I think I may have left the wrong impression about something. When I said that I was looking forward to You Can Count on Me because it was hailed for its non-cinematic qualities, I didn't mean to imply that I'm somehow, y'know, against cinematic quality. What I mean is, it's not very often that I'll say, "Oh, there's no plot, and the characters are ciphers, and really it doesn't make much sense... but, oh! The visual texture! The sequence of camera angles! A masterpiece!" But if the film does hook me into the plot, does make me care about the characters, then, sure, cinematic quality is a huge bonus!

Eyes Wide Shut is a perfect example. Because those other elements worked so well for me, I could also enjoy the wonderful, indelible images Kubrick sprinkles into virtually every scene. Care to see a few? (The nature of the film dictates that not all of them are, as they say, "work-safe.")

Eyes Wide Shut
Frederic Raphael, Arthur Schnitzler, and Stanley Kubrick, 1999
#2, 1999 Skandies

I thought this was going to be a short article, since I already did a writeup of this film, shortly after adding the Calendar page to my site... but, man, that previous article is pretty fuckin' lame. All it talks about is structure. Now, I don't disagree with its points about structure; in fact, having now worked on a screenplay with someone who has very different structural instincts from mine, I can amplify them. Eyes Wide Shut is structured as a series of long scenes that function almost as short films in their own right. I have an affinity for this style and my novelization of the aforementioned screenplay works in a similar way: in theory, at least, each chapter I've written so far functions as a short story that could potentially stand alone even as it advances the larger plot. (The screenplay itself is quite different, full of quick cuts, flash-forwards, montage sequences.)

I also said that Eyes Wide Shut reminded me of IF for reasons that were poorly articulated. I can now articulate them: mainly, it's because of persistence of place. The first two acts of the film present a series of locations; in the third, the main character revisits most of them, so eerily different by daylight. Much of IF is about revisiting locations again and again while attuned to even the smallest differences in your surroundings.

But this is all about structure, still. Last week I mentioned that I had liked Eyes Wide Shut the first couple of times I'd seen it, and when I was asked why, my immediate response was to dredge up these structural points again: i.e., I liked it because it's by Kubrick and I like the way Kubrick organizes a story. But right as I was about to submit my post, it occurred to me: wait, duh. Of course I liked it for more than structural reasons — there's a significant thematic overlap between this movie and my first novel!

When Ready, Okay! finally hit the shelves, it received generally good notices but there was one high school kid out there who decided that it was his mission in life to open the public's eyes to the fraud I was perpetrating upon humanity with the publication of this book. Chief among his complaints was the lack of realism regarding a certain element of the book: "The party scenes! Christ!" Partly he didn't like the descriptions (Allen's dismissal of hiphop music coming in for particular criticism) but mainly he just thought they were over the top, what with the sex games and designer drug use and what have you. After all, he contended, real high school parties are just a matter of hanging out at someone's house with a couple of illicitly procured 24-packs of Coors Light and listening to the Black Crowes.

Okay, fine. But here's the thing. Often, a story has the following genesis: you have an experience; that experience produces a particular emotional reaction; you want to share that feeling with others. However, you can't just present people with the same stimulus and expect the same response! In the case of Ready, Okay!, as I have mentioned elsewhere — so if this is like your fifth time hearing this story, feel free to skip a bit — the deal is this: when I was a kid, I was skipped ahead in school, and thus I was totally oblivious to any sort of extracurricular social scene. Having lived in a bubble, when I got to college and did learn about the world of fake IDs and vomiting out high-rise windows — and also learned that this was old hat to most of the people I knew in high school — it felt like, in Peggy Kaylin's words, "every single person I've ever met has been slipping down a manhole whenever I haven't been looking." But I knew full well that not too many readers would experience that feeling of shock in response to descriptions of teenagers hanging out at someone's house with a couple of illicitly procured 24-packs of Coors Light and listening to the Black Crowes! So I pumped up the decadence a little.

Similarly, those critics who consider the Satanic orgy of Eyes Wide Shut risible seem to me to be missing the point. Yes, the mise en scène does not square with the reports on late-'90s orgies that went up on nerve.com. But... all right, I think I'm going to have to back up here.

One of the key themes of Eyes Wide Shut is socioeconomic stratification. Bill Harford is doing quite well for himself; I'd guess he clears somewhere in the mid-six figures. If he lived anywhere other than New York he would probably have a sprawling McMansion, but since he's a Manhattanite, he lives in one of those chilly 2BR apartments that rent for $10,000/month. This is what a lot of people spend years killing themselves for: the Central Park West address, the million-dollar portfolio, the elite profession. Bill's a doctor. He has a private practice, but it seems that much of his income derives from the fact that he "makes house calls"; that is to say, he's the sort of doctor that gets called "the top man in New York" for this or that, and as such gets summoned to attend to the medical needs of the super-rich.

That is to say: imagine a socioeconomic ladder stretching up to the clouds. Bill has reached the top of the ladder... only to discover that he can now make out, far above him, the bottom rung of another ladder. The Victor Zieglers of the world, able to see him now that he's broken through the cloud layer, invite him to their parties, give him a glimpse of the lifestyles of those with a net worth in the $50–100 million range, as unobtainable to him as his own is to the drivers of the cabs he hops into. Of course, this is only partly as a courtesy. He's mainly there because it's useful to have a doctor on the premises on the off chance that someone has an overdose in the bathroom. John Edwards used to talk about two Americas, one of wealth and one of work. And no matter how high Bill climbs, so long as he remains on the ladder of work, he'll always be the same thing to those on the ladder of wealth: the help.

I was interested to read that in Traumnovelle, the novella on which this film is based, the main character is Jewish; screenwriter Raphael wanted to preserve this element, but Kubrick insisted that Bill be as white-bread as possible. It occurred to me that Yuri Slezkine might argue that, so long as Bill is a doctor, he's a Jew in fact if not in name. Until the 20th century, Slezkine explains, almost everyone was a farmer (or, on land that didn't support agriculture, a herder of livestock). The elites were aristocrats, clerics, and military officers. The occupations that today carry the most prestige, the ones that require special postgraduate training — medicine, law, business, and scholarship — were all considered unworthy trades and were left to outsiders; in the West, this primarily meant the Jews.

It's a running joke in Eyes Wide Shut that every time Bill wants special treatment, he flashes his medical license and declares that he's a doctor. Store closed at 1 a.m.? "Can you open up? I'm a doctor! Look, here's my medical license!" Somehow, it always works! And yet this very marker of privilege works against him when it comes to fitting in among Ziegler's friends, the foreign aristocrats and scions of old money. "Do you know anyone here?" "Not a soul." Of course he doesn't! He works. That puts him in the company not of the other guests, but of the other people at the party who work: the working girls.

Eyes Wide Shut is full of prostitutes. Take the woman who "redeems" Bill at the orgy: "Do you know who she was?" "She was... she was a hooker. Sorry, but that's what she was." By extension, so were all the other women with the exquisite masks and exquisite bodies. Where did they all come from? Well, prostitutes aren't hard to come by —not when anyone on the ladder of work is a candidate. We see a career in prostitution begin in the costume shop, as the proprietor decides that as long as his pubescent daughter is going to fuck old men like a "leetle whore!", he might as well monetize her activities. Or take Domino, the pretty ingenue who lures Bill into her apartment (pretty much the only normal home we see, and even so I would bet it rents for upwards of $2000). At one point, Bill's phone rings, and he walks over to Domino's bookshelves to take the call; a prominent volume bears the title Introducing Sociology. That pretty much tells the story, right? Must be a college student who's fallen behind on her tuition (and, yes, the "hooker as free-spirited Ivy Leaguer" is overrepresented by several orders of magnitude in the movies). I happened across an early draft of the screenplay, and it's even more explicit: "I only work when I get too far behind with my student loan," she says, explaining that she's a sociology major at NYU. Bill says he's a GP; Domino replies that her father's a GP too. The implication is obvious: if one GP's daughter can become a prostitute, so can another's.

What do we see of Bill's daughter, Helena? We see her learning at her mother's knee how to gussy oneself up into the sort of woman whom the aristocrats will beg for a quick fuck in the sculpture gallery. We see her doing math problems in which she has to compare how much more money one man has than another. We see her reading a book, and the only line we hear goes, "...when I jump into my bed." Will she actually become a prostitute, like Domino or Mandy or Milich's daughter? Enh, maybe not... but then, not all prostitution is literal. Bill's wife, Alice, we learn, used to work at an art gallery before it went broke; now, without a job, her only source of income is the largesse of the man she does allow to fuck her. His first line, incidentally, is "Honey, you seen my wallet?" — she knows exactly where it is, of course — and he spends the rest of the movie forking over money in exchange for unusual services. $200 to the costume shop propietor to open the shop at one in the morning, $100 to the cab driver for a ride out of the city... everyone has a price. One key exchange comes when Bill asks Nick the piano player, "Who do you normally play with?" and Nick sheepishly says, "Anybody" — who else is known for being willing to "play with anybody" with the means to pay?

But back to sociological strata. We see Domino's railroad apartment, probably not too different from the ones much of the audience for Eyes Wide Shut returned to after leaving the theater back in '99. Her clientele includes the professional class: people like Bill, up on Central Park West. His clientele includes the upper class: people like Ziegler and the Nathansons in their Upper East Side mansions. And the stratum above that? The place that even Ziegler only gets the occasional glimpse of? Why, that's the castle.

The top 5% of American households — a class that would include the Harfords — control over half the wealth in the country. I think the most recent figure I saw was 54%. But about two-thirds of that, over one-third of national wealth, is owned by the top 1%. And much of that belongs to a few thousand families. (The concentration of wealth is even more pronounced on the global level.) Which raises the question: what are they doing with it all?

We all know that for the past thirty years wealth has been siphoned to the richest of the rich. Why? When people with hundreds of millions of dollars are orchestrating tax breaks for themselves, it seems to go beyond rational greed. As Jake Gittes asks in Chinatown, "Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?" It seems like there must be some sort of Dark Purpose afoot. In the years since Eyes Wide Shut was released, this social undercurrent — repressed, of course, since American ideology dictates that only socialists question wealth distribution — has manifested itself in outbreaks of crazy like the 9/11 Truthers and the Obama Birthers, and I think it's that same current that this movie is tapping into. We know that these castles exist, after all. We know the hyper-rich are out there. We know that the spikes in energy prices, soaring health insurance costs, and economic collapse of recent years are largely the result of the interposition of an apparatus designed to divert money to them. What's it all for?

The orgy scene is not meant to be a literal answer to this question. It's supposed to tap into that feeling that inside the palace walls there must be something decadent and occult going on — the feeling that if you knew what the people who ran the world were up to, "you wouldn't sleep so well." It's the sort of thing that I can imagine another film eliding — stay in the taxi, and have Bill emerge from the house pale and dazed... but that seems like a cop-out to me. Personally, I thought the scene struck just the right tone: the supremely eerie music, the cavernous chambers, the alternately grotesque and gorgeous masks, the minutes of dialogue with no one's lips moving... and the fact that, in the end, it all comes down to fucking. For Jake is right — these men have plundered the planet to build their Satanic temple, and thereby secured for themselves carnal delights unobtainable except by those with billions stashed in offshore accounts... or, y'know, by a 15-year-old kid with a cute girlfriend. "How much better can you fuck?"

I suppose I should throw at least a paragraph at this movie's treatment of sex. It seems as though there are three kinds that crop up. One is sex as the consumption of a commodity: you procure intercourse with the most attractive body your resources can obtain, just as you might buy the fanciest car or stay at the swankest hotel. Another is sex as an all-consuming compulsion: one of the engines of the plot is Alice's confession that one summer she was tempted to abandon her husband and child on the basis of one look from a hunky naval officer. So is this a final condemnation of humanity by a notoriously misanthropic filmmaker? Maybe. But I have found that, at its best, sex is a way to inject a lot of positive energy into a relationship... and isn't that the idea behind the final line of the film? Bill and Alice have hit a hurdle in their marriage, taken a little spill... and now: "There is something very important we need to do as soon as possible." "What's that?" "Fuck." It's sex as the cause of, and solution to, life's problems.

And hey — as noted, Alice is a pretty attractive commodity her own self. At least, the aristocrats seem to think so. So what's the point of Bill chasing other women? How much better can he really do?

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