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.


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  2. Here's another interesting take on this film that presents a somewhat shocking perspective on this movie: