Sydney Pollack with the cue ball… Without doubt — in my mind anyhow– Eyes Wide Shut is not only Kubrick’s most gripping and refined film, but basically his very best. The persnickety problem of Dr. Strangelove always rears its head; the problem being that Strangelove is so good, how can anything be better? Besides, how can you even compare the two? You can’t, but I will say that Dr. Strangelove was perhaps more Terry Southern’s film than Kubrick’s, and the soda machine gag was just plain dumb. And remember, originally the film was to end with a pie fight; not Armageddon. Eyes Wide Shut on the other hand, has no dumb scenes. So, boo-ya-tay — Eyes Wide Shut wins. Of course many of you are scoffing already, falling victim to the “I hate Tom Cruise!!” mode of thinking which essentially blinds you to the monumental greatness of his performance. Batshit religious and psychological views aside, Cruise was the right and possibly the only choice to play Dr. Bill (though rumor holds that Steve “Cheaper By a Dozen Times” Martin was the original choice). Tom’s then wife/beard Nicole Kidman was equally fantastic as Alice Harford. And Sydney Pollack delivered up the performance of a lifetime. But let’s stop beating about the bush. Eyes Wide Shut is about one thing and one thing only; sex. Matt Cale named Last Tango in Paris as the greatest film ever made about sex. Mr. Cale also came up with a Worst of 2005 list without Duck on it, so even the great ones are prone to errors. Hell, I’ll go so far as to say that Eyes Wide Shut is also the greatest film ever made about marriage (Cale says Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Or, maybe I should just admit that if I ever were to find myself married, Kubrick’s vision would be my reality. At least I hope so.
Back when I was seriously studying Talmud (don’t ask) we would once in a while hear from a Cabbalist Rabbi. Not some dumb fucking New Agey Madonna/Kutcher-style Kabbalist dude, but, the real deal; Ecstatic maniacs that would run naked through the woods with tefillin wrapped around their erect-cocks in order to better understand God’s plan. Naturally, being young and impressionable, I always wanted to know more about these mystics and all the nutty stuff they were up to. But I wasn’t allowed. The Cabbala has a little known clause in it; unless you are male, forty-five years old and married, you can’t read it. Not that you physically can’t read it, but you won’t be able to understand what is written. It would seem to you that a paragraph was missing; the actual meaning will be lost on you (note: the Cabbala tells the size of God’s cock, so make of it what you will). That said, I posit that Eyes Wide Shut is lost on people who have not suffered for sex. You’re a virgin? You’ll hate it. Married fresh out of high school to the head cheerleader forty years ago and you’re happy? Rent Monster In-Law; you’ll appreciate it more. You and your buddies got arrested for breaking into an apartment to secure blowjobs from a woman you all knew prior (no comment)? This is your movie. For, when “Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” is bandied about in not-quite-so idle conversation, you know you are a dealing with a mature film about the one subject that is never talked about adequately.
As Freud said, “Every sexual encounter is actually between four people; we shall have much to discuss.” And we shall, but first I must get the technical mumbo jumbo out of the way. Eyes Wide Shut is stunning to look at. Kubrick, of course, was a perfectionist who once described teamwork as “a bunch of people running around doing exactly what I say.” And the result of that forceful hand was masterfully crafted films — truly some of the most remarkable in history. That sentiment, and every book ever written about the man will attest to that fact, is apparent in every single one of his films. From Spartacus on down. However, here, for much of the film, Kubrick, and only Kubrick, did everything. The bedroom scenes in actuality consisted of Cruise, Kidman and Kubrick; he was holding the camera, they were acting. Just the three of them. Remember, Eyes Wide Shut took an almost unheard of eighteen months to shoot. Sydney Pollack recalled/complained that the scene where he walked to from the billiard table to open the door took an agonizing two weeks. A five-second scene, tops. In fact, Harvey Keitel was organically cast as Pollack’s Ziegler (and Woody Allen was considered as a Keitel replacement) but had to drop out because of other commitments. Anyhow, it is often said that in movies, nothing is accidental and everything is intentional. This is doubly true here. Take the Harford’s bedroom. It being the perfect blend of store-bought sophistication that a Manhattan doctor’s salary will bring and the dull, slow and unavoidable creep of domesticity. Pretending the film is reality for a second, it is obvious that a professional was hired to design their room as it looks as if were straight out of a catalog. Yet, stacked everywhere are piles of CDs, video cassettes and other tokens of contemporary home life. The film was much richer for it. I can almost imagine Kubrick himself arranging the interior.
And then you have the lighting. When you say “Kubrick” and “lighting” in the same sentence, most film-liking folk immediately jump to Barry Lyndon, another under-appreciated Kubrick tour de force. True, Lyndon was lit only with available lights (think candles), but Eyes was also only lit with available lights (known in the biz as “practical lights). And I dare anyone of you to watch the scene at Zielger’s penthouse with the waterfall of Christmas lights and then still be able to tell me honestly that Lyndon was lit better; it wasn’t. Also worth noting was the persistent use of Christmas trees, both for light and as a motif. Theories abound about the allegorical use of Christmas trees in this film. Are they symbolic of renewal, fertility or the ubiquitousness of dull? You tell me; I just thought they looked great. As did the entire film. In fact, one (of many) counterpoints I will make to those who find the pacing of Eyes to be slow (I don’t at all), is just kickback and enjoy what your eyes are seeing. For it is simply gorgeous.
Now, the sex. Innocently enough, Dr. Bill and Alice attend a party at Ziegler’s pad. Alice is nearly seduced by the most charming piece of upper-crust Eurotrash to ever swim across the pond. I mean Concord across. Meanwhile, Dr. Bill nearly finds himself discovering “where the rainbow ends” (in the pants of two models). Before he can get his gold pot(s), he’s called upstairs to assist Ziegler. There we meet Mandy. She just shot up a speedball and OD’d. While he’s concerned about her, Zielger needs to get his pants back on and get back to his guests. Dr. Bill fixes her up, the Harfords leave, go home and get stoned. In this scene, which is one of the very best in the entire film, we learn what the story is really all about. Not just sex, but the infernal and unending jealousy that is caused by sex. Myth by cliché Alice tears Dr. Bill apart until she explains that not only are women just as horny and sex obsessed as men, but she actually creamed herself the summer previous just looking at a young Naval officer in a hotel lobby. And she does so in devastating fashion, proclaiming, “Millions of years of evolution, right? Right? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women… women it is just about security and commitment and whatever the fuck else! If you men only knew…” Here’s where it gets interesting; Alice explains that not only was she fully prepared to throw her marriage, her child and her future away for this good looking stranger, but she never loved Dr. Bill as much as she did that day. Most people will lie to you and themselves and cry, “Nonsense — how could she want to fuck the other guy and love her husband?” But, if we would allow ourselves to remove our self imposed masks and search our hearts, our true hearts, we know emphatically that, man, is that ever the case! Over and over again. This my friends, is the human condition. Buddhists are totally correct (and boring), we are driven by nothing save for desire. Thank God for that. Keeps things interesting, etc. Anyhow, besides being true, the performances of both Kidman and Cruise are world class, especially Cruise’s look of betrayed disappointment.
Dr. Bill is more than a little put out by Alice’s revelation and, as a result he sets forth on a whirlwind night (two really) of budding but ultimately frustrating amore. He tries to make it with a hooker (I need to point out that an ex of mine was up for the role of hooker. She’s a school teacher now) but a call from Alice nixes that. Determined, he convinces his old friend Nick Nightingale to tell him the location of a very secret gathering; one which causes Nightingale to comment, “I have seen one or two things in my life but never, never anything like this.” After procuring the necessary rigmarole for the party (a tux, a cloak with a hood and a mask), Dr. Bill sets out for deepest, darkest Long Island to find the orgy of all orgies. It will forever be a shame that the release of this film featured digitally altered group-sex shots. The common belief is that studio pressure stemming from the dreaded NC17 rating forced Kubrick to do the dirty deed. Probably, but the sad fact is that Kubrick caved. Anyhow, for those who have not seen Eyes, we are treated to (possibly?) an ancient pagan fertility rite, complete with backwards Christian hymns and dozens upon dozens of people fucking. Ten nearly butt-naked super hot women are masked and form a circle around a red-cloaked “priest.” With each tap of his gold scepter (though, a true Satanist would have used silver — thanks Jimmy), the women get more and more submissive. It ends with each passing a kiss to the women next to her and then they get up, grab a man or two and start the fucking. Yes, the whole thing is impossibly decadent and even if a party like this never existed, or worse, it absolutely exists but I’ll never be given the password, I don’t care. The fact that a bacchanal display like this is even in the consciousness of my fellow man fills me with great pride in my species. But poor Dr. Bill — he is an intruder and is found out. Mandy, the hooker from earlier, “sacrifices” herself to save the fish out of water Doctor and then turns up dead the very next day.
Stanley Kubrick, long rumored to have one of the largest pre-internet porn collections on earth, lets his passion be known Eyes Wide Shut. Every woman is breathtaking, every man seductive. Sex is everywhere, but because of his conditioning and lot in life, Dr. Bill gets none. And, the less he gets the more he wants — and it nearly destroys him. More importantly, it all rings so true! One of the many great projects I’ve come up with and then abandoned was writing an autobiography when I turned 30 that would be entitled, “How to Alienate Everyone You Love and Care About; With Your Penis” (another idea was to dig a trench across the top of Florida thereby separating it from the continental United States — please feel free to steal that one). As I was explaining to a friend of mine, I’m starting to enjoy the idea of orgies more than the orgies themselves. I hate maxims, but you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Why? Because we are so fucking flawed. I have little else to say (I’m lying — I could talk Eyes for days) except like most of Kubrick’s films, one or even two viewings of Eyes Wide Shut will not suffice. Think a dozen times. At minimum. As Spielberg mentions on this DVD’s extras (don’t ask), he didn’t like The Shining the first time he saw it. Now he’s seen it twenty-five times and it is one of his favorite films. I don’t remember if I loved Eyes Wide Shut the first time I saw it, as I have now watched it at least a dozen times. But I can say with great certainty and clarity that the film now stands as one of my favorite films and the pinnacle of a truly special cinematic career. And yes, I am coming back as Ziegler in the next life.