11 December 2011

Xmas Season Movies, Day Three: Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Country: U.S.A.
Based on a novella by Arthur Schnitzler

The Lowdown
Age: 16 and over (explicit sexual content, extremely tame compared to what your 12 year-old has seen online)
In-laws, relatives: DON'T do it. Like the character Alice, your partner may use this film to start a rather uncomfortable discussion on what constitutes cheating and so on. If your relationship is going through a rocky phase, better watch this when alone.
Required level of sobriety: whether you drink or not, watching this film will feel as though you've been dragging a long, depressing night of drunkenness.
Audience: Mid-Atlantic mentality, mix of New York and London, maybe? It's not a film for the Bible belt-minded. This film is particularly satisfying to students of literature and amateurs of filmic semiotics.
Christmas Spirit: Yes, in the sense that Christmas is a time of year out of time, outside of our daily routine, when flames can unexpectedly shoot up from unseen, icy crevasses in our path.

This film is based on the aptly titled narrative Dream Story. I haven't read the Arthur Schnitzler novella so I don't know whether it was set around Christmas, but Kubrick was right to keep at that time of year or switch the action to the end of December. The film dedicates one day to routine, in between a Christmas party and a descent to darker recesses of humanity just before Christmas, and that routine day is an anomaly. There are times in life when the daily grind is a distant reality whereas the dream world, intoxicated, stoned, nightmarish feels like the most tangible layer of being.

This film was made for students of literature, every scene has its double, a degraded, dehumanised version of the first which in some cases was troubling to begin with. There is one woman in this film, duplicated mother, low-class prostitute, high-class prostitute, teenage prostitute with pimp father, daughter (the one with the dying father, and the main couple's daughter), they all have that reddish hair and statuesque figure. Colour coded, verbal reflexivity, scenic mirrors, Eyes Wide Shut is imbued with postmodernity and the bourgeois concerns of modernity. 

Here, I should pause to link to this very good essay about the film, Introducing Sociology: A Review of Eyes Wide Shut. It's certainly worth the read and, written in 2000, the essay was produced in the midst of that academic obsession with "commodification". But what, I ask you, in our world, is not subject to commodification? I just find the subject too facile. Still, the article provides many insights -- I'd been wondering about Alice's paintings too.

Back to the bourgeois and modernity: one of the many reasons why so many of our narratives centre on the wealthy is because those without daily contingencies possess the luxury of focusing on existential problems rather than counting pennies. 

A quality film can be watched over and over though Eyes Wide Shut loses some of its appeal  upon repeated viewings. Despite this being a supposed "art house" film, tension and anxieties around plot developments make for much of the interest here. A second viewing will allow you to complete the decoding of semiotics to your satisfaction. After seeing the film several times over more than a decade, I still discover tidbits. Nick Nightingale, pianist and a character who propels the plot and its main character forward, is a character who always stayed with me. This time, I looked up the actor who plays him, Todd Field. Sydney Pollack, also in a supporting role, is a natural, pitch perfect, but Field is magnificent. Also, I enjoyed Sky Dumont's performance. His character is some wealthy, European, sleazy seducer who tries it on with a drunken Alice Harford, a character who, like her wonderland namesake, is easily affected by potions and poisons.

I'm not giving anything away here by referring to the orgy. If you've ever heard anything about this film, you've heard about the "orgy" scene. So boring. Kubrick was a genius and I'm sure this is deliberate. I've never been to an orgy but I'm sure they are nothing like that. If the lighting was orchestrated by Kubrick and we could all look so airbrushed and look so good from any angle in any position, then we'd all be having orgies, wouldn't we? Except that luxury and perfectness makes it all appear rather sterile and, if not dehumanising, decidedly non-human. The orgy scene is the opposite of sexy. Eyes Wide Shut isn't a sexy film and that's how Kubrick intended it.

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