Friday, July 13, 2012

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

UK/USA, 159 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Frederic Raphael, Arthur Schnitzler
Photography: Larry Smith
Music: Jocelyn Pook
Editor: Nigel Galt
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Julienne Davis, Rade Serbedzija, Vinessa Shaw, Todd Field, Sky du Mont, Marie Richardson, Leelee Sobiesko, Leon Vitali, Alan Cumming, Fay Masterson

A telling fact about Eyes Wide Shut: Ultimately it earned $55.7 million in the U.S. on its release in July 1999, four months after director Stanley Kubrick's death, but $31 million of that (or nearly 57%) came just in the first week of its release. A simple but transparent story of high expectations thwarted. One contingent had been excited to see the first Kubrick film in some 12 years, and the last ever, while others were excited about the "it couple" of the moment who star in it, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Still others knew it was supposed to be sexy and naughty. What little they otherwise had in common came to include reviling the movie. I took them at their word and, on that basis (and also Full Metal Jacket, his previous movie and weakest by far), decided to skip it.

When I finally sat down with a copy of it on DVD years later my expectations were as low as everyone else's had once been high. My primary concern was how I was going to get through the two and a half hours I knew it lasted. But two and a half hours later I was barely aware any time had passed, and I started it up again. It is that kind of movie for me. Even when it is at its most ridiculous—and it gets very ridiculous—it gives me shivers constantly, shivers of fear, pleasure, recognition, panged confusion. I consider it now as among Kubrick's best, one whose mystery just seems to open up wider and take me deeper every time.

At its heart it's about sexual anxiety—not performance concerns that curdle into neuroses, but rather the gnawing misgivings about the desire itself and what it may lead one to do. It is about that coiled thing inside us we live with from adolescence. It has betrayed us all, getting us mixed up in things we regret forever. It will likely betray us again. It is the answer to the question of celebrities, "Why did they think they would get away with that?" Upper-middle-class Manhattan residents Dr. Bill Harford (played by Tom Cruise, deployed perfectly) and his wife Alice (played by Cruise's wife of the time, Nicole Kidman) are put through the eternal drill of desire / act / regret, and once again the humiliating, punishing lessons of sexual ethics and morals are administered without mercy. Sex and "great danger" are conflated over and over. Encounters with death, however direct or incidental, only ratchet up the weird.

It's based on a short novel published in Austria in 1926, Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, which is translated as Rhapsody: A Dream Novel or Dream Story. I don't know the book, but the movie proceeds very much like a dream, the source of much of its eerie power, moving with through-the-looking-glass contours of Lewis Carroll stories, and bearing sexual charges that come unexpectedly and at random, like earthquakes. Set at Christmas time, the darkest time of year but mellow with gauzy liquid lights and gestures of love sincere and insincere alike, it is impossibly warm and ripe, with velvety overlays of blue and yellow and deep reds and oranges. It feels in moments like decadence itself, or, more literally, decaying-ness.

The story is propelled by a late-night post-party conversation between Bill and Alice in their place on Central Park West, sharing a marijuana cigarette, a conversation that spins off into a senseless argument and finally a confession by Alice of a mild infatuation she had recently, one she never came close to acting on. But something about the story gets its hooks into Bill's most vulnerable insecurities, setting him up for a series of strange incidents that will last nearly all night and beyond. They start when he is called away from the argument on a medical matter ... (or shortly after he falls asleep that night). Using a strategy Kubrick also used in A Clockwork Orange, every scene Bill visits before a looming transformational experience he will revisit again after, suffering his punishment.

One of the most disorienting (even annoying) aspects of the picture is the lugubrious pace of many of the scenes. A lot of these characters are marching to tunes only they (and Kubrick) can hear. Kidman delivers nearly all of her lines with implied ellipses ... between ... every few ... words. This is not poor direction, let alone poor acting, it is just another tool in the arsenal assaulting us every step of the way, continually knocking our sense of things cockeyed and adding to the overall effect.

So much of this movie is set up to disorient. It's true of the famous New York soundstages (the movie was actually filmed mostly in London), which supply a good many of the exteriors and a gnawing sense of fakery. There's a little three-block radius "in the Village" we come to know well, as one does certain places in dreams. It is true of any number of scenes—a woman's unexpected and inappropriate declaration of love for Bill practically over the body of her dead father, a Russian costume shop operator and his nubile daughter, not one but two cheesy girl-next-door prostitutes, and, of course, the big kahuna of Eyes Wide Shut, the transformational experience itself, the elaborate masked ball in the mansion, with all its strange sights and sounds. Nothing makes sense here and yet somehow everything does, at incoherent brainstem levels.

The masked ball truly seems to be what separates the believers from the nonbelievers on this one, and so the obvious place to throw out a hearty YMMV. I find myself too intoxicated with the pure sensation of it to be bothered by how outlandish it is. I know that's there, even in the hour or so that it goes on, but I just don't care. It is what I love most about the whole thing, the point when it reveals itself as essentially a horror movie filled with phantasms. I can't take my eyes off it. It is masterfully done. It feels overwhelmingly dangerous, toxic, decadent, thrilling, and a little sickening all at once. In the moment, I believe absolutely that those people in those cloaks and masks have and wield great power. This is beyond the almost proletariat Greenwich Village Satan-worshipers in The Seventh Victim, the Val Lewton thriller from the '40s, and even beyond the unmistakably sinister and malevolent kindly-senior-citizen midtown version of Rosemary's Baby. The Vegas showgirl style of nudity and sexuality so ostentatiously on display in that gothic palatial mansion somewhere in the New Jersey countryside is deliberately and lasciviously grotesque and repulsive—and, I think, even plays knowingly to that reaction in us. It walks such a tight line with camp. That's true of the whole movie. But it walks that line skillfully, not once tipping over into it by my sights. It takes its time to get to this and then just lets it all unfold naturally, the way one prepares for and engages in sex itself. It's very close to perfect. Play loud.

Top 20 of 1999
I saw a lot of movies in the '80s and '90s so for the time being I will see what I can do about lists of 20. This will help to compensate for the '20s and possibly '30s and '40s, when the lists may become shorter than 10s. I thought 1999 was a decent year for the movies, and I like all the movies I'm listing here of course, but I can't help noticing a certain generalized lack of gravitas. After the Kubrick (which arguably lacks it too!), and maybe the Mann and the P.T. Anderson, there's a lot of entertainment confections masquerading as guilty pleasures studding my list. Or is that vice versa? Not that there's anything wrong with entertainment confections. I am still in a dither about where I am re: The Matrix, which thrilled me and now bores and vaguely annoys me; #10 seemed about right, exhaustion will have its cut. I remain ambivalent about Magnolia for the ham-handed biblical themes. But hey, didn't Tom Cruise have himself a year that year?
1. Eyes Wide Shut
2. American Beauty
3. The Limey
4. The Blair Witch Project
5. Galaxy Quest
6. Office Space
7. The Straight Story
8. The Insider
9. Being John Malkovich
10. The Matrix
11. Holy Smoke!
12. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
13. Mumford
14. Magnolia
15. The Iron Giant
16. Kikujiro
17. Election
18. Stir of Echoes
19. The Sixth Sense
20. Human Resources

Didn't like so much: Dogma; Fight Club; Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; The Talented Mr. Ripley; The Virgin Suicides

Gaps: Beau Travail, L'humanite, Rosetta, Toy Story 2, The Wind Will Carry Us

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