Thursday, July 16, 2009

Saving Stanley Kubrick

A Slight Alteration to "Eyes Wide Shut" (10 Years After the Fact)

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick's final film, "Eyes Wide Shut." He died after delivering his first cut of it, and because emotions were running high and it was the director's own initial assemblage of the film he'd spent two years making with the two most bankable stars in Hollywood (who'd formed a familial bond with the Kubrick family), it was declared that that assemblage—rough, with obvious redundancies and a bit pedantic—would be Kubrick's final word on the subject.

The movie went through its scheduled post-production process (where it actually was digitally altered to achieve a contract-specified "R" rating in America), and opened to some of the most blistering reviews of Kubrick's storied career (filled with blistering reviews). Some even went so far as to say "
Eyes Wide Shut" cast a pall over Kubrick's life-work—as if this one film could negate the effect of his earlier ones. The sad fact of the matter is there's only one thing wrong with "Eyes Wide Shut."

Stanley Kubrick died.

He was found, sprawled at his editing table by his family, his meticulous sleepless schedule finally proving to be too much for his 71 year old body. He was warned to pace himself and to take it easier. But, Stanley Kubrick rarely took anyone's advice without an overriding dose of his own input. He worked around the clock.
Just as he would have if he'd lived.

"Wait a minute, Nick.  I'm sorry.  Am I Missing Something Here?"

All of Stanley Kubrick's films went through a rigorous and brutal post-production process, which usually involved previews and the disciplined editing of sequences that slowed the film down or, in retrospect, undercut the movie. The list is legendary: The final pie-fight in the War Room as Armageddon enveloped the world in "Dr. Strangelove"; several sequences in "2001" of life on-board the Discoverythe daily routine, and a slightly altered shot-for-shot recreation of Frank Poole's prepping for his fatal EVA (which came right after the Intermission); "Barry Lyndon" lost a candle-lit sex scene between Ryan O'Neal and Marisa Berenson; "The Shining" lost an entire performance by the great Anne Jackson (I managed to see this before orders came down to cut that part out), as well as an enigmatic coda hospital scene between Danny, Wendy and Mr. Ullman (the late Barry Nelson); large chunks of "Full Metal Jacket" were shot and never used. Kubrick would work on his final cut of the film up through and even after the film opened in theaters—gauging audience reactions, looking for that perfect length that told the story he wanted to tell without causing audience-impatience in theaters.

"You're a Long Way from Home..."

And "Eyes Wide Shut" was a special case to the point where the audience lost the point. It's taken me nearly ten years to figure out "Eyes Wide Shut," because the Truth of it (appropriately) was looking me right in the face. "Eyes Wide Shut" is a dream-movie in which a jaded husband is confronted with the shocking news that his attractive wife...might actually be attracted to other men. Over the next few days, he risks everything—his marriage and his life—in the obsessive quest to...what? To make real—for him—what his wife just imagined. The rest of the movie is a yin-yang in which Cruise's Dr. Harford (named, according to scripter Frederic Raphael, because they were writing it with Harrison Ford in mind) nearly has extra-marital sex, and seemingly the rest of the world tries to prevent it—in any way possible.* But nothing gets through. As the title implies, his eyes are, literally, wide shut.** Deliberately not seeing.***

When I say it's a dream-movie, I'm not being film-theorist florid—the film is a repeating set of the self-obsessed Dr. Harford walking down long corridors of his own mental maze of mirrors that reflect internally in scenes (paintings on the wall reflect the situation in the rooms), or with other scenes (the film takes place at Christmas and one constant of the set-design is Christmas lights, whether they are string of multi-colored lights, or curtains of white lights their appearance reflects on scenes taking place in similarly illuminated places). But, again, no matter how well-lighted the areas, Harford is not seeing. The Rosetta Stone for this one is the late scene with Cruise and Sydney Pollack where Pollack's Victor Ziegler tells Harford to very bluntly knock it off, let it go, go any further and you're going get hurt, and the scene takes place in Ziegler's rec room. The center-piece of this room is a red pool table. You can't help but notice it, and notice that the color is wrong—not the traditional green. Why did Kubrick do that? He obviously did it on purpose; it was no accident. He did it so that YOU would notice it. "It's not green, it's red!"

"Guys, you're looking at me. You're looking at each other. You need to look at the table!"

And in films, as in that other means of public manipulation—traffic, "Green" means "Go," "Red" means "Stop" (Next time you look at Hitchcock's "Vertigo," keep that in mind). And in this scene, something traditionally green is deliberately red. Something that should say "go," says "stop." And for much of the scene, Dr. Harford is staring straight at it, but not seeing it, or paying too much attention to the explanations of Ziegler. He only becomes aware of just how self-destructive his path is when he goes home, and a symbol of his outings—the mask he wore to the elite orgy at which he very nearly lost his life—is on the pillow next to his sleeping wife (instead of him, it doesn't need to be pointed out).

His errant search has come home to roost. It is then—and only then—that he breaks down and 'fesses up. In the final scene, we're not sure of the fate of the Harfords on a family outing (to presumably
F.A.O. Schwarz, though the entire movie was filmed on British sound-stages) as they surreptitiously talk around what they both finally know about each other. Alice sums up her feelings: "I do love you and you know there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible." What's that, says the cowed Harford.

"What's that?" Wait a minute. Hold that thought.

Have sex, basically. But that's not what she says. She uses the common term for it, and for some reason (for me, at least) it's a groaning let-down. After all the dancing and the cloaked conversations and the surreptitious "I'm not going to say what I mean, but I mean to say it" talk, the last line thuds down with the hammer-like subtlety of an "F-bomb."

Which is what is. Honest it may be, yes, (which makes it stand apart from the whole of Harford's dialogue), but in a movie that toys (ahem) with an ephemeral dream-state, that plays with the Mystery of Sex and by delineation the Mystery of Women, and the Mystery of the Mind, to end on so blunt an anglo-saxon term is not only wrong-headed, it seems inadequate as the last word for the movie, subject and director. There's something...dissatisfyingly ordinary about it.

To me, as brilliant as the movie may have been before, that last moment feels disappointing and hollow, things that rarely could be said for the endings of Kubrick movies. It so hits the nail on the head (while seeming oddly prudish) that it feels like it should end another movie, the one that the preceding (mystery-explaining and literal) red pool-table scene (in the form it stands now) is trying so desperately to deflate.

And so, I would—meekly, humbly, still an acolyte of Kubrick's—suggest an alternate ending. It's barely an alternative. It's merely a substitution.

I suggest it knowing that, as a solution to my qualm, it's problematic to be sure and for audiences it may have been disappointing, but rather than Alice's direct reply, it might have been better to just hold on her face and fade into a sequence that is already dropped fairly innocuously and somewhat counter-intuitively into the assemblage—the teaser-trailer footage of a naked Alice in front of the mirror, to be joined by a naked Harford and their subsequent love-making which ends with the enigmatic look of Alice's as she considers them both in the mirror... the Kubrick stare at the camera, the mirror, herself—the ultimate private Unknowable, the one thing that Dr. Harford shouldn't take for granted (and does/is still doing/will always do). That eye—that window to the Soul—that he cannot know and will never know...and in the typical Kubrickian maze-trap, is destined to keep circling again...and again...and probably again. Cut to black. The scene's song-backdrop "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing" (a song suggested to Kubrick by Kidman) takes us to the end of the Main Credits, ending with one of Kubrick's silent "thud's" and the credits are finished up with what's there now—the Shostakovich "Waltz 2 from Jazz Suite."

That's my solution to a problem that a great many people feel doesn't exist. They feel that "Eyes Wide Shut," as is, is what the director intended and are content with that. I may feel that way some day. But I still wonder what Kubrick would have done further, given the one thing even a perfectionist like Kubrick couldn't control—time. Maybe it's my own way of mourning his loss.

It's like the story about
Billy Wilder and William Wyler leaving director Ernst Lubitsch's funeral. "Well, no more Lubitsch," said Wilder. "Worse than that," said Wyler. "No more Lubitsch pictures."

No more
Kubrick pictures
, either.

It's less direct to be sure. And it ends on what the audience expected to see—"Tom and Nic' gittin' it on,"**** but ends with that most appropriate of images: an askance angle of Kidman

Kidman channelling Kubrick himself for her less-challenging "Kubrick Stare"

* The movie's central trap for the hero is, as always, one of his own making. But, this time, as in "2001" the Universe is attempting to rescue him from it.

** The title comes from a buried phrase in, of all things,
John le Carré's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (le Carré , or I should say David Cornwell, was a close friend of Kubrick's).

*** Kubrick shows his hand early. We're allowed to see Kidman naked in the title sequence, and then when the Harfords are dressed and on their way to Ziegler's Christmas party, she asks him "How do I look?" "Perfect!" he says, not looking.

**** It may be a bit of a cheat—Kubrick used the sequence as a teaser trailer—a great one—that probably oversold the movie as a sexy romp (after all, wasn't "
Full Metal Jacket?" *ahem*).

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