Eyes Wide What? Part I
Stanley Kubrick's filmography is as good as it gets regarding the mesh of popular entertainment and quality of work. The only filmmakers I can think of who work this intersection as judciously are Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa and Steven Spielberg, and even they produced too much work to make their work mentally "valuable" due to scarcity, something Kubrick intentionally or not was the master at. All those men made impactful, memorable work, but like most of us, they also produced work that was largely forettable. Kubrick, on the other hand, produced very few duds (I only count Lolita and Spartacus as duds) relative to his great ones. For me personally, he ranks only below Ingmar Bergman regarding work that is meaningful to me personally and aesthetically without compare.
Like Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky, Kubrick made very few films, like Bresson and Tarkovsky, almost all of them are classics but unlike Bresson and Tarkovsky, Kubrick's films are well-known beyond the audience who seeks out serious film - my bias is obvious, I’m an American. My mom could care less about the art of film, but she's seen most of Kubrick's work either at home or, back in the day, in the theater. Your sister could care less about film but she knows multiple lines from The Shining and Full Metal Jacket.
Within Kubrick's catalog, there are three specific films that tend to produce the most debate and conversation, none having anything to do with whether or not they're actually good relative to the rest of his filmography.
First, though, as a Kubrick fan, here's my list of Kubrick's best work, in order:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Barry Lyndon
- Paths of Glory
- Dr. Strangelove
- Eyes Wide Shut
- The Shining
- A Clockwork Orange
- Full Metal Jacket
- The Killing
Kubrick has 5 other directorial credits and I've seen all of them, but these 11 are largely considered his legacy as a filmmaker. Although the last three have their merits, the competency gap between The Killing and Paths of Glory (1956 and 1957, respectively) is astounding. In fairness and in truth, budget obviously played a large part in this, but as the career of Quentin Tarantino has demonstrated, budget doesn't equal quality. Just as often a writer’s best work is a novella dashed off on a whim, economy and thrift often produce lean, powerful work. Not always, but often.
Paths of Glory was the first of what we think of as a Kubrick Film, and the seven that followed didn't waver from that descriptor.
The first three can be debated endlessly. Pound for pound, Barry Lyndon is probably Kubrick's best work in regards to what he set out to do and - this is important when armchair-quarterbacking Kubrick - what no other director could do and just as important, what no other director would have any interest in doing or even interest in entertaining the idea. In her derisive review of 2001, Pauline Kael implied the same thing about that, a different film.
Who would want to do it, why bother, and it’s funny thinking of Kubrick trying to solve this puzzle of his own design? Barry Lyndon and 2001 fit that bill.
Regarding Barry Lyndon, t is also largely unseen (2001 was the highest-grossing film of ’68, as slowly as it started off both on-screen and at the box office), and even with Criterion's beautiful edition released last year, it remains largely unseen, like so much of Thackeray's work grows more unread among the well-read by the day as time ... marches ... on. Barry Lyndon benefitted from years of Kubrick’s research and obsession with making Napolean, the greatest film never made (Kubrick also had this with A.I., and since he and Spielberg had so many conversations about the project, Spielberg made it when Kubrick died. Spielberg’s touch on Kubrick’s project created one of the creepiest film of the modern era, unintentionally I suspect).
Barry Lyndon is notoriously boring and slow (so too do many find 2001), which for its fans is part of its charm. It takes its time in the same way Thackeray’s novels do, and like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, its slow, leaden pace is an aesthetic choice by the director to weed out the riff-raff who may have accidentally stumbled into the theater. Tarkovsky famous said he would have made the mind-numbing slowness of Stalker’s first act 20 minutes longer if he’d been allowed, just to - paraphrase - weed out the aforementioned riff-raff.
Up front, I will admit a bias: in the last calendar year, I've watched two films repeatedly and continue to watch them: Barry Lyndon and Stalker. As recently as three years ago, I'd never seen either film. As is said, there is no louder fanatic than the new convert, and I admit just the same.
There is much notable about Barry Lyndon but I’ll not bore you except to say it is the only live-action film I’ve personally seen that produces shot after shot that looks like one of Vermeer’s oil paintings.
So, Barry Lyndon or 2001? The latter is transcendent in a manner that almost no other film created has ever been, and much more seen, thus its top spot and its continued regard in the decinial Sight and Sound Top 50 list. Kubrick did such a good job on it that some are convinced he was behind the footage of the moon-landing in July of 1969, which they also consider fake. They, not me - but the point holds. Kubrick's use of rear-projection was so notorious that it actually is a bit of a controversy in the film I'm going to discuss shortly.
Finally, there is Paths of Glory, but there is nothing controversial there, only memorable scene after memorable scene. It is the best of anti-war films, and although I’m largely anti-war (but not a pacifist), I don’t tend to like “anti-war” films. For the humanist, it is Kubrick's best work and it's not even close. The sick story of the folly of trench-combat and politicized battle remains one of the best films ever made. Duh.
So, those are the best three films the man made, yet they are largely kept in neat boxes - no large, crazy theories or room for left-field interpretation, the Star Child scene in 2001 notwithstanding.
Now, back to the topic at hand, Kubrick's most-discussed films in these here modern times, at least based on my experience:
- The Shining
- Eyes Wide Shut
- A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange is among my least-favorite Kubrick films, but it’s often discussed because when adolescent boys discover it, they cannot get enough of it (for that effect alone, it is the predecessor to Chuck Palahuniak’s Fight Club, and David Fincher’s perfect interpretation of it). Whether it’s influencing their Halloween costumes or fueling the obsession so many get with Anarchism and Fascism at that age, it will - along with The Shining - remain Kubrick’s most-watched work into eternity. Written by the English intellectual and notable numbers man, Anthony Burgess was appalled at the film and forever said he regretted writing the source matrerial. To make matters worse, Burgess’s novel had a 21st chapter, yet to the American audience, a 20-chapter film was given.
The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, on the other hand, are contuing topics of conversation among adult Kubrick fans who also dabble with conspiracy - I am one of those, but there are thousands more.
Children at heart, but really weird children.
In popular culture, two films are considered the scariest ever made: The Exorcist and The Shining, with Rosemary’s Baby occasionally thrown in the same way that Mad Men is always listed third after the eternal The Wire/The Sopraons debate about televised perfection (I’m a Wire man myself, but I think critical consensus give The Sopranos the edge).
The Shining is of course based on the novel by Stephen King, a novel that is primarily about King’s struggle with quitting drinking. Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining is, intentional or not, one of the biggest “fuck you” moments a filmmaker has ever dealt a writer, much in the same that Scott Spencer’s brutally beautiful novel Endless Love has been turned into two awful films targeted at two different genernations of young film-goers.
I don’t think Kubrick was malicious even though he was notoriously hard to work for, even Stephen King will be cursed to his dying day of being asked about the film version of very personal novel so often.
Shelley Duvall, who’d starred in a number of notable films before The Shining (Nashville, The Women, Popeye), barely worked again after The Shining. The infamous sequence of her backing up the stairs with the bat while Jack keeps saying “give me the bat” took dozens of takes, to the point that what we are seeing on screen is Duvall quite literally having a nervous breakdown - no acting was required at that point.
The primary issues with how Kubrick dealt with King’s work and immediately made it his own are obvious to anyone who read the book. In it, Torrance slowly goes mad from sobriety and cabin fever. Jack Nicholson being directed by Kubrick makes Jack appear insane at once, which to the film’s popular effect remains one of the best moments of casting synergy ever devised. Then there’s the flaming yellow Volkswagen, and so on - the meta-jokes are endless.
Although the fascinating but bad documentary about the film, Room 237, points out, when Jack arrives with his family at the Overlook Hotel and is waiting in the lobby to meet the hotel manager, he is casually reading a copy of Playgirl Magazine. There isn’t one moment of Nicholson’s screen-time where Jack Torrance doesn’t appear insane - even as he drives that long winding road (The Road to the Sun, in Glacier National Park, which I’ve driven and thus am compelled to mention) and listens to the idle chit-chat of his wife and son, it’s not dificult to see that the clock on his internal time-bomb is a tick-tick-ticking.
The older I get and the more I watch it, the more I debate myself about what it’s about. Madness and alcoholism, sure, but there is also the child abuse Danny suffers at the hands of Jack, which many on the conspiratorial side think is what it’s really about - the more you watch it, the more you realize that although you’d scarcely catch it in one viewing, the visual and verbal references to Jack’s abuse of Danny are numerous, none so creepy as when Jack ande Danny are sitting on the bed. Child abuse, neglect and trauma are a staple of three Kubrick films: The Shining, Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut; madness, of course, drives most of his films.
More pointedly, the younger me thought the story was about Jack’s descent into madness, but the older me realizes it’s Danny’s story about the horrific abuses he suffered under a father who was either drunk or maddeningly sober. Of the more bizarre, less-credible ideas about the film is the inevitable ‘it was all a dream,’ though theories abound whose dream it was. I don’t think it was a dream, but if it was, it was Danny’s nightmare.
Room 237 posits a few out-there but more ambitious theories. It’s about the Holocaust/Nazism, the genocide of American natives, and notoriously, that it’s an elaborate apologia from Kubrick for his directorial role in supposedly staging the footage of the moon landing in July of 1969. The first two are fairly weak, but there is a whole lot of strange evidence for the latter - whether Kubrick was doing it as an in-joke mocking people who for years believed this conspiracy theory or whether it’s actually true is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t really matter to me, but it’s a fun flight of fancy.
Amateurish as it is, Room 237 is fun in the proper context - mainly that you know going in you are dealing with full-blown obsessives with a hankering for seeing what often is not there and/or misinterpreting to comical effect what is.
My sister, my then-future brother-in-law and my sister’s best friend Cyd saw Eyes Wide Shut on the night it opened at the theater on the 16th Street mall in Denver in the summer of 1999 (John F. Kennedy Junior and his wife died in a plane crash the same weekend, just as Ted Kennedy drove his car off the bridge in Chappaquiddick the same weekend as the moon landing, just as the first sneak preview for critics and cast of Dr. Strangelove was cancelled the night of November 22, 1963, because Pres. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas earlier that day - and of course, my birthday is November 22 - as Dennis Hopper said to Christopher Walken in True Romance, “if that’s a fact, am I lying?”).
Anyway, Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s last film, and he died before it was released (per Wikipedia, he died 6 days after he finished his final cut). Controversy embroiled it immediately, in part because the jackasses at Warner used black sillhouettes to cover up certain actions at the masked orgy in the film’s penultimate scene in a desire to get an R-rating - apparently, they’d never heard of Midnight Cowboy, The Last Tango in Paris, etc.
The film blew through numerous actors duing its Odyssey-like shoot, and it remains the world-record holder for longer continuous shoot of a film production - 400 days. The film’s production itself would be a perfect project for Werner Herzog, or even more tantalizing, a documentary by Ken Burns (if you’ve never seen American Dad’s send-up of Burnsian perfection with the 86-part documentary Bicycles, you need to find it and see it at once).
It also likely led to the dissolution of the marriage of its stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who’d worked together previoulsy on Days of Thunder and Far and Away. Cruise’s acting is actually quite wooden in EWS, a result no doubt of Kubrick’s lust for take after take after take after take. Although the film is outwardly and primarily about Cruise’s character, Dr. William “Bill” Harford, it is Bill’s wife Alice, played by Kidman, who quite literally steals the film in every single scene she is in. I’m not a Kidman fan, but from the film’s erection-inducing opening shot of her dropping her gown to the floor revealing her perfectly nude body to her flirtation and near-seduction of and by an aristocrat to her final moments with her husband in the toy store (the scene that is the actual point of why I started writing this), it is not only her best work, but arguably the best work of any A-list actress whoever made the decision to join a film being produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick.
The film’s coda has two mysterious parts. One is his arrival home after a night of sexual exploration (where he never actually has sex) to find a mask from the orgy on the pillow next to his sleeping wife - his mask - and the other takes place in a toy store, where Kidman gives what was for me the most memorable speech in the film, and right in front of our lying eyes, their daughter is taken away by two men who were at the Christmas party.
Feel free to internally hear a record scratch. In this particular clip, it starts around, 1:30, but there are many just like it. At some point I will continue this, but for now, meh - Kubrick's sleight of hand is enough.