Kubrick’s Depth of Field
The fact that “Eyes Wide Shut” has garnered such a mixed response from filmgoers and critics alike--ranging from adoration to scorn--is nothing new for the work of director Stanley Kubrick. It’s occurred with almost every one of his films, certainly since “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968.
But what is new is the way some of the late director’s admirers have suddenly turned on him.
“Artists are always venerated and put down; now it’s Stanley’s turn,” said Frederic Raphael, “Eyes Wide Shut’s” co-screenwriter (along with Kubrick), speaking by phone last week from his home in southwest France. “You can’t ask a mature artist to conform--he has lessons to teach. And one of those lessons is that we all pretend we’re very candid today about sex when we’re really not.”
That lesson is at the heart of the 1926 novella that inspired “Eyes”: Arthur Schnitzler’s “Dream Story,” which captured turn-of-the-century Vienna in all its fading glory and erotic decadence.
Even set in modern-day Manhattan, Raphael suggests it’s still a story with much to say to contemporary audiences about sex and marriage, dreams and reality, control and abandon. Raphael said that it was on Kubrick’s fertile mind for more than 30 years, and that Schnitzler’s vision was the one he delivered in this faithful adaptation. Anything else just wouldn’t have been Schnitzler--or Kubrick, it seems.
“The fun of it was doing Schnitzler today,” Raphael noted. “You either buy into it or go away. It guarantees escaping definition.”
But the 67-year-old Raphael (best known for “Darling” and “Two for the Road”), has yet to see “Eyes.” Although he’s written a controversial memoir that demystifies Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Open” (Ballantine), which has angered the late director’s family and Warner Bros. for breaking the customary vow of silence, Raphael insists he has not been barred from any screenings.
“I’ll see it at my leisure when it comes to Europe in September,” he said, joking: “I won’t have to wear a mask.”
Despite some initial misgivings about Kubrick, who was better at explaining what he didn’t want than what he did, treating the erudite author and screenwriter more like a valet than a collaborator, Raphael said that in retrospect he wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.
“I thought he was a very modest man,” Raphael said of Kubrick, who would have turned 71 this week. “He didn’t boast about his accomplishments. I had no great illusions after we started working that there was only one vision--Stanley’s. We had a job to do and we did it. He kept looking. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Once he found, he found. The best service you can render [for him] is driving the ball off the first tee, so he could play the rest of the course himself.”
And play it he did. But now that “Eyes” has been in theaters for a couple of weeks, there’s been a lot of second-guessing about the wisdom of Kubrick’s creative choices. This has led to some lively debate over the Internet, evenly divided between defenders and detractors, with a lot of emphasis on several burning questions: “Is Dr. Harford’s [Tom Cruise] sexual odyssey all a dream? Can the mysterious Sydney Pollack be trusted with his rational explanation? Was Nicole Kidman at the orgy? How did Cruise’s mask wind up on his pillow?”
“If I know Stanley, he probably has a morose smile about it all,” Raphael quipped. “You can interpret it all you like, but you can’t be sure what he means. He had an obsession [with this story], but I never asked him why. We never got personal. We never discussed our very long marriages.
“The question was: Could you translate figures in pre-1914 Vienna to up-to-date New York? We had to make that marriage take root to be true to the original. Stanley wanted me to be a translator, which I’ve had experience with in Greek and French. When he recognized that the couple [from Schnitzler’s story were in New York] and taken up in an apartment, he was ready to deal with them.”
Judging from Raphael’s memoir, it was always Kubrick’s intention to make “Eyes” more reality-based than “Dream Story.” And yet the director still managed to capture the essential dreamlike quality of the doctor’s sexual odyssey--what Raphael calls that powerfully erotic feeling of fear and desire, excitement and danger, anticipation and dread.
As with Kubrick’s previous films, which embody a futuristic past, a retro future or a present always on the cusp of chaos, he accomplished this with a sense of the surreal. “The challenge for Stanley was photographing real events and reinvigorating imaginary events,” Raphael said.
Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, an early champion of “Eyes,” believes the film is consistent with Kubrick’s theme of thwarting rationality. “Cruise’s character is a doctor who enters into a step-by-step underworld [where] sex and death are muddled. It sensitizes him and makes him more alert to sexuality.”
Schnitzler was a physician for a brief time as well as an acquaintance of Sigmund Freud. He obviously had something very personal to say about men in general and doctors in particular that resonated with Kubrick, the son of a doctor, according to Raphael.
“He was trying to be fair to doctors,” Raphael explained about the portrayal of Harford. “The repression of normal responses to women neutralizes a person. By renouncing these responses to females, he deadens himself.”
“Full Metal Jacket” screenwriter Michael Herr, in a revealing portrait of Kubrick in Vanity Fair, wrote that the director was also fascinated with the Jungian concept of “the Shadow, our hidden dark side.”
Which may be the key to understanding Kubrick’s obsession with this haunting story. He saw it as an opportunity to apply the hidden dark side to the concept of marriage and sexual relations. Thus, “Eyes” enabled him to reveal how much more knowing women are than men, and the emotional power they have over them. But then he’s done it before, most notably in “Lolita” and “Barry Lyndon,” in which the men never knew what hit them.
At its most basic, then, “Eyes” is kind of a shaggy sex story, since all Kidman really wants is Cruise to make love to her with more reckless abandon, despite her attraction to other men.
“It’s the comedy of human life--finding someone else,” Raphael said. “It’s charged with accident. Men are still embarrassed at the independent sexuality of women. They can’t believe that they have the same sexual thoughts as us. It both excites and alarms them.”