Sunday, September 03, 2006

Subtext – Eyes Wide Shut

The first and most obvious choice for subtext in this movie would be the attempt of the Hungarian, Sandor Szavost, to seduce Alice at Ziegler’s party. It began with Szavost asking her, “Did you ever read the Latin poet Ovid on the ‘Art of Love?” This was, of course, a flagrant invitation to adultery, because “Art of Love” was essentially about the art of taking on mistresses. Ovid was a dirty-boy version of Emily Post offering up rules of adultery-etiquette for Rome’s elite. It’s full of poetic advice about bribing the porters and the servants, becoming friendly with the girl’s maid, buying gifts, sending flattering letters, and basically stalking the intended target. In fact, Szavost drinking Alice’s glass is a move he lifted right out of Ovid’s manual. You get the impression that the Hungarian probably had to leave (or was banished from) his country much the same way Ovid was kicked out of Rome by Augustus.

But there’s more. The subtext I’d like to really focus on has to do with Bill and Alice’s interaction with their daughter, Helena, scenes I’m sure nobody cared to watch because they paid to see an adult film. However, I think there’s an important deeper meaning behind that interaction full of subtext unlike all of the other subtext in the movie. I have to set this up correctly first. I don’t know how well I can articulate this, but I’ll try…

We all know that Kubrick’s movies are never simply about the lead character’s journey. He doesn’t write stories like we do. He’s always thinking in broader terms and he’s making statements about mankind, history, civilization, power, etc. As
Tim Kreider so aptly pointed out, a Kubrick story should not be weighed by its psychology but by it sociology. He’s absolutely right. We went to see this movie with our eyes wide open for a wildly erotic visual feast in a normal psychological kind of story. Well, Stanley doesn't work that way. So then we (and the critics) all walked away saying, “What the hell was that all about?”

Kubrick tells us in the title that we're not going to really see what we’re looking at. And he's right, of course. We didn't see it. We still don't see it. We’re so blinded by the beauty, by the eroticism, and by that little orgy in the mansion that, like Bill and Alice, our eyes are wide shut to the deeper meaning of what we’re seeing. We’re still not acknowledging what was really going on. This is not a movie about sex and fantasy. In a way it was, but it wasn't. Kubrick’s deeper meaning here was, in fact, his condemnation of the ultra-wealthy and their devouring, demoralizing impact on society.

Consider the way Bill used his position and money time and again toward immoral ends. I’d go even further to say that the subtext of all the talk about money is really about sex. It’s also made very clear that Bill is not part of the ultra-elite in which he serves. (He has to sneak in to the orgy.) Just as Nick Nightingale is on call to play the piano wherever they tell him to go, Bill is on call to fix and cover up the things that go wrong like Mandy in Ziegler’s bathroom. Kubrick’s point was not simply to show Mandy’s perfect body so we can be titillated by it and recognize her later at the mansion, but in fact, it was to show us that beyond the façade of civilized society, beyond the beauty, glamour, and supreme wealth, there is gluttony, exploitation, and death. And yet, oddly enough, Bill wants to be a part of that club. In the opening scenes, he cares more about going to Ziegler’s party then looking at Alice and answering her question about how she looks. When he says “to be continued” to the model-nymphs at Ziegler’s party, we know that he is, indeed, tempted to go to that place “where the rainbow ends,” which coincidentally leads him to that Rainbow Costume Shop and on to the orgy at the mansion.

The orgy was not about the orgy. It was not even about reality. New York was not meant to look exactly like New York, which was a big complaint critics had at the time. For God’s sake, Stanley grew up in the Bronx. When Jon Ronson was invited to dig through the archives of Kubrick’s estate after his death, he found a box full of HUNDREDS of photos of doorways because Kubrick was obsessed about finding the perfect doorway for the hooker’s apartment. Of course, in the film, it looks no different than many doorways you’d find in Lower Manhattan. How can you not think that every detail in Kubrick’s film was not meticulously and intensely staged? Or that there was nothing in his movie that was not obsessively calculated? Stanley is not to be underestimated. You cannot disregard the work of a genius because you didn’t get it the first time you saw it.

Everything was designed to be very dream-like, wasn’t it? Do you think that when Bill was sitting in the cab imagining (which we see in black-and-white) Alice’s fantasy, that his dreams ended there? It could be argued that almost the entire film takes place in Bill’s mind. “Wait, wait, Mystery Man! Just hold on! How do you explain that part at the end when he found the mask on his pillow, which led to his breakdown and confession? That was real, wasn’t it? Didn’t Alice put that mask on the pillow to confront Bill?” Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to say that the organizers of the orgy snuck into his home and put the mask on his pillow to scare him. And yet another way of looking
at it is to say that only Bill saw a mask on a pillow. When Alice woke up, she never once acknowledged a mask.

So what was the orgy really about? It was not about an orgy. The visit to the mansion was the stuff of dreams and nightmares, of myths and legends. Bill finally reaches “the rainbow’s end,” the inner sanctum of the ultra-imperial-elite only to discover that they are horrifyingly evil. Kubrick gives an allegory through dream-like imagery to show us that the ultra-elite is depraved, soulless, gluttonous, and exploitative. That’s the point of the orgy. All those people who are so supremely powerful and wealthy (that if Bill knew who they were he “might not sleep so well”) begin their feast of collective consumption with an openly satanic ritual led by a high priest in a crimson gown, a figure no less scary than the devil himself. The kissing with the masks is so sterile it robs the exchange of any real human emotion. In fact, the masks and the cloaks turned all the men inside the mansion into variations of the same thing – empty, soulless, dehumanized figures of self-indulgence. And you just know that all of the women in the opening ceremony are going to be abused and passed along from one man to the next. This place is, at its core, a living organism of evil capable of killing anyone in order to preserve itself, which is why Bill’s life was in danger for penetrating the orgy (pardon the pun). This may have also been why Mandy was willing to give her life to save Bill’s because he once saved hers, because he was in her eyes the only decent human in the mansion worth saving.

And that brings us back to Alice (which will bring us to Helena). Because of Bill’s interest in a different life, in being part of the ultra-elite, he became uninvolved and disconnected from his wife which in turn made her nothing more than an object to him to be used whenever he wanted her. And her resentment of his attitude surfaces only in her dreams and when she’s stoned. From that first opening shot, she is presented to us as an object of desire, as she casually strips off her clothes for our amusement. Everyone from the babysitter to Ziegler to Szavost praises her only for her looks. Her daily regimen is pretty much devoted to rigorously maintaining her looks. She's constantly looking at herself in the mirror. During the film’s iconic moment (pictured at the top) of her husband walking up to her and starting to have sex with her, she looks at herself in the mirror, amused at first, then aroused, and just before the shot fades, she almost self-consciously acknowledges to herself in a disturbing way what she really is or even perhaps, what she’s managed to get for herself in life.

Kubrick likes to make visual statements about a character that requires more than one viewing to notice. (Or, thank God, you could look them up on the internet.) In any case, Kubrick visually associates Alice with all the other women in this movie, and he is, therefore, making statements about Alice as the prostitute wife. For instance, she’s identified with Mandy. They are both first presented to us in bathrooms. They both have a penchant for drugs. Mandy’s final night of her life in which “she got her brains fucked out” by many men is echoed disturbingly in Alice’s dream. Alice is also associated with Domino by the purple bed sheets and the similar dressing-table mirrors, essential for any true courtesan. It could be argued that there is only one woman in this film. All the women Bill encounters are various incarnations of the one he is truly seeking – his wife.

And then there is Helena, their daughter, named after the most beautiful woman in history. The subtext of all of their interaction with her is really about her being groomed to be the same kind of high-class object as her mo
ther. During the day, she is always with her, observing her, learning from her. She wants to stay up to watch “The Nutcracker,” which is, of course, about a little girl whose toy comes to life and turns into a handsome prince. The fact that this story takes place during Christmas-time is no coincidence. This is when consumerism is at its height. Later, when Helena reads the bedtime story, she recites, “before me when I jump into my bed.” Alice mouths it along with her. In the dining room, Alice helps Helena with a little math problem - how to calculate which boy has more money. There’s a photo of Helena in a purple dress in Bill’s office, eerily reminiscent of the one worn by Domino the night before.

In the final scene in the toy store, Helena’s carefully observed actions speak volumes. Alice said she was “expecting” them to take her “Christmas Shopping” (even though they already have piles of presents under the tree). Perhaps the trip was so Helena could shop for her friends, which is telling, because she only thinks about herself in the store. She wants everything in sight. She wants the blue baby carriage (similar to the blue stroller we saw twice outside Domino's door). Then she grabs an oversized teddy bear. Then she shows them a Barbie doll dressed as an angel, which was no coincidence, because Helena herself wore an angel costume in the opening sequence when she asked if she could watch “The Nutcracker.” Should I even mention the mound of bright red board games called “Magic Circle,” an allusion to the ritual involving the ring of prostitutes at the mansion? The red color of the boxes certainly bring to mind the carpeting in the great hall. Helena runs down an aisle full of stuffed tigers that look suspiciously similar to the one on Domino's bed...

While her parents decide to forget (and ignore) their deeper problems with a “fuck,” Helena dances around the store losing her soul. Their eyes, like ours, are still wide shut.


Anonymous said...

great essay. I'll definitely be stopping by here regularly

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, Nic!

Anonymous said...

An excellent analysis. I loved "Eyes Wide Shut" on the very first viewing, but don't think I saw some of those things you pointed out until the third or fourth time. To me, that is the mark of great writer -- to be able to tell a story that works on the surface, but also works at a deeper level. EWS was a film that really resonated with me for days after I saw it. Even if I didn't completely "get" every last detail, I felt its darker depths swirling beneath me.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much, Ross. I could've easily written another thousand words on EWS. (This article was meant to prepare me for another article I want to post, a review of Kubrick's unproduced script, Napoleon. That was the point of the blog, really, to write reviews of famous unproduced screenplays, which I have yet to do.)

In any case...

I certainly didn't get it the first time I saw it, and after reading up on Kubrick, I understand better now how he worked and know what to look for. I watch this one fairly regularly because it's kinda fun studying all the details and trying to figure out what Kubrick's doing.

I mean, I felt antsy the first time I sat through and kept thinking about how slow some of the scenes were, and "come on, just get on with the story," but now I realize he doesn't tell the kind of story I'm used to sitting through. I'm grateful now some of the scenes are slow so I can get a chance to notice the details, which is exactly what he's wanting you to do, because he's making visual statements/connections between characters that he wants you to see. It's really cool how he makes full use of every aspect of production in order to tell a story.

Toward the end of the movie, when Cruise came home (right before he sees the mask on the pillow), he walks through halls, stops at the Christmas tree, spends a few seconds sentimentally looking at it (felt like an eternity the first time I sat through it). Then Cruise turns off the tree lights and walks into the bedroom. I remember saying, "why the hell did we have to sit through that nonesense?" Of course, NOW... I think he wanted us to really look that at that Christmas tree and see all the piles of presents around it so we can grasp the absurdity of them taking Helena Christmas shopping in the final scene.

I remember the critics saying things like "What kind of an orgy is this?" and talking about how out-of-touch Kubrick is, etc. They, of all people, should've known better. This movie is not about what we think we're seeing. I remember Ebert saing he didn't think the final scene worked, which is just flat-out wrong. The last scene is perfect. Kubrick pretty much sums up everything he's been saying the whole movie, which we of course weren't seeing (even after two or three viewings).

I do believe it was all a dream. The only time New York ever looked real was when he was in a cab. And that was NO mistake.

Anonymous said...

A lot of what you say in regards to EWS is the same way I look at Lynch's "Lost Highway" -- most particularly, that the question is not what part is a hallucination and when and where 'reality' stops, but that instead the entire movie is a dream. Most interestingly for me is the director's intention: if the whole movie is a dream, it is not his dream, or one of the characters -- it is *your* dream -- and, just as when you awake from any disturbing dream, you should think: what does this say about *you*? Why did you have this dream?
Have you seen Lost Highway?

- Paul W

Mystery Man said...

That's brilliant. I completely agree. I have not seen "Lost Highway," although it has been on my list of movies to watch. When I see it, I will certainly keep your thoughts in mind.

Thanks so much for that, Paul.


Anonymous said...

another classic scene in ews involving subtext is when bill is consoling the woman whose father just died and she reveals her feelings to him just before her fiance (a doppelganger of tom cruise) walks in. as bill is trying to put on a straight face in front of the wife's fiance, he begins to realize that he just got pwned by his own wife.

E.C. Henry said...

GREAT job explaining the themes envoked in "Eyes Wide Shut," Mystery Man. When I watched this show YEARS ago it was just too borderline erotic all the time for me to see passed that and catch the sybolism and inner story.

This movie FEELS like an evil talisman to me: Kubrick died the year it was released, Cruise and Kidman divorced. Strange coinicidence or was this creepy movie part of that mix?

Don't EVER want to see this show again, but it's always nice to hear a pro break it down, and teach you something you didn't know before.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the association of the movie Eyes Wide Shut with being asleep is wrong. But I also don't think it is intentionally hidden. The movie was based on a book that translates to "Dream Story". Kubrick usually based his films on other author's writings. The reason why many people have so many interpretations of the movie, is that any great work of art is designed to be this way. A sophisticated artist understands this quality of making art. And Kubrick was one of the masters of creating this feeling, of multiple interpretations. Of course some of the ideas are based on history, society and philosophical work that anyone can look up and do research on themselves. This movie is a complete work of art, it is almost exactly the way it was meant to be made. There are also Kubrick's personal reflections in the movie but he would never talk about them. I am sure some of the peoples observations match some of the things Kubrick was thinking when he was making the film, but probably not all, and some are pretty tricky. There is quite a lot in this movie.