Sunday, September 8, 2013

Where the Rainbow Ends: Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (Part 2)

I always enjoyed representing a slightly surreal situation in a realistic way.  I have always had a penchant for fairy-tales, myths, and magical stories.  They seem to me to come closer to our present-day experience of reality than realistic stories, which are basically just as stylized.

Stanley Kubrick.

A Fairy-Tale for Adults.

Before beginning a proper analysis of the film, I'm going to look briefly at what type of film Eyes Wide Shut is.  Of course, a Kubrick film is always primarily a Kubrick film, but EWS is more difficult to categorize than many of the others - it isn't too reductive, after all, to call 2001 science fiction, or The Shining horror, or Full Metal Jacket a war (or anti-war) film.  Part of the difficulty in assigning EWS a neat generic pigeonhole goes back to its source, Arthur Schnitzler's weird, beautiful 1926 novella Traumnovelle (also known as Rhapsody: A Dream Novel or simply Dream Story.)  Schnitzler was an experimental and hugely controversial author and dramatist who worked as a doctor in Vienna during the disillusioned twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Schnitzler's work was controversial because of its frank and consistent preoccupation with the psychology of sexuality.  Vienna in this period was of course the epicenter of a revolution in the opening up and airing of previously hidden dimensions of dream and sexuality, and Sigmund Freud believed that Schnitzler was arriving by means of creative intuition at the same submerged material which he was slowly discovering through practical work with patients:  "I have gained the impression that you have learned by intuition - though actually as a result of sensitive introspection - everything that I have had to unearth by laborious work on other persons."   In some senses, EWS follows Dream Story very closely - we have a married couple, Dr Fridolin and his wife Albertine, whose relationship becomes strained after they have an intimate conversation about their sexual feelings towards other people.  A jealous Fridolin embarks on the same series of nocturnal adventures as Bill Harford in the film; he nearly solicits the services of a prostitute, and encounters an old friend (Nick Nightingale in the film, Nachtigall in the novella) whom he follows to the mysterious costumed orgy.  A dream novel is perhaps the best way to describe Schnitzler's novella; like EWS it draws us into an ambiguous world which never quite seems real and never quite seems a dream:

"And again it crossed his mind that his body might already be carrying the seed of some fatal disease.  Wouldn't it be absurd to die because a child infected with diphtheria had coughed in one's face?  Perhaps he was already sick.  Didn't he have a fever?  Wasn't he perhaps lying at home in bed this very moment - and hadn't everything he believed he had experienced been nothing more than his delirium?"  (Dream Story.)

Another effective way of describing Dream Story (and EWS) might be as a fugue - both in the sense of the dreamlike and potentially prolonged dissociative state, and in the musical sense of a composition which establishes a central theme which recurs in different voices throughout the piece.  Fridolin contemplates prolonged fugue-states and the ambiguity between dreams and reality in Dream Story:

"True, such things happened very rarely, but they had been authenticated none the less.  And in a milder form they were experienced by a great many people.  What about when one awoke from dreams, for example?  Of course, there one could remember....But there were also surely dreams which one forgot completely, or which nothing remained but some mysterious aura, some obscure bemusement.  Or else one remembered later, much later, and could no longer tell whether one had experienced something or merely dreamed it.  (Dream Story.) 

An earlier incarnation of Eyes Wide Shut: Schnitzler's Dream Story was adapted by Wolfgang Gluck for German television in 1969.  These pictures are all I could really discover of the earlier version:

From a generic viewpoint, the best descriptor for EWS might be as a fairy-tale for adults.  In one very common narrative type of the fairy-tale, a protagonist leaves a state of comfort and security and undergoes a trial in the form of a journey and series of adventures, usually culminating with the protagonist attaining some goal or higher stature, and the restoration of their initial state of security and ease.  The adventure usually takes the protagonist to strange, enchanted, and liminal territories such as deep woods and ogres' castles, where guile, trickery, and disguise are often employed to avoid disaster.   During the course of these adventures, various interlopers may both test and provide magical aids to the protagonists.  These magical helpers are called donors, and commonly take the form of fairy-godmothers, spirits of departed parents, and animal helpers.  This type of fairy-tale thus resembles the hero's journey or narrative of initiation; they show us characters who are tested by dislocation and ordeal, and thus attain greater self identity and sufficiency.  In the sense characteristic of Shakespearean comedy, they lose themselves to find themselves.  It's easy to see how this template can be applied to EWS.  Bill Harford leaves the middle-class securities of his professional and family life, and enters a nocturnal realm which is liminal and enchanted in the sense that the outer world cannot be easily separated from his own inner anxieties and fantasies.  There are several donor and magical helper-figures - Nick Nightingale who gives him the password to enter the ogres' castle, a more sinister variation in the proprietor of Rainbow costumes, and finally the most significant of his helpers, the mysterious woman (presumably Mandy Curran) who sacrifices herself at the orgy so that he will be saved.  Other elements of Eyes Wide Shut suggest fairy-tale motifs: Bill Harford's costume, whose mask finds its way uncannily to his pillow in the last act of the movie, feels like a somewhat sinister echo of the enchanted gown and slippers by which Cinderella effects her gate-crash of the socially exclusive ball; the mansion where the orgy takes place might be likened, from the perspective of an adult male, to the house made of confectionery in Hansel and Gretel, a treacherous space that promises maximal indulgence and gratification:

"Doors on either side opened, and through one set Fridolin recognized the shadowy outline of Nachtigall's figure at the piano, while the room opposite was suffused with dazzling light, and there the ladies were standing motionless, each with a dark veil covering her head, brow and neck, and a black lace mask over her face, but otherwise completely naked.  Fridolin's eyes roved hungrily from sensuous to slender figures, and from budding figures to figures in full glorious bloom; and the fact that each of these naked beauties still remained a mystery, and that from behind the masks large eyes as unfathomable as riddles sparkled at him, transformed his indescribably strong urge to watch into an almost intolerable torment of desire."  (Dream Story.)

In some senses, then, Eyes Wide Shut can be seen as an initiatory adventure or hero's journey for Bill Harford.  However, as we shall see, Kubrick has subverted this formula.  Harford's adventures in EWS present him with the opportunity to better understand how the world works and the nature of his position within it; they afford him the opportunity to exhibit the courage and integrity of a traditional film hero (the name Harford is, after all, a construction after Harrison Ford).  Both these opportunities he appears to reject, and in the movie's conclusion we suspect that he has passed through the wild wood and returned unchanged, back to precisely the position he started from.

 Crime and Ambiguity of Perception: Eyes Wide Shut and Blow-Up (1966). 

As I argued in the previous installment, EWS operates as a kind of optical illusion, presenting a different thematic focus depending on which elements you place in the fore- and which in the background.  The explicit themes are matrimony, monogamy, sexual fantasies, and jealousy; the more hidden subject matter reiterates the sexual theme, but places it a context of power, wealth, and corruption, and how these forces objectify, commodify, and exploit sexuality.  These themes are explored through a series of ambiguities.  Are Alice's fantasies regarding the Naval officer, though never consummated, somehow as real and significant as her actual marriage to Bill?  Are Bill's nocturnal experiences real or just a projection of his troubled and jealous psyche?  Similarly, is Alice's dream of her sexual promiscuity and scornful humiliation of Bill just an involuntary concoction of her unconscious, or is it instead a revelation of her true desires and feelings towards her husband?  Again and again, EWS encourages us to ponder two questions which in some respects mirror one another: are dreams and fantasies somehow as real in their emotional intensity and significant in their implications as actual reality? and does our actual experienced reality sometimes become a projection and a play of the obsessive forces which dominate our inner lives and imaginations? 

These questions relate primarily to the matrimonial theme; with regard to the underlying theme of power and corruption, the most important ambiguity relates directly to the plot.  Was the sacrifice ritual in the mansion merely a parlour farce designed to frighten away outsiders, or was it in deadly earnest?  Was Mandy Curran actually murdered?  This aspect of the movie allows us to consider EWS in relation to another sub-genre of film which I've always had a particular fondness for: films that hinge around the ambiguity of whether or not a crime was actually committed.  Traditionally, crime films focus on some aspect or other of the mechanics of a crime: who did it, how did they do it, will they get away with it, and so on.  In Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), much of the suspense derives from the ambiguity of whether Stewart's character has actually witnessed a murder, or merely created a narrative out of misinterpreted visual cues in order to assuage his boredom.  Of course, Hitchcock defers to generic form, and the murder is not imagined - but in so far as the film explores the limitations and ambiguities of both its protagonist and viewers' visual perceptions, Rear Window can be seen as an early precursor to the type of ambiguous crime film we are discussing here.  The crucial film, of course, is Michelangelo Antonioni's iconic 1966 feature Blow-Up, in which the Italian maestro warped the conventional thriller scenario into a sustained exploration of the unreliability of human perception.  At the time of its release, all most people saw in Blow-Up was its scandalous depiction of mod London in full bacchanalian swing - but the film was only superficially a creature of its zeitgeist.  It had a profound effect on other filmmakers, becoming a canonical cinematic text and inspiring a whole cycle of films - Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and De Palma's Blow Out (1981) explored tape recording and sound in the way Blow-Up had photography and vision, and Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Profondo Rosso (1975) similarly riffed off themes of murder and the unreliability of human perception and memory, the latter even borrowing Blow-Up's star David Hemmings.  It is interesting to note that many of these ambiguous crime films deal like Eyes Wide Shut with the idea of wealthy or political elites getting away with murder - Blow Out and Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way, both released in 1981, are suffused with post-Warren Report, post-Watergate despair, paranoia, and conspiracism.

I've always felt, however, that EWS had some special affinity with Blow-Up, and thinking about the two films lately, I've come to the conclusion that Kubrick almost certainly had Blow-Up on his mind when he was making EWS - that one of the things Schnitzler's Dream Story plot allowed him to do was create his own version of Antonioni's canonical cinematic text.  Blow-Up is the story of dissolute and cynical fashion photographer who, in the course of a more or less typical day of work, self and world loathing ennui, and sexual debauchery, wanders into Maryon Park and photographs a couple having a tempestuous encounter.  Later on, Thomas returns to his flat and begins to blow up individual frames from the park photographs, and becomes convinced that he has captured a murder on film.  Let's look at some of the interesting parallels between the two films beyond the ambiguous crime motif.  The overall structure is remarkably similar: both take place in compressed time-spans (Blow-Up covering roughly 24 hours, and the main action of EWS occurring in 48.)  In both, the protagonists have a series of seemingly random and aimless adventures which turn abruptly into a murder investigation.  As a result, both films have a kind of symmetrical doubling of locations and action; Thomas and Bill both return to each of the scenes of their initial experiences, to the enchanted locations where the crime (or dream of a crime) took place.  For both characters, the supposed murder seems to briefly offer them a way of making their lives more meaningful.  For Thomas, it snaps him out of his boredom and disgust with life, and awakens a kind of obsessive, creative, and artistic spirit long dormant in his glamorous but empty life as a fashion photographer; for Bill Harford, the idea of Mandy's sacrifice introduces an element of selfless morality into the otherwise sordid and dehumanized reality he has discovered in the course of his nocturnal adventures.  Both investigations end with resignation, Blow-Up with Thomas watching a troupe of mimes playing tennis on a park green, and Eyes Wide Shut with Bill watching Ziegler playing billiards.  Thematically, both films are concerned with the misogynistic and sexually exploitative character of capitalist society, with the commodification of sex and transformation of woman into doll-like objects.  Some other ironic resonances: Blow-Up was deemed to be far too permissive and sexually explicit when it was released in 1966; in 1999, when all the anarchic and disruptive energies of the 60s had been safely co-opted and commercialized, Eyes Wide Shut was criticized for not being sexually explicit and shocking enough.  There is an interesting inversion between the protagonists of the two movies: Bill Harford is a monogamist trying unsuccessfully to be a philanderer,  whereas Thomas is clearly bored and exhausted by sexual permissiveness.  Bill never gets to where the rainbow ends with the two models he encounters at the Christmas ball in Eyes Wide Shut, but in one of Blow-Up's most iconic scenes, Thomas' encounter with another two models is not similarly thwarted.


Continued Shortly.

No comments: