Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Currently Watching: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

For all the questions Stanley Kubrick posed to his audience during his nearly perfect career as a filmmaker who pushed boundaries, delighted in being esoteric, and frequently challenged the mediation and processing of the image, I think probably the biggest question mark still remains, what would "Eyes Wide Shut" have been if he had survived to finish it?

Though "Eyes Wide Shut" is considered his last "finished" film (he had developed "A.I." before his death; Spielberg finished what he began), he died four months before its release.  The film was cut into the form we have it today, but if Kubrick had been able to tweak it and edit it down some, perhaps rearrange scenes, would it turn out a better film?  Kubrick has always inspired a kind of mythology; reading production stories behind his films makes him out to be a kind of reclusive perfectionist, a notorious perfectionist who was largely unable to work with those around him.  The principal photography on Eyes Wide Shut alone lasted over a year and was kept highly secretive.

Watching it, one can't help but feel the master exceeded his grasp.  At its heart, the film is a disturbing, protracted and almost painful meditation on the complexities of ad-
ult jealousies and repressed sexual desires.  Though at times it seems needlessly meandering and overlong...that's almost a trademark of the auteur's best ("2001," "Barry Lyndon," and "The Shining" spend excessive amounts of time staring at nothing).  Even on a small, 17 inch computer monitor, the photography in EWS is overwhelming; Kubrick forces the 1.37 aspect ratio into severe disproportion by forcing the f-stop of his lens, using alternatively low and high fill light, and using complex (and often amazing) long Steadicam shots.

In many, MANY ways I think "Eyes Wide Shut" is the closest thing Kubrick came to making an "art film."  It doesn't have a cause/effect plot, but rather generates a psychological exploration, it uses silence and imagery to convey its story in radically different ways, ends in ambiguity, and is confronting the medium's construction and style... And as an aside, it's weird to think Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were married when they made this film.  That their marriage would later fall apart, that Cruise would collapse as Kidman gained fame (and the Academy Award Cruise has yet to win), makes EWS an ironic comment on their celebrity status.  Regardless, both are captivating in the film (especially Cruise, who pulls out all his "intense" faces - something I'm sure Kubrick loved him for).
I'm not sure where I come down on EWS.  Part of me loved it for its willingness to push the subject mat
ter.  Viewed on an allegorical level, a psychological, and a surrealist level, the film is actually pretty stunning and feels incredibly distinct from most American films of its period with its overlong shots, held-over edits and long dissolves.  There's just something about the film where the suspense feels stunted, where editing it down could have made it more effective, where the final 15 minutes or so just feel so anticlimactic that we get the point and yet it still feels too dull and drawn out.  Which begs the question, was this the rough draft, or the finished product?  The "director's cut" or merely the director's template?  These questions may never be answered, but all the better for it.

Part of what makes "Eyes Wide Shut" such a provocative piece of psychological interrogation is that we may never know everything about its meaning, its plot, and what Kubrick would have wanted out of it.  In that way, it stands up as one of the more alluring mysteries of our time.

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