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?”


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