By no means is it an accident that the 1971 dystopia thriller and blackhearted social satire A Clockwork Orange opens - after the disorienting title cards, blocky white text on screaming primary color backgrounds with droning electronic music in the background - with a shot of its protagonist, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) staring directly into the camera, his head tipped forward and his eyes rotated up almost to the top of the their sockets, as he stares, unmoving, unblinking, as the camera pulls back slowly until his face is just barely still visible. It's no accident, because A Clockwork Orange is above all things about the viewer's relationship to film - this film, all films - and the things depicted thereon, and it will take great pains to fuck with us as hard as possible over the course of its 136 minutes. And it all kicks off with a young man in freakish dress staring at us with an expression that almost can't help but feel like an evil, knowing leer. He knows we're watching him. He delights in it.

Thus it is that from the minute it starts, the film begins to heavily invest itself in the idea of what "looking" is, and what it does to us to look. In the career of director Stanley Kubrick, only Lolita, nine years earlier, had ever or would ever spring from such controversially "lurid" subject matter,* in this case Anthony Burgess's short novel from 1962. It's a work the author himself dismissed in later years as a cash-grab which was "too didactic to be artistic", and oh, in later years how he hated the film that Kubrick (who also wrote the screenplay) made from it. But whatever Burgess happens to think about the book or film, it was a big hit, as books will that depict with unblinking attention sex and violence of a most unpleasant sort. And so too was the movie, and for the same reason. It was released in the United States with an X, while in Britain (where it was made; Kubrick now being a committed expatriate, and perhaps sealing the deal with the most vigorously British film of his career) it enjoyed only a short release before Kubrick himself asked to have it pulled, fearing that an apparent spate of violent crimes were partially inspired by the film. Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert both disliked it, making sure to talk about how titillating and nasty and pornographic it was, so everybody just had to find out if it was was really as vicious and saucy as all that.

Well, no, not unless you're hopelessly literal-minded (or, like Ebert, you decide to aggressively misread the film's visual schema). A Clockwork Orange is kind of the quintessential Stanley Kubrick film, based on the stereotypical things "everybody knows" about Kubrick: it is punishingly nihilistic and shot through with warped gallows humor, it stands at an icy, godlike remove from its characters, and it rubs our faces in the worst of humanity with a certain kind of joy at the privilege. It's a film that stares, emptily, soullessly at the action it depicts, and while I don't doubt that in 43 years, plenty of viewers (and I bet that they skew male and adolescent) have been effectively titillated and tweaked by the film's depiction of sexualised violence, it's clearly not what Kubrick is up to. His mode here is primarily diagnostic: we observe without taking part, either by rejoicing in the nastiness of it all or recoiling at the obscenity. Any notion that this is a film in which we're meant to secretly enjoy what Kael referred to as "pornography" doesn't hold up past the film's first rape scene - the fact that A Clockwork Orange can be described as having a "first" rape scene certainly speaks volumes as to why it gets people riled up - in which a woman is stripped naked in an extreme wide shot, hardly more interesting in the frame than the set design around her, and never once shown in anything like a close-up; when she runs offscreen, the camera blandly follows her with the detachment of any watcher being briefly caught by a flurry of motion off to one side. It is, in fact, far more upsetting than a film which reveled in watching her almost being raped; it is a film that largely doesn't care about her at all, no more than her attempted rapists, who are themselves also beaten to bloody pulps in wide shot.

A Clockwork Orange is the first Kubrick film to be conspicuously "shot": that is, the first in which not just the framing and lighting and depth matter, but the actual technology of the camerawork. It is a film in which the exact lenses used on a shot-by-shot basis matter tremendously to the meaning of the images: much of the film is captured with a very flat wide-angle lens that subtly distorts the edges of the frame to make everything seem unnaturally stretched out and separated. It's as direct a visual metaphor as you could ask for the idea of a society in which people are increasingly detached from each other and distorted within themselves; one thinks of the close-up of a mad author (Patrick Magee), of warped ideological politics and hypocritical desire for bloody revenge, so pulled apart by the wide angle that he appears almost to burst. It's satire, but not the funny kind; the kind that finds the desire to control and contain human behavior to be some kind of sick joke that deserves laughter because nothing else makes sense, and results in the displays of corrupt inhumanity that exclusively populate this movie.

It is, above all, a dehumanising film; it is the natural follow-up, then to 2001: A Space Odyssey, just as it neatly anticipates Full Metal Jacket, though it is far more joyless than either of them. The title, which is unexplained in the movie (but given two different explanations in the novel), already hammers home the image of mechanised, aberrant life, and nothing we see anywhere in the film really changes the basic notion of human beings as programmable machines - literally and disastrously, in the case of the plot, though what has always lingered me throughout my re-watching over the years is not Alex's suffering as a conditioned lab rat unable to make moral choices (truth be told, I think that stretch of the movie is by far its least effective), but the way that details on the edges communicate the notion that everyone in this universe is just a cog, having learned their part which they now act out: the psychiatrist (Pauline Taylor) whose face takes a moment to reboot when she's obliged to tell a reassuring lie; the simpering social worker Mr. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), with his metronomically precise repitition of a sing-songy "yes?"; the prison guard (Michael Bates, absurdly wonderful) whose entirely personality becomes a thicker parody of Stiff Britishisms the deeper into the film it goes - it occurs to me only now that A Clockwork Oranges is one of those analyses of a society that could only be made by someone outside of it - all of them acting less like humans than like robots indifferently programmed to mimic human behavior. The protagonist himself is subjected to exactly the same treatment in the sardonic film's one laugh-out-loud comic scene, a high-speed threesome scored to a shrill electronica version of Rossini's "Overture" from William Tell, stripping all of the exoticism and pleasure out of an act that, in this presentation, is exactly as blunt and industrial as Alex's euphemism, "the old in-out-in-out".

And as that euphemism suggests, even the way things are described lacks humanity: Kubrick's immensely faithful adaptation copies Burgess's invented slang called "nadsat" in the book, a hefty borrowing of garbled Russian words that makes the whole story feel like it's being communicated through malfunctioning translating computers spitting out gibberish (the one way in which I generally prefer the novel to the film is that the novel, being itself written in nadsat, is an inescapable cacophony of strange words; the film, which visually depicts things we can easily recognise, is much easier to process and thus loses most of its disorienting potency).

This is all part and parcel of the world the story depicts: one in which humanity has been ground out of humans who live in a state of constant heightened feeling; mostly of fear, in the nice people, or of things much more savage in the case of the anti-hero. It's for this reason that I've always favored the ending of the film to the extended finale of the original book (Kubrick first read the American copy, where that ending was snipped out; my understanding is that he still had a chance to read the full version before committing to the version filmed. The extended version, which puts a moral bow on the whole thing, is hopeful; but at its best, A Clockwork Orange is a metaphor for an out-of-control world where people don't really trust hope, in those rare moments when it crops up. As Burgess put it in his rather snotty 1986 introduction to the first American edition of the complete text, "The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel." I fully agree with the letter of that judgment, though not at all the spirit; nothing about the profound alienation caused by the language, the science-fiction trappings, or the delirious obscenity of the violence, in print or onscreen, ever suggest that A Clockwork Orange is trying to be anything but a fable.

And a bleak, bitter fable it is, one in which the audience's de facto surrogate and only point of entry is a pointlessly loathsome and cruel bastard played with phenomenal detachment by McDowell in full-on glowering savagery mode - an early shot, from the side, shows his face dominating the frame in an uncomfortably backlit (the lighting throughout the first 20 minutes is, in general, divine; props to John Alcott, working for the first time as the "lighting cameraman", which I take to be the long-awaited concession that Kubrick rode his cinematographers like a dictator), weirdly-composed close-up that finds the actor intoning the line "Oh? And what's so stinking about it?" in a series of plodding monosyllables that drip with menace and brutality. If he is charismatic, it's only in a negative sense; all of McDowell's best moments are captivatingly animalistic whether the reptilian staring of the early scenes or the bellowing terror of the "Ludovico Technique" scenes, in which the actor was genuinely pinned inside a head-controlling contraption that didn't permit him to blink. No, this Alex is a monster, straight through, and its through him and from his lips that we are presented with this vision of what society might be like - in the future? right this second? At any rate, it's all dead inside, sterile despite all the filth we see in damn near every location.

Nothing nice happens in this world: the one source of explicit beauty, is corrupted by the intensely ironic treatment given to it by its director, whether by using symphonic overtures as the accompaniment to slow-motion balletic violence, or the infamous (and ad-libbed) "Singin' in the Rain" rape scene, or the way that Beethoven's 9th Symphony, treated in the film as an icon of emotional and artistic perfection, is chiefly represented by a synthesized reproduction programmed by the pioneering Moog artist Wendy Carlos (receiving professional credit at this time under "Walter"), whose overall contributions to giving the film a suitably detached, artificial feeling can't be overestimated. It is perhaps the most overall musical of all Kubrick's film's, and the music is sickly, gangrenous, wrong.

For all these reasons, A Clockwork Orange is an effectively perfect version of what it means to be; and for all these reasons, I confess that it's my least favorite of Kubrick's mature films (which I take to be those from 1964 onward). Still a masterpiece of using and manipulating cinema; and after all, it is a film chiefly about making us watch terrible things and recognising that we have made the choice to watch them. It's a dirty trick to play on a viewer, but a fair one. But it's so unrelenting! There's nihilism to spare in Full Metal Jacket, and in other late Kubrick as well, but A Clockwork Orange is just damn mean. Well, it intends to be mean; it succeeds, brilliantly. But a little viciousness goes a long way, and 136 minutes is very long indeed.