EYES WIDE SHUT
an essay by
Here we are, ten years after the release of Stanley Kubrick's final film (and, of course, his death). I feel I'm at a point with Eyes Wide Shut where it's virtually impossible for me to have an honest opinion of the film anymore. I've watched it and analyzed it, in part, at least 100 times, mostly for the writing of the 2002 essay below (there's plenty I've left out -- kisses, alcohol vs. coffee, etc.) -- plus I've read countless articles about its creation, spoken to Todd Field about rehearsals and camera placement, and I even interviewed SK's longtime collaborator Leon Vitali.
I believe that EWS is the one film he made just for himself. He didn't appear to be trying to impress anybody, just creating a personal work of art he'd been planning for 30 years -- filling it with subtle references to his own life.
Ultimately, EWS is a fascinating film to study, but that study comes with caveats. We know for a fact that although the picture edit was left untouched at the time of his death, the released film was not his final cut but the cut until that point -- as well, a wide variety of post procedures from sound to color-correction were completed based on notes and the assumptions of his intimates.
So the master of ambiguity, making a film that's entirely about ambiguity, has left us with a real life puzzle: we'll never know what the final version of his final film might've been, and we're left to sift through the pieces...
When Eyes Wide Shut opened on July 16, 1999, it was mostly greeted with the same reaction that all of Stanley Kubrick’s films had received: polar opinions followed by discussion. Like those other films, once the controversy faded and it became available for dissection via video, its reputation slowly grew to the point where the initial reactions were rendered irrelevant.
Part of the initial problem for many of the film’s viewers was that Kubrick had made so few films in the last two decades of his life. During this time, the world of film had been significantly augmented by three developments: home video, CGI and the rise of the blockbuster above all else.
For myself, and an entire generation, we grew up watching Kubrick’s films on a TV screen. Although I did see Full Metal Jacket during its original run in theaters at the age of 12, what we were experiencing, for the most part, were waves created some time ago during the initial impacts of his work.
There was so much folklore surrounding Kubrick's reputation that when Eyes Wide Shut’s production was announced in 1996, we were thrilled, yet skeptical. One friend, upon learning it would be starring Tom Cruise, commented that it was the equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock returning from the grave to direct a Nike commercial.
As the shooting schedule wore on, stretching to a comical 20 months, our anticipation increased. Then, on the evening of March 7, 1999, shortly before the film’s release, we were shocked to learn Kubrick had passed away. We were in a state of disbelief.
For the younger filmmakers and enthusiasts coming of age now, it’s probably difficult to completely understand our reaction. Those who “got” Kubrick’s work -- the methodical compositions, groundbreaking narrative forms, revolutionary techniques, uncompromising intellectual concepts and, above all, his complete control over his productions and releases -- it was like losing a symbol. You would only need to locate and read a few of the obituaries published at the time to get an idea. There was nobody else like him, and there never would be again.
He was often misunderstood, even by his admirers. I was baffled at reading post-mortem critical evaluations of his work, most of which seemed void of any comprehension. One analysis actually proclaimed the most brilliant aspect of Barry Lyndon was that Kubrick presented the title character as a “dullard.”
1999 was a tricky year -- on the eve of the millennium, it was the peak of the ‘90s media avalanche, and it also was the year of the “dot.com.” The media, which SK had all but avoided for nearly a quarter century, quickly began spinning stories based on mistruths perpetuated by people who’d never even met him -- and he certainly wasn't available to counter any of these claims.
Eyes Wide Shut’s entire production was controversial. The lack of public knowledge, mixed with the length of the shoot, stirred a great deal of public interest -- not the least of which was centered around the film’s married couple of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. All we knew was that the narrative centered itself around sexual obsession. Later, it was suggested to be based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovel, however, no copies were in print because Kubrick had preemptively bought them all years earlier.
As with any unsubstantiated rumor, given enough time it will take on a life of its own and lose any semblance of realistic proportion. The press made the film sound as if it would be like Basic Instinct. Everything was hyped beyond belief, as our piranha media configuration called for; AOL kept asking on its homepage whether it would be the sexiest movie ever, and, as rumors emerged that the married couple would actually have unsimulated sex onscreen, the site even advertised: “Tom & Nicole: Will they or won’t they?”
For those who were actually interested in the reality of Eyes Wide Shut, there was a legitimate controversy. It was well known that Kubrick had been a perfectionist, with complete autonomy over all of his work. In fact, he’d even recut 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining after their premieres -- and even had ACO removed from exhibition and video entirely in the UK. Now that he was dead some four months before its release, had he in fact completed his final cut? History indicated that he most likely hadn’t.
Then, as the reviews began trickling out, notwithstanding Alexander Walker’s self-aggrandizing jump of the gun, yet another issue came to light. Apparently, in order to secure an R-rating, which Kubrick was contractually obligated to deliver to Warner Bros., digital alterations were applied to alter a specific scene on all US prints. Critics were shown both versions. Kubrick's untimely death mixed with questions about the legitimacy of the final cut and the tabloid frenzy surrounding the stars created a perfect storm...
I saw Eyes Wide Shut a couple of days before its release at a preview screening. The audience was anxious and on edge, not knowing what to expect. The film began, and after a few moments we all realized the picture quality was grainy, looking like a rough cut or an aged print. There was whispering.
The story unfolded, and my initial reactions swayed from nervous numbness to curiosity to thinking it was the worst thing he’d ever done and an embarrassment to thinking it might be his best. Afterward, I left without much of an opinion. I needed to mull it over.
I thought, perhaps Kubrick wasn’t dead after all. Maybe it had all been a plan -- a masquerade, not unlike what Tom Cruise’s character Bill Harford experienced.
It certainly was ironic that someone known for portraying stories in which plans go astray unexpectedly died of natural causes while meticulously finishing his first film in a dozen years. His body simply stopped on him. It couldn’t have been more Kubrickian.
Most people were unable to determine how they felt about it after only one viewing. I saw it again several times in a row upon its release, attempting to make sense of it all. Certain aspects had caught my attention, and it was readily apparent that many things which seemed so on the surface all but evaporated upon closer inspection. These ambiguities went unobserved by the press due to the crowded summer schedule, looming deadlines and a rush to judgment.
Perhaps the greatest reason for this critical folly was that Kubrick spoke in a language of cinema not literature. By this, I mean, most people were so unskilled at understanding film language that they were unable to follow his intricacies and, therefore, judged it a mess. Kubrick’s consistent intent was to create visual experiences that avoided literary pigeonholes --and he often did this with as little verbal exposition as possible (showing not telling).
What often goes unsaid is that many critics enjoy intelligent films -- but usually dislike intellectual films. They like to watch well-made and thought-provoking work, yet they disdain anything which will require them to think and rethink what they’ve seen after the fact. Woe is the director who shows he's more intelligent than a critic.
In an attempt to sound knowledgeable, many critics claimed to have read the Schnitzler (which was out of print), when all they’d read was Frederic Raphael’s brief synopsis in his published memoir Eyes Wide Open, about his screenplay collaboration with Kubrick. Therefore, they were following an unreliable surface guide and were unable to distinguish between the differences.
And so began the debate...
Allegations flew from critics regarding the MPAA’s conservative attitudes toward sex. After all, the world outside North America saw the version without the digital alterations; these alterations, which occurred in a single scene, in the form of what became known as "digital fig leaves," were figures imposed over certain sex acts to obscure their sight -- not unlike TV’s practice of blurring various unsuitable or unlicensed elements in passing. (The subsequent video release also had an alteration: the reflection of a sound man was removed in one scene -- something I believe to be intentional, not an error.)
Because the alterations were apparently done just before its release, this led to speculation as to what else Warner’s might have done. Many refused to accept this as a final cut. One critic actually had the audacity to accuse Steven Spielberg, without any evidence, mind you, of reshooting the final scene. Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and executive producer, subsequently made it clear that the cover-ups were Stanley’s unequivocal intention if it received an NC-17, as opposed to recutting it -- though, more recently, he contradicted himself by admitting Kubrick would've simply adjusted the cross-cutting between Dr. Bill and his P.O.V.
I firmly believe that most of the confusion was the result of the writers’ inability to fully understand Eyes Wide Shut -- and their refusal to admit so.
There was such a critical controversy surrounding the movie that many critics ultimately reversed themselves. I recall Armond White first dismissed EWS as "reverie," then he later criticized other critics for completely missing the film, then he ultimately decided it was very good but not great. Janet Maslin of The New York Times left her position shortly after its release, and it has been suggested (without confirmation) that the media’s close-minded reaction was the final straw for her.
Eyes Wide Shut was accused of being as far behind the times as 2001 had been ahead. That’s already been proven incorrect, as its ideas have been absorbed, most recently by Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, which also featured a stylized version of New York -- however, where Kubrick was charged with inaccuracies, Anderson was praised for originality.
Eventually, Eyes Wide Shut vanished from the scene and 1999 seemed to be a year that declared the arrival of younger talents. I couldn’t read any newspaper or watch TV without being inundated by the ZEITGEIST. For some, Being John Malkovich summed up the moment. Others thought it was Magnolia. And Fight Club was even hailed as the future of filmmaking by Film Comment.
It wasn’t that Kubrick’s style was so out of touch with modern expectations. He never made films that worked like anybody else’s in any decade. His films existed outside of time. Designed to stand out. Designed to last. Yet subject to the tools and knowledge of their times.
Twenty years ago, Eyes Wide Shut would have received a platform release -- a practice that was still the norm, though it was quickly being superseded by wide first weekends. Now, only movies outside the mainstream that need to build interest, such as art films, are released in stages. Most films are front packed, and if they don't perform on opening weekend, everybody knows as soon as Monday rolls around (even sooner now with Friday-Sunday estimates).
Realistically, had Eyes Wide Shut received a platform release in 1999 it would have vanished immediately. It dealt with issues of infidelity that made most couples squirm, and the aesthetics were organic -- a far cry from the quickening Avid-edited pace of most films. Not even the star power of Tom Cruise, who at the time had the greatest box office track record ever, with five consecutive $100-million grossing films, could have saved it. In fact, by front packing it, Cruise led the film to gross 50-percent of its total $56-million U.S. box office take in its first weekend. Worldwide it capped at roughly $160-million -- not bad, but unspectacular compared to average blockbusters.
The film was designed to catch its audience off guard. It was full of tricks. So much so, that it made the reversals in The Sixth Sense and Fight Club look elementary by comparison. Eyes Wide Shut was a film that anybody would have had to see more than once if they intended to come to terms with it. It was not easily digested. It was not mindless entertainment or a fun date movie. (It’s amusing to think what might have happened to a guy taking out a girl to see this with the intention of getting laid afterward.)
Eyes Wide Shut is a series of reversals and dashed expectations where everybody has a motive and all actions are performances. The title itself is a contradiction; some suggested it was a reference to the “dream logic” the narrative followed -- it’s intentionally ambiguous and many correlations can be found between it and aspects of the film.
I believe the title is suggesting people have an inherent inability to actually observe and comprehend what is before them. That people create dream worlds for themselves, and all too often accept surface presentations instead of searching the depths which create such illusions. It's also a play about perspective and the limits to what can fully be known and the limits to "truth."
Needless to say, most audience members who had mentally salivated at the prospect of wall to wall sex with Tom and Nicole were disappointed. And that was the point. Michael Herr, Kubrick’s friend and collaborator, noted that Kubrick must have been severely out of touch if he thought he could get away with that type of marketing campaign in 1999's culture. Ticket prices were high, and people just wanted to escape life for a couple of hours, maybe get a little aroused. Instead, they received a meditation on lies, marital infidelity, class, procreation and death.
The narrative of Eyes Wide Shut is assembled similarly to most of Kubrick’s post-2001 films, in that it’s a series of episodes placed together without any overt exposition to bridge them. This format had many accusing it of being plotless. It isn’t plotless -- the problem is that 99% of all movies follow the same structure, so people have been conditioned from Day One as to how a movie’s plot is supposed to play out. When viewers don’t receive what they expect at any given moment, they become dislocated from the material, because they’re no longer on a treadmill and have to think for themselves -- not unlike humanity's predicament in Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake.
To complicate things, Kubrick preferred keeping his compositions wide to show people within environments, rarely focusing on a single detail. This created a web of ambiguity for viewers unaccustomed to this, since it’s less obvious what the important pieces are. It also diminishes the emotional states of the characters.
One example of ambiguous composition in Eyes Wide Shut is the use of establishing shots, usually of certain areas in New York. Instead of focusing on the street signs, which might have been more helpful to anyone unfamiliar with the environments, the shots are left in detached masters. They don’t always match the following action with Dr. Bill -- a tactic used to mock television’s use of establishing shots for shows shot on sound stages miles away from the actual locations.
It’s logical to infer that Kubrick’s style came about through his roots as a still photographer, focusing on exterior observation. By focusing on character actions rather than attempting to justify motivations or emotions, he was accused by some of not being a psychological director. This is incorrect; he just factored more into his observations than the illogical nature of mere human behavior -- such as temporal and spatial time, natural sciences and laws of physics. He preferred sociology to psychology.
His characters didn’t exist in their own worlds where everything was justified to their emotional needs; they existed within a physical universe and had to maneuver through an existence often at odds with their motivations. And to make matters worse, he often chose the point of view, some would say, of that physical world, reserving any compassion or sympathy for his characters’ plights.
In comparision, The Sixth Sense, released the same summer, differs from Eyes Wide Shut in its emotional manipulation of physical reality in a fundamental way. In The Sixth Sense (as with Fight Club), the main character could only have existed within the scenes dramatized, otherwise the illusion would’ve been shattered -- whereas in EWS, the locations and situations existed with or without Dr. Bill.
Kubrick’s use of exposition and mise en scene differed greatly from more modern directors like Martin Scorsese. Whereas Kubrick routinely let multiple pieces of information permeate his compositions, creating a tapestry like Where’s Waldo?, Scorsese has the tendency to focus on only one thing at a time. With Scorsese, the viewer is never at a loss as to what’s going on; he’s constantly freezing his narratives and fracturing time just to explain the details, as if he’s showing off how much he knows. Kubrick, on the other hand, dramatized scenes as they might actually take place, allowing the characters’ actions to justify the pacing, letting them speak for themselves.
Eyes Wide Shut’s main character, Bill Harford, is constantly entering into situations that existed before him, and will continue once he’s gone. Bill is traveling through a series of future light cones, touring through the ripples of previous events, and the viewer, put in his place, enters into these situations as blindly as he does. We’re given no more exposition than the main character.
Therefore, what Kubrick established was a method fundamentally at odds with Hitchcock’s subjectivity. Hitchcock built suspense by granting the audience more information than his characters through the use of cutaways, or, in the case of Rear Window, panning away from a sleeping James Stewart to show the murderous events going on across the courtyard. Kubrick, who felt 20th Century art had become too subjective and was in dire need of locating a sense of objectivity, would have none of that winking.
The first three shots give us our conceptual setup. The film opens with Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite, Waltz 2, playing over white on black titles. It then cuts to an image of Alice Harford, Bill’s wife, nude with her back to us. Alice slips out of her dress, letting it brazenly drop to the floor. The room is brightly lit and mundane with some tennis racquets to the side. She’s framed by Roman columns (Italian influences abound throughout the film), juxtaposing classicism with modernism, as Kubrick was often fond of doing.
This image is intended to deceive, and it actually calls attention to where our minds are. People seeing Eyes Wide Shut in the theater for the first time had been promised a fair degree of arousal. The opening shot, featuring a beautiful woman without any clothes on, altered none of these expectations.
(It’s integral to note that one’s reaction to what follows would be fundamentally different seeing it on video than in a theater. The actual film it was shot on, Eastman 500 EXR, had been underexposed by 2 stops, then pushed another 2 during development, creating a haze of grain that lent it a documentary feel. The effect was rather like Suerat’s pointillism meeting the warm interior lights of Latrec. Its intimacy was almost embarrassing. The DVD was cleaned up, slickening the presentation, thereby making it more palatable to audiences. )
After the image of Alice, a title card appears cleverly announcing the film’s title, followed by the second shot: a wobbly establishing shot of an apartment building on Manhattan’s Central Park West. What we didn’t notice in the theatrical release, during the first shot, was the picture’s grain -- we were too fixated on the naked woman. Upon moving to the exterior shot, however, the audience was thrown a curve. Not only was there a content contrast between the two shots, but the picture was literally filled with contrast. It looked cheap and amateurish.
Another thing we were distracted from, due to the image of nudity, was the attitude by which Alice undressed. Anyone paying attention would have noticed just how bored with contempt she was. She wasn’t even wearing anything below the dress. It can be inferred, when placed within the context of the following scenes, that Alice was unenthusiastically deciding what to wear for the party she and Bill were to subsequently attend.
For shot #3, upon cutting from the CPW establishing, we find Bill in a tuxedo, standing where Alice was only a moment before. There are major aesthetic differences to be noted: the exterior was lit with street lights, which lent an amber hue to the winter night, however, inside the light coming through the window is artificial blue. (The color blue will become an integral part of the film’s mechanics as it progresses.)
In one Stedicam shot, with Shostakovich still playing on the soundtrack, Bill wanders through the apartment searching for something. He calls to Alice who’s off-screen, asking if she knows where his wallet is. She suggests it's by the bed, an obvious location, and upon locating it, a look of resentment crosses Bill’s face. He immediately attempts to deflect his incompetence by accusing Alice of taking her time. (His wallet, as it contains cash and his ID, will become another key motif, consistently offering others his identity and a means of exchange.)
Bill enters the bathroom, and we discover Alice on the toilet -- killing our first image of her. Bill is oblivious and looks at himself in the mirror. Alice wipes herself, then asks Bill how she looks. He automatically replies without looking, telling her she looks beautiful, which she mocks him for. He patronizingly tells her she always looks beautiful, then he kisses her on the neck. Bill walks back into the bedroom and turns off the stereo -- which it turns out was playing the Shostakovich, tricking the audience who assumed it was non-diegetic.
(Jazz Suite, Waltz 2 will appear again during the film as a theme for the routine of their lives. By using music by both Shostakovich and Ligeti as its main themes, an interesting layer has been added: both were composers whose work was done under the rule of Stalinist Soviet Union; both composers’ work was therefore restricted accordingly. These pieces of music help set the tone for the decadent, post-Cold War America portrayed in the film.)
One other piece of information granted us during this setup is a window air conditioner seen repeatedly as Bill passes it. It’s an extremely subtle element of the mise en scene, but rather humorous when considering the setting is Christmas time, and the AC should have been removed a while ago. Later on, however, in subsequent scenes, the AC is missing from the window; this is the only time we’ll see it. The AC can be seen as symbolic of Bill and Alice’s frigid relationship, but it also plays into the film’s highly complex use of mise en scene: as it’s never seen again, we can be left to ponder whether it was a continuity error or whether it was removed outside of the drama -- though if it was, Alice most likely did the work, because we later see Bill as a lazy oaf after work the following evening. The point is: we don’t know.
What we have learned drama-wise via these first three shots is that Bill and Alice have been married for a while, and they’re wealthy, living on Central Park West. Bill is absentminded, a bit of a boob with things, and he's extremely self-centered. Also, we should prepare ourselves for a certain amount of nudity. And this narrative is going to consistently play mind fucks with us.
We've also been exposed to the film's aesthetic strategies -- the blue exterior lights (against red curtains), black against white (tuxedo), the thick picture grain, the pairing of diegetic and non-diegetic, and the use of long unedited takes, often shot with a Stedicam.
All this, in just 3 shots.
Bill and Alice have been married for nine years at this point. Their daily routine has become mechanized. It’s been suggested that Kubrick’s central theme throughout his career was the contrast between things which are mechanical and those which are spontaneous, contingent or unforeseen. More can be made of this. I would like to suggest that the underlying concept behind these themes is the danger of blind faith. Blind faith, by its very nature, requires a submission of autonomy. Therefore, it lends itself to mechanization because it eliminates the opportunity for someone to actually think and act independently. (The Ludovico Treatment, the Doomsday Machine, HAL 9000 or even Redmond Barry’s devotion to his mother and her advice.)
Of course, there are pros and cons to both consistency and spontaneity. Some said Kubrick mocked plans, but that would be an incorrect conclusion based upon his widely reported meticulousness. (During the planning for his fabled film about Napoleon, for helicopter shots, SK reportedly calculated the size of the battlefields in relation to the number of soldiers, as well as determining the speed at which a helicopter would have to fly to pass over all the troops, so he could determine how long the shot would last. Without computers.)
Whereas too much planning stagnates and creates an appearance of lifelessness (which Kubrick’s work was certainly accused of), too much spontaneity can lead to an inability to accomplish a desired end. Kubrick believed that most people were incapable of determining the methods by which they intended to accomplish their goals. He was able to acquire freedom from time constraints with his work; the success of his films allowed him to take whatever time he felt was needed to create work which he felt most proud of. That way, any malfunctions could be detected within time to be corrected. In the end, of course, his time ran out -- his greatest victory, control of time, ultimately begat his downfall.
As Eyes Wide Shut unspools, Kubrick begins filling our minds with strange inconsistencies, of which the previously mentioned AC is only one. An obviously missing statue in one scene is another example; a chair that comes and goes near Bill’s front door which he likes to place his coat on is another. He’s begging us to wonder whether these things are intentional or not.
Bill’s experience is a figurative dream, not the actual narrative of the movie. When Alice compares dreams and reality at the end, just before the return of Jazz Suite, Waltz 2, she’s comparing her dreams to his reality -- and Bill, as a doctor, with little in the way of an imagination, is the butt of the joke.
Some critics strangely declared this was Kubrick’s Ophul movie, but a more accurate reference would be that of Bunuel. Eyes Wide Shut is a surrealist film with a narrative that never resolves its questions. Furthermore, it was Bunuel who routinely satirized the bourgeois and their dreamlike removal from reality in such films as Belle de jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois. Bunuel also chose a mundane aesthetic sensibility to heighten the absurdity of the drama -- the outrageous presented realistically.
Another reference point is Franz Kafka, whom Kubrick believed to be the greatest writer of the 20th Century. Kubrick argued that most film adaptations of his work were misconceived because the filmmakers confused the narrative surrealism for stylistic absurdity, when, in fact, Kafka wrote in a very plain manner. Kafka's aesthetic was to portray insanity as perfectly sane.
Surrealism manifests itself in EWS as Bill is so out of the loop during the day of his odyssey that the unfamiliar events which he stumbles through appear to function with a dream logic. The events are too irregular, and his lack of experience leads him to paranoia, linking incidents together without any foundation -- and as Bill is the stand-in for the audience, the same confusion takes hold in us as well, just as we're also pouring over the continuity inconsistencies. Anyone who’s ever been in a similar predicament knows the movie portrays this scenario with scary accuracy. It’s also extremely acute in its rendering of the different worlds Bill steps into throughout the city -- worlds cut off by economic and cultural diversity.
In the movie, like life, nothing ever seems to fit together perfectly. No disguise is absolute, hence the need for a disguise in the first place. Such is Kubrick’s central theory on relationships and perceived reality in general: trust is the glue which holds all the loose ends together, yet nothing should be blindly trusted...and the whole truth can never be known.
SHADOWS ON THE MIRROR:
The unspoken secret to understanding the relationship between Bill and Alice can be viewed during the mirror make out scene, accompanied by Chris Isaak’s Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing (which we can assume is playing on their stereo).
We see Alice standing in front of a mirror with her back to us. Her front side is represented by a mirror’s reflection. Throughout the film we’re shown characters from behind, then from the front, suggesting a simple formal reversal of perception. Mirrors will also be seen repeatedly in the film as a hint of duplicity.
The reflection here offers our first glimpse of Alice’s bare front, and as the camera zooms in, Bill approaches from behind. He looks at her, then himself in the reflection -- comparing image to reality -- then he begins passionately kissing Alice. We cut closer on their reflected image. Then...Alice’s eyes open, and a look of disappointment crosses her face. Without resolution there is a fade to black.
Obviously, there’s a problem. The first thing to understand is that they’ve been married for 9 years. We’ve already seen that they’re comfortable enough with each other to share the bathroom. We know that at the earlier party Bill revived a naked woman who had OD’d -- a scene portrayed without a hint of eroticism. He also indifferently (or trustingly) left his wife to fend for herself at a party at which she didn’t know anybody, and didn’t want to be at. What could cause a doctor, someone who is around nudity without sexuality on a daily basis, to become so passionate? The act of having saved someone’s life.
Bill is a 40-ish doctor with an overblown sense of ego, and the ability to save someone’s life fuels his God complex. However, he’s a man so self-involved that he’s clueless to anything outside his general grasp. He has everything he wants: a beautiful wife and daughter, a general practice on Park Avenue and a $2-million apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which contrary to some critical remarks, could easily be paid for with a mortgage.
There are several things worth noting about this scene. The first, is that it’s incomplete. We don’t know the outcome. Kubrick faded to black just as things seemed to be getting interesting. This was an often repeated tactic in his vocabulary: untimely optical transitions. (Think: the fade to black in 2001 just as Floyd’s recorded message is nearing an end, or the dissolve from Mr. Touchdown giving directions in Full Metal Jacket to the actual scene of the crime -- or even the fade out at the end of Part 1 in Barry Lyndon, while the Narrator is still reading Sir Charles’ obituary.) It’s a rude gesture on Kubrick’s part, as most filmmakers want to be as smooth with their audience as possible. The integral piece of information has usually been established, yet instead of resolving the matter at hand, this technique leaves the ending loose, usually to have it played out in the following actions, implying that nothing can be done to alter this fate.
(One more note regarding the fade to black. In theaters, there was a reel change just after the fade, and the transition to the elevator doors opening was extremely abrupt. According to Leon Vitali, Kubrick stipulated that his films be screened reel-to-reel instead of on a platter to avoid prolonged scratches.)
The question must be begged: did they or didn’t they? Everything we’ve seen about Bill prior to this -- from his indifference with Alice on the toilet and an unflinching professional demeanor when confronted with the nude woman, to his hesitation as Gayle and Nuala proposed to take him, “...Where the rainbow ends...” -- suggests he’s not exactly the hot-blooded type. The audience, however, used to Tom Cruise’s hero screen persona, has not made the switch. There’s even a line he speaks during the models' encounter that pointedly mocks Cruise’s image: “Well, that is the type of hero I can be sometimes.” The subsequent events of the story prove otherwise.
Marriage, as portrayed in Eyes Wide Shut, is not merely a psychological game of emotional manipulation or deceit, but it primarily serves as an evolutionary function for the species. It’s a matter of survival; it provides structure for society, financial security for individuals, maintains population control to an extent, and it subdues to the varying effects that marriages succeed, the spread of disease. The problem is not in the intellectual concept or morality of one man and one woman, but in the reality of actually applying it to real people. It’s often a case of trying to fit a circle (humans: living things capable of choice and emotional response), into a square (marriage: a rigid structure).
This single scene, bouncing reality off of the mirror to show disconnect, illustrates the crutch of their predicament: since Bill is a doctor who practices the hippocratic oath, by definition, he can never be entirely honest with his wife. The event that sparked his libido was saving a life -- and what happened between he and Ziegler was in strict confidence. (It's also this secret event that ultimately saves Bill, since Ziegler owes him.)
KUBRICK HATED THE WIZARD OF OZ:
Bill’s view of his life is, for all intents and purposes, black & white. This is visually played out in several ways: when Bill and Alice initially arrive at Ziegler's party the floor beneath their feet is checkered black & white; during Bill and Alice’s argument, he’s wearing black shorts and she white lingerie, and he even dubiously states, “Well, I don’t think it’s quite that black & white...” Also, at the party, Bill is paired against Nick Nightingale, and he’s wearing a black jacket while Nick is wearing a white jacket; the newspaper in which Bill reads about Amanda Curran's overdose is black ink printed on white paper; and, most tellingly, we see Bill’s jealous fantasies of Alice with the Sailor played out in his mind in black & white.
The black & white motif is used to directly counter the “rainbow” of colors awash throughout most of the film. (Remember, The Wizard of Oz pairs B&W reality in Kansas against lush color in Oz.) There appears to be a logic to the use of colors which goes as follows: blue represents an artificial or mechanical surface; red represents an internal entry, Eros, or the life instinct; orange represents normalcy and familial warmth; and yellow represents unreliability and a lack of control.
Red and blue are seen most frequently, often paired within the same shot to contrast each other. Kubrick paired these two once before during the opening titles of A Clockwork Orange, and a clockwork orange is, of course, somebody who appears to be living yet is really mechanical.
Our first introduction to blue is during the tracking shot of Bill at the beginning: there’s a cold blue light seeping through the windows. As the film progresses, blue begins coming through more and more windows, brighter and brighter, illuminating what we can obviously tell is a false exterior set, literally illustrating the false exterior. As that first shot ends, the lights in the room have been turned off, leaving only two sources of light: the harsh, artificial blue coming through the window and the warm orange lamp light from the hallway. Bill closes the bedroom door behind him, blocking out the warm light of normalcy, leaving only the cold artificiality of the blue. Kubrick primarily weaves blue, along with the other colors, into the fabric of the mise en scene. Blue is used as a tile on the wall when Bill negotiates entry into Rainbow Costumes, as a stage light at the Sonata Cafe, as the door to Domino’s apartment, and so on.
Red, constantly opposing blue, is seen most prominently during the orgy, where the carpet is bright crimson and the party’s chief is appropriately called Red Cloak. This is where the id has been unleashed, and Bill believes somebody might have given their life to save his. It can also be found as a traffic light outside the window of Rainbow Costumes contrasting the blue tiles, on the neon lights that decorate the Sonata Cafe, as well as its dark interior upon Bill’s entrance. There’s even a red neon sign that says EROS in one scene.
Orange is the color emitted from all of the normal functioning lights in the film’s settings, as it would be. In this way, orange is natural and de facto in its representation of normalcy.
Yellow, the final major recurring color, is prominent because of the taxis taken by Bill that are everywhere throughout the city. Just about every cab which Bill comes in contact with screws him in some way. This is the result of his abandoning control to let somebody else manage his means of travel.
With the exception of the obviously artificial blue exteriors, the color scheme is blended into the film by motivated objects. The most obvious of these objects are the recurring Christmas lights (Christmas trees are everywhere as a symbol of fantasies and self-delusions, namely by celebrating the birth of a man who purports to offer eternal life).
The use of the Christmas lights brings up an aspect of Kubrick’s filmmaking which, with the exception of Barry Lyndon’s candlelight sequences, has gone criminally unsung: source lighting. While examples can be viewed in his work as far back as Killer’s Kiss, most of Kubrick’s interiors from 2001 on were lit by actual sources, instead of sculpting the light with multiple hidden sources and cut with flags the way most films do. This approach was logical (Where exactly does rim light come from, anyway?), and created a beautiful naturalism to his work. It also affected the light timing, in that because we were actually experiencing incident light from definable sources with the light correctly fading to darkness the farther the rays fell away from the bulb, a truer, more inhabitable space was created around the characters.
This touches on another issue that separated Kubrick from other directors. While many ambitious directors strive to experiment with the latest technologies, Kubrick personally oversaw the creation of new technologies for his films. It was Kubrick who acquired the NASA Zeiss lenses and figured out the means by which they could be attached to the Mitchell BNC cameras for the afore-mentioned Barry Lyndon (with the help of Ed Di Giulio). Also, if you watch the credits for 2001, he is listed as the director of the film’s special photographic effects, which won him his only Oscar. (It was all done in-camera; there was no such thing as digital back then.)
He was editing on video, and then computers, using a system called Montage, in the mid-'80s on FMJ, long before Avid became the standard, and he even created a Video Village of 2-dozen VCRs and monitors to to record and compare takes on set.
And for everybody who loves Scorsese’s or Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic Stedicam shots, check out The Shining, done a full decade before Goodfellas.
All said, however, he never used technology as an end in itself. Technology was a means to an end. Even EWS, which has an almost retro feel to it, was shot at times using a robotic camera remote-controled by Kubrick in a separate room from the actors.
It is not without good reason that everyone from Arthur C. Clark to the myriad of rocket scientists who advised 2001, hailed him as probably the single most intelligent human being they’d ever personally known.
Eyes Wide Shut is difficultly filled with obscurities. God is in the details. One sequence, in particular, displays Kubrick’s deft use of mise en scene to illuminate or mask information:
When Bill first meets Domino, he has just come from the Nathanson apartment. Bristling in the cold night, he reaches a street corner and waits for the light to change. Domino approaches, dressed in a black & white faux fur coat and a short, tight purple dress (purple being the combination of red and blue). In the background we can see the red and blue neon sign for an XXX video store, subliminally planting sex in our minds. She asks him for the time, which he gives her. As the light changes, we switch to a reverse angle (front and back), leaving the background of the video store for that of a hardware store, grounding us in the mundane world. Bill starts across the street, and Domino starts coming onto him.
Bill’s initial impression of her, as is most people’s, is that she’s a prostitute -- however, we’re getting details which subvert this initial reaction. For example, the aggressiveness in which she propositions him seems quite unprofessional. Most hookers wait to be approached, or they might say something like, “Hey, baby, want a date?” But they certainly wouldn’t play so hard as follow somebody and walk in front of them, not letting them out of their grasp. Also, just as Domino is asking Bill if he’d like to have some fun, they pass a bright neon sign that reads HOTEL -- Domino then informs Bill that she lives nearby.
Now, I’m not exactly an expert on prostitution, but it seems unlikely to me that a woman would come on this strong and invite a john back to her apartment. Prostitution is a business. It’s not personal. It’s selling an image, not a reality. It’s Bill’s lack of experience that leads him to assume her identity. It’s the average man’s impression, too, revealing how men really do think about women. But she's got an agenda.
Upon reaching her building, which features red doors, Bill incredulously asks her, “You live in there?” He finally agrees to go inside with her, and we cut to the interior lobby of the building, as they enter. This is typical in that the camera never follows Bill through any doorways; he’s followed directly up to doorways, then picked up from the reverse side, as he enters into a different world. In the corner of the lobby next to Domino’s door is an abandoned blue baby carriage, mockingly juxtaposing sex as reproduction with sex for money (just as Mandy's naked OD was paired with a painting of a pregnant woman on Ziegler's bathroom wall).
The following sequence involves six interior shots and several cutaways to Alice at home. The placement of the camera is central to Domino’s true identity. We start with the camera’s back to the apartment, focused on the front door. The door opens and Domino enters, followed by Bill. The camera tracks backward with them, as they walk into the apartment. Bill comments that her small Christmas tree is “nice,” for lack of anything better to say. Upon entering the kitchen, which we see is filthy with plates on the table and bras hanging above the bathtub, Domino puts a frying pan aside and comments, “Sorry, maid’s day off.” (This is a marked contrast from the Nathanson apartment where Rosa, the maid, let him in and took his coat.) Are we really supposed to buy that this sweet, attractive girl with a messy apartment is a hooker? Again, showing, not telling.
The next shot is a reverse-angle 2-shot of Bill and Domino. We can see more dishes and food on the table, as well as the bathtub in the kitchen (contrasting Ziegler’s luxurious bathroom from the party). A room can be seen in the background, though its details are unassuming. Bill asks Domino if she’d like to talk about money. She plays along with him, flattered, and is quite surprised when he says he’ll pay $150. She sweetly tells him that she won’t keep track of the time, a dead-on clue. Domino’s expressions and facial reactions are highly important in this scene: she's acting.
We now cut away to Alice at home, staying up to wait for Bill so they can resolve their argument. Bathed in blue light, she’s eating Snackwells and watching Blume in Love, by Paul Mazursy, who starred in Kubrick’s first feature Fear and Desire. Bill, however, in the apartment of a beautiful and willing young woman, is oblivious.
We return to Bill and find him in a tight 2-shot with Domino in her bedroom, as they kiss -- another give away (what hooker kisses on the lips?). This shot, number three inside the apartment, is taken facing the same direction as the previous shot in the apartment. Then...Bill’s cell phone rings.
With the ring of the phone, we move to a wider shot. This is now shot four of the apartment, and it is from the same direction as the previous two shots. We learn that Bill was seated on the bed with Domino kneeling above him -- as if he’s the patient to her doctor. The camera tracks with Bill as he steps away. Bill turns off the stereo and answers the call.
Two books can be seen on the shelf, one more obvious than the other. The book in plain view is humorously titled Introducing Sociology. (Is Domino a student?) The second book, lying down and difficult to make out, is Shadows on the Mirror, a novel by Frances Fyfield, about a successful woman attorney at a prestigious firm who keeps lonely men company at night...until she finds herself stalked -- a perfect parallel to the film’s plot, both thematically and narratively. This is what I’m talking about with regard to Kubrick’s use of detail. You’d better believe that book is intentional. This is why his films took so long to shoot -- he was making sure that everything within every scene and within each frame played out exactly the way he wanted it to.
After a series of cross-cuts between Bill and Alice, as he lies to her about his whereabouts, we cut to shot #5, a medium close-up of Domino reclining on her bed. “Was that...Mrs. Dr. Bill?" This shot is from a different position, yet varies by only ninety degrees to the left.
Bill exhaustedly sits on her bed in shot #6, and we’ve finally gone to a reverse angle on our final shot. And what do we see? A room behind Bill and Domino. And what room is it? The kitchen. We’ve now seen the entire layout of the apartment. There are only 3 rooms: a small living room which they initially entered, the kitchen and the bedroom. Therefore, Domino’s “roommate” is probably a bit more than a roommate. This final shot of the sequence with Domino contains a subtle zoom, indicating that we’ve just received an important piece of information. (The zoom appears in the film at several integral moments, in varying degrees of size and length.) Bill offers to pay Domino anyhow, though she refuses -- yet another clue. He insists and places the money in her hand. Surprised and flattered , she thanks him. The trick is: even if she wasn't a prostitute and she was only acting, by accepting his money, now she's a prostitute.
Everything in this film is specific -- camera directions and dramatic locations alike. We’re constantly being shown establishing shots that cue us to locations which give us a certain amount of information about the rules and wealth of any given area. It also helps drive home how people in New York, like Dr. Bill, live their lives in a routine that takes them to the same locations within the city on a regular basis. Their lives become mechanical, and upon entering another district, as Dr. Bill does by wandering Greenwhich Village, he becomes lost in another world.
Kubrick’s films were visually tight. So much so, that he was praised as much as he was criticized. He never storyboarded, though. His feeling was that until he was on the set and staging the scene with the actors, there was no way to know where the camera should be. The camera’s function for him was to document, not dictate.
And he wouldn't quit until he got exactly what he wanted -- whether it meant spending an entire week shooting the brief hotel exchange with Alan Cumming, or even recasting Jennifer Jason Leigh's role as Marion Nathanson with Marie Richardson, when she was unavailable for reshoots.
The shoot didn't last 20 months for nothing...
GREATEST AMERICAN HERO:
Bill is a boob. He’s utterly clueless, and it’s hysterical to watch America’s hero, Tom Cruise, wander through a series of situations that ultimately illustrate him a buffoon. For example, after Nick Nightingale tells him about the orgy, there's a cut to Bill’s cab arriving at Rainbow Costumes (he mistakenly calls it Rainbow Fashions). Bill thanks the driver and tells him to keep the change, then he rings the buzzer and asks for Peter Grenning, a patient of his. Mr. Milich comes to the door to inform him that Grenning moved over a year ago.
This scene features one of the funniest moments in the film. As Mr. Milich steps out of his apartment, we can see some lights reflected on the glass door of the building. These lights are the neon signs in front of Sonata Cafe and Gillespie’s Diner. Upon cutting to a reverse we can see both buildings directly behind Bill. He's apparently hired a cab to drive him to a destination that was right across the street from where he was. The cabby most likely drove around, then dropped his clueless passenger off.
Now, here’s a curve ball. The next day when Bill returns to Sonata Cafe and finds it’s closed, he steps back and looks around the block; in the background, we can see the building with the storefront that’s supposed to be Rainbow Costumes -- however, it’s been stripped of any visible identification, save the marks of where the Rainbow sign was. What’s going on? Is this intentional? Poor production values? No. Once again, it’s intentional. Like the AC. Like the missing statue. The reason Kubrick has Bill step aside to look around is to deliver this information. Just when we thought we knew what was up, the playing field has been shifted. Kubrick is refusing to grant us the slightest bit of resolution. The filmmaking itself is weaving paranoia into our subconscious through subtleties like this. And it's these traits that render the film functionally surrealist.
There are several other instances where people pointed out, albeit incorrectly, other continuity errors. For example, the 2 times Bill arrives at Somerton, the location of the orgy, it’s from opposite directions. If you pay attention it’s because he takes two different routes. A cab drives Bill the first time; the cab turns off the highway, and we see a series of shots of the cab riding through a town and a dark rural road, before it arrives at the gated driveway. Bill has been too consumed by feelings of jealousy to pay much attention. On the second occasion, Bill drives himself in the movie’s only scene involving his car. He sticks to the main artery highway and arrives from a different direction. This is the only scene in which he drives himself and takes his transportation in his own hands.
Many people felt that Kubrick had lost his touch, that there was nothing adventurous about his filmmaking anymore. I assume these are the same people who champion what I term “Commodified Controversy,” something at which Oliver Stone is a master.
“Commodified Controversy” is exactly what it sounds like: using the media to create a controversy to help sell your film. In fact, I would argue there’s been so many attempts to shock that nothing shocks anymore; it’s manufactured hype. The corporations, in my opinion, are quite happy with this. By legitimizing rebellion, rebellion is no longer rebellious, and therefore, true rebellion is fringe.
Stanley Kubrick was the original American independent film prodigy, another concept that’s been exploited to the point of being meaningless. He started on his own without a college diploma and shot two DIY features funded by relatives, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, before Hollywood took notice and gave him his break.
By the time Eyes Wide Shut was released, controversy had taken the form of Fight Club or Natural Born Killers (nowadays it's Bruno) -- both topical and against the grain, but unlikely to shift the playing field and unwilling to risk commercial losses through bans. Of course, the climate is different today than in Kubrick’s heyday. A director like Stone can afford to release NBK as an R-rated film in theaters, then promote an unrated “Director’s Cut,” for home video.
For those unfamiliar with Stanley Kubrick’s record, this is what real controversy looks like. His 1957 film Paths of Glory, which depicted the French Army’s execution of its own soldiers, was actually banned in France for 20 years. Dr. Strangelove, released in 1964, depicted an American General launching a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union -- it came out four months after JFK’s assassination, and less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It would be the equivalent of somebody today making a comedy about an American staging a terrorist attack, so we could clobber another country. In 1971, he released A Clockwork Orange, one of only two X-rated films to ever receive an Oscar nomination for best picture. After a series of death threats made against him and his family, he chose to withdraw it from theaters in Great Britain, and it remained that way until after his death.
I'd like to now discuss the orgy scene. Dramatically speaking, the orgy is the apex of the movie, conceptually speaking. You want balls? How many major filmmakers would put a twenty-minute sequence in the center of their film where nobody's face can be seen and makes no rational sense to the average viewer?
Dr. Bill wanders into an environment that’s as alien to him as to the viewer. He doesn’t belong there. He doesn’t know the rules -- and since he’s our guide, neither do we. All we can do is try to put the pieces together and, like much of the film, it’s an exercise in comprehension skills.
What I can tell you is this: the party is a variation on Venetian masquerades, Bill’s mask is inappropriate, both Gayle and Nuala are likely in attendance, Ziegler is in attendance, and Mandy is in attendance
Detractors commented that the scene had poor sound quality. I’m not sure what they meant by that. Did they want the dialogue to be more stylized? It was lurid melodrama played out by naked people wearing masks. It was funny and scary at the same time. The masks and costumes created a sense of fantasy, yet the plain, earnest voices coming from under the masks was comical in its juxtaposition.
Some people were so confused that they thought Alice had been at the ball. For the record, she wasn’t.
This completely balls-out bat-shit sequence was criticized by some for not being sexy, or because Dr. Bill doesn't get anything. They're missing the forest for the trees (fig leaves not included).
What Kubrick has been building toward with this sequence is a manipulation of the viewer into wanting Bill to cheat on Alice. This is the same strategy he used time and again -- convincing the audience to root for the main character to do something bad (the B-52 reaching its target in Dr. Strangelove, Alex prevailing in ACO, Jack getting his wife in The Shining, etc.)
It's a moral litmus test for the viewer.
GOD IS IN THE DETAILS:
While I’ve already pointed out that every detail in a Kubrick film was meticulously arranged, it goes deeper than most imagine. For example, when Dr. Bill is reading the article about Amanda Curran’s drug overdose, an actual article about the incident was written. If you freeze-frame your DVD you can read it. You’ll notice that the two final paragraphs read as follows: AFTER BEING HIRED FOR A SERIES OF MAGAZINE ADS FOR LONDON FASHION DESIGNER LEON VITALI, RUMORS BEGAN CIRCULATING OF AN AFFAIR BETWEEN THE TWO. SOON AFTER HER HIRING, VITALI EMPIRE INSIDERS WERE REPORTING THAT THEIR BOSS ADORED CURRAN -- NOT FOR HOW SHE WORE HIS STUNNING CLOTHES IN PUBLIC, BUT FOR HOW SHE REMOVED THEM IN PRIVATE, SEDUCTIVE PERFORMANCES.
Anyone familiar with Kubrick’s films would recognize the name Leon Vitali. He was Kubrick’s personal assistant for the last twenty-five years of his life. He played Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, and also Red Cloak in Eyes Wide Shut. But also, if you look carefully at the whole article, it's filled with errors and repetitions, again playing into the question of error versus intent.
I’d also like to point out a scene in which the mise en scene gives us a clue to a character’s motivation: Bill’s visit to the Nathanson apartment. This use is simple and logical. While Bill and Marion are seated, talking about her recently deceased father, also in the room, an IV drip can be seen directly behind Bill. Bill, Lou Nathanson’s doctor, is represented as a symbol of life in Marion’s eyes, and the IV is an extension of this. Just before Marion deliriously kisses Bill and tells him she loves him, he leans forward and obscures the IV machine, effectively becoming one with this device. Bill, however, is not a machine, just a human. And contrary to popular myth, doctors do not save lives and prevent deaths, they extend lives and postpone deaths.
With Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick created a film so layered with latent meaning that it perfectly encapsulated a modern society so overloaded with conflicting and referenced culture that it’s lost its meaning. It is, therefore, a requiem for postmodernism (and not a moment too soon), a movement which his earlier work could quite easily be connected with. This film dramatizes the ultimate effects that postmodernism has had on our culture, and its reception perfectly illustrated this. We’ve degenerated from a culture which embraced intellectual adventurism and new ideas, making not only critical, but commercial successes out of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, to one which criticizes films for being adult and dark, as Jeffery Lyons did to the Kubrick/Spielberg collaboration A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. We no longer make choices based on quality but aesthetics. Our current culture is disposable. And time will render it as such.
Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic legacy will continue to grow. His position as a 20th Century master is assured. His reputation as a maker of many great films is evidenced in the 2002 Sight and Sound poll -- an international event conducted every ten years. The poll is divided into two sections, one by directors, the other by critics. While most directors were lucky to have one film on either list, and a few were lucky enough to have the same film on both lists, Kubrick had a different film on both lists. The critics chose 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the directors chose Dr. Strangelove.
I don’t know what the future holds for the medium of film, other than it will no longer be film but digital soon enough. I see mixed messages. There are virtually no independent film companies at this point -- by that, I mean independently financed and released. While most films are independently produced, they’re being released by studios -- and that means the studios have final say over which films get distributed and what they’ll look like. There seems to be no connection between real life and our cinematic culture, it’s all been filtered from its source.
The studios seem intent on producing big-budget special effects epics without much plot or character -- and as long as audiences choose to see these behemoth, soulless shit festivals, I suppose we’ll be forced to endure them. I don’t mind this stuff. It’s how the industry has always functioned. There just needs to be room to breathe, that’s all.
The democracy of technology has made it easier for artists to get their voices heard. Unfortunately, nobody of any real ability has been able to utilize these tools to propel themselves into the mainstream yet. Means of distribution will eventually change that. Either through the home manufacturing of DVDs or by the internet. At this point, though, we’re just not there.
I’m also pleased that some of the filmmakers who’ve come of age lately have begun inserting more signature points of view into their work, such as Wes Anderson and Darren Aranofsky, while older holdovers like the Coen Brothers continue to go strong.
It’s dispiriting to see an entire generation raised on postmodern notions of repetition and borrowing -- one without an intellectual center, since everything seems to be “relative.” The intellectual fault of this is that it has no foundation; it borrowed a scientific premise based on mathematically observed facts, and incorrectly applied it to everything in life, rendering it valueless and indefeatable. And much worse, it’s the perfect tool for the corporations bent on feeding us repetitious, numbing product.
The greatest act of rebellion anyone can ever hope to achieve -- and Stanley Kubrick was a prime believer in this -- is to actually break the mold and THINK for yourself: to open your eyes.
Copyright 2002/2009 The Mutiny Company