I saw EYES WIDE SHUT last night (3rd time). Oh, my God, this is a great work of art -- words can't describe what I experienced. Ecstasy.
One realization which may be useful: it isn't only the rendering of events (the style of the film), that's expressionistic: the plot is expressionistic! There's no objective external world anywhere in the film. From the first scene, with its swirl of color and light and music, which creates an enjoyment expressive of Bill's pleasure in the life he thinks he's living and a point of reference for all that follows, we can best derive meaning not from the literal events of the plot, but from the way the experience of watching the film feels. And, going farther, in much of what follows, it isn't just that the depiction of events is abstracted to create an emotional experience of them: it's that there are no real, external events per se -- Bill's emotional state itself is the subject of the film's expressionistic landscape of image, sound, and event. If this is so, if events on the screen have no reference to objective reality, where then does the film actually take place, where does it exist? Where all art exists: in the mind of the audience.
This use of every aspect of narrative cinema (including the narrative itself) for expressionistic purposes seems to have led to a problem of understanding: Repeatedly, critics recount the plot ("this happens, and then this happens") and then try to derive the meaning of the film from it. But the meaning isn't in the plot, or in an analysis of Bill's experiences: it's in the audience's experience watching and hearing the film over the two-and-a-half hours it runs. After all, as pure fiction, the literal plot seems to make no sense: the events at the orgy house are so ambiguous as to defy a literal retelling. But as an emotional experience rendered by images in motion, music and narrative context, it's enthralling. Amazingly, and yet typically with Kubrick's great films, the emotional and intellectual experience of Eyes Wide Shut gets more intense, more fascinating, each time one sees it. One sees more each time -- not just details of direction and design (although one sees those things, too), but "sees," in all the meanings of that word: thinks more, hears more, laughs more, feels more, understands more.
The film seems to largely defy analysis because no analysis can convey the experience of pure cinema: visceral, emotional, physical, intellectual all at once. I thought Kubrick had achieved this in Barry Lyndon, but I think it is much more fully invented -- perfected, perhaps -- in Eyes Wide Shut.
So why don't more people have the experience of Eyes Wide Shut (which, clearly, they don't)? I think it's because either they don't know how to look at art, or it never occurs to them to look at a movie that way. In addition to the rectangle, the most important place Eyes Wide Shut lives is in time. Looking at art takes time: one wouldn't walk into the room at the Museum of Modern Art which houses Picasso's "Guernica," look at it for five seconds and say, "Okay, I've seen it." One stands before such a massive work for ten, twenty minutes, an hour, letting it in, letting it work on the eyes and the subconscious, absorbing it, discerning it, watching the patterns and strategies emerge: having the experience of it, in time.
Cinema is an art in which the artist controls how long you look at the pictures -- and Kubrick, correctly, gives you enough time with each "picture" (i.e., each scene, environment, sequence: each cinematic "event") to allow it to work on the eyes, mind and intuition. We've been conditioned by movies, TV, commercials and videos to respond immediately and no longer. Watching Eyes Wide Shut, people respond on the immediate level, and then stop (never supposing that in a movie there would be any level but the immediate). So all they receive, really, is the plot. Well, good luck to them: they ain't going to get it.
Kubrick works so hard at distorting the physical, photographable world into abstractly expressive forms, it remains a mystery to me why critics describe the plot in terms of the likelihood of its happening in the real world -- when nothing about the world it happens in is real. In these terms, Eyes has something new going on photographically: some laboratory process (I'm keeping my eyes open for American Cinematographer magazine to cover it) which enhances the grain of the film in a beautiful way, rendering the image in painterly terms, almost pointillistic, with tiny, furiously dancing grains of color exploding, popping, and almost incidentally composing the images. This pointillistic quality, the sense of millions of atoms of pure color, had eluded my conscious response for two whole viewings of the film. Now it seems to me an indispensable part of the experience, allowing the events to exist on the terms of this abstract, imagined world, where primary colors scream incompatibility and danger; great, gothic tableaus rise up improbably on the bourgeois protagonist's mental landscape; and the daylight world is as full of ambiguity and mad paranoia as the night. People said Barry Lyndon was like a walk through an art museum. I always thought that was dumb, but if they said it about Eyes I might agree: a museum offering a collection of wildly original and brilliantly wrought Kubrick images, ranging in style from soft-lit impressionist portraiture to nightmarish surrealism (and by the way, these pictures move and emit music, and you look at them for a controlled period of time in a particular order, and... never mind, it's not an art museum, it's something better: cinema!)
On this third viewing, I experienced in a full way the conditions that cause Bill's breakdown at the end of his odyssey, when he sobs to Alice, "I'll tell you everything... I'll tell you everything." Even if we accept Victor Ziegler's self-serving explanation of events ("What if I were to tell you..."), and even if, as he says, none of the things Bill is afraid of really happened, there is still that mask of terrible impassivity that says otherwise: it did happen and it's in Bill's bed, beside his wife. As he walks around his dark house, lucky to be alive, that Ligeti nightmare piano piece describes the terrible reality still at work in his home, undispelled by Victor's benign, unconvincing words: a wonderfully suspenseful passage. When Bill sees the mask, his breakdown feels to me like a true emotion, absolutely right and grounded in the reality of the situation -- which, considering its source in the most expressionistically unreal events, strikes me as quite an artistic achievement (not least of all for the actor, whose performance gets better each time, too). Finally, the only way to dispel the nightmare is to remove the mask of unseeing eyes and emotional impassiveness, and be truthful. Bill's dark odyssey, after taking him farther and farther from his true self, finally restores him, possibly evolves him -- as does the ape's journey through Man to HAL to Star-child; as does Alex's journey to a "cure;" Barry Lyndon's journey to selflessness; even, perhaps, the journeys of Jack to his own peculiar heaven and Joker to an experience of life in a world of shit, but without fear).
I think this movie is light years beyond "2001" as a work of cinema. The sustained achievement of intellect and imagination and of the craft of film making is so great, and the flaws are so few and so minor as to be meaningless. I think he knew it was his last film. There are so many references to death, fears expressed as to how it will come, and that reference to the reality of a whole lifetime -- the film finally has a a feeling of speaking from the grave. And then we're left with that sardonic, dirge-like waltz.
This is one dense movie! Consider the brief, opening image of the protagonist, held for just a moment before he and the camera start moving through his unspeakable journey: Bill, his back to the camera, all black (and therefore defined completely by the image that surrounds him -- a perfect announcement of the film's entire expressive strategy!). Silhouetted against the very blue light outside his window, and framed all around by deep red drapes, establishing the duality of color and character that runs throughout the film, he is engaged, as we discover him, in nothing less than the search for his identity (his wallet)! How he will love to flash his ID card at people: I exist! And of course his wallet will contain an endless supply of money, which comprises a big part of his identity and buys his way into the conditions of its wreckage.
On and on. As I said, it defies analysis, is meant to be experienced. More than once, I dare say. And very close to the screen.
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