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Open Your Eyes: A Second Look at “Eyes Wide Shut”

I feel as if my life up to the current point should be divided into three parts. The first part consists of having not seen or heard of Eyes Wide Shut. During this period, I may have seen a few Kubrick efforts (Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Spartacus), but I did not know of his current, highly controversial project: Eyes Wide Shut.

The second part is made up of the two and a half years since I discovered that Stanley Kubrick was making this film and the day — today — that I saw it. At the time, I had already been a critic for a year and a half. I was beginning to consider doing retrospectives, was renting as many films as I could afford. I saw The Shining again and again, rented Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange (FMJ I didn’t care for… as crazy as it sounds, I loved A Clockwork Orange), and began my long period of waiting.

This period of waiting, of the collective millions of Kubrick fans and thousands of movie critics keeping their eyes and their ears open for any news of the final result was a quieter mirror to the louder (yet equally obsessed) fans of Star Wars, who awaited George Lucas’ next effort. Several of us wavered, headed into the Star Wars anticipation camp, but the faithful remained.

Then, Kubrick died.

I can almost picture some publicist at Warner having the mixed reaction of sorrow and raw joy. Everyone knew, at that point, that you couldn’t buy publicity like this. A few days before his death there was the infamous teaser of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman doing it in front of a mirror. During the season finale of ‘ER’, the full teaser hit home and everyone was talking about this movie.

For my initial reaction, check out my earlier feature, where you will find ‘EYES WIDE *&!@?: Why .

For the next two months we were bombarded with hype about Eyes Wide Shut with few words being said. Magazines did features on the movie asking various questions, and getting no answers. Certain people speculated correctly and incorrectly about what happened in the movie. We all heard about the NC-17 or R debate concerning the orgy sequence.

Time featured Tom licking Nicole. Rolling Stone had Nicole’s breasts being guarded by a cowboy hat. Esquire had her in that ‘oh so nice’ dress and had the balls to say what every other magazine knew but wouldn’t admit to: Nicole has a nice ass.

Us speculated that the movie was going to be the sexiest film ever. Yet, aside from a few sequences that are revealed to us (the majority of which are cards played in the first hour of the 2:33 movie), we saw nothing of the movie, and knew nothing much about the plot.

Opening day greeted it with glowing reviews from everyone except Entertainment Weekly, who gave this film a lackluster review. Yet none of them, in my mind, fulfilled their functions as a critic as far as a movie this big is concerned.

The function of the critic is not only to inform over the quality of a picture (whether it is a good film or a bad film), the entertainment value of the film (whether it was fun to see or made you want to sleep), but also on the nature of the film itself. On its soul.

I was once having a discussion about the difference between drawing (doodling, not to say that actually drawing itself isn’t art) and art with a poet and a painter. ‘Drawing,’ the poet stipulated, ‘was when a piece contained none of the person.’ ‘No,’ the painter replied. ‘Drawing contains less of a person that art, but drawing still contains some of a person.’

‘You’re both wrong,’ I said. ‘The difference between drawing just plain old anything, and the definition of art itself, is that art crosses the line between being a part of a person and having a consciousness all of its own. It is not to say that art is artificially intelligent: a man-made sentience, but instead that it chooses to mimic sentience. It becomes its own being, and, although we are its creators, we have little control over altering it.’

Eyes Wide Shut, a film truly able to be called art, does contain a mimicry of sentience. Like all great art, the mimicry is so complete that you are indeed able to convince yourself that this is a sentience, that this is a reality. It may not be yours, but it is a reality.

Like all realities, Eyes Wide Shut contains people (not characters), it contains places (not locations), it contains events (not things that happened). The distinction between all of these pairs lies in tone. Whereas someone can be quite a character, they are not truly a person until you know them. Where as you have the location of the movie being New York City, its place is somewhere surreal, dreamlike (hence being like Traumnovelle, or Rhapsody: A Dream Story). While things occur in all movies, only events alter.

Like our reality, Eyes Wide Shut contains heavy amounts of decadence, sex, and profanity. It contains drugs and alcohol, good and bad. It contains unfavorable people, sinister events, and moments of revelation.

To begin dispelling rumors Eyes Wide Shut is not, as Us magazine claimed it would be, the sexiest film of all time. In fact, having watched literally thousands of films, I do not hesitate to call Eyes Wide Shut the most thoroughly unsexy movie of all time. Unlike the characteristic sex in movies, which is literally a thing that happens, with no consequences, Eyes Wide Shut shows the side of sex that Hollywood truly loathes: sex as an event.

Eyes Wide Shut is about sex in the fact that it concerns the grave effects that sex has upon people. As described, it is a thriller of jealousy and sexual obsession. It is not a thriller in the American sense, with guns or psychopathic killers. Nor does it contain anything of pure evil (although there are points at which you will no doubt feel that it does).

Instead, Eyes Wide Shut is both Kubrick’s final film and his final step in becoming an expatriate. It has nothing American left in it… it is, at its core, a very British film. The suspense is neither physical, nor visceral, nor psychological, but instead intellectual. There are points where we have Bill Harford (Cruise) being followed by the tall dark stranger and where we have an-oh-so-cruel smile by Alice (Kidman), but these are the only moments where any hint of psychological terror comes to mind. Instead, we have more intellectual frights; twists of plot that shock us, and a flawless mastery over filmmaking.

To describe the plot, it concerns an argument between Bill and Alice about a Christmas party at which both were the subject of highly amorous advances (Bill by two models, Alice by Hungarian mystery man who acts like a complete snake). In this argument, which contains perhaps the most intelligent banter ever to go back and forth on the nature of jealousy and desire, Alice admits to having an erotic encounter with a sailor in Cape Cod the previous summer.

As the pain of adultery hits home, Bill is called to see one of his patients’ daughter, because the
patient has just died. The daughter, facing marriage, admits to a love she has harbored for Bill and offers herself to him, only to be interrupted by her fiancé’s arrival. Bill, startled by this revelation, leaves the house and spends hours wandering the streets of New York. He finds himself near a prostitute, and almost commits adultery himself. Via jazz musician Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), he discovers about an orgy for the rich that occurs weekly at a different location each time.

He goes to this place, again trying to delve himself into decadence, only to be faced with death and be saved by a woman who takes his place. He also runs into a costume and tuxedo salesman who pimps his 15 year old daughter out (played by Leelee Sobieski, who steals the scene away from Cruise (and we’re talking Cruise’s finest performance ever)).

The masked men behind the orgy (which is almost druid-like in nature) have him followed and threaten his family. Cruise, seeing the mask from the party in his place in bed, realizes his mistakes and promises to confess everything. To an American audience, this will come as a highly disappointing climax to a film that, despite a lack of physical action, is thoroughly gripping. However, I, a lover of independent and foreign cinema as well as intellectual films, tend to enjoy these types of climaxes. The moments at which a full change is realized.

Eyes Wide Shut is probably the most highly anticipated film (by film lovers, that is), in years, and, although most people expecting tons of sex will be highly disappointed by the film’s lack of rampant sex (although it is very high in nudity), I am very pleased at the result. In fact, this is the point in the review where I call it THE BEST FILM OF THE YEAR.

It is, in fact, one of the best films I have ever seen.

One gripe that many seem to have with Eyes Wide Shut — its look of artificiality is what I consider to be its greatest technical asset. Although Cruise, Kidman, and Pollack will score nominations for Best Actor, Actress, and Supporting Actor, the cinematography in the film and the set design are both worth mentioning. The film was shot not in New York City, but instead on soundstages in London, England, and thus it contains a slightly off-kilter feel to it. It looks like New York City on the surface, but then tiny things seem different. This place seems to have too many extras, and that place too few. The people are too nice at one moment and too cruel and the next. Certain parts of the city are too bright for New York, and certain parts are too dark. Because of this, we have the feeling that we are both in and out of New York City. That the film is being both realistic and unrealistic at the same time.

The film grain is either similar or identical to that used in A Clockwork Orange, which gave off the same sense of artificiality. In A Clockwork Orange, we felt that the film was like a nightmare. Eyes Wide Shut displays the same brilliance. Both of these aspects make the film dreamlike, which is what Eyes Wide Shut is about… a dream world.

Also of note is the fact that Cinematographer Larry Smith is the very first cinematographer to be so skilled that you feel as if he is literally playing with the shadows. He overlights the initial party sequence, uses natural lighting for many of the scenes on the street, and underlights in the bedroom and in the already infamous orgy sequence. He also chooses, as does Kubrick, to not focus on the act of sex but instead upon the aftermath (the scene in front of the mirror, which is 30 to 90 seconds in the ads, depending on a censored or an uncensored version, is only about 15-20 seconds in the movie itself), opting often to slide right past the sight of copulation to focus on something else that may be more trivial (it is a perfect metaphor, that the camera, like us, should want to both stay and turn away at the same time).

Eyes Wide Shut should be see as Bill’s odyssey to become bad contrasting his failure to do so. Although he attempts to commit his own adultery, Bill eventually fails. He is, at his heart, a good man, faithful to Alice to the end… no matter what may come between them.

Thank you, Stanley Kubrick. If, after all that waiting, you turned out something bad, I could never forgive you.

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