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“F*ck”: Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

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(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 5

9. Eyes Wide Shut, dir. Stanley Kubrick

When I wrote my senior essay on horror films, I was responding in part to what I saw as myopia on the part of the horror criticism and theory establishment. It seemed to me that scholars and critics focused almost exclusively on the role of violence in the genre, leaving other sources of horror largely unexplored. And even violence received a fairly one-dimensional treatment, discussed primarily in terms of displaced sexuality.

One of the films that inspired me to try something different was Eyes Wide Shut. It’s ironic, then, that this movie is in a sense the traditional horror theoretician’s dream film: It takes that displaced sexual anxiety and mania and puts it back where it came from. It’s a horror movie with sex instead of violence.

The last film that Stanley Kubrick would ever make, EWS stars then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Dr. Bill & Alice Harford, a wealthy and attractive couple who live with their young daughter on Central Park West. Drunken flirtations with other people at the Christmas soiree of a friend of Bill’s precipitate a pot-fueled fight between the two of them the following night. During the argument Alice informs Bill, whose cocksure arrogance regarding Alice’s presumed-inpenetrable fidelity has infuriated her, that she once came this close to throwing away their life together to pursue sex with a handsome stranger. Though she ended up not even so much as talking to the man, the revelation of her desire so stuns and angers Bill that, after being called away from the fight by business, he begins a nighttime odyssey of sexual pursuits. His encounters get progressively more bizarre and, as he soon finds out, exponentially more dangerous.

EWS did not do as well as expected, either with audiences or critics. In part this is due to its billing as an erotic thriller–the thinking person’s Basic Instinct. But folks hoping for detectives, icepicks, and hot lesbian action were no doubt disappointed by the film’s glacial, peripatetic pacing. Expecting a roller-coaster, they instead found themselves in a fable, a grim fairy tale involving the frightening adventures of an attractive, naive young hero as he journeys through the dark forest of his own sexual urges. All of those urges manifest themselves as monsters, ready to devour “the good doctor”: infidelity, cancer, drug abuse, prostitution, pederasty, venereal disease, cult-like ritual dominance and submission. Sex is the pale horse upon which a panoply of menacing riders ride, promising Bill pleasure but offering only ruin. I can’t help but be reminded of (are you sitting down?) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, another film that dispenses with logic in order to depict a series of macabre visions each more nightmarish than the next.

“Heat”? “Sparks”? There are few to come by here (perhaps only when Dr. Bill meets Sally the roommate, but that’s brought to as screeching a halt as possible). Indeed, Kubrick seemed to be visually mocking the very concepts with the gauzy yellows, arctic blues, and sickly pinks that illuminate so much of the film. (The pinks in particular–try to count just the decrepit Christmas trees with those odd pink lights bleeding out of them and you’ll see how prominent a role they play. Then there’s the gang of toughs (from Yale!) who gaybash Dr. Harford (a pun on Harvard? maybe I need to get out more) while saying he must be playing for “the pink team.” And I don’t think I need to go into the other connotation of “pink.”) And people looking for them missed the point entirely. So did those who complained “That’s not Manhattan!” (my God, how did Kubrick not realize he was shooting on a meticulously crafted replica? Stop the press! Alert Warner Bros.!) or even more amusingly, “That’s not how the rich and powerful have orgies” (I was always tempted to intone “he added knowingly” when I saw a critic kvetching about that). The point was to show a man led off the path of what he knows to be right, only to learn the lesson that what’s not right is, in fact, wrong. (And for this condemnation of sexual infidelity, the film was labeled reactionary in some quarters. I found that more sad than amusing.)

It’s worth noting that the source material for the film was a 1926 book called TraumnovelleDream Story–by writer Arthur Schnitzler. Viewers who can’t get around the episodic surreality of Dr. Bill’s wanderings might be well advised to view everything between the argument and the final conversation as a kind of detailed dream, one that veers slowly from would-be wet dream to full-blown nightmare. Note the dreamlike structure, with its jarring leaps from one place and time to another (this was common source of complaint against the film, but it only served to underscore the dreaminess of the narrative). Note the somnambulistic quality of Dr. Bill’s wanderings. Note his dreamlike superhuman powers: the ability to get anything he wants by saying the magic words “I’m a doctor,” flashing his magical 5000-megawatt smile, presenting the magical talisman known as his medical board card, and reaching into his magical bottomless wallet; the power to be irresistably attractive to anything on two legs–models, prostitutes, little girls, hotel clerks, roommates, anyone. Note that the recitation of Alice’s dream is the film’s central scene. Note the references to dreaming and wakefulness in the last scene. Note the title.

It’s also worth pointing out that Schnitzler was a contemporary and fellow-traveler of Freud’s, as images of the Freudian uncanny pop up everywhere. There’s the automaton-like women in the mansion. There’s the red-robed masked man with black holes for eyes. And there are doubles galore: Nuala and her friend, the two Japanese customers of Mr. Milich’s (themselves doubling genders with their transvestitism), the alliterative names of the two men who lead Bill and Alice into trouble (Nick Nightingale and Sandor Szavost respectively), the masks and the faces beneath them, the two notes of the ominous Ligeti music. Even the daughter of Dr. Bill’s dead patient and her husband serve as a sort of tragicomic, less attractive doubling of Dr. Bill and Alice themselves (note the placement of both the bereaved daughter and Alice in front of blue rooms, their similar hair color and style, etc.).

The final bit of doubling is another source of great vexation for the film’s detractors: the repetitive dialogue. Time and time again, Bill will repeat a line just spoken to him by another character. “Maybe had Kubrick lived he might have spotted this in editing,” they say–oh yeah, I’m sure he had no idea that was going on. What was he trying to achieve with this effect? Repetition is doubling, and it’s also an instance of the Freudian uncanny unto itself, calling to mind non-human processes of cognition and communication (cf. the dialogue of the “twins” in The Shining). It also yields a certain narcotic, mind-altering rhythm after a time, connoting inward-facing obsessiveness and detachment from reality (cf. the “I will destroy him!” scene in Barton Fink). But there’s a simpler reason, too: Bill needs things repeated to them because he simply does not understand anymore. His customary method of looking at the world has been rendered nonsensical, irrelevant, not even by deeds but by mere words. So he struggles to find a new way to frame things. He needs to repeat the new words to help make them real, to clarify them, to open his eyes to the new reality he’s trying to explore. And when he does have them opened, what he sees is horrifying. That’s the dream, and then that’s the nightmare.

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About Sean T. Collins

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    The reason audiences bolted from Eyes Wide Shut is that it was a bad film and the director was as out of date as his source material. Tom Cruise’s character — a man who freaks out over the mere fact that his wife has sexual fantasies about other men — was far more common in Schnitizler’s time than in the world you and I share.

  • http://www.whiterose.org/michael/blog/ Michael Croft

    Yep. “Sex is dangerous”. Best film about sex, 1958.

    It was boring.

  • Taloran

    I saw it while taking a class in a little village outside of Rochester, NY. I kept waiting for something, anything, to happen, and then the credits started to roll. Ugh.

  • http://www.alltooflat.com/about/personal/sean Sean T. Collins

    Well, diff’rent strokes, etc. Still, I can’t imagine that Kubrick set out to make a movie that reflected the mental & sexual state of the common man in our world today or whatever–when had he ever done that before?–so I think to declare it a failure on that basis is missing the point. Kubrick’s was a cinema of worst-case scenarios. This was one of them, and this time he was exploring the worst-case sexual scenario, as opposed to worst-case family in The Shining, worst-case technology in 2001, worst-case geopolitics in Strangelove, worst-case military justice in Paths of Glory, worst-case criminality in Clockwork Orange, etc. Moreover, there’s a difference between simple sex and marital infidelity, and this was a film about the latter.

    At any rate, it wasn’t that Alice just thought about the guy while jerking off–she made it very clear that had the sailor said so much as “hello,” she would have left the marriage. So I think we can forgive Dr. Bill for being a little upset.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    “I can’t imagine that Kubrick set out to make a movie that reflected the mental & sexual state of the common man in our world today or whatever–when had he ever done that before?–so I think to declare it a failure on that basis is missing the point.”

    Well, obviously the Cruise character isn’t common — he’s a rich doctor — but he did seem to be someone with whom we are supposed to identify or relate. To me, the story just seemed old hat, and not quite as cutting edge as Kubrick imagined.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Oh, and the movie’s last word — didn’t that look like a sad act of desperation to you? As if Kubrick thought there was some kind of integrity in endorsing marital fidelity? It’s just such a Doctor Phil kind of movie. One demands a view that it more interesting, a story that at the ending has a unique point of view, instead of the shallow one we got.

  • http://www.whiterose.org/michael/blog/ Michael Croft

    I’ve often wondered if it’s generational. Growing up with a post-AIDS understanding of sex may make a statement that seems shocking or deep to Kubrick or Cruise seem underwhelming to me.

    I know there are people who love it, and some of them think it’s destined to be considered a classic, but if it can’t speak to future generations, then it doesn’t have a long life ahead of it.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I got that impression as well, Michael — but it may also be that Kubrick was working on the wrong turf. He wasn’t unfamiliar with dealing with people on an intimate level in his films, of course, but he was always better dealing with the relationship between people and institutional societies (namely the military, a world he understood well.)