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
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
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 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:
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 this movie is tapping into.
We know that
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?
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