EYES WIDE SHUT
Holiday-themed movies have become as intrinsic a part of the season as getting drunk on eggnog and passing out under the mistletoe while relatives sneak awkwardly out the door.
But does a film necessarily have to include persecuted Santas and suicide-preventing angels to be a fully vetted and licensed "Christmas classic?" Before you slip in your well-worn copy of The Bells of St. Mary's or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, consider some titles from The Pink Smoke's alternative list of movies that touch on the most wonderful time of the year (to varying degrees.)
EYES WIDE SHUT
stanlet kubrick, 1999
~ by marcus pinn ~
Say what you want about Eyes Wide Shut (I'd probably be inclined to agree with whatever negative things you have to say about it), but the spirit of Christmas runs all throughout that film. Even the scenes where the characters are indoors and you don't see any Christmas trees, festive lights or decorations, you still know it's Christmas time outside. Actually, there are lots of scenes of our characters indoors because Stanley Kubrick had to keep the exterior shots to a minimum because even though the story takes place in New York City, it was shot in London. Anyone who's been to both cities knows one can't pass for the other, yet Kubrick still tried to pull it off.
There's a quick montage in this year's Dallas Buyers Club where Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is globetrotting all over the world trying to find non-FDA approved HIV & AIDS medication. Because of the film's limited budget, director Jean-Marc Vallee was forced to use a green screen behind McConaughey to simulate that he was in Russia, Japan, Norway and various other countries. It looked really cheap and took me out of the movie momentarily. When I saw this I thought to myself, "No major film with A-list actors in 2013 should look this bad." With all the critical acclaim that this film is getting, how is it that hardly anyone is mentioning how cheap those scenes looked? It's not like it completely taints the entire movie (there's much bigger factors in Dallas Buyers Club that already do that), but it definitely shouldn't get a pass. Shit, Beerfest did a better job at conveying to us that the actors where in another country (Germany) when they clearly weren't.
Those scenes in Dallas Buyers Club immediately reminded me of Tom Cruise walking in front of that green screen of New York City in Eyes Wide Shut, which coincidentally came on cable recently. It's strange – I don't really like Kubrick's last film, yet I own the DVD. I even bought it at full price back when it first came out years ago already knowing I wasn't crazy about it (a lot of that has to do with my OCD for collecting movies according to director). For something I claim to dislike so much, I've certainly seen Eyes Wide Shut numerous times. It isn't the absolute worst movie in the world, but it's still heavily flawed. Even though the general consensus towards the film is mostly negative, there's still a few reputable folks out there who defend it, which always bugged me. Kubrick's representation of New York City is pretty ridiculous. I have my own personal issues with the Big Apple, but there's no denying that it's a very "real" city. There's no other place on earth like it, especially during Christmas time, and it can't be duplicated or imitated. Yet for some reason it's ok when Stanley Kubrick does a cheap imitation of it.
Many people were put off by the film's unreality – the New York streets were too big, the orgy scene was a total fantasy, the action was slow and deliberate. All of this is true, and if the movie were designed to be realistic, it would be absolutely reasonable to judge these as failings. But Eyes Wide Shut is based on a Schnitzler novella called Dream Story, the story of a rift in a marriage told with the logic of a dream. And as with all dreams, you never know precisely when you've entered it. Everything seems real and life-like, but different, a little exaggerated, a little off. Things appear to happen as if they were preordained, sometimes in a strange rhythm from which it's impossible to escape. Audiences really had no preparation for a dream movie that didn't announce itself as such, without the usual signals - hovering mists, people appearing and disappearing at will or floating off the ground... – Martin Scorsese
As long as people have the ability to talk about films in the same intelligent way that Scorsese does, you could make a Matthew McConaughey rom-com sound like The Piano Teacher. I've been known to reach or pull ridiculous explanations out of my ass in order to defend misunderstood movies myself. I consider The Brown Bunny and Soderbergh's remake of Solaris to be two of the best love stories of the last 10 years. So there's only so much I can say in opposition to someone defending Eyes Wide Shut. But I still I call bullshit on Scorsese's point of view. You mean to tell me the man responsible for genuine New York City stories like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver is ok with Kubrick's vision of New York City? Let any other filmmaker try to represent NYC on film with a green screen and stock footage and they'd never hear the end of it. Bottom line, someone should have told Stanley Kubrick to get on a plane and shoot the damn movie in New York City. Eyes Wide Shut shouldn't be totally crucified for trying to imitate New York, because it certainly wasn't the first film to do it, but Kubrick was a filmmaker who was always so concerned with detail in all his other films. Yet he didn't want to go to New York City to shoot a movie that was set in New York City?
And I honestly believe Scorsese's praise of Eyes Wide Shut would be the same if Kubrick were still alive today. This has nothing to do with respecting a dead filmmaker. Legendary filmmakers these days are afraid to criticize each other. Back in the 60's and 70's when a filmmaker didn't like someone else's work, they let them know it. Take John Cassavetes for example – after Martin Scorsese completed Boxcar Bertha, Cassavetes looked him in the face and said, "Martin... you just spent a year of your life making shit." And you have to understand that Cassavetes was Scorsese's mentor. He said that to Marty with love and respect. Cassavetes wasn't the kind of guy to sugarcoat things or blow smoke up anyone's ass, especially someone he cared about. If you love or respect someone you don't blindly praise what they do and send them off to look like a fool. You're supposed to be honest and not lie, which is what I'm convinced is the case with Scorsese and Eyes Wide Shut.
In my opinion, Eyes Wide Shut separated the true Kubrick fans from everyone else. A true fan can admit when their favorite director makes a bad film. I love Todd Solondz, but I'll be the first to tell you he's kind of lost the mojo he once had in the 90's. Hal Hartley is also one of my favorites, but I don't think he's made a good film since No Such Thing (2001) and most people don't even like that movie. Michael Jordan has had off-nights and Muhammad Ali has been knocked out before, but that doesn't make them any less great. Same thing applies to Kubrick. Eyes Wide Shut isn't even his worst movie (anyone ever seen Killer's Kiss or Barry Lyndon?) yet everyone acts as if it tainted some perfect filmography he had going all these years.
As far as the supposed dream aspect of Eyes Wide Shut is concerned, I think Marty is wrong about that too. There was nothing dreamy or unrealistic about Alice (Nicole Kidman)'s momentary desire to want to cheat on her husband Tom (Tom Cruise). This is a pretty huge driving force for the rest of the story and is the ultimate motivator for Tom's actions in the film. The original source material, which I haven't read, may have been based around a dream, but Kubrick's film adaptation is based on very real feelings that our characters express. Like most book adaptations, Kubrick made a few changes to the story, but that really shouldn't have surprised anyone at that point given his versions of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining (two books I actually have read).
By the time Eyes Wide Shut came around, I think it was pretty well known that this was going to be more of an interpretation/re-working instead of a full adaptation. The original story never took place in modern day New York City during Christmas. It was originally set in 1920's Vienna during Mardi Gras. Kubrick changed the backdrop from Mardi Gras to Christmas for lighting purposes: apparently the Christmas lights made it easier for him to shoot at night. When you think about it, Kubrick and Mardi Gras don't really go together. It's lively, busy and festive. None of those adjectives describe the cinema of Stanley Kubrick. Cold and polarizing are the words I like to use to describe his work. New York City can be a pretty cold and polarizing place at times, so maybe Kubrick felt justified in changing the setting. Yet when you think about all the classic Christmas films (A Christmas Story, It's a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon etc.), infidelity and orgies are the last things that come to mind. Perhaps Kubrick was trying to put a twist on the Christmas movie genre.
This came out when I was a senior in high school, so naturally I was intrigued because there was supposedly a ton of sex in the film. At the time I was too young to understand the depths of jealousy (male jealousy in particular) that Eyes Wide Shut was trying to show. These days I don't understand males over the age of 13 in the internet age who get super-excited about graphic or explicit sex scenes in movies. The scenes never live up to the hype and there's probably better porn on the 'net to begin with. I have male friends in their 30's that still get geeked over an NC-17 movie and it just baffles me. At this point, if you don't know by now that NC-17 just means you're going to see a penis or an uneventful shot of a vagina then you're an idiot. Who cares if you get to see Nicole Kidman's nipple?! All anyone talked about when Eyes Wide Shut came out was SEX SEX SEX.
Like any curious 17-year-old male, I went to see this based on that and ended up being very disappointed. It was like that episode of South Park where the boys read Catcher in the Rye for the first time expecting to get a bunch of vulgar language but instead they came to discover that Holden Caulfield just says "fuck" a couple of times. I was familiar with Stanley Kubrick by the time I saw Eyes Wide Shut and like most people who discover his work in their teens, he could do no wrong in my book. I was a Kubrick zombie. I knew then that Eyes Wide Shut wasn't very good, but I didn't know you could not like something directed by Stanley Kubrick at the time.* It seemed blasphemous. At a certain point in the film, I was able to gather that there wasn't going to be a ton of sex, so I tried to get some kind of positive cinematic experience out of it and just couldn't. To this day I still believe the lead performances aren't that good, parts of it are really boring and I've already explained my issues with Kubrick's treatment of New York City. I also feel like the film tried to push this strange belief that deep down inside every single human being has a twisted, dark sexual side.
But that's not to say Eyes Wide Shut doesn't have a few positive elements.
Kubrick's look at male jealousy is really intriguing, even though another actor could have played the role of Dr. Tom Harford better. Women are generally shown as being complex and full of emotions when it comes to love and relationships on film. With men it's simple - they suspect their wife or girlfriend of being unfaithful and they resort to explosive violence. Nothing more. It's as if all men are incapable of complex feelings within a relationship or don't know how to deal with being cheated on without going nuts. To a certain degree, Eyes Wide Shut, specifically through Cruise's character, shows a more complicated side of the stereotypical jealous insecure male on film. No matter how problematic Kubrick's final work, that scene of Cruise in the back of the taxi (Kubrick's most underrated glare shot) is pretty powerful and touches on a nerve that any guy who has ever been in a relationship can relate to.
Hating on Tom Cruise is pretty typical - he does usually bring the same thing to every role so I can kind of understand the criticism. He's not a great actor but he's not bad either (although he is pretty awful from time to time). With Eyes Wide Shut it's difficult to separate Cruise from the character he plays because he co-starred with his then-wife in a film about a couple having problems and a little over a year later he and Kidman got divorced in real life. You almost can't help but think that working together on Eyes Wide Shut played a small part in the deterioration of their marriage. According to co-star Todd Field (Nick Nightingale) both Cruise and Kidman immersed themselves into the roles of Tom and Alice Harford. Perhaps they weren't able to shake the tension between the characters they played and it seeped over in to real life.
I also like the scene with Alan Cumming, but I still think it would have been even more effective without the quick little moments of humor that he sprinkles in.**
Eyes Wide Shut has its share of creepy and uneasy moments that are somewhat forced but still slightly effective: the guy following Cruise around at night, the mask ending up on the pillow next to Alice while she's asleep, etc. Like The Shining, a lot of the imagery and supposed hidden messages in Eyes Wide Shut have brought about many interesting theories from film enthusiasts (some actually seem fairly legit), only this time Kubrick appeared to be more obvious about his nods to the occult, Freemasons and the Illuminati. Some people actually believe the Illuminati had something to do with Kubrick's sudden death shortly after the film was released because apparently it hit too close to home for some very powerful people (ridiculous, I know). Notice the number of times we see stars and pentagons (two symbols associated with cults and Freemasonry) placed all throughout the film along with other controversial imagery in the orgy scene that hints to the Illuminati. The whole point of that scene between Cruise and Sydney Pollack towards of the end of the film is to convey that the rich and powerful partook in the gluttonous orgy that Eyes Wide Shut is famous for, which naturally makes us wonder if that kind of stuff happens in real life (apparently the Rothschild family partook in these types of events). The film plays on stuff that we want to believe.
Somehow it makes sense that Eyes Wide Shut was the final work that Kubrick left us with before passing away. It fits with the unresolved/open ended tone of the film which I still have a difficult time accepting.
~ DECEMBER 12, 2013 ~
* For years I was afraid to openly admit that I stopped paying attention to Full Metal Jacket after the basic training sequence.
** Anyone notice how badly he loses his American accent for a moment in this scene? Listen to how he says the line, “Yeah, it is a little on the early side."