Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Reel Deal: Eyes Wide Shut, 1999


Sex on screen is nothing new. In fact, it’s practically as old as the movies itself. Many of the earliest examples of pre-cinema, essentially short series of pictures inside a box turned with a handcrank by the spectator so that they create the illusion of movement, made money peddling titillating footage of dancing girls and strip-tease shows. Nowadays, celluloid entertainment of this kind has been largely banished to the filmic netherworld of hardcore and softcore pornography. These much-maligned genres arguably function as black mirrors for the mainstream Hollywood productions mounted far away yet ever so close to the industrialised intercourse of the San Fernando valley. They often share the same dubious sexual and racial politics and narrative predictability, taken to an extreme in the ‘Meet, Fuck, Repeat’ formula of the porno.

  If one was to be unkind, it might be posited that at least some blockbusters are merely whack-off material sublimated beneath a PG13-sheen; it’s not entirely irrelevant that Michael Bay describes his own maximalist aesthetic as ‘fucking the frame’. It’s interesting to consider the sub-genre of the porn-parody with this in mind. These skin-flicks are designed to resemble recognised film franchises, complete with lookalike adult performers, so as to capitalise on the disposable income of their horny fans. More than being purely spoofs of their specific material, however, they unintentionally (after all, let’s not give them too much credit…) satirise some of the worst excesses and traits of the entire Hollywood industry i.e. male stars placing themselves in narratives that will resolve in reinforcing their power and fellating their egos.  

  I mention this pornographic approach to sex in cinema in order to juxtapose it with the antithetical, rigorously intellectual style of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, much-maligned at the time of its release shortly after the auteur’s sudden death in 1999, and crying out for the sort of critical re-appraisal which retrospectively crowned his other misunderstood work, The Shining.  

  Easily the equal of that other great 90s film about sex, David Cronenberg’s Crash, it is quite possibly the most cerebral film about sex ever made. This may well be the reason why it initially disappointed many: instead of delivering erotic thrills, it’s far more interested in examining the psychology and politics of sexuality. Indeed, in one sense the film can be said to take place within the minds of its characters: the central figure of the doctor William Harford, played by Tom Cruise, embarks on his nightmarish sexual odyssey across New York because he is filled with an irrational jealousy brought on by his wife’s confession of fantasies of infidelity with other men. The film therefore becomes a profound exploration of the power the mind wields over our experience of sex: constructing it, animating it and becoming infatuated with it.

  Harford is no Casanova or Don Juan; he’s not even the dominant stunt-cock of hardcore. Instead, he drifts in bemusement from one potential sexual encounter to another – an unplanned visit to a prostitute, an offer from a father to take his daughter, a society of ritualistic intercourse. Every time he is thwarted by forces beyond his control, like the phantom of venereal disease or social exclusion, so that the film becomes a subversion of the erotic expectations typically fulfilled by pornography.

  With his final work, Kubrick confirmed his place as one of the most determinist directors in the history of cinema. From the depersonalised military drones of Full Metal Jacket through the capricious fortunes of Barry Lyndon to the transformation of Alex into a clockwork orange, his films repeatedly explore how the idea of the autonomous individual is a myth. Cruise’s doctor is only the last in a long line of anti-heroes produced and controlled by their environments, and the way in which Kubrick denies us the usual humanising colour afforded to protagonists goes some way towards giving them the disturbing aspect of living puppets.
  The environment comes to the fore in his satirical treatment of the unholy marriage between sex and capitalism and the way female bodies can become the currency of male power. It is surely no coincidence that the film is set at Christmas time, the annual peak of Western consumerism, foregrounding how in a culture where everything is for sale, sex becomes a commodity for the rich and powerful. One recurring image is of older, upper middle-class men standing over the broken bodies of young women who have been assimilated to this system of commerce: at the beginning, when the doctor is attending a high-society party thrown by one of his wealthy clients, Victor Ziegler, he is called to the bathroom where this client is unable to revive a bare-breasted and OD-ing girl with whom he was presumably about to have intercourse; towards the end, the doctor looks upon the corpse of a hooker he had encountered at a baroque sex party with a very exclusive guest list.

  This bizarre orgy scene at the centre of the movie, where everyone wears a mask and adopts a secret identity, is also eerily prescient of sex in the internet age and the industry of anonymous, no-strings-attached ‘adult dating’ websites. Again, Kubrick is highlighting how sexuality is increasingly coopted by consumerism.

  Even though Harford is presented as very successful in his career – someone who has seemingly realised the American Dream – we see him ejected from the orgy and warned by Ziegler against investigating the shady practices of this clandestine society. Kubrick’s movies, with the obvious exception of Dr Strangelove, are not often noted for their political engagement, but here it is apparent that the filmmaker has a characteristically scathing and cynical statement to make about life in the USA. Namely, that hierarchies of class remain unspoken realities even in the self-proclaimed land of the free, and that when freedom and success are so inextricably bound up with consumerism we eventually become enslaved to these market forces.     

  It is also typical of the eternally provocative filmmaker that he should choose to end his swansong on such an ambiguous note. Harford’s wife Alice (Nicole Kidman), having forgiven William for his nighttime excursions insists that there is something else they must do to resolve the situation: ‘fuck’. Not make love, but ‘fuck’, the coarse word emphasising the animal nature of every human being and intimating that it is not to be denied, whatever the film’s questions about sex in the late twentieth century. Fucking equated with forgiveness, because it is also potentially the most beautiful and assuaging of all human activities, after 159 minutes of sceptical unwrapping of the gilded allure of sex. Kubrick was always one for leaving his audience with unresolved dilemmas about the big themes in existence, and following in this grand tradition on his last picture – if you’ll excuse the pun – he goes out with a bang.