Monday, November 19, 2007

Lucky To Be Alive

I still think that there’s a Saturday Night Live sketch somewhere in that pool table scene between Tom Cruise and Sydney Pollack in EYES WIDE SHUT. The way Pollack lays out all that exposition, the way Tom Cruise seems to respond to every statement by repeating it—heck, he does that the whole movie, even to the point of repeating what his own daughter says to him. I don’t quite know what the sketch would be but there’s just something so damn hypnotic about the scene and it was the first thing I wanted to see when I popped the new DVD into my player. Of course, it can easily be said that there’s something hypnotic about the whole movie.

The thing is, we have to look at EYES WIDE SHUT as a film which will remain unfinished. Stanley Kubrick planned for many things in his career but he didn’t plan for his own death in March of 1999. You’ll never convince me that, four months before its release, the man who continued editing 2001 and THE SHINING several days after they opened in theaters wasn’t going to continue tinkering with his film, if not make substantial changes. But if this is the EYES WIDE SHUT we will always know, I’ll take it. I’ve seen the movie numerous times over the years, but unfortunately only once in a theater. My opinion of it doesn’t change, but my perceptions of certain things always seem to, like how the use of the color blue seems stronger each time. This new disc is the unrated version, with all the debauchery that we’re meant to see and yes, it is an improvement. I’ll never believe that Kubrick wouldn’t have had opinions about that change and it’s fortunate that we in the states are finally getting to see what is as close to the real EYES WIDE SHUT as we’ll ever know for the first time.

Set in present day New York, it’s a world I am able to be more familiar with than any other Kubrick film. The Central Park West address the Hartfords live on seems to place it in Woody Allen territory and it’s an interesting alternate version of the film to imagine. The apartment has just as many books on the shelves as people do in Woody’s films but the feel of the place is more opulent. Dr. Bill seems a little too well-off for what I imagine his position is, but I suppose if he has people like Victor Ziegler in his life he’s doing pretty well.

I love party scenes in films and as far as I’m concerned the one at the beginning of EYES WIDE SHUT is one of the great party scenes. It drifts along, it takes detours, there’s flirting, people are met, people drop away, the characters get drunker as it goes along. It’s a shame that we don’t get a few more seconds of Gayle and Nuala (“N-U-A-L-A”) as they try to take him “where the rainbow ends” and it’s impossible not to read volumes into that look they give each other when he is led away.

As Dr. Bill is engaged in his own flirting, Alice is quickly getting buzzed as she continues her dance with Sandor Szavost (“I’m Hungarian.”). Admittedly, I’ve never been the biggest Nicole Kidman fan. I guess I lost interest around the time she lost the frizzy hair but by a certain point she just began to seem plastic and artificial to me. At least in TO DIE FOR this made sense but there’s always been something very distancing about her to me. So it was my surprise that it was on this viewing of EYES WIDE SHUT where I found myself drawn to her more than ever before. From the moment she picks up that glass of champagne on the way to the bathroom and downs it in a few seconds, all the way to the point when Tom Cruise gets called out of their late-night pot session, she owns the movie. With this sudden revelation, I found myself wishing we would stay there with Alice instead of following Dr. Bill out to cavort with Marie Richardson’s grieving daughter and Vinessa Shaw’s nicest-prostitute-in-the-world. It wasn’t until we move below street level into the Sonata Café that I found myself drawn back into the film (though it always bugs me that Dr. Bill enters just as Nick Nightingale’s set is wrapping up).

Dr. Bill has to depart from Alice out of necessity for a long stretch of screentime and when he finally returns to her it’s to a long monologue just as she is woken up in the early morning hours and it’s always my least favorite scene in the film. I know it shouldn’t be. I know it’s thematically important. But from now until doomsday, I think that whenever I watch the film I’m just going to zone right out during that scene. After following Dr. Bill through his night, listening what Alice was dreaming about at the exact same time just isn’t something I can bring myself to be interested in. From that point on, the character of Alice has lost me.

It’s hard to avoid mentioning how good Todd Field is as Nick Nightingale and what a vivid, unspoken characterization he brings to what are really just a handful of scenes, a few of which he’s really just an extra. Random Todd Field bookends—way back in 1999 he appeared in a movie called GROSS ANATOMY as a med student who gets kicked out of school, prefiguring the character he plays here. And just after the release of EYES WIDE SHUT he appeared in Jan De Bont’s lousy remake of THE HAUNTING as someone else who we think will stick around in the film longer than they do. De Bont was placing Kubrick references in each of his films at this point and it was hard not to think of Todd Field as a sort of walking Kubrick reference when he turned up in the film. That’s just about the only thing I remember about THE HAUNTING.

Noticing the obvious backlot use throughout—do we see the same block over and over? The same two blocks?—is unavoidable. Saying it gives the film a dreamlike quality offers a good reason for this—some may say excuse, but not me—but this doesn’t fly as much with the daytime scenes when it’s hard not to feel like some more realism is needed. And yet, when we’re back out at night later on with that street seeming just too deserted even for late night New York, everything about the frisson of that dreamlike feel seems to take hold, from the anonymous cab driver who shouts “Off duty!” to that New York Post headline provocatively reading “LUCKY TO BE ALIVE” a touch I remember noticing on my first viewing and something that jumps out at me each time I see it. I can’t believe that such an element was unintended.

And yet, why does the headline inside the Post which actually pertains to the plot read in a strange use of language “Ex-beauty queen in hotel drugs overdose”. Why does such a sloppily written heading get several big close-ups? Why do I always find myself looking forward to the smiling waitress who says, “I’ll bring it over to you,” when Dr. Bill orders a cappuccino. Is there really such a place in Greenwich Village or did Kubrick go there at some point in the 50s? And why is this film set during Christmastime, anyway? Did Shane Black do a pass on the script?

And once again, whenever we get to that scene with the pool table I find myself noticing the exhaustion noticeable in Tom Cruise, wondering how much of that is the character and how much is really him. I watch Sydney Pollack telling him everything—or is he?—and revealing things that should make him villainous and yet in his way of tossing out phrases like “he’s back with his family, you know, banging Mrs. Nick,” I find myself liking him more than any other character Pollack has ever played. And I wonder what it would be like to play pool at that table. And as he tells Dr. Bill, who may or may not be lucky to be alive at that point, “Someone died, it happens all the time. But life goes on, it always does. Until it doesn’t. But you know that, don’t you,” it’s hard not to look at it as being the correct ending for both the movie and the career of Kubrick in general. Just leaving us hanging on a tightrope after that line would be audacious to say the least. But then, we wouldn’t have the great last line that Nicole Kidman has. It’s just one of the many conundrums of EYES WIDE SHUT.


Steve Langton said...

Some terrific points in your piece. I think your right about viewing EWS as unfinished. In many ways, it's my favourite Kubrick, and thanks for increasing my understanding of it.

Emily Blake said...

I don't remember a lot about that movie other than being annoyed at sitting in the very front row, but I do remember that speech Nicole gives at the end of the film about how women want sex too.

I liked that speech. So whatever was going on in the rest of that film, that part was great.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Steve--Glad to hear from another EYES WIDE SHUT fan. Thanks for the kind words.

Emily--I'm sure I would have mixed feelings about any 2:40 film where I had to sit in the front row. But yeah, Nicole is the one who cuts through a lot of stuff at the end. She seems to be able to say these things, unlike her husband Tom who just kind of stands there staring at her.

Patrick said...

I've just stumbled across your blog after having Googled "Ex Beauty Queen In Hotel Drugs Overdose" and like what you have to say. I've just watched the picture again (this time without the childish digital figures in the party scene) and am inspired to write something about the whole brouhaha that is EYES WIDE SHUT.

I'm a movie guy and have been since I was nine. I make my living as a boom operator in Hollywood and none of my friends, whether they're a cinefile or not, seem to like this movie. But I think that's because nobody understood it. Sure, it's easy to miss a lot of the subtleties, especially if you aren't prepared for Kubrick's style. But I made sure to see this movie three times in its initial release and try to figure it out.

So...what I get out of it is that the dream element of the movie begins when the phone rings in their bedroom during the pot-smoking session and ends when he finds the mask on his pillow. At that point, he snuggles up to her in tears and says, "I'll tell you everything. I'll tell you everything," just like she told him all about her dream earlier (and I, too, find that scene a bit dreary and sluggish). Although the mask is visible on the pillow at this point, I think that in reality it's not there, it's just there as a symbol of the dream he's just experienced with his head on that pillow. The remnants of all things wicked from his own psyche, as it were.

This explanation definitely explains everything about the final conversation they have in the toy store. She's upset because she knows that dreams relate our true feelings and is disturbed by the distractions and desires he was up against in his very vivid dream.

Also, the fact that certain elements of the film seem sloppy does nothing but support the dream state. Yeah, the sets are repetitive and claustrophobic, but that's how dreams are, too. The slow, deliberate performances (a Kubrick touch) are dreamlike as well. And the plot that keeps getting more ridiculous and often times comical is exactly like a dream. Nothing is ever normal in a dream.

OK. I don't want to go on with my silly film geek deconstructions. We get out of it what we will, and that's what Kubrick always wanted. Everybody's different.

What I will ask is for those of you who didn't dig the flick to watch it one more time and give it a chance. Believe me, there's a lot going on there underneath the surface.