Eyes Wide Shut's Images

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:24

    The Photographer's FinalFrames Every Stanley Kubrick moviecame down to an image, or a set of them, searching for two things: its own meaningand an appropriate dramatic elaboration. The fact that both searches were, inany given film, seldom entirely successful has not diminished the power of hiswork; in fact, it has bolstered it, especially for those who, against the tideof our commodifying culture, believe that art is more about seeking than finding,and more about dreaming than knowing. The image had primacy, andit was, to be sure, a particular kind of image. Of Kubrick's own legend, themost important mental image we have (no doubt a physical version exists, butI have created an imaginary one from reading about his life) is the first onethat belongs to the public sphere: At age 17, a kid from the Bronx, he becamea photographer for Lookmagazine. I picture him in his darkroom, camerasto one side, hunched over a developing tray, avid, happy; I find this imageenormously touching, and I think that it explains a good deal about the (moving)images that came later. He was a gadget freak; heknew everything about lights, lenses, gear. But that's not the essential thing.If you've ever worked as a photographer you know that the greatest pleasurecomes not in the shooting but in the developing and printing afterward. Thisis not only where you get to finally see the fruits of your labor, it's alsowhere you get to control, to manipulate your medium most directly; to create,in a very personal way. Shooting, no matter how much you plan and scheme, isalways prey to circumstance. In developing and printing, though, you have thematerials literally in your hands and can go back and recreate the image countlesstimes, in innumerable variations, until you get exactly what you want-justthe right texture in the photographic grain, say. A detractor-and Kubrickhad surprisingly many for a supposed critics' favorite-might call him an overreacherwho should have been the world's greatest cinematographer. I would offer thisinstead: More than any other great director in the medium's history, he wastied to the photographic image and to a philosophy of the image like that whichmade big deals of magazines like Look and Life in the decadesafter World War II: a philosophy that sought to combine the news photo's vitalitywith art's virtuosity. Some months before EyesWide Shut, Kubrick's last film, appeared, a one-shot clip from it was madepublic. You've probably seen it. It shows Nicole Kidman, nude, face in profile,standing before a mirror, as Tom Cruise, also nude (both are seen from the waistup), approaches her from screen right and starts kissing her; she gazes pasthim strangely, with an air of mysterious distraction. As an indication of theimage's primacy in Kubrick, this canny little ad does nicely; not only is itinstantly striking, it also conveys the film's mood of chilled eros and thebasic kernel of its story, a tale of matrimonial disquiet and its dreamlikerighting. But what I perhaps will remember longest about Eyes Wide Shutis also what I noticed first about this one shot: the image's grain. It is larger than the grainone sees in most current movies, and that was surely deliberate; these daysone must go out of one's way to avoid perfection, which most cinematographersequate with unnoticeable grain. (Kubrick, I assume, used a fast Kodak stockthat was pushed in the shooting and then processed to bring out the grain. Thecumulative effect in Eyes Wide Shut includes the use of fast, supersharplenses and the equivalent of overexposing the image by a stop or half-stop:This makes bright lights-which festoon the film like lights on a Christmas tree;many, in fact, are-bleed out, and gives the blacks and heavier colors a pleasinglyvibrant, undersaturated quality.) But why go to the trouble, if the object isto dip below nominal state-of-the-art norms? Well, Kubrick knew thatgrain entices and involves the eye; if you want your film to cast a spell, youcan do worse than to start with the subtlest of visual seductions. Another considerationis that grain equates with visible brush strokes in painting: Both offer constantreminders of the art's physical processes, and of the artist's touch. But Ithink it comes down to this, too: Kubrick believed fervently in the beautyof the photographic image, a beauty that at times leaves us breathless becauseit is so close to the beauty of the world, whose whirling atoms and galaxiesappear as grain when pressed under the camera's glass. It would be too much, certainly,to suppose that Eyes Wide Shut sprang solely from a desire to registercertain visual textures, a certain photographic ambiance, in a movie. Yet sucha supposition does, I think, get us closer to the motivating center of his workthan do the analyses of our more literal-minded critics, simply because it returnsus to the avidity of that bright 17-year-old. Yet this is also where theessential Kubrickian dilemma begins. Picture him again hunched over that developingtray, staring at a particularly striking image and dreaming, even then, of turningsuch a picture into a movie. For that to happen, two things must occur. Theimage must be assigned a meaning, because audiences and young, intellectualartists alike cannot do without meaning; and the image's emotional power mustbe elaborated into a story. Neither of these thingsis easy, and neither came entirely naturally to Kubrick. He was always betterat articulating the image than at converting it to ideas and drama. In fact,you might say that his struggle to accomplish both conversions constitutes thereal drama in any Kubrick film, above and beyond what the story gives us. Willhe succeed and transport us to unimagined narrative realms even as he explainsthe universe to us? Or will he fail and be dismissed as a misanthropic intellectualposer obsessed with gadgetry and control? To be sure, our judgments in suchmatters say more about us than they do about him. Kubrick's own drama was notabout making firm, sensible judgments but about escaping them; every one ofhis films is about a man (or Man) slipping the hard grasp of rationality. Dr. Strangelove and2001: A Space Odyssey are his masterpieces because they are the filmsin which a gadget freak's obsession is allowed to dominate both the ideas andthe story. And yes, that's a half-serious way of saying that I think that thereis no more important theme in this almost-expired century (and the art thereof)than technology, which has taken us to the moon and to Auschwitz. Kubrick'stwo greatest films, which are surely among the medium's, take this theme tobinary, Blakean extremes, imagining two possible outcomes to humankind's technologicalprecocity: species extinction and species transcendence. But after you've been tothe end of history and this evolutionary cycle, where do you go? Kubrick, likemost of us, could think of nothing better than to go home. From the mercilessperspective of showbiz, his grandest creation unquestionably was the Kubrickmystique, the impression of solitary genius (the adjective being so attachedto that noun in the public mind), which had everything to do with distance anddeliberate aloofness. His reclusiveness in rural England, from the 1960s on,was what the wags said death was to Elvis: a superlative career move. It allowedhim to work, brought the world (and its money men) to him on his terms,as would never have happened in Hollywood. It also gave him a purchase on hisart very much like that of a photographer alone in his darkroom. Yet this is where the mainparadox of his later films resides. The photographic philosophy at the heartof his work implies an adherence to the real. But the conditions he constructedto safeguard and further his art meant that he worked almost entirely in artificial,hermetically enclosed circumstances. Centered on space travel, 2001 ishis single greatest film in part because its artificial environment is natural,indeed, unavoidable. The other films are all a mite uncomfortable with theirforced disconnection from the world, and all deal with (or avoid) it in differentways. Eyes Wide Shut comesoff as a de facto companion piece to The Shining. Both films take theenclosed moviemaking environment as a ready made stand-in for home; both treathome as a metaphor for marriage; and both use the constraints of marriage asthe pretext for a psychological odyssey by the male partner (a female-centeredKubrick film can hardly be imagined). Only, where The Shining pointstoward despair and death, Eyes Wide Shut aims at romantic reconciliation.One is a comic nightmare, the other a dark dream. Adapted by Kubrick and FredericRaphael from Traumnovelle, a 1926 novella by Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler(whose La Ronde was filmed by one of Kubrick's heroes, Max Ophuls), EyesWide Shut opens on an evening when Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and hiswife Alice (Nicole Kidman) attend a swanky New York Christmas party, where separatelythey do some serious flirting with other guests. The next day, while smokingpot, Alice challenges Bill about what he did at the party, and when he saysthat he would never cheat on her because he loves her, she responds by almostangrily confessing a powerful fantasy of infidelity prompted by a Navy man sheglimpsed the summer before. (Recalling a similar monologue in Citizen Kane,this speech is the movie's strongest dramatic moment and a great credit to Kidman,whose work in Eyes Wide Shut is as fine as Cruise's is prosaic and stilted.) Thereafter, Bill embarkson his odd nocturnal dream-journey, which plays out as a series of strange encounters:The daughter of a patient comes on to him just after her father dies; he hooksup with a hooker but doesn't have sex; a musician pal tells him of an exoticorgy to be held later at a Long Island mansion; he has a Kafkaesque episodein acquiring the costume he needs for the orgy; and then he arrives at the mansion.Like the film itself, this "orgy" so circumscribes eros with ritual,guilt and menace as to render it wholly antierotic. Set among figures wearingcloaks and masks out of a Venetian carnival (hello, Casanova), it beginsas a liturgical travesty with a red-cassocked, censer-swinging hierophant atits center, surrounded by statuesque masked babes in heels and g-strings. Aside from the room's Moorisharchitecture and the Arab music ("Islamic" is current movie shorthandhand for decadent sensuality: see the odious 8mm, etc.), the vibe isheavily Catholic. (I wouldn't know, but perhaps the film is a documentary onwhat off-season weekends are like in the Hamptons.) Bill gets an eyeful andthen gets found out; amid intimations that one of the babes sacrificed herselffor him, he flees-all the way back, eventually, to Alice and full disclosure,with both partners emerging grateful that they have survived their separatedetours into sinful might-have-beens. If you wanted to parse thiscrudely, you could say that sex outside marriage is a tempting but icky no-no.If you wanted to grant it greater elegance, you could say that every marriagerequires endless surrenders of self-interest (the woman who really sacrificesherself for Bill is not that masked babe, of course, but Alice), and that illicitfantasies are legitimate ways of venting disallowed desires. And if you wantedto put a reflexive cherry on top of all that, you could notice that movies functionmuch like those fantasies; they reconcile the real and the imaginary. None of this is wildly original,let us admit. And a few of the film's elements, such as Jocelyn Pook's hokeyscore, are surprisingly lame. Yet the experience of watching the film and thinkingabout it later underscores the extent to which Kubrick's genius always residedsomewhere just beyond the horizon of ideas, words, stories, even formal perfection.When all is said and done, Eyes Wide Shut casts a spell that's as evanescentyet as distinctive as the grain on the film's carefully controlled surface-aspell that belongs to cinema, and that may well not survive the disappearanceof celluloid. Reeling "It wouldn't be happeninglike this if Kubrick were alive," said a friend in the business of thestrange way Warner Bros. was rolling out Eye Wide Shut to the press.And that was before the matter of the digital fig leaves arose, a prospectivecontroversy that is still playing out as I write this. Following is a view fromthe film's opening weekend. On Monday, July 12, Warnersheld a smallish press screening in New York at which those of us in attendancewere told beforehand that we were being shown the film's "international"version, and that the American version, containing digital images inserted togain the film an R rating from the MPAA, would be ready within two days. Afterwe saw the film we were, as promised, shown a one-minute segment that featuredan unfinished (i.e., not color-corrected) version of the altered scene. The scene in question showsTom Cruise's character walking amid copulating couples at an orgy. Unaltered,there's nothing hard-core about this and, of course, being Kubrick, it's beautifullyshot. In the altered version, there are six instances (one a repeat) of digitallycreated human figures, nude and cloaked, inserted into the image to obscurethe sex. When I saw the unfinished version of the alterations, I thought theylooked glaringly fake. When I saw the U.S. version of the film, on July 14-whenmost of the New York press encountered the movie for the first time, and Warnerssaid not a word about any alteration-the color corrections had been done andthe effect was much less noticeable. But noticeable is not the issue here. Theissues are: 1) Did Kubrick really approvethese digital blots on his careful photographic canvas? Mr. Meticulous, 90-takes-for-a-single-scene,fussy-about-every-composition Kubrick? Various people connected with Warnersor the film have been letting on to the press that the director himself knewof a threatened NC-17 rating before his death and devised this solution to avoidit. But where's the proof? And if Kubrick set all this in motion before he diedin March, why was the work being done four days before the film's release inJuly? Here's an alternate scenario.Kubrick in March gives the studio what he feels sure is an R version. Warners:"Close but no cigar, Stan, looks like we'll have to insert some digitalfig leaves to please the MPAA." Kubrick: "Over my dead body." That is a jest-it's nottime to call in Oliver Stone just yet, perhaps-but it's also not much more far-fetchedthan the official version, which proposes that in the four days between whenEyes Wide Shut was submitted to Warners and Kubrick's death, someonedetermined that the MPAA wouldn't give it an R and relayed that news to Kubrick,who then devised the digital solution and decided on implementing it to theexclusion of other possibilities (like reshooting the offending passage). Theone thing you can say about the latter scenario is that at the present momentit's very convenient to both Warners' image and its investment in Eyes. 2) The MPAA system is scandalousand this film could and should have been used as a battering ram against it.Films like 8mm and The General's Daughter, which hinge on thesadistic sexual torture, rape and butchery of women, get R ratings, but Kubrick'sfinal work is defaced because of a few seconds of nonexplicit consensual intercourse?It's fucking ridiculous and it shows why the whole system needs to be overhauledor scrapped. Warners had the chance to make a stand here that might have benefitedeveryone, but it elected to go for the big-money opening weekend instead. 3) The response of the entertainmentpress to this story has been embarrassingly slow and lame. What the Postprinted on Thursday (in John Podhoretz's column) smacked of studio disinformation,and Bernard Weinraub's short item in the Times the next day was justa less egregious version of same. So far no one has done any digging to findout if what's being represented as Kubrick's intent and doing really was. Willthose hard questions get asked? 4) There's lots about thismatter that has yet to surface, but one thing is glaringly evident already:Warners has handled things in a way that inflames suspicions about its own honesty,judgment and stewardship of Kubrick's work. To top off everything, the filmopened the same week that longtime Warners heads (and supposed Kubrick champions)Terry Semel and Bob Daly announced their departure from the company. Coincidence?Stay tuned.