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  • Observe All:On the Staging of Fundamental Fantasy, Jouissance, and Gaze in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange
  • Wim Matthys (bio)

In his 2007 book The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan, Todd McGowan devotes a chapter to the cinematography of the American director Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). As the title of his book suggests, the author focuses on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's concept of the gaze or the blind spot in the visual field that marks the subjective implication of the spectator in the act of seeing (Lacan, 1963-64/1994). For McGowan the central quality of Kubrick's films is that they respond to the way spectators, in their everyday perception of social reality, tend unconsciously to blind themselves to the obscene underside that marks the functioning of symbolic authority. According to the author: "We obey symbolic authorities because we don't see this underside, because they seem to be acting in the interest of the public good rather than for their own private enjoyment" (2007, p. 45). This recalls the neurotic split in the perception of authority—originally described by Freud in Totem and Taboo (1913 [1912-13])—between the instance of the idealized (dead) father as "guarantor of the 'neutral' stature of the Symbolic Law" and his complement, the obscene father who is the "master of enjoyment" (Žižek, 1992/2008, pp. 178-179). As McGowan points out, Kubrick's oeuvre explicitly marks the obscene dimension of authority by staging its legal representatives as excessively enjoying their position: "Whenever a character takes up a position of authority in one of Kubrick's films, he . . . inevitably finds an obscene enjoyment in this role" (2007, p. 47).

McGowan distinguishes two cinematic techniques used by Kubrick to highlight this surplus of enjoyment: his deployment of scenery and the performances he elicits from his actors. The first concerns the 'settings' in which the cinematographic action [End Page 225] takes place, for example the excessive luxury of the chateau that serves Paths of Glory's (1957) General Mireau as a personal base of operations far behind the trenches of the First World War. Kubrick's deployment of that setting highlights specifically how the General "[d]erives a surplus enjoyment from his symbolic position of power" (p. 48). As examples of the second technique, McGowan refers to the over-the-top performances that Kubrick derived from actors in their impersonations of authority figures, including: George C. Scott's power-hungry General Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove (1964); Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance, the derailed father figure in The Shining (1980); Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket (1987), who incessantly employs humiliation to mold his recruits; and. finally, Michael Bates' chief prison guard in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Bates' guard exaggeratedly screams at and humiliates the juvenile delinquent Alex upon the latter's entrance into jail. A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel of the same name and his ninth feature film, provides the focus of this essay.

As a nuance to McGowan's thesis, this essay argues that not only figures of authority resort to methods of transgression in A Clockwork Orange. In fact, the film stages their acts of suppression as responses to the equally violent acts of transgression committed by the story's hoodlum. Aggression thus appears within every layer of society represented in the film, making A Clockwork Orange not only the apex of the "Golden Age of American film violence" in the 1960s and 1970s, but also a mirror of America's contemporary sociopolitical concerns (Slocum, 2001; Strange, 2010). As Prince (1998) points out, Kubrick's homeland at the time faced "steep increases in homicide, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery," which "fed a sharp public fear of street crime and nourished the law-and-order platform of Richard Nixon during the 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns" (p. 28). Stanley Kubrick commented upon the spreading atmosphere of insecurity in the United States, specifically with regard to New York, his city of birth. In a 1972 interview with Gene Siskel, the director expressed his concern that in response to violence public opinion might lean towards "more authority of a...


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