Book Review: “Eyes Wide Shut” by Nathan Abrams and Robert Phillip Kolker

All of Stanley Kubrick’s mature works lend themselves to endless interrogation. They appear, to various extents, as puzzles, presenting images and ideas that seem simultaneously straightforward and oblique.

2001 is the tale of an alien force that pushes man along on his evolution – but to what end? Why does Hal seemingly go mad? Why did Kubrick choose to make it sing a child’s song, as its mind is erased in a womb-like data centre?

The Shining is the story of a haunted hotel that possesses its caretaker over the course of a winter. But is it also really an allegory of Native American genocide, and the effects of its repression on the American cultural psyche? Why is Jack Torrence happily reading a Playgirl magazine with a story about incest? Why does the geography of the hotel make no sense?

The Shining inspired an entire film about its myriad interpretations. But for me, if one were to rank Kubrick’s films by the extent to which they operate as dream-like riddles, it would sit in second place. Because no film in Kubrick’s ouvre is quite so fascinating to analyse as his final one. His tale of infidelity, desire, meaning, becoming, dreaming and awakening: Eyes Wide Shut.

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Eyes Wide Shut (1999) was greeted with a confused shrug upon release. This tale of a New York doctor (and social climber) called Bill (Tom Cruise), and the uneasy, dreamlike quest for erotic power he embarks on after a unsettling revelation from his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) seemed for many audiences to be rather slow, kind of boring, not erotic enough, and obscure in meaning. What, ultimately, was the point of this film, and why did Kubrick push his health to the brink – and over – in order to get it made?

With Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film, we finally have the great book this film deserves. For too long EWS has attracted rumours, half-truths, whispers and suppositions. Now at last we can see everything laid out – its genesis, development, pre-production, filming, editing, reception, and the maze of theories that trailed in its wake. I have no doubt that for the foreseeable future at least this will be the go-to book on EWS. If you want to understand this film, start here. (Well, start with the film. Then sleep on it, that’s important. But then read this book).

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The authors take great pains to put the facts in front of the reader as clearly as possible. Curious about Harvey Keitel’s involvement and removal? Jennifer Jason Leigh? It’s all here. Everything from how Kubrick came to the source novel (Traumnovelle, by Arthur Schnitzler), to how he changed it to suit his needs, pushing the Jewishness into subtext while inserting references the New York ‘Knish Alley’ of his childhood, to the logistics of bussing in groups of homogeneously-figured women for naked crowd scenes at an orgy and multiple arguments with screenplay collaborators, all thoroughly researched and clearly presented.

Every chapter in this book is valuable to the Kubrick scholar or the casual cinephile; thoughtful yet readable throughout, it hits that golden spot of being a scholarly page-turner.

image.pngFor me the most engrossing sections were the one on the development of the screenplay, and the one on the analysis of what Kubrick called his “non-submersible units” – the set-pieces that operate as loci of subtextual meaning within his narratives.

The screenplay chapter is fascinating because it’s here that we seen Kubrick wrestling with decisions on what kind of film he really wants to make. This is what David Lynch calls “catching the big fish”. As his passes the screenplay from writer to writer – each one typically not knowing about the others – he fires highly targeted ideas at them, intended (it would seem) to act as seeds for them to grow into new revisions. We see the story evolve and twist – moving from 19th century Vienna to New York, becoming a comedy, or a thriller, or a melodrama. Woody Allen and Steve Martin are considered fo the lead. Writers make suggestions that do not chime with Kubrick’s vision, and are quietly removed from the process. This all take years – decades – but by the end Kubrick has his script. It’s in the negative space of the ideas Kubrick rejects that I found the greatest insight into what he really wanted from his film.

The non-submersible-unit section offers a tour through several of the most interesting interpretations of the film, and of key scenes. Abrams and Kolker present a lot of fascinating material here, especially around (for me) the film’s greatest scene – the billiard room confrontation with the Satanic, castrating father figure of Ziegler, played by Sydney Pollack. Larry Gross’s suggestion that Ziegler represents an inverted echo of the psychiatrist from the code of Psycho gets an airing, and connections are drawn between Ziegler as puppet-master, played by a director, and Kubrick as the film’s actual director.

This chapter also takes a look a Bill’s dream of the navel officer his wife has fantasised about – but these are fantasies twice over now – his dark fantasies of her erotic fantasies – and the effect is to create an unresolvable nexus at the centre of his neurotic imagination. In his 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams – with which Kubrick was deeply familiar – Freud referred to such an irreducible image as “the navel of the dream”. Fans of Freudian cinephile Mary Wild will be familiar with her insight that in Eyes Wide Shut the ‘navel’ of Bill’s dreamscape is the navel officer, a delightfully hidden bit of wordplay that’s duly presented here among a veritable menagerie of interpretations from the worlds of psychoanalysis, semiotics, sociology and literary history.

Perhaps in the end the film itself resists a ‘total theory’ – it will never be broken down to easily understandable logic, or unlocked like a puzzle box to reveal a simple prize inside. Perhaps, as in the games of tic-tac-toe or global thermonuclear war in Wargames (1983), the ‘only way to win is not to play’. Perhaps this is the lesson Bill learns, at long last. My view? The film is a grail quest, and the grail Bill seeks is the grail of no longer needing to look for the grail – a solution which, happily, he finds.

Goodnight, everybody!

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