zombie no longer able to choose between good and evil. One of the conclusions of the film is, of course, that there are limits to which society should go in maintaining law and order. Society should not do the wrong thing for the right reason, even though it frequently does the right thing for the wrong reason.
What attracted you in Burgess’s novel?
Everything. The plot, the characters, the ideas. I was also interested in how close the story was to fairy tales and myths, particularly in its deliberately heavy use of coincidence and plot symmetry.
In your films, you seem to be critical of all political factions. Would you define yourself as a pessimist or anarchist?
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 exercized 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.
Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange
An interview with Michel Ciment