Tag Archives: Stanley Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut (1999): The Ghost of Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubricks’s costume drama Barry Lyndon, which dramatizes the rise and fall of a callow Irish social-climber, is a bit like a three hour tour through the Frick Collection. A meticulous recreation of the English ruling class during the Seven Years war, it is one of the most beautiful films ever made. However shallow and narcissistic Redmond Barry or Lady Lyndon can be, they move through a world where wealth and power manifest themselves as grace and style.

If Eyes Wide Shut is drearier and more unpleasant than Barry Lyndon, that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad film. Quite the contrary, what it means is that in both films Stanley Kubrick has accurately dramatized history. The American ruling-class in 1999 was a drearier, more unpleasant ruling-class than the English ruling-class of the 1760s. This is not to say that King George III’s England was any less repressive or immoral than Bill Clinton’s United States. But after the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Bolsheviks, and Mao Tse-tung, the rich have learned discretion, to hide their pleasures behind closed doors, and their faces underneath masks.

Eyes Wide Shut, which is based on the novel Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, is set almost entirely in New York City, and filmed almost entirely in England. Kubricks obsessive, meticulous recreation of Manhattan inside a studio gives the film a dreamlike air of unreal reality. Everything seems right. But something also seems just a little off. It becomes an effective way of dramatizing a sense of paranoid uncertainty, the kind of paranoid uncertainty a man would feel, for example, if he’s investigating a murder after just having had a severe quarrel with his wife. It’s also a way of dramatizing a sense of possibility, the idea that you’re on the verge of some important, perhaps horrifying discovery about the society where you live.

As the film begins, Bill Harford, Tom Cruise, and his wife Alice, Nicole Kidman, are getting ready to go to a party given by Victor Ziegler, Bill’s wealthy patient played by Sydney Pollock. If Bill, a successful physician who owns a fabulous apartment on Central Park West, represents the upper reaches of the upper-middle-class, then Ziegler is the 1%. We’re never told exactly what he does, but Kubrick makes it clear that he’s a man of great power and influence, not simply another guy with money. Bill and Alice are thrilled to be asked to go to his parties. It’s a glimpse of a world they know exists, but haven’t had as much contact with as they’d both like.

Ziegler’s party is also a projection of their debauched imagination. The American upper-middle-class is obsessed with and is controlled by sex, or, to be more accurate, obsessed with and controlled by prurient fantasies about sex. Ziegler’s mansion is dreamlike, drenched in a coarse fantasy of lust and easy sexual gratification. As with Kubrick’s vision of New York as a whole, everything about Ziegler’s party seems right. But everything also seems just a little bit off.

A Hungarian man named Sandor Szavost all but drags Alice upstairs for a quick fuck. She turns him down. Bill flirts with two high-fashion models. They talk to him as if he’s the most desirable man they ever met, but he resists giving into the temptation. Ziegler himself, rather than playing the gracious host, is upstairs fucking a junkie prostitute in his bedroom. When she overdoses, a panicked Ziegler calls Bill, who talks her back to consciousness, an act that probably saves his life later in the film. Bill runs into an old friend from medical school, a professional musician who was hired to play the piano.

Later, when Bill and Alice return home, they’re still thinking about sex. Do either of them ever think about anything else? Alice baits Bill into a quarrel. Bill loses his cool. Alice taunts him with a fantasy of an extramarital affair with a naval officer. He gets a call from the daughter of a dying patience and uses it as an excuse to spend the rest of the night away from home. The dead patience daughter confesses her love for Bill, who she barely knows. Later, after he gets harassed by some thuggish frat boys from Jersey, Bill runs into a prostitute, who coaxes him upstairs to her apartment. High class street walkers in the Village in the late 1990s? Yet again, everything seems right but something is also just a little off. Bill, who’s not interested in sex, decides to look up Nick Nightingale, the musician he met at Victor Ziegler’s party. They have a brief conversation before Nick announces that he has another gig.

When Nick Nightingale tells Bill that he plays the piano blindfolded for a secret society, Bill is intrigued, mainly because of the description of all the beautiful, available women. We wonder why? Didn’t Bill turn down two beautiful models at Ziegler’s party, his wife, the daughter of his patient, and a beautiful hooker? One would think the last thing Bill wants to see is more available women, but, in spite of Nick’s protestations, Bill is now as determined to infiltrate the secret society as Barry Lyndon was to live among the aristocracy. Even after Nick tells him he needs a costume and a mask, Bill manages to find a store run by a very strange Eastern European — who’s pimping out his 14 year old daughter to two Japanese men — to accept a bribe to get him the outfit he wants. Now dressed in a mask and a cape, Bill flags down a a cab, and heads out to the great estate on Long Island and headquarters of the Illuminati.

When Stanley Kubrick centered Eyes Wide Shut around a secret society, an orgy, and a murder at a palatial estate out on Long Island, there’s no question that it was good marketing. Not only does Eye Wide Shut still get reviewed by right-wing conspiracy theorists — the secret society is very obviously and intentionally modeled on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the “Illuminati.” — it also played well in the sex drenched climate of the years after Bill Clinton was impeached for getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky. While the film might not have been a huge hit — and never entered the popular consciousness the way Fight Club or The Matrix did — people who did pay to see it in its original theatrical run went mainly for the satanic, Illuminati sex orgy at the masked ball. That it’s the most boring satanic sex orgy ever filmed is no accident. Kubrick was no amateur. Every detail in Eyes Wide Shut rings true, right down to the way he cast hard looking 30-year-olds as hookers and more traditionally beautiful 20-year-olds as high fashion models.

The point is not that Kubrick’s Illuminati are secretive or that they’re perverse sexual sadists. They are, of course, but pointing it out still begs the question. Why? Why does Kubrick’s secret society threaten to kill Bill Harford and do in fact kill a woman who offers herself up as a “sacrifice” in his place? After all, what exactly does Harford catch the Illuminati doing? Plotting a coup? Planning 9/11? Covering up an attempted assassination on the President? Running drugs? Stealing vast amounts of money? Fixing the interest rate at the Federal Reserve? No. All Bill Harford catches the Illuminati doing is throwing a debauched — and incredibly boring — orgy. My initial reaction would be “big deal?” Isn’t it something that goes on in frat houses at every major university every weekend? But that’s entirely the point. The ruling class may be secretive and perverse, debauched and sadistic, but there’s really nothing there. Bill Harford manages to infiltrate the highest levels of the Clinton era 1% and finds nothing but empty, mechanical perversity masquerading as sex.

Tom Cruise is not very convincing as a doctor. He has none of the nerdy obsessiveness, for example, of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House, a man who would have kept investigating Victor Ziegler until the truth popped, or until it killed him. But Cruise doesn’t have to be convincing. In fact, it’s better that he, and Nichol Kidman, aren’t convincing, that they’re both empty, wooden actors who read their stilted lines without a trace of real emotion. Harford’s being a doctor is merely a way for Stanley Kubrick to signal that he’s upper-middle-class, that he has deep pockets, and a credit card with a seemingly bottomless limit, but also that, like Barry Lyndon, he wants something more. He’s a social climber. He wants more, more access, more status, and, above all, more sex. He still wants into the ruling class, even though he’s already seen that Victor Ziegler’s world is joyless, without a trace of genuine eroticism.

Redman Barry Lyndon may have ended up back in Ireland with a missing leg and a stingy pension, but at least he got to live in a gloriously beautiful baroque castle where he go to fuck Marisa Berenson every night. The orgy that Bill Harford discovers is more like a red masque of death, the final stage of a society that’s about to collapse under its own hollowness. There must be something more, he thinks. There has to be. But there’s not. That’s all there is.

If the Secret Society’s leader, Ziegler, seems to go through an extraordinary amount of effort to scare Bill Harford away from the black hole of nothingness at the center of the American ruling class, he’s protecting, not a secret, but a culture of secrecy, sex, power, and intimidation, the way the 1% keeps the upper-middle-class in line. The American 1% keeps the American middle-class under control through sexual repression, puritan shaming, sex drenched advertising, fake scandals — like Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky —and the promise of more and better orgasms. But by brainwashing the middle-class into an obsession with sex, the 1% guarantees that the one and only thing the middle-class cares about, will get outraged about, is sex. Had Ziegler’s secret society actually been plotting a coup, planning 9/11, covering up the Kennedy assassination, running drugs, or stealing vast amounts of money, nobody would have cared. Remember, Gary Webb brought out his book Dark Alliance — which documented how the CIA profited off of crack dealing in South Central LA — and, after an initial sensation, people forgot about it. They yawned.  That’s what government does. But after Bill Clinton lied about sex, the country went into a spasm of moral outrage that lasted for two years.

Victor Ziegler had little choice but to terrorize Bill Harford into staying away from his estate on Long Island. That he took such extreme measures, killing Nick Nightingale to shut him up and forcing a prostitute to OD, to cover up so little, testifies to the precarious position of his class. His authority, built on nothing, offering nothing to the middle-class or the working class, still has to be defended at all costs. Power exists only for the sake of power. Stanley Kubrick has pulled a fast one, not only on the sex-obsessed, but also on anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. The promise of sex got the vapid upper-middle-class into the theaters. The promise of uncovering a great mystery keeps the conspiracy theorists writing about and analyzing the movie again and again. Surely somewhere in the film is some, any hint as to why WTC 7 came down. But no, there really isn’t. There is no real mystery in Eyes Wide Shut any more than there is any real eroticism.

Eyes Wide Shut, in spite of the murders and in spite of the way Harford discovered the rot at the core of American society, ends on a happy note. Harford, like most middle-class people, decides that he can do without political power, live without the truth, as long as gets to live a normal life. Zielger goes back to his place in the ruling class. Harford goes back to his wife and child, retreats into apolitical domesticity.

“So what should we do?” he asks his wife.

She gives him just the answer that he’s wanted all along.

“Fuck,” she says.

El Cid (1961) Barry Lyndon (1975)

What are the two best duels in the history of cinema? Your mileage may vary. We all have our own favorites. For me they would have to be the trial by combat in Anthony Mann’s medieval epic El Cid, and the final duel in Stanley Kubrick’s 18th-Century costume drama Barry Lyndon. They are both so masterfully done, and yet so different, that a comparison between them will shed light on two great directors, and two great films.

No duel in film can quite match the famous trial by combat between Charleton Heston’s Don Rodrigo, the champion of the King of Castile, and Don Martin, the champion of the King of Aragon. Earlier in the film, Rodrigo had spared the lives of two Muslim Emirs he had taken prisoner. For that act of mercy and patriotism — he wants to unite Christian and civilized Muslim Spain against Islamic fundamentalism — he was given the title El Cid. He was also branded a traitor. After he kills Count Gormaz, his would-be father-in-law and one of his accusers, he not only wins the hatred of his fiancee Donna Ximena — it’s never a good idea to kill your girlfriend’s father —he deprives Castile of its best knight. It’s at that moment that the King of Aragon decides to press his claim to the disputed city of Callahora.

Aragon’s champion, Don Martin, is a legendary knight who’s already killed 27 other men in single combat. Rodrigo, even though he killed Count Gormaz, is still young and relatively untested. The Castilian court doesn’t trust him. Maybe he killed Gormaz by treachery. But Ferdinand, the King, also recognizes that Cid, who’s been accused of treason, has the right to clear his name, and so accepts his petition. The stage is set. If Cid kills Don Martin, he proves himself an innocent man. The city of Callahora goes to Castile, and Cid becomes Ferdinand’s champion. If Don Martin wins, however, then Callahora goes to the King of Aragon. Cid is proven a traitor. His family’s reputation is ruined, and he presumably goes to hell.

We find ourselves in front of the City of Callahora, the real Castle Belmonte in Spain, an imposing structure that dominates many miles of farmland from atop a commanding hill. The trial by combat is part of an elaborate ritual. Both Kings are there with their full compliments of lords, ladies, and men at arms. If Cid is a traitor for sparing the lives of two Muslims, then what is Donna Ximena, Sophia Loren, after she gives her colors to Don Martin, and expresses her desire that he kill Cid, her one time fiancee? Is she also a traitor? No. It’s her right as a witness to the trial by combat to bless whomever she feels is worthy of her support. Ferdinand’s daughter, Donna Urraca, a haughty, regal Geneviève Page, in turn, gives her colors to Rodrigo.

What follows is a clash between two big, strong, athletic men on horseback with lances, then broadswords. Cid, a religious man, believes that whoever is right with God will win the duel, but it’s also clear that the trial will be decided on the individual merits of the two champions, on their courage and on the strength of their arms. The elaborate ritual, the complex rules, the stately pageantry, is all designed to “let the best man win.” It’s a relentless, brutal fight to the death. Don Martin unhorses Cid, but, as he moves in for the kill, Cid knocks him off his mount and brings him crashing to the ground. There’s no room for error. Don Martin has his sword out so fast Cid has no time, even to raise his arm. Eventually, through sheer skill and tenacity, Rodrigo maneuvers Don Martin out of his initial momentum. The camera angles, the facial expressions of the lords and ladies of Aragon and Castile, the score by Miklós Rózsa, the clanging of the swords, are all so engaging that we become involved in a semi-mythical, semi-fictionalized joust that took place centuries ago. We are transported back in time to a grand, romantic medieval Spain that never quite existed, but which looks like history written in light.

The two duels that bracket Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon are an entirely different affair.

As the film opens, Redmond Barry, a young Irishman played by Ryan O’Neal, is courting his cousin Nora Brady. Nora, in turn, is being courted by Captain John Quin, a rich and cowardly English gentleman played by Leonard Rossiter. Barry demands “satisfaction.” Seconds are named. They meet, armed with pistols, in a quiet field. Barry, apparently, kills Quin, but no. It’s all a setup. The pistols have been loaded with blanks. Nora’s father, who’s deeply in debt, needs Quin’s money, and Quin, terrified by Barry, agrees to “play dead.” Barry is given 20 crowns and hustled off to Dublin. Like a modern day conservative, he believes he’s proven himself the best man. He’s not. The game has been rigged in his favor.

Years later, after working his way into high-society as a professional gambler, and into a marriage with the beautiful Lady Lyndon, Redmond Barry’s bad character finally catches up with him. He’s no El Cid, no pure-hearted knight willing to give up everything for God and country. He’s a mean-spirited little spendthrift who cheats on his wife, drinks himself into a stupor, and squanders her fortune. Eventually, he’s ostracized by polite society after he assaults Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon’s son by her first husband, at a concert. Lord Bullingdon, now grown into a young adult, challenges his step father to a duel. They meet in an abandoned church. What follows is 5 minutes of cinema so full of tension that we can barely stand it.

It’s also a comic masterpiece. The elaborate ritual of the trial by combat in El Cid was designed to strip away anything that would have gotten in the way of either knight’s strength and courage. The second duel in Barry Lyndon brings two small men down to each other’s low level. Redmond Barry is physically stronger than Lord Bullingdon, who’s a sallow faced, effeminate little mama’s boy, but he’s no better a man. Barry would have clobbered Bullingdon had it been a duel with rapiers, but a stylized ritual with pistols neutralizes his strength and courage. Lord Bullingdon gets the first shot. He’s so incompetent,he fires the pistol into the ground by mistake. Barry gets the second shot. Bullingdon is white with terror. He throws up. But Barry spares him. He also fires into the ground. It’s probably the only generous thing he’s done in the film’s three hours. He won’t kill his wife’s child, but he’s miscalculated. Bullingdon has no intention of letting bygones be bygones. He raises his pistol and takes aim. Then he shoots Redmond Barry in the leg, crushing the bone and the artery. Barry loses the leg. He goes back to Ireland to live out the rest of his days in poverty and obscurity.

Kubrick makes it clear that Barry goes back to Ireland because of his debt, not because of the amputated leg. While the pistols this time aren’t loaded with blanks, the game is still rigged. Lord Bullingdon restores the old order, sends the upstart Barry back home, not because of his own abilities, but because Barry’s luck had simply run out. Barry had been put in a lose lose situation, kill his wife’s first born, or fire into the ground. He takes his chances on Bullingdon’s generosity and loses. If Rodrigo and Don Martin fight each other to the death without a trace of personal animosity, these two men hate each other to the bone. Lord Bullingdon finally gets in a lucky shot. He also gives his victim a pension after it’s all over.

What would have happened if Lord Bullingdon had also fired into the ground? Things probably wouldn’t have been much different. Barry would have either gone to debtor’s prison, or his rotten character would have caught up with him in the end. Lord Bullingdon, it must be remembered, only acts after Barry has already been shunned by aristocratic society. His own personal animosity means nothing. He’s nothing more than the aristocratic old order’s bumbling tool. Had it not been Lord Bullingdon, it would have been somebody else. The film, significantly, ends in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, Perhaps Kubrick is telling us that even revolution is meaningless. After all, the rising bourgeoisie in the form of Redmond Barry has already proven itself no better than the aristocratic old order in the form of Lord Bullingdon.

“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled,” the final title card says. “Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.”

Perhaps Kubrick’s fatalism, his tendency to put all his characters under a microscope like bugs, is reactionary. Kubrick was certainly no liberal, as his earlier film, A Clockwork Orange, demonstrated. He admired violent little pricks like Alex and his droogs for their own sake. Freedom, for Kubrick, was the freedom to rape women, and beat up old men, just for kicks. But is Anthony Mann necessarily more progressive than Kubrick? Perhaps not. Mann, unlike Kubrick, was no reactionary, but El Cid is anything but liberal. Indeed, there’s a reason Francisco Franco allowed Mann to film in Spain and wound up using the film as part of a campaign to increase tourism. Mann’s Don Rodrigo, El Cid, is a noble, honorable, pure-hearted knight in shining armor, but therein lies the problem. The Castilian royal family in Mann’s film is thoroughly corrupt. Cid should just declare himself king, unite Spain behind him, and drive out the invading Muslim fundamentalists. He doesn’t. Like Franco himself, he lets the Spanish royal family stay on as puppets, even though he’s obviously the great man of destiny who saves his country from the invader. Perhaps Franco saw himself in Spain’s legendary knight of the Reconquista, and Mann’s ode to Spain’s greatest hero as unintentional fascist propaganda that validated his own brutal dictatorship. El Cid is certainly open to that interpretation. Great men, even when noble, generous, and self-sacrificing, are always problematic.