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Essay Eyes Wide Shut

The purpose of Kubrick's style in "Eyes Wide Shut" is to lure the viewer into a dreamlike state. Here's how he achieved it.

“Eyes Wide Shut” is turning 18 years old on July 16, and nearly two decades later it remains one of Kubrick’s most mystifying and immersive experience. A brand new video essay from the great Nerdwriter1 puts Kubrick’s last film under the microscope and examines the different strategies the filmmaker used in order to make it one of his most involving movies.

READ MORE: The 20 Cameras and Lenses That Define Stanley Kubrick

“We often think of Kubrick as a highly stylized director, which he was, but crucially Kubrick never let us forget what the purpose of style is,” the video essay begins. “Style is a lens that gives the viewer a point of access to the material — it’s about the audience, not the director.” Whereas Kubrick’s style in certain films forced the viewer to take an observational approach, “Eyes Wide Shut” operates in a much more immersive fashion.

The film’s pacing is one of its biggest (and most tedious) strengths in this regard. The essay examines Kubrick’s implantation of strange pacing to achieve a hypnotic, dreamlike affect that lures the viewer into the movie’s world. The narrative pacing is surpassed by the awkward slowness of the film’s dialogue. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman often speak with pauses and beats in between words. As the video puts it, “”Listening to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman speak is like watching a dripping faucet.”

Watch the video essay below for more reasons why “Eyes Wide Shut” is Kubrick’s immersive masterpiece.

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called it "the most pompous orgy in the history of film." [11] "More ludicrous than provocative," said Michiko Kakutani, "more voyeuristic than scary." [12] "Whose idea of an orgy is this," demanded Stephen Hunter, "the Catholic Church's?" [13] Again they misunderstood Kubrick's artistic intentions, which are clearly not sensual. When Bill passes through the ornate portal past a beckoning golden-masked doorman, we should understand that we are entering the realm of myth and nightmare. This sequence is the clearest condemnation, in allegorical dream imagery, of elite society as corrupt, exploitative, and depraved--what they used to call, in a simpler time, evil. The pre-orgiastic rites are overtly Satanic, a Black Mass complete with a high priest gowned in crimson, droning organ and backward-masked Latin liturgy. What we see enacted is a ceremony in which faceless, interchangeable female bodies are doled out, fucked, and exchanged among black-cloaked figures, culminating in the ritual mass rape and sacrificial murder of a woman.

The haunted ambiance here recalls that of the film's other big exclusive party, Zieglers; the opulent surroundings, the mannered, leaden dialogue, the camera afloat like the disembodied point of view in a dream. A ballroom full of naked, masked couples dancing to "Strangers in the Night" recalls not only Ziegler's party but the Overlook Hotel, whose ghosts also danced and coupled in costume. (Remember the quick, surreal zoom shot in The Shining of someone in a bestial costume fellating tuxedoed millionaire Horace Derwent in an upstairs room?) The two occasions, the party and the orgy, are conclusively linked in the back room of Rainbow Fashions, a sort of antechamber to Somerton, where we see a row of masked and costumed mannequins posed in front of the same cascade of glittering white lights that hung from the walls at Ziegler's.

The orgy makes the metaphor of sexual objectification visually literal. The prostitutes wear masks that render them anonymous and identical. Their nude bodies are unnaturally perfect, smooth and immaculate as mannequins, lit under a chilling white spotlight and photographed with that Kubrickian detachment that somehow desaturates them of any real eroticism. The ritualistic kisses exchanged are spooky and sterile, the sculpted white lips of one mask touching another's. The sex consists of static tableaux of spectators posed around mechanically rutting participants. A masked and tuxedoed valet on all fours serves as a platform for a fucking couple, a piece of human furniture like the tables at the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange. One might remember, with a shudder, the Lugosian-toned Szavost inviting Alice to have casual sex upstairs, among the sculptures.

The masks worn by the revelers (Venetian--an allusion to another mercantile empire) serve a similar symbolic purpose: the transformation of the wearer into a soulless object. They certainly aren't expressive of ecstatic self-annihilation, as some critics suggested; they're creepy as hell. We see a bird with a scythe-like beak, a cubist face fractured in half, contorted grimaces and leers, a frozen howl, painted tears, blindly gazing eyes. These revelers have "lost themselves" not in erotic abandon but in the same way that the recruits in Full Metal Jacket lose their Selves, along with their hair and their names. The utterly still, silent shots of staring masks at Bill's "trial" are images of empty-eyed dehumanization, faces of death. Note that when Ziegler first sees Bill enter the ceremonial hall, even though they are both masked, he gives him a knowing nod. He recognizes him. Here the guests at Ziegler's party are unmasked for what they really are.

Masks and mannequins are a recurring motif in Kubrick's work: think of the fight with mannequin's limbs in Killer's Kiss, the anthropomorphic furniture at the Korova, the grotesque masks worn in The Killing and A Clockwork Orange. In Eyes Wide Shut we see them not only at the orgy but throughout the film, always as harbingers of death. A stone Greek mask keeps vigil by Lou Nathanson's deathbed. African masks gaze down, like the masked spectators silently watching the sex acts at Somerton, at the bed where Bill has his interrupted trick with the HIV+ hooker Domino. A "domino" is itself a kind of mask.

They also serve as metaphors for women being treated like possessions. Costumed mannequins surround Bill and Milich in the back room at Rainbow Costumes. "Like life, eh?" says Milich, just before he catches his daughter consorting with two men in wigs and livid makeup. Milich's daughter, for all the coquettish depravity at play in her face, looks somehow as eerily inanimate as the Grady twins in The Shining--her skin is smooth and white as the mannequins in the back room, her painted lips and glittering eyes flawless as a china doll's. In a carefully composed shot in the scene when Bill returns his costume, we see Milich and his daughter paired on the right side of the frame opposite Bill and one of the mannequins (seen through the door to the back room) paired on the left. "If Doctor Harford should ever need anything else," says Milich, hugging his daughter close beside the cash register, "Anything at all... it needn't be a costume." The line only reinforces the visual equation of the girl with the store's more legitimate merchandise. And the three times we see Mandy her face is always a mask: in Ziegler's bedroom, her eyes are lit to look like empty black holes in her face; at the orgy she is literally masked; and on the slab at the morgue her face is slack and white, here eyes wide open but sightless.

Although Bill doesn't actually fuck or kill anyone himself, he is implicated in the exploitation and deaths of all of the women he encounters. (Like the sign over the Sonata Café says... "The customer is always wrong.") He didn't give Domino HIV, but she contracted it servicing someone like him. Milich alternates with hilarious aplomb between berating the men he's caught with his daughter--"Will you please to be quiet! Can't you see I am trying to serve a customer?"--and unctuous apologies to Harford, conflating the two exchanges. (After all, Bill isn't just paying for a costume but for the illicit opportunity it affords.) And does it really make a difference whether Mandy was ceremonially executed by some evil cabal or only allowed to O.D. after being gang-banged again? Given Kubrick's penchant for blackly humorous literalism (think of "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here--this is the War Room!" or "I said, I'm not gonna hurt you--I'm just going to bash your brains in"), when Ziegler explains that Mandy wasn't murdered, "she got her brains fucked out," the contradiction should be obvious.

Bill learns about Mandy's overdose in a café whose walls are covered with antique portraits of women, while Mozart's Requiem plays. The setting and the music make the moment timeless, universal. Kubrick's last three films form a sort of thematic trilogy about our culture's hatred of the female. In The Shining, Jack Torrance despises his wife and child and tries to murder them, just as the previous "caretaker" murdered his wife and daughters. (We also hear, on a TV news bulletin, about a woman who's "disappeared while on a hunting trip with her husband.") In Full Metal Jacket, the institutionalized misogyny of the Marine Corps is pervasive, and the absence of women (we see only two hookers and a sniper) is so conspicuous it becomes a haunting presence. The film's climax is the execution of a fifteen-year-old girl. The requiem in the Sonata Café isn't just for Mandy but for all the anonymous, expendable women used and disposed of by men of Harford's class throughout the ages.

For all his flaunting of his money and professional rank, Bill Harford is ultimately put back in his place as a member of the serving class. Recall how he's summoned away from Ziegler's party in the same polite but perfunctory manner as his friend Nick, the pianist; like him, Bill is just hired help, the party doctor, called upon to repair (if possible) and cover up (if necessary) human messes like Mandy. When he goes to his patient Lou Nathanson's apartment, he's met by their housemaid, Rosa, who's also dressed in black with a white collar, in a perfectly symmetrical entry hall where every object is in a matched pair. The shot makes the doctor and the maid doubles; they're equals here. When Bill tries to infiltrate the orgy, he's given away by telltale class markers--he shows up in a taxi rather than a limo, and has a costume rental slip in his pocket. His real status at Somerton, as an outsider and intruder, is spelled out for him the next day when he returns to the estate, only to be dismissed with a terse typed note handed him through the bars of the front gate by a tight-lipped servant. (This isn't the only time we see Bill through bars--he has to bribe his way past the grated door at Milich's.) When Ziegler finally calls him onto the carpet for his transgressions, he chuckles at Bill's refusal of a case of 25-year-old Scotch (Bill drinks Bud from the can), not just because this extravagance would be a trifle to him, but because Bill's pretense of integrity is an empty gesture--he's already been bought. Bill may be able to buy, bribe, and command his own social inferiors, and he may own Alice, but he's Ziegler's man.

Although Ziegler has a credible explanation for everything that's happened--Harford's harassment, Nick Nightingale's beating, Mandy's death--we don't ever really know whether he's telling the truth or lying to cover up Mandy's murder. The script carefully withholds any conclusive evidence that would let us feel comfortably certain either way. But Ziegler does have suspiciously privileged access to details of the case: "The door was locked from the inside, the police are happy, end of story! [dismissive lip fart.]" He also claims to be dropping his façade and coming clean a few too many times to be believed: "I have to be completely frank," "Bill, please--no games," and finally, "All right, Bill, let's... let's... let's cut the bullshit, all right?" And notice how he introduces his explanation: "Suppose  I were to tell you..." [emphasis mine]. He's not being "frank"; he's offering Bill an escape, a plausible, face-saving explanation for the girl's death to assuage his unexpectedly agitated conscience. (And it's one of the few things that Bill has a hard time buying--watch the way his hand adheres to his cheek and slowly slides off his face as he rises to his feet and walks dazedly across the room, trying to absorb the incredible coincidence Ziegler's asking him to swallow.) Ziegler's "no games" plea notwithstanding, this entire conversation is a game--a gentlemanly back-and-forth of challenges and evasions over a question of life and death, throughout which the two opponents circle each other uneasily around a blood-red billiards table.

When Bill persists in his inquiries, Ziegler loses his temper and resorts to intimidation and threats. He reminds him of their respective ranks as master and man: "You've been way out of your depth for the last twenty-four hours," he growls. Of his fellow revelers at Somerton, he says, "Who do you think those people were? Those were not ordinary people there. If I told you their names--I'm not going to tell you their names, but if I did, you might not sleep so well." In other words, they're "all the best people," the sorts of supremely wealthy and powerful men who can buy and sell "ordinary" men like Bill and Nick Nightingale, and fuck or kill women like Mandy and Domino. The "you might not sleep so well" is also a veiled warning, and it isn't Ziegler's last. His final word of advice--"Life goes on. It always does... until it doesn't. But you know that, don't you, Bill?"--proffered with an avuncular, unpleasantly proprietary rub of the shoulders, sounds like a reassurance but masks a threat. (We immediately cut from this to a less friendly warning, the mask placed on Bill's pillow.) Bill's expression, in the foreground, is by now so tight and working with suppressed and conflicting feelings that it's hard to read, but one of those feelings is clearly fear for his life--he looks as though he might burst into tears or hysterical laughter, and when Victor claps those patronizing hands on his shoulders, he flinches. In the end, he chooses to accept Victor's explanation not because there's any evidence to confirm it, but because it's a convenient excuse to back down from the dangers of further investigation. He finally understands that he, too, no less than a hooker or a hired piano player, is expendable.

So the questions remain: did Mandy just O.D., or was she murdered? Was Bill's jeweled mask left on his pillow by Alice as an accusation, or by Ziegler's friends as a third and last warning, a death threat like the horse's head in the bed in The Godfather? These are crucial questions, ones that Kubrick deliberately leaves unanswered. And yet most reviewers didn't even seem to notice that they were questions, instead automatically projecting their own interpretations onto the story--most assuming that Ziegler was providing redundant exposition, that Mandy's death was the coincidence Ziegler claimed it to be, and that Alice put the mask there herself. (Dream Story does not even include the character of Ziegler, or any final confrontation with a member of the secret society, and it also makes it clear that it was the protagonist's wife who placed the mask on the bed.) But Kubrick bends over so far backward to preserve these ambiguities that they become glaring, demanding of us that we, like Bill, consciously decide what we're going to believe. Bill's reaction when he sees the mask in his bed could be interpreted either as shame and relief at having his lies exposed, or as the terrified realization that his wife and daughter could have been murdered in their sleep. When Alice wakes up to Bill's sobbing, her expression doesn't betray whether she's startled to see the mask beside her or already knows it's there. When we cut to her the next morning, her eyes swollen and red-rimmed with weeping, we don't know whether she's crying because her husband almost cheated on her or because he's endangered their family. And the final dialogue between Bill and Alice is so vague and allusive ("What should we do?" "Maybe we should be grateful,") that it could as easily refer to Mandy's murder and the implied threat to their lives as to Bill's indiscretions. If we choose to believe the former, then the Harfords aren't just reconciling over their imagined and attempted infidelities; they're agreeing to cover up a crime, to be accomplices after the fact to a homicide.

This is the film's final test--a projection test, like the ambiguous cartoons with blank word balloons shown to Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange to determine whether his conditioning has been broken. His lascivious and violent interpretations of the images proves that it has. But has ours? The open-ended narrative forces us to ask ourselves what we're really seeing; is Eyes Wide Shut a movie about marriage, sex, and jealousy, or about money, whores, and murder? Before you make up your own mind, consider this: has there ever been a Stanley Kubrick film in which someone didn't get killed?

In the film's upbeat but dissonant denouement, the Harfords have taken their daughter Helena Christmas shopping, but they respond to her wishes only politely, distracted by their own inner children. Like many reviewers, they're still wrapped up in psychology and sex, missing the sociological implications of what's onscreen. But, as in so much of Kubrick's work, the dialogue is misdirection; the real story is being told visually. As poor Helena flits anxiously from one display to the next (already an avid little consumer) every item she fondles associates her with the women who have been exploited and destroyed by her father's circle. Helena's Christmas list includes a blue baby carriage (like the blue stroller seen twice outside Domino's apartment), an oversized teddy bear (next to a rack of tigers like the one on Domino's bed) and a Barbie doll (reminiscent of Milich's daughter) dressed in a diaphanous angel costume just like the one Helena herself wore in the film's first scene. She herself has already become a doll, a thing to be dressed up with cute costumes and accessories. Another toy, conspicuously displayed under a red ring of lights, is called "The Magic Circle"; the name is an allusion to the ring of ritual prostitutes at the orgy, and the bright red color of the box recalls the carpet on which they genuflected to the high priest, as well as the felt of the pool table over which Bill made his own bargain with the devil. The subplot with Milich and his daughter is clearly echoed here, in another place of business, as the Harfords also casually pimp their own little angel out to the world of commerce.

ALICE: And, you know, there is something very important we have to do as soon as possible.

BILL: What's that?

ALICE: Fuck.

As Eyes Wide Shut closes, this final exchange between Bill and Alice suggests that all the dark adventures they've confessed ("whether they were real or only dreams"), and all the crimes in which they are complicit, have occasioned nothing more than another kinky turn-on, no more enlightening than the flirtations at the ball that inflamed their lovemaking when they got home. For all their incoherent talk about being "awake" now, their eyes are still wide shut. Reconciled, they plan to forget all this unpleasantness soon in the blissful oblivion of orgasm. (Try keeping your eyes open during orgasm.) Maybe, in the end, it is a film about sexual obsession after all; about sex as an all-consuming distraction from the ugly realities of wealth and power all around us. Maybe the customer is always wrong.

Certainly a subtler psychological reading of the film than has yet been attempted would be possible. But to focus exclusively on the Harford's unexamined inner lives is to remain willfully blind to the profoundly visual filmic world that Stanley Kubrick devoted a career's labors to creating. The slice of that world he tried to show us in his last--and, he believed, his best--work, the capital of the global American empire at the end of the American Century, is one in which the wealthy, powerful, and privileged use the rest of us like throwaway products, covering up their crimes with pretty pictures, shiny surfaces, and murder, ultimately dooming their own children to lives of servitude and whoredom. The feel-good ending intimates, in Kubrick's very last word on this (or any) subject, that the Harfords' daughter is, just as they've resigned themselves to being, fucked.


Acknowledgements: The seven hundred hours I spent in conversation with Rob Content about this film were invaluable in developing my argument. Bart Taylor of Giotto Perspectives pointed out some of the Christian imagery in the film to me. I am also indebted to Boyd White, guitarist and singer for The Sores, and to Ann Martin, editor of Film Quarterly, for their editorial acumen. Thanks to the University of California Press for permission to re-print this article.

Biographical Information: Tim Kreider is a cartoonist. His work can be seen at WWW.THEPAINCOMICS.COM and in the Baltimore City Paper.


Notes:

[1] Kakutani, Michiko. "A Connoisseur of Cool Tries to Raise the Temperature." The New York Times, 18 July 1999. p. 22. &Nbsp; back

[2] Ciment, Michel. "Second Interview" in Kubrick. Translated from the French by Gilbert Adair. New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1980, p. 171. &Nbsp; back

[3] Blakemore, Bill. "The Family of Man." San Francisco Chronicle Syndicate, 29 July 1987.   back

[4] Hunter, Stephen. "The Lust Picture Show: Stanley Kubrick Stumbled with his Eyes Wide Shut." The Washington Post, 16 July 1999, p. C5. &Nbsp; back

[5] Raphael, Frederic. Eyes Wide Shut: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick. &Nbsp; back

[6] Schnitzler, Arthur. Dream Story. Translated from the German by Otto P. Schinnerer. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995, p. 128. &Nbsp; back

[7] Herr, Michael. Kubrick. New York: Grove Press, 2000, p. 13 &Nbsp; back

[8] Ciment, Michel. "First Interview" in Kubrick, p. 163. &Nbsp; back

[9] Schnitzler, Dream Story, p. 4. &Nbsp; back

[10] Siegel, Lee. "Eyes Wide Shut: What the Critics Failed to See in Kubrick's Last Film." Harper's Magazine, October 1999, vol. 299, #1793, p. 76 - 83. &Nbsp; back

[11] Denby, David. "Last Waltz." The New Yorker, 26 July 1999, p. 84. &Nbsp; back

[12] The ever-perceptive Ms. Kakutani, p. 22. &Nbsp; back

[13] That dimwit Hunter, p. C5. &Nbsp; back

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