You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Kubrick: A Sadness

Stanley Kubrick/Wikimedia Commons

In the spring of 1967, Robert Brustein, then dean of the Yale School of Drama, asked me to do a film course in the following academic year. I was to co-teach: I would meet the class one afternoon a week to deal with history and style, and on another day they would meet a filmmaker who would explore techniques. Brustein and I, both keen on the relatively recent Dr. Strangelove, decided to aim high and invite Stanley Kubrick for the filmmaking post. I agreed to approach Kubrick because I knew him slightly.

I had lunched with Kubrick in New York two years earlier. (One remark lingers. I praised Peter Sellers’s three roles in Dr. Strangelove, and Kubrick said dryly, “Yes, three performances for the price of six.”) We had lunched because I was inviting Kubrick to appear on a series about film that I was then doing on PBS in New York; he had seen some of the programs and was sufficiently interested to meet and talk about it, though eventually he declined. A year later, when I went to The New York Times as their theater critic—a brief sojourn, as it turned out—I had a warm note of congratulations from Kubrick.

So I now telephoned him, in England where he lived, to offer him the Yale job. He was pleased by the offer itself and, though highly dubious, said he wanted to consider it for a few days. And a few days later he wrote that he was sorry but he had to confirm his doubts. Two reasons were patent: he was now living abroad and he was working on a film. “This obviously makes it impossible.” (Despite which, he had wanted to think it over.) “In addition to this,” he said, “I have steadfastly avoided talks, lectures, etc., because they tend to formalize my own thinking, which I think would not be a good thing.”

This was the last time I heard from him. I was in England fairly often thereafter, but I did not, as he had asked, ring him, because my reviews of his films, from 2001 on, were adverse, increasingly so. Neither of us would have enjoyed a meeting. But I never forgot his statement above because, as it seemed to me, it was almost a prophecy. In one way his thinking became increasingly formalized, came closer and closer to sheer formalism. “The formalist,” says Rudolf Arnheim, “emancipates the medium from the content it is supposed to serve. ... Rather than submerging in the content, form steps between the beholder and the theme of the work.” This, it seemed to me, fit Kubrick more and more closely. Isolated—notoriously so—in his country home and in his studio, he became more concerned with filmmaking than with films. Yes, themes can be discerned in his work, and since his death the winkling out of Kubrick themes has bloomed into a small critical industry. Certainly violence and cynical bleakness are patent in his work, but they seem structural conveniences to him rather than burning concerns. From 2001 on, with longer and longer periods of time between pictures, he became centered on the solution of problems, technical and narrative, rather than on creating work aimed at the responses of the viewer. Solipsism became king in the Kubrick studio; formalism became supreme. This is a long way from design, which is a beauty and blessing in art, a means of affecting people. Formalism is a tyranny even when self-imposed, as it usually is.

And now we have Kubrick’s final film, finished just before his sudden death (at seventy). It is much too aptly the finale of a declining career. Eyes Wide Shut (Warner Bros.) is a catastrophe—in both the popular sense and the classical sense of the end of a tragedy. Everything in Kubrick that had been worming through his career, through his ego, and through his extraordinary talent swells and devours this last film. It is a long slow exercise in self-admiration, in the formal fulfillment of film problems that he had set himself at the expense of the audience’s involvement.

Begin with the title. It is completely meaningless before and after seeing the picture. Frederic Raphael, co-author with Kubrick of the screenplay, has written a lively short book about that experience, called Eyes Wide Open (!). In it, Raphael tells that they both scrounged for a title and that finally Kubrick proposed Eyes Wide Shut. “I refrained from any response,” says Raphael, “except that of refraining from response. It was his movie.” Later Raphael says, “Can he really consider Eyes Wide Shut a poetic title? If it incites him to make the movie, so be it.” Raphael’s reactions to the title are a neat implicit definition of formalism.

The screenplay is derived from a short novel by Arthur Schnitzler called Dream Novel, which I haven’t read. However, Raphael synopsizes it in sufficient detail to confirm that the general outlines of the Schnitzler story and of the film are the same. Kubrick wanted the locale transposed from Schnitzler’s Vienna around 1900 to New York today, an odd decision for a middle-European escapade. Everything that happens could possibly happen in New York—what couldn’t happen in New York?—but the shape and the temper seem less at home here than in alt Wien.

A very successful doctor, Bill Harford, and his wife, Alice, are happily married and have a small child. Bill and Alice go to a large, lavish Christmas party, and each of them gets a chance for an affair. Alice rejects her offer; Bill is prevented from accepting his. But both offers raise thoughts of extramarital possibilities in them. Bill investigates those possibilities. (Alice’s only venture is to confess a temptation the past summer which didn’t actually end in bed but which Bill keeps imagining thereafter as a porno movie.) Bill gets a late-night call to the home of a patient who has suddenly died, and in the dead man’s bedroom, his daughter, Marion, throws herself at Bill. He gets away but is so aroused that, while walking home, he lets a hooker take him to her apartment. But nothing happens there, either, because he gets a cell-phone call from his wife.

Yet that same night—with the help of a pianist friend—he sneaks his way into a masked orgy held by very rich men in a Long Island mansion. Costumed and masked—I omit description of the costumier’s establishment, which is blatantly an exotic set-piece—he is nonetheless unmasked as an intruder before he can have sex. He just about escapes with his life, or at least that is what he is made to think.

The next day, further heated by a sexual nightmare that his wife recounts about her “lover” and by the porno film that he keeps imagining of his wife and that man, Bill tries to get in touch with Marion. Thwarted, he then tries to visit the hooker he met last night, but she is gone. She had been informed that morning that she is HIV positive, Bill is told by another hooker who tries to persuade him to accept her instead. But he leaves.

All the above has involved death threats to himself and others, Bill thinks, but these threats are shown to be mere concoctions of his fervid fantasy. At the end Bill and Alice are reunited, tearfully, as if each had been through some sexual trial by fire, though in fact neither has actually slept with anyone else and Alice hasn’t even tried. They go shopping for a Christmas present for their small daughter, and in the department store, after some homiletic plot-concluding exchanges, Alice says to Bill, “There’s something very important we must do as soon as possible.” He asks what it is, and she says, “Fuck.”

The point of this 157-minute picture seems clear. Every married person has within himself or herself a secret cosmos of sexual imaginings, longings, fantasies, and perhaps extramarital actions. The actual marital life of a husband and wife involves only a portion of the sexual cosmos of each. But Schnitzler wrote this story in 1926, and even then he set it back at the beginning of the century, presumably because he felt it was already a little out of date. Kubrick, who had been nursing this project for years, insisted not only on ignoring Schnitzler’s recognition of the necessary pastness of the story, but on transposing it to New York. Thus Kubrick coolly disregarded all that his audience has encountered of enlightenment in these matters in this century, not least in the films of Ingmar Bergman.

Even the elementary matter of credibility is ignored. After that extensive nocturnal odyssey of his—summoned to a dead man’s bedside, embraced by Marion, visiting a hooker, going to a nightclub where he is steered to an orgy on Long Island, renting a costume and mask at midnight, being taxied far out on Long Island, attending the orgy and escaping—he gets home in the morning and, as he falls into bed, merely murmurs to his wife, “It took longer than I thought.”

Kubrick’s very filmmaking acuteness seems to have been blunted. The scene in the costume shop is a faintly stale reminder of numerous old horror movies (including the mannequin scene in his own early Killer’s Kiss). The orgy scene is redolent of Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) and many a Satanic thriller, especially because of Kubrick’s cliched close-ups of grotesque masks. (The music for the orgy, by Jocelyn Pook, is done on a piano struck, seemingly, with a sledgehammer.) Wit had virtually disappeared from later Kubrick pictures, but here he permits an actor to insert a modernized version of Franklin Pangborn’s swishy hotel clerk, a fixture of 1930s comedies. At the end, after Bill has returned his costume but has presumably lost the mask (he has actually misplaced it at home), he returns to his apartment; and Kubrick slips in a shot of the orgy mask on the pillow next to the sleeping Alice before Bill goes into the bedroom, so that when he does go in there, sees the mask, and is shocked, we are not. Worse, fundamentally worse, is Kubrick’s insensitivity to the constant abrasion between the whole fabulated escapade and the hyper-realism of the New York setting, characters, and dialogue.

As for that dialogue, it is freighted with repetitions. Examples:

“We’re going to the rainbow’s end.” 
“To the rainbow’s end?” 
“To the rainbow’s end.” 

“I’m just trying to figure out where you’re coming from.”
“Where I’m coming from?” 

“I had you followed.”
“You had me followed?”

Nearly three hours of this echo-chamber talk almost makes us beg for mercy, especially when it’s all molto andante.

Kubrick wanted a married couple for his two leads. He first thought of Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, says Raphael, but he engaged Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. When Cruise and Kidman were amorously busy in the film, I thought of the former theater stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, married, who always included a pat on the behind or a touch of the bosom to give the audience a small thrill of private glimpse. That was pretty quaint compared to the Cruise-Kidman behavior, but it was the same principle.

Doubtless this couple would not decline roles just because they are married: it would be a denial of acting ability and adventure. And Kidman is moving, despite her limited voice, particularly in her two long speeches, the remembrances of a temptation and of her nightmare about it. Cruise, a proven powerful actor, seems here to be repressed and contained, deliberately slowed down by the director. His role is much larger than Kidman’s and is less vivid. I’d hazard that Cruise was restrained by Kubrick in aid of some pattern the director had in mind, rather than the effect on the audience. More formalism! One other performance must be noted: the Swedish actress Marie Richardson plays Marion, and is excellent in her difficult transition from mourning to sexual outburst.

In the matter of sex, which is the matter of the film, Kubrick tinctures heavily with salaciousness, the particular salaciousness of aging film directors who have the power to display women as they like. Not because the film’s first shot is of Kidman undressing—a stunning shot, in fact—nor because of Kubrick’s insistence on showing her on the toilet chatting with her husband who is in the bathroom with her, nor of the rat-a-tat of the f-word in the dialogue (hardly a distinction these days), but because of Kubrick’s insistence on showing as many naked female bodies as he can possibly crowd into his film. (Something like the latter-day Godard.) For instance, at the lavish Christmas party early in the picture, Doctor Bill is summoned by his host to attend a young woman whom the host has been screwing upstairs but who took a hard drug and is blotto. Any reasonably human person, like the host, would have covered her prone naked body, but Kubrick insists on her nakedness. This, he might have argued, was brutal candor, but it looks like brutal voyeurism.

So this is where the Kubrick career ends, with this technically accomplished, inadequately conceived work. Retrospect is inevitable. A young photographer claws his way into film (he shot his earliest pictures himself, adroitly), makes a war fantasy and two crime thrillers. None of them, as he himself said, is really worth looking at again; but what is extraordinary, and is insufficiently noted, is the change in texture and style from his third feature, The Killing, just one more Hollywood film noir struggling for eccentricity, to Paths of Glory, a grim drama about heartlessness in the French army in World War I. Of course, Kubrick had more money for that fourth feature, but it was spent by a very different director from the man who had made the third. He had suddenly become a sophisticated and excitingly fluent film-maker. Spartacus was insufficiently appreciated because it is a costume spectacle, but it was directed with muscular imagination. Then came some work on Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, which Kubrick quit because, he said at our lunch, Brando was absolutely insane. Then Lolita, beautiful, whose only fault is that it isn’t really the novel. Then Dr. Strangelove, a pinnacle. But then the decline into cinematic display, from 2001 to the end: the preening pride in being figuratively alone and literally imperial. Perforce there had to be stories and actors, but, seemingly, they were only necessary nuisances for Kubrick.

At the last, he had become an advanced cinematic constructor, virtuosic but immured. In another guise, the formalism that he dreaded had prevailed.