"No dream is ever just a dream."
Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director. I also think he is the greatest visual director that ever lived. I think that is an indisputable fact over which I will gladly fight anyone. To the death. So why is it, then, that I'm nearly a quarter of the way through this year-long odyssey, and I have yet to review any of his films? Well, I guess it's two reasons. First, I love everything he did, and gushing about his films isn't something I necessarily wanted to engage in. Second, I'm honestly a bit intimidated by his filmography, at least from a critical standpoint. What can I possibly hope to bring to the table that hasn't already been said?
So I've decided to review four of his films, the four that are the most "challenged" for lack of a better word. I think he made eight undeniable masterpieces: The Killing, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. His four other films, not counting the virtually unattainable Fear and Desire, have a much more mixed reception: Killer's Kiss, Lolita, Barry Lyndon & Eyes Wide Shut. So once a quarter, I'll examine one of those four films, and give you my perspective on why I think they're brilliant, and why you should revisit them, in spite of what you may have thought of them the first time you saw them.
Let's start with the most derided of the four, his final film, 1999's Eyes Wide Shut. The most common criticism of the film is the two lead performances by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. When the film was made, they were probably the most famous Hollywood couple of the time, Cruise had an unstoppable winning streak at the box office, and nobody really questioned his sanity or sexuality. In the ensuing years since the film, these are two very different people than they were thirteen years ago, and I feel that most people who hold their mere presence in the film against it, are not seeing the forest for the trees. Cruise was at his apex in 1999, giving arguably his two best performances ever in this film and Magnolia. Kidman hadn't had much of a chance to be given a big, juicy role outside of films with her husband, and would come into her own as an actress within the next few years, but I remember this being the first time I really took her seriously as an actress.
Cruise and Kidman play Bill and Alice Harford, a wealthy couple in New York City, who dabble in some pretty influential circles, but are still probably a step or two below the absolute upper echelon of high society. At a Christmas party they attend at the home of their friend Dr. Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack, one of the few directors I actually love as an actor), both Bill and Alice have separate, innocent encounters with members of the opposite sex that could potentially raise the ire of one or the other. It's harmless flirting, but a few night later, the couple gets high and discusses the subject of fidelity. Bill swears he's been absolutely faithful to Alice in both thought and deed, but Alice confesses that on a recent summer vacation, she caught the eye of a young soldier, and had thoughts of leaving Bill and their daughter to run away with this man if he asked her to.
She didn't act on her impulses, but the fact that she even had them sends Bill into a fury. He storms off into the night, first to visit a patient who's father has passed away, but then on a journey to travel the streets of New York City and see if he has it in him to cheat on Alice. Bill's odyssey takes him to a costume shop where the owner may or may not be selling his own teenage daughter in prostitution, to the home of a prostitute, where Bill finds himself unable to seal the deal, and finally to a masked orgy that may be populated by some of the most influential and powerful people alive.
To give you some background, Eyes Wide Shut came out the same summer as a lot of big films, not the least of which was the first Star Wars film in 16 years, but for me, it was the undeniable event of the summer. I had only been alive for the release of two other Kubrick films, both of which I was too young to see in the theater, so the idea of getting to see my hero's final film on the big screen was almost too much for me to handle. I saw it three times that summer, and I didn't even really love it at the time. I loved the idea of it, the notion of seeing Kubrick writ large (this was in the days before big screen tvs for the most part), but I was sort of indifferent to the film.
A lot of that had to do with being a twenty year old kid who had never been in a committed relationship before. So what have twelve years and a marriage done for my view of Eyes Wide Shut. For one thing, it's made both Bill and Alice entirely more sympathetic characters. These are people who spend their lives fighting any sort of primal urges they may have because of the commitment they've made to one another, and the moment that one of them decides to open up and admit to having had these urges, her spouse seems to try and punish her for it by giving in to that desire. The fact that he never does follow through on it is key. His desire and his attempts are all a part of who he is, and what makes the film so effective is the way he's seemingly punished for having these desires in the first place.
The next day, after his dalliances, he sets out to find out the truth about the orgy, the prostitute, the costumer, his friend Nick Nightingale (Todd Field, who's gone on to direct two masterpieces himself), what is the truth, who's being punished for it, and why. These are the questions he seeks answers to, and when he gets the answers he needs from his friend Victor at the end, it's so vague and stultifying that it makes Bill wonder if the whole thing was a dream. And the film is shot in such a dream-like state, particularly the orgy sequence, that it does give one pause and makes you wonder if it was really all just a dream.
This is not minor Kubrick, as some have written it off to be. This is a master at the top of his mind games. He deliberately shoots the film with a disorienting feel, to keep you wondering what's real and what's not. Is Bill being followed by some weirdo? Did the girl at the party die of an overdose or was she murdered? The fact that when he doesn't even believe what he hears when he's presented with the truth is the whole point of the film. If you can't even believe yourself, who can you believe?
The film is an incredible success from start to finish. The colors are sumptuous, and even though it's clearly New York by way of London, it never feels false. The orgy sequence is a masterful ballet of sexual choreography, and seeing it on the uncut blu-ray, without the inserted figures blocking the action, the film has a more cohesive feel to it. The scene always felt sort of digitally stilted because of the addition of stationary figures in front of various sexual acts, but now, you can see the camera glide through each room just like it would in a dream. It's so incredibly effective at creating a dreamlike state, that when Bill is pulled out and forced into the room to divulge who he is and how he got there, it's just like a cold, rude awakening. It feel vulnerable and naked and harsh and intense, just like it's supposed to.
This is not some film to write off as a lesser work of a great director, this is an incredibly well staged, well thought out, well shot film that burns with intensity that few other films can even hope to achieve. Watch it again if it's been a while, and just marvel at how well everything works together as part of achieving a disorienting state of is this a dream or is it real? Yes, it's long, but it needs to be. It needs to feel like something that you sort of stumble out of into the harsh light of day. This film is an undeniable masterpiece and is unfairly derided by its detractors. Watch it again and see for yourself just how good and sharp Kubrick was, even at the very end of his life. You'll be amazed.