Friday, December 24, 2021

Merry CrimesMas: Scott Adlerberg on Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick adapted Eyes Wide Shut from the novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story),written in 1926 by the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler.  A contemporary of Sigmund Freud’s, who read his work and admired it, Schnitzler specialized in stories that depicted sexuality frankly. Stanley Kubrick read Dream Story in 1968 and fell in love with it, obtaining the film rights, though in the way of Kubrick, not one inclined to work fast, he didn’t get an adaptation going until decades later, when he hired Frederic Raphael to write a script. I first saw the film on its opening night in 1999, and I remember going into the theater feeling the utmost excitement it is possible to feel before seeing a film. As had been the case for years, every Kubrick film was a major event because he made so few movies, and for Eyes Wide Shut there was the sadness of knowing that it would be the last time I would have the chance to experience one of his films for the first  time. After nearly a year and a half of continual shooting and an extended post-production period, Kubrick screened the film for Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and the Warner Brothers executives, and then died six days later. 

I remember finding the film very strange, even by Kubrick standards.  From 2001 on, and especially with Barry Lyndon, he hadn’t done a movie with fast pacing, but unlike with his other films, the deliberateness of Eyes Wide Shut irritated me somewhat. There’s a repetitive nature to the encounters that Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford keeps having, and these got under my skin. They’re frustrating and off-kilter. They thwart desire. And yet I found these annoying adventures engrossing. The movie runs 159 minutes, and yet, at that viewing, it felt longer. But my attention had not once wandered. I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen a film I liked a lot or judged hard to endure, and at the same time, I felt satisfied with this conflicted reaction. Dream story indeed! The film had enveloped me like a hypnogogic experience cum nightmare, though I kept debating in my mind whether or not Kubrick had fallen prey to the fallacy of imitative form. Remember that from English class? 

Had Kubrick not only depicted frustration and disgruntlement in his central characters but done so by evoking it in his audience? 

So twenty two years go by, and other than catching a snippet here and there of Eyes Wide Shut on cable television, I didn’t see the film again.  By contrast, every other Kubrick film from Killer’s Kiss on, I’ve seen multiple times. “One day, one day,” I kept telling myself, “I’ll return to Eyes Wide Shut,” but not until Jed invited me to write a CrimeMas piece did I watch it in it entirety again. And right off the bat, I’ll admit it’s not precisely a crime film. But it has enough illicit activity to be close enough to a crime film, and there can be no question whatsoever that it is a Christmas film.

But getting back to Arthur Schnitzler for a second. It’s worth pointing out that in 1999 when I saw the film, I had not read the novella. I only read what critics wrote of it, the main point being that Kubrick had taken an Austrian work from the 1920s and changed it to one set in New York City in the 1990s.  As I told Jed, I intended to read the source novella before revisiting the film, and having done that, I have to say that though the film retains its distinctly Kubrickian oddness, the unmistakable Kubrick tone, the long takes, the eerie intensity, it also functions as a scrupulous adaptation of the original story. Kubrick (and Raphael) did add an important character to the film – Ziegler, the wealthy guy played by Sydney Pollack – and make slight changes here and there, but for the most part, in how its plot unfolds and in the sexual dynamics it explores, Eyes Wide Shut hews closely to Schnitzler.  Except that Schnitzler sets his story during the carnival season in Vienna, and Kubrick, as I’ve said, goes all in on Christmas.

There’s no carnival in New York City, so that’s one reason Kubrick needed to change the holiday backdrop. But why go specifically with Christmas? For starters, it helps establish a dissonance between the hope and good cheer one associates with the season and the goings on in the film. Has there ever been a more somber and dread-filled Christmas movie than Kubrick’s? At the lavish party that opens the story, a holiday celebration thrown by Ziegler, the guests look stiff and joyless. They could be ghosts dancing in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel ballroom. The party sets the stage for the discussion Bill and Alice later have that sparks their marital crisis, and it’s at this party too where we see the first linkage in the film between sex and death. “Yuletide is the season for an obsession with Eros and Thanatos” could well be this film’s tagline, or it could be “Sex is all about power and money,” since every sexual encounter we see in the movie, including the orgy scene, revolves around both these things. Christmas is a time for family? Eyes Wide Shut shows us the Harford family struggling with its tensions, a piano player at gigs in New York though his wife and kids are back in Seattle, and a father who pimps out his adolescent daughter. We all know how Christmas has become a time of commercialism run rampant, its spiritual basis, for most people, downplayed, and in line with this, Kubrick’s film presents one  transactional  exchange after another. Time and again, Bill Harford is offering money to someone for a service he receives or wants. He offers the young prostitute money even after backing out of sex with her; he wakes the costume store owner late at night and says he’ll overpay to get the mask and tux and hood he needs; he gets the cabbie to wait for him outside the Long Island mansion’s gates by saying he’ll pay him a hefty sum. Even in the scene when Alice does homework with the Harford’s daughter, money is central, with Alice reading  the math problem they’re doing aloud: “Joe has two dollars fifty.  Mike has one dollar and seventy-fivecents. Joe has how much more money than Mike?

Above all, though, this is a film suffused with Christmas lights. Offhand, I can’t think of any other movie ever made with so many Christmas lights in it. Nearly every location in the movie, besides the house where the orgy takes place, has colored holiday lights. Kubrick uses them to light the scenes, not unlike how he used candles to light Barry Lyndon, and they serve to give the film a dreamy feel, a netherworld quality. And this makes sense since the New York City Kubrick creates, mainly from sets in England where he filmed the movie, is a blend of time periods. It’s part 1990s New York and part 1920s era Vienna and part the 1950s New York (like with the Greenwich Village jazz den Bill visits) that Kubrick lived in when he was young. It’s a New York that’s not quite New York, subtly hallucinatory, a landscape of the mind you could say. But as Christmassy as the film looks – the lit-up tree in the Harford’s apartment gets plenty of attention – virtually no seasonal music is heard. Classical music of varying levels of melancholy and creepiness dominates the soundtrack, and not until the last scene do we hear a single Christmas song or melody, a subdued version of Jingle Bells when Bill and Alice take their little girl Christmas shopping at the toy store. We’re surprised to see a few people smiling, and not just the children checking out the toys. Still, most of the adults passing Bill and Alice as the couple discuss how to move their marriage forward look like they are conducting business.  And they are, of a sort; they’re engaging in the ritualistic consumer enterprise that makes up holiday shopping.  That’s not to say there is no hope. The best gift Bill and Alice can give themselves for Christmas is the act Alice says she and Bill should do, a four-letter word that is the perfect word to end the scene that ends the career of Stanley K. 

Merry Christmas from Kubrick?
 Not exactly. But I consider that I gave myself a present by finally watching Eyes Wide Shut again. Three decades later, I am certain that Kubrick did not fall victim to the fallacy of imitative form. The movie flows much better than it did on first viewing, and I feel I have lots more to explore here. I can see it becoming, in Decembers to come a regular Christmas watch for me.

Scott Adlerberg is the author of four novels, including the psychological thriller Graveyard Love and the historical revenge tale Jack Waters. Every summer he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film series in Bryant Park. He lives in Brooklyn.


E. Ellis said...

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Best wishes in the New Year....

jedidiah ayres said...

Thanks so much, Eric. I'm glad you've found something worthwhile here. I often feel like I'm blathering into the void. Best to you in 2022

E. Ellis said...

You are so welcome and I can't express enough how many programs and movies I have enjoyed from what you write about and so many of them too often fall under the radar and unjustly so.

One great thing about streaming is a good percentage of the items you highlight can be found somewhere.