In response to an unbearably stuffy declaration by her husband, a woman, high on pot, details for him her sexual fantasy concerning a certain naval officer she once had a fleeting glance of. A little later, she tells him about a dream she has had of being handed from man to man in one big bath of sex. This sends the husband on a long night’s journey in search of sexual adventure, including an unconsummated encounter with a hooker and an elaborately ceremonial orgy from which he is evicted. Thus chastened, he tells his wife all. Whereupon they know themselves to be in a serious marital crisis but determine to overcome it. All ends soberly but happily in a shopping excursion to FAO Schwarz.
So goes the plot of Eyes Wide Shut, the much-anticipated and posthumously screened last work of Stanley Kubrick, titular genius of filmmaking. In the myriad tributes to Kubrick after his death last March that were published in the form of interviews or memoirs—as well as in a little book about the making of this movie by its screenwriter, Frederic Raphael1—we learn that considerations of plot were never uppermost in this director’s mind; for him, all was subordinate to the camera. Watching Eyes Wide Shut, no one could doubt it.
Just when this story is supposed to take place, for instance, a not-irrelevant detail in a movie about the pursuit of sex, is very hard to say. A little bedtime toke from a supply of grass kept in the medicine cabinet would suggest that the time is somewhere in the mid-70’s. But at one point there is mention of a woman’s having just discovered that she is HIV-positive, which would seem to indicate a considerably later date. On the other hand, we are asked to believe that the hero, who is a doctor, is both shocked and fascinated to learn of the existence of a regularly organized orgy and is prepared to spend, by my calculation, nearly a thousand dollars in cash to outfit himself properly (since the orgy, clearly organized as much for Kubrick’s camera as for the enrichment of his character’s soul, is a masked and costumed affair) and get to a mansion far, far out of town where it is being—no other word will do—staged.
Now, by the 1970’s, a simple perusal of the advertisements in a couple of well-known publications, featured especially on the newsstands of the New York streets through which we see the good doctor traveling, would have provided him with the opportunity to take part in any number of orgies a lot closer by and a lot less expensive. True, such being the nature of orgies, he might have been required to do a few things displeasing or even shocking to him, and we know he is an innocent because when he goes in search of a hooker who has previously approached him, he actually brings her . . . a cake. But the point is that Stanley Kubrick clearly neither knew nor cared who any of the characters in this movie really is, or what any of them thinks, or feels, or, in fact, does.
Instead, he seemed to be relying on the beauty and endless charm of Tom Cruise and the visual promise held out by an introductory glimpse of the naked backside of Nicole Kidman, a gifted actress whom Kubrick treats very badly in this film, as he did all actresses in all his movies where women’s roles are supposed to count for something. She has silly lines to speak, and she is required to do silly things with her face and her body. Nor does the fact that she and Tom Cruise are in real life husband and wife imbue their screen behavior together with the least bit of naturalness. All of it, the so-called plot and the so-called characters, even those required to provide a kind of grotesque comic relief along the way, are no more than machinery for bringing the movie to what was obviously the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s true desire: to choreograph and film his peculiar vision of an orgy. This, you might say, is the cinematic peak toward which everything climbs and from which everything subsequently descends.
And quite an orgy it is, complete with the feeling of having been researched from ancient days and then “artistically” transposed into the kind of ritual even the ancients could scarcely have dreamed of. First, there is that great empty mansion, outside of which, to make you understand that nothing so gross as the sweaty muscularity of the masses will mar the beauty of the occasion, are parked the most luxurious of limousines. Then, everyone, including the bouncers to whom the guests must speak a password in order to gain admittance, is elaborately masked. Inside, there is organ music, and seated in the center of a circle of cloaked and masked maidens sits someone who is obviously the master of the proceedings, muttering mystical incantations. He orders the girls to rise. They do so, throw off their capes, and reveal a collection of the most beautiful female bodies ever glimpsed on land or sea.
Somewhere in the movie it is suggested that the women are high-class hookers, but it is to be doubted that there is on earth so vast a supply of whores, even high-class whores, anything like these specimens, in search of whom Kubrick’s casting director must have scoured a universe of models’ agencies and offices of cosmetic surgeons. In any case, each of them selects one of the masked men standing behind the circle and takes him off somewhere. We get a glimpse of that bacchanalian somewhere when our poor star-crossed hero is led away for questioning and then thrown out.
The story of the filming of the scene of mass copulation has by now been much told: how Kubrick shot it with real bodies engaging in real sex acts of various kinds but, in order to escape a rating of NC-17, today’s equivalent of X, electronically doctored the scene to interpose images of spectators blocking the view of the copulaters’ genitals. One can see what is happening but not in its full glory—though European audiences do get to see All. But even nakedly shown, the scene could hardly be as affecting as the American raters feared—except maybe to a group of twelve-year-olds. As at least some critics have already complained, the whole thing, even those beautiful female bodies, all of them beautiful in the same way, is utterly aestheticized and unerotic.
Eyes Wide Shut, for all its baring of breasts and buttocks, is a singularly callow piece of moviemaking. It is said to be derived from, or inspired by, or based on, a 1929 novella, Dream Rhapsody, by Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese writer who was—as, it seems, were many Viennese intellectuals of his day—deeply interested in dreams and fantasies and other subconscious phenomena. The screenplay by Frederic Raphael seems to have followed Schnitzler’s story fairly closely. But surely, of all people, a celebrated moviemaker should have been the first to understand that though you can write about ideas, you cannot film them except by putting a lot of words in people’s mouths. This, however, is something Kubrick seems to have been curiously reluctant to do, perhaps because he feared it would distract him; and so it is hard to sense just what in the Schnitzler story he found so gripping.
Raphael, himself the author of one of the most brilliant television dramas ever produced, a 1970’s series called The Glittering Prizes, tells us that the Schnitzler story had been on Kubrick’s mind for years. Maybe it had, but it is so very much the product of a certain cultural moment that there is no way to reproduce it except as a kind of period drama. But this, too, probably because he did not really understand the story in the first place, Kubrick seems to have been averse to doing. The upshot is that he engaged the services of one of the best screenwriters in the Western world and then turned his work to inanity.
The audience with whom I saw Eyes Wide Shut seemed singularly untouched by it, by the orgy, by Tom Cruise, by Nicole Kidman, by anything. My husband reported that later, in the men’s room, someone was heard to say, “My God! When was this supposed to be? Hadn’t the guy ever heard of Plato’s Retreat” (a now-defunct but once famous gathering place for public sexual activity in New York)?
This question of what Stanley Kubrick may or may not have heard of is a highly relevant one. He had been living for years in a hideaway in England from which, it is said, certain phobias kept him from venturing forth. To be sure, when he actually filmed something—which, all told, he did rather infrequently—he had to leave home for a while. But until the actual filming, as Raphael pointedly describes, everyone came to him: producer, screenwriter, even stars like Cruise and Kidman. The rest of his interaction with the world seems to have been conducted by telephone. If you want to become a legend, it is hard to think of a better way, even if it does tend to weaken what the Germans call the feel of the fingertips.
In any case, a legend he certainly became. Amid the flood of articles after his sudden death, there were some, by people who knew him or claimed to know him, detailing the various personal oddities imposed upon him by his genius. A number of these were endearing, a number were just, well, odd. Someone revealed, for example, that Kubrick watched TV sitcoms all day long, but in a tone that might have been used had he been disclosing that T.S. Eliot was addicted to the penny press.
Living isolated as he did was necessary but certainly not sufficient for Kubrick to have been granted the perks of genius he claimed for himself, including total power over his movies. To achieve such a thing requires absolute and untiring commitment to one’s public persona. But in Kubrick’s case it required something else as well: namely, the special culture of Hollywood, California.
A man who made fewer than a dozen movies even worth mentioning, Kubrick had a quirky gift that, truth to tell, worked best in the Hollywood byroads. The Killing (1956), for instance—the first piece of work of his to count—is a gripping small movie, and Dr. Strangelove (1964), which basically stays in one room far beneath the ground and does totally engaging things with its actors’ faces and voices, is a mean little masterpiece. (It also depends for its effect on a script that was clearly not Kubrick’s—a fact for which, we are told, he never forgave its author, Terry Southern, another quirky talent whose only gift was for derangement of one kind or another.)
Then there was 2001 (1968), a movie that meant nothing and was entirely visual and seemed to provide large numbers of young people with a helpful accompaniment to getting stoned. To this list may also be added Paths of Glory (1957), the best-realized of his films—perhaps because it is the cruelest—and Spartacus (1960), which is said to have given Kubrick a lot of trouble but, for an addict of old-timey extravaganzas like me, remains a laugh a minute. (“Oh Spah-ta-cus,” moans the slave played by the Bronx-bred Tony Curtis, “I love yuh like the fathuh I nevah had.”)
Kubrick had started out as a photographer, which in some instances proved a great boon—as when, in creating the tension essential to Dr. Strangelove, his camera makes love to the beautifully hard-bitten face of the actor Sterling Hayden. But at other times, as in Barry Lyndon (1975), piously decreed a wonder by those who like to feel they are in the presence of a Classic, the photography merely adds to the general and highly misplaced pomposity.
But whence this pomposity? That is the significant question about the career of Stanley Kubrick as a Hollywood story. He was a gifted Jewish boy from the Bronx and we may imagine him in his youthful days as a bit of an intellectual, creative, dying to get out, positively drunk on the movies: a familiar figure. But the Hollywood movies he was drunk on, like the sitcoms he continued to watch until his death, were made by people who were completely self-confident and at the same time without illusions about themselves. “Art,” should any prove to emerge from what they did, was strictly an unintended by-product, and often there was no way of determining whether it was present or not present.
It is said, for instance, that while Casablanca (1942) was being made, all those connected with it were convinced they had a stinker on their hands. In short, movies were the entertainment industry, though sometimes the people involved had a higher gift than the industry may have cared about or recognized until years later. Stanley Kubrick’s friend Stanley Donen was such a one, a hoofer with a modest way about him who made what turned out to be an imperishable classic, Singin’ in the Rain.
No other cultural product used to work like this, certainly not books or the theater, but it is what gave Hollywood its air of being wide open and full of endless possibility. Of course, things were not quite so wide open as they felt—nothing ultimately devoted to profit is—but every year movies were being turned out by the hundreds for an ever-hungry audience, and to the young Stanley Kubrick this must have seemed a nut just right for his cracking.
And a good thing for him, too. Nowadays, when movies have become unbelievably expensive to produce and bankers have the final say, the ambition to make them must feel considerably more problematic to a young would-be. On the other hand, there is the virtually separate industry of “independents,” which includes everything from the projects of film-school students training their cameras on their own navels to the work of serious strivers who exhibit at special film festivals devoted to the as-yet unacknowledged; there is now even a TV channel devoted to their products. But for Kubrick, the last thing he needed in starting out was special indulgence for his professional eccentricities.
It is hard to date exactly when and how art with a capital A entered the picture business, though very likely the name of Orson Welles comes in at some point. Some serious film historians, like Richard Schickel, would set the date at the very beginning, with figures like D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin (whose own art was hardly to benefit, to put it mildly, from his having gained the idea that it constituted Art). But in a sense of the term that would be more relevant to someone like Kubrick, chances are that the longing to push out the envelope of entertainment was stoked by later developments.
Be that as it may, at some point, as Hollywood was breaking out of the tyranny of the old studio system, its culture was bitten with the bug of yearning for higher things. Directors assumed an importance they had never had before, and with directors in the saddle, their power enhanced by an ever-improving technology, could filmmaking—as opposed to moviemaking—be far behind?2
Some of the products of this new development benefited enormously from it; many movies certainly looked better, and could pull off more interesting stunts. And some were plain great, with a scope and sweep and beauty unmatched by any old studio film. But for some directors and producers, and especially, for some reason, certain clever Jewish boys from the big city whose real talent was for the odd or zany, the new dispensation was hardly beneficial.
Woody Allen comes to mind here, a man with a very particular and restricted talent for making silly fun of people like himself who grew puffed up and overambitious and mean-spirited as the praise by his claque of admirers grew ever more high-flown. And as for Stanley Kubrick, he went, as they say, the whole nine yards, from a true gift for what came to be called film noir to the aestheticized windiness of Barry Lyndon to the almost boyish obtuseness of Eyes Wide Shut.
This story, were it only Kubrick’s, would not matter so much. After all, he was not the first entertainer to be tripped up by his pretensions. But the story is not his alone. It involves a whole lot of people who have been only too willing to participate with him in creating the myth of his genius. It involves, that is, sycophantic friends, show-biz publicists and journalists, and, especially, reviewers, just as it has involved highly employable stars willing to jump at his beck and call and a gifted and successful screenwriter like Frederic Raphael, patiently submitting to endless demands for rewrites that he must have known to be ever more damaging to his work.
Everybody, it seems, loves to be mixed up with a Genius, even if his genius is of their own making. And to judge from the fate of Stanley Kubrick, a dead genius is best of all.
1 Eyes Wide Open. Ballantine Books, 190 pp., $12.00.
2 My own first glimpse of what was happening occurred at a revival house in upper Manhattan where the program notes referred to one of my beloved Westerns as the “third in the John Ford cavalry trilogy.”