For me, today is an auspicious and important anniversary. That is because today (March 7th, 2014) marks the 15 year anniversary of the tragic and mysterious death of the man that many consider to be the greatest film director ever (myself included), Stanley Kubrick, who died on March 7th, 1999. Given what an enormous artistic influence Kubrick has been on me and the countless others that admire and respect his work, I felt compelled to write a few words in commemoration and in memory of his superb body of work and of the man himself, whom even the legendary Orson Wells once quipped- “has always appeared as some kind of giant to me.”
The $64,000 question that I suppose those for whom Kubrick has remained either a puzzling enigma or simply just another director might very well ask, “Just what was it that made Stanley Kubrick so unique in the annals of filmmakers?” Were I to have to give a short declarative answer to what is sure to be a much more complex answer, I would have to say that (for me), “Kubrick was unique precisely because he was a purist and perfectionist of the movie medium, for whom film was not merely a commercial commodity for Hollywood escapism so much as an art form in its own right…collaborative, to be sure, in the sense that all the elements had to come together under the exacting eye of the director whose aesthetic vision must predominate.” Ultimately, it is (or rather should be) the director of a picture that has final cut, and for it to have integrity and/or unadulterated merit as a work of art should not be meddled with by producers, third-party hatchet re-writes, test audiences, or the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). And, for the most part, Stanley Kubrick maintained a rather unique relationship with Warner Brothers, wherein his films weren’t unnecessarily meddled with, particularly after his arguments with Kurt Douglas in the shooting of “Spartacus”. This is why in practically every film that followed…Stanley Kubrick was able to direct, shoot, write, and edit films his way more or less.
Clearly, “Lolita” posed some problems for him with the MPAA, in terms of how much he could show audiences in the early 60s, which were more restrictive sexually than they are today especially as it was in the Vladimir Nabokov novel. You can learn more about Nabokov’s thinking with regards to his controversial masterpiece, Lolita, by reading the Playboy interview he had with Alvin Toffler. However, certainly by 1971 and the release of the ultra-violent subversive movie, “A Clockwork Orange”, these earlier strictures had given way to the more libertine experimental artistry of the 70s and what I consider the true “Golden Age” of cinema with the freedom afforded by studios such as United Artists, which allowed the filmmaker far greater leeway in making movies his/her way prior to the blockbuster gold rush that began with Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Lucas’ “Star Wars” two years later in 1977.
In analyzing the Kubrick mystique, we can see that is wasn’t necessarily the subject matter that he chose (that while variable would inevitably touch upon similar themes of existential alienation, Murphy’s Law like contingencies, and dehumanization such as that brought about by control and war as depicted in “Full Metal Jacket”). What always stands out as the most dynamic characteristic of his oeuvre is the nature of his masterful cinematography technique. For the uninitiated, this technique will perhaps be unconscious, but it is there nonetheless guiding the eye shot by shot in every mise-en-scene. It is there in the long tracking shot through the trenches of WWI in “Paths of Glory”, in the perfect symmetry of the enigmatic black monolith in “2001”, in the dynamic steadi-cam work following Danny on his trike as he rides through the labyrinth-like hallways of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining”. So much of Kubrick’s choices in cinematography and skillful use of sound compel the viewer into rapturous attention and (on occasion) into a dreamy trance-like state due the languid, decadent, and richly-hued color palate that Stanley Kubrick uses in his pictures.
This was particularly evident in his last movie, “Eyes Wide Shut”. It is this swan song of Kubrick’s that I would like to focus on in particular, since it is my belief that Stanley was releasing certain key aspects of the power elite (primarily in the scenes involving a sinister secret society) that got him into very hot water with the same. This has been speculated about on certain websites like Vigilant Citizen, and in order to have a proper understanding of just what is taking place…a working and cogent knowledge of occult ritual, symbolism, mind-control, music, history, and human psychology are all going to be exercised. So, given that this is merely a ode to the memory of Stanley Kubrick, I won’t delve into the entirety of my symbolic and theoretical analysis of this film but rather mention but a few elements that will point towards just how deep this rabbit hole goes.
First, let’s consider the names. “Eyes Wide Shut” is based on the novella Traumnovelle and deals with the inherent artifice and falsity of marriage and a sexual odyssey of sorts that results from an admission of sexual desire by the woman played by Nicole Kidman in the movie. However, the title makes no logical sense were one to stop with this nominal plot outline and appears as a kind of linguistic paradox. You want to complete the phrase “eyes wide open”, but if they’re open…how can they also be shut? Again, Kubrick is employing paradox, not simply as trickery or in the Zen sense but, to inform the audience as the proceedings that follow, insofar as they will “look” at the sumptuousness of the movie (especially with regards to the explicit sexuality), but they will not “see” beyond this to the heart of what is actually being relayed about the thin veneer of civilization’s masks that people wear in so-called polite society behind which lurks the raw pursuit of greed, power, and lust. The Hartfords are being initiated.
This is my take on it, and I’m not presumptuous enough to think that my word is final or even wholly correct. However, I merely suggest it as something to consider, particularly when you watch the Red Cloak character confront Bill Hartford at the Somerton mansion. Now, look at the characters, and you’ll see that the almost caricature nature of their persona is by design in order to act as symbolic stand-ins for what Kubrick intents to say about the falsity and pathology of consumer society in using a young, beautiful, “well-to-do” couple living on the Upper West Side of New York City. Clearly, Nicole Kidman’s character, Alice Hartford, is the more complex and sexually honest of the two, and that is why she is named “Alice” as in the Lewis Carrol heroine Alice in Wonderland. She’s the one that will lead her husband, played by Tom Cruise, out of his rigid, patriarchal normalcy and stodgy bourgeoisie lifestyle and into one that must, by necessity if their marriage is to survive, become more thoughtful and self-examined. In the “Eyes Wide Shut” special features section on the DVD, you can watch Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Steven Spielberg speak about their memory of Stanley Kubrick. Tom Cruise comes off as fairly self-absorbed (as he usually does), Spielberg is naturally very complimentary but rather boring, and Nicole Kidman (to her credit) is the only one that shows what I would characterize as real genuflection and heart-felt emotion for the loss of Stanley Kubrick, who had become something of a father figure for Kidman. This will perhaps become important in a future article but for now, take note.
Bill Hartford is the one whose eyes are “shut” to the sexual fantasies of his beautiful wife’s inner psychic depths as well as to the covert and dark power that lies behind the wealthy clientele of this rather boorish doctor’s house calls to Eastern Establishment aristocracy men like Ziegler. Incidentally, Ziegler (played by the late Sydney Pollack) means “Mason”. Could Kubrick have used this character as a leitmotif in order to depict the dangers of Freemasonry? In the case of the Bill Hartford character, he is totally materially-oriented and uses the power of his wallet to impress upon others his “status” as a doctor to open doors at every turn and pay the “Bill”. However, for all his money and success, his wealth is but a pauper’s pittance compared the opulence of the super elite that he comes into contact with at the private masked orgy. Again, symbolism is predominate throughout, and he ends up fearing for his life (and that of his family’s), when he tries to pursue his nocturnal discoveries the following day.
Kubrick, as always, gives no easy answers as to what it all means. What exactly happened to the girl that stepped in to “redeem” him? Why is the costume shop owner pimping his daughter out to cross-dressing Japanese men after having acted so outraged at catching them initially? And, just who (as Ziegler puts it) are these “not just ordinary people”? All is left for the audience to attempt to decipher for themselves, as it ought to have to, in order to finally open their eyes to what is really taking place. Also, there are questions concerning the final film not yet being completed. Given that Kubrick showed a “work in progress” to Warner Bros. execs 4 days before his death and was still editing the film when he died, we can be fairly certain that the movie wasn’t completely finished, and (unfortunately) we’ll never know what the completed film would look like. We do know that the MPAA apparently forced Warner Bros. to install CGI people into the orgy sequence in order to garner an R rating, which is an obvious desecration to the film that was released without the CGI tampering for the European market.
Usually, you go into a movie with preconceived biases, expectations, and the barest attention needed to see everything you need to with the typical formulaic Hollywood fare. They’re usually at least somewhat entertaining, perhaps comfortingly sentimental, and fairly predictable, with the mind getting no more of a workout than if you were playing checkers. Contrast that with a Stanley Kubrick film, where you are confronted by a master film craftsman, a multi-layered storyline with often unsympathetic characters, and a gorgeously-composed film that nonetheless sometimes utilizes an unnerving use of color, sound, and camera work and hides more than one can perceive upon a first, second, third, and maybe even fourth glance. That is surely the lasting legacy and testament of Kubrick’s idiosyncratic style, wherein you go in thinking checkers and end up having to play 3-D chess.