Monday, March 16, 2015


When Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut opened in the summer of '99 -- on the day JFK Jr's airplane disappeared -- it was greeted by both New York's movie press and the Arts & Leisure section wad with overwhelming hoots and derision. And by walkouts. (At my theater, people actually cheered the walkouts.) It would be gone from the city within a month. The dumping came from two directions. The (seemingly) promised on-screen sex between its then-married co-stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman did not happen. And the movie was derided as being wholly out of touch with fin de si├Ęcle Manhattan reality -- unlike say Friends, Seinfeld, Sex in the City, and the stillborn Talk Magazine. After all, the director (who had died several months before the film's premiere) had not even been to New York City since 1968.

As it never is in a Kubrick film, time has been kind. Eyes Wide Shut, if not the greatest English language movie of its decade, is certainly (the only?) great work of movie art dealing with the malignant rot at the center of Manhattan's Clinton/Giuliani go-go 90s; and a work which opens the door to what was to come: the stake driven through the city's heart by the Overworld vampires now in complete control.

Yet the awesomeness of Kubrick's final achievement is less sociological in nature (more of a sideshow actually) than in the absolute concentration on the movie's real subject: the sufferings and confusions of a decent man's soul caused by the purity of his marital commitment.


Doctor to the Overworld Bill Harford (Cruise) lives with wife Alice (Kidman) and 7-year-old daughter Helena in a Central Park West apartment about the size of a floor at Saks. After coming home from a rather bizarre Christmas party at the Fifth Avenue mansion of Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), Alice confesses to Bill, while both are stoned, lusts for other men heretofore unimagined by her stunned husband. A call comes in for the doctor -- an elderly patient has died. While visiting the bereaved daughter of the deceased, thinking of little else but Alice's confession, the daughter (Marie Richardson) confesses her love for Bill. Escaping from the inevitable confrontation back home, toward a nightclub called Sonata, a place featuring his former co-medical student / turned jazz pianist buddy Nick Nightingale, Bill is assaulted by a gang of toughs, then picked up by a street hooker. At her degraded, cramped place (the bathtub is in the kitchen), he receives a cell-call from Alice, does not have sex with the hooker, but before leaving pays her anyway. At the Sonata Cafe, Nightingale's last club set has just ended -- but Nick has a later date, one requiring him to pronounce a password for entrance: Fidelio. Intrigued, and again not wanting to return to Alice, Bill convinces Nick to reveal the location of the engagement and, it turns out, the dress code: elegant costume and mask. Arriving at a costumer's who was a former patient, for it is now two o'clock in the morning -- now under new ownership as the former patient has moved away; with the new owner demanding $200 over rental price for his middle-of-the-night troubles -- Bill finds what he's looking for; and more. Appearing at a Glen Cove, LI chateau with password, cape, tuxedo, and mask, Harford finds inside ballrooms worthy of Lubitsch, filled with ritual, mystery, incense, chanting, a blind-folded Nick Nightingale, and hundreds of other caped, masked people -- and sex: the most beautiful women of New York. But Bill, asked for a second password by a man who seems to be some sort of Satanic priest, is unmasked. And demanded, under threat of death, to get naked. A masked girl comes to his rescue. "Take me instead," she declares, unasked. Now warned, Harford leaves. Back at Central Park West -- now past 4:00am -- he checks on his sleeping daughter, then hides his party garb inside a locked cabinet. In his bedroom, he comes upon a laughing Alice -- in the throes of nightmare. He wakes her up; and listens to her dream: one even more savage and wounding toward him than that night's earlier confession.

Next morning, Harford's obsession begins to split: debilitation caused by Alice's confession and nightmare; fear rising over the condition of his masked party savior, and others. He discovers Nightingale's hotel, goes there, and is told that Nick has checked out, at 5:00am, bruised and flanked by two big scary guys: Nick even tried to hand the desk clerk a letter, but was stopped. Harford drives back to the Long Island chateau and is greeted by an old man who hands him a letter -- a second warning to stop poking around, to forget what he saw and heard last night. Bill does not. Flipping back, Harford calls the home of Marion Nathanson, his dead patient's daughter, but hangs up when Marion's boyfriend Carl answers the telephone. Harford returns his costume to the costume store, and the owner offers up his adolescent daughter for Bill to use, if interested. And the mask is missing. Bill returns to the hooker's apartment -- this time no call from Alice will stop them. But Domino is not there. Her even-lovelier roommate Sally is. But no. She cannot take the chance, for she thinks Bill and Domino were together last night, and that morning Domino found out she is HIV-positive. He leaves. And is now being followed. Buying a newspaper, falling into a coffee shop, still afraid to go home, he reads of an "ex-beauty queen" rushed to hospital because of "an apparent drug overdose." Could this be his savior from last night? At her hospital, he learns the girl has died. Seeing her in morgue, he realizes it is the girl from the chateau. Leaving the hospital, he receives a call requesting a return visit to Victor Ziegler's mansion. In Ziegler's gaming room, he's told by his host that he was also at the chateau last night. Ziegler saw everything. Although told nothing but lies by Ziegler -- the girl really did OD by herself, Nightingale is safe and sound back home in Seattle, Domino's disappearance really was caused by panic over her HIV condition -- Harford gets it. The Overworld's mask is at last, for a moment, for the doctor, allowed to slip.

Bill returns home. On his bedroom pillow, next to the sleeping wife, is the missing mask. He begins to cry. She awakens. Harford promises to her tell her everything. Next morning, Christmas shopping with their little girl at FAO Schwarz, Alice and Bill Harford decide to stay together. For now. The story ends with her one-word suggestion as to what they both should do.


It is an astonishingly classical work ~ in its operatic, silent-film formalism, often with the beauty of stained-glass windows; in its stillness and awe. Its narrative unwinds as a ribbon of mass-like Mystery tableaux -- the Glorious, the Joyful, the Luminous, the Sorrowful -- where story is not hidden (far from it): it is drenched with secret meaning. And it is a thoroughly conservative work, rejecting not only its own post-modern time, but perhaps much of the 20th Century as well. Along with complaints about its lack of hotness and about Kubrick's late-90s irrelevance, there were the tired old Kaelian remarks about coldness and nihilism. Far from being a cold movie, Eyes Wide Shut is an extraordinarily emotional one, stripped naked in its (beyond physical) revelations, and deeply generous-hearted towards its main character (if not to undeserving others, such as Alice) -- a main character whose consciousness controls every frame. In this way, the movie's classicism is reversed. Most great works of the past century have a female's suffering heart at their center. Here the man's isolated love is the crucified.


At first, there is his distraction, his auto-pilot bedside manner -- easy smile, the quip, a warm compliment as he hurries, not too fast, through the Harfords' spectacle of an apartment, on his way with the wife to a black-tie Christmas party. "Honey? You seen my wallet?" No doubt she has. Over-decorated and tomb-like, as if the Soho art gallery the wife had been working at (until the place went bankrupt) had been transplanted uptown, now like a box around them. He imagines. The music we hear (Shostakovich's "Waltz 2") is his music, playing on his bedroom stereo, then turned off: is the early shot of their Central Park West apartment front a piece of his self-satisfaction, imaged? The titles' strip-shot (as Kubrick taunts our voyeurism) of Alice removing her black chemise surely is. Yet the disconnect, the husband and wife, the father and mother, going through the motions, between themselves, toward Helena their girl and Helena's babysitter. But for the magical Christmas tree, here the colors and feelings are in a minor key.

Smugness continues by all, entering the Christmas party home of Victor Ziegler. He actually lives here? For it is a home -- depopulated but for party guests; and the sinister male aides prowling the floors -- belonging to the Breakers. Clearly, a modern Vanderbilt, one married to pretty much what one would expect -- a plasticized Lady Who Lunches. No wonder Victor Ziegler is a poonhound. And no wonder the glibness, as the Harfords greet the Zieglers, as they drift into drinking and dancing. First up: "I'm in the Mood for Love." Party rooms filled with golden light like a Moselle, decanted, strangely, on a wave of vibrant melancholy.

Finally an engagement. Bill Harford has spotted an old friend from medical school. Playing the piano at Ziegler's party? He wants to say hello as Alice does not. So they part, leaving her to her first (and only) encounter.

Harford with Nick Nightingale is hale and hearty, solicitous toward his friend's life and past. He will keep his promise to come hear Nick at the Sonata Cafe. (Under unimagined circumstances.) Her meeting with the Hungarian Count (played by Sky du Mont as a vampirish Louis Jourdan) is something else again. If it's possible to have public sex -- under the watchful eye of Nightingale -- without having public sex, married Alice does. Yet Bill, returning to the party, is now on the arm of two beyond-belief models. "Where exactly are we going? Exactly." he asks with a beautiful laugh. "Where the rainbow ends. . ." says the taller girl. No ~ he is not going there. Even without the interruption of the threesome's journey by Ziegler's main man-prick.

Bill is called to an upstairs bathroom, where he finds a just-fucked Victor Ziegler re-dressing; and a sex goddess near death, from an overdose of heroin and cocaine. The doctor does not ask, yet the movie (and therefore Harford) makes us wonder: How did she OD? Did she shoot up during sex? Before or after? Did Ziegler shoot her up? Her name is Mandy, short for Amanda, as we will learn. (She looks somewhat like a ripe, full-bodied version of Alice.) Bill's manner with her is tender and consoling. Ziegler just wants her dumped, out of his mansion/mausoleum damn quick. No, says the doctor. Just between us guys, right Bill? Oh, yeah.

Yet for Harford, for us, the Ziegler Christmas party is Christmas: glitter, glamour, good cheer, warmth, elegance, harmless (mostly) flirtation, comradeship (on the main floor his hail-fellow-well-met with Nightingale, upstairs his saving of Ziegler), comfort toward the speedballed call girl. And the swooning romanticism with which Bill surrounds Alice: "I'm in the Mood for Love," "It Had to Be You," "When I Fall in Love (It Will Be Forever)," "Blame It on My Youth". . . . Colors and feelings in a major key.

Back home, we get the work's only erotic scene, between husband and wife, 50 seconds long, set to Chris Isaak. He is so into her. She is into the mirror.

A montage of an average Harford day, leading us toward one of the most emotionally sadistic and malevolent sequences in movie history. The wife and husband get high. For her, the curtains open. She sets the trap. She accuses him of fucking the two models at the Christmas party. What? he says. She then gets hissy when Bill mentions that, of course, the Hungarian count would want to fuck her. What man wouldn't? (Offense taken at this by someone who does little but push her sex-look.) But he trusts her . . . because she's his wife and because, yes, she's a woman.

"Remember Cape Cod last summer?" she asks, as the trap is sprung. "Remember the young Naval Officer at the next table?" No, he doesn't.

Alice does.

And it breaks his heart. And his balls. As intended. Her sadism is total, for it includes within it the sop of tenderness.

The phone rings. Lou Nathanson has died. She doesn't care. He must go.

The miraculous Marie Richardson plays Nathanson's grieving daughter, Marion. (That same year she would be Gertrud, in a Swedish television production of the Soderberg play.) Marion is more than grieving when Bill arrives. She is expectant, fretful. His bedside manner is in full consoling bloom here -- in the midst of his torture. Both their tortures.

She is mad for him -- older and more worn-looking than Alice, she is much warmer, more engaged, selfless in her love, far less self-contained: indeed more beautiful. Her kiss of him is full and wet, full of heart, giving herself up and trying to take his. Even if she never sees him again, she says, she will be happy just to live near him. Gertrud indeed. And yes, she does know what she is saying. An enormous doorway, to a loving woman's heart, opens. He -- in torment -- will not walk through it. And when her boyfriend Carl, a math professor, shows up -- he's a taller, bespectacled version of Bill. The heart does indeed want what it wants. For those who have one.

Outside now, leaving Marion to the affections of Carl, Harford's sexual doubts and fears appear everywhere. Hot kissing in the streets. Physical and verbal assault from a drunken Bay Ridge gang fresh from a strip club night. But there's a hooker named Domino, who invites him upstairs, to her coldwater flat. "Cozy," says Bill. They kiss and the call comes in from Alice. "What time are you coming home?" The last place he wants to be. He must leave. He pays the girl. Here Cruise makes us feel that even without the interrupting call, he would not have gotten down.

At the Sonata Cafe -- where he reunites with Nick Nightingale, to the sound of "If I Had You," and where we learn the Harfords have been married for nine years and of Nick's four sons back in Seattle -- the chance to heal his suppurating sexual wounds arrives; anything to close them. In a work of enormous visual beauty (the whole movie seems enthralled), the Sonata interior is perhaps its peak. The cafe glows with a sort of holiness. Kubrick's colors (he was his own DP) are intensely present, like a host of angels in rapture. The air is luminous, the illumination of the lights like the rose chill of winter morn. Christmas morning. When have we seen such intensity? In the bluish shadows, the back and side-lighting of both men. In the mystery of their interactions. A transfiguration, as Harford learns the password: Fidelio. The famous celebration of wifely loyalty.

Along with a password comes costume and mask. To find one, he goes to the end of the rainbow, at warehouse-sized Rainbow Costumes. Bill dredges through sleaze and is made part of an act: witness to the outrage pretended by store owner Milich (Rade Serbedzija) when Milich finds his adolescent daughter (Leelee Sobieski) having sex with two Japanese men dressed in women's underwear and make-up.

On to the party. He travels by taxi across bridges and highways, through small holiday towns, into woods dark and deep -- all the while seeing only Alice and her navy officer. A (literally) Rothschildian country house appears. A place guarded by two men. Bill gives the men the password. And we see the luminous mansion fronted by a lot filled with Bentleys, limos, and many Rolls.

The titillation Bill Harford hopes to find there is non-existent; while the terror of his wife's sexual nature is severely deepened (as it will be deepened again, to the point of collapse, when he returns home). His love for her is so great that he's willing to ride the rapids of her lust. What he finds, instead, is ritualized, de-eroticized sex. Sex as ceremony, as masked mass, with all the involvement of a tourist taking snapshots, now from this angle, now from that, with no kinetic relation to the spectacle itself. An alienation -- a dry, chilled distance -- a newborn loathing toward the female body. So his scent goes out . . . sensed by a man upstairs, who meets his eyes -- the man and his female companion strangely reminiscent in mask of Milich and the daughter. Harford is also sensed by a masked beauty who takes him away to warn him. He must leave now, she says. We see a blindfolded Nick Nightingale, being forcibly led away. The last time we see him.

It is too late. Bill is asked for a second password, one he does not know. He is unmasked and demanded to take off his clothes. The masked Goddess appears: "Let him go. Take me. I am ready to redeem him." She does; and he doesn't even know who she is.

Now past 4:00am, Bill arrives home and checks on his sleeping daughter. Then hides the Fidelio costume inside the cabinet. (Does he not destroy it in hopes of a future chateau visit?) Trying very hard not to awaken his sleeping succubus, he fails.

That night's attempted sexual adventures, desperately taken to heal the rips in his heart and mind, have also failed. They have led only to further humiliation. And worse. Now, in her telling of her nightmare -- how could she tell him, coming off her Navy Man confession? (how could she not?) -- her destruction of him is total. A destruction he seems strangely eager to receive. And there is nothing.

The completeness of Bill's love (without stain) for Alice is now blocked. His obsession now splits: terror felt for his wife's fidelity and trueness; fears for others' safety and well-being -- and his new sense of the evil supporting him, (literally) feeding him. He awakens early to see if Nick is safe. As we see him do many times through the work (Nick is his patient, and Amanda, and the costume store owner), the doctor lies about his relationship to the person he seeks, in order to find him or her; usually implying he has some bad news to report, as he implies to a waitress at the coffee shop next to the Sonata Cafe. She tells him of Nick's hotel and Bill goes there.

The mincing hotel desk clerk (Alan Cumming) -- a flame, as they say -- has bought in completely to the surrounding sexual totalitarianism: he defines himself and relates to others wholly via his sexual identity; and, by the last shot we see of him, to despair and misery. He tells of Nightingale's kidnapping at 5:00am (about the time Alice was revealing her nightmare to Bill), of Nick's fear and the bruise on Nick's head. Of the official order not to touch or give away any of Nick's mail. Harford returns to Milich at Rainbow Costumes. The mask is missing, but Milich's daughter is there. For a price. "I thought you were going to call the police," Bill says about what he saw the night before. "We have come to a new arrangement," says the father.

He revisits Somerton, the chateau deep in the woods. To save something, someone. To understand. To still his panic over the girl who saved him, over Nick. Or perhaps to reassure his tormentors. No ease or safety. Or knowledge. Instead a warning, this time in a letter. No place to go, he returns to Central Park West. Finding them doing homework at the diningroom table, he quickly tells Alice and Helena that he must leave soon for an appointment. He gets a beer from the kitchen; he begins to watch them. He begins to hear Alice's nightmare, and to see images (again and again) of her confession. An idea is born: Is his daughter really his? (The paternity fear underscored by Alice's Naval Officer looking a lot like Helena.)

It is too much for him. He flips back. The appointment that night is his return to the desolate suite of doctors' offices where he works, to sit alone and again see Alice. He makes a call, to Marion Nathanson. Answered by Carl, Bill hangs up. He goes back, bringing pastry, to the hooker's apartment. This time, Harford will cheat, to escape his panic. But Domino is also now missing, says the beautiful roommate, who is not available: Domino is HIV-positive and that's why she's missing, but we wonder: Bill visited her after Victor Ziegler's party. Has Domino been eliminated as well?

He's being followed. All around him hangs a late-90s Manhattan of elegant sleaze. He buys a New York Post with a LUCKY TO BE ALIVE front page blare, and falls into a nearby coffee shop to hide, from his pursuer and from the wife. He reads: a former "Miss New York," returning to her apartment at 4:00am was found ODed. Two men were seen entering with her. The NYPD would like to speak with those men. Harford rushes to the named hospital. But Amanda Curran has died. Bill visits her corpse in the morgue. It is the same girl. She died to save him. What to do now?

A call comes in to his cell. Can he see Victor Ziegler that night? He'll be there in 20 minutes.

At the depopulated mansion, inside the ominous and monumental game room, Ziegler greets him with cheer, a drink, an invitation to shoot pool, and an offer to send Bill a case of beautiful 25-year-old scotch. Who is this man? What is he? How can he live in this crystal-and-marble palace in the middle of Manhattan? (Actually the Polish Consulate at 37th & Madison.) A monster, for sure. But what sort? A Jamie Dimon sort? Mort Zuckerman? Rupert Murdoch? Perhaps Ralph Lauren or Carl Icahn. We don't know or care. In this deeply classical work, Stanley Kubrick throws out (but for a meaningless line or two) all the swill currently taught as backstory -- here there is a higher reach of imagining than the factual or merely psychological. What we do know is how Ziegler lays out the choice for Bill Harford and for us. Forget and move on. Or death. Forget and ignore: his doubts about Helena's paternity, about Milich and his daughter, about Nightingale, about Domino, about Amanda Curran, about Alice's confession and nightmare. In return, he gets sex, comfort, pleasure, safety. Forget about the victims. We get something else as well. Sex = the numbing of the knowledge of evil. Is it possible there is an inverse relation between a society's sexual openness and license; and its empathy, communalism, heart, and sweetness? We now have eyes wide open for physical titillation, yet unseeing toward evil and the eating of each other. Sex, work, parties, other people's deaths and much more -- keeping us blind.

Bill Harford finds the mask, on his pillow next to the dozing wife. To go forward with comfort, joy, marriage, fatherhood, and work, he must put it back on. He does; and breaks down. "I'll tell you everything," he weeps to the awakened wife. But what, we wonder, is there to tell? Lots. But not what she wants to hear. He mea culpas about his straying and his bad thoughts. Not about how he tried to find and protect the victims. Not about his knowledge. Not how he resisted temptation at every turn. He did not destroy his partner's heart and soul -- twice. She did. But now he will tell her everything. . . What choice does he have, but to lose it all? So he clings for now. When we see them both the next morning, he's like a naughty boy before his succubus, a succubus so upset over his reactions to her savagery and malevolence. Owning none of it.

Christmas shopping with their daughter at FAO Schwarz, now firmly back under her (and others') control, he begs. For him, he's sure. For him -- when he falls in love, it will be forever. For her -- not sure. For her -- forever? She laughs. But there is one thing she is sure about, one thing they must immediately do together:


Fuck her.


Is the movie unfair to Alice? Perhaps. But her urban type (of all genders) was -- and is -- legion, as common and dominant to our social (especially marital) culture as Bill Harford moves toward -- then finally rejects -- the uncommon. And therefore, she is vastly less interesting.

It is Cruise's movie. And he is great. Then at the top of his A-List power, he carries us with him through what is 160 minutes of humiliation and, at last, subjugation. Slick and glib, elegant and dashing, superficially corrupt, by turns a liar and sneak, Cruise's Bill Harford becomes a man racing between separate madnesses, like a car picking its route through the collision of other cars, in a rush toward sacramental Grace. He fails at the end, yet the movie is more than a hymn of despair. Harford's (and Kubrick's) Stations of the Cross is also a hymn of belief, hope, and transcendence. A genuine compassion does come out of his wounds and terror: for his daughter, Nick, Domino, Amanda. Even if he allows Alice, and a desire for his former safety, to close it over, perhaps temporarily.

Isolated beyond time -- like so many of his movie characters -- within his British estate, Stanley Kubrick sensed our savage, sexed-up future -- one increasingly driven by power, pleasure, and privilege psychotically divorced from talent, brains, ability to love, compassion, empathy, community, respect, love of the earth, or a sense of the past. As Kubrick bids farewell to his art form (his intended 1:37 to 1 aspect ratio was impossible to project in all but few 1999 theaters [fewer still today], so even the movie itself had to be "masked" -- projected at 16:9 with the top and bottom of the frames lopped off -- but not here) and to the century that gave it birth, Bill Harford says farewell to the purity of his marriage and his life. We are left, with him, with eyes half-closed (or half-open). He does close over, having now eaten the apple, continuing on with his fractured, deeply compromised life. Or does he, after we leave him, turn and walk through the open doorway, toward courage and deeper knowledge; and the darkness, isolation, and death that come with them? Will Ziegler and his associates leave him be? How many nights will Harford wake up feeling that winded worried heart-fatigue, wondering how they are going to pay him back in return? How will fucking still that?

Questions this great work of art poses for us, for our century. Almost sixteen years after its release, they have been so far, at least for New York, definitively answered.

The century is young.