‘I can’t say he’s reasonable,’ a colleague remarked of Stanley Kubrick, ‘I can only say he’s obsessive in the best sense of the word.’ Because he was obsessive without being crazy, many people have thought Kubrick was a genius, but the word is chiefly a gesture of admiring incomprehension. What Kubrick’s films suggest is that he was some kind of meticulous master, but a master of the obvious, and anyone who is surprised by the ponderousness of his new work, Eyes Wide Shut, must have forgotten what the other films were like. Vincent LoBrutto, from whose biography (Faber, 1998) I’ve borrowed the above quotation, inadvertently sums up a whole career when he says: ‘Stanley Kubrick didn’t take vacations.’ We could sum up the master’s film style by saying: ‘Stanley Kubrick didn’t hint.’
Dogged tracking shots through the French trenches of World War One, an elegant ball on the eve of an execution; Laurence Olivier as a Roman patrician in the bathtub suggesting the joys of sex and power to the slave Tony Curtis; a cowboy riding a hydrogen bomb as if in a rodeo, an American strategy expert whose artificial arm keeps offering a Hitlerian salute; a large bone twirling into the sky in slow motion, the use of ‘The Blue Danube’ to accompany the circling motions of a spacecraft; the use of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ over the credits of a movie that Kubrick himself withdrew from circulation in the UK because of arguments about its depiction of violence; Jack Nicholson’s manic performance as writer-turned-axe-murderer: all of these images and associations, from Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1959), Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001 (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980) respectively, are powerful, and some are unforgettable, but not one is swift or delicate. The same goes for the less famous but equally startling clown mask used by a robber in The Killing (1956), and the long fight in a mannequin factory in Killer’s Kiss (1955). If we are inclined to think of the words ‘subtle’ and ‘interesting’ as close to each other in meaning, Kubrick’s work makes us think again. We need to understand how the crass and the clunky can be interesting.
Frederic Raphael’s memoir doesn’t help us much here. Raphael began writing what was to become Eyes Wide Shut in 1994, and describes in detail the harrowing job of producing draft pages for the scrutiny of the courteous, but demanding and uncommunicative Kubrick. Raphael is often very funny (a tanned Jean-Paul Belmondo, glimpsed in a Paris café, ‘looks like a crème brûlée with white hair’), and he has a good ear for speech patterns, so that we do consistently seem to hear Kubrick speaking (‘Freddie? Can you talk?’ ‘You’re stopping work for Christmas?’ ‘Think that was about the Holocaust?’ – Kubrick is asking about Schindler’s List. ‘That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t’). The whole memoir is moving in a prickly, rather disorienting way, since a reluctant affection for Kubrick, along with a daunted but substantial admiration for him, comes across very clearly. What these feelings have to counter is Raphael’s eager desire to compete and collaborate with Kubrick, artist with artist, and more symbolically, writer with director. Raphael is quite open about this, and means, I think, to sound rueful about his mistake. How could he have thought he was anything other than the provider of a blueprint on which the master would go to work? But the inferiority of his role still rankles, and a scene in which he pictures Kubrick as waiting in trepidation while he, Raphael, casts a critical eye over the director’s rewrite, looks like the sheerest fantasy. Raphael suggests that he engaged in a (foolish) battle with Kubrick, and Kubrick won hands down, but I’m afraid the memoir implies that things were worse than that. Only Raphael thought there was a battle.
Raphael gets around to a little scepticism about the word ‘genius’, but rather late in the day, on page 158 to be precise. He is convinced Kubrick is a great director, but doesn’t do much to show us why, and while his epigrammatic analyses of Kubrick’s character are clever and plausible, they have the air of self-contained fictions, unruffled by any complication or resistance in the object of study. ‘The recluse imagines that if he can reduce the possibility of surprises the world will become orderly, but the more order he contrives, the more it is vulnerable to fortune. The wish to eliminate chance leads to the madness of which method is the symptom.’ ‘The camera is free alike of scruples and of morals; by virtue of its cold nature, it flinches from nothing visible. Kubrick wishes he could be like that.’
These remarks are better written than most of their relatives, but their substance is the common stock of commentary on Kubrick: the control freak as lonely moviemaker, the cold photographer who became an icy director. Sometimes this psychology is bluntly moralised, as when John Baxter, another biographer (HarperCollins, 1997), says that Kubrick’s making Eyes Wide Shut, ‘a film about self-involved people and their fantasies’, has ‘a sour inevitability’. And sometimes it is aestheticised, as when LoBrutto calls Kubrick ‘a pure artist’. But none of these claims gets us very close to what’s on the screen. Coldness can be a virtue as well as a failing, and not all directors’ cameras are cold anyway. Think of Bertolucci, say, in comparison with Buñuel.
It may help to return to one or two of the images and associations I mentioned earlier. The striking thing about the tracking shots in Paths of Glory is that they are taken from two diametrically opposed angles. In the first set, the camera is our eye, or Kirk Douglas’s eye, as we stalk along the trenches looking at the exhausted soldiers leaning back against the walls to let us pass. The camera is on a dolly running along duck-boards, the pace of movement is exactly that of a determined person taking a fast, grim tour of inspection, and the shot goes on long enough to plunge us not only into the war, but into Kirk Douglas’s ugly situation: that of a man instructed to lead his men on a mission he knows to be quite hopeless. Then the camera angle changes abruptly, flips 180 degrees, and we are facing Kirk Douglas as he comes towards us, the camera moving backwards at the same pace as before. Who are we now? The doomed soldiers? No, because they are still on the edges of our sight, more and more of them coming into view as the camera retreats. We are looking at Kirk Douglas’s hard and angry face, scuttling backwards to keep out of his way. We are nobody, or only a camera which has got into the story. But the camera is too close and too involved, too harried, to be thought of as merely snooping, and the point of view is neither that of a character nor that of an outsider. That of some kind of accomplice, rather. The violent reverse angle makes no particular narrative or psychological sense, but it does more than remind us that a camera is there, that this is a movie. It makes us think about where you have to be to see things, and how, in war especially, we are usually not there. Kubrick uses the same technique two or three times in Eyes Wide Shut, but with a lateral view and to less effect. We see Nicole Kidman dancing or talking, and then we leap over her head, so to speak, and look at her from the other side. The cut is crude, whereas in Paths of Glory it was merely abrupt, but something of the old suggestion lingers: an angle is only an angle; how many other angles have we not thought of, and what difference would they make?
Kubrick’s most brilliant and troubling use of the technique occurs in 2001. There are five astronauts on the spaceship headed for Jupiter: two awake and working and three deep in cryogenic sleep. The computer Hal will soon have killed all but one of these men, but at this point the two conscious members of the crew are beginning to have suspicions about their electronic colleague. They close themselves off in a space pod, one of the small craft they use for external maintenance on the larger one, switch off the sound system, and make sure that Hal cannot hear them. They discuss Hal’s possible malfunction or schemes of betrayal, and agree he will have to be disconnected if things are not cleared up. The main camera angle for this sequence is from inside the pod, with a view past the astronauts through a large porthole rather like the round glass window on a washing machine. We are looking out, that is, onto the realm that Hal controls, and where he can hear everything. Occasionally we have shots of the vast red electronic eye which represents the ubiquitous Hal as a locatable character. Then suddenly the angle is reversed, and we are looking into the pod through the porthole. We are seeing what Hal sees, and in a sharp and startling close-up, we see the moving lips of the astronauts as they discuss Hal’s case. This is presumably a sort of flashback: we are now seeing from Hal’s point of view what we have just heard from inside the pod, as if we were in there with the astronauts. But here is the eerie thing. As we see the moving lips, we know that Hal is reading them, that no secrets can be kept from him. We can’t read the lips ourselves, but it’s almost as if we could, since we know exactly what the men are saying. The effect is of a curious, brutally switched allegiance. A moment ago, we were with the astronauts worrying about the rogue computer. Now we are, without warning, privy to the computer’s sense of human conspiracy and danger to his own life. This seems to me an excellent example of how a blunt move can produce a complicated result. We don’t cease to be the threatened astronauts because we have momentarily become the threatened computer, but the double story does run in our heads, and accounts, I think, for the weird sense of pathos which arises when the last astronaut starts to disconnect the murderous computer. ‘My mind is going,’ Hal says. ‘I can feel it.’ We don’t just feel sorry for the poor old bit of circuitry, we feel caught up in our own complicity and knowledge, because we were there at the exact moment when he discovered the danger. It’s true that Kubrick then has Hal, growing childish, sing a few choruses of ‘Daisy, Daisy,’ his voice descending octave by octave as the fuses are removed, and pathos instantly turns to bathos, lapses into one of Kubrick’s broad and unfunny jokes.
‘Those who won’t believe their eyes won’t appreciate this film,’ Kubrick said of 2001. He meant the images were not mere illustrations of a story also told in words, but he didn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to the music, and, for reasons I’ve just illustrated, he can’t have meant that believing one’s eyes is a simple matter. In fact, when he is not dismissing them altogether, Kubrick puts an unusual trust in words, and there are at least three implicit arguments about film going on in his work.
One is that, obviously enough, many meanings in film are non-verbal, and perhaps cannot be verbalised. This doesn’t mean the films are all images: on the contrary, many, perhaps most, of Kubrick’s meanings are generated by a relation between image and music. Eye Wide Shut, for example, has not only Ligeti’s harsh, shrill piano sounds, but a whole array of dance and jazz tunes (‘I’m in the mood for love’, ‘When I fall in love’, ‘I’m old fashioned’, ‘I got it bad and that ain’t good’, ‘Blame it on my youth’), played by a range of combos from Victor Silvester to Oscar Peterson, and providing a constant, ironic commentary on what’s happening. A second, related argument is that, in films as elsewhere, an idea is different from an experience. Playing Strauss in space is an idea, a lumpy joke, but listening to the Berlin Philharmonic blasting out ‘The Blue Danube’ while we watch Kubrick’s simulations of flight among the stars is something else, not an idea at all, or it is the start of a set of ideas we can scarcely control. The composer Jerry Goldsmith, quoted by LoBrutto, says the effect ‘was amusing for a moment but quickly became distracting because it is so familiar and unrelated to the visual’. It is because the music is so familiar that listening to it makes a difference, and because it is not obviously related to the visual that new relations become possible. Vienna, dancing, technology, distance, the old world, the new frontier – if the music of the spheres turned out to be a waltz, it would be more than a joke.
Dancing plays a large part in Kubrick’s imaginary world, from Paths of Glory to The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut opens at a huge dance party. When Kirk Douglas informs his general that a French officer has fired on his own men, he has to fetch him out of a sumptuous ball to tell him. One of the finest moments in The Shining occurs when Jack Nicholson wanders not only into the past of the hotel where he is the winter caretaker, but into a crowded, reanimated ballroom: the past as finery and music and dead splendour. In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick himself seems to have wandered into such a place.
A third argument in Kubrick’s films, also obvious but often forgotten, is that images and soundtrack don’t have to play in unison: they can inhabit different time zones. Kubrick knows this as well as Billy Wilder did in Sunset Boulevard or Alain Resnais did in Last Year at Marienbad. In Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick has his heroine narrate her whole miserable life story over an image which simply shows a solitary ballet dancer in performance – she is the heroine’s envied and unhappy sister – and much of the crucial information in The Killing is conveyed in voice-over. All the compelling moments in Eyes Wide Shut occur when Nicole Kidman is speaking. Kubrick here seems to be following a suggestion of Raphael’s, who told him that ‘what’s interesting about dreams in stories is what people say about them. How they describe them more than what they describe ... We want to see and hear her, not what she says she sees.’ We do see her and hear her, so we are not left with words alone, as she recounts, at great length, a memory of desire, and, later, also at length, a highly charged erotic dream. But we see her talking. The only time we glimpse anything resembling the content of her talk is when Tom Cruise, as Kidman’s husband (in the film, too), imagines as a reality what for his wife was only a thought. He sees it in black and white, as if it was a steamy, pre-homicide sequence in a film noir.
And finally – this may be just another way of stating the previous argument – words are for Kubrick part of the texture of a film, a feature of its sound system as much as a means of getting information across. Words, too, have meanings beneath their meanings, even words can in this sense be a non-verbal medium. These are attractive assumptions, I think, but a bit of a liability for Kubrick, since the result is that he often doesn’t care enough about what words say the first time around. In the opening party of Eyes Wide Shut, various vacuous conversations occur, at inordinate length:
‘Where are you taking me?’
‘Where the rainbow ends.’
‘Where the rainbow ends?’
‘Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?’
And so on. The point is clear. Conversation itself can be a form of flirtation, only the lurking desire matters, the actual words don’t count at all. But this is a carefully constructed movie, not a piece of social life we stumbled into, and there is no reason why a piece of dialogue shouldn’t point to its own superfluousness while pointing to several other things as well. In fact, this film has a verbal tic, a sign, I think, that Kubrick got lost somewhere while he was looking for texture. Pretty much every time anyone says anything, his or her interlocutor repeats the phrase, as if playing for time, or intent on pretending there is a dialogue when there is only an echo. It sounds as if Raphael wrote the film, and then Kubrick unwrote it into a kind of prose doggerel.
‘Would you like to come home with me?’
‘Come home with you?’
‘Do you have to go?’
‘Do I have to go? I think I do.’
‘Miss Curran died this afternoon.’
‘She died this afternoon?’
‘What do you think we should do?’
‘What do I think we should do? What do I think ...’
Much of what critics like Louis Menand (in the New York Review of Books) and David Denby (in the New Yorker) have said about Eyes Wide Shut is true. The timing is terrible, the dialogue is wooden and Tom Cruise is worse than you can imagine any reasonably competent actor could be. He has only one gesture – a sketch of a wave of the right hand, meant to suggest his thwarted intention to make a point, but looking as if he were weighing up an invisible grapefruit – and only one facial expression: that of acute embarrassment unsuccessfully smothered in charm. In hiring the married couple Cruise and Kidman, Kubrick must have thought the camera would catch some kind of flicker of their off-screen relations: if calm, the relations would play against the trouble of the story; if there were tensions, they would play into the story. Kubrick also no doubt thought that Cruise and Kidman would help him get his movie made, and widely noticed. He was right about this, but wrong about what would show up on the screen, since what shows up is nothing at all. Or more precisely: a talented actress doing what she can with a numbed partner.
Even so, there is a lot to be said for Eyes Wide Shut. If you are expecting a masterpiece, you’re in for a disappointment, but there is a weird success in the way the film stays afloat in spite of everything that might sink it. The chief reasons for this success are the plot and premise borrowed from Schnitzler, and shifted slightly but in interesting ways; Kidman’s performance, which after a rocky start at the party, where she just rolls her head and says everything in slow motion, becomes increasingly quirky and complicated; all the performances in minor roles; and the beautifully constructed New York set, which is lit to look like the world of Singin’ in the Rain designed for Fellini.
Schnitzler’s novella, published in 1926, is an elegant and creepy tale of male anxiety. It is a little ‘dusty’, as Raphael reports his wife Sylvia saying; full of cultural cobwebs, like ‘those hidden, scarcely admitted desires which are apt to raise dark and perilous storms even in the purest, most transparent souls’. The respectable doctor who is the hero of the story is afraid of adventure, and unhappy about his fear, and employs a gendered double standard even in respect of unenacted desires: he is allowed to have them, but his wife is not. When his wife confesses that she has them all the same, his whole life seems uncertain, and he staggers through a night of adventures which may be a dream or only dreamlike, a sympathetic response of the Universe to his personal disarray. The daughter of one of his patients declares her love for him; a prostitute takes him home with her, but he’s too scared to do anything; he decides to gatecrash a masked orgy, and even the place where he picks up his costume seems infected by his own sexual nightmare: the costumier is running a little under-age sex on the side. At the orgy he is exposed as an intruder, but one of the masked and naked beauties intercedes for him, indeed may have agreed to give her life in return for his release. He is dumped in the city, and goes home, where his wife tells him about an intensely erotic dream she has had, in which he is betrayed and crucified. He decides he hates her, since she has ‘revealed herself through her dream for what she really was, faithless, cruel and treacherous’. Quite a night. He tells her about his activities, and at the end of the story both agree that neither dreams nor realities add up to the full truth about a person.
Kubrick follows this plot very closely, only shifting his scene to New York, and calling his couple Bill and Alice instead of Fridolin and Albertine. Raphael thought that perhaps this second name was too Proustian but Kubrick just thought it was too ‘fancy’. ‘Keep it simple,’ he said. Kubrick’s other, much-repeated instruction was to stay with Schnitzler. ‘Track Arthur. He knows how to tell a story.’ The trigger of the night’s adventures is still the wife’s confession of her brief and unconsummated desire for another man, but the trigger of the trigger is different. What makes Albertine confess is a sense that men don’t know much, and a desire to resolve dramatically the ‘tension and mistrust’ which are creeping into the marriage. Alice, however, is outraged not only by Bill’s easy acceptance of the double standard, but by his confidence that he knows all about women. She wonders how he feels about his women patients, and how they feel about him. He says it’s all professional as far as he’s concerned, and as for the patients: ‘Women don’t – they basically just don’t think like that.’ She says, ‘If you men only knew,’ which is more or less what Albertine says in Schnitzler, but Alice, as played by Kidman, is much more modern and angry. She is arguing with Freud and Schnitzler, and probably Lacan, as well as with Bill; arguing, however incoherently, against everything which allows men to believe they know how women in general ‘basically’ think. She tells Bill the story of her desire. She looks a little unbalanced as she does it – shocked, amused, trying to avoid sheer indignation. That’s how she looks; one of the things Raphael says in conversation with Kubrick is that ‘you can’t film motive, can you?’
Stanley improves on Arthur in two other ways, and also, with Raphael’s help, manages to fluff Arthur’s deepest and most delicate moment. Dream Story is dreamlike throughout, but Eyes Wide Shut is about conflicting realities, in a way which brilliantly plays with, even subverts the medium of film. What’s most real in the movie is what we don’t see, the memory and the dream which Alice recounts to Bill. What’s most unreal is what actually happens to him, before our very eyes. What he sees with eyes wide open is more fantastic than what she sees with eyes wide shut, but also more indeterminate, more at the mercy of his messy mind. Alice lucidly confesses the truth of her desire and her dream, Bill merely suffers the blurry world of his sexual confusion. Indeed, Alice’s narrated dream, where she is fucking more men than she can count, is far scarier and more arousing than anything to be seen in Bill’s stately orgy, which is a combination of Vogue and the Temple of Doom. We realise finally what the movie has been suggesting all along: that Alice has real desires, and knows about them, while Bill doesn’t know what he’s got – maybe only the feeling that, as a man, he’s entitled to desires.
All this gives an anxious and unsettled flavour to the final dialogue, which says just the same things as in Schnitzler, with the diction slightly modernised, but with quite different implications. Bill and Alice, having confessed all to each other, are out shopping for Christmas with their little girl. Bill asks Alice what she thinks they should do, and after she has repeated the question a couple of times, to maintain the movie’s pattern of wasting energy, she says: ‘Maybe I think we should be grateful. Grateful that we’ve managed to emerge from our adventures. Whether they were real or only a dream.’ He asks her if she is sure. She says as sure as she is that the truth can never be represented by the reality of one night, or even a whole life. He says: ‘And no dream is ever just a dream.’ She says: ‘The important thing is, we’re awake now.’ They are not just agreeing, as in Schnitzler, that the truth is elusive: they are trying, in a baffled way, to deal with the fact that desires have consequences.
And this is Kubrick’s second improvement. In both novella and movie nothing happens: that is, no act of sexual infidelity, nothing that would constitute a happening in most stories about sex and/or marriage. But in the movie we see nothing happening at great length and with considerable, if unequal visual invention. You look at the harrowed faces of Cruise and Kidman at the end, and it takes a major mental effort to remember how little they have materially experienced, compared with other famous fictional characters, not to mention plenty of real-life people. Yet they are right to feel harrowed. They have been through the nightmare of death and desolation and sacrifice and adultery and shame without even leaving the realm of the narrated and the suspected, and we have been through it with them. Movies know the difference between rival realities, but not between reality and dream.
The one major element in the movie which is not in the novella concerns the woman who ransoms the doctor at the orgy. In the novella she is an unnamed person we have not seen before. In the movie she is a prostitute who overdosed at the opening party, while having sex in a private room with the host. Bill is called in, and manages to bring her back to consciousness. She naturally wants to save his skin when she gets a chance – everyone knows the story of Androcles and the lion. When she is later found dead, there is some doubt about whether she has overdosed again or has indeed been sacrificed by the orgiasts as the price for Bill’s release, but there is no doubt about her identity. This is a bit of natty plotting which Raphael appears to have imposed on Kubrick; a small, unfortunate victory after all.
In Schnitzler what’s in doubt is not only whether a woman has sacrificed herself for the doctor – why would she do that, except in a troubled, self-admiring man’s fantasy of deification? – but whether a dead woman the doctor tracks to the morgue has anything to do with his story at all. And here is Schnitzler’s deep and delicate moment. Having learned accidentally of a suicide, having compulsively wanted and not wanted to believe that this was the woman who had so selflessly saved him, the doctor looks at the body and reaches the one certainty of this story, and perhaps of his life.
For whether the woman now lying in the mortuary was the one whom 24 hours earlier he had held naked in his arms ... or whether she was really a complete stranger, of one thing he was absolutely certain. Even if the woman he was looking for ... were still alive, and regardless of how she continued to conduct her life, what lay behind him in that vaulted room – in the gloom of flickering gas lamps, a shadow among shades, as dark, meaningless and devoid of mystery as they – could now mean nothing to him but the pale corpse of the previous night, destined irrevocably for decay.
The immediate reason he can’t identify her is that she was wearing a mask the night before: he saw only her body and her eyes ‘ablaze with life’. The larger, simpler reason is that she is dead. If her eyes are not alive, they are not her eyes. Her face, once she is dead, ‘could equally well have belonged to a woman of 18 or 38’. Schnitzler is not only saying, in best Viennese fashion, that all dancers come to death in the end, a sentiment Kubrick would no doubt have been happy to endorse. He is saying that once the doctor’s fantasy has locked onto its own perfect, guilty image, it is irrevocably his history, beyond all correction by mere evidence. His fantasy has found its real corpse, and he has to believe his own eyes.