Eyes Wide Shut: Kubrick’s Epic of Copulation
When director Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut was released posthumously in summer 1999 (shortly before rumors spread that Tom Cruise and a band of disgruntled Scientologists had him “silenced” for what they felt was an unflattering portrayal of their secret society) there was a public uproar over its paradoxically realistic and outlandishly stylized depictions of sexuality. Some critics brazenly dismissed it as “a sex movie made by a dirty old man,” though perhaps madman would have been more apropos, considering Kubrick seems to fit into that category of latter day prophet-philosopher-artist, not unlike Nietzsche and de Maupassant and Schubert, syphilitic geniuses one and all, ironic considering the psycho-sexual themes of the film. Of course there is no evidence that Kubrick contracted much less died of a venereal disease.
Ultimately, Warner Brothers and the ratings board agreed that there was something definitely amiss with the film, and the theatrical release was censored in the United States, as was the subsequent DVD release, despite contractual agreements that allowed Kubrick, and Kubrick alone, to have final cut. The financers of the $60 million project must have sighed with relief. Thank god! The old man had conveniently died a few months before the premiere, allowing perverse businessmen to tinker with a work of genius, another irony considering the protagonist of the film has his life threatened by a cabal of wealthy businessmen. Even in death Kubrick's legend only intensifies!
Of course, none of this mattered much to the critics who felt the film was just plain weird. As with any artistic endeavor, there is a heavy price to pay for subtlety, and Kubrick, who was perhaps the subtlest of filmmakers, fell victim to the critics’ and the public’s inability to get beyond the obvious elements of the story and ponder the film’s deeper meanings.
Of artists in general, Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer of the fantastic and the sublime, has said, “[He] begins his career by being baroque, pompously baroque, and after many years, he might attain if the stars are favorable, not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity.” This statement sums up Kubrick’s extraordinary transformation and development as a director and applies particularly to Eyes Wide Shut, a film that is almost labyrinthine (to borrow one of Borges’ favorite words) in its structure and examination of the human psyche.
There is, of course, no disputing the fact that Kubrick had a flare for Barnum & Bailey showmanship and that he sometimes employed a garish style in his films — think of the codpieces worn by the droogs in A Clockwork Orange (another movie so misunderstood that Kubrick opted to have it taken out of circulation in Britain) — but if he enjoyed wild costumes and outrageous sets he always presented his symbols with the greatest care and precision. So subtle were his ideas, so complex his methodology that no one can possibly watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and get the message in one viewing (if Kubrick even had a “message” to convey — he was never preachy). In that film the director seems to comment on everything from evolution to artificial intelligence to the psychedelic 60s. He also gives us his take on sensory deprivation as the common lot of the adventurer and large-scale bureaucratic cover-ups as the modus operandi of all governments, past, present and future. And, oh yes, there are also a plethora of references to Genesis and Homer.
The same kind of complexity is also at work in The Shining, though many adolescents are led to believe that it’s just a horror movie. With more than his usual allotment of cynicism Kubrick examines the traditional family unit. After a screening of the film, Stephen King was so unsettled by what Kubrick had done to his novel that he said, “I think Stanley is really trying to hurt people with this movie.”
King gives us an important clue. Thoughtful individuals will see beyond the façade of the obvious plot (the sci-fi movie, the horror movie, the political satire) and look carefully for signs of deeper meaning. Just as 2001 is a movie about something more than spaceships and aliens, Eyes Wide Shut is a movie about something more than people fucking like wild dogs on dining room tables. One of the few critics to give the film a positive review described it as “a sexual odyssey” in that the protagonist wanders through the world not unlike Odysseus and, in several episodic set pieces, suffers much at the hands of mythic monsters. I’ll agree with the odyssey part of the equation, but I am skeptical of the sexual component. Not that sexuality is merely incidental to the film, but it’s probably less important than an initial viewing may suggest. In Eyes Wide Shut, sex is all surface ... as it is in life.
Kubrick, who was an insatiable reader, researched his films obsessively, taking years to get every detail just right, crafting his scripts with meticulous care. So convincing was Dr. Strangelove, for instance, that the FBI paid Kubrick a visit and demanded to know how he’d obtained so much information about national security matters. The answer was less conspiratorial than J. Edgar Hoover probably believed: Kubrick read books, lots of books, and to prepare for Dr. Strangelove he read 50 volumes on nuclear warfare and how the military might respond to an attack by the Soviets. Given these facts, I think it’s safe to assume that before making his final film Kubrick read more than a few sex manuals and the Kinsey Report.
In one sense, Eyes Wide Shut is one long meditation on psychoanalysis (whether of the Freudian or Jungian school is arguable since there are just as many mythic themes here as there are strictly Freudian ones). Nevertheless, Kubrick uses a psychological approach, more so than in his other films, and as the plot unfolds, one important theme seems to emerge and is emphasized over and over again: human beings, given the opportunity, will always embark on a quest for hedonistic pleasures; it is the pleasure principle that motivates people most of all. I suppose this concept is rather overtly Freudian, but in Kubrick’s hands the theme takes on mythological dimensions. We enter a quasi-surreal dreamscape in which reality is transformed into poetry. While Kubrick does indeed focus specifically on sexual gratification, he could just as easily have focused on some other aspect of hedonism like drugs, say, or alcohol, or even food, but gluttony seems somehow less poetic than lovemaking.
Hedonistic pleasure, however, is almost secondary to the more important issue: the decadence of American society. Of course, all decadent societies have a voracious appetite for base pleasures so this is not necessarily a commentary on America per se so much as it is a commentary on human nature in general. As seen through Kubrick’s eyes (and probably through the eyes of most reasonable people who have done a bit of traveling), America has definitely reached that critical stage in the lifecycle of a wealthy and powerful society. The historian Jacques Barzun once wrote, “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” And what can be more utterly absurd than a movie about a successful young doctor prowling the streets of New York looking to get laid while being accosted at every turn by perverts and prostitutes?
Barry Lyndon (1975) is in many ways an earlier meditation on this same theme. In this period piece, we see what happens to a provincial boy who for the first time in his life gets a taste of money, serious money, old money. In no time at all the title character (played by Ryan O’Neil) uses his great wealth to bed down every woman he can get his hands on, including the servant women. In Eyes Wide Shut, we see the fabulously wealthy Victor Ziegler (played by Sydney Pollack) having his way with a servant (in this case, a beautiful call girl) who has overdosed on drugs. Barry Lyndon takes place in England during the Enlightenment while Eyes Wide Shut is set in the New York of today, but despite the vast distances of time and locale Kubrick shows us that when it comes to human nature — and decadence — not much has changed.
And so the basic plot: Tom Cruise plays Bill Harford, a modern Odysseus (“the man of many twists and turns”) who is thrown into a mythological world of sex and pleasure, which leads him inexorably into the underworld of the ultrawealthy, a landscape few of us have seen. Here the norms of simple human decency are tossed aside in favor of perverse gratifications. This is Hades; it is the infamous Nighttown episode in James Joyce’s Dublin, and Harford must navigate his way through this strange netherworld with great cunning. Much is at stake. Like Odysseus, Harford is gambling with his life while the ultrawealthy, who use their power and prestige to fulfill their often malignant desires, seem to believe that there are no consequence at stake unless, of course, a plebian from the middle class infiltrates their libidinous secret world. Harford is a man who has climbed his way up the ladder, but he remains an outsider and must watch his step. Like the call girl we see early on in the film, Harford is a servant to the wealthy tycoon Victor Ziegler.
Kubrick seems particularly concerned about these social hierarchies and how wealth and power can be used to crush interlopers and imposters. No one was a greater master of disguise than Odysseus, and Harford, in one crucial scene, dons a mask and cloak to infiltrate an orgy given for the society’s powerbrokers. This is his one big mistake, and he is caught like Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave.
It has been said by more than one critic that Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s most personal and autobiographical film. The parallels are obvious. Kubrick, a poor Jewish kid from the Bronx, somehow, someway managed to become a successful film director in the Hollywood system. As a young director working on Paths of Glory and Spartacus with the likes of Kirk Douglas, Kubrick must have seen all sorts of strange and interesting things, things that would have surely shocked his friends and neighbors back in the old neighborhood. Ultimately sickened by the Hollywood system and lifestyle, Kubrick left the United States and resided in England until his death.
As an old man looking back on his younger years Kubrick produced Eyes Wide Shut. The plot roughly follows the typical quest motif of a young man who wanders blindly through new psychic landscapes. In one sense, Bill Harford is Odysseus, yes, but in another sense he is Telemachus, too, Odysseus’ son who yearns for a mentor and father figure. Problems arise, however, when we discover that Harford’s mentor, Victor Ziegler, turns out to be the monster at the center of the labyrinth, the minotaur hell-bent on murder and destruction, though Kubrick, in his usual manner, keeps us wondering if Ziegler really is a monster at all or a guardian angel. Nothing is resolved. Such is the genius of Kubrick. But we must ultimately wonder if Kubrick actually lived this story. Surely every temptation imaginable must have been thrown at him.
Despite (or maybe because of) its autobiographical overtones, the film grants us a first-person perspective, and we become adventurers and voyeurs simultaneously. Kubrick does a masterful job of allowing us to be Harford who serves as our mask, the costume we don to enter a forbidden world, a technique pioneered by the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. In L’avventura we follow the exploits of a young middle class woman who, like Bill Harford, enters the hedonistic world of the ultrawealthy. Antonioni is careful to edit out any reaction shots from the protagonist; he wants the viewer to react without any prompting from his actress. Kubrick also encourages us to react with fear, with desire, with curiosity, with disgust. Harford, like Dante’s Virgil, is merely our guide through the Inferno of modern day New York City. Any judgments we make and any insights we have are entirely our own.
In the end, Bill Harford tries to re-establish his life as a rather non-descript, middle class family man, the responsible doctor, husband, father, but as we see him wandering through a toy store at Christmastime with his little girl in tow we begin to sense that his life will never be quite the same again. His wife (played by Nicole Kidman, Cruise's wife at the time — another bit of deviousness on the part of Kubrick) does not seem particularly interested in mending their wedding vows with their connotations of eternity. Early in the film, when we first meet Alice Harford, we see her gazing into a mirror with what must be one of the most ambiguous expressions in the history of movies while her husband tries to ravish her.
Perhaps Kubrick, with his sly sense of humor, wants us to think of Borges’ famous dictum: “Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind.”