Great party

SEASON’S GREETINGS!

I’m unhappy that my Toshiba isn’t big enough to show off the grain, which I recall quite clearly from my own cinema experience of this movie, at the late lamented Odeon Clerk Street (where I also saw STAR WARS and two KING KONGS). Apparently the camera negative was smooth as a baby’s bottom, so the grain was something we are to presume Kubrick wanted. Although on the other hand, he wasn’t around to supervise the prints with his usual rigour, being as he was dead, and his heirs do their best to follow his wishes but they’re not him, of course.

The movie is EYES WIDE SHUT. Meet the Harfords, played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Right from the start, after we get over gaping at Nicole’s splendid bottom, I’m amazed at the slow dissolves. Once had a student tell me he thought dissolves were old-fashioned, which I thought was silly. But THESE dissolves are old fashioned.

Kubrick told Michel Ciment he didn’t even LIKE dissolves, but sometimes they were the simplest way to get across a change of time and place. By that standard, they’re completely unnecessary here, as is the sitcom-like exterior view of the Harfords’ apartment building. But, when you’re unable to do principal photography in New York, you settle for second unit, and then those shots become, I guess, immovable blocks in your continuity.

“My name is Sandor Szavost. I’m Hungarian.”

“This dialogue!” gasped Fiona. “This film was written by an artificial intelligence!”

“He taught me to write a screenplay,” I said in sloooww mmmotion, “Would you like to hear it?”

The Cruiser flirts with two Anglo fembots. Nicole and Tom are suddenly very drunk. Tom saves a girl who has O.D.’d. This is where Kubrick and his camera crew were reflected in the shower screen, originally, but this has been digitally removed. Now, either Kubrick wanted this done, in which case Warners disobeyed him and released the film at the cinema with the unintentional cameo intact, or else Kubrick was happy for it to stay, in which case they violated his wishes by scrubbing him out of his own movie.

While we’re on the subject, it should be noted that the only director-approved digital version of EWS is the 4:3 DVD, because at the time apparently SK had no faith in widescreen TVs. In fact, for one as particular as Kubes about how his films were watched, the widescreen TV would be a nightmare, since many many people are content to watch films in any old aspect ratio, usually erring on the side of filling up as much of their TV as possible, regardless of how much of the original image they might be cropping out, or how badly distorted they’re making it.

Then the already-familiar Shostakovich takes us through a superfluous montage of Nicole’s bum again, Tom treating another busty nude, domestic stuff with the Harford’s daughter, and then the looong scene where the marriage is thrown into jeopardy by the revelation that Nicole once fantasised about another man. Here, Kubrick and cinematographer Larry Smith go for a sort of Leon Shamroy effect, with warm yellowy interior light and blue night exterior. But I don’t know that New York has blue streetlight, and moonlight isn’t blue, so Kubrick is following a movie convention here. Which is inconsistent with his real candlelight fetish in BARRY LYNDON. But that’s OK.

So, this dialogue. Kubrick hadn’t lived in New York for a long time. Had Frederic Raphael ever? And had either of them heard a human conversation? Raphael hadn’t had his name on anything that got made for quite a while. But I’ve always found his writing impossibly arch. I quite like NOTHING BUT THE BEST (Alan Bates leans into the archness) but DARLING and TWO FOR THE ROAD give me the pip.

Still, he was a distinguished expat American-born writer living in Britain. It was a convenient match. And we got an interesting book out of it, Eyes Wide Open, FR’s memoir of working with SK, whose rapid publication caused the Kubrick clan to close the iron door on him.

On meeting Kubes, Freddie can’t decide how intelligent he is. John Fowles said exactly the same thing about that other one-take wonder, William Wyler. Perhaps directors have a different FORM of intelligence from novelists?

Half an hour into the film it settles into a pattern: thrown into a rit of jealous fage by Nicole’s confession, Cruise starts cruising, encountering a series of available women and failing to have sex with them. It’s noticeable that Kubrick’s Steadicam basically just follows Tom around, or tracks back as he advances. The most basic kind of movement. After the twitchy bereaved woman, there’s the student/sex worker, and more brill dialogue.

“What do you want to do?”
“What do you recommend?”
“What do I recommend?”

It’s the beginning of the echolalia that will reverberate through the rest of the film. Dr. Bill may escape catching HIV from the girl he shies away from crewing, but he catches the tendency to repeat whatever’s said to him.

Oh, and he’s being haunted by blue-tinged monochrome fantasies of Nicole getting it on with her fantasy figure. His fantasy of her fantasy. But why do we need the special grading? It has no equivalent in any other Kubrick film. Alex’s fantasies in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE weren’t photographically different from the rest of the film. The trick seems cheesy.

I suppose though the blue echoes the light behind Nicole during her confession. It’s quite a colour-coded movie: the sex worker has a red door for passion, and a green lobby for disease. That kind of thing.

Oh, and Tom does a bit of palm-punching, to show he’s angry. Emulation of Jack Nicholson’s crazy walk in THE SHINING, or did Kubrick just give him the same direction: think of the crazy people you see on the street, ranting at nobody?

Dr. Bill gets queeerbashed by fratboys, a change from the source book, where the doctor is Jewish and his persecutors are anti-semites. Raphael proposed to Kubrick that Bill could be Jewish. “A doctor in New York?” “I don’t want him to be Jewish,” said Kubrick, apparently not giving any reason. And then saying to Raphael, who was also Jewish, “We don’t really know what they say about us when we’re not around, do we?” In which case, wouldn’t a Jewish protagonist be easier to write?

He also didn’t want the story to be a dream. “There’s no movie if it’s all a dream.” FR, by his account, offered logical arguments as to why it was pretty inescapable that Dream Novel is a dream. SK just said no.

The New York street sets are impressive, and arguably the film’s most dreamlike aspect is the way the production took hundreds of Polaroids of Greenwich Village and environs and then built a set in which all the familiar places are jumbled up.

Somewhere in here, too small for me to detect on the Toshiba, is a neon sign saying Vitali’s, a rare Kubrick in-joke.

Apparently Kubrick hired every yellow cab in the UK (a dozen or so) and tied them up for fifteen months, inconveniencing several other shoots. You never see more than two yellow cabs in a shot.

The piano bar interior is lovely. “Nick Nightingale” is an impossible character name, though. It’s a straight anglicisation of the name in the Schnitzler original, and gives a clue to the weird affect of this film: it’s a dream narrative played in realistic-fake environments, a Viennese fin-de-siecle sex story transposed to modern America and in the hands of men who don’t know modern America very well. I presume the adaptors thought “Nick Nightingale” sounded convincingly showbiz, but in what era?

Rade Serbedzija and Leelee Sobieski’s scene kicks things up into what passes for high gear. Thing always get better when the good actors come on. RS seems to be under the impression he’s in a comedy, something SK seems to have hinted to Alan Cummings also, but not to anyone else. This could be quite a funny film if anyone knew it’s what was wanted. Kubrick did consider casting Steve Martin in the eighties, but it’s not certain he would have asked him to be funny.

What does Leelee whisper to Tom? It’s like Twin Peaks all over again.

She recalled that Kubes always wore the same black smock to work, “But he must have had lots, because he didn’t smell bad or anything.” Clearly, he was following the practice of Einstein, who had multiples of the same suit so he didn’t have to expend any extra mental energy deciding what to wear. He had already adopted Napoleon’s practice of eating soup, main course and dessert all at once, so he was clearly susceptible to emulating his fellow geniuses.

(The smock had many pockets, making it very practical.)

“Orgy! Orgy!” in the wise words of Dyan Cannon. The masked ball is cinematic, at least. It has my favourite dissolve, and the follow-cam actually becomes atmospheric. And then we get circle-cam too. It’s a corny and incredible set-up, but the colours are nice.

This was, apparently, the trickiest thing, in SK and FR’s minds, to translate to a modern setting. Raphael typed up a fake document purporting to be an FBI report on secret sex cabals within the Democratic Party. Kubrick FREAKED, got very paranoid. “This is classified material, how’d you get hold of it? I need you to tell me.”

This I find very funny. But the pair decided that this would indeed be the unstated backstory of their big daft sex party, resulting in BELATED RESONANCE. Sidney Pollack as Jerry Ziegler as Jeffrey Epstein, ladies and gentlemen.

“Is the orgy so banal because that’s how this unimaginative character would dream it?” asked a friend of the friend I saw the movie with first time. I hadn’t felt the orgy was imaginary, and Kubrick seems to have not wanted it to be, but obviously in the book it is and that’s sort of crept into the film even if he didn’t want it. I think, when Kubrick was at the height of his powers, things wouldn’t creep into his films without his allowing it. But then, I did write this. Raphael has said he felt Kubrick wasn’t really on form — he was, after all, heading towards death.

Fiona wonders “Where do they find all these identical women?” Apparently such women couldn’t be found for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, where we see various types of body, but they could in 1999 for EYES WIDE SHUT.

Kubrick tried to figure out what the maximum level of sexual explicitness allowed by the MPPA, but still ran afoul of their arcane rules about how many pelvic thrusts were permissible in a single shot, so had to digitally superimpose voyeurs to blot out the action. What he needed was Clive Barker’s List,

When Clive was shooting HELLRAISER he got to a point in discussions with lead Clare Higgins where they felt they needed to define what the character’s sex life was like with her former lover Frank. The days of Dorian Gray, where you could keep it on the q.t., were gone. “I think she’s into spanking,” declared Higgins. “Great!” replied Barker.

They shot a scene. The producer cabled him the next day. “I’ve just seen the rushes. Fan-tastic stuff. We can’t use any of it.”

Barker protested that he needed guidance, in that case, as to what would be acceptable. He was sent a detailed list of the dos and do-not-dos. “It did wonders for my sex life,” he said later. “I now knew exactly the point where I was crossing over into obscenity.”

Part two: Tom retraces his steps, at great length.

Alan Cummings plays, essentially, Mr. George Swine, hotel receptionist, from LOLITA (just as Leelee Sobieksi played Lol). He’s funny. Cruise is retracing his steps, trying to work out what’s really happening. This part of the film is quite slow and plodding. We’ve been to all these places and met all these people, and the film doesn’t seem to know how to condense or elide. We follow Tom into and out of various rooms, down various streets. He revisits the fancy dress shop, he revisits the orgy house, revisits the sex worker and learns from her flatmate… well, first she comes onto him in a stilted fashion, then she tells him the girl from the other night has tested positive for HIV. They both pretend to be upset about this.

Tom leaves and buys a newspaper that says LUCKY TO BE ALIVE. A sinister man is stalking him. The only new location here is the morgue, where the OD girl from the first party, who we guess is the girl from the orgy, lies dead (and naked, of course).

Finally he meets Ziegler again, who tries persuading him there’s nothing sinister been going on here. He doesn’t do it very convincingly, but Dr. Bill clutches eagerly at this as a way of returning to normal life and forgetting all this weirdness. “This is the only detective story I’ve ever seen there, when they warn the guy to lay off the case, he DOES.”

Mind you — Red Cloak at the party (Lord Bullingdon himself, Leon Vitali) warned Dr. Bill not to pursue any investigations, OR ELSE he and his family would face dire consequences. And then they had a terrifying manservant hand him a threatening note. Now, anyone who threatens you with dire consequences should you do something, and then merely warns you again when you do it, is not serious and can be ignored. That’s my advice to you. So maybe these guys really are harmless lechers.

Tom finds his party mask on the pillow beside a sleeping Nicole (good whip-pan). He tells her the whole story (but the movie remembers to leave this out — though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Kubrick shot it).

“That was a very sad story,” says Fiona, filling in for Nicole, “It made my Touche Éclat come off.”

Christmas shopping scene in Hanleys. I’ve heard podcasters (Chapo Trap House, Death is Just Around the Corner) suggest that, while the Harfords are making up, their daughter is being abducted in the background by evil Ziegler minions, but I think there’s not even a subliminal suggestion of this. The bald guy standing there isn’t a minion seen earlier, and he’s apparently shopping with another man. I would love to have discovered a macabre Easter Egg like that, but all I’ve done is discover it isn’t there.

So I’ve finally done a Late Show on EYES WIDE SHUT, a late film, a final film and a posthumous film. It didn’t seem to reveal anything new. Frederic Raphael was never really able to work out why Kubrick wanted to make it. Kubrick wouldn’t or couldn’t tell him. The honest thing to do would be to turn down the job under those unpromising circs, but who would refuse Kubrick? Maybe the writer he needed was Jean-Claude Carrière, who described his remit as “helping the director understand why he wanted to make the film.”

The film is strange, and I should give it credit for that. I don’t know what to DO with the strangeness, though. Basic screenwriting books warn against having characters constantly repeat what they’re told. Bill picks this up 45mins in, and by the end, his wife is doing it too. The French New Wave taught us that we don’t have to see every step of a journey, we can jump from spot to spot and let the audience catch up. It’s fine to break those rules if you have a better idea. But if the result is… plodding and repetitive… maybe you need to rethink. Kubrick made slowness work brilliantly in some of his previous films. But here, when Dr. Bill says “Was she the woman at the party?” Ziegler pauses for ten full seconds (“THIS SHIP HAS ONE HOUR TO LIVE!”) then says “Yes,” then pauses for another five seconds and says “She was.” It’s not a dramatic pause, in my view, if it reveals no new dramatic information. “Yes” has already given us everything, and “She was” is pathetic redundancy.

I don’t feel I don’t get the film — it’s about the balancing of fidelity and fantasy life. The ur-text may be John Baxter’s Kubrick biography where the Great Man’s collaborators talked about Kubrick’s fondness for casting couch head games. He DID get all the actresses in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to take their tops off while he videoed them (save for Adrienne Corri, who refused: “Suppose we don’t like the tits, Adrienne?” “Tough.” Kubrick cast someone else, she got injured being lugged about on Warren Clarke’s shoulder for days, and he then cast Corri as replacement). He got them to mime being raped. But he didn’t touch them.

An assistant found him looking at a catalogue of models during 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. “Look at these girls! We could get some of them in, pretend it’s for the TV screens.” The assistant suggested Kubrick could just approach them openly, lots of them would be excited to meet the great Stanley K. He backed off immediately. Then he got obsessed with Julie Christie. Suggested inventing a project so he could audition her. The assistant said, Look, I know Julie Christie, why don’t I just call her up and say you’d like to meet her? Again, Stanley backed off. “Everything had to go through the fantasy department,” concluded the assistant.

So his big sex film, a project which might have made sense maybe twenty pr thirty years before, turns out to be about spousal fidelity in a world full of temptation, and the essential compartmentalizing of fantasy and reality — in a film where those compartments don’t exist or can’t be made sense of.

42 Responses to “Great party”

  1. David, having read decades of thoroughly unconvincing rationalizations of why EWS is actually brilliant, I found your piece to be gloriously refreshing. I feel seen at last!

  2. Here’s the song parody I wrote the year EWS came out:

    (to the tune of “Song Sung Blue”)

    Eyes wide shut
    That’s how you’ll be sitting
    You’ll say, “What?
    Kubrick must be kidding!”
    Twelve long years
    We’re thinking, here’s
    A masterpiece —
    But in spite of what we hoped
    It’s a disaster piece

    Cruise, I fear,
    Needs resuscitation
    His wife’s rear
    Shows more animation
    And that or-
    Gy’s such a bore
    That Kidman’s butt
    Isn’t quite enough to open
    Both my eyes wide shut…

    (repeat for 2 hours and 20 minutes)

  3. I didn’t find time to get into the audio flashbacks towards the end, a technique Kubrick had never resorted to before, and which suggest an anxiety about being understood which he’d never suffered from before.

    It’s his first film EVER to not be either in a genre (comedy, noir, horror) or a period movie, or both, which may account for its difficulty making the people talk like people, also… Lolita is a possible exception, but that one’s an odd combination of thriller and comedy.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Sidney Pollack as Jerry Ziegler as Jeffrey Epstein, ladies and gentlemen.” and most important of all, MURDERER.

    It’s pretty damned obvious that the hooker’s death was a sex killing that the evil Ziegler asks Tom’s Dr. Bill to cover up for him — in exchange for more hgh society perks.

    I trust you know that Kubrick originally cast Harvey Keitel in this part, only to discover that it was a classic Bad “Good Idea.” Harvey’ indelible performance in “Bad Lieutenant” surely impressed him. But the key to Ziegler is his stealth. He isn’t obviously sinister like Harvey Besides being a solid director in the Curtiz tradition, Pollack is a superb actor. It was Dustin Hoffman who encouraged him to play the agent in “Tootsie.” After tat came superb turns in “Husbands and Wives” and “Death Becomes Her” His ability to suavely cover up his crime — and leve the clean-up to other (very a Patricia Highsmith) is one of the film’s most startlingly original aspect — unlike the masked orgy which inspires in me nothing but my allt-time favorite movie line “Her Come Those Tired Old Tits Again!”

  5. Grant Skene Says:

    The whole film seems like it is happening in a simulation made by the aliens in 2001. Just like they kind of sort of figured out what a ritzy hotel would look like, they had a bash at making New York and dropped Tom Cruise in. They still haven’t quite figured out where babies come from so they keep putting Cruise in a situation where maybe he will mate, like a panda in the zoo. They finally give it up as hopeless just as Nicole says, “Let’s fuck.” And the star child is born.

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    And after that fuck, The Divorce!

  7. Everett Jones Says:

    The, I think, Austrian TV adaptation is pretty startling for how closely it matches up with EWS, absent a few scenes and many long pauses. It certainly throws the oddness of Kubrick’s project into even higher contrast.

  8. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I saw the film once during its original run. Kubrick seemed to be presenting his own, received, pornographic fantasies, equal parts sincere and dull. I’m not invested in that interpretation since Kubrick’s a mediocre filmmaker fortunate enough to have a brilliant producer on five(?) projects. 2001 is garbage.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Whoa! Don’t hold back. Tell us what you really think.

    Being a Control Freak Kubrick is scarcely to every taste. But he has done some very good work, and even the ones that collapse like deflated blimps (“Eyes Wide Shut” in particular) are fun to analyze.

    “EWS” sees to want to say something about sex, but apart form Leelee Sobieski it’s resolutely un-erotic.

  10. Kubrick was showing Raphael photos by Helmut Newton to give him some idea of the kind of “eroticism” he was aiming at. He’s not, I think, a very sexy filmmaker: the mating planes and spaceships seem to be having the most fun.

    I love 90% of Kubrick. I’m glad the other 10% exists.

    EWS is such a faithful adaptation that the “Inspired by” credit at the end is really cheeky. It’s scene-for-scene the same, only transplanted and updated.

  11. Oh, and I wanted to say: the blindfolded musicians thing is totally Viennese, so much so that Billy Wilder, an actual Viennese, uses it when Jack Lemmon tangos with Joe E. Brown in Some Like It Hot, iirc.

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Billy was paying homage to Stroheim who had blindfolded orchestras in “The Wedding March”

  13. Which is also of Viennese origin…

  14. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I like Billy Wilder’s brother.

  15. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Kubrick is the cinematic equivalent of a half-dozen “masters” in the visual arts: painters who project a vapid sense of masterfulness more than they express anything genuine. Kubrick is the calculating Mr. Brice Marden on celluloid.

  16. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Cy Twombly with a camera?

  17. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    But I can’t hope to add anything significant to Kael’s takedown of Kubrick.

  18. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    His films are wonderful conversation pieces.

  19. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Hey Ehrenstein! When’s the podcast?! Make sure to begin with lavish praise for yours truly!

  20. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    PS-Helmut Newton’s a genius. Your favorite diva adores his work. She’s right.

  21. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Haven’t been told when production on the podcast will begin. I trust it will be shortly. After the first of the year, I expect.

    Regarding movie orgies, Raphael wrote a much better one for “Darling” (1965) directed by the great John Schlesinger. starring the sublime Julie Christie.

    Helmut Newton died in a car crash, when backing out of the driveway of the Chateau Marmont — a very J.G. Ballard scene.

  22. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    “Julie Christie is only good once: Demon Seed.” That should be the opening line in your podcast. Got a name for it?

  23. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “The David Ehrenstein Show”

    Julie Christie is FUCKING GREAT in Darling, Dr. Zhivago, Far From the Madding Crowd, Fahrenheit 451, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Demon Seed, The Gold Diggers and Away From Her. She is an Axiom of the Cinema.

  24. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Christie always looks as if she’s bewildered: “How did I wind up here?” A bit like Walken, another “axiom of cinema” who cannot remember his lines. He’s stoned all the time. Christie’s excuse?

  25. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Walken is no Axiom. He’s a snob who condescends to appear on screen.

    Julie Christie’s emotional tentativeness should not be mistaken for aphasia. When the camera is properly aimed you can see her thinking and feeling her way through scenes like few other star. Garbo comes to mind, alsoMyrna Loy and Louise Brooks.

  26. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Thinking: “What’s my fucking line again?”

  27. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    1930s Barbara Stanwyck is great — in the 40s she ossifies into her “classical” snooze-fest of an incarnation. And she’s great in the 1930s precisely because her acting is simple, too simple to give critics anything “meaningful” to chatter about.

  28. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Would that Kubrick had mustered Stanwyck-ian simplicity, instead of dropping Viennese Easter Eggs from his arse. Then again, critics enjoy sniffing them.

  29. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Another actress with much more than meets the eye –Ingrid Bergman. Particularly in Rossellini’s “Europe ’51”

  30. David Ehrenstein Says:

  31. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    You just like Ingrid because her daughter had terrible taste in men.

  32. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Marty? Ew.

  33. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I’m in love with Viktor Dashuk.

  34. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Marty is a truly great filmmaker and a deeply complex human being. He has been a personal friend of mine since 1963

  35. So many wrong-headed decisions. If you’re going to update “Dream Novella” and set it in the labyrinth of Greenwich Village (and build it yourself, so it can be even more labyrinthine), why stick your orgy out in Long Island? A more Village-centric EWS might have ended up looking like a remake of “The Seventh Victim,” with the devil cult replaced by a sex cult. That would have been great. Swap out Tom Cruise for Gene Wilder. Jean-Claude Carriére would have been a huge help, especially considering his work with Tati and Étaix. But in the end could he have triumphed over the sensibility on display here? EWS is like something the Kubrick character in Terry Southern’s “Blue Movie” might have made. Blech!

  36. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Kubrick’s attitude towards sex to judge from “EWS” is that of a woefully naive adolescent boy. The gargantuan scale on which everything is dramatized makes this failing even keener.

  37. It might be possible to accept it, not as a failing, but as simply a fact… since the film is about somebody NOT engaging in extramarital sex, which the movie views as terrifying. But then the film’s observation of marriage would need to be more convincing, I think. Hiring an actual married couple was a simplistic ploy, especially when the couple was as odd as the Cruises.

    A Greenwich Village sex cult could’ve been cool, but the McMansion (all too obviously an English stately home) adds more Epstein/Bilderberg atmos. But yes, something more down-to-earth would have been, counterintuitively, far more dreamlike.

  38. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Call the cops! David Ehrenstein stole my thesis.

  39. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    The best Kubrick film was made by Spielberg.

  40. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    PS — Martin Scorsese doesn’t make cinema, he makes parade floats. His work is window dressing, that moves. So much of what the cinephile fetishizes in Kubrick falls into that category of some meaningless (ENDLESS!) auturist tableaux on wheels, moving at 3.5 mph.

  41. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Don’t have the energy to correct typo…

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