Article – Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

The Two Deaths of Stanley Kubrick

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, September 1999)

When Stanley Kubrick died in March this year there was a noticeable lack of the usual plaudits and tributes that tend to be bandied around in such instances of Great Artist Loss. It felt like this wasn’t quite the end of the story and in a way this is true; for the great man actually had something further to add. For Kubrick had made the great artistic decision of dying just as he’d completed work on Eyes Wide Shut, the legendarily gestated film which, now that it’s finally been released, will bring a sense of closure to his career.

It’s as if Kubrick has done what even the greatest could never do: cheated death. The plaudits and tributes and theme nights are now starting to pour in. Kubrick’s career as a whole can be judged as more than something that ended nearly fifteen years ago with the release of his previous film, Full Metal Jacket. When it takes that long to make a film, it’s not hard to see why most people eased off the judgements for a few months. Stanley has had two deaths: his actual death and, on the day Eyes Wide Shut was released and people were able to draw a line under his phenomenally successful career, his real death in the eyes of everyone who didn’t know him.

So here it comes, sailing over the horizon like a fifteenth century explorer ship long since assumed to have fallen off the edge of the world. In case you don’t know, Eyes Wide Shut holds the record for the longest movie shoot from first shot to completion. It beat the nearest competition by months and it’s certainly not an effects-laden blockbuster. It may also be the most expensive film ever made, thanks to the money expected and lost from the films a certain Mr. T Cruise would have made had he not been caught up doing 100+ takes of individual scenes for Mr. Kubrick. Many people have already had fun pointing out that, in the time it took to make Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick could have employed the most bog-standard special effects operation in the business to create and animate reasonably life-like versions of Tom ’n’ Nicole.

But then Eyes Wide Shut became the classic example of a joke that just wasn’t funny anymore. Months after it went beyond its original completion date and stories started filtering out about the extraordinary lengths the notoriously perfectionist Kubrick was going to achieve what he wanted, people were merrily making jokes about what an old card Stanley was and how it couldn’t have happened to a nicer couple of Hollywood egos than Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Poor them! Stuck in provincial ol’ England for so long!

But then the months became years and the stories just got more and more unbelievable (Harvey Keitel being fired for reasons unknown and his entire, not insubstantial part being reshot, no scene requiring less than 50+ takes to get in the can) even the hardiest old cynics were giving thanks that they weren’t working on the seemingly unfinishable behemoth that was Eyes Wide Shut. Like making fun of Mother Theresa or Victoria Wood, the reality of what you were poking fun at could withstand any attempt at humour.

And then, with almost suspicious timing, Stanley pops his clogs and the announcement is made that the film has been finished. Idle speculators were left wondering how long the production would have rumbled on for it Kubrick had lived, or whether he was maybe done away with in a secret pact concocted by various interested parties ranging from the movie’s backers, through to Tom ’n’ Nicole (or, more specifically, Tom ’n’ Nicole’s agents), right down to the legions of fans who just wanted to see the bloody thing.

Now there is a finished product it brings almost surreal amounts of baggage for what is, in essence, two-and-a-bit hours of celluloid. There is no real reason to think this isn’t what Kubrick wanted to be released and Tom ’n’ Nicole, bizarrely loyal even after his actual and real death, are claiming it’s the best thing each has done. Well, it’s better than Cocktail.

Cruise and Kidman play a drop-dead gorgeous married couple who indulge in a little bit of extra-curricular flirtation at a party. Kidman giggles incessantly with Sandor, a leery Hungarian, whilst Cruise walks arm in arm with two virtually-clad English models. From the start the themes are set up: sex ’n’ foreigners.

Virtually everybody apart from Cruise, Kidman and party host Sydney Pollack is from another country. This film is set in New York and yet shot in Britain, and it’s a testimony to the sort of person Kubrick was that he appears to have imported large sections of Manhattan, rather than take on the onerous task of flying the pond.

The first third of Eyes Wide Shut is a dissection of a marriage, and very effective it is too. “I would never lie to you,” says Cruise in a post-sex marijuana session with Kidman. Up till now this seems to be about the things men say that piss women off and the revenge they take. In this case Kidman brazenly tells him about the lascivious thoughts she had about a sailor she once met.

Pissed off, Cruise sets off into the night and here we get the rather unexpected second third of the film, which is entirely centred on Cruise’s night-time journey. Dodging thugs accusing him of being gay (raises eyebrow), the phenomenally bad acting of Marie Richardson (another last minute addition to the cast after Jennifer Jason-Leigh was Keiteled) and a peculiar fancy dress store that hides a couple of transvestite Japanese (raises other eyebrow), Cruise gets wind of a Masque-cum-orgy and the final third of the movie begins.

Although the orgy features about as much thrusting nudity as an average evening on Channel 5, it is played out to an intensely provoking score which consists entirely of two piano notes being played over and over. Eyes Wide Shut is an incredibly slow film and yet begs for a repeat viewing, something Kubrick specialises in achieving. It features many of its author’s typically memorable moments yet it gives every impression of being a film about nothing – it will lull you into head-scratching confusion and post-match conversation along the lines of, “what the hell was that about?”

But for all its power and striking exceptionality it will be a film more remembered for what happened off-screen than on. As good as it is, the better story was being played out in the somewhat eccentric mind of the late, great Stanley Kubrick.

You only die twice, as the saying goes, but there is a footnote to this whole story than may extend Kubrick’s mortality yet further. A.I., the film which he spent the lion’s share of those fifteen years developing, looks like it may yet be made, with a certain Steven Spielberg directing. What are the odds that, on its eventual release, it is Kubrick who will get the critical notices and not Spielberg? You only die thrice?

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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