The Photographer’s Final Frames
Every Stanley Kubrick movie came down to an image, or a set of them, searching for two things: its own meaning and an appropriate dramatic elaboration. The fact that both searches were, in any given film, seldom entirely successful has not diminished the power of his work; in fact, it has bolstered it, especially for those who, against the tide of our commodifying culture, believe that art is more about seeking than finding, and more about dreaming than knowing.
The image had primacy, and it was, to be sure, a particular kind of image. Of Kubrick’s own legend, the most important mental image we have (no doubt a physical version exists, but I have created an imaginary one from reading about his life) is the first one that belongs to the public sphere: At age 17, a kid from the Bronx, he became a photographer for Look magazine. I picture him in his darkroom, cameras to one side, hunched over a developing tray, avid, happy; I find this image enormously touching, and I think that it explains a good deal about the (moving) images that came later.
He was a gadget freak; he knew everything about lights, lenses, gear. But that’s not the essential thing. If you’ve ever worked as a photographer you know that the greatest pleasure comes not in the shooting but in the developing and printing afterward. This is not only where you get to finally see the fruits of your labor, it’s also where you get to control, to manipulate your medium most directly; to create, in a very personal way. Shooting, no matter how much you plan and scheme, is always prey to circumstance. In developing and printing, though, you have the materials literally in your hands and can go back and recreate the image countless times, in innumerable variations, until you get exactly what you want—just the right texture in the photographic grain, say.
A detractor—and Kubrick had surprisingly many for a supposed critics’ favorite—might call him an overreacher who should have been the world’s greatest cinematographer. I would offer this instead: More than any other great director in the medium’s history, he was tied to the photographic image and to a philosophy of the image like that which made big deals of magazines like Look and Life in the decades after World War II: a philosophy that sought to combine the news photo’s vitality with art’s virtuosity.
Some months before Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s last film, appeared, a one-shot clip from it was made public. You’ve probably seen it. It shows Nicole Kidman, nude, face in profile, standing before a mirror, as Tom Cruise, also nude (both are seen from the waist up), approaches her from screen right and starts kissing her; she gazes past him strangely, with an air of mysterious distraction. As an indication of the image’s primacy in Kubrick, this canny little ad does nicely; not only is it instantly striking, it also conveys the film’s mood of chilled eros and the basic kernel of its story, a tale of matrimonial disquiet and its dreamlike righting. But what I perhaps will remember longest about Eyes Wide Shut is also what I noticed first about this one shot: the image’s grain.
It is larger than the grain one sees in most current movies, and that was surely deliberate; these days one must go out of one’s way to avoid perfection, which most cinematographers equate with unnoticeable grain. (Kubrick, I assume, used a fast Kodak stock that was pushed in the shooting and then processed to bring out the grain. The cumulative effect in Eyes Wide Shut includes the use of fast, supersharp lenses and the equivalent of overexposing the image by a stop or half-stop: This makes bright lights—which festoon the film like lights on a Christmas tree; many, in fact, are—bleed out, and gives the blacks and heavier colors a pleasingly vibrant, undersaturated quality.) But why go to the trouble, if the object is to dip below nominal state-of-the-art norms?
Well, Kubrick knew that grain entices and involves the eye; if you want your film to cast a spell, you can do worse than to start with the subtlest of visual seductions. Another consideration is that grain equates with visible brush strokes in painting: Both offer constant reminders of the art’s physical processes, and of the artist’s touch. But I think it comes down to this, too: Kubrick believed fervently in the beauty of the photographic image, a beauty that at times leaves us breathless because it is so close to the beauty of the world, whose whirling atoms and galaxies appear as grain when pressed under the camera’s glass.
It would be too much, certainly, to suppose that Eyes Wide Shut sprang solely from a desire to register certain visual textures, a certain photographic ambiance, in a movie. Yet such a supposition does, I think, get us closer to the motivating center of his work than do the analyses of our more literal-minded critics, simply because it returns us to the avidity of that bright 17-year-old.
Yet this is also where the essential Kubrickian dilemma begins. Picture him again hunched over that developing tray, staring at a particularly striking image and dreaming, even then, of turning such a picture into a movie. For that to happen, two things must occur. The image must be assigned a meaning, because audiences and young, intellectual artists alike cannot do without meaning; and the image’s emotional power must be elaborated into a story.
Neither of these things is easy, and neither came entirely naturally to Kubrick. He was always better at articulating the image than at converting it to ideas and drama. In fact, you might say that his struggle to accomplish both conversions constitutes the real drama in any Kubrick film, above and beyond what the story gives us. Will he succeed and transport us to unimagined narrative realms even as he explains the universe to us? Or will he fail and be dismissed as a misanthropic intellectual poser obsessed with gadgetry and control? To be sure, our judgments in such matters say more about us than they do about him. Kubrick’s own drama was not about making firm, sensible judgments but about escaping them; every one of his films is about a man (or Man) slipping the hard grasp of rationality.
Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey are his masterpieces because they are the films in which a gadget freak’s obsession is allowed to dominate both the ideas and the story. And yes, that’s a half-serious way of saying that I think that there is no more important theme in this almost-expired century (and the art thereof) than technology, which has taken us to the moon and to Auschwitz. Kubrick’s two greatest films, which are surely among the medium’s, take this theme to binary, Blakean extremes, imagining two possible outcomes to humankind’s technological precocity: species extinction and species transcendence.
But after you’ve been to the end of history and this evolutionary cycle, where do you go? Kubrick, like most of us, could think of nothing better than to go home. From the merciless perspective of showbiz, his grandest creation unquestionably was the Kubrick mystique, the impression of solitary genius (the adjective being so attached to that noun in the public mind), which had everything to do with distance and deliberate aloofness. His reclusiveness in rural England, from the 1960s on, was what the wags said death was to Elvis: a superlative career move. It allowed him to work, brought the world (and its money men) to him on his terms, as would never have happened in Hollywood. It also gave him a purchase on his art very much like that of a photographer alone in his darkroom.
Yet this is where the main paradox of his later films resides. The photographic philosophy at the heart of his work implies an adherence to the real. But the conditions he constructed to safeguard and further his art meant that he worked almost entirely in artificial, hermetically enclosed circumstances. Centered on space travel, 2001 is his single greatest film in part because its artificial environment is natural, indeed, unavoidable. The other films are all a mite uncomfortable with their forced disconnection from the world, and all deal with (or avoid) it in different ways.
Eyes Wide Shut comes off as a de facto companion piece to The Shining. Both films take the enclosed moviemaking environment as a ready made stand-in for home; both treat home as a metaphor for marriage; and both use the constraints of marriage as the pretext for a psychological odyssey by the male partner (a female-centered Kubrick film can hardly be imagined). Only, where The Shining points toward despair and death, Eyes Wide Shut aims at romantic reconciliation. One is a comic nightmare, the other a dark dream.
Adapted by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael from Traumnovelle, a 1926 novella by Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler (whose La Ronde was filmed by one of Kubrick’s heroes, Max Ophuls), Eyes Wide Shut opens on an evening when Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) attend a swanky New York Christmas party, where separately they do some serious flirting with other guests. The next day, while smoking pot, Alice challenges Bill about what he did at the party, and when he says that he would never cheat on her because he loves her, she responds by almost angrily confessing a powerful fantasy of infidelity prompted by a Navy man she glimpsed the summer before. (Recalling a similar monologue in Citizen Kane, this speech is the movie’s strongest dramatic moment and a great credit to Kidman, whose work in Eyes Wide Shut is as fine as Cruise’s is prosaic and stilted.)
Thereafter, Bill embarks on his odd nocturnal dream-journey, which plays out as a series of strange encounters: The daughter of a patient comes on to him just after her father dies; he hooks up with a hooker but doesn’t have sex; a musician pal tells him of an exotic orgy to be held later at a Long Island mansion; he has a Kafkaesque episode in acquiring the costume he needs for the orgy; and then he arrives at the mansion. Like the film itself, this “orgy” so circumscribes eros with ritual, guilt and menace as to render it wholly antierotic. Set among figures wearing cloaks and masks out of a Venetian carnival (hello, Casanova), it begins as a liturgical travesty with a red-cassocked, censer-swinging hierophant at its center, surrounded by statuesque masked babes in heels and g-strings.
Aside from the room’s Moorish architecture and the Arab music (“Islamic” is current movie shorthand hand for decadent sensuality: see the odious 8mm, etc.), the vibe is heavily Catholic. (I wouldn’t know, but perhaps the film is a documentary on what off-season weekends are like in the Hamptons.) Bill gets an eyeful and then gets found out; amid intimations that one of the babes sacrificed herself for him, he flees—all the way back, eventually, to Alice and full disclosure, with both partners emerging grateful that they have survived their separate detours into sinful might-have-beens.
If you wanted to parse this crudely, you could say that sex outside marriage is a tempting but icky no-no. If you wanted to grant it greater elegance, you could say that every marriage requires endless surrenders of self-interest (the woman who really sacrifices herself for Bill is not that masked babe, of course, but Alice), and that illicit fantasies are legitimate ways of venting disallowed desires. And if you wanted to put a reflexive cherry on top of all that, you could notice that movies function much like those fantasies; they reconcile the real and the imaginary.
None of this is wildly original, let us admit. And a few of the film’s elements, such as Jocelyn Pook’s hokey score, are surprisingly lame. Yet the experience of watching the film and thinking about it later underscores the extent to which Kubrick’s genius always resided somewhere just beyond the horizon of ideas, words, stories, even formal perfection. When all is said and done, Eyes Wide Shut casts a spell that’s as evanescent yet as distinctive as the grain on the film’s carefully controlled surface—a spell that belongs to cinema, and that may well not survive the disappearance of celluloid.
“It wouldn’t be happening like this if Kubrick were alive,” said a friend in the business of the strange way Warner Bros. was rolling out Eye Wide Shut to the press. And that was before the matter of the digital fig leaves arose, a prospective controversy that is still playing out as I write this. Following is a view from the film’s opening weekend.
On Monday, July 12, Warners held a smallish press screening in New York at which those of us in attendance were told beforehand that we were being shown the film’s “international” version, and that the American version, containing digital images inserted to gain the film an R rating from the MPAA, would be ready within two days. After we saw the film we were, as promised, shown a one-minute segment that featured an unfinished (i.e., not color-corrected) version of the altered scene.
The scene in question shows Tom Cruise’s character walking amid copulating couples at an orgy. Unaltered, there’s nothing hard-core about this and, of course, being Kubrick, it’s beautifully shot. In the altered version, there are six instances (one a repeat) of digitally created human figures, nude and cloaked, inserted into the image to obscure the sex. When I saw the unfinished version of the alterations, I thought they looked glaringly fake. When I saw the U.S. version of the film, on July 14—when most of the New York press encountered the movie for the first time, and Warners said not a word about any alteration—the color corrections had been done and the effect was much less noticeable. But noticeable is not the issue here. The issues are:
1) Did Kubrick really approve these digital blots on his careful photographic canvas? Mr. Meticulous, 90-takes-for-a-single-scene, fussy-about-every-composition Kubrick? Various people connected with Warners or the film have been letting on to the press that the director himself knew of a threatened NC-17 rating before his death and devised this solution to avoid it. But where’s the proof? And if Kubrick set all this in motion before he died in March, why was the work being done four days before the film’s release in July?
Here’s an alternate scenario. Kubrick in March gives the studio what he feels sure is an R version. Warners: “Close but no cigar, Stan, looks like we’ll have to insert some digital fig leaves to please the MPAA.” Kubrick: “Over my dead body.”
That is a jest—it’s not time to call in Oliver Stone just yet, perhaps—but it’s also not much more far-fetched than the official version, which proposes that in the four days between when Eyes Wide Shut was submitted to Warners and Kubrick’s death, someone determined that the MPAA wouldn’t give it an R and relayed that news to Kubrick, who then devised the digital solution and decided on implementing it to the exclusion of other possibilities (like reshooting the offending passage). The one thing you can say about the latter scenario is that at the present moment it’s very convenient to both Warners’ image and its investment in Eyes.
2) The MPAA system is scandalous and this film could and should have been used as a battering ram against it. Films like 8mm and The General’s Daughter, which hinge on the sadistic sexual torture, rape and butchery of women, get R ratings, but Kubrick’s final work is defaced because of a few seconds of nonexplicit consensual intercourse? It’s fucking ridiculous and it shows why the whole system needs to be overhauled or scrapped. Warners had the chance to make a stand here that might have benefited everyone, but it elected to go for the big-money opening weekend instead.
3) The response of the entertainment press to this story has been embarrassingly slow and lame. What the Post printed on Thursday (in John Podhoretz’s column) smacked of studio disinformation, and Bernard Weinraub’s short item in the Times the next day was just a less egregious version of same. So far no one has done any digging to find out if what’s being represented as Kubrick’s intent and doing really was. Will those hard questions get asked?
4) There’s lots about this matter that has yet to surface, but one thing is glaringly evident already: Warners has handled things in a way that inflames suspicions about its own honesty, judgment and stewardship of Kubrick’s work. To top off everything, the film opened the same week that longtime Warners heads (and supposed Kubrick champions) Terry Semel and Bob Daly announced their departure from the company. Coincidence? Stay tuned.