EYES WIDE SHUT: GHOST SONATA – By Richard T. Jameson [Film Comment]

How are we supposed to watch Eyes Wide Shut? Really, how are we supposed to watch any Stanley Kubrick movie? Apprehension of so many of them has shifted between initial reviewing and years of re-viewing, of reconsideration from the vantage of a culture changed, often as not, by the films themselves.

by Richard T. Jameson

We might begin with Todd Field’s Nick Nightingale because, luckily or unluckily, Field’s been hustled out of movies prematurely of late. Disappearing summarily from The Haunting was surely a blessing in disguise, deliverance on the cutting room floor. But in Eyes Wide Shut he’s a fellow—like so many characters in Stanley Kubrick movies—we might expect to see more of before the final fade. Nick Nightingale, old med-school chum of our protagonist Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), is playing piano at the Upper East Side pre-Christmas party in Eyes Wide Shut‘s first major sequence. (To be sure, the nude rearview of Alice Harford / Nicole Kidman more than qualifies the opening titles as a major sequence, but you take my point.) Bill hails him and they reminisce briefly about old times. But though Nick never completed his medical training, it seems he’s ever on call, to authorities both petty and potentially terrible. He’s plucked from the narrative mainstream with barely time to leave a cue for Dr. Bill’s subsequent nighttown itinerary: the Sonata Café, in the Village and, just maybe, in a more distant time than even their shared past.
“Nightingale” seems a tad ornate, even for a guy who’s a night bird and who does make music. It’s just the Anglo-Americanization (for Kubrick’s New York is, of course, a facsimile somewhere in England) of “Nachtigall,” the name in Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, the source work from Freud’s Vienna that plucked at Kubrick’s attention for thirty years.
Yet the American ear in 1999 hears something more in the name: a nudge to be open to florid possibilities; an earnest of kidding on the square; an echo of the ghostly footsteps of another author, another medium, another era, another town, another language, another lifestyle. So when we do see Nightingale again—just too late to catch his set at the Sonata—we are not entirely surprised to find ourselves both titillated and tantalized by his presentation: from an intimate low angle and in symmetrically crepuscular lighting that lends him the look of a preposterous, cut-rate Satan.
Is Nick Nightingale a Devil-figure in Eyes Wide Shut? Not in any way that Kubrick could expect us to believe. Say what you will about Satan, he’s nobody’s pawn (save perhaps God’s), and old Nick’s in too deep to be Old Nick. No, he’s only wearing a mask; not Comedy, not Tragedy, just Temptation, on assignment from the Author. Bill Harford does all the work of seducing himself. Nick merely lets slip a password, “Fidelio”—apt signal to a husband who isn’t sure how errant he means to be at an orgy he may or may not succeed in crashing.
There are other things we could say about Nick, who is briefly but inconsequentially glimpsed at the orgy on Long Island, playing blindfolded (eyes wide shut?) as he said he would be. His most persuasive existence is offscreen, invoked or perhaps utterly fabricated: a man with what sounds like a normal life (wife, four kids, Seattle), taken away from his Manhattan hotel the morning after, a bruise on his face, by two men. The men represent “the authorities,” though they clearly wouldn’t be police. Hard not to think of Kafka’s officers of the Court and the end of Josef K., in another Mittel-European artwork, artworld. But the main point is that Nick—and “Nightingale”—is chiefly a figment, a pretext, a pun: at once a token of fidelity to a prior text and an index of stylization. His essence is that he has been translated.
How are we supposed to watch Eyes Wide Shut? Really, how are we supposed to watch any Stanley Kubrick movie? Apprehension of so many of them has shifted between initial reviewing and years of re-viewing, of reconsideration from the vantage of a culture changed, often as not, by the films themselves. That’s a measure of their impact on the artform and the audience, on how often the critics got it wrong. Add that not even Kubrick could know (could he?) that Eyes Wide Shut would be a posthumous release, Kubrick’s Last Film, an occasion more monumental and definitive than it already, instrinsically, would have been. So some of the early, almost self-congratulating dismissals of the film have taken on the air of dismissing Kubrick, too. He was, after all, an old guy—what could he have hoped to know of sex, orgies, contemporary society, or even New York, the hometown he may not have visited in nearly four decades? For that matter, what did he really know about filmmaking? It’s the Nineties, almost the new millennium; isn’t this 2 hour 39 minute movie awfully slow for audiences as hip as we?
Perhaps. Then again, what is “slow” and who decides? By that term, bad (re)viewers often mean “boring, overlong, unexciting”—whereas I would describe the film as compelling, engrossing, mesmerizing. Yes, Kubrick might well have trimmed it if he hadn’t passed away five days after a “finished” version was screened for the Warner principals and the stars. Yes, it might have mesmerized as well, or better, x minutes shorter. But slow isn’t necessarily bad. Slow can be a legitimate dimension all its own, a metabolism of legitimate life-forms and moods and experiences that couldn’t be viable at any other rate.
Once upon a time, The Shining was taken to task for failing to deliver the conventional horror-movie zap people were looking for, even as it drew us into a creepier metaphysical horror that reinvented the genre. Likewise, Eyes Wide Shut has been shrugged off for its woeful shortchanging of Cruise and Kidman’s boogie nights. Yet for all the nudity (digitally obscured and otherwise) of the Renaissance Italian orgy sequence, and for all the reverence for Kidman’s stellar nudity at several breathtakingly lighted moments in the early reels, the artistically radical visualizations of female privacy are two. One is very nude, indeed naked: the heroically forlorn sprawl of drugged-out Mandy Curran (Julienne Davis) in the chair in Ziegler’s…bathroom? bedroom? looking, at any rate, like a chamber of Bowman’s suite Beyond the Infinite in 2001: the wages of cold, heartless sin, and the sad lot of a playmate who, time and resiliency having run out, is about to be obsolesced. The other keeps the nudity under wraps, and yet Alice Harford’s end-of-main-title gesture—rising fully clad from the potty and brusquely drying her pubes under her gown with a wisp of toilet paper, while husband Bill checks his bowtie in the mirror—is perhaps the most startling theme-statement in cinema history. It defines the conjugally intimate precincts of the dream-drama about to occupy the next two and three-quarter hours.
“My name is Sandor Szavost,” says the blond chap usurping Alice’s champagne. “I’m Hungarian”—as though it were a credential and he an icon so pronouncedly abstract, he might shimmer away in the golden, “rainbow’s end” glow of the festive wall behind him · as he might have materialized from it, like Lloyd the bartender of the Overlook Hotel. Can you believe this guy? Can she? Probably not, and yet he is persuasive enough, definitive enough, that the question was asked in the first place. (And the actor Sky Dumont is deliciously funny.)
Eyes Wide Shut doesn’t insist on it, it’s too committed to its own imaginative reality for that, and yet almost no one and nothing in this film of a “dream novel” can be certified as “real” in any literal sense. Fair enough, and no problem: a film image is a film image is a film image, and dreams are a law and logic unto themselves—including, here, the ascertainability of just which Harford is dreaming when. Moreover, dreamers can be, if not bad, then very naïve artists. Eyes Wide Shut is often a funnier movie than its solemn critics appear to have recognized. Bill Harford’s penchant for encountering redheaded shadows of his beloved wife bespeaks a deep ambivalence about honoring his marriage vows and accepting the inevitability of so many attractive women finding him irresistible. Bill (and this plays to Cruise’s own strength / weakness) has a recurring ploy of repeating whatever someone has just said to him, then accompanying it with a chuckle he hopes will sound conspiratorial, rather than clueless. He’s compulsively into wordplay, as in his choice reply when the student / hooker Domino (Vinessa Shaw) asks him what she can do for him: “I’m in your hands.” It’s Christmastime in the Village—although pedestrians’ breaths don’t fog in the midnight air—and all work and no play make Dr. Bill a dull boy.
Just as The Shining‘s Jack Torrance was shunted off to the bathroom at the very moment he thought he was going to the party of his life, so the dream-current of Bill’s adventures is sometimes deflected. Going to Rainbow Fashions (cf. Alice’s dance in the rainbow’s end) to rent his orgy costume, Bill has to wait out the low comedy of the Serbian proprietor (Rade Sherbedgia) and his daughter (Leelee Sobieski), a nymphet seducing / seduced by / contracted out to a couple of pedophiles—in a wacky slippage of dream logic, Japanese sandmen bearing Chinese takeout. And though the progressions of Harford’s dream narrative are sometimes clockwork in precision—Bill’s gay-baiting by half a dozen college louts is immediately answered by the psychic rearmament of a gorgeous young woman (Domino) taking him in tow—at other times our “narrator” must resort to the threadbare dream dramaturgy of having a phone call interrupt the proceedings just when a situation threatens to become too erotically intense.
But the drollery goes hand in hand with an ineluctable aura of menace, figured most obviously in the hints of however-improbable Mabusian conspiracy that could bring “dire consequences” for Harford and his family. The 13-minute billiard room interview between Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and Bill “explains” a lot of what went before, confirms the identity and relevance of the masked woman who saved Bill’s life—which of course didn’t really need saving, just as her own demise had nothing to do with the “not just ordinary people” sponsors of the Somerset orgy. Reviewers have declared open season on this scene since, like Ziegler himself, it’s one of the few additions to Schnitzler’s original narrative. Yet the scene is essential, not only for enlarging Ziegler’s corruptness but also for its culmination of the push-pull, how-awful / well-no-not-really dynamics of the entire film’s waking-dream state. Ziegler’s explanation elucidates, demystifies, and leaves us profoundly unsatisfied; Schnitzler’s friend Sigmund Freud would have loved the way it simultaneously assuages and frustrates desire, the viewer’s desire, for narrative and voyeuristic closure. Whether cinephile Kubrick intended it or not, it’s a counterpart of the oft-disputed, now essential-seeming “explanation” by the psychiatrist at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho—really telling us more about Ziegler, and about Bill who needs to hear what Ziegler is saying, than about what really did or didn’t happen over the past two nights. It locks in the bad dreams, rather than dispelling them.
Kubrick’s final film is unique in his oeuvre for concluding on a note of apparent affirmation. The Harfords come clean with each other about their dream journeys and tentative infidelities, and hope for mature reconciliation. They may get it; sweet dreams. And yet the most positive notes have been sounded earlier, in the fleeting windows of potentiality that have opened from time to time as Bill wends his way through the enveloping mysteries of the city. The orgy is only the most outré manifestation of the grotesque, really quite silly lengths to which humankind will go to act out fantasies of fulfillment and dominion over themselves. Whereas connection can occur easily, tenderly, spontaneously, where and when no one was looking for it: the extra warmth of the café waitress who decides to give Nightingale’s address to Bill; the sweet pixilation of the gay hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) who gets to bask in, uh, “Bill”’s confidence for a moment; the dreamed yet also affecting rapport Bill strikes up first with Domino and then with her roommate (Fay Masterson). This is also the justification for the tacit bond—sad and foreshortened though it be—between Bill and the young woman whose extinction he briefly postpones, and in the presence of whose corpse he experiences the strongest erotic and spiritual urgency in the film.
Ziegler, like Hitchcock’s shrink, isn’t speaking the whole truth, but he isn’t necessarily lying all the time, either. That’s what’s so awful about him. Kubrick’s final dream can’t wish away the awful, but there’s consolation in it, too, and the only benediction available in the circumstances: “Nobody killed anybody. Someone died—it happens all the time. Life goes on, until it doesn’t.”

Film Comment, Vol. 35, No. 5, September/October 1999; pp. 27-28


1 thought on “EYES WIDE SHUT: GHOST SONATA – By Richard T. Jameson [Film Comment]”

  1. Good old Richard T. Jameson: always shows writing can be conversational, observational and analytic all at once, and never had to sacrifice style to be informative. That sets him aside from most cinema scholars and critics right there.

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