Skip to main content

Those were not just ordinary people there.

Eyes Wide Shut
(1999)

(SPOILERS) Eyes Wide Shut’s afterlife in the conspirasphere has become so legendary, even a recent BFI retrospective article had to acknowledge the “outlandish” suggestions that this was Kubrick’s all-out exposé of the Illuminati, an exposé so all-out it got him murdered, 24 all-important minutes excised into the bargain. At the time of its release, even as a conspiracy buff, I didn’t think the film was suggestive of anything exactly earthshattering in that regard. I was more taken with the hypnotic pace, which even more than the unsympathetic leads, made the picture stand out from its 1999 stablemates. I’m not enough of a Kubrick devotee to rewatch his oeuvre on a loop, but that initial response still largely holds true; I can quite respect those who consider Eyes Wide Shut a (or the) masterpiece from the director, but it can’t quite reach such heights for me.

Indeed, the picture in Kubrick’s arsenal I’d most likely place it next to, tonally and performatively (if not in terms of content), is Barry Lyndon. They both exert a similarly unhurried hold on the viewer, and both boast at best ambivalent, at worst outright dislikeable lead characters performed by fairly shallow “star” actors. In the case of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, I’m not sure either are interesting enough presences for such unremitting, relentless study (Steve Martin might have been a more offbeat but rewarding choice – considered way back in 1980, since the project had been percolating since the early '70s).

Which may be the point of the exercise, but there’s a view that everything Kubrick did in his god-like omniscience was honed to the max, and interviews with those closest professionally tend to suggest that just wasn’t the case, that vacillation and discussion were key ingredients (and re-editing his pictures once released). It’s why, while I appreciate and enjoy the likes of Room 237, I can only buy into subtextual readings of his films so much. Anyway, the choice of leads can focus directorial intent or it may end up overstating the Kubrick’s tendency to impersonality (in the case of Barry Lyndon, it’s said the director’s hand was forced to pick a Top 10 box office star, and first choice Robert Redford had turned the role down).

There’s also the idea that, rather than necessarily having controversial material removed from Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick didn’t get a chance to edit it enough. Both David Lynch and Christopher Nolan have come down on the side of feeling the film is not quite as precision engineered as it would have been had the director been able to spend more time with it. And I can certainly see that; I don’t have a problem with its length, but there is a sense that the climax comes with another seventy minutes left, making for a very long epilogue.

Which in turn might feed into the argument that there was a lot more intrigue in there at one point. David Wilcock claimed – he has claimed lots of things, of course – that a scene prior to the orgy saw Bill (Cruise) pass by an empty room with an altar and a pentagram on the wall (this site suggests a similar scene, but with a pentagram-like circle on the floor). He also thinks Sandor Szavost (Sky du Mont), who dances with Alice (Kidman) early on, is revealed as Red Cloak, the ominous overseer of the proceedings, with the argument of “Why else would he be in that early scene if he wasn’t going to feature later?” Which is a bit like asking why William Sylvester isn’t in the last chapter of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or the apes, come to that. Wilcock also believes Red Cloak – played by Kubrick’s assistant Leon Vitali – had sex with Alice during that sequence… Which makes no sense whatsoever narratively, in terms of later interactions between Bill and Alice. Which means substantial re-editing and extensive reshoots would have been required to fashion the sequence into the form we have, where Alice is clearly at home and oblivious to Bill’s excursion.

Others have suggested, understandably perhaps, that there was further footage at the ritual, in which the masked woman met a grisly end (Abigail Good played the character here, although were intended to conclude she’s Julienne Davis, seen in the initial overdose scene and later at the morgue). But the idea that Bill saw anything more than the lack of anything tangible he did see is undermined by his clear shock at the thought that she has been murdered, rather than taken an overdose.

Which leaves the suggestion that the other principle change was the ending, where the Harfords’ daughter Helena would be sacrificed and Bill and Alice would be shown to have joined the cult. Again, I can see where this idea comes from, as there are definitely peculiar and intentional undercurrents running through Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s the fact that all these elements are undercurrents, that Bill himself can’t put them together materially, that makes me doubt Kubrick intended to have anything so explicit ending the film.

The final scene we do have is quite weird and disturbing enough, once you take in the elements out of immediate focus; that amidst the couple’s intense conversation in the toy department, Helena is following a couple of old guys previously seen at the party at the start of the film, as a waiter from the same event steps between the Harfords and their disappearing daughter. In response to which, Alice shows no apparent concern. Now, I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting Alice is being abducted there – if anything, it’s more an intimation of what lurks ahead beyond the apparently innocuous surface of a familial status quo restored – but it is odd, and with Kubrick’s obsessiveness, the reuse of performers surely cannot be coincidental (the same is true of the drawing directly above Helena’s bed, which, once you see it saying “sex”, you can’t not see it).

The film has already made a great play of the Russian costumier Milich (Rade Šerbedžija) offering to sell Bill his teenage daughter (the coat lined with ermine line seems expressly designed for conspiracy theorists to seize upon). Taken in conjunction with other clues relating to a depraved world just out of the Harfords’ line of sight, the suggestion that Alice has some degree of suppressed family links to secret societies, even as an MK Ultra style victim, perhaps isn’t beyond the bounds of the possible (her vivid dream, the possibility that Szavost was triggering her during the party). There’s a good reason such apparently far-fetched theories persist with Kubrick; such themes are writ both large and small in his films (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining).

I’m a little less persuaded by harping on about Alice’s naval officer fantasy a being important because of the naval aspect, or the Yale jackets meaning exclusively Skull and Bones rather than “straight” frat boys, but it’s easy to see why even Newsweek has noted some of the elements in a piece that conveniently draws a line under the Epstein case while namechecking some of the more superficial theories relating to the film (in reference to the faked Kidman interview, from the highly inventive YourNewsWire.com, it is notable that there are boggling allegations relating to her deceased father, which could be why that fake interview was placed in the first place). And in furtherance to these themes, it’s impossible to ignore that Kubrick had, for a long-gestating period, planned to make A.I. Artificial Intelligence, about parents desirous of having an eternal boy who would never grow up, a film Spielberg made that studiously ignored the implications thereof.

Could the worst-case theorised scenario be accurate? That Kubrick somehow managed to get the entirety of Eyes Wide Shut made before anyone realised what he was doing – presumably, what he was putting on celluloid wasn’t in any draft script seen by any bigwigs – and he was only then bumped off at the last moment, when the extent of his revelations was discovered? That a depraved ending was filmed but removed? These things are, of course, possible, even given that Kubrick was a life-long smoker in his seventies. And that his films are frequently designed to be opaque rather than explicit (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining), so the suggestion that all would have been clear if these alleged 24 minutes hadn’t been lost rather goes against the grain of his filmmaking ethic. The empty room scene seems quite plausible, however, and we know there was a cut scene with the family in a boat. The rest? Well, I’m not convinced. There’s quite enough lurking in the picture without that.

Naturally, as with any movie that has, in one way or another, spawned its own myth and mystery, there are counter-claims. Such as R Lee Ermy’s – disputed by all and sundry – that he spoke to the director two weeks before he died, and “He told me it was a piece of shit and that he was disgusted with it and that the critics were going to have him for lunch. He said Cruise and Kidman had their way with him – exactly the words he used." Which is different, since usually it’s attested that Kubrick’s influence was the other way round (causing his cast and crew frustrations, probably Shelley Duvall being top of the list; the stress of playing Bill reportedly gave Cruise an ulcer). So Ermy’s probably about as reliable as that Kidman interview. Others have suggested the opposite tack with regard to Kubrick and the Cruises, from the bizarre – that the director was trying to engineer the failure of their marriage, as if he didn’t have better things to do – to the at least curious; there’s a thread of undermining Bill’s heterosexuality, from the Yale frat boys baiting him to Alan Cumming’s flirtatious clerk. Albeit, it might be conversely argued that Bill is a sexual magnet to all, barring his wife.

At the time, one of the big criticisms of Eyes Wide Shut concerned its antiquated exploration of relationship mores; Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post amusingly labelled it “the dirtiest movie of 1958”. It does rather feel as if the attitudes and behaviours of the Harfords are closer to Traumnovelle’s 1926 setting than 1999. Tom does get very agitated by a fantasy. But it’s also difficult to believe the affected air wasn’t intentional on Kubrick’s part, unless his faculties had waned considerably between Full Metal Jacket and this, like Woody Allen permanently setting his pictures in a milieu that bears no resemblance to anything contemporary outside of his own head, was the bewildered result. But the picture is very deliberately treading a line of not-quite reality, of artificial interiors and waking-dream paranoia; in that context, the exaggerated jealousies and provocations within the relationship actually come across as pretty much of a piece (one can take such reasoning only so far, however; the notion of an intentionally fake looking New York, when the background was Kubrick’s Anglocentric aviophobic status, may complement the ambience, but that’s more luck, in a way English roads doubling for Parris Island is not.

For me, Eyes Wide Shut is fascinating, but ultimately not hugely compelling. Which again, puts in a similar category to Barry Lyndon, and where I came in. The supporting cast, be it Pollack, or Šerbedžija or Cumming, fare much better than the main couple (as per Lyndon) and the picture does rather feel like it is indulging an hourlong comedown, as watchable as that hour is. Once can but speculate how things might have been different had Spielberg not stolen Kubrick’s thunder with Schindler’s List and the latter had gone ahead with Aryan Papers in 1993/4 (he had already cast the lead). He might well have picked up Eyes Wide Shut subsequently, but there is a feeling to it that comes across of forging ahead with a (any?) project after others have floundered (much as Barry Lydon saw him channelling ideas from the aborted Napoleon). 

Some see Eyes Wide Shut as a fitting culmination of a career’s worth of conspiratorial themes (exposing the workings of the elite in a relatively innocuous manner). I tend to view it as the last work of a master craftsman who hadn’t quite settled on material equal to his talents for a couple of decades. It’s a shame Umberto Eco’s feelings with regard to adapting Foucault’s Pendulum were misrepresented to Kubrick, as that might have done it all, satisfying the conspiracists, providing a plot worthy of the director, and dispensing with any need for Dan Brown adaptations.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ (or Zootopia as our American cousins refer to it; the European title change being nothing to do with U2, but down to a Danish zoo, it seems, which still doesn’t explain the German title, though) creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). It’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

So credit’s due to co-directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (of The Simpsons, Futurama, and latterly, the great until it kind of rests on its laurels Wreck-It-Ralph) and Jared Bush (presumably one of the th…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…