If you’ve been following Directed Viewing for a long time, you know how it goes by now. So I feel okay dispensing with the usual opening. If you haven’t, I implore you to start with the beginning of this project (link) or any of my prior projects (much bigger link). Because today is not going to be representative of any of that work, because today I want to get real with people who have followed me this long and are curious how I’ll handle the end of what has been a difficult, educational, but deeply trying project.
I don’t know what I think about Eyes Wide Shut.
I’m going to talk about it, because I feel obligated to, but if there’s ever a movie I don’t feel comfortable laying any sort of conclusive thoughts on it’s this one. And it’s not just because of my conflicted feelings about the movie itself, but because it’s become representative of something far more than Kubrick ever intended with it being his last finished film. Sure, I could put off dealing with his death and do a coy look at A.I., but I won’t be that guy. The truth is that Kubrick’s the first director I’ve done a project on who isn’t still making movies, and that really stings more than I thought it would.
So let’s talk about that, and about Eyes Wide Shut, but I want to do this as something a little more meditative than my normal run downs of the film and my impressions of it. I’ll certainly be talking about the movie, but in a more exploratory way, trying to talk about why I find it so maddeningly ambiguous and how that just feeds into my ultimate thoughts about Kubrick. If that’s not your bag, maybe scroll to the bottom where I reveal the next Directed Viewing project (it should be great crazy fun). For everyone else, hopefully I don’t abuse your time too freely, but I’ve been putting this article off for weeks (burning up a lot of my backlog in the process) and this is the only way I know how to talk about it.
Eyes Wide Shut is the only Kubrick movie to come out at a time where I was old enough to be aware of it. I remember hearing about it in popular culture, always kind of seedily referred to as that movie with the sexy parts between two people who were both married and some of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time. It also supposedly belonged to that nebulous genre of films almost entirely confined to the 90s called erotic thrillers, which to a fourteen year old me seemed lurid and forbidden in a way that made the more widespread success of this film perplexing and intriguing. But, like most things from the heady times of the Willennium, it quickly faded from memory, and I didn’t even think about it until I returned to this project and saw it sitting there, the mysterious unknown at the end of a road where I had seen every other of Kubrick’s later work.
In reality, approaching what seemed so scandalous as a teenager was something of an anticlimax. The movie, a drama based on a 1926 novella, certainly manages to have a lot of sex in it, but it’s not particularly explicit and almost deliberately not erotic. Once again, the culture commenting on things made something out to be far worse than it really was. Go figure. But even with those thwarted expectations, I wasn’t quite prepared for how complicated the reality of Eyes Wide Shut would be. Outside of its popular context, what was contained in the film was a total mystery going in, which only further confounded my gut reaction to it.
If you aren’t aware of the story, it follows a Doctor Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) who are a fairly young, successful couple up and coming in the rich, established social scene of New York City. The movie begins with them at a lavish Christmas party held by one of Dr. Harford’s patients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). As the couple split up and go their separate ways at the party, a sense of a gulf between them becomes quickly apparently. Alice reacts poorly to Harford chatting up some much younger women, and ends up in a long dance with a lecherous older man, who constantly tries to convince her to come away with him and convinces Alice that Harford is about to take the women away for some extramarital fun of his own.
Whether or not that is actually true, Harford is called away to the upstairs of the lavish mansion the party’s taking place in. His host, Ziegler, was in the middle of a much more intimate party with a young woman when she overdosed on the drugs she was taking. Harford, the picture of propriety, slowly brings the woman around, lecturing her on the dangers of her drug use even as she’s sprawled out on a couch, half undressed, Ziegler hovering nearby like a concerned parent. The couple break away from a tipping point, and go home to the cold domestic comfort they enjoy with their young child.
A few days later, while they’re passing around a joint, Alice brings up that she was worried he slept with the two women at the party. Their discussion starts to into a discussion of monogamy and jealousy, with Harford mostly shrugging away her concerns with the air of someone who had never really seriously considered them, even going so far as to claim that he never gets jealous because women are more faithful than men, and if he’s not worried about himself, he’s especially unconcerned for her. Alice, feeling insulted that he would just disregard the idea of her having sexual interests and fantasies beyond him and their life, regales him with a fantasy she had about someone they met on a vacation, going so far as to be as lurid as possible to try to get a reaction out of him.
It works, but he’s interrupted by a house call that takes him across the city, putting his already unsettled emotional state into further disarray when the woman he visits confesses her love for him. He rejects her and stumbles out into the street, only to seemingly change his mind about the possibility of infidelity, nearly hooking up with a prostitute before an ill-timed phone call from his wife brings him just enough back to reality to get him home. But the mood and question still hang over his head, leading him down a path of curiosity that gets him tangled up with the crazy orgy-cult the movie is probably best known for, as he falls down a rabbit hole of a long nighttime of exploring a world of the super rich and secret casual sex parties, and how freely everyone but him seems to be willing and able to cast aside their identities and propriety in order to indulge.
To get deeper into the mysteries of the cult is I feel missing the point. It’s an exotic smoke-screen, going out of its way to lead Harford along on a chase towards some big secret that simply doesn’t exist. In reality, the soul of the movie exists in that one conversation between Harford and Alice in their bedroom, smoking a joint and having a seemingly rare frank discussion of sexual desires. Everything else is just the complex phantasmagoria of Harford’s fallout, a glamour that reflects back at him all of his preconceptions and the cracks in which the rest of the world seemingly falls through them. It’s a morality tale about recognizing the amoral exists, and learning to react to it in a more nuanced, emotionally engaged way. Harford’s crime, if there was any, was a lack of empathy for his wife. And it takes Kubrick hours to break down the tidy morality of his protagonist, bit by bit subjecting him to conspiracy-cum-coitus until he’s left grasping at the only truths he has: his wife, and their feelings towards each other.
There’s a lot of problems with this, to be honest. It’s all a bit of a cheat, an elaborate story that skirts the boundaries of over-indulgence (sails right over them if you ask a lot of people, this is by far Kubrick’s most divisive film) and for all of its modernisms is absolutely grounded in that sort of late-to-post-Victorian thinking that made such formal scandalous concepts relevant and engaging to a reader back in the heady times of 1926. In 1999, it manages to feel decidedly chaste, which is in part why I think it works. Sure, there’s a lot of naked people having a lot of sex, but for anyone raised on a diet of internet filth it’s all just kind of worthy of a shrug. For Harford, however, it’s cataclysmic, bewildering and enticing at the same time. It’s definitely anachronistic, and I understand why that’s problematic for a lot of people. For a film that was sold on being to a certain type of lurid movie, it’s formal chastity is the kind of subversion I can only imagine unsettled many on first viewing.
And yet, I think I like it for all of its faults. I think that its tonal friction, the confusion with which its plot unfolds, fits neatly into the head of Harford, who manages to be incredibly unreliable as a protagonist without leaning into the madness or narration that Kubrick used so often in his prior work to signify the imbalances of his heroes. For a movie with so many excesses, Kubrick exercises a whole mountain of restraint when it comes to the emotional center of the film, making it into a full on McGuffin which the audience is left to recognize or not. I’m reminded deeply of how initially audiences hated The Shining for subverting its tropes, and how slowly opinion changed over time. Is Eyes Wide Shutdue for a similar fate? Or does Kubrick’s death halt that kind of evolution of opinion by removing him as a malleable part of the current conversation?
The Death of Kubrick
It’s only upon coming to this movie that I feel a really deep sense of loss at having Kubrick die shortly after finishing this movie (and before it even came out). Sure, losing artists is always a difficult thing, but I feel so deeply unfulfilled by Kubrick’s death that I feel haunted more by the fact that Eyes Wide Shut was his last movie than I am by anything in the movie itself.
And yet, I don’t know why. Do I imagine that his future output (maybe only a few movies, he was moving so much more slowly in producing them at this point and he was already 70) would somehow unlock some deep secrets about who he was and what he was all about? Would there be some deep mystery that made all his movies cohere in a better way, only found in some mythical Final Movie he had in his head but never got to put on film? I sincerely doubt it, as much as emotionally some part of me feels like it was lurking around the corner and now has evaporated forever.
In part, I feel this loss, this sense of lacking, is just inherent in Kubrick himself. People often describe his movies as cold, which I think is a fully inappropriate descriptor—his movies are often brimming over with emotions, sometimes to excess. But what’s true is that Kubrick was never explicit in saying what he meant by any of his movies. All movies have themes, ideas even the most dunderheaded artist pulls statements about how they believe the world works or people act or something into even the most soulless production. It’s inherently part of the creative process. And Kubrick seemingly poured himself into his films, subverting his source materials at whim to make his statements. So why, then, are his films still so hard to approach?
Kubrick isn’t a cold filmmaker, but he’s an ambiguous one. He never says something in one word when twenty will do, weaving even the most obvious points with a nuance that turns straightforward ideas like madness or joy, lust or anger, into winding forests that worm their way into the brain, puzzles meant to be teased apart only with great effort and even then with interiors that give away only a little, and only what the people who approach them are looking to see. I find it amazing that even people who worked with Kubrick often don’t know what to make of his films, and when they offer explanations often they’re contradictory views on what the basic concepts of the films were about.
In some ways, I feel like that’s the final legacy of Kubrick. All the technical achievements aside (and there are many), he was a director who was singularly unafraid to leave the heavy lifting up to the audience. Normally that’s entirely the realm of obscure art directors, whose films drip with the sorts of elaborate stand-offishness that drives audiences away in droves. But Kubrick never sacrificed the telling of a story to achieve his goals, and his films remain as immediately watchable as they do ultimately nebulous and questioning of even the most basic aspects of the stories they tell. For a director to straddle the demands of commercial success and artistic vision, and to do so with an elaborate dance that nobody will ever truly understand fully, is something of a miracle. A deeply frustrating, eternally debatable miracle… but I can’t imagine that’s not the way Kubrick would have wanted it.
Onward and Upward
You know that thing I just said about art directors often being far more standoffish with their drive to insist upon authorial voice? Well, it’s been a long time coming, but our next director definitely fits the bill of an auteur who is so determined to say what he means, sometimes it manages to get him into a hell of a lot of trouble when he misspeaks. Most famously, he managed to get himself kicked out of Cannes (presumably forever, but even French cultural stigmas have a hard time holding up to artistic talent) last year for an ill-timed Nazi joke.
That’s right, starting next week we’re taking a look at the controversial, complicated Danish Wunderkind Lars von Trier, maker of movies and television shows and small scandals because he rarely bothers with a filter.
I’ll admit this is going to be a much more obscure subject than my usual Directed Viewing seasons, but I hope you’ll come along for the ride anyway. I’m going to endeavor to talk about the movies in a way that makes them immediate for people who haven’t seen his work, and some of his most recent stuff (Antichrist and Melancholia, specifically) are on Netflix Instant right now. Fair warning, his films are very challenging fare, as much if not moreso than anything we’ve discussed in this Kubrick project; but the few I have seen I’ve found entirely worthy of discussion, and I hope people will agree.