In 1971, Warner Bros. released one of the most controversial films in movie history.
A Clockwork Orange told the dystopian story of a brutal young man, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), who leads a band of thugs (“droogs”) on a terrifying crime spree, beating, raping and committing acts of what’s called “ultra-violence” along the way. At one point, he bludgeons a woman with a phallic sculpture; at another, he and his droogs bash a man and rape his wife while chanting “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Stanley Kubrick’s film drew an immediate outcry despite its box office success. Pauline Kael called it “pornographic” because, she argued, it dehumanized the suffering of Alex’s victims while eliciting sympathy for Alex’s own. The Catholic Church forbade its members from seeing the picture, which was given an X rating in North America.
But what made Clockwork Orange especially troubling was the spate of copycat incidents that followed, or at least incidents that looked as if they’d been shaped by the film.
In early 1972, a British prosecutor slammed it for influencing a 14-year-old accused of manslaughter. Later, a 16-year-old, pleading guilty to killing an old man, said he’d heard about the movie, while his attorney assured the court that “the link between this crime and sensational literature, particularly A Clockwork Orange, is established beyond reasonable doubt.”
There, of course, is the rub. No study has ever established that link beyond a reasonable doubt; nor is there any evidence to show that a criminal — even one who imitates something on film — wouldn’t have done something equally abominable at another time.
Kubrick knew this. Still, shaken, he asked Warners to withdraw his picture from theaters while defending it with the argument that: “To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life.”
Now, almost half a century later, the studio that released Clockwork Orange is back with another release that’s likely to draw a similar backlash.
The picture is Joker, Todd Phillips’ origin story of the character who will eventually become Batman’s nemesis. But unlike other Batman films — not to mention a fleet of superhero movies that traffic in violence while hiding behind the notion that their brand of violence cannot be taken seriously — there’s nothing comic-book about it.
Joker’s great strength is precisely that: it lays down a gauntlet before the genre that’s dominated Hollywood for the past two decades, the superhero movie, entering its own turf as if to say: enough, it’s time to see violence for what it is.
It deals with the real rather than the unreal, the believable rather than the unbelievable, the probable rather than the impossible. And it does so with extraordinary daring, limiting its plot to the most basic elements in order to focus on a character richer, scarier and more upsetting than any we’ve seen in the superhero world.
If Joker owes much to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), by paying them homage it also reminds us how far studio filmmaking has fallen since those glorious, risk-taking days.
Few who’ve seen Joker question its director’s skill or that of its sensational lead, Joaquin Phoenix. But many are understandably concerned by the film’s violence.
Two scenes in particular are exceptionally troubling. In one, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) suddenly shoots a colleague at point-blank range, the realism drawing gasps from the audience. In another, riots break out as crowds egg themselves on in support of this psychopath. These sequences, critics argue, cross an undefined — and perhaps unidentifiable — line.
Every original filmmaker has had to grapple with where the line lies. When Scorsese and his screenwriter, Paul Schrader, made Taxi Driver, they at first imagined that all Robert De Niro’s victims would be black, only to reject the idea as too inflammatory.
Other filmmakers have had to confront the most horrible fallout for releases that weren’t even intended to provoke. A previous Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), was dealt a terrible blow when a gunman, James Holmes, 24, entered a Colorado Cineplex with grenades, a rifle and guns, killing 12 people and injuring 70 more. At the time, that was one of the worst mass murders in American history; since then, we’ve faced a barrage more.
Holmes, of course, became famous for his dyed red hair and for purportedly calling himself “the Joker” (a report that turned out to be completely without merit), which appeared to make the possible consequences of today’s Joker all the more alarming.
So was Warner Bros. right to make it?
Yes. Because art has an enormous beneficial impact on society, even when it skirts the risk of doing harm. It makes us question, reconsider, re-evaluate. It shakes us as much as it succors us, makes us uncomfortable as much as it makes us comfortable. It sinks deep in our hearts and minds and changes us forever. And the more unsettling it is, the more likely it is to have an effect — just like Clockwork Orange, now widely hailed as a masterpiece.
Joker has the power to do this and more because it’s razor-sharp in its morality: the film’s “hero” is a psychopath, psychologically warped, misinterpreting everything he sees, and of that we’re never in doubt. Only a crazy person would want to emulate this guy — the kind of crazy person who doesn’t need Joker to tip him into action.
I’m horrified by the endless violence in today’s movies. And I’m even more horrified by how violence is celebrated rather than condemned. But Joker does the opposite: it sickens us, nauseates us, repulses us at our very core. It rejects the cartoon world we’ve inhabited for so long and says: Wake up, violence is real and it’s deadly and it’s here.