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Please distribute this URL as you see fit. By Ted Baldwin
Eyes Wide Shut
Kubrick's last film probably was not meant to be so - it is more of a technical exercise in transliteration . And a strange exercise indeed.
Reviewed:
3/30/00




Tom Cruise: An arrangement by Ted Baldwin.Tom Cruise: An arrangement by Ted Baldwin.Tom Cruise: An arrangement by Ted Baldwin.Tom Cruise: An arrangement by Ted Baldwin.Tom Cruise: An arrangement by Ted Baldwin.
Five possible.
     Stanley Kubrick had the ability to take simple things and turn them inside out. From the uproariously satiric "Dr. Strangelove, to 2001, and A Clock Work Orange, he never failed to amaze and stun. When looking back over the top most influential films, I found I had chosen three of Kubrick's. I believe that a free society should remember our poor little droogy Alex, and that we cannot be safe in a world gone mad with weapons of mass destruction. And that somewhere, there must be other life than ours. He handled each of these things delicately, persuasively, and with firm character and vision.

To millions of fans, though, Eyes Wide Shut was a dismal effort, a technically perfect set-piece with dull and uninteresting characters. And an ending worthy perhaps of Blair Witch. Lots of folderol and very little action.

I got the feeling though, there was more to the movie than met the eye, and I researched it a little.
Eyes Wide Shut is more than just based on Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle (which translates as Dream Story), it is a veritable word for word retelling of it. Updated to Manhattan, the original story is set in Germany, with a doctor discovering the seamy side of the nightlife. Scene for scene, it plays out in the sparse 100 page novel just as it does on the screen, with some improvements and condescensions to modern life. Carriages give way to cabs. Christmas trees and lights pervade the buildings and businesses. And the conveniences of cell phones make the plot turn more quickly. But it is starkly, frankly, the same.

In "Dream Story", the good Doctor embarks upon a journey to a forbidden masked ball. In EWS, Tom Cruise, playing the unheroic, underplayed, understated limp Doctor, journeys into the night to discover a perverse world of sexual using. He has been unaware of all of the sexuality going on around him, happily married and wifo-centric. As is his wont, Kubrick heats up the (racy for 1900 story) with gay bashing, sexy models, hotel clerks and prostitutes all coming on to the too-good doctor. And the too good doctor flirts with death, disease and evil rutting throughout, finally sullying his name and his family with the dregs he tracks in.

It is a study in sexuality, and the lengths to which Kubrick went to remain faithful to the story tells me he found it to be particularly insightful. As an exercise to span a hundred years and show the timelessness of the situation, it is flawless. As entertainment for today, there is very little the average person has not been exposed to, and the idea of mysterious sex cults is not all that new. And it is not compelling enough to hold up the entire thread of this story. We are too demanding.

As a whole work though, and taken not as a cult-murder mystery but as a sexual coming of age film, it is terrific.

I had the opportunity to view it for the first time on DVD, printed from the original camera negative, as Kubrick intended for the DVD release. It was a TV sized square picture (we tried to find letterboxing and finally decided it was meant to be 4x3 instead of 15x9.) The color was superb and the detail was breathtaking. It is a superior product all the way. And on top of that, we could see how he framed the shots so they could be cropped later for widescreen release.

Each frame seemed lit from impossible angles, with a barrage of color in striking primary colors. It was very Christmassy, and the whole thing reeked of money, elegance and power. The Doctor was heir to so much - yet he jeopardized it all for the sake of his ego and a night out. It was a night out he would remember for a very very long time. (RHPS, anyone?)

There is a telling moment in the film. He returns to his home after failing to uncover the whereabouts of his college buddy or to discern whether the threats against his life are for real. On his pillow, the very mask he used to infiltrate the sex cult's party was placed squarely upon his pillow. This cathartic presence bids he tell all to his lovely young wife, and we are really left to wonder how the mask got there. If by the cult - that adds a dimension. If by his wife, then that is something else.

The novel cleared it up for me. In the book, the wife places the mask on the pillow. And I suspect that barring any direct visual evidence from Kubrick to the contrary, so it is the same in the film. In Clockwork the movie, for example, you are never told that "A Clockwork Orange" is the title of the political treatise the old man in the country house is writing when Alex and his droogies fake the accident and ravage the household. PS The government wants to stifle that writer, too. Later, that same author tries to kill Alex and blame the government. Not really important, but that is why. The government is like a clockwork orange; It looks like an orange, but does not have any of the good, nutritious stuff inside - just a clockwork mechanism. And Alex just looks like a pawn to them both. Same with EWS.

Dr. Bill Hanford is drawn into the seamy side of life, but he does not have the survival skills necessary to play rough. The rules change, but he does not realize it.

 
  1. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) ... aka EWS (1999) (USA: promotional abbreviation)
  2. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  3. Shining, The (1980) ... aka Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' (1980)
  4. Barry Lyndon (1975)
  5. Clockwork Orange, A (1971)
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  7. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) ... aka Dr. Strangelove (1964)
  8. Lolita (1962)
  9. Spartacus (1960)
  10. Paths of Glory (1957)
  11. Killing, The (1956)
  12. Killer's Kiss (1955)
  13. Fear and Desire (1953)
  14. Seafarers, The (1952)
  15. Day of the Fight (1951)
  16. Flying Padre (1951)
 
As a rare treat, the entire screenplay is for sale, bundled with a new translation of the original German novel, Dream Story. I skimmed the novel quickly to see what differences there were - and was surprised to see cosmetic changes but no real substantive change beyond sexin' it up a bit. For any screenwriter, it is a bonanza, to see how a great film director could make a novel into a film in only 159 minutes. But it does little to answer the puzzle as to why Kubrick spent so much time creating such a restricted statement, such a retelling of a hundred year old fable.


My instinct tells me this was a personal work for some reason, and he wanted to do something subtle with high profile Cruise and Kidman. As such, it is great. But for the last effort? It is too bad we could not see his next film, A.I., which had been in development for some time. An erstwhile disciple has taken the reins though; Spielberg will adapt the balance of the work to completion in the next years. It could not be in better or more loving hands.


In EWS, Kubrick tells us all, and leaves us to ruminate on what might be out there, and if it is worth it.
Amusing, isn't it?