Monday, February 27, 2012

These Twisted Words

Eyes Wide Shut is simultaneously Stanley Kubrick’s most verbal and least articulate film (“I don’t even know what we’re arguing about here!”), which may go a long way toward explaining the bemused frustration with which many greeted the director’s last stand. To paraphrase Talking Heads, these people talk a lot, but they never seem to say anything. Misunderstandings pile up, declarations are continually repeated back to the speaker, confessions are agonizingly drawn out, and honesty is professed while covered up with lies. In familiar terms of communication and identification, the movie is an utter failure: hapless protagonist Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) remains largely impenetrable even as we catch vivid glimpses of his desires and fears, and all of the film’s many extended dialogue scenes seem geared more towards deceit and distraction than imparting information or establishing character. Yet Kubrick always had loftier goals than making the audience relate to the people onscreen, and his last film was hardly the first of his to deconstruct its own dialogue (Dr. Strangelove was full of idiots talking past each other).

Indeed, perhaps Kubrick’s most jarring strategy as an artist, nowhere better exemplified than in Eyes Wide Shut, is his denial of dialogue’s imprimatur of authenticity and truth. Words are the least reliable element of his films, the arena of pretension and pettiness, where all the dark conspiracies and failures of identity that haunt his films are covered up or wished/washed away. Still, that doesn’t mean that Kubrick’s words are meaningless. Without a hint of naturalism in his storytelling or visual palette, Kubrick is free to wield dialogue like any other element of Eyes Wide Shut’s dense, stylized mise-en-scène. Just as the film’s cavernous sets and vivid colors seem horribly alive, so do its words possess weight well beyond their speaker’s intentions, and one way to get at those hidden meanings is to pluck individual drops from the film’s stream of words and examine them with eyes wide open. Here are some attempts at doing so:

“I’ll never understand why you walked away.”
“Really? It’s a good feeling, I do it a lot.”

This is, to my mind, Bill Harford’s first step into hell. In a film full of rich abstraction, Nick Nightingale stands out as a sturdy and instantly familiar archetype: the crooked friend who gets the blinkered protagonist into trouble. Both men are ultimately defined by their careers, as emphasized by their reunion at Victor’s party; the fact that Bill is a doctor and Nick is not is discussed as though they are members of different species. (Remember why Bill is even at this party: “This is what you get for making house calls,” of the dubious type he performs for Victor upstairs.) Bill, the sturdy careerist who got through med school, will nevertheless spend a lot of time walking away over the course of this film, away from his wife, yet also away from temptation, finding himself more and more alone on a journey that seems to be heading toward self-abnegation rather than sexual fulfillment. By contrast, Nick seems fully independent, readily admitting that his band sucks, easily leaving his wife and kids to go on the road (whereas Bill can barely cope with walking down the street), yet equally defined by his piano playing as Bill is by medicine. “You gotta go where the work is,” Nick says, and is happy to be blindfolded for it. He’s used to playing for an audience, where nothing is for real and anything you glimpse when the blindfold slips is as inconsequential as images on the silver screen. Bill’s work requires him to face the ugly mornings-after, as represented by physical decay, and his nocturnal “walk” increasingly turns on the queasy fallout when idealized images become opaque realities. By the end of the film, though, the buddies’ roles are bitterly reversed; Bill is allowed by Victor and his masked colleagues to walk away, back to his eerily perfect life with his wife and daughter in the shopping mall. Nick is walked away, most likely (as with Mandy) to an apparent suicide, door locked from the inside. Nick is left with death, Bill with sex (see “Fuck” below).

“Look at me. Look at me. Look at me…”

Since Bill Harford is such a blank-faced cipher in a long tradition of Kubrick protagonists (see especially Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket), it’s tempting to look anywhere but him. That’s a good instinct; as Tim Kreider points out in his exhaustive and excellent essay on the film, Kubrick’s visual strategies are geared around objects (paintings, clothing, masks) and physical environments (apartments, corridors, doorways). Yet Bill is still worth paying attention to precisely because he does such a poor job reckoning with atmosphere. Like Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet, Bill is an affably unremarkable pleasure-seeker who stumbles into a complex, nefarious web of abuse and deceit that he’s utterly unprepared to navigate, and Kubrick somehow squeezes dramatic tension out of his ostensible hero’s hesitance, timidity, and lack of imagination. With his handsomely frozen mug staring back from all the film’s many mirrors, Bill never seems to realize (until it’s far too late) that the film he’s in has been one long, slow shredding of his picture-perfect identity, as man, husband, friend, lover, and doctor. His “look at me” mantra, an attempt to bring a drug-hazed Mandy back to her bitter reality, is also (as Kubrick indicates with a pointed cut from Mandy’s face to Bill’s) an unconscious revelation of his unthinking ego, which has a hell of a shock coming to it over the next 48 hours. Bill tries on various masks (literal and figurative) throughout the film, adapting his persona as the situation demands before abandoning ship out of convenience or fear, but faces like Cruise’s only retain their power because we, as an audience, choose to "look." Whether we or he sees only an alluring naked body, or instead the moral quandary it represents, is a choice of conscience, even if we make it unconsciously; as the film’s title indicates, neither the sexually confused protagonist nor the eternally horny audience ever gets it quite right. 

“Are you looking forward to Christmas? Does it hurt?”

I wrote a thing about Christmas in Eyes Wide Shut because I love this thing Bill Blakemore wrote about The Shining, which is probably the most notorious of the many Intense Theories that Kubrick’s filmmaking seems to provoke (see: 2001, entirety of). Blakemore argues that The Shining offers a visual, conceptual, and narrative framework that ties the film’s cabin-fever parable into cycles and histories of slaughter, particularly that of the Native Americans by the invading Europeans. I buy it: Kubrick’s stories, regardless of their specific subject matter, always circle back to the insidious social controls of ritual and history. This dominant big picture can be giddily macroscopic (2001) or horribly intimate (The Shining itself), but the characters are never able to escape the cannibalistic pattern, dwarfed by the director’s massive sets, ironically trapped by their own desires, actions, and words, and ultimately flinching away from the broader implications of their own visceral instincts. That repressive denial is a key element in Kubrick’s intricate designs, re-emerging to suck the protagonist back in just as they begin to perceive “how deep the rabbit hole goes,” in the words of The Matrix (released the same summer as Eyes Wide Shut). In Kubrick’s hands, the sex drive is inextricably tied up with sociology, economics, identity politics, and the constant deception that Sandor Szavost (simultaneously the film’s sleaziest and most honest character) says is an absolute necessity in the confounding, all-consuming ritual that we call marriage. Christmas as practiced by the Harfords is equally corrupt, and while Bill’s revelation above is unintentional, it’s in keeping with the rest of the film, in which ritual desires lead to disease, dissolution, and death. It may all be “staged” as Victor claims, but the consequences can’t be celebrated (or fucked) away.

“If for no other reason than she’s afraid of what I might find.”

As with the “walk away” exchange above, this line is dropped innocuously into a drawn-out, wandering conversation (the epic bedroom confrontation between the Harfords), but immediately changes the terms of engagement, one of the pointed slips in the film’s suspiciously gorgeous façade. Alice immediately turns the conversation away from the terrible news Bill has to deliver to some of his patients and toward his fantasies about them (and vice versa), and the tension of sexual desire against the body’s mortality is one that informs the entire film. Death waits around every corner of Eyes Wide Shut, always emerging to interrupt the film’s most ostensibly erotic moments: Mandy suffers a near-death experience behind the scenes of the Zieglers’ sexual-tension-saturated party, Lou Nathanson’s death interrupts the marital spat in question, the sacrifice ritual/ritual sacrifice brings the orgy to a screeching halt, Bill learns about Domino’s HIV test results just as he’s attempting to seduce her roommate, Nick Nightingale’s rough abduction is relayed by a hotel clerk attempting to seduce Bill, and Bill’s film-long quest for an available female body ends in a morgue, Mandy’s body laid out on a slab, going nowhere. He leans in close, pauses, and pulls back. It’s crawlingly intimate proof of a point Kubrick made much earlier, cross-cutting voyeuristic pillow shots of Nicole Kidman with Dr. Cruise attending to all sorts of worse-off bodies. Kubrick always linked ardor with murder, from Dr. Strangelove’s inaugural military-phalluses to Jack Torrance’s brief dalliance with a corpse in The Shining, but he had never before made the connection so horribly clear. Any hint of sensuality in the orgy sequence is nullified by the horrifying masks worn by the revelers, kinetic eroticism betrayed by the grim stasis of ego-death.

“Do you think we should talk about money?”

Among contemporary filmmakers, the Coen brothers seem to be working more in Kubrick’s visual and thematic realm than anyone this side of Spielberg. Money is a constant yet mercurial presence in Joel and Ethan’s films, from William H. Macy’s increasingly outlandish upping of the ante in Fargo to the nonexistent ransom money in The Big Lebowski (for a kidnapping that turns out not to have happened) to the pure signifier of doom that is found riches in No Country for Old Men. Kubrick, for his part, had made sharp asides about class and money in previous films (particularly in Barry Lyndon’s caste rise-and-fall and The Shining’s creepy internal power structure: “You have always been the caretaker.”) But he had never before brought up the subject as frequently as in Eyes Wide Shut, where the flash of a dollar bill seems to solve a lot of problems. The film doesn’t explicitly take aim at the root of all evil, and maybe that’s the point: money rules even, especially, when it’s a background force. Take, for example, the wealth gap between Doctor Bill and prostitute Domino, represented visually in the stark difference in their respective apartments’ sizes, as well as in Bill’s obvious discomfort with that fact and Domino’s reluctance to take the money he so casually hands her for sex they didn’t have. Indeed, Bill spends most of the film quite happy with what money can buy, only desperately retreating to the (supposedly) more heartwarming hearth and home when his constant wallet-flashing fails him against the super-super-rich at the Somerton orgy (“those people arrived in limos, and you showed up in a taxi.”) Yet family is as insidiously interwoven with money as sex. Note that the film’s suspiciously self-deceptive ending takes place in a shopping mall, as the Harfords’ daughter runs around picking her own Christmas presents, and also that the film’s first line is “Honey, have you seen my wallet?”

“Hey man, I just play the piano.”

Eyes Wide Shut is, among many other things, a cross-section of the relationship between client and servant: the amount of service-industry transactions of various kinds, all of which seem to create or violate some sort of intimacy, is astonishing when you’re looking for it. So many of the initial scenes and conversations, increasingly unpredictable as they are (Eyes Wide Shut moves between Strangelovian situational irony and Shining-esque visual abstraction with breathtaking ease), are predicated on or literally about this type of relationship. Bill has to learn the babysitter’s name twice and bribes Milich and his cabbie without a second thought--in the latter case, he even tears a hundred-dollar bill in half with a smile. Yet Victor Ziegler treats Bill as a servant (and forced confidant) in turn; Bill is thus again professionally linked to Nick, whose blindfolded piano performance at the orgy represents the same willful denial that allows Bill to help cover up Ziegler’s abuse of Mandy, and later her mysterious death. This odyssey of cowardice and willful amnesia is enabled by all the various transactions Bill manipulates towards his increasingly evanescent and ill-defined goals. Process, not outcome, is Kubrick’s focus throughout Eyes Wide Shut (foreplay over orgasm, if you will). Bill loses his mask, but Milich happily charges him for it, just as Bill will later make up his straying (as symbolized by that same mask on his pillow) to his family by taking them shopping; Milich, for his part, transforms from defender of justice to obsequious craven when the men molesting his daughter “come to another arrangement.” Every relationship seems to shift, reverse, and transform; yet the specter of master and slave is a constant, from the boardroom to the bedroom.

“Can’t you see I am trying to sell my costumer!”

Along with Sandor Szavost, the Nathansons, and the maître’d at the Sonata Cafe, costume store owner Milich links Eyes Wide Shut’s screenplay back to its Eastern European origins (as the Viennese novella Dream Story). As such, his English is just imperfect enough to give us this gem of a Freudian slip. Eyes Wide Shut, as mentioned, is full to bursting with conversations about money, each one revealing a little more not only about Doctor Bill (get it?), but about the society through which he’s wandering. Bill bribes his way into Milich’s store after hours in order to gain access to the Somerton orgy, cutting off all personal conversation in favor of a quick transaction. Yet Kubrick still hints at what Bill is actually paying for here, as Milich’s underage daughter is caught nude with two of his associates just as the sale begins. The next day, in the cold light of morning, Milich proves as willing to sell his daughter as his customer. Bill makes a pitiful attempt to care, but as Milich says, Bill himself is as sold as the mask, the cloak, or the girl; his life bought and paid for by Victor and his associates, Bill is forced to detach his identity and potential moral concern from his life’s myriad purchases. Again, death is the only customer that’s always right: Milich tries to get Bill to diagnose his balding head, but while Bill dodges the question on (again) the basis of profession, he’s more likely avoiding the obvious answer. You’re losing your hair because the body fails, no matter how much sex you have or how much money you spend. The camera closes in on Milich’s daughter as her father offers Bill “anything at all…it needn’t be a costume,” but like the mannequins decorating the shop, she is a costume, an anonymous escape valve like the masked women at the orgy, a momentary distraction from the “deception” of marriage, the ugliness of wealth, and the certainty of death.

"Those were not just ordinary people...If I told you their names, I don't think you'd sleep so well."

Power occupies a central place in all of Kubrick’s films, always defining the tension at the core of the increasingly nebulous dramas. The director, however, never takes the intense power structures that define his films for granted. Whether military hierarchies (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket) or the evolutionary drive itself (2001), the dominant forces are deconstructed and reassembled in strange, unsettling ways, reaching a hypnotic peak in his late-career masterpieces The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. The latter film, then, is at least partially about sex as a force, as a source (or lack) of power, and occasionally as a weapon, rather than as an erotic charge transmitted from person to person, or for that matter, from screen to audience. Yet there’s also some decidedly non-sexy forces at work here: corruption, selfishness, ignorance, blindness. Eyes Wide Shut is a constant ballet of people using other people, for urges and motivations opaque even to them. As with the deranged would-be novelist in The Shining or the out-of-his-depth impostor in Barry Lyndon, perhaps the most painful lesson Bill has to learn is that for all his money and beauty, he is ultimately powerless. He cannot save Mandy, Domino, Nick, or Milich’s daughter, no more than he can break past Victor’s obfuscating wall of denial and distraction in that crucial late-film scene around the blood-red pool table. Ultimately, Victor refuses to tell Bill (or the audience) anything: who the masked revelers were, what really happened to Mandy and Nick, what will happen to the good doctor if he refuses to abandon his “inquiries.” Mystery reasserts itself, as eternally resurrected as the sex drive. Consummation here offers no relief, wrapped up in more questions instead of answers. Power cloaks itself, and wears a mask.


Even with Dr. Strangelove as Exhibit A, Stanley Kubrick never received proper credit for his sense of humor. Admittedly, his gargantuan visuals and lofty themes tend to steal the show, and his wicked streak, like that of the Coens, may be too stacked against his characters for more empathetic viewers to stomach. But Eyes Wide Shut’s one-word ending is well past “I was cured, all right” (A Clockwork Orange). This is pitch-black humor, a pure strike at the heart of genre, the cherry on top of an exhaustive, film-long process of self-deconstruction. Eyes Wide Shut opens on a casual, ignominious reveal of what was supposed to be the film’s tantalizing carrot: Nicole Kidman’s naked body. So goes the film, which seems throughout to be perfectly aware of its audience and eager to play with our expectations about what an “erotic thriller” is supposed to be, or more relevantly, what it’s supposed to do. As mentioned above, death keeps interrupting the film’s hard-ons, linking the body to both its momentary delights and ultimate failure. Someone’s always watching, whether the silent audience at Bill’s disrobing or the medical aide Kubrick cuts to as Bill tries for a private moment with Mandy’s corpse, and that sense of surveillance seems less paranoid when Bill realizes he’s being followed. The narrative eats itself alive, imparting crucial information secondhand, methodically dissecting night’s thrills in the harsh light of morning, complicating every potentially erotic encounter with lies, shocks, failures, and distances. The Harfords, like the audience, are left with vapor trails, memories of last night’s vivid dreamscapes haunting the pristine everyday. How to handle all this confusion, this moral decay caught up in desire? "Fuck." (Or, alternatively, "Fuck it.") Sex as power, sex as truth, sex as lie, sex as transaction, but above all, sex as distraction, a refuge from unpleasant truths and questions without answer, an intimate union nevertheless permeated by external forces, in the moment and an escape from the moment, life-affirming and death-predicting, real and "staged," eyes wide shut.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Past Was Yours, But The Future's Mine

Having finished this (which took me forever, trying to find enough synonyms for "gorgeous" for Days of Heaven and "bizarre" for Eraserhead), I want to jump forward to contemporary Hollywood, which people can't seem to bemoan enough. It's hard to disagree that the quality of your average popcorn flick has declined dramatically over the course of the last fifteen years or so--glancing over what's playing at my local multiplex, it's harder and harder to find anything that looks remotely worthy of a $10 investment. (And that's without the aforementioned popcorn.) But if the standard, even enjoyably bad, major motion picture has become unwatchably shoddy and brainless, the genuinely great movies have retained their power. I actually think they've improved: wisdom comes from standing on the shoulders of giants, and that great leap forward in the 1970s has had dramatic ripple effects in American film over the successive decades, even if we haven't had quite the same in-your-face, defiantly generational renewal of the art that the likes of Jaws and Taxi Driver represented. Instead, we've seen micro-movements come and go, leaving behind indelible impressions of time and place; as a nation, we've only gotten more acute at capturing something of our spirit and our struggles on screen. Auterism, the director-focused prism that transformed American cinema in the late '60s and through the '70s, has shifted in character from Lucas and Spielberg with their obsessive model design to the more detached, observational styles of Todd Haynes and the Coen brothers and the communal, open-minded essay-films of Spike Lee and Richard Linklater. If the studios have generally entrenched themselves in broad banality, America's finest filmmakers have responded by tunneling into more individual concerns with greater depth, no longer trying to conquer the world so much as examine and plunge into specific pieces of the puzzle.

"Postmodern" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in discussions of the best of modern American cinema, but the kaleidoscopic, genre-melting approach of many of the films below isn't a shallow intellectual prank. These movies are interested in things (a breath of fresh air when so many pictures seem to care about nothing but reaching their own end), and they're interested in investigating and representing those things in as many ways as possible. Truth is a fragmented, many-splendored thing; as Michael Koresky perceptively states here, the definition of the real has always been the defining ontological and philosophical pursuit of cinema, from Bazin to The Blair Witch Project. The late 1990s and the early 2000s saw a renaissance of this kind of restless, inclusive work in American film, driven as much by refugees from the old Golden Age (Spielberg, Malick, De Palma) as by the younger talents mentioned above. That there wasn't much of a broad-based movement sweeping these films into collective prominence makes these works all the braver, raging against a light that isn't dying in the least, but is increasingly struggling to get people to really look at what it's shining on. If there's one thread connecting these disparate films of the modern Golden Age, it's this focus on really seeing what we're seeing, understanding the implications of these images and willing to actively focus on our involvement as spectators with those implications and those images. They resensitize us, rather than assuming that bludgeoning spectacle satisfies all human urges: we should still feel the weight of every glance, every gesture, every event on screen, and it does my cinephilic heart good every time I return to these new classics. (Restricted to one per director, unfortunately leaving out such worthies as Bamboozled, Minority Report and The Sixth Sense.)

1. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, Warner Bros, 2001)

Lambasting Spielberg, as so many have done, as a pandering sentimentalist ignores the fact that emotions are not tame creatures, nor simple tools. The tears E.T. inspires are genuine and powerful, and should be considered not only an artistic achievement but a philosophical statement. The titular alien's return to life is not a manipulative deus ex machina, but an act of supreme faith, less in any particular deity than in the restorative power of cinema and art in general, as well as in the audience's ability and willingness to follow the director in his search for the ultimate purity of the heart. By the dawn of the new millennium, he'd tested that faith in the fires of the Holocaust, slavery, and D-Day, and won. Yet the moral victories of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan still seem too easy, too tame, too simple; what is really at stake in these movies? What does Spielberg really risk in his deployment of collective history and the emotional catharsis he reaches? It was in his next project, Stanley Kubrick's inheritance, his greatest and most misunderstood work, that Spielberg truly put his legacy to the test, and in the process gave us the most emotionally fraught, ethically devastating, and philosophically ambitious American film of the young century thus far. Science fiction cinema, even at its most ponderous, almost always panders to contemporary ideas of the cool, which makes A.I.'s utter lack of concern with style all the more impressive, paying more visual attention to opaqueness and fragility. As I argued about Radiohead here, Spielberg is less concerned with how the future will change us than how it will not: how our massive technological advancements will reveal how small we are, and how frail and insubstantial are the guiding myths of the sort Spielberg had been pillaging up through Ryan. This didn't stop people from making fun of the ending, missing the melancholy falseness of little David's rapture; he got what he wanted, but it's nothing but a fleeting image, a momentary respite from mortality. So Spielberg, in Kubrick's name, gives us his 2001: a requiem for humanity, obsessed with who we've been and what we'll leave behind. The myths are finally put to the test, and they finally fail, but they're still as sadly immortal as a robot child in "the place where dreams are born."

2. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, Warner Bros, 1999)

 But to step back to Kubrick...all of the master's films are wrapped up in questions of power and responsibility, tracing the insidious control of institutions and social rituals while implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) asking how the individual is to negotiate, physically, philosophically and morally, with these larger frameworks. This complex relationship, and the ambiguous conclusions that result, is front and center in celebrated mid-career works like Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, but by his later films, these movements of oppression, corruption, struggle and surrender are increasingly disconnected from concrete institutions, or even tangible actions. Instead, the patriarchy is diffused into the atmosphere, an element of mise-en-scene and elaborate narrative structure more than plot twists (which remain ambiguous) and character motivations (practically opaque). If it's difficult to define the central tension, the core struggle, in Eyes Wide Shut, it's because the enemy is a claustrophobic force of will; as the title indicates, this makes it all the harder to see. It also places even more emphasis and weight on the individual search for truth and redemption, and what makes Eyes Wide Shut such a wrenching, devastating film for all its slow detachment is how utterly incapable its hapless protagonist, Tom Cruise's Bill Harford, is of making sense of his nocturnal journey or doing anything about the casual abuses of power he witnesses (and comes to embody himself). Nights teach hard lessons, but they seem to vanish like vapor in the morning air. Sex is a tantalizing carrot throughout, just as it was in Dr. Strangelove and The Shining, but Kubrick willfully keeps his protagonist and his audience alike from reaching orgasm: a phone rings, a servant steps in, a sacrifice is made in Bill's place. The shocked, uncertain place these movements reach in the audience mind is what Kubrick is after: far from the supposedly taboo blood-and-boobs-bludgeoning of something like Hostel, Kubrick's shock is an uncanny, watchful place, hazy and reflective like the endless mirrored surfaces covering the director's final film. The questions provoked are as difficult to define as the answers; like 2001 (which I can't seem to stop referencing), the experience of it is all.

3. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 20th Century Fox, 1998)

The same year as Saving Private Ryan saw Terrence Malick return from his beloved wilds with his own take on war and the individual, seemingly born whole from that absorbing moment in Spielberg's film when the sound of rain falling on leaves morphs into the steady rat-a-tat of gunfire. "What's war in the heart of nature?" Jim Caviziel dreamily muses at the film's magisterial opening, as an alligator lazily slips beneath the water. Malick's war is both searingly visceral and quietly contemplative, pushing its myriad characters to the breaking point even as it frames their inner struggles with a strange, loving calm. I used the word "kaleidoscopic" above: The Thin Red Line is practically Joycean in its uncanny channeling of collective consciousness. C Company has a living, breathing identity all its own, and the individual soldiers are leaves to a tree. Their murmured voiceovers and flashes of memory merge into one poetic stream, a fractal of awareness and dreams. Malick's WWII has less to do with America and Japan than it does with the island of Guadalcanal, the film's true protagonist: overflowing with natural beauty in every frame, it contrasts severely with the impressionistic explosions and occasional brutal act of violence that the warriors bring to play. Fear, ambition, homesickness, and surrender are conveyed as if natural forces, surging and receding, taking our lives with them. The film is one long, slow unspooling of a thesis Sean Penn's quietly despairing sergeant reveals early on: "In this world, a man alone is nothing." Any other director would've turned that sentence into pure chest-beating nihilism, but Malick sees revelation, contentment, and even joy in that surrender of the piece to the whole. Character after character are shot as though fragments of the divine, living examples of the unknowable pattern of nature: internally chaotic, but collectively sublime. As with his follow-up The New World, Malick pointedly frames his story of restless (white) foreigners within images of rooted (non-white) natives, but the director's major thrust isn't political, or even historical. Like the wind rippling through the palms and high grass, The Thin Red Line reveals all such lines between us as thin things, evanescent and puny, awaiting full breakdown in the shellshocked crucible of war. That release can be painful, even fatal, but Malick has yet to falter in his reach for the transcendent, and even humanity's worst war is forgiven us in the shadow of a glorious tree.

4. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, Universal Pictures, 2001)

Eleven years on, it's hard to believe that the initial reaction to Lynch's definitive wave of the freak-flag centered on how "difficult" and "confusing" the film was, obsessing over gleaning some readily comprehensible pattern from the dazzling hyperlinked quilt of characters, forces, colors, murders, tensions, transformations, and dreams that make up the film. Lynch has never wielded the building blocks of narrative more expertly, constantly hinting at an all-encompassing answer just before gleefully jumping down another rabbit hole; transcendence, not coherence, is his goal. Our search for information is mirrored by Betty's own, along with the growing fear that some awful revelation is waiting behind the curtain: "He's the one who's doing it," one character realizes early on, uncovering some infernal Creator behind his nightmares. The string-puller is Lynch, of course, yet as the film proceeds, one gets a sense of responsibility deferred, some horrible guilt being hastily covered up in a stream of smiling faces and brightly lit palm trees. Hollywood eats its young, but first it makes them mad: Naomi Watts' true transformation from darling to diva comes not when Lynch's infamous blue box devours the film whole, but earlier, when Betty unleashes her mesmerizing acting ability in a meta-audition that drags her aggressive unconscious into the light. Director as malevolent dreamer, actress as murderous liar, both culpable for this lunatic cautionary tale, and every shot at redemption comes with a caveat. Betty and Rita, both amnesiacs in their own way, come together in Lynch's most passionately realized romance, only to be immediately reminded that it is all a recording, a tape, an illusion: they're living in a movie, after all, and the lights must eventually come up.What begins in the realm of endless possibility, a fever dream encompassing dozens of characters and scenarios, ends in Silencio, all storylines converged on a broken woman lost in the mirror-hall of her own delusion. By the follow-up (and spiritual sequel) Inland Empire, Lynch would next leave film behind entirely, giving us the digital Finnegans Wake to Mulholland's Ulysses, and so Mulholland increasingly feels like Lynch's farewell note to the medium, spiked with both rapture and horror, the last fluttering REM movements before we wake to a new world.

5. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2002)

Since the mid-1990s, America has been paying less and less attention to Spike Lee; this does us wrong as much as him, as his art has only improved with age. Do the Right Thing was his furious, brilliant line in the sand, and his work since zooms in on various residents of his national-microcosm New York neighborhood. These individual stories, grains of sand, inevitably explode outwards in all directions, seeming to swallow the world whole in their passionate quest for meaning, truth, justice, peace. Bamboozled unleashed the director's passion and rancor at their most unfiltered (and therefore exhilarating), but by the follow-up, Lee could no longer hide the strain, to the film's benefit.  Few artists have ever produced a more emotionally wrenching tribute to middle-age exhaustion than 25th Hour, a passionate cry for help from a dog-tired city unsure of who it's been and what it will become. 9/11 hangs like a half-remembered nightmare over the story, whether dominating the view from a penthouse apartment adjacent to Ground Zero or quietly decorating a neighborhood bar in the form of a tribute to firemen lost. Indeed, one could tease an allegory of Bush's belligerently confused America out of this story of aggressive yet impotent men taking out their heartbreak on the world (and each other), but Lee's approach is always more collage than portrait. Witness Edward Norton's explosive direct address, which cuts deeper and more savagely than Do the Right Thing's similar roll-call of racist thoughts aired: Norton spews hate on the whole cast of Noo Yawk characters, from turbaned cab drivers to the "Gordon Gekko wannabes" rightfully under siege today, yet Lee is himself paying tribute to a city he impulsively loves even as he bitterly deconstructs its eternally chaotic melting pot. Norton's (self) hatred is the rotting nightmare, but Lee ends on a wistful dream: as the venerable Brian Cox drives Norton to prison, he envisions an entire Americana life for his doomed son, complete with small town, loving family, and a made-good second shot. But as those closing shots of Norton's swollen, bloody face indicate, 25th Hour is a more mature Fight Club: no longer able to outsource his despairing rebellion to an unreal Brad Pitt, Norton (like his director, his city and his country) is left alone to lick his wounds, as beaten but alive as the dog he saves at the film's beginning, 9/10 forever gone and exile in wait.

6. Femme Fatale (Brian de Palma, Warner Bros, 2002)

The divine comedy to Mulholland Drive's tragedy, Femme Fatale's utter refusal to take its glorious, endlessly self-referencing loop-de-loop of deception, doppelgangers and dreams seriously does not mean the film itself should not be taken very seriously. This is the usual rule with Brian de Palma, whose giddy obsessions with blood and breasts has never dulled his innate understanding of the medium, nor his ability to bend it to whatever ends he damn well feels like. By the new millennium, his style had passed through decadent and baroque, right through to sublime. Femme Fatale is a gorgeous hall of mirrors--misted glass and overflowing water provide the backdrop for a set of objects in motion, animate and otherwise, that are never what they seem even as they burst off the screen with such stunning physicality. I don't want to play spoiler, and simply recounting the plot would be the furthest thing from the point, so I'll just fixate on two scenes that capture the whole in all its shivery glory. The first is one of De Palma's classic split-screens, establishing and shattering space, piling as much pure Event on as possible, but this one's self-aware: a paparazzo (Antonio Banderas) snaps a shot of the titular femme (Rebecca Romijn), and as she ducks into church, gets mistaken for another woman, and runs for it, he busies himself uploading, printing and preparing his photo, the relentless forward motion of the film captured briefly, to be maintained and admired. This is De Palma's own image-making in action, his heroine's identity in constant flux even as she is memorialized in an instant. Of course, that's about as detached as the director gets. Later on, as the mutual seduction between the characters reaches its peak, Romijn offers a French stranger a striptease as Banderas jealously watches from outside. The camera ogles her body even as she teasingly refuses all of her audiences (including us) consummation; the Frenchman leaps at her to make the image real, but Banderas rushes to the attack, and their shadows dance on the wall like Plato's cave as Romijn laughs, giddy like her director with the casual ease of her power. It's horniness-as-philosophy, a film utterly seduced by itself even as it hangs back with a wry smile, constantly mocking its own hard-on. Thank Lucifer for dirty old men.

7. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2001)

When the cinematic histories of this era are written, may Richard Linklater be recognized, not as a stolid craftsman or a generational flag-planter, but as a master, as essential a voice as American cinema has ever seen. Ironically, it's his own art that stands in the way of such recognition: his focus on community, his ability to plant, grow and sustain bonds among the wandering groups of curious souls that make up his films, his devotion to an inclusive philosophy that, in itself, becomes a staggering philosophical statement. He may dull his own auterist gleam by taking on genre projects, but it's always remarkable how much humanist fervor he gleans from such potentially neutral material (Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock). Waking Life, then, is his definitive play for individual recognition, a gorgeous, shape-shifting testament to the powers of communication and imagination. The resurrection of characters and scenarios from older films of his (especially Slacker) would seem to indicate that we're wandering through the dream-bound corners of the director's own mind, but the brilliantly mobile animation emphasizes the possibility wrapped up in every scenario, and the intuitive, free-floating approach Linklater takes to his Rolodex of material. The film's primal scene remains "The Holy Moment," a passionate discussion of Bazin's religious approach to the cinema: every event on screen is a moment of God's creation captured, and Linklater revels in his ability to capture even animated unreality with the same spiritual tug. As the film's boundless energy indicates, Linklater was on something of a creative roll at the turn of the century, completing another film that same year. Tape, shot on grimy video, concerns itself with objectivity, constriction and barriers (across space, time, and people). Consider them duelling philosophical statements from Linklater: Tape is the bitter waking reality, but in Waking Life's collective (and thereby eternal) dream, there is no handrail, as the breathtaking bookend images indicate: the only choice is to let go, and drift. 

8. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, Focus Features, 2002)

With his fourth feature, wunderkind Todd Haynes broke the code: Far From Heaven is a fervently deconstructive, intellectually committed statement that stops the heart and sparks tears from everyone it touches. It's detached and visceral, personal and collective; even as it keeps a respectful distance from its protagonist (Julianne Moore, resplendent, brilliant) and the environment through which she moves, it burns with such empathy that it leaves me gasping, every time. Its claustrophobic frames, bursting with overripe color, betray the utter unreality of the too-perfect '50s pattern, which makes the breaks in the wall all the more important: the unexpected flash of a camera shutter, a flask pulled out of a desk, a bruise that can't quite be covered up. With the perspective of time, the points Haynes makes about gender and sexuality, race and perception, are immediately familiar. Yet even as the director provides distant perspective, his drama emphasizes the unfamiliar and the new, breaking points and times of intense change. The overly gorgeous world, shot with alacrity by Edward Lachman, seems to dominate every frame, but Moore is caught up in the beauty of a Miro painting. Her new gardener/soul mate (Dennis Haysbert) comments that abstract art "picked up where religious art left off," pointing us toward some divine revelation by way of lines, colors, and shapes. Moore's Cathy Whitaker is charged by her director with finding her way to that revelation in spite of the lines, colors, and shapes bracketing her in; it's her struggle toward what seems to us, with the benefit of time, so obvious is the source of the movie's heartbreak. Haynes, himself gay, commits himself utterly to Cathy's story (an act of intense artistic empathy) rather than that of her newly out-of-the-closet husband (Dennis Quaid), yet he pays tribute to the latter's struggle in the opposite fashion. As Quaid follows another man up a set of cinema stairs, Lachman's camera hangs back. Like any good 1950s movie, Far From Heaven leaves a lot to the imagination, but Haynes' reticence is philosophical; he respects the man's privacy, leaving him to his new world while Cathy stands alone at the end (imperiled/empowered), waiting for her train to come in.

9. Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, Touchstone Pictures, 2000)

My quixotic quest to redeem the savaged reputation of my beloved Night Shy is centered on The Village, a staggering masterpiece I've defended as such once or twice. I wouldn't be so committed to the cause, however, if he only had the one trick up his sleeve, and I'm astonished that this questioning, disturbing follow-up to the seismic The Sixth Sense has vanished so quickly from our collective memory. The decade since has seen a glut of superhero films, many eager to be seen as dark meditations on society, etc. without actually doing the heavy lifting: merely adding a layer of grit to your film's visual palette, or killing off all your secondary characters in increasingly sadistic fashion, does nothing to elevate your work to the level of philosophy or social statement. Unbreakable is the real thing, situating its superhero in the real, recognizable world and building the tension gradually, geared less around explosions than slow-burn revelations. Take, for example, the scene in which Bruce Willis' recalcitrant security guard decides to directly test his seemingly limitless strength. Night Shy patiently watches, camera unblinking, as our hero adds weight after weight to his workout bar, eventually adding on some cans of paint as well. Without any fast-cut montages or pump-up soundtrack, the scene becomes a quiet miracle, the possibility of infinity revealing itself before our eyes, mirrored in the astonished expression on his son's face. It's practically Bazinian, focused firmly on physicality and the potential of the non-enhanced flesh, harking back to an incredible early shot in which Willis comes to in a hospital, untouched by a train crash, as a body heaves blood and gives out in the foreground. Equally tactile, and even more spiritually resonant, is the film's central sequence: decked out in his signature poncho, Willis walks into a train station and slowly stretches out his hands. Smiling people brush by, and he catches the briefest glimpse of horrors they've committed. The furthest thing from misanthropy, this sequence emphasizes the true, terribly cinematic burden of the superhero: to bear witness, to see the ugliness beneath the surface, hidden in the corners of our collective soul. As the director's stunning-as-usual finale indicates, the guardians of good and evil may be powerful, but they may also be less free than any of us.

10. The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, Working Title Films, 1998)

Take another hit and reflect: The Big Lebowski isn't so much a stoner movie as it is a stoned movie, indulgent and operating only by its own internal compass, but impossibly generous and immediately absorbed in everything and everyone it touches. "Jackie Treehorn treats objects like women, man," The Dude mutters at one point, inadvertently touching on one of the central totems of the Coens' exceptional career: they treat objects with fervent reverence, resulting in films defined by the menacing powers of space and physicality (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, No Country for Old Men) and/or their characters' fetishes and obsessions, mirroring the brothers' own (Barton Fink, Fargo, A Serious Man). These films condemn and trap their protagonists in increasingly grim, calcified worlds, denying them that which they unconsciously seek, and so the brothers get regularly tagged as misanthropes. Yet nihilism "must be exhausting," and like Linklater's Dazed and Confused, another perpetually pot-hazed classic suffused with and elevated by the director's loving humanism, The Big Lebowski is all about the rueful affection sprawled out in every frame. The bemused attention paid to every character and scenario is almost parental. The Dude's keep-the-dream-alive slackerdom and Walter's purist nostalgia for Vietnam (and Judaism, and his ex-wife), contrasted with the pompous Mr. Lebowski and the constant background allusions to the first Gulf War, create a collage of generational warriors utterly, hilariously unable to communicate. Conversations build up, slip sideways, explode, fall apart. The goofy conspiracy at the film's center turns out to be full of fakes: the girl was never kidnapped, the money was never there, Lebowskis are endlessly confused for one another. So in the end, there's nothing to "learn" here, just an endless array of textures to surf. Roger Deakins films a bowling alley like it's the Vatican for a rent-shirking, White Russian-guzzling StonerPope. I've heard Lebowski compared to the Grail myth, yet the detritus of American pop culture (porn, cowboys, performance art, Branded, the fuckin' Eagles) that the film so lovingly curates speaks to an audience right at home in a state of perpetual decline, epitomized by the Dude, our anti-establishment Jesus (whom nobody fucks with). And He doth abide: rugs are pissed on, cars stolen and set on fire, money gained and lost, but fuck it, Dude. We'll all float on all right.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Good Will Toward None

 Eyes Wide Shut provokes many questions, few of them explicitly answered; perhaps the one that first comes to mind is “what’s with all the Christmas?” Idiosyncratic visual patterns, motifs, and doubles abound in Kubrick’s last (and perhaps best) film, but none more blatantly than the trees, tinsel, and harshly glowing lights than dominate nearly all of the movie’s claustrophobic interior spaces, from labyrinthine apartments to tightly packed cafes. It’s worth noting that Dream Story, the Arthur Schwitzler novella from which Kubrick borrowed the tale, makes no mention of the holiday. (It’s also worth noting that Eyes Wide Shut was actually released in summer, that same season as The Matrix and The Phantom Menace.) As The Shining demonstrated, Kubrick likes to call attention to where his interpretation of an adapted story differs drastically from that of the original author, and this obvious motif in a film built on repetition seems to demand attention. Why such merriness?

The immediate impact of Christmas in Eyes Wide Shut is the same as that of the colored wallpapers, the expensive artwork, the winding hallways, and the countless mirrors and other reflective surfaces: every place ends up looking alike, much as events, conversations and even characters seem to blur together over the course of the film. Eyes Wide Shut, even more than your average Kubrick project, places constant emphasis on environment, and frame after frame is defined by the contours of a room or a hallway. The effect is a subtle but constant constriction, a sense that space (and time, to escape) is closing in. The Shining was ultimately expansive (if also terrifying, and maze-shaped) in its possibilities, but Eyes Wide Shut feels more like a trap. As far as Tom Cruise’s Doctor Bill Harford wanders, he nevertheless seems to stay in place, eternally stumbling through awkward, too-close conversations, stalking sex through tomblike hallways like a man already dead, fingertips only brushing up against a different world. There’s always another cab, always another door to be opened for him, another problem to be paved over with the flash of a (doctor) bill; it’s always Christmas.

Also, colors. Frequent colors among Eyes Wide Shut’s cascade of holiday lights are red and blue, colors Kubrick emphasizes all over the place. The film’s grandest interiors (the Harford apartment, the Ziegler hall, and the Somerton mansion) are bedecked in red curtains and rouge-hued artwork, while the light shining in from the nebulous outside is almost always a piercing, eye-catching blue. The intensity of the colors, along with the prowling camerawork, dreamy cutting, and cavernous sets, give the lie to the popular notion that Eyes Wide Shut failed due to lack of visceral pull in the filmmaking, marking the film down as a cold, curveless exercise. One of the many great ironies in Eyes Wide Shut is that virtually every encounter except the sexual ones comes vividly to life, if not quite in the manner expected of most thrillers (or, indeed, most dramas). Following the director’s emphasis on self-contained environment is a script built around standalone scenes and set pieces: each new place brings with it a new variation on the theme (including the visual ones mentioned above), and so a complex picture is formed from bright, shiny colors.

Two examples spring to mind immediately, one with blue and the other with red. The intense, extended argument/confession session early on in the Harfords’ bedroom would be comparable to Cassavetes, except that Kubrick never makes much of an attempt to humanize (or even dignify) his central couple or their petty, wandering feud. In that regard, the better comparison might be Contempt, with the lamp in this case being the bathroom. Kubrick provides an intense bathroom sequence in each of his films, and Eyes Wide Shut (like Psycho, Twentynine Palms and Pulp Fiction) develops its own special relationship to the sanctum. Throughout the pot-hazed argument, the bedroom is enveloped in blazing red; Cruise practically blends in with the wallpaper. Yet the bathroom visible over his shoulder is a cold, unmistakable blue (see above), and the one aspect of the previous evening the self-obsessed couple doesn’t dissect is the unconscious woman Bill revived…in the bathroom, hidden away from the pretense and pageantry that Bill and Alice are now using as rhetorical ammunition. The fatal downfall of that other woman, a former beauty queen nicknamed Mandy, runs underneath the film’s petty drama of jealousy and betrayal, a constant reminder of the human consequences of all these games. Just as Milich’s daughter is molested in the back room and Mandy is later said to have died in a room “locked from the inside,” the crimes of Eyes Wide Shut are sexually stunted actions, abuse hidden behind longing and frustration.

 The other conversation is just between boys, as Bill meets up with med-school buddy Nick Nightingale at the Sonata Cafe. As with every conversation in Eyes Wide Shut, there are plenty of ironies, misunderstandings, and slow-burn revelations to keep the audience busy, but the real story is being told visually. As Bill talks his old friend into helping him sneak into the Somerton orgy (a prank which may or may not end up costing Nick his life), they lean in close over the table, the candle casting harsh and strange lights on their faces. Their adolescent excitement is refracted as savage hunger, almost bestial; so many of the intentionally slow, almost medically detached dialogue scenes in Eyes Wide Shut communicate a great deal through the actors’ faces. Bill uses Nick to get into Somerton, where everyone is masked--identity itself, which Bill buttresses desperately throughout the film (“Just so you know I really am a doctor…”), stands still for desire and power. The ritualistic framework of the orgy and sacrifice at Somerton would seem to fit in with the Christmas motif as well, but notice that Victor Ziegler explicitly calls these movements out as phony, “staged.” He’s attempting to claim innocence in Mandy’s death, but he’s also unknowingly exposing the rot at the heart of all of the film’s endless rituals, observances, traditions, transactions, and blindly maintained habits. Whether these repetitions have to do with money, marriage or murder, they are all “staged.”

Bill wanders through conversations with stock lines and doofus comebacks (most notably asking a prostitute what she recommends in bed), driven to lie and cheat by the desires of the moment, without ever stepping back to ask the why of it all. The orgy sequence can be read as a blunt reframing of the film’s inaugural ball, in which the champagne-haze of idle flirtation covered up the base, acquisitive nature of all the movements and relationships involved. What is that sophisticated, cultured party but a doling out of sexual favors among anonymous empty suits? The rituals are empty, existing only for themselves, in need of a good sharp shock. Eyes Wide Shut’s final scene, after so much shock to the foundation, pitilessly surveys those routines snapping right back: our central couple wanders in a daze through a shopping mall, completing the agreed-upon celebration of Christmas, and the movie ends when the couple finally finds a meaningless habit they can agree on: “Fuck.” The film’s title says it all: we can wander easily through a gorgeous, eye-candy life, but soaking that all in requires us to ignore the messy, complicated things lurking in the corners. Christmas is a shiny, dancing bauble; like the film’s many abbreviated sexual encounters, it can only provide momentary respite. Another revealing line, as Doctor Bill handles a young patient: “Looking forward to Christmas? Does it hurt?”