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KUBRICK’S 'EYES WIDE SHUT'
A MORAL TALE

The Times, 1st September 1999

 

Movies matter. You do not have to be a film buff to acknowledge cinema as one of the most important art forms of our time. No matter what anodyne rubbish is produced by Hollywood, no matter what excesses committed in the name of the mass market, at its best film can be a profound reflection of the macrocosm: something which unifies by expressing who we are at a particular point in time. That being so, what does the much-hyped last film by Stanley Kubrick have to say about the zeitgeist? In the States most critics raved but there was a sense of being let down too: the film was not as erotic as people expected. Box office in the whole US is expected to be in the region of $65 million, which is good but not great. In Japan, on the other hand, it is a runaway hit, and will make in excess of $40 million. Eyes Wide Shut will open the Venice Film Festival on September 1st and show in Britain from September 10th.

To read the fuss about Eyes Wide Shut you would assume it a hymn to sexual excess. But Kubrick has produced something very different - and for me this overlong, oddly-structured film can lay claim to being one of the most significent of the decade, dwarfing any war in extra-terrestial territory. It may or may not be the auteur's intention, but far from being shocking, Kubrick's thirteenth film is distinctly old-fashioned in its attitude to sex, its portrayal of women, and in the uncompromising morality which is at its core.

Much has been made of the sex and nudity in the film, but the dirty raincoat brigade will be disappointed if they hope for rampant coupling all the way through. Still, Nicole Kidman has said, 'I don't think I would do what I did for any other director. Stanley wanted it to be almost pornographic., but he did not exploit me' . That Kubrick should aim for the filmic equivalent of the four-letter word is par for the course. Back in the mid-seventies, when New York intellectuals flocked to see Deep Throat, the multi-billion dollar porn trade achieved dinner-party chic amongst those protected from its darkest aspects, including exploitation and coercion. Andy Warhol made the tediously graphic Blow Job, claiming porn as art. Explicit sex being acceptable, stars readily agreed to go along with the directors' urge to push out the boundaries. In1972 Bertolocci got Brando to star in the pretentious sexual melodrama Last Tango in Paris - probably more shocking than Eyes Wide Shut. A few years later Mr 'Penthouse', Bob Guccione persuaded Helen Mirren, John Geilgud, Malcolm MacDowell and Peter O'Toole to perform in a thoroughly loathsome piece of costly sex and violence called Caligula.

In 1976 I went to a small screening for lawyers of a film called Empire of the Senses, which was not to gain a certificate here until nearly twenty years later, as Ai No Corrida. The Japanese writer/ director Nagisa Oshima tackled a similar theme to Kubrick: sexual obsession, but all those years ago his film was far darker and more explicit. I remember being torn between my feelings that this was exciting (the artist should be free etc) unutterably tedious and absurd (the effect of repetitive copulation) and the far stronger sense that through watching the sex and final mutilation I was colluding in my own transformation into a voyeur.

I had something of that feeling during Eyes Wide Shut , and recalled a key term from Freud - scopophilia: the pleasure in looking at another person as erotic object. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but taken to its extreme the pleasure becomes perversion, producing obsessive Peeping Toms who cannot live without the fix of watching others dehumanised by the activity. In Eyes Wide Shut the voyeurism operate on two levels. The Cruise character, Dr Bill Hartman, descends into a hell of jealousy and sexual danger only by fantasising about his wife with a sailor, and watching the seedy world he wanders through, safely wrapped in his coat. He doesn't have sex with anyone, apart from his wife - which highly moral position I shall return to. Within the auditorium we too are voyeurs, waiting for sex which for the most part does not happen, and watching for the next loving sweep of the camera across a stylised saunter of bare buttocks.

And... er..they are female buttocks. We never glimpse Cruise's nether parts, whilst the director treats his male audience to many delicious views of Miss Kidman, back and front,as well as a host of statuesque naked ladies in masks in the ridiculous orgy scene. This is the first evidence of how mainstream and conventional is Kubrick's attitude. Traditionally women thus displayed in movie function on two levels - as erotic objects for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic objects for us, the spectator. Women, as seen by most male directors appear, they do not engage actively. It's no accident that the flawed story structure allows Kidman to demonstrate her fine talent at the beginning, when her character, Alice Hartman, appears deceptively tough and independent, but thereafter to respond, rather than act, in both senses of that word. It is as if Stanley Kubrick wanted us to watch her, but not relate to her as a person. In that sense he has succeeded in his avowed intention of making her scenes 'almost pornographic' - akthough not in the obvious way. Pornography is, after all, a 'showing'.
The question we are forced to as khere is very old, yet a key dilemma as we reach the end of the millenium. What can, and should, be shown? The film critic Alexander Walker has said that the title indicates 'a spellbound state', but I believe it is the clue to the paradox at the heart of this film. You see, but you do not understand. And when finally you do reach an understanding, you wish with all your heart that you had not seen. At the end of the film both protagonists are left in no doubt as to the perils of being free with fantasy. Freedom and danger are synonymous. In terms of the screen marriage the couple are forced to question how far it is wise to be honest, how safe to reveal your most secret desires. And this question in the film microcosm is mirrored in the macrocosm of art itself. How far is it wise, or safe to unfence the abyss of our darkest imaginings?

Famously, Stanley Kubrick likened human beings to rudderless boats (such similies reveal much about those who utter them) and went on, 'The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed'. Life in a HouseTis is often quoted as a defence of freedom of expression; no doubt thousands of film students have copied it into the first page of their notebooks as a scared mantra. The first thing to say is that it is nonsense, but very dangerous nonsense indeed. To give Kubrick the benefit of the doubt, he was probably thinking of the blacker side of existence, which is as much the proper stuff of cinema as faith, hope and charity. But push the thought to its extreme and you find yourself in the intolerable, evil world of child pornography and even 'snuff' movies.

No - people think terrible things: the torture chamber and the concentration camp are products of the human imagination. It is no good blithely lifting the stone, then standing back, appalled and helpless as the unspeakable creatures of darkness crawl out into the light of your world. Since all art is social, and what the artist produces has the capacity to enhance or corrupt the community of which he or she is a part, no society can afford to allow total freedom to anyone, neither the most wicked 'creator' of child pornography, nor the most talented writer or director. Push against the fence by all means, but do not expect it to give. For civilisation depends on a drawing back from the abyss, by means of control - preferably (for the artist) an instinctive self-control. A control, incidentally, which Kubrick has shown in Eyes Wide Shut, perhaps despite himself.

The second thing to be said about Kubrick's famous dictum is that the central metaphor of his own last fim shows it up for the dangerous, self-indulgent untruth it is. The lie is enacted by the protagonists, who discover that even if you think it, better not to say or show it. As Carly Simon sings, 'Sometimes I wish I never knew some of those secrets of yours'. From the beginning the movie is a morality tale with an episodic structure like that of Pilgrim's Progress, with Cruise the wanderer who must be cured of his fatal flaw of selfish complacency by walking through a darkness filled with stylised characters representing different dangers. Like all morality tales, it is full of warnings. The Kidman character gets drunk and flirts dengerously with a stranger, nearly going upstairs with him. Made stupid and agressive by smoking cannabis, she tells her husband about a vivid sexual fantasy she had a year earlier, and pushes him to the brink through shock and hurt. He then nearly sleeps with a prostitute, who is diagnosed next day as HIV positive. Demented by his own voyeuristic imaginations of his wife in flagrante, he chooses to enter a secret world of unbelievable decadance, which almost puts him in danger of his life. The film is a series of narrow escapes, at the end of which both husband and wife realise that it is safer to shut the door on your secret thoughts, lest they burst into your life in a form which terrifies you.

Significantly, the Kidman character weeps 'I was terrified and I felt ashamed' when she confesses a dream of sexual promiscuity. And ' No dream is ever just a dream' says her husband, with chastened understanding. They wake to the knowledge that their marriage will survive: the family unit of Bill and Alice Hartmann and their little daughter Helena is stronger than all the forces, within and without, which looked as though they might destroy it. This is the note of hope which makes the ending of Eyes Wide Shut genuinely moving. The last sequence is set in FAO Schwarz in New York, where the bruised couple wander with their child among the toys, their tension agonising in contrast with her innocence and the Christmas hubbub all around. They have made that journey of the soul which William Blake identified, moving from Innocence (ie ignorance) through Experience, and into a Higher Innocence which involves acknowledging the painful complexity of love. In his first and last venture into this particular empire of the senses Stanley Kubrick, controversial iconoclast, has reaffirmed the orthodoxy and accepted the consitution of silence, and restraint. It needed to be done.

 

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