It takes years to really understand some films, and in a certain sense to stand up to them. Particularly those made by world-class filmmakers — films with lots of style and jazz up their sleeves. If you ask me the Chicago critics in this early ’99 video clip — Roger Ebert, Michael Wilmington, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ray Pride and Dann Gire — were so swayed by Stanley Kubrick‘s reputation as a genius-level director that they couldn’t quite bring themselves to just look at Eyes Wide Shut for what it really was and just say that.
Last night I re-watched the Eyes Wide Shut Bluray, and of course, as usual, I was sucked in start to finish. But I’m even more convinced now than ever before that this is one of the most soulless wanks (in terms of actual content as opposed to the look and mood of it) ever created by a major director.
I said this in a March 2000 piece called “Stanley Was Slippin’.” A 1996 documentary about Kubrick called “Stanley Kubrick: The Invisible Man” more or less said that. And Malcolm McDowell definitely said that in his assessment of Kubrick’s final artistic essence. His portion starts at 4:30 in the clip that follows:
You really need to listen to McDowell in this clip. He worked with Kubrick, knew him well, obviously saw through to the bottom of him. Once you’ve done that, read on.
Here’s how I put it way back when:
“I once referred to Eyes Wide Shut as a ‘perfectly white tablecloth.’ That implies purity of content and purpose, which it clearly has. But Eyes Wide Shut is also a tablecloth that feels stiff and unnatural from too much starch.
“Stanley Kubrick was one of the great cinematic geniuses of the 20th century, but on a personal level he wound up isolating himself, I feel, to the detriment of his art. The beloved, bearded hermit so admired by Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg (both of whom give great interviews on the Eyes Wide Shut DVD) had become, to a certain extent, an old fogey who didn’t really get the world anymore.
“Not that he wanted or needed to. He created in his films worlds that were poetically whole and self-balancing on their own aesthetic terms. But as time went on, they became more and more porcelain and pristine, and less flesh-and-blood. Eyes Wide Shut is probably the most porcelain of them all.
“I remember writing two or three pieces in ’99 and ’00 about how Eyes Wide Shut was a fascinating stiff that essentially portrayed of the decline of Stanley Kubrick. I remember bully-boy David Poland unloading ridicule in my direction because of this. All to say that it gave me comfort to come upon a similar judgment in David Thomson‘s re-review of Kubrick’s final film, which is found on page 273 of Have You Seen…?.
Here’s the first paragraph and two sentences at the article’s end:
“This is the last film of Stanley Kubrick — indeed, he died so soon after delivery of his cut that the legend quickly grew that he intended doing more things to his movie. But it’s hard at the end not to see the substantial gulf between the man who knew ‘everything’ about filmmaking but not nearly enough about life or love or sex (somehow, over the years those subjects did get left out).
“Not that the film lacks intrigue or suggestiveness. Mastery can be felt. It is just that the master seems to have forgotten, or given up on figuring out, why mastery should be any more valuable than supremacy at chess or French polishing.”
The last two lines of Thomson’s review: “It is a shock to find that the film is only 159 minutes. Every frame feels like a prison.”
From my March 2000 review: “If you want your art to matter, stay in touch with the world. Keep in the human drama, take walks, go to baseball games, chase women, argue with waiters, ride motorcycles, hang out with children, play poker, visit Paris as often as possible and always keep in touch with the craggy old guy with the bad cough who runs the news stand.
“Kubrick apparently did very little of this. The more invested he became in his secretive, secluded, every-detail-controlled, nothing-left-to-chance lifestyle in England — which he began to construct when he left Hollywood and moved there in the early ’60s — and the less familiar he became with the rude hustle-bustle of life on the outside, the more rigid and formalized and apart-from-life his films became.
“Kubrick’s movies were always impressively detailed and beautifully realized. They’ve always imposed a certain trance-like spell — an altogetherness and aesthetic unity common to the work of any major artist.
“What Kubrick chose to create is not being questioned here. On their own terms, his films are masterful. But choosing to isolate yourself from the unruly push-pull of life can have a calcifying effect upon your art.
“Kubrick was less Olympian and more loosey-goosey when he made his early films in the `50s (Fear and Desire, The Killing, Paths of Glory) and early `60s (Lolita, Dr. Strangelove). I’m not saying his ultra-arty period that began with 2001: A Space Odyssey and continued until his death with A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, resulted in lesser films. The opposite is probably true.
“I’m saying that however beautiful and mesmerizing they were on their own terms, these last six films of Kubrick’s were more and more unto themselves, lacking that reflective, straight-from-the-hurlyburly quality that makes any work of expression seem more vital and alive.
“So many things about Eyes Wide Shut irritate me. Don’t get me started. So many others have riffed on this.
“The stiff, phoney-baloney way everyone talks to one another. The unmistakable feeling that the world it presents is much closer to 1920s Vienna (where the original Arthur Schnitzler novel was set) than modern-day Manhattan. The babysitter calling Cruise and Nicole Kidman ‘Mr. Harford’ and ‘Mrs. Harford.’ (If there is one teenaged Manhattan babysitter who has ever expressed herself like a finishing school graduate of 1952 and addressed a modern Manhattan couple in their early 30s as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.,’ I will eat the throw rug in David Poland‘s apartment.) The trite cliches that constitute 85% of Cruise’s dialogue. The agonizingly stilted delivery that Kidman gives to her lines in the sequence in which she’s smoking pot and arguing with Cruise in their bedroom. That absolutely hateful piano chord that keeps banging away in Act Three.
“The ultimate proof that Kubrick was off his game in his final days? He was so wrong in his judgment that the MPAA wouldn’t hit him with an NC-17 rating for the orgy scene that he didn’t even shoot alternative footage he could use in the event he might be forced to prune the overt nudity. He was instead caught with his pants down and forced to resort to a ridiculous CGI cover-up that makes no sense in the context of the film. (Would Cruise’s sexually curious character be content with just seeing the shoulders and legs of the sexual performers as he walks through the mansion? Wouldn’t he make a point of actually seeing the real action?)
“No one has been blunt enough to say it, but Kubrick obviously played his cards like no one who had any serious understanding of the moral leanings of the culture, let alone a good poker player’s sense of the film business, would have. He played them like an old man whose instincts were failing him, and thereby put himself and Warner Brothers into an embarrassing position. I wish things hadn’t ended this way for him, but they did.
“I hope what I’ve written here isn’t misread. I’ll always be grateful to have lived in a world that included the films of Stanley Kubrick. He’s now in the company of Griffith, Lubitsch, Chaplin, Eisenstein and the rest. Prolific or spare, rich or struggling, lauded or derided as their artistic strivings may have been, they are all equal now.”