Classic Review: Eyes Wide Shut

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A Kafkaesque, terrifying exposé of sexual hypocrisy that stands with the best of Kubrick’s work.

Fair warning:  Because of the film’s disturbing subject, I will be handling mature sexual topics.  Be advised.

Review:  Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed filmography is largely composed of intelligent, penetrating meditations on human nature.  Perhaps the most prominent subject is hypocrisy.  ‘The Shining’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ explored our hypocrisy of violence; famously and controversially, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ extended this critique to sexual violence in a disturbingly graphic fashion.  ‘Dr. Strangelove’ satirically blamed its nuclear holocaust on sexually dysfunctional leaders; ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ again attacks the American elite by way of a bizarre conspiracy of cloak-and-dagger sexual politics, and in the process levels a pointed accusation at humanity in general.  We like to think we’re above the basic instincts of our species, but Kubrick would have us know that we’re walking about with our eyes wide shut.  We are sexual creatures, and we’d better be honest about it.

Kubrick’s cinematic swan song is appropriately meta, to great effect.  The first step is to present audiences with an erotic thriller headlined by two attractive, bankable stars in a well-known relationship.  This draws folks in to see their fantasies realized in a carefully controlled environment.  The next step is to pull the rug out from under their feet, by refusing to show the leads having Hollywood sex with each other, and by forcing the viewer to share the protagonist’s confusion and frustration up to the last moment.  Just as ‘The Shining’ carefully condemns its gorehound audience, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ reminds viewers of their mental promiscuity and love of Hollywood exploitation.  The film’s loveless eroticism serves to put off viewers who are uninterested in this critique.  Instead of a sanitized, pleasant experience, the film’s orgy centerpiece is a flat-out terrifying, Kafkaesque nightmare — to me, it was scarier than ‘The Shining’ — so when the protagonist flees home to his wife, we’re right there with him.

‘Eyes Wide Shut’ defends monogamy, doubtless to the surprise of many self-appointed moral guardians, provided they could settle down for a few minutes to hear it out.  The carefully constructed sexual mythology of human society, and American culture in particular, squeezes the love and life out of monogamous relationships.  For reasons of class and religion, people lie about their most powerful undercurrent, and this results in mutually destructive hypocrisies.  The narrative hangs on two upscale parties held at mansions, the first masking its abusive sexual commerce in hollow pleasantries, the second reveling in open displays cloaked in ritual and threat — the point being, in a dream logic sense, they are the same event.  The multilayered narrative repeats images and themes in a lyrical way, uncovering the uncomfortable truth of each episode.  In the end, the couple has to come to terms with their desires to heal.  To experience true sexual union, stripping to the skin is not enough — they have to strip down to the heart.  Leave it to Kubrick to transform exploitative nudity into an artful statement of the human condition!

Kubrick is often labelled “cold”, but in truth he’s simply objective, standing apart from traditional Aristotelian storytelling because he refuses to digest a given film’s ideas into cheap, predictable, marketable patterns.  This is a film with a happy ending and a clear moral conclusion, but we have to go on an unusual journey to find it.  It was misunderstood in its theatrical release, but like most of Kubrick’s work from ‘2001’ on it has gradually won over critics and cinephiles.  For this reason, I call it a classic — a truly adult film.

NR: Cultural Inception

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

The subject today is the role film plays in changing popular perceptions and cultural norms, piggy-backing off an article in the LA Times about the evolving portrayals of women in cinema.  It’s a fascinating piece and I suggest you read it.

In essence, the article says that the richness of the characterizations found in a new wave of female protagonists denotes a cultural shift, partially necessitated by filmmakers attempting to establish broad audiences.  I would suggest that it isn’t merely an economic consideration.  How filmmakers think about the sexes has changed due to more liberal education and the trails blazed by previous storytellers.  They’re also kicking the ball in a different direction, not merely imitating their forebears.  Although sexism and egregious hyper-sexualization continue to permeate Hollywood portrayals of women, the next generation of filmmakers have the ability to curb these problems considerably in favor of a fair, realistic norm.  They’ll do this simply by doing their jobs.

In Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal ‘Inception’, the team works together to plant an idea in a subject’s dreams, the titular process that mirrors the science of narrative cinema.  The audience, like the subject, gets carried along for an emotional journey in a world based on its own logic.  The magic trick of celluloid is in getting the audience to accept the filmmakers’ philosophical propositions without realizing the process is taking place, at least until the audience “wakes up” upon leaving the theater or turning off the video player.  Cinema is the longstanding practice of cultural inception.  The influential filmmaker chews the cud and breaks her/his ideas down into the simplest emotional concepts, then constructs a narrative out of the raw material.  The narrative itself is a meditation, the gradual awakening to a new idea vicariously experienced through characters.

Now, the trouble is, filmmakers should hold themselves responsible — and if they won’t do it, the critics should — for the ideas that they unintentionally propagate.  Unlike the film ‘Inception’, where the titular process is profoundly difficult due to the mind’s natural defenses, cultural inception via cinema is sometimes frighteningly easy.  Even in something as common and base as a simple shoot ’em up action-adventure story, the filmmaker can perform inception.  A popcorn thriller can promote sexism, knee-jerk violence, and brainless jingoism while all the filmmaker usually wants is to photograph explosions and attractive people.  Because the Hollywood system relies on the kinds of movies that maximize cashflow, the studio system will reflect the negative aspects of culture by giving people what they want.  Say a popcorn thriller with bad philosophy earns a hundred million dollars.  Then a dozen retreads will spawn and the negativity will not only remain, but spread.

This act of cultural “inception”, trying to radically change gender portrayals in cinema and thus society’s basic assumptions about the sexes, must be deliberately, intelligently handled by filmmakers in every genre.  While its true that money is Hollywood’s bread, butter, and gasoline, the opportunities to speak strongly to issues philosophic, political, and even religious are not rare.  Conscientious storytellers must seize the day and make sure that when audiences sit down, they are emotionally moved in the right direction.  Resorting to heavy-handed preaching isn’t the answer.  They must make great movies.