Mixing memoir and cultural criticism, Joseph Natoli examines Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut"

Mixing memoir and cultural criticism, Joseph Natoli’s Memory’s Orbit examines the intersections between a wide range of films and current events, finding its theme and orbiting narrative structure in the personal stories we live within and their relationship to the social and cultural order. The author covers here Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

by Joseph Natoli

Long Island, July 1999

Who are the members of this dim hell fire club, anyway? Bill is told that if he only knew who was behind the masks he would lose sleep. Apparently, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been frolicking in Long Island mansions.
—David Den by, “Last Waltz”

First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.
—Ancient Wisdom

Please, Bill, no games.
—Victor Ziegler, Eyes Wide Shut

I go to see Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut twice in two weeks, once alone and once with Elaine. She falls asleep on part of it: the part when Victor Ziegler is explaining to Dr. Bill Harford all that has really been going on. It’s the denouement, the unraveling of the mystery, if you felt there was a mystery. The scene is supposed to answer the question, “What the hell has been going on?” Immediately following this scene, Bill returns home and tells all to his wife Alice. Then the last scene, a Christmas shopping scene, and a final bit of closure dialogue between Bill and Alice. What they’ve both learned from it all. It’s even less interesting than Ziegler’s calm, rational explanation of what everything we had seen meant. I don’t care for either metanarrative. I’ve seen the film; I don’t need the cover-up alibi for what I’ve seen. Ziegler’s tone is patient, more than slightly condescending and patronizing, cloyed with the dominating manners—from the way he handles the pool balls on his custom-made red cloth pool table to the way he caresses his tumbler of twenty-five-year-old Scotch—of a man who lives in a house the size of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has a billiard room the size of my house, and can summon and dismiss people according to his mood. Bill and Alice’s final-scene review of what’s happened to them lacks all that upscale clan, but they arc equally rational and composed. “No one day or night can capture the full complexity of life.” “Reality and dream have both taken us on paths to recognition.” To roughly paraphrase the lessons they’ve learned, and which I suppose we should have learned also. But these seem to me to be bullshite analogues for a film that has already expressed itself in ways that have nothing, or very little, to do with either Ziegler’s directive as to what went on or Bill and Alice’s rush to thread their marriage back together—with words.
Resentment propels this film and directs it, the kind of resentment that fills Edward Norton’s alter ego, Tyler Durden, in Fight Club. Tyler resented a society that lays a veneer of apparently sensible discourse on a ruthless war of all against all. He resented how that veneer of the “right and the reasonable” had already been shaped in such a way that while it shackled the Have Nots, it could never constrain the Haves. Indeed, we are all being rational, right, and realistic within the wealthy’s configuration of these; we’re brought up within an order of things that confirms and assures a lopsidedness that favors those like Victor Ziegler and all his hooded friends out there at that orgy on the Somerton Estate. And meanwhile, the new generation, represented by Bill and Alice, are taken on an initiation journey into the reasonable­ness of this order of things.
Put aside your focus on the “theme of jealousy” or the “theme of women’s desire” or the “theme of men’s desire” as having only personal scope, that is, of everything in the film being there in terms of Bill and Alice’s relations, their marriage, their lives. Now pan back as Kubrick did in Barry Lyndon, where Barry’s personal exploits are part and par­cel of eighteenth-century English life; as he did in Dr. Strangelove, where whatever is personal explodes immediately into the cultural vibe of America at that moment, as he did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and even Lolita. What do you see? You see a filmmaker obsessed with working from the personal to the broadly social/cultural; a filmmaker trying to capture the cultural imaginary of the moment; a filmmaker who takes his source text and films it to bring out its widest implications and extensions into the social/cultural milieu. All personalities and personal dramas arc played out on this panoramic staging; to get at the social/cultural he takes a close focus on the personal, to varying degrees in his films. There is less of the personal focus in 2001, Full Metal Jacket, and Dr. Strangelove than there is in A Clockwork Orange, Lolita, and Barry Lyndon. Nonetheless, Kubrick’s Lolita captures the repressions and obsessions of the 1950s as well as Dr. Strangelove; A Clockwork Orange captures the anarchy of the 1960s; and Barry Lyndon plays into class issues still extant in the present. The scope of Kubrick’s mise en scène is never narrow. Why now, in his last film, should we treat Eyes Wide Shut differently, as if this is a film to be seen and judged as if it were Bergman delving into the “lyricism of obsession”?
If we pan back to reveal the intersections of the film’s mise en scène and our own American cultural one, we in essence see the film with eyes wide open. To sec it with eyes wide shut is to not only keep oneself masked but to agree to keeping the masks on those “who if we knew who they were we would lose sleep.” Perhaps it is better to remain asleep with our eyes wide shut if we wish the order of things portrayed in this film to continue. But let’s say we were like Tyler Durden, full of resentment and wanting, Ahab-like, to break through the mask and see what’s really there. Imagine, if you will. Dr. Bill Harford with the temperament of Tyler. Replace if you will Alice and Bill, young upscale con­sumers who have the manner of the jejune Dan Quayle at the moment of his vice presidential selection—not one real life experience—with Tyler, around the track too many times and on the wrong end of too many real life experiences. In other words, instead of seeing the film as if you were Bill and Alice—who don’t laugh in the Hungarian seducer’s face and tell him to go back to his own century, who crumble when a comedy of masked orgiasts try to get tough, who say nothing when a friend is called a cocksucker and a prick, who teach their daughter how to figure who has money and who doesn’t—instead, in short, of seeing the film through the eyes of people who have position and things but no depth—see the film unmasked. Because clearly Kubrick is sending up not only Bill and Alice but a whole society which not only tolerates a new order of oligarchical decadence but is incapable of seeing it, of critiquing it. The means to critique remains since the 1980s in America less significant to the new generation than shopping, cell phoning, investing, collecting, networking (in pursuit of self-interest), e-mailing (avoiding face-to-face contact in an increasingly “disaffected” society), surfing the Net (to shop), listening to your Walkman, and generally doing all you can to increase your net worth while doing all you can to avoid profit­less time spending. What the latest fad is for spending and displaying your wealth is a major pursuit. Everybody is looking for it.
And so is Dr. Bill. His journey into the night is set off by the image of his wife with another man, but the journey soon goes down familiar paths of self-gratification. Maybe he goes with Domino the prostitute because he wants to do what the over-the-top Hungarian seducer says all married couples should do: cheat on each other and so keep the game even. Bur it seems like Bill is the same way with Domino as he had been earlier on with the two models at Ziegler’s party, before Alice had intro­duced jealousy to him. Here’s an enjoyable titillation, his actions seem to say; ditto when he’s with Domino. Only Alice’s unexpected phone call brings him to a reconsideration of what’s he doing. Later, when he returns to Domino’s apartment and finds her roommate Sally there, he hits on her fast enough. And it doesn’t seem like he’s doing it to get even with Alice. It seems like he’s doing it for the sheer pleasure of it. Recall Ziegler’s party at the very beginning of the movie: they don’t know why they’re invited. They don’t know anyone. This isn’t their “set,” but they’re thrilled to be there. Alice knocks back champagne so fast she’s tipsy right off the bat, and vulnerable prey for the old seducer. Ziegler’s party is a Christmas party: Contrast his tree with the two other trees in the film: the one in the Harford apartment and the one in Domino’s apartment. There’s a study in class divisions. Who’s really celebrating the spirit of Christmas? The old lecher trying to get Alice upstairs for a quickie? Victor Ziegler, who sneaks out on his wife to get naked with an ex-beauty queen, Amanda Curran up in a bathroom only half the size of my house? Bill, who forgets about his wife and enjoys the attentions of the models trying to seduce him? Clearly, if jealousy is what the film is all about, we spend a good deal of time amid a disturbing decadence, a lot of time contemplating the Winners feeding all their appetites.
Pursuit of pleasure and not a motivating jealousy is what Bill’s journey is all about. The matter is sealed as soon as he looks Nick Nightingale in the eye and says, “If you think I’m going to let you go to that party without taking me, you’re crazy.” What Nick has told him is that he’s seen a lot in his time, but lie’s never seen women like he’s seen at these parties. That’s enough for Bill. He’s on that like the Hungarian gigolo was on his wife. It’s not, then, a question of needing a Bergman to direct the finer subtleties of jealousy; Kubrick just isn’t interested in that. It’s just something he’s picked up from Schnitzler’s novel. And jealousy has its place in his mise en scène of 1990s wealth and decadence: jealousy is sure to crop up in a marriage when both are first pursuing their own gratification, are always in the market for upscaling their pleasures. What, indeed, keeps Alice from going upstairs with her charming seducer? His approach hasn’t caused Alice to laugh in his face, which seemed to me the first and most obvious response to such “come up and sec my etchings said with a foreign accent” line. She hasn’t gotten angry at him for treating her like meat in a meat market, as if beautiful women were just prey who expected predators to come at them. She shows him her wedding ring. It doesn’t mean a thing to him because he already surmises that the self-indulgent do not indulge in any bond forever, that when given the opportunity to indulge, they indulge. There is in this new world of old decadence only a skin-deep understanding of the word “fidelio.”
“Fidelio” is the password that gets Bill into the Somerton Estate orgy. Here’s how the ritual of Christmas is now celebrated, how it has been restaged in the 1990s. The enormously wealthy—the peers of Victor Ziegler who attend the orgy—are engaged in constructing a new mythos that gratifies their palate much more than the existing ones, like Christianity, for instance. Instead of a priest in sacred garb at a decorated altar with incense and organ-playing, what we now have are cloaks and masks, a ceremonial conductor with a staff, chanting, and organ-playing. And, beautiful naked women, also masked. Communion is now not the eating of Christ’s body but the coming together in every way possible of an enormously wealthy and powerful man with a beautiful woman—or man. There’s no mystery as to who these masked peo­ple are: Ziegler tells us that they are people he does business with, his friends, his associates, his ilk, his class. And lest we underestimate their wealth and power, Ziegler tells Dr. Bill, who would seem to 80 percent of Americans to be living extremely well, that he was way out of his league. Masked and behind iron gates. When Bill returns to Somerton, curious about Nick’s fate as well as the woman who has interceded for him, he never gets past the gates. A message warning him to stop asking questions is handed to him through the gate. What do they look like?
Kubrick shows us in the early scene, when we see Ziegler putting on his pants and hooking up his braces over a naked torso. They look like Ziegler: aging dudes lusting after young bodies. Aging dudes with lots of money. But at the same time, while we know them, we don’t know them, just as the bulk of Americans today don’t know how life is lived behind the Somerton gates, or in the Ziegler mansion, or in any of the places Nick Nightingale has been taken to blindfolded. Every time it’s a different place, Nick tells Bill. We are not just dealing with one degenerate bil­lionaire throwing an orgy. This is indeed a Hellfire Club. Our lives are totally infiltrated by the rich and the powerful, but when we look to see who they are and to identify them, it is as if our eyes were wide shut. Cloaked, masked, behind high gates, and served by minions who follow us, lead us around blindfolded, and, when necessary, chastise and reprimand us.
Bill and Alice are only different from Ziegler and his fellow masked orgiasts in degree, not in kind. They have, after all, been invited to the Ziegler Christmas party; but they’re not ready yet to join the orgy. Bill has been presumptuous and precipitous. He’s not yet in the right league: he has a nice Central Park West apartment, but he doesn’t live in a mansion like Ziegler; he likes good Scotch but he can not yet give cases of twenty-five-year-old Scotch away in a casual gesture, he’s not yet a Ziegler who can casually say, “I’ll send you a case. Come on. Why not?” Bill refuses because while he knows he’s not in Ziegler’s league, if he accepts the case of Scotch, he drops out of his own league. He can afford to buy a case of twenty-five-year-old Scotch is the league he is in. Nick Nightingale is not in that league. Nick would take the case and confirm his lower-league status; Bill confirms his by refusing it. In a class-ridden society, the finer points of class distinction become vitally important. Who is in the same league as Nick Nightingale, who has four boys in Seattle and has to go where the work is? Now he’s in New York at Christmas time, a long way from Seattle. He’s being led blindfolded to play at the ritualized orgies of the decadent rich. Why, I would say that almost everyone in the theater at both the showings I attended were in Nick’s league. There were certainly some Bills and Alices, but I doubt if there was a Ziegler or any of his masked friends sitting next to me munching popcorn. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe there was a Hungarian gigolo standing at the refreshment counter waiting for some young prey.
The rich and powerful today are masked and hidden away behind protective gates and surveillance, but they are nonetheless leading us around blindfolded. Catch Zieglers pronouncements on poor Nick, who has done nothing more than tell an old friend where the orgy is going to be that night. “That prick piano player, Nick or whatever the hell his name is.” “Of course it was Nick’s fault. Little cocksucker.” “He’s back with his family banging Mrs. Nick.” Then Ziegler tells Bill that the masked crew at the orgy weren’t just ordinary people. Why, who then are the ordinary people? Nick Nightingale for one. And Nick’s a little cocksucker, a prick piano player who’s back home banging Mrs. Nick. Americans haven’t heard that kind of disdain since slavery days, when you could imagine a white overseer talking about “a little black cocksucker in his slave quarters banging Mrs. Black cocksucker.” Ziegler abuses Nick like this because he thinks privacy, his and his friends’, is a super sacred thing. Nick’s life isn’t sacred; that’s not worth a thing. But the privacy of the wealthy is worth everything and Nick has violated that. He’s let someone who’s not in the right league past the gates and into the sacristy of the wealthy.
How contagious is this decadence of our global nouveau wealthy? More contagious, I would say, than the HIV that Domino the prostitute picks up. Take for example Bill’s dealings with Milage, the owner of the costume shop. Bill establishes his class status as usual by pulling out his board-certified credentials and flashing them. He does this over and over again in the film. He’s a doctor; don’t go thinking he’s just ordinary people. He leads with bucks but Milage is all about money and he wants more. Bill offers more: 200 bucks above rental price. But Milage will go a lot further to make a buck. When Bill returns he discovers that Milage is pimping his own underage daughter. “If there is anything you need, doctor,” Milage tells Bill, “and it doesn’t have to be a costume, come and see me.” As Milage says this he puts his arm around his smiling daughter’s shoulders. She gives Bill a shy smile, eyes twinkling with more knowledge than she should have. Depraved innocence and a father will­ing to turn a profit on it. It’s not hard to image Milage’s daughter in a few years with a mask and nothing else on serving the licentiousness of the wealthy just as Amanda Curran has.
Ziegler has as much compassion for Amanda as he has for Nick. “We didn’t do anything to her. She just got her brains fucked out and then driven home. When we left her she was fine. She just overdosed. It was going to happen with a girl like her sooner or later. You knew that. You remember what you told her the night of my party when she over­dosed? It was just a matter of time.” How then does a girl like Amanda become “a girl like her”? Does she start out with a parent like Milage willing to rent her like a costume? Here’s something else you can try on, Milage seems to be telling his customers. My daughter’s body. And Ziegler’s tone clearly shows how Amanda Curran is nothing more than a body he can buy like a product and use. There’s no human connection. She’s got great tits, is how he describes her to Bill. At the time Bill is called up to check on Amanda at Ziegler’s party he tells Ziegler not to move her for about an hour and then have someone drive her home. “An hour?” Ziegler responds, glancing at this wristwatch, an annoyed look on his face. “Okay,” he finally acquiesces. He’s finished with her and he wants her out. He doesn’t want her hanging around. Even if she’s half-dead he has to think about allowing her to rest for an hour. Maybe he fears detection, but I doubt it. Mrs. Ziegler is most likely the masked figure standing alongside him at the orgy.
“Life goes on until it doesn’t,” Ziegler tells Bill. “But you know that, don’t you?” Perhaps Bill only knows it the way a doctor knows it, hut Ziegler means something else. He means that he acts within the measure of his own lifetime. There are no considerations beyond the span of one’s own interest in one’s own life. Apparently he’d find that Native American wisdom, consider the impact that what you do now will have seven generations from now, a stupid one. It’s hard to imagine how a society can have a future when the members of that society gauge their actions by only the length of their own lifetimes.
Now let’s put Tyler Durden in Dr. Bill’s place at the Somerton orgy. I can’t do the scene with Tyler and Vic Ziegler because Vic isn’t going to invite Tyler into his mansion and Tyler’s not ever going to get in, except in the way the French stormed the Bastille, the way they got in to see Marie Antoinette. But Tyler, like Or. Bill, has sneaked into the Somerton orgy. Now the background music that we hear when Bill is sum­moned before the masked tribunal is apt: “Strangers in the Night.” Bill is not really a stranger here because, like the masked revelers, he is pur­suing his own pleasure as “the highest good.” He’s just in the minor leagues, whereas these folks are in the majors. Dr. Bill already implic­itly accepts the logic and the rightness of the orgy; he respects their right to privacy; he’s not offended by old money feasting on the body of young women. He respects the Law of the Cash Nexus. Everybody is being paid, and probably paid well, including his friend Nick. Money buys them the right to do what they want. Dr. Bill has no problem with this. He readily accepts the role they put him in: intruder without any rights. He’s the trespasser, not they. They must forgive him his tres­passes; the matter of their trespasses is not an issue because they have not sinned against God or Man or Woman. Wealth and Power give them the right to do anything they wish; it gives them the ultimate free­dom to choose. And in a society in which “free to choose” is the foun­dational guiding principle and the criterion to be applied to everything, from abortion to sex, these orgiasts are Philosopher Kings, not sinners. So Dr. Bill meekly steps into the role of transgressor and trespasser. The masked Grand Inquisitor puts him into a sweat. Dr. Bill is tongue-tied. He becomes as much a victim as the naked women. “Mea culpa,” he pleads, but that won’t do. “Get undressed,” the masked ringmaster commands. Bill begins to beg. “Take your clothes off or we’ll do it for you.” What do they intend on doing? Fucking his brains out as they have Amanda Curran? We don’t get a chance to find out because Amanda intercedes and Dr. Bill makes a quick and grateful getaway. He promises not to utter a word about what he has seen. He is so grateful for his release, you get the feeling he would go around the room and kiss the feet of every masked figure there.
Now it’s Tyler Durden’s turn. He is truly a stranger in the night because he’s not only critical of the Have and Have Not order of things, he’s angry and full of ressentiment. His eyes are not wide shut but wide open. Tyler goes to the orgy because lie’s curious as to how far along in their decadence the super-wealthy and powerful have gotten. What does he discover? It looks like it’s at a pre-French Revolution level. It looks like the entire ancien regíme has been brought back in a time machine. Droit du seigneur is alive and well. Tyler arrives on his Harley, as quick a giveaway as Dr. Bill’s taxi. If they really belonged they would have dri­ven up in a limo. A masked servant tells Tyler somebody wants to talk to him about his motorcycle. Then he’s led into the Court of the High Rollers and their high clergyman of orgy games tries the same approach he did with Dr. Bill. Only this time Tyler tells him to back off. “Let’s get it on,” Tyler announces, crisscrossing both his arms under his cloak. It’s a Fight Club move, a street move; you’re outnumbered but you’re pack­ing something. Or are you? Who wants to step up and find out?
Maybe they roll over him and crush him; maybe they kill him and dispose of the body so that no one ever knows what happened to him. And maybe they don’t. Maybe that unexpected defiance leaves them stunned, just long enough for Tyler to get out. Maybe they don’t have to get their hands dirty and just let the servants take care of Tyler. Maybe Tyler takes care of the servants. Maybe everyone sees a weapon and they run for cover. Whatever. Whatever it takes and whatever ensues when you stand up with your eyes wide open.

Joseph Natoli, Memory’s Orbit: Film and Culture 1999-2000,  pp. 205-213


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