Stanley Kubrick and Anjem Choudary: An Unlikely Parallel of Censorship
Last Sunday, almost a week since the infamous hate preacher-cum-celebrity-villain, Anjem Choudary, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, I chanced upon an unlikely parallel at Somerset House's current exhibition, Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick.
Choudary's case highlighted an increasing tendency for peoples' speech and the ideas they express to be falsely judged on the basis of other peoples' actions, resulting in their arrest for so-called 'hate speech' or incitement to violence. His sentencing was no doubt influenced by the various examples of young, radicalised Britons joining ISIS in Syria; meanwhile, back in the Seventies, Stanley Kubrick eventually felt forced to remove his 1971 cult classic, A Clockwork Orange, from circulation after a series of grisly 'copycat' crimes.
The hugely popular exhibition at Somerset House consisted of almost 50 installations, all inspired by Kubrick's considerable catalogue of films and innovative filmmaking techniques. The sheer variety of media used and different senses appealed to, produces a mesmerising, fully immersive experience for the viewer. Although the exhibition showcases a plethora of brilliant works, one stood out in particular.
Upon entering the room, you're hit by an overwhelming smell. It's the first time I'd experienced anything like it. They'd actually produced a unique scent specifically for the display. It's described as an "outwardly playful, multi-media, olfactory environment", which belies the "sinister undertones" explored. Along with an enigmatic film showing in one corner, now apparently obligatory in modern art galleries, and a jumble of "banal food produce boxes" scattered about, your eyes are instantly drawn to a pair of massive teddy bears. One is dressed as Lolita from Kubrick's film of the same title, wearing the iconic heart-shaped sunglasses and holding a large lollipop. The other was dressed as the iconic Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, with the obligatory codpiece, face mask and menacing black cane.
Anthony Burgess' novel captures the imagination: the wonderful Nadsat language, invented by Burgess like Irvine Welsh's trademark Scot's dialect in Trainspotting, takes getting used to but soon pays dividends. Unlike so many disappointing film adaptations of novels, Kubrick's version lives up to, if not, exceeds the novel itself in some respects.
Kubrick wasn't straightforwardly censored but he made the decision to effectively self-censor out of a mixture of fear and potentially guilt
The film, infamous for its lengthy rape scene and jarring combination of Ludwig Van's classical music with scenes of ultra-violence, was met with the expected prudish, moralising response of media, politicians and church. They criticised the excessive on-screen violence and prophesied about the corruptive effects on young people. The Catholic Church's Office for Motion Pictures even rated it 'C', standing for 'condemned.' Several major public figures suggested the film would encourage violence, including Peter Sellers who had played lead roles in two of Kubrick's earlier films: Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. In an interview with the Chicago Sun Times in 1972, Sellers described the film as 'amoral' and even went on to say that "it will add to" the violence being committed by people at the time.
Although Kubrick was quick to defend himself and his film against these attacks, everything changed after a spate of disturbing crimes, all seen as examples of 'copycat violence'. There were various cases, all violent or sexual in nature and involving young people. It began in March 1972 during the case of a 14 year-old boy accused of manslaughter in which the prosecutor referred to A Clockwork Orange, suggesting a sinister link. This was followed by other apparent 'copycat' crimes: the rape of a Dutch girl by a gang of youths singing the iconic track from the film, Singin' in the Rain, the murder of an elderly vagrant by a 16 year-old and the case of another 16 year-old dressed as Alex DeLarge savagely beating a younger child.
In 1974, A Clockwork Orange was suddenly pulled from circulation. It wouldn't be officially available again until 2001, two years after the filmmaker's death. It wasn't banned by heavy-handed politicians or concerned authorities. Stanley Kubrick ultimately decided, not without a heavy heart, to withdraw the film due to the media frenzy and intense pressure placed on him and his family. As the situation escalated, police said to Kubrick and Warner Bros.: "We think you should do something about this. It's getting dangerous." So Kubrick wasn't straightforwardly censored but he made the decision to effectively self-censor out of a mixture of fear and potentially guilt, which must be considered a tragedy for cinema due to the stylised excellence of the film and its powerful socio-political commentary.
An underestimated, but absolutely fundamental element of free expression is the trust placed on the receiver
This is where Stanley and Anjem meet. There's only one thing joining them: that aside, they couldn't be more different. Stanley was a masterful filmmaker and storyteller, who left an impossibly influential legacy of creation. Anjem on the other hand is a vile, completely deluded and utterly revolting being. However, what links the unlikely pair is this: both of their freely expressed ideas and visions (Kubrick's being film and Choudary's distorted hate-preaching) were judged based on the actions of others and were subsequently censored, albeit in different ways. This is fundamentally wrong.
Kubrick's film was considered to have inspired, or at least encouraged, violent crimes, whilst prosecutors claimed Choudary's hateful rhetoric and YouTube videos radicalised people. As uneasy as it feels to acknowledge, if we truly believe in the free expression of ideas and individuals' free will as autonomous beings, then we can't blame Choudary (or Kubrick) for the actions of others.
An underestimated, but absolutely fundamental element of free expression is the trust placed on the receiver, the person hearing a speech or watching a film, for example. The idea of people being able to say freely whatever they want or believe hinges entirely on the ability of the receiver to rationally assess, analyse and interpret the content to which they are being exposed. This is the epicentre of the free speech debate. Where the battle is lost and won; indisputably the hardest element of the concept to accept. However, without accepting this then whatever moderated version of free speech you produce isn't the real deal.
There is a major issue that must be raised here: isn't there a risk that, for whatever reason, some people aren't able to properly interpret material they hear, read or see? Take The Catcher in the Rye for example. The already infamous novel soared to new peaks in 1980 after John Lennon's killer was found reading it at the crime scene. This potentially presents a problem with the entirely positive, humanist outlook that believes in peoples' abilities to successfully judge content and to think for themselves. The whole concept of absolute free speech and expression crumbles to dust without this 'leap of faith', and it is a commendable, well-intentioned one, but equally a very testing one. So, as Alex Delarge asks his droogs before a night of moloko plus fuelled ultra-violence: "What's it going to be then, eh?"
About the author
Despite sharing the company of Rimbaud, Voltaire and co. for the third year in a row, Alec's real passion lies in writing. When the French degree permits it, he can be found scribbling away for a variety of publications, including The Spectator's Coffee House blog, Spiked-Online and - oh, how could he forget? - Disclaimer Mag!
A self-professed bon vivant, Alec is currently busy sunning himself in the South of France, whilst gleefully perusing the bountiful array of vin on offer. He's also been known to dabble in unscrupulous cheese-pairing.
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