Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut offers one of the most radical critiques of society that I have seen in film in a number of years, and like Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1970 Burn!, the film was mainstreamed. Marlon Brando played the main actor in Pontecorvo’s film, and the best known Hollywood couple at the time, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, play the couple of Eyes Wide Shut. And how often do such radical perspectives get mainstreamed?

As Kubrick was expecting, most watched with their Eyes Wide Shut, looking for the thrilling sex scenes, displays of nudity, cultured exchanges. The name of the film was given not just to reflect its characters, who go through life with their eyes wide shut, but the audience as well. The movie and its characters are nothing short of a reflection on us, the audience.

And really, what better way to show not only the ills of society but the interpersonal workings of Empire, then through the backdrop of sex – or rather, tantalizing sexual encounters, uncomfortable sexual spaces, and dehumanizing displays of sexuality?

This film is brilliant and requires hours of review to understand its multiple, overlapping messages. Hence, in offering this review I have relied heavily on the analyses of those who did spend hours upon hours discovering Kubrick’s last work of genius. Specifically, I rely on Rob Ager’s 2007 psychological analysis (which can be found on his website http://www.collativelearning.com) and even more so on Tim Kreider’s excellent sociological review in the Film Quarterly Vol 53, no 3 (found online at http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0096.html).

As both Ager and Kreider point out, the beginning of this film hints to the viewer what to look out for. We see a well-off, good-looking New York couple on their way to a Christmas party. And their character roles are spelled out in their first lines: Bill’s “Have you seen my wallet?” and Alice’s “How do I look?” The first scene is actually of Nicole Kidman’s character stripping naked with her backside to the camera, dropping her black gown to the floor with her black high heels on, to the sound of Shastakovich. Quickly the camera blacks out and the title of the film appears, Eyes Wide Shut. As Kreider argues, this is a clear message to the audience that if you are looking for nudity and sex in this you are not seeing what this is about.

This first scene is one of several messages throughout the film that clearly link Alice to the other female characters in the film. A woman stripping off her black gown, standing naked with her black heels on – this is of course exactly the first shot in the orgy scene at the Somerton mansion: women dropping their black gowns to stand naked with their high heels on. In fact, most of the women in the film are shown naked and all have remarkably similar bodies – light-skinned, thin and tall. Their bodies look like mannequins, rubbery and unreal. And like the prostitute Mandy and the dead prostitute at the morgue, Alice was clearly into self-medicating – getting drunk from champagne at Victor’s party, getting high with her husband from marijuana, smoking alone at home.

And the men? As reviewers have commented, throughout Bill is seen in one money transaction after another. In a span of forty-eight hours he spends hundreds of dollars. And throughout Bill is seen lying to his wife. And it is not just Bill lying, but we have reason to believe of course that Victor is lying at the end. What reviewers failed to catch is the equally ubiquitous scenes of Bill showing his New York State Medical Board Card. He shows his ID to gain access and information, and if anyone knows anything about American society, this is particularly odd in informal settings. The oddness of this gesture is of course revealed in the reactions of the people to whom he shows his ID, and the point Kubrick is trying to make is that Bill is ‘seeking access’ through his social status as materialized in the ID.

The oddness or absurdity of it is that, for all of their wealth and sophistication, Bill and Alice are still members of the vast serving class. Bill is the tragic hero. His perceived status crumbles before our eyes as the thin veil of respectability and glamour of Victor and the elite gang vanishes and reveals itself quickly as a lifestyle of deception, excess and murder.

Kubrick accomplishes this tragedy in part by going to great lengths to make the visual connection between Victor (i.e. the high society of New York) and the secret society at Somerton. The long hallway with the checkered floor, the encounter/greeting at the end of the hallway and the stairs in the background, the Renaissance Bronzes, “to where the rainbow ends,” and on and on.

The distinctions between the serving class and the elite also grow starker as the plot unfolds. In the beginning we know that Bill and Alice are invited to Victor’s grand ball because Bill makes house calls. Then by the end Victor spells out in plain language that Bill is not one of them: He came to the mansion in a taxi and rented a tuxedo from some backdoor alley.

Bill is clearly placed with others in the serving class throughout the film. Not just in the scene in which both he and his college buddy, Nick Nightingale, are “escorted out” of the Somerton Mansion, but also, as Kreider shows in his review, in the house call visit to his patient who just died, Bill enters the luxurious apartment and he and the maid stand in symmetry – both in black and white.

As the plot unfolds we see the limitations of Bill’s access. We see him behind bars at the Rainbow Costume store, but he is able to buy his way in. He is able to get access to the orgy ceremony because his friend gives him the password. But in the end he is thrown out of Somerton and not allowed back in (he stands behind bars again) because he doesn’t know the “other password.” As Victor admits, there isn’t a second password – and that is exactly the point. No matter if you have extra cash or have some friends ‘in the know’ or have professional credentials, there is no password you have to learn or gain access to to become a part of the ruling elite.

As the tragedy unfolds the likes of Victor become more closely aligned with not just a ruling elite, but an imperial elite, as Kreider eloquently points out. The first sign is at the Rainbow store when the store owner’s prostitute daughter whispers into Bill’s ear, “You should have a cloak lined with ermine.” Historically ermine fur was prized and worn by European royalty.

And of course the scene at the Rainbow store segues into the orgy scene at the Somerton Mansion, which is full of old European Imperial imagery – the Moorish palace of Somerton, the masks of the participants, the portraits of royalty flanking the walls. The film after all is an adaptation of Austrian novelist Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story of turn-of-the-century Viennese decadence. However, Kubrick also intended to make the imperial dimensions of wealth and power in our contemporary times more obvious, and perhaps he also wanted to show the continuity of empires.

As the plot progresses and Bill finds himself not only denied entry but faced with threats of violence against himself and his family, Bill’s relationship with others in the serving class is noteworthy as his personal safety and well-being deteriorate. The reviewers didn’t comment on Bill’s relationship with Nick Nightingale. The Nightingale who flies away: the only two conversations between them end abruptly short with Nick’s “gotta go.” We in the serving class indeed have so little time for one another. And in the end we get screwed: Domino the prostitute contracts HIV, not from Bill but from someone like him. Nick disappears when Bill gets caught. Those serving at the orgy escort Bill to “his capture.”

In other words, we are not just screwed but we are complicit. At what appears to be a stab at New York high society is more generally a critique of the professional classes who think of themselves as cultured and ‘above’ the insecurity and moral depravity of the lower classes. Again, Kubrick made pains to show Bill as part of a larger serving class, living in the end just as precariously as the rest.

And of course in the backdrop of Christmas trees and lights, Kubrick offers a harsh criticism of the consumer society. As Agar and Kreider point out, displays on the wall are intended to reflect the reality within. The wall in Victor’s bathroom: the huge portrait of the woman lying naked, and the prostitute lying naked on the couch. The walls of Alice and Bill’s apartment are full of flowers and other objects: to consume. The walls at Somerton are covered in portraits of aristocracy.

The spectacular consumerism of Christmas is the perfect visual backdrop of a film depicting a twisted society. We indeed do not consume without consequence.

At the end of the film, in which Bill and Victor have a ‘heart-to-heart’ in Victor’s billiard, Bill says to Victor sarcastically, “What kind of fuckin’ charade ends with someone turning up dead?!” The pause and the message: In Empire of a capitalist variety “the charade” that is the very foundations of wealth and power does end up with people dead. Literally and figuratively.

Kubrick leaves the plot unsolved and for a reason. Did Nick return home or was he "disappeared" for good? Did Mandy the prostitute die from a drug overdose or was she "sacrificed"? It is like Kubrick is saying, “Really, how much of a difference does it make if someone killed Mandy for political expediency or if she died from a social plague – drug use and abuse?” She is still dead and no one is held responsible.

The charade becomes partially revealed for Bill and Alice. When Bill comes home he turns off the Christmas tree lights and finds his mask on the bed. As Agar argues, this scene shows us that the gloss and glitter of the high life have worn off for Bill, and that the mask he wears in his life has become known to him – and he breaks down.

The charade of harmlessness becomes only partially revealed to them though. In the very last scene at the shopping mall Alice says that essentially they should be grateful to survive. The assumption is that she is referring to their relationship (they are still caught up in their interpersonal drama), but the broader implication is of course they have survived as members of the high society in the peace and security of their personal fiefdoms, exactly because they allow the crimes to be committed and go unpunished. They in the end won’t publicly disclaim the story told.

And when Alice says that what they need to do right away is FUCK, this is not just about them and society drowning away their problems in the pleasure and ecstasy of sex. That is of course part of it. Much more, though, to fuck is to be fucked.