When Eyes Wide Shut opened on July 16, 1999, it was greeted with much the same reaction that all of Stanley Kubricks films had received: polar opinions followed by discussion. Like those other films, now that the controversy has faded, and it can finally be dissected via video and DVD, its reputation has been slowly building. Part of the initial problem for many of the films 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 digital effects and the rise of the blockbuster above all else. For myself and an entire generation, we grew up watching Kubricks films on a TV screen.
Although I did see Full Metal Jacket during its original run in theaters at the age of twelve, what we were experiencing, for the most part, were waves created some time ago during the initial impacts of his work. When Eyes Wide Shuts 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, our anticipation increased. Then, on the evening of March 7, 1999, only months before the films release, we were shocked to learn Kubrick had passed away. We were in a state of disbelief. For the younger generation of filmmakers and enthusiasts coming of age now, its difficult to explain our reaction. For those who got Kubricks work -- the methodical compositions, groundbreaking narratives, revolutionary techniques, uncompromising intellectual concepts and, above all, his complete control over his productions -- it was like losing a symbol. One need only locate and read many of the obituaries published at the time to get a glimpse.
There was nobody else like him, and there never would be again. He was quite misunderstood, even by his admirers. I was aghast at reading post-mortem critical evaluations of his work, 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 the peak of the 90s media avalanche, as this was the year of the dot.com. The media, which K. had all but avoided for nearly a quarter century, quickly began spinning stories based on mistruths perpetuated by people whod never even met him. And certainly didnt understand his films. Eyes Wide Shuts entire production was controversial.
The lack of public knowledge, mixed with the length of the shoot, stirred much public interest -- not the least of which was centered around the films married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. All we were told was that the narrative centered itself around sexual obsession. Later, it was suggested to be based on Arthur Schnitzlers Traumnovel, however, no copies were in print because Kubrick had bought them all years earlier. As with any ambiguous 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 advertised: Tom & Nicole: Will they or wont they? (AOL subsequently purchased Warner Bros., who released it.) For those who were actually interested in the reality of Eyes Wide Shut, there was a real controversy. It was well known that Kubrick had been a perfectionist, with final cut over all of his work.
In fact, hed even recut 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining after their premieres. 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 hadnt. Then, as the reviews began coming out, not withstanding Alexander Walkers 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., CGI effects were exercised to alter a specific scene. Critics were shown both versions.
I saw Eyes Wide Shut several days before its release at a preview screening. The audience was anxious and on edge. The film began and after a few moments we all realized the picture quality was grainy, looking like a rough cut. There was whispering. The story unfolded, and my initial reaction swayed from nervous numbness to curiosity, to thinking it was the worst thing hed ever done and an embarrassment, to thinking it might be the best. Afterward, I left without much of an opinion. I needed to mull it over.
I thought, perhaps Kubrick wasnt dead after all. Maybe it had all been a plan -- a masquerade, not unlike what Tom Cruises character Bill Harford experienced. It was certainly ironic that someone known for portraying stories in which plans go astray -- while finishing his first film in a dozen years, living an anonymous lifestyle that he knew had furthered his reputation, and amidst the media maelstrom for which he had finally prepared to break his silence -- died of natural causes. His body simply stopped on him. It couldnt 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. But 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. Kubricks consistent intent was to create visual experiences that avoided literary pigeonholes. You see, most critics enjoy intelligent films, or so they tell themselves -- but usually dislike intellectual films. They like to watch well-made and well-thought-out work, yet disdain anything which will require them to think a great deal about what theyve seen after the fact. Another culprit was that many claimed to have read the Schnitzler, when all theyd read was Frederic Raphaels brief synopsis in his published memoir Eyes Wide Open, about his screenplay collaboration with Kubrick. Many hadnt even done that. That said, 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 MPAAs conservative attitudes toward sex.
After all, the world outside North America saw the version without the CGI 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 MTVs practice of blurring various unsuitable elements in hip-hop videos. (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.) Also, because this was apparently done just before its release, questions surfaced as to what else Warners 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, Kubricks brother-in-law and executive producer, subsequently made it clear that the cover-ups were Stanleys unequivocal intention if it received an NC-17, as opposed to recutting it.
I firmly believe that most of the confusion was the result of the writers inability to understand Eyes Wide Shut, and their refusal to admit so. After all, many critics are the ultimate armchair warriors, smug with feelings of superiority and incredulous that anyone, particularly Stanley Kubrick, could ever be more intelligent or better read than themselves. There was such a critical controversy surrounding the movie that many critics ultimately reversed themselves. Janet Maslin of The New York Times left her position shortly after its release, and it has been suggested that the medias 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. Thats already been proven incorrect, as its ideas have been absorbed, most recently by Wes Andersons The Royal Tenenbaums, which also featured a stylized version of New York. However, where Kubrick was charged with inaccuracies, Anderson was praised for originality. ZEITGEIST: Eventually, Eyes Wide Shut vanished from the scene and 1999 seemed to be a year that declared the arrival of younger talents. I couldnt 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 wasnt that Kubricks style was so out of touch with todays expectations. He never made films that worked like anybody elses in any decade. His films were 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. Nowadays, only movies outside the mainstream that need to build interest, such as art films, are released in stages. Most films are front packed, giving nobodies like Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations Monday morning press an undue influence. 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 fifty-percent of its total $56-million U.S. box office take in its first weekend. Worldwide it capped at roughly $150-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. (Its 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.
The title itself is a contradiction. Some suggested it was a reference to the dream logic the narrative followed. Its 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 -- a paradox. It was also a dry commentary on the audiences inability to comprehend what they were viewing. 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, Kubricks 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 todays 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 in the same way as most of Kubricks post-2001 films, in that its a series of episodes placed together without any overt exposition to bridge them. This format had many accusing it of being plotless. It isnt 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 movies plot is supposed to play out. When viewers dont receive what they expect at any given moment, they become dislocated from the material, because theyre no longer on a treadmill and have to think for themselves -- not unlike humanity's predicament in Kurt Vonneguts 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 its less obvious what the important pieces are. It also diminishes the emotional states of the characters. This was quite out of step with 1999. One example of his ambiguous compositions in Eyes Wide Shut is his 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 wide.
They dont always match the following action with Dr. Bill -- a tactic used to mock televisions use of establishing shots for shows shot on sound stages miles away from the actual locations. Also, Dr. Bill never appears in them. This was done to diminish this self-centered characters plight, as were the outward zooms used in Barry Lyndon. Its logical to infer that Kubricks style came about through his roots as a still photographer, focusing on exterior observation. By focusing on characters actions rather than attempting to justify their motivations, 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 emotions -- such as temporal and spatial time, natural sciences and laws of physics. He preferred sociology to psychology. His characters didnt 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. The Sixth Sense, released the same summer, differs from Eyes Wide Shut in its use of lies 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 wouldve been shattered.
Kubricks use of exposition and mise en scene differs greatly from a more modern director like Martin Scorsese. Whereas Kubrick routinely let multiple pieces of information permeate his compositions, creating a tapestry like Wheres 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 whats going on. Hes constantly freezing his narratives and fracturing time just to explain the details, as if hes 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 Shuts main character, Bill Harford, is constantly entering into situations that existed before him, and will continue once hes gone. Bill is traveling through a series of future light cones, and touring through the ripples of previous events, and the viewer, put in his place, enters into these situations as blindly as he does. Were given no more exposition than the main character. Therefore, what Kubrick has established is a method fundamentally at odds with Hitchcocks 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 smugness. The first three shots give us our conceptual setup. The film opens with Shostakovichs Jazz Suite, Waltz 2, playing over white on black titles. It then cuts to an image of Alice Harford, Bills 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. Shes 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 titillation. The opening shot, featuring a beautiful woman without any clothes on, altered none of these expectations. (Its integral to note that ones reaction to what follows would be fundamentally different seeing it on video than in a theater. The difference between film and video, or DVD to be more precise, is the picture quality. The actual film it was shot on, Eastman 500 EXR, had been underexposed by two stops, then pushed another two during development, creating a haze of grain that lent it a documentary feel. The effect was rather like Suerats 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 shot of Alice another title card appears cleverly announcing the films title, followed by a wobbly establishing shot of an apartment building on Manhattans Central Park West. What we didnt notice in the theatrical release, during the first shot, was the pictures grain -- we were too fixed 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 wasnt 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 attend. Upon cutting from the CPW establishing shot we find Bill in a tuxedo, standing where Alice was only a moment before.
There are major aesthetic differences to be noted. First, the exterior was lit with street lights, which lent an amber hue to the winter night. Inside, however, the light coming through the window is blue. (The color blue will become an integral part of the films 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 whos off-screen, asking if she knows where his wallet is. She suggests its by the bed, an obvious location, and upon locating it a look of resentment crosses Bills 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 -- a far cry from 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 scolds him for. He patronizingly tells her she always looks beautiful, then 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 just the background score. (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.)
What we have learned via these first three shots is that Bill and Alice have been married for quite some time, and theyre wealthy, living on Central Park West. Bill is absentminded and a bit of a boob with things; hes also extremely self-centered. Also, we should prepare ourselves for a certain amount of nudity, and this narrative is going to play mind fucks with us. One other piece of information granted us during this setup shot is a window air conditioner seen repeatedly as Bill passes it. Its 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 -- it isnt a central air installation, but merely an appliance mounted to the window. Later on, the AC is missing from the window; this is the only time well see it. The AC can be seen as symbolic of Bill and Alices relationship, but it also plays into the films highly complex use of mise en scene. As its never seen again, we can be left to ponder whether it was a continuity error or whether it was subsequently removed -- though if it was, Alice most likely did the work, because we later see Bill as a lazy oaf after work the next evening. The point is: we dont know.
Bill and Alice have been married for nine years at this point. Their daily routine has become mechanized. Its been suggested that Kubricks 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 are the perils resulting from 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. (Think: The Ludovico Treatment, the Doomsday Machine, HAL 9000 or even Redmond Barrys 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 a film about Napoleon, he even 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, and how long the shot would last. Without computers. Whereas too much planning stagnates and creates an appearance of lifelessness (which Kubricks 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. As Eyes Wide Shut unspools, Kubrick begins filling our minds with strange inconsistencies, of which the AC is only one. An obviously missing statue in one scene is an example; a chair that comes and goes near Bills front door, which he likes to place his coat on, is another. A few rough edits are even scattered about. Hes calling attention to the medium itself, with its grain and sloppy reel changes. Hes begging us to wonder whether these things are intentional or not? Bills life is a dream, not the movie. When Alice compares dreams and reality at the end, just before the return of Jazz Suite, Waltz 2, shes comparing her dreams to his reality. Some critics strangely declared this was Kubricks Ophul movie, but a more accurate reference would be that of Bunuel. 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. 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 -- just as the audience is pouring over the continuity inconsistencies. Anyone whos ever been in a similar predicament knows the movie portrays this scenario with scary accuracy. Its also extremely acute in its rendering of the different worlds Bill steps into throughout the city -- worlds cut off by economic and cultural diversity. And like life, nothing ever seems to fit together perfectly. No disguise is absolute, hence the disguise. Such is Kubricks central theory on relationships: 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 secret to understanding the relationship between Bill and Alice can be viewed during the mirror make out scene, accompanied by Chris Isaaks 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 mirrors reflection. Throughout the film were shown characters from behind, then from the front, suggesting a denial of truth and reversal of perception -- and an impersonal id attraction (rear), as compared to face to face truth and conjugal intimacy (frontal). (Mirrors will be seen repeatedly in the film as a hint of duplicity.) The reflection here offers our first glimpse of Alices bare front, and it can be clearly observed that her breasts are actually quite small. She was certainly wearing a push-up bra beneath her dress earlier on to create an illusion, and our previous glimpse of her nude body was from behind. As the camera zooms in, Bill approaches from behind. He looks at her, then himself in the reflection -- then begins passionately kissing Alice. We cut closer on their reflected image. Alices eyes open, and a look of disappointment crosses her face. Without resolution there is a fade to black. Obviously, theres a problem. The first thing to understand is that theyve been married for nine years.
Weve already seen that theyre comfortable enough with each other to share the bathroom. Also, we know that at the previous party Bill revived a naked woman who had ODd. He also indifferently (or trustingly) left his wife to fend for herself at a party at which she didnt know anybody, and didnt want to be. 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 someones life. Bill is a 40-ish doctor with an overblown sense of ego, and the ability to save someones life certainly fuels his God complex. However, hes a man so self-involved that hes 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 two-million dollar apartment on Manhattans 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 its incomplete. We dont know the outcome. Kubrick faded to black just as things seemed to be heating up. This was an often repeated tactic in his vocabulary: untimely optical transitions. (Think: the fade to black in 2001, just as Floyds 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.) Its a rude gesture on Kubricks 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. The question must be begged, did they or didnt they? From everything weve seen about Bill prior to this -- from his indifference to Alice on the toilet and an unflinching professional demeanor when confronted with the nude woman, Mandy, at the party, to his awful attempts at wit, as the two models, Gayle and Nuala, both much more aggressive than he, propose to take him, ...Where the rainbow ends... -- we know hes not exactly the hot blooded type.