Eyes Wide Shut and Kubrick the Surrealist

by Orion Walker

These observations are compiled primarily from emails to friends in the wake of the 1999 release of Eyes Wide Shut, curated and presented as a concurring opinion to this Rolling Stone piece by David Erlich. Some of my introductory remarks were originally offered in the course of a 2011 discussion of FILM CRIT HULK's article on Mulholland Drive.

If you’ve studied Surrealism, you can’t help but develop a pet peeve about the hearing the term commonly used to mean “weird for its own sake.” It is far from that. Surrealism was a thoughtful art movement with an expressly revolutionary agenda: to assert that the unfiltered unconscious mind represents a HIGHER reality (sur-) than the accepted “reality” of reason and societal propriety. (“Weirdness for its own sake” was closer to the stated anti-art ethos of their predecessors, the Dadaists.)

For some reason, one doesn’t often hear the term Surrealist applied to the likes of David Lynch, let alone Stanley Kubrick – but in terms of their preoccupation with the dissonance between society’s received logic and the stark hidden truths of the human shadow, I consider them the rightful standard bearers of this message from the Surrealists’ own era to the present century.

This context helps us discuss how and how not to approach films of this genre. In fact, I would argue it can assist in the enjoyment of all film: If you write off anything strange as dadaism, if narrative ambiguity frustrates you, if you get preoccupied with “what really happened” in a movie – just remember that “dream” and “real” are on equal footing in the language of cinema. Movies, as lifelike as they can be, don’t truly resemble waking life so much as they resemble the limitless possibility of dream. Therefore, cinema is inherently surreal. The best filmmakers – or my favorites, anyway – find ways to embrace this… but however you assess their intentions, wear these goggles as a viewer and you’ll have an easier time appreciating the perfection of Lost Highway, or Black Swan, or Eyes Wide Shut.

Anybody worth listening to will agree that Stanley Kubrick is one of the greatest directors of all time. But his swan song remains under-appreciated and poorly understood, due to a lot of reasons outside of the film itself. Tragically marketed and widely rejected as some kind of “erotic thriller,” it is in fact a PERFECT work of Surrealist film. (That it was based on a work called “Dream Story” was apparently an insufficient hint of how to read the film.)

As both Surrealism and Psychoanalysis concern themselves with the subconscious, it is useful in unpacking Eyes Wide Shut to consider such concepts as Jungian psychology, dreams, shadow selves, and the corrupted nature of romantic love as promoted by Western values and institutionalized by marriage. My own understanding of these was largely informed by the writings of Robert A. Johnson, known for a series of highly digestible psychology books that analyze myths to extrapolate truths of the human unconscious. For me it's formative stuff, sort of a connective tissue between Joseph Campbell and Surrealist film. Highly recommended - WE and Owning Your Own Shadow especially.

In 1999 I was just a couple years out of UCLA film school, and studying Kubrick was the single most transformative piece of education I'd received. Writing a paper on A Clockwork Orange, analyzing even his most subtle choices in sound design, framing, editing -- this was the closest I came to understanding the process and the power of a true artistic genius in the film medium. My final student film -- oh alright, my award-winning student film -- was principally an ode to Kubrick and Luis Buñuel and what I learned from them.

So when Eyes Wide Shut came out, it was a huge event for my film school friends and I, and we went as a group with great anticipation. And when the lights came up... we didn't know what to say. Truthfully, none of us totally "got it" out of the gate. There was so much to get past in terms of the weird marketing and the censorship controversy and the Cruise/Kidman drama, that to strip it all away and take the film on its own terms was initially a challenge. But if ever there was a filmmaker who merited that effort, who deserved the benefit of the doubt, it was Kubrick... so we went to a diner and talked about it, and talked about it, and after a few hours we broke through and began to see how it all fit together. After a second viewing with the structure in mind (and a few solid theories as to his agenda), we dropped in and experienced the film in a new way – finding it not only comprehensible but brilliant, and as focused and elegant as anything in his illustrious canon.

Our way in, the key to it all, begin with considering the semiotics of MASKS.

The Doctor and his Wife exist in a highly socialized world, rife with formalities. He especially is concerned with appearances ("You look perfect...you always look perfect", "I should go show my face over there."). They gracefully comport themselves through the comforting rituals of their societal order -- the "may I take your coat?" maneuver happens nearly a dozen times in the film, as does the approach of some well-dressed gentleman who politely interrupts a conversation to take the good doctor elsewhere he is needed.

But we see from the start that the wife is a good deal earthier than her husband. After being provoked by the brazen advances of a socialized predator, she gets high – a classic method for achieving a heightened awareness of one's unconscious thoughts -- and tries to communicate to her husband that they are living a charade, that all this high-society propriety is just a mask to conceal their innermost human desires.

But the doctor won't admit, even to himself, that he wears such masks. Did you want to fuck those girls? she asks him. Of course not. His reason? "Because you're my WIFE." Does he ever lust after patients, or them after him? Of course not. "Because I'm a DOCTOR." His defenses have nothing to do with his emotional reality, they don't even acknowledge the possibility a human being resides beneath his outward position and role. He buys in completely to the security of institutions -- how often does he flash his doctor's credentials like a badge, as though meant as universal proof of his legitimacy, no matter the context? Appearance is essence.

But as the famous mirror shot tells us, this flashy pantomime of love is no longer enough for his wife. She sees no intimacy in their naked reflection, only a facade...only an image on a cold, flat surface.

So she breaks the rules. She lets down her mask. She confesses to having had a desire, a temptation, a human impulse. As we wait to hear her husband’s response, the phone rings – a bell tolling as if the dive siren of a submarine, plunging us deep into the doctor’s subconscious to set out on a dreamlike odyssey.

The encounters that follow are not arbitrary. Each one represents or outright resembles some possibility within his own life. They are roads not taken, some literal, many only in his inner world. Consider the couple he meets: don't Thomas Gibson and Marie Richardson look an awful lot like Tom and Nicole? This is no coincidence -- he's playing out a scenario in which he himself is the Sailor, the object of lust that threatens the seemingly perfect marriage of his dopplegangers.

Consider the wandering punks who belittle his manhood. The fantasy of the beautiful prostitute engaging and validating his lust, and the flipside of death anxiety (from which he is rescued only by a phone call from his wife). The shopkeeper who prostitutes his daughter... hinting at the darkest and most destructive urges within his own psyche. (Is incest a reach? Really? We’re talking about the man who gave us "Lolita" here -- he wouldn't present us with a sexualized daughter-figure if he wanted us to shy away from the implications. That our censors think the graphic sex is the most disturbing element of the film is proof that they don't understand it.)

Just as the doctor is becoming aware of the underbelly to his inner world, his friend the piano player (an ex-doctor, significantly) shows him a way to reach its heart of darkness. The orgy scene is the centerpiece of the movie, and it seems to exist in a different world than the one we started in. This is a world not of society but of pure id. The doctor's rules do not apply here. It’s Chinatown, Jake. A man comes to take his coat, and evidence found inside is used against him. A well-dressed gentleman politely interrupts, but leads him not to his cabbie but right into a trap. He's in the wrong car, his password isn't enough, and most disconcertingly to the doctor: wearing a mask does not disguise him or protect him from being seen for what he truly is underneath.

(Yes, you can argue everything this side of the ringing telephone is “in his mind” – but if you tried on those goggles we spoke of, movies are dreams and dreams are real, so don’t worry so much about it. The film even reminds you of this: The doctor attends the ritual orgy while his wife dreams about it. What “really” happens to whom is a futile question. As Jung-via-Johnson teaches, the Myth and the Dream have the same symbolic value to the subconscious .)

In the end, a literal mask brings us full circle. How does the orgy mask end up on his pillow? That's not important, because at last the image is THE TRUTH – it’s a perfect symbol that captures everything he’s learned. He breaks down at the sight of it, because he sees his wife was right all along -- she hasn't been sharing a bed with a person, only with his mask. Marriage itself -- the INSTITUTION of marriage -- is portrayed as that same peculiar ritual in which two naked bodies kiss but never remove their masks.

Their secrets exposed, the last scene is finally Real Talk: if their relationship is to prosper it has to be a marriage between real human beings with all their desires and fears and flaws. It may lack the security of an institution (with imaginary words like "forever")...but with this self-honesty, at least, he has again become desirable to her. "There's one thing we must do as soon as possible," she proposes, using the choice of words least societally appropriate and most primally satisfying: "Fuck."

-- OW!