Ever since the appearance of television, films have become one of the most influential and powerful ways of communication of various messages to the masses. That is why most films are made specifically as the presentations of the most relevant and important subjects that bother society. In other words, movies reflect the social, cultural, and historical contexts of the eras when they are released.
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Even though cinema is a relatively recent form of artistic expression, it has developed dramatically throughout the course of the 20th century – the number of films released every year has been experiencing rapid growth, and the variety of subjects and themes depicted in the movies eventually expanded to a practically limitless field. This paper focuses on two films that are considered some of the most legendary works of their time – Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick. These movies are known for the clever and multifaceted use of satire in order to communicate a variety of flawed tendencies in the society of the 1960s-1970s that are still relevant in the contemporary world.
The American director of Jewish background Stanley Kubrick is known for a wide variety of legendary movies. In particular, three of his works – Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and 2001: Space Odyssey – are recognized not only for the commercial success and popularity among diverse audiences but also for the depiction of some of the most significant social concerns of their time – the nuclear war, uncontrolled violence and lacking morality, and space travel.1
That way, even though there are long time gaps between Kubrick’s movies, the director has never been forgotten, not even for a short time. The keys to his constant and persisting success were not only the most socially relevant themes but also the manner in which he portrayed them in the movies. Kubrick’s works were made to stand out in every single aspect out of the general body of cinematographic works of his contemporaries. Kubrick’s films are thought-provoking, symbolic, with deep meaning, and very unconventional and controversial. Even in the modern world, many decades later, his creations still represent unique and authentic forms of cinematic expression.
Dr. Strangelove, released in 1964 and A Clockwork Orange that first saw the world almost a decade later in 1971, is recognized as one of the most discussed films ever made by Kubrick. They are not necessarily ahead of their time; instead, they were released with great timing, matching exactly the needs of the society in their eras.
Dr. Strangelove was released into a world terrified by the rapidly developing events of the Cold War and the Caribbean missile crisis that were feared as likely factors to contribute to the beginning of the Third World War. The world’s community lived under the impression that the nuclear warheads could have been launched at any moment, giving a start to the war and putting an end to human civilization. Kubrick’s response was to make a film ridiculing the leaders of the USA and the USSR in their blind competitiveness and unreasonable pride, exposing the whole world to massive risk.
A Clockwork Orange appeared in the era of the sexual revolution and the increasing level of social freedom depicting a phenomenon of social concern – the development of a highly immoral world without humility, remorse, compassion, or kindness. Overall, the two films by Kubrick have their plots and satire “settles on the premise of theoretically logical plans coming undone through human fallibility”.2
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Satire as a Concept
By definition, satire in literature is “a technique employed by writers to expose and criticize foolishness and corruption of an individual or a society by using humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule”.3 Just like in the literary works, satire is frequently employed in cinematography. Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange rely heavily on the use of satire as an instrument, helping to show the immorality and culpability of the film characters without making any direct statements. It first perfectly in the comedic key of Dr. Strangelove turning one of the biggest social concerns and an overall tragic sequence of events into ridicule of stubborn, hypocritical, selfish, and impulsive human nature. In A Clockwork Orange satire is mainly expressed via symbols and signs and is present in every scene, making some settings ultimately satirical without using verbal language.
As mentioned previously, satire is widely applied in both Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. However, its forms and usages are quite different. At the same time, regardless of the diversity of application, satire is used in the two films in order to reflect on the same themes. Therefore, it makes sense to subdivide the comparison and contrast into four main topics, such as controversial subjects, dark humor, society presentation, and gender roles.
In Dr. Strangelove, the main subject of controversial nature is the global military tension. With the memories of destructions caused by the Second World War still fresh and painful, the world leaders became obsessed with the preservation of peace worldwide. Usually, nuclear war is not considered a topic suitable for humorous interpretations. However, the satiric perspective can be rather clever. The scene where the main characters discuss the Doomsday machine is probably the ultimate illustration of how satire is used in Dr. Strangelove.
The fact that the obsession with military supremacy somehow led scientists to believe that the best weapon to build is the one that cannot be controlled by people is utter ridicule of the blinding selfishness of the arms race. In this scene, satire is expressed verbally via the doctor’s monolog, where he concludes that “the whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret”, and reporting that foolishness of the leaders caused nuclear war.4
In A Clockwork Orange, satire is expressed in the form of gestures, actions, and symbols. For example, in the scene demonstrating Alex’s room, one can see a controversial mixture of posters of Beethoven and a naked woman, four statues of Jesus, and a pet snake (that likens the main character to the devil), and a hidden compartment with stolen money and watches. Besides, saying that the music of Beethoven made Alex think of “lovely pictures” and then showing a sequence of shots with a vampire, explosions, and people hanged, Kubrick establishes the personality of his main protagonist as highly violent and mentally unstable.5
In Dr. Strangelove, comedy is based on the stupidity and short-sightedness of the characters, who represent the world leaders and are expected to be highly intelligent. The dialogue between the USA President and the USSR leader about the upcoming airstrike turns into a silly argument about being sorry – both sides claim that they are the sorriest. This ridiculous conversation is a massive waste of precious time and an absolutely inappropriate discussion in the known circumstances. The director shows how the competition that has already caused a lot of damage and is about to end the world is not acknowledged and continues due to the selfishness of the leaders.
In A Clockwork Orange, the dark humor is the theme of sexual abuse in prison. Following the style of the film, it is not communicated openly but shown as s set of symbolic scenes and images. As soon as Alex is caught and arrested, the prison officers, as well as other inmates, begin to harass him in a sexual manner by blowing kisses and stripping him naked. In the scene where Alex is undergoing an examination, he is bent in a position suggesting that he will be sexually abused while the officer approaches him from behind with a flashlight of phallic shape in his teeth.
The officer also gives a very direct look at Alex’s genitals when asking the inmate if he is homosexual. These signs demonstrate that Alex will be exposed to prison rape and violence, but they are presented in a satirical manner.
In Dr. Strangelove, the society is shown as delusional and self-absorbed, which leads to catastrophic consequences. Even though the audience does not get to see many average citizens and mainly the politicians are shown, they represent their own countries and the world itself as foolish and overly involved in useless competing and rivalry. In fact, the Russian ambassador’s comment on the Doomsday machine describes it as a resource that emptied the state budget in combination with “the arms race, the space race, and the peace race” and the fact that the country’s population kept demanding more “nylons and washing machines”.6
The phrase “peace race” is particularly satirical because it places an ethical striving for peace into an extremely selfish and unethical context of the leaders competing who brings more peace and whose peace is more powerful, which at the end ironically results in the most destructive war in the human history.
In Clockwork Orange, the society is shown using a variety of different characters representing the rich and the middle-class populations, law enforcement employees, scientists, and medical professionals. Regardless of the diversity of the groups of the population depicted, the film makes it clear that flaw is prevalent in all of them. That way, Alex, who is positioned as the most immoral individual, in reality, is just a small part of his violent and unfair society, which explains his existence as a product of the environment.
The satire is that all the people who judge Alex and attempt to fix him and his behavior are deeply violent and immoral as well. For instance, the police attack him just like Alex and his gang mates attacked their victims – surrounding and beating while being in a larger group; the doctors expose him to a torturous and violent treatment that involves a lot of horrifying images and emotions; the prison officers abuse and humiliate him; even his former victims fall into exactly the same behaviors Alex used to have when being a criminal.
When it comes to the gender roles presented in the two films, it is important to remember that the equality movement was at its initial stages and was not as influential as it is now. As a result, very few films of the 1960s and the 1970s have proper representation of female characters and a sufficient male to female character ratio. However, even though the two films were made in the historical period of the social domination of men, the gender roles in them are addressed quite well.
In Dr. Strangelove, the nuclear warhead is visually likened to the male genitalia and thus symbolizes the male domination and mindless competition. Basically, the whole arms race could be looked at as a silly and cocky comparison of penises for a purpose to find out who is more of a man.
In A Clockwork Orange, there are several female characters (while there is just one woman in Dr. Strangelove), but most of them are shown only as sex objects. However, unreasonable pride and rivalry of men are emphasized and exaggerated for the satiric effect.
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Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange were recognized as very significant films of their time; also, they remain frequently discussed in the contemporary world. They are known for controversial themes, clever use of symbolic satire, and original ways of expression. This paper presented a comparative overview of the scenes and dialogues in the films in terms of the use of satire.
A Clockwork Orange. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1971. Hollywood, CA: Warner Brothers, 2012. DVD.
Case, George. Calling Dr. Strangelove: The Anatomy and Influence of the Kubrick Masterpiece. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1964. Hollywood, CA: Columbia Pictures, 2011. DVD.
Kolker, Robert Philip. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
“Satire.” Literary Devices. Web.
- Robert Philip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 98.
- George Case, Calling Dr. Strangelove: The Anatomy and Influence of the Kubrick Masterpiece (Jefferson: McFarland, 2014), 160.
- “Satire”, Literary Devices. Web.
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1964; Hollywood, CA: Columbia Pictures, 2011), DVD.
- A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1971; Hollywood, CA: Warner Brothers, 2012), DVD.
- Dr. Strangelove.