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DVD SAVANT

EYES WIDE SHUT


Eyes Wide Shut
Warner
1999 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame
Starring
Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler, Todd Field (Nick Nightingale), Marie Richardson, Rade Serbedzija (Milich), Leelee Sobieski, Vinessa Shaw (Domino), Julienne Davis (Mandy Curran), Abigail Good (Mysterious Woman/Masked Party Principal)
Lighting Cameraman
Larry Smilth
Production Designers Les Tomkins, Roy Walker
Editor Nigel Gault
Original Music Jocelyn Pook
Screenplay Stanley Kubrick and Frederick Raphael,
inspired by "Traumnovelle" by Arthur Schnitzler
Produced by Jan Harlan, Stanley W. Cook and Stanley Kubrick
Produced and Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

(REVISED with Reader Responses 4/29/00 - See Bottom of page)


A man finds himself strangely dissatisfied with his married life. When he makes a house call to visit an attractive, mysterious woman, he begins a nightmarish dalliance that involves threats of death and possible murder, all consequences of his moral infidelity. The mysterious woman sacrifices herself to save the man from terrible consequences, and he learns the lesson not to stray again. He confesses all to his wife. She spends a morning weighing all factors and then decides she's willing to try to move forward with their marriage, which is too important to throw away.

Seen that movie lately? It's the plot of the film noir Pitfall, a superior piece of American domestic misery circa 1948. It's as satisfying a film on the subject as any, an unflinching look at the dynamics of infidelity in a happy postwar household.

It is also "just a movie." One is not likely to remember its director, André de Toth. I think Pitfall is relevant here not only because of its similarity to Eyes Wide Shut, but because when talking about films by André de Toth, reviewers can say what they wish. Writing about Stanley Kubrick is something else. Praise him, and you are just another blind worshipper. Scoff, and you are an unclean healot seeking attention with cheap potshots.

The most important thing about a Kubrick film seems to be that Kubrick directed it. With Eyes Wide Shut his work finally comes full circle. Both his first and last films rather selfconsciously allude to part or all of their content as being dream-like; where the first movie is the work of an artist straining for significance, the last suffers from the necessity of being significant because it is by a great artist. Also, after finally seeing Fear and Desire last year, there is a strange finality in realizing that, barring Spielberg claiming that he will channel Kubrick's ghost while directing his upcoming A.I., there aren't going to be any more Kubrick movies coming our way.

Eyes Wide Shut is a fairly well-told tale. Its visuals are particularly impeccable and Kubrick leaves out many of his signature gimmicks of the past. There are no annoyingly artificial symmetrical compositions screaming for attention. His camera is cool but not so detached as to become cold; much of the action is staged in conventionally expressive ways, without the vague air of condesenscion that hangs over many of his later films. There are no allusions to his earlier work unless we count the daughter wanting a puppy, a possible echo of Dr. Floyd's daughter in 2001 wanting a bushbaby pet. EWS never fossilizes like Barry Lyndon, frustrates like The Shining or infuriates like A Clockwork Orange. If anything, it seems limited only by the feeling that Kubrick is overcontrolling every bit of decor and each actor's every gesture. This really cramps the performances. There are no truly good ones, not even the usually excellent Nicole Kidman.

The film's ad campaign misled an audience eager to be surprised and quick to be foiled by their own expectations. The very first shot of Alice stepping out of her dress is a stunner, a fashion-plate image viewed through Kubrick's clinical but curious gaze. The sudden nudity addresses the very nature of what's sexy and provocative, and forces us to decide how we're going to look at what promises to be an incisive film about point-blank eroticism. Kubrick's opening sets up EWS as "1999: A Sex Odyssey" in a promisingly frank way. But then the film's subject matter turns out not to be about sex, actually, at all. It is about intimate moral relationships between real, contemporary, non-genre characters ... a sensitive melodrama that depends on keen identification with the actors onscreen. On its surface, this does not seem to be natural Kubrick material.

Synopsis: (big spoiler)

Dr. William Harford (Cruise) and his wife Alice (Kidman) enjoy an affluent New York City lifestyle, raising their daughter and maintaining a caring and loving relationship. Alice's jealousy erupts after a lavish party at the home of Dr. Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), where William disappears for a time to treat Mandy (Julienne Davis), his host's casual sex partner, who has OD'd. The idea of infidelity has a subtle attraction for Alice; she has plenty of opportunity and seems to resent something about her relationship with William. When she confesses an infatuation for a past casual acquaintance for whom she might have risked her marriage and home life, William is shaken. A bereavement house call separates them before they can resolve their differences. William embarks on a two-day detour from the straight & narrow in which he betrays his matrimonial relationship in almost every way but physically. While emotionally upset, the dead patient's daughter makes an irrational pass at him, which he gently rebuffs. Some hooligans challenge his masculinity on the street. He allows himself to be picked up by a prostitute, Domino (Vinessa Shaw) changing his mind only after a phone call from Alice. Then he looks up a college friend, entertainer Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), who inadvertently clues him into a meeting of what sounds like a secret sex club. Dr Harford rents a costume at 2 A.M. and discovers along with the outraged proprietor Milich (Rade Serbedzija) that his daughter (Leelee Sobiesky) is entertaining two older Asian gentlemen in her father's shop after hours.

Arriving with his cape and mask at a country estate, William is shown into a baroque mansion where a highly ritualized orgy begins with a circular gathering of near naked, statuesque females. One of these nude callgirls / sex slaves (Abigail Good) seems to recognize William. Then the coven-like group detects the interloper, and it looks as if William might be paying with his life for his ill-advised adventure. The Mystery Woman offers her life in his stead, and the confused, errant Doctor is sent safely on his way home.

William's daylight attempts to determine the truth of his wild night only make matters worse. Sinister men follow him. The costumer turns out to be pimping his own daughter, if she is his daughter. Nick Nightingale may have been murdered for giving an outsider access to the sex club. William misses seeing Domino, but learns from her roomate that Domino has just learned she is HIV positive. Then the papers report the death of Mandy, the addict he revived at Ziegler's party. Ziegler tells William that he was at the party and witnessed William's unmasking; and claims that the death threat was only a scare tactic. As William had feared, the Mystery Woman was Mandy. But Ziegler claims that Mandy's sacrifice was a charade, and her death an unrelated overdose; that Nick Nightingale was sent away chastized but unharmed. William has little choice but to accept the prevaricating (?) Ziegler's admonitions at face value; he goes home and confesses all to Alice. After a tense morning, Alice's disillusion becomes tentative gratitude. Her risky fantasies and his risky adventures have taught them a lesson, but not destroyed their relationship.

Eyes Wide Shut is serious, and refreshingly refuses to follow contemporary trends. Yet after one viewing, it seems an unfelt essay that communicates only when its characters make position speeches. Nothing on the surface of Eyes Wide Shut seems profoundly illuminating about sex or relationships or matters intimate. The emotional and dramatic sum is pretty low. But after a few hours of ruminating, aspects of the show start to sink in ....and it starts to bloom. Is it a great movie experience? Not really. Still, Kubrick has such an aura about him that when he makes a film with unresolved ideas, we cannot help but reach for hidden meanings. Whether they come from the source story or Mr. Kubrick himself, Eyes Wide Shut has some choice food for thought.  1 For Savant the pleasure is trying to solve the puzzle. This is satisfying for its own sake, but I am not offering it as proof that EWS is a 'good' movie. If it were shown just as it is with someone else's name on it, the collective reaction would be next to nothing. The LAST group to rally to its defense would be the film industry, which worships the Demigod Kubrick without understanding the first thing about him or his films.

Mechanically awkward ... or deceptively original?

The pace is deliberate but there are plenty of surprises along the way to keep interest alive. Yet there is an unsatisfying tone about Eyes Wide Shut just the same. The general weirdness makes much of what we see very suspicious. We're looking so hard for the story signposts, most of the plot reversals are transparent. The film is so tightly controlled, (both its look and every move of every character) that it seems to be reaching too hard for abstraction. When events are later revealed to have been false (or suspect), we are not surprised in the least.

There is a definite problem here with clashing tones, that the 'It's a dream' argument does not defuse. The 'normal' scenes before William's weird Journey To The End Of The Night play out in glamorous, un-lived in settings that are equally dreamlike - as distanced and unreal as the scenery in the always gowned and tuxedoed world of Astaire and Rogers musicals. They are populated with unreal characters like the European lothario who hits on Alice ... the movies haven't come up with a wolf as oily since Tom Conway, or Bela Lugosi. The orgy itself, a bal masque from another time and space, has nothing to contrast with and suffers accordingly. Instead, it evokes thoughts of similar sombre gatherings of strange beings in films as diverse as The Seventh Victim, Judex, The Masque of the Red Death, and even Logan's Run. Is Eyes Wide Shut really at odds with its modern setting, or is this just this viewer's prejudice, knowing that the source novel for the film is 100 years old?  2

Claims that EWS is deliberately abstract are defenses for its director. The truth is that too much of the film is simply miscalculated, from the way people behave to things as basic as casting.

Doctor Harford is staggered by his spouse Alice's defiant claim to a fantasy sex life that supercedes their relationship. This is the crucial scene in the film and is as heavy as the disillusioning shocker handed James Joyce's Gabriel in the last pages of The Dead. Asking us to believe that Cruise's sexy and flirtatious Dr. Harford, who skates through a high life of readily available females, would have any illusions about such matters is a tough sell. His healthy married sex life has its own share of sex fantasy games. The very un-passive Alice is a highly independent player who hasn't been locked up in her bedroom these last nine years.

Cruise's star persona doesn't help matters. EWS subtly conforms to the Tom Cruise Superstar ethic of Top Gun, Days of Thunder, and A Few Good Men. In those films, selfish egotism is rewarded as long as the abusive protagonist reveals a smidge of 'humanity' for the audience to latch onto sometime before the fadeout. Is EWS at its core just a star vehicle? Is that its problem? Tom Cruise's hateful, cheaply redeemed character in the same year's Magnolia tops this argument like a gemstone.

There is far too much in Eyes Wide Shut that strains credibility, both details and whole characters. Dr. Harford carries wads of cash in his wallet, peeling off bills like a millionaire on a binge. An affluent NY doctor would probably carry plenty of twenties for taxis, and only use his credit cards at restaurants and department stores. The prostitute Domino is intelligent, glamorous, witty and comes off as an emotional safe haven so cozy you'd think she was going to offer William chicken soup with the sex. Not very believeable ... not the trade you'd find on the sidewalks of New York. The hotel desk clerk is the kind of gay stereotype more suited to a farce ... the few gay characters in Kubrick (Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange) tend to be the butt of jokes.

The Sex Club just isn't as shocking as it wishes it were. It comes off as a conservative kind of transgression-challenged activity, like the coven from The Seventh Victim that turns out to be a tame social club. We have parties here in the Hollywood Hills that, if the reports in the papers can be trusted, are pretty darn extreme ... I'm informed that college students are having orgies nowadays.

True or not, everyone believes that extremely powerful men are above the law and can use influence to get away with murder and cover up indiscretions and scandals. If taken literally, EWS's Secret Orgy opens a whole can of credibility worms. Everything about this Midnight Charades club falls apart, unless its secret members are in total control of all the means Cruise would have to combat it if he wished. And that would be an entirely different storyl It must be all be a dream, or Eyes Wide Shut would become The Parallax View.

There are some very good scenes in the film. William's encounter with the grieving daughter is perfectly played, and the bizarre 2 A.M. visit to the costume shop is truly sinister, in the Kafka sense, almost like After Hours.  3 But Kubrick's controlling hand, refusing to let most of Eyes Wide Shut come alive, hangs over every detail and gesture. The 'world' created here is simply nothing anyone can really relate to.


There are some arguments floating around 'explaining' Eyes Wide Shut, that need addressing:

1) It's an 'Old Man's Movie.' They're all like this.

This is heard from people still using Andrew Sarris' argument that movies like Hawks' Rio Lobo or Blake Edwards' Darling Lili are somehow masterpieces. Good elegiac movies like Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! need no excuses. Kubrick is too individualistic and vital to make an old man's film. As far as filmmaking goes, he's obviously at the top of his game with EWS. Calling him senile doesn't wash.

2) Warner's NC-17 digital peek-a-boo hijinks took the edge off the film.

Baloney. The problems in Eyes Wide Shut wouldn't be altered with a more graphic orgy scene. Not that Savant isn't just as curious as the next voyeur ... the effect of EWS is so resoundlingly anti-sexy that showing the obscured sex will just add to the already established aura of erotic novocaine.  4 Think of Nicholas Roeg's Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, practically gynecological in its graphic sex scenes ... which by sheer 'let it all lay' openness achieves an almost tangible honesty. If sex is what's wanted, the expressionistic wedded sex in Don't Look Now is a far more erotic experience than anything in Eyes Wide Shut. People have already commented that the wall-to-wall nudity is anti-erotic. With the exception of the Kidman scenes (which are pointedly discreet), the other nudes in the film are either 'dead' (the drugged woman; the literal corpse) or objectified statues in a mausoleum-like setting. The orgy nudes remind more of a horror film, or a mildly perverse nightmare, than of a bawdy house situation. The revelers are jaded (sick?) aesthetes, not fun seekers. Kinky morbidity may work for The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, but not for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

3) It's the slow, methodical pace.

This is the best thing about Eyes Wide Shut! ... Audiences now require moment-to-moment stimulation, it seems, given the attention span-challenged reception given films like Frantic, or The Accidental Tourist. EWS has no pacing problems for anyone willing to watch a movie.

4) Kubrick was out of touch because of his isolation.

This has some credibility. All the interviews painted Kubrick as pretty much a physical hermit, but also an intense fellow in constant communication with correspondents all over the globe. But he hadn't seen New York city personally in 30 years. His interpersonal contact was limited to situations in which he maintained control. He'd fill a room with photos and research on a location, without ever experiencing it himself. Where would he get the instincts to create believable characters and situations? Television? You can make a sharp picture about an extreme situation like an army boot camp without personally having the experience, but Eyes Wide Shut is an intimate interpersonal drama whose 'world' we need to believe.

5) It's from a 100-year old book; Kubrick should have made it in its proper period, or updated the material.

This argument holds ... The Schnitzler source tome for Eyes Wide Shut takes place in 1900 Vienna, where it would have been incredible if Dr. Harford were not shocked to learn that his wife had an independent sexual agenda. Since basic human equations haven't changed over decades or centuries, there is no reason the story couldn't have been updated. The challenge is to find a reason to bring it into a contemporary setting, and then make the necessary adjustments. Frustrated co-screenwriter Frederick Raphael is on record as having tried to do just this, only to have his every suggestion rejected by an unyielding, un-collaborating director. See his terrific book, Eyes Wide Open.

But the mystery deepens ...

Explaining why a fascinating film doesn't work is mostly an empty exercise. EWS can't be that bad if it fascinates. As I said above, the initial disappointment with the movie changed to intense thought about aspects of its mystery story. Raphael's twists with the original Traumnovelle tale create some fascinating patterns. There are two significant, understated 'updatings' in EWS that DO make Savant want to see the film again, to take another crack at the puzzle. Perhaps a brillliant Kubrikite could unearth other patterns, but I saw these two:

The prostitute's HIV.

Alice's timely cell phone call accidentally saves William from a slow death. AIDS didn't exist in 1900; poetically, it's the modern equivalent of a gothic curse in that one indiscretion by an innocent can mean irrevocable doom (see the incomparably compassionate All About My Mother). But Kubrick tosses it off; we hear about Domino's situation second-hand and William underreacts to this near-miss with calamity. His AIDS scare and two possible murders may be contributing factors but the cause of Harford's breakdown is really being caught by his spouse, just as in Pitfall. The de-emphasis of the AIDS issue makes it clear that Kubrick & Raphael want the good doctor's dilemma to be a strictly moral one. Unfortunately, what actually happens is the familiar moral evasion: a privileged man has his cake and eats it too. Redeemed by Mandy and rescued / forgiven by Alice, William suffers no lasting consequences for his actions.

Alice's profanity.

The second updating is mild but telling. Alice likes to use the word 'fuck' during intimacy, or just in frank conversation with her husband. This is nothing unusual, and pains are taken to paint Alice as not only a lady with dignity but a concerned parent as well. Casual profanity is now so common that it no longer necessarily connotes baseness ... in many circles. But certainly Schnitzler's idealized 1900 wife wouldn't speak with the corresponding crudity in German ... It is a difference, and one that matters. Alice's modern lifestyle doesn't give her the thrills she wants. She imagines missed opportunities and phantom lovers and maintains a fantasy life of illicit affairs and wanton sex - which she feels is happening all around her, just out of reach. She wants to be a bad girl ... wants a sense of danger in her relationship with her husband. The use of the work fuck is a spur to evoke the tingle of Taboo. Her final speech (which, although sincere, still thuds like a moral from an Aesop's fable) is capped with the word. By using it Alice acknowledges that carnality is not the villain, and that the wayward, destructive sex in EWS is the result of people making bad choices in strained emotional situations -- as with the woman who rashly blurts out her longing to Dr. Harford, right at her father's deathbed. In Alice's forgiveness of William there is also an understanding of both of their forbidden desires. Her saying 'fuck' at the end of Eyes Wide Shut is not a sign of weakness, but of self-knowledge, and affirmation.

One non-updated aspect of Eyes Wide Shut is very retro, and damaging to this very serious film's moral infrastructure. The character of the always-nude Mystery Woman' is a symbol of William's sexual desires, an onanistic dream woman, an objectified mirror of his desires. The awkwardness comes with her Traumnovelle role as William's 'redeemer.' When she sacrifices herself for him, she (in literary terms) hews to the sexist heritage of fallen women who perish anonymously so that the hero can skip off to a happy future with the "good" girl. It's the oldest dodge in the writer's book: the Dark Woman's emotional relationship with the hero spells certain death for her. Example: Polynesian Dolores Del Rio jumps into a volcano in Bird of Paradise for the sake of Anglo lover Joel McCrea. When Linda Darnell takes a bullet for Henry Fonda so he can wind up with Cathy Downs in My Darling Clementine, modern audiences laugh at the sexist cliche.  5 Pitfall is unusually savvy on this score, especially for 1948. When Dick Powell sees Lizabeth Scott possibly on the way to the gas chamber, it's clear she'll haunt him forever, especially given the cold 'forgiveness' offered by his wife Jane Wyatt.

Since we have to guess at the reasoning behind a lot of William's actions, EWS is really a mystery within a mystery. The Mystery Woman's sacrifice is only one of a dozen events that remain ambiguous. Retaining the complex mutiple possibilities about what really happens in the movie is the happiest byproduct of Kubrick's purposeful obfuscation. Instead of the moralistic dead end of a roughly similar film, Paul Schrader's Hardcore (which also borrows literally from The Masque of the Red Death), the possible reinterpretations and variant readings of the mysterious events in Eyes Wide Shut take on the very satisfying dimensions of stories by Luis Borges ... the kind of 'literature' that definitely becomes richer when revisited.

Lies upon Lies behind Evasions.

William's investigation is stymied not only by the threat of dire consequences from the Sex Club, but also from the wall of prevarication thrown up by the likes of Ziegler, and the costumer Milich. Is Milich's grossly underage daughter really his daughter? What did happen to Nick Nightingale? Broken fingers? Shipped back to wifey in Seattle? Or at the bottom of the East river?

Who is the Mystery Woman? Ziegler says she was Mandy, as William suspects, but the IMDB cast list for EYS show Mandy and the Mystery Woman as played by different actresses. Is Kubrick playing Bunuel-like games with his actresses, as in That Obscure Object of Desire? Perhaps the 'body' that looked good as a living statue in the orgy scene didn't achieve the living-sack-of-voluptuous-limp-flesh effect that Kubrick wanted for the unconscious Mandy. Or maybe Mandy did die of a self-induced overdose, but Ziegler is still lying. Maybe the real 'redeemer' was in fact Domino, the prostitute. Is Domino's roommate really another one of the Orgy callgirls, planted by the conspiracy to draw William off the trail with a phony AIDS story? Gary Teetzel offers an even more paranoid twist on this. Maybe the Mystery Woman is played by the same actress as Mandy, and the actress "Abigail Good" is just a fake concocted by Kubrick to throw people off and maintain ambiguity. If you look in the IMDB, "Abigail Good" has no other films to her credit. Recall further that Kubrick's daughter Vivian used the name "Abigail Mead" when she wrote music for Full Metal Jacket. Perhaps the name "Good" is a joke, playing off the character's role as Cruise's redeemer? Good one, Gary.

When you get down to it, we can only guess at the purpose of William's return to Domino's apartment. Was it another try for sex? You'd think his mind would be elsewhere after the night he had just survived. Was he trying to determine if she was his redeemer at the party? Or did he just come to talk? On this level Eyes Wide Shut is the best unsolved subliminal mystery film since The Last of Sheila. This one needs Sherlock Holmes. Did he ever investigate the Curse of the Masked Ball Orgy? I guess Dr. Watson didn't write about that one either.


Warner's DVD of Eyes Wide Shut is a beauty from one end to the other, impeccably mastered, crystal clear in picture and track. The extras are a strange brew: a couple of television spots and a trailer that wrongly prime the viewer for Hot Sex with a sinister edge. The interviews are kind of strange - movie star hommages to Kubrick from his stars (Cruise works up tears for our approval) and a 'special guest' interview from gatecrasher Spielberg, who gushes over Kubrick in a way that makes you think he wants to inherit the Great One's crown. With his assumption of the task of bringing Kubrick's unrealized film project A.I. to the screen, it may be true!

Eyes Wide Shut comes with twin controversies that have overshadowed the film itself. Both have been amply covered elsewhere (heck: everywhere). The American release of the feature was digitally altered to blot out graphic sex scenes (presumably simulated - ?), a move that cements forever the argument that our movie industry coddles violence but can't bear the portrayal of sex, even from its most revered filmmaker. Wasn't Natural Born Killers an NC-17 film? What about True Romance? The hypocrisy here should boggle the mind, but the media spin has focused exclusively on EWS's missing nasty parts, helping generate smutty buzz on the film. You may not know it but Warner has responded to mail from outraged fans by sending back letters with doubletalk claiming that there weren't two versions of the film at all (just one version with a covered-up US variant), and also sent out a number of free 'hush DVDs', in an effort to dampen the furor. Savant's review copy was one of these, sent to a friend (the real Kubrick aficionado).

The other controversy is format-related. Like other fullframe Kubricks, EWS is handsome at 1:37 but looks much better when cropped to a semi-theatrical 1:77 on a widescreen monitor. The studio whine of 'director's intentions' and 'approved version' basically come down to a question of who's in charge: are Warners hiding behind the 'director approved' banner to simplify their marketing? The boxed set last year brazenly used the same argument to foist some pretty miserable DVDs on the public. Are we really expected to believe it was perfectionist Kubrick's intention to market bleary, pan-scan 80s transfers of Barry Lyndon and The Shining?


Like all of Kubrick's films, Eyes Wide Shut generates a mysterious fascination, even as it frustrates. For those who follow and revere the respected director it is a trove of interesting ideas and virtuosic moviemaking. By no means a masterpiece but also not a failure, it is a problematic adaptation of 19th century moral concerns into a modern setting that makes no attempt to hide the resulting awkwardness; what some will see as incompetent or trite will be profound and moving to others. Kubrick teetered often enough on the verge of pomposity but never made a dull movie, and his final film is consistent with that qualified praise.

Many of the ideas in this review were contributed by the very generous Gregor Meyer and Gary Teetzel.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Eyes Wide Shut rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound:Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, two TV spots, interviews Cruise, Kidman, Steven Spielberg
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: March 15, 2000


Footnotes:

1. 2001 is of course a film that pays off for Savant when playing the game of reading in meanings or extrapolating significance. 2001 is a science fiction film, and Savant spends a goodly portion of his time thinking about Sci Fi concepts. Therefore the right persons with the right sensitivity will doubtless have a deeper reaction to Eyes Wide Shut than the present reviewer. Savant acknowledges that he himself took the worship of Alfred Hitchcock to extremes far beyond the value of the man's work. I'm happy I did - Hitchcock made me love movies and want to study them. If Kubrick elicits epiphanies in his faithful the way Hitchcock did for me, then I say they should ditch out of this review right now and forget it .... writing about holy artists like Kubrick is a lot tougher than trying to interest readers in the minor virtues of something like 4D Man!
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2. I'm told the original novella was set at a remove in the past, because Schnitzler believed its relationships too stylized to be believed in the 'modern world' of 1900!
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3. Another film comparable to Eyes Wide Shut: Griffin Dunne's nightmarish ordeal in Scorsese's After Hours remains a light farce with sinister overtones; Eyes Wide Shut is deadly serious, almost leaden.
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4. Absolute 'honesty' is an unearned trait often attributed to Kubrick. He's played brinksmanship games with censors and his own ideas of taste at least as far back as Lolita. Is changing 'Dallas' to 'Vegas' in Doctor Strangelove the act of someone unwilling to compromise?
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5. Those who would argue that there is a 'truth' to this bad girl / good girl myth from Traumnovelle should look at the contemporary use of non-white 'noble' savages in literature: Gunga Din is but one of endless sub-human savages who earn the white man's respect by sacrificing themselves for their betters (check out Richard Widmark's black servant in The Alamo -- he not only forgives his slave master but takes a bayonet for him). Why does this deflate Eyes Wide Shut? These manipulative 'bad girls' and 'noble savages' function to relieve the presumably white, male audience of their guilt. It's reassuring to believe that the women you discarded actually sacrificed themselves to assure you an untainted future with Miss Right. It's equally self-serving to imagine other races as simple natives who can at best hope to gain attention through doglike devotion to their white masters. Kubrick doesn't show Dr. William dealing with this in any real way. We don't even know if it was part of his confession to Alice. How intellectually superior can Kubrick be when this antiquated, sexist construct underlies his film?
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A Final Note... Remember the classic American short story Young Goodman Brown that we were forced to read in high school? Is it as similar to Eyes Wide Shut as it now seems?


READER RESPONSES ... mostly unedited, showing the enormous interest and controversy over this, last, Kubrick film. There are a lot of good ideas here, and opinions Savant respects.

3/27/00 --- Hey Glenn - Because you were in the middle of writing your piece on EWS, I didn't go into detail about all the lame things that bug me about that movie, because a critic with a brain (that's you) shouldn't need to be held by the hand concerning the obvious. Besides, I wanted to see if you passed "the test." You did. You see, what's almost as disturbing to me as the plummeting quality of movies over the last twenty years is that film criticism has followed suit. It's shameful. Standards have fallen so far that a movie like Forrest Gump is considered profound, for God's sake. Speilberg is now hailed as a genius; how much more out of hand can it get?

Anyway, what I was looking for in your essay about EWS was this simple truth. The digital masking was the LEAST of that movie's problems. EWS smokes out quack reviewers like no other movie of recent times. Anybody who thinks it's a great movie is a moron. Anybody, like Ebert, who goes on and on about the digital masking, is also disqualified for sleight-of-hand intellectual cowardice. Although you're not as scathing as the movie deserves, you are clearly on the side of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. So thanks for that.

You left out some pretty important observations or downplayed others to my mind. First off, what the movie doesn't get enough credit for, is that it looks like "film." It's a painfully clear reminder that movies these days look like television, only bigger, that lighting is a lost art.

The "it's only a dream" device has always stunk, stinks now and will stink until the end of time. The ending of Invaders from Mars works because he sees the spaceship landing "for real." That's what gives it its impact, he is going to experience the horror all over again, that it's not all a BIG lie. From the audiences' point of view, the "it's only a dream" ending violates the implicit pact made between the viewer and the film maker. Like when Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown after promising not to do so.

The story is fatally flawed in a philosophical sense. It is based on the premise that to think about doing a sinful act is just as bad is as doing the act itself. Outside of some Christian denominations, this is, thankfully, understood to be horse manure. Death Row would get a littlecrowded. Not to mention, I'd be there myself.

What drives me nuts about the movie is that it totally missed an opportunity to wake America up. The average American believes rich people are just like them, only with more money. What folks don't understand is "the rich" have a completely different culture, just like bikers have completely different rules of conduct. Simply put, the ultra rich are sick fucks. If the truth were known, Beverly Hills would be burned to the ground and the earth salted by the Godfearing middle class (like my neighbors) within hours. That's what should have been addressed. And not only did Kubrick botch it, he screwed it up for anybody to do it right in the near future.

And forget about college kids having orgies, Glenn. I saw a Frontline documentary that illuminated the fact that Jr High kids are having orgies. I've never seen a more unsettling film.

About the "acting" in EWS, not only aren't there any great performances, Cruise and Kidman are genuinely bad for ten minutes at a stretch. And you have to figure these are the best of forty or fifty takes, right? God awful. In short, if I were teaching a class in screenwriting, I would use EWS as an example of what NOT to do. Its mistakes are not subtle, and numerous. One stop shopping.

I've never seen Pitfall. It's on my short list now. Thank for the heads up. --Malcolm


Glenn: Just an observation, re: the Mystery Woman in EWS. From a "she's masked and we don't know who she is" standpoint, there are two "Mystery Women" in the orgy scene: the Sacrificial Vixen, who we are later told is Mandy, and the Mysterious Woman, who accompanies the masked man who recognizes and nods at Harford in the orgy scene, and tries to seduce him later.

I think it's simplest to assume that the Sacrifical Vixen is, in fact, Mandy, as the voice and... ahem... body... match the actress who plays Mandy. But the actress credited as "Abigail Good" refers to, IMO, the Mysterious Woman. Watch it again if you don't believe me-- there are two separate mystery women, only one of whom "sacrifices" herself for Harford.

I, too, suspect a pseudonym, as the likelihood of a *complete* unknown playing that role is pretty small, IMO. But I think, instead, it was one of the other actresses: was it Mrs. Harford (i.e. Kidman)? Was that why she was so interested in Harford? Her "everybody was laughing at you" dream takes on a much more sinister context with that interpretation. Since I've only ever seen full backal nudity of Kidman, It's hard to judge whether Mysterious Woman is even the right body type. Domino? This would intensify, rather than diminish, Harford's danger, as that's *twice* he almost slept with her. Since all of the women Harford messes with that night are redheads, it's difficult to say with any clarity.

Also, with respect to whether to believe Zielgler about whether the whole night was a hoax or not, his conversation with Harford is foreshadowed by Harford's own conversation with the Coffee Server. To wit (paraphrased since I only saw the movie once):

Harford: I need to know where Nick is staying.
CoffeeServer: I don't know if I should tell you that.
Harford: Okay, I'm going to be completely honest with you. It's a medical matter.

...later...

[numerous outbursts from Harford re: the Nick/orgy situation]
Ziegler: Okay, I'm going to skip all the bullshit: it was a hoax.

I'd say the implication is "The man who claims he's telling you the truth is lying."

Obviously, interpretations differ. I just wanted to add my two cents to your excellent commentary. Rgds, AB


Hi Mr. Erickson, I just read your thoughts on Eyes Wide Shut. Very interesting and insightful reading, as always.

I agree with most of your points. EWS is a film that you almost seem to enjoy a few hours (days?) after you first see it. It is very cold, and I've been wondering if that was intentional.

The scenes of William and Alice in their bedroom are lit with traditionally warm colors; yellows and oranges. Once William is out on the street, and even when he is in the opulently decorated mansion during the orgy, everything takes on an even more sterile feel.

I've been wondering if perhaps one of Kubrick's intentions was to point out that the physical act of sex, by itself, has no meaning. That sex between a husband and wife (or between any two people that truly love each other) can be completely removed from sex with a stranger, sex for its own sake. The moral transgresstions exist in William's mind only, and his and Alice's forgivenness of each other is what allows them to maintain their bond.

Just some thoughts. Thanks for your time! Jason Leaphart


3/28

Dear Glenn, Thanks for the opportunity to read your review. Aside from a few perfunctory typos (the film was released in 1999, not 1959; midway through the piece, for example, you start to refer to the film as EYS, not EWS) it was a thoughtful essay. I would take issue with the following, however:

"There are no annoyingly artificial symmetrical compositions screaming for attention." Kubrick was always a visual formalist (so was Hitchcock, for that matter) but I fail to understand how composing an image necessarily draws one outside of the viewing experience. An unusual composition highlights certain aspects of a frame, no doubt, and may call attention to an area of the picture heretofore unnoticed. Within the context of an exciting, unusually told film, however, it only heightens the visual feast (The Ipcress File, which you lent me a little while ago, was full of such odd angles; does that make it an "annoying" film?). Furthermore, I would ask you to specify which angles from which films you are referring. I fear you're sounding a bit rigid in your cinematic thinking here.

"There are no allusions to his earlier work." Actually, EWS is full of references to earlier Kubrick works, and the Kubrick newsgroup has catalogued many of them. Here are but a few: the structure is a mirror image of A Clockwork Orange; that is, sonata (yes, like the name of the cafe in the film) form a-b-a. The third act is a mirror of the first in which the main character revisits all the previous locations, with decidedly different results. In ACO, Alex is savaged by those to whom he had committed violence in the first act. In EWS, Dr. Harford is presented with a scenarios that consistently conflict with what he had understood them to be in the first act. Furthermore, Milich's daughter is an obvious nod to Lolita; and there's even a street sign with the name "Bowman" on it (2001, 'natch), as well as the name of one of Dr. Harford's patients - Kaminsky - that is the same as one of the cryrogenically sealed astronauts in 2001.

Referring to the performances - "There are no truly good ones, not even the usually excellent Nicole Kidman." Sorry, but I thought Nicole was especially memorable, giving everything she had to her role, and Marie Richardson as the confused grieving daughter, Rade Serbedzija as the sleazy costumer, and Alan Cuming as the gay hotel clerk (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Paul Mazursky in Fear and Desire) were all standouts. - David


Savant - I'm just wondering if you caught Martin Scorsese on "Roger Ebert at the Movies" a couple of weeks ago. He named EWS his fourth favorite film of the 90s and addressed one of the major complaints -- the film's distinctly late-1800s attitude -- by saying it isn't even the point and that since the entire film could be a dream anyway, it doesn't even matter. I find the "dream" interpretation to be a rather strong one, with bits and pieces of Bill's past few days (the "Rainbow" costume shop, for example) popping up, just as our own experiences tend to form major parts of our dreams (at least if you're a student of Freud, which Schnitzler most certainly was, being a personal friend). Just wanted to know your thoughts on this interpretation, which wasn't really discussed in the essay. - Josh Martn


Savant - Your statement 'Asking us to believe that Cruise's sexy, flirtatious Dr. Harford, who skates through a high life of available, even predatory females, would have any illusions about such matters is a tough sell.' shows you do not understand that even such a man as this can be shaken when his wife reveals this horrible 'truth' to him.

Men are ruled by logic and women by emotions.

There are probably thousands of average housewives who could be swept off their feet unexpectedly by a tremendous longing for some dark stranger - just waiting for that person to make the next move.

The average man is totally unaware of this, and when revealed the way it was by Alice, any serious thinking man would be shaken.

This kind of thing relates a lot to the Adam and Eve story. Although we hear a lot about men leaving their marriages for a younger or prettier woman, there are lots of women who have risked all like Alice talks about - but many of them wake up and stop themselves before they get caught, and very possibly never let it happen again.

Just another man's viewpoint.

Thanks, jbrown


Savant - I am a so-so Kubrick fan. That means some of his movies are incredible works of art and others are rather pretentious to me.

That said, I really enjoyed your essay. I see it a little different though. I think the mystery is the pretentious part of the movie. The ending, except for Kidman's last lines, is too obviously done and should have been unspoken somehow. It really doesn't matter whether the "group" was seriously threatening Dr. Bill or not. The movie was about his and Alice's relationship and understandings. Most relationships never ask such questions.

The rest of the movie is captivating for me. Ok, periods of pure boredom (the whole orgy) do creep in. But I predict that I will come back to watch this movie many more times. Like a seed has been planted or I need to see if it has changed since I last watched it. Weird. Kubrick-like. I agree with Spielberg that Kubrick's movies are addictive in a way. I wanted to just slap Alice. Often. But I couldn't take my eyes off her. The whole costume shop ordeal was fascinating.

I hope you do more in-depth analyses. Your review was far better than any other I have yet read. Us peasants need the help. You and Steve have my attention everyday. - Bob


4/1/00
Glenn, I read your provocative review and essay of Eyes Wide Shut. You certainly make some valid points. I was one of those who loved this film for so many reasons (few of them to do with Kubrick himself.)

You brought up the possibility that Abigail Good may not have existed and that Kubrick has played tricks with "Abigail" credited in his previous films.

However, just because "Abigail Good" has no previous screen credit according to IMDB (as you stated), her non-existence as a performer in the film should not be automatically presumed. (How about the fact that the woman who plays Nuala Windsor, one of the two women who flirt heavily with Tom Cruise's Bill Harford character, is listed in the credits as Stewart Thorndike??)

Anyway, as for the Abigail Good mystery, the article below, which appeared in The Independent of London last summer may go a long way toward solving the mystery you raised in your review and essay.

Film: Body of evidence In Eyes Wide Shut, Abigail Good plays a `Mysterious Woman'. But that's not the half of it. by Charlotte O'Sullivan. 08/27/1999 The Independent - London (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Publishing PLC)

(NOTE ... Rather than illegally reprint the newspaper article, let me just say that it verifies that the two 'Mysterious Woman' actresses, do indeed exist and that they had a short but vocal media tiff with each saying the other's function was less essential or important. GE)

Sincerely, Omar P.L. Moore


Savant - I suppose I was struck by the mush that was written about EWS and felt you just handled it better. I disagree with you maybe, but at least you wrote clearly and made specific points I could throw darts at. Seems like the Kubrick reviewers try to get artsy in the review, thinking they have to match art with art. Bleah. Like angel-food cake.

I am only influenced by reviewers to the extent that I hear about a film I might not otherwise see. I can't say reviews match up 1:1 with what I see in them, so I ignore that part. I give Steve Tannehill credit for pointing out that the second Abyss story is different (totally missed that); Brazil had multiple endings (missed that too) for example. There's a lot of information about movies that I would like to hear/read. That's appreciated, so keep it up. And if you write reviews I get to argue with, all the better. - Bob


4/23/00
Dear Mr Erickson, It is a real pleasure to find a site with such high calibre film criticism. I refer specifically to your review of Eyes Wide Shut (So So Cinema ... mind-twisting mystery 3/26/00). which is the most perceptive review of the film I have read so far. Being a Kubrick aficionado from way back and having attended a Kubrick retrospective before seeying EWS I was deeply disappointed by the movie and your excellent review highlights its major flaws.

One quick comment if I may. You write that Kubrick "...is obviously at the top of his game in the movie" but I must disagree. The first hour or so is certainly good due mainly to the excellent photography and set design, but it soon devolves into the worst and most disappointing movie of his career and Kubrick has to cop most of the blame.

His decision to update the setting of the film without making any adjustment in either the major incidents of the novel or characterisations of the principal characters is mostly to blame for this and shows his decline as an artist (a fair comparison would be his decision to turn a serious look at nuclear war into the black comedy of Dr Strangelove or the unpalatable subject matter of Lolita into a satire of modern american suburbia a-la American Beauty. This decision had obviously more to do with budget constraints and lack of suitable locations in and around London than any obvious artistic reasons and accounts for the uneven tone of the movie coupled with poor casting decisions (both Cruise and Kidman seem out of place here, though Pollack is very good). Keep up the excellent reviews - Italo Tettoni


A Savant response to one letter that sums up my thoughts fairly well...

03/31/00

Gee, those are really kind words.

I'm totally hot and cold on Kubrick. I like art cinema, but probably as a snob. Sometimes it has to be truly obscure to 'deserve' to be so pretentious .... and then I read something about some flaky title on the periphery of human understanding and I'm interested again.

Savant reads and enjoys the great writing on Kubrick ... but a lot of his films rub me the wrong way .... which shouldn't stop anyone else for a minute from checking them out. They're all interesting.

I found myself tempted to say something like, " If you have to read about a movie to appreciate it, it isn't a good movie." Unfortunately, it would make me a total hypocrite (instead of the common 40% variety). For other kinds of films, Savant does that all the time! I often decide a film's good after reading about it, perhaps too often. Thanks again to all, Glenn


Don't forget Savant articles or reviews on Spartacus and Fear and Desire.





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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