Sunday, January 04, 2009

I's Wide Shut


"Our official arbiters of culture have lost the gift of being able to
comprehend a work of art that does not reflect their immediate
experience; they have become afraid of genuine art. Art-phobia is now
the dominant sensibility of the official culture, and art-phobia
annihilated Stanley Kubrick's autumnal work.

Much talk--some of it real,
a lot of it fake--has been in the air over the last decade about empathy
for the "other," for people different from us. But no one has dwelled on
the essential otherness of a work of art. There is, after all, that
hackneyed but profound notion of a willing suspension of disbelief.
Genuine art makes you stake your credulity on the patently counterfeit.
It takes you by surprise. And for art to take you by surprise, you have
to put yourself in the power of another world--the work of art--and in
the power of another person--the artist. Yet everything in our society,
so saturated with economic imperatives, tells us not to surrender our
interests even for a moment, tells us that the only forms of cultural
expression we can trust are those that give us instant gratification,
useful information, or a reflected image of ourselves. So we are flooded
with the kind of art that deprecates attentiveness, tells us about the
issues of the day, and corresponds to our own personalities. And if a
genuine work of art appears that has none of these qualities, critics
impose them anyway, for they fear that if they surrender themselves to
the work's strangeness, they will seem vulnerable and naive and
intellectually unreliable.

Eyes Wide Shut is a descendant of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in
Paris
. Both films examine the relationship of fucking to fraternity, of
sex to society, and both reach the same conclusion: for the social order
to survive, the instincts have to be recognized for what they are and
then restored to their hiding place behind society's curtains.

Kubrick wanted to show that sex without emotion is
ritualistic, contrived, and in thrall to authority and fear.

In a film about life's essential
doubleness, Kubrick presents Cruise and Kidman with double lives. They
are actors in a film, and they are people we think we know something
about. Their real marriage exists beneath the rumors of trouble, just as
the troubles of their film-marriage exist beneath its apparent success.
They act with dreamy formality because they exist between dream and
reality. Kubrick wants us to watch Cruise and Kidman and think about
what people appear to be and who they really are. Kubrick's genius in
Eyes Wide Shut is to make us look at the film the way the film looks at
life. The title announces the film's perspective: we stare life in the
face and miss what is truly going on right under our noses. Bill is a
doctor; his job is to defy the corruptions of time and repair injured
bodies. Thus he is willfully blind to the way the demands of bodies
hasten the ravages of time. Physical desire ruins friendships. destroys
marriages, discombobulates thoughts and feelings. Underneath Bill's
sober medical optimism lies the hazardous dynamism of sexual fantasy and
sexual desire. That is why Alice hides her pot in a Band-Aid tin. And
because desire is an agent of metamorphosis, Ovid, the author of
Metamorphoses, becomes one of the film's presiding presences. The danger
Bill and Alice face is that either domestic emotions will stifle sex or
that unbridled sexual indulgence will kill off the individuality that
nourishes emotional attachment.

Such a dilemma is why the movie begins with a shot of Kidman's
back and her unforgettable ass. We see her back when she dances with the
Hungarian; Bill sees a man grabbing a woman's behind in a doorway as he
wanders the streets; a partly obscured sign over a store reads "ass"
through a window behind Bill and a gay desk clerk in a hotel as they
talk; Ziegler delivers his stunning monologue about the banal
inevitability of sexual desire to Bill's back; Helena picks up a giant
teddy bear from behind in the film's final scene and asks if Santa will
buy it for her. The back, the ass, represent our animal side. They do
not convey our individuality. Only our face does that. But the risk is
that if we surrender ourselves absolutely to our anonymous animal side,
we slide helplessly toward death, the absolute anonymity. For this
reason, there are masks in Bill's patient's apartment and in the
prostitute's place too, and this is why Kubrick makes the orgy a masked
affair. When Bill finds out that the mysterious woman at the orgy who
may have saved his life has died, he goes to the morgue, steps over to
her body, and almost kisses her face. Her face has become a death mask,
and his urge to kiss it signifies that he has submitted too thoroughly
to his obsession. And to Alice's machinations. For just as every
enchantress Odysseus meets on his voyage home is an echo of his
thralldom to Penelope, every woman Bill meets is a version of Alice.
(The numerous references in Eyes Wide Shut to 2001: A Space Odyssey; the
naval officer; and the large model of a ship in Ziegler's billiard room
emphasize the film's allusions to Homer.) This is why the prostitute is
beautiful and educated. And this is why Bill is constantly being
interrupted just as he is about to satisfy his desires. He allowed an
interruption to come between him and Alice, and now he must be punished
in the very same terms over and over again. Just as the husband in
Fidelio is in prison, so is Bill: twice we see him standing behind bars,
outside the costume store and outside the gate of the Long Island
mansion. With her tale, Alice has orchestrated his fate for him. At any
moment she can betray him with her naval officer, just as at any moment
Penelope can betray Odysseus with her suitors. The movie does not
resemble New York? How can it when it has such a large poetic and
symbolic dimension? Kubrick paints vast pictures with minute strokes. As
Bill is being tormented by his black-and-white fantasy, Alice sits at
home watching television, helping Helena with her homework, and eating a
black-and-white cookie.

We live in the subjunctive:
if only we could be someone else and get what we want. But when Bill
gets what he wants and enters the orgy, he sees nothing but sterile
coupling. There is the fantasy of absolute gratification, cynically
projected from every corner of the culture, and there is the reality of
the cookie and the child and the homework and the companion you have
chosen, and for whom, despite everything, you sit at home waiting
Compared with the everyday reality of sex and emotion, our fantasies of
gratification are, yes, pompous and solemn in the extreme. That is why
the film's recurrent motif is of the Christmas tree. For desire is like
Christmas: it always promises more than it delivers. Kubrick's film is
hardly, as some critics have said, an instance of anti-erotic moralism.
It is, instead, honest about the power and necessity and permanence of
erotic life. It is about the simultaneity of irreconcilable desires. As
the film proceeds, the dialogue increasingly takes the form of double
entendre: "Would you like to come inside?" the prostitute asks Bill. The
gay desk clerk refers to two tough-looking guys "you'd not like to fool
around with" and giggles Ziegler gestures to the pool table and says he
has been "knocking a few balls around." The orgy itself runs parallel to
the ball at the beginning, even as it parodies social life.

At a time when we are surrounded by
movies about killing, and movies about murdering, and movies about
slaughtering; by cheap caricatured reflections of human life; by
dishonest and money-driven and career-driven drivel at every turn--at a
time like this, you'd think someone would have given a genuine work of
honest art its due."

From Harpers Magazine's Lee Siegel on Eyes Wide Shut

RELATED LINKS:
-The Ornamentation of Nicole Kidman at Senses of Cinema
A Sword In The Bed, American Cinematographer

7 comments:

Cynnie said...

that was when Nicole Kidman was real ..
she's become plastic now

Candy Minx said...

Weelll...she is stunning in this movie. The lighting is incredible and the way the movie looks...yes Kidman was "real"-er then. I watched "The Golden Comapss" last night (which was wonderful, btw)...and just after watching "Eyes Wide Shut" and it's very obvious the difference in her upper lip. Oh well. The crummy thing is often women over 40 get way less jobs in acting...no wonder they feel compelled to have procedures to puff up their face etc.

The Preacherman said...

Not a patch on 'Monty Pythons Life Of Brian' though ;-)

Happy New Year babe xx

Candy Minx said...

HEY happy new Year manic Street Preacher! Well, does ANYthing compare to "Life of Brian"? Separtating the Mastepieces we must...

:)

mister anchovy said...

I thought Eyes Wide Shut was one heck of a good movie!

Candy Minx said...

I remember Mister Anchovy...curiously so many critics just panned it...I think now that ten years has gone by...and as more time passes new audiences will see how amazing it is. My friend John V. has watched it, like me, dozens of times...he once e-mailed me he had just watched it like 25 times and he wrote a great paper on it. I've probably seen it 30 times or so. Stagg had never seen it so we saw it recently...he's now a fan!

Gardenia said...

I have not seen it either - I need to find it. It was in front of my eyes at a store the other day. Interesting about the need for eroticism - -

I liked the Golden Compass too - if for no other reason than the magnificent talking bears.....but really for more reasons than that!