The Kubrick Corner

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Biography
PART 1: More than meets the eye
Introduction to themes
The Kuleshov effect
Kubrick as cold rationalist
PART 2: Opening Shots
The Kubrick Aesthetic & Spectatorship Theory
Concept Art and Storyboards
Kubrick's bathrooms
Dinner with Stanley
PART 3: The Killing
Simultaneity and Overlap
The Unknown Kubrick
The Early Films
PART 4: Paths of Glory
Creation and Destruction
PART 5: Spartacus
I Viddied Spartacus
PART 6: Lolita
Michael Ciment on Lolita
1962 Kubrick interview
PART 7: Dr Strangelove
War and Sex
PART 8: 2001: A Space Odyssey
A Cold Descent
SF Capital
Three Metamorphoses
PART 9: A Clockwork Orange
Alex as artist
Crime and Punishment
The Decor Of Tomorrow's Hell
Spectacle and Violence
PART 10: Barry Lyndon Reconsidered
The Vanity of Existence
Narrative and Discourse
Kubrick's Narrator and "The higher aesthetic"
PART 11: Imperfect Symmetries
Animal friends
Historicism and Hauntology
4 Articles
The Uncanny
PART 12: Deconstructing Masculinity
The Jungian Thing
Kubrick's Ulterior War
AMK Essays
Who am I?
Anybody's Son Will Do
PART 13: Eyes Wide Shut
3 Articles
Contemporary Sexuality and its Discontents
Squalid Infidelities
Crazy cults and Grotesque Caricatures
Was Eyes Wide Shut completed?
PART 14: A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Kubrick's A.I. by Ian Watson
New AI Page
PART 15: Kubrick's Psychopaths
Kubrick's office and grave
A Collection of Letters
The Quote Page
Scorsese on Kubrick
Kubrick Interviews
Useful weblinks, books and Guestbook

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If you've been puzzled by the title Eyes Wide Shut, you're not alone. According to ritual abuse and mind control survivor Arizona Wilder, it is a satanic cult term meaning that whatever you've seen here is not to be revealed to anyone.

“Monarch (mind control) programmers use this term," says Wilder in a recent interview. "The entire movie is reminiscent of my ritual experiences. In one of my journals, from 1990, I talk about a ritual where they all have golden masks and hooded robes. It has to do with the sun god. They use these masks in Egyptian-type ceremony rituals. The masks mean we are not individuals, but we have one purpose in mind. One thing they did is they never unmask."

 

Wilder also finds a deep significance in the sign for Rennes Street and the name of the pianist (Nightingale) whose name means ‘messenger from the dark’. "The name of the costume shop was representative of getting to the ritual by going 'Over the Rainbow’," she says. "The movie was making a statement. We (the Illuminati) are here. We exist. What are you going to do about it?"


- Uri Dowbenko, Offline Illumination - Eyes Wide Shut: Occult Entertainment

 

 

'Even the street sets (criticized by the uniquely provincial New York press as "inaccurate") are expressionistic, with newspaper headlines (LUCKY TO BE ALIVE) and neon signs (EROS) foreshadowing and commenting on the action. In Kubrick's work, nothing is incidental.'


- Tim Kreider, 'Introducing Sociology: A Review of Eyes Wide Shut'

 

 

'Whose idea of an orgy was this - the Catholic Church's?'
- Stephen Hunter,

 

KUBRICK, CULTS AND CRAZY CONSPIRACIES
 

Responses to Kubrick's final film can be divided into roughly three groups. There is the 'Official' view, the apparently widely held media consenus that Kubrick's adaptation of Schnitzler's Dream Story is at best flawed, at worst wildly misconceived and embarrassing. Then there are the crazy Occult Conspiracy theorists who maintain that Eyes Wide Shut was a more or less accurate depiction of magical mind control techniques, associated especially with the fascinatingly deranged hyperfictional Monarch mind control meta-mythos (in relation to which Kubrick himself is positioned either as Illuminati insider-initiate or as whistle-blower, whose death was a consequence of his hubristic courage in exposing these clandestine rites to the world) ; and thirdly, there is the view - largely confined to Kubrick enthusiasts, artists and film-makers, that it is a masterpiece at least on a par with the great director's other landmark works.

 

Author Tim Kreider's analysis of the film is especially interesting because it begins by explicitly taking on the critical consensus that has settled around the film. 'Critical disappointment with Eyes Wide Shut was almost unanimous,' he says. Moreover, 'the complaint was always the same: not sexy'. Kreider's argument is that critics were disarmed and misled by the film's advertising, which seemed to offer the promise of a psycho-sexual thriller.

 

With expectations so raised, critics were either bored or dismissive or both when faced with the film's tedious passages and pompous excesses. Indeed, critics have been frustrated by the alleged duality between these two modes, when in fact it is the consistency and secret complicity between banal commonsense and obscene power that is the key to the whole film.

 

Kreider's reading stresses the economic and the political or rather the political-economic at the expense of the sensual. He argues that Kubrick's film shows that the sensual cannot be seen outside the political or the economic. In the political-libidinal-economic world of Eyes Wide Shut, money and status - or to be more accurate, signs of money and status - are everywhere, even if they go unnoticed by the characters themselves.

 

Like the audience, Bill and Alice don't really see their surrounding mise-en-scène, their wealth, their art, the ubiquitous Christmas glitz. They're preoccupied instead with their own petty lusts and jealousies.

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Looking down

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Looking up

(Dollar) Bill's journey into an even more rarefied strata of obscene privilege takes him, famously, beyond the rainbow of 'normal' social reality to the pot of gold, Somerton, the innermost sanctum of the ultra-wealthy where the secret orgy is held. The orgy scenes in particular were singled out by reviewers for disappointment and derision. David Denby called it "the most pompous orgy in the history of film." "More ludicrous than provocative," said Michiko Kakutani, "more voyeuristic than scary." "Whose idea of an orgy is this," demanded Stephen Hunter, "the Catholic Church's?"

 

Again they misunderstood Kubrick's artistic intentions, which are clearly not sensual. When Bill passes through the ornate portal past a beckoning golden-masked doorman, we should understand that we are entering the realm of myth and nightmare. This sequence is the clearest condemnation, in allegorical dream imagery, of elite society as corrupt, exploitative, and depraved. What they used to call, in simpler times, evil.

 

The pre-orgiastic rites are overtly Satanic, a Black Mass complete with a high priest gowned in crimson, droning organ and backward-masked Latin liturgy. What we see enacted is a ceremony in which faceless, interchangeable female bodies are doled out, fucked, and exchanged among black-cloaked figures, culminating in the ritual mass rape and sacrificial murder of a woman.

 

The scene is indeed characteristically Kubrickian in its allusive and expressionistic sumptuousness. Fittingly perhaps, the 'high priest gowned in crimson' (or 'Red Cloak') reminds you of nothing so much as one of Bacon's screaming popes.

 

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Meanwhile, the faceless, interchangeable female bodies, clad only in masks and heels , strangely desexualised in the way that Helmut Newton's models often were, seemed to have walked out of the paintings of Delvaux or Ernst.

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Note the mirror image

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Sommerton

 

Yet this conspicuously excessive scene (itself an echo of the ornate party scene at Victor Zeigler's house) can only be understood as a mirror and complete reversal of the conspicuously banal scene in Zeigler's pool room. This latter scene was criticised for more or less the opposite reasons that the Somerton episode was targeted. Whereas the Somerton scenes were derided as limp high camp, the pool room scene was dismissed as being over-long and lacking in drama. Nevertheless, the end result was the same - the encounter with Ziegler, we were assured, was no less boring than the orgy scenes.

 

But it is important to utterly resist this reading, and once again Kreider is so acute on this latter scene that is worth citing him at some length:

 

“When Ziegler finally calls him onto the carpet for his transgressions, he chuckles at Bill's refusal of a case of 25-year-old Scotch (Bill drinks Bud from the can), not just because this extravagance would be a trifle to him, but because Bill's pretence of integrity is an empty gesture. Bill's already been bought. Bill may be able to buy, bribe, and command his own social inferiors, and he may own Alice, but he's Ziegler's man.”

 

Kreider goes on to say:

 

“Although Ziegler has a credible explanation for everything that's happened--Harford's harassment, Nick Nightingale's beating, Mandy's death--we don't ever really know whether he's telling the truth or lying to cover up Mandy's murder. The script carefully withholds any conclusive evidence that would let us feel comfortably certain either was. But Ziegler does have suspiciously privileged access to details of the case. "The door was locked from the inside,” he says, “the police are happy, end of story!" He also claims to be dropping his façade and coming clean a few too many times to be believed: "I have to be completely frank," "Bill, please--no games," and finally, "All right, Bill, let's... let's... let's cut the bullshit, all right?" And notice how he introduces his explanation: "Suppose  I were to tell you...". He's not being "frank"; he's offering Bill an escape, a plausible, face-saving explanation for the girl's death to assuage his unexpectedly agitated conscience. Ziegler's "no games" plea notwithstanding, this entire conversation is a game--a gentlemanly back-and-forth of challenges and evasions over a question of life and death, throughout which the two opponents circle each other uneasily around a blood-red billiards table.”

 

To quote Kreider one final time:

 

"When Bill persists in his inquiries, Ziegler loses his temper and resorts to intimidation and threats. He reminds him of their respective ranks as master and man: "You've been way out of your depth for the last twenty-four hours," he growls. Of his fellow revellers at Somerton, he says, "Who do you think those people were? Those were not ordinary people there. If I told you their names--I'm not going to tell you their names, but if I did, you might not sleep so well."

 

In other words, these people are the sorts of supremely wealthy and powerful men who can buy and sell ordinary men like Bill and Nick, and fuck or kill women like Mandy and Domino.

 

The "you might not sleep so well" is also a veiled warning, and it isn't Ziegler's last. His final word of advice, "Life goes on. It always does... until it doesn't", sounds like a reassurance but actually masks a threat. We immediately cut from this to a less friendly warning, the mask placed on Bill's pillow. In the end, Bill chooses to accept Victor's explanation not because there's any evidence to confirm it, but because it's a convenient excuse to back down from the dangers of further investigation. He finally understands that he, too, no less than a hooker or a hired piano player, is expendable.

 

To say that the pool room scene is doubled by the Somerton orgy is not to say that one is the 'truth' of the other. No, it is to say that they are BOTH the hidden truth of each other. Eyes Wide Shut is very clear about the way in which power always contains two aspects, simultaneously. Excessive mystery staging and banal normalization are two sides of the same coin. In other words, in retaining Kreider's social-economic reading, we should not abandon the sublimely ridiculous hyper-fictions of the Monarch conspiracists.

 

Zeigler's different gambits in relation to the Somerton episode might appear to devolve into ad hoc reactive defence strategies, but in reality the whole episode - from his offering Bill the cases of scotch to his threatening of him - is part of an overall strategy of disabling opposition and producing impotent confusion: the production of what Arizona Wilder and cult experts are absolutely correct in identifying as “double-binds”.

 

Gregory Bateson, Deleuze-Guattari and Burroughs have all analysed the role of the double bind - the issuing simultaneous contradictory but complementary commands - in systems of control. Zeigler's implicit and explicit communications with Bill is full of such double binds:

 

“I am the Good Father of social order AND Pere Jouissance, the Father-Thing obscenely indulging in excessive enjoyment.”

 

and

 

“What happened at Somerton was a trivial charade AND extremely, perilously, grave.”

 

and

 

“It was fake AND the hidden reality.”

 

What could be a clearer exemplification of Zizek's (click link) claim that Sade is a Kantian. That, far from demanding that we abstain from pleasure, the modern superego is relentless in its demands that we indulge in pleasure.

 

The banal quality of the orgy that so turned critics off is in fact the truth of sex. Ironically given the ornateness of the staging, the tediously mechanical couplings are pure sex, i.e. sex stripped of any fantasmatic component, i.e. sex that is merely phenomenal-physical rather than fantasmatic-real. Kubrick's sex carnival is the Burroughs-Bosch garden of earthly delights, the venal idiot-mechanical repetition of the pleasure principle laid bare.

 

The dominant red colouring in both Zeigler's pool room and at Somerton also brings to mind Poe's 'Masque of the Red Death', the principal text of the fictional labyrinth in Stephen King's The Shining. Interestingly, Kubrick removed all explicit allusions to Poe's tale from his film version of King's book, but he retained the association of Pere Jouissance, Overlook owner Horace Derwent, with obvious pleasure.

 

Kreider points this out too: "A ballroom full of naked, masked couples dancing to "Strangers in the Night" recalls not only Ziegler's party but the Overlook Hotel, whose ghosts also danced and coupled in costume. Remember the quick, surreal zoom shot in The Shining of someone in a bestial costume fellating tuxedoed millionaire Horace Derwent in an upstairs room?"

 

Poe's story is crucial because it makes the essential link between pleasure and death. Now it is important not to fall into the easy, misleading interpretation that would see death as extrinsic to pleasure, that is to say, as a consequence of sex. Poe's puritan point was that pleasure is already death.

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"Kindly remove your mask."

To illustrate this point, it is crucial to distinguish between two forms of death and two forms of death drive. The intensive death of Poe's characters is in dialectical denial but simultaneous confirmation of the organic death that awaits them. Their attempts to intoxicate themselves into forgetting this death gives their divertissements an inescapable sadness. A sadness much like that which consumes Bill and Alice by the end of the film.

 

'It was in this apartment, also, that there stood ... a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and for with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when... the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause... to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly ... and [they] smiled as if at their own nervousness.. and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes... there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before. But in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel...' – Excerpt from “The Masque of the Red Death”; (this section was used by King as the epigraph to The Shining)

 

The clock ticking - the chronic climax - the little death as a presaging of big death, both disavowed and perpetually reconfirmed in the ever-climaxing, ever-resuming Schopenhauerian merry-go-round of the pleasure principle.

 

Recall in this connection, Kierkegaard's comparison of life with a large hall, entry to which is gained only through a dirty, disgusting tunnel which leaves you soiled. At the end of the night, Kierkegaard says, everyone is unceremoniously kicked out, but nevertheless, throughout the night 'everything is done to inflame the merriment.'

 

Kierkegaard's point is not the injunction to indulgent misery that it might appear to be. On the contrary, in fact, his argument is that it is only through a constant acknowledgement of our finitude, and an embracing of life's tension - or life AS tension - that life can be fully lived. Precisely in avoiding death, in treating it as an appointment in chronos that must be kept (and of which Kubrick’s oppressive ticking of the clock periodically reminds us), the revellers condemn themselves to a lifelong intensive death.

 

Another way of getting to this is via Lacan's distinction of the Nirvana Principle and the death drive proper. Lacan shows that the Nirvana Principle (the impulse towards quiescent satiation) far from being opposed to the pleasure principle is in reality only the pleasure principle in its highest form. By contrast, the death drive is that which disrupts any lapsing into satisfaction, that which introduces tension back into any libidinal tendency towards slackening - in other words, that which keeps the libidinal apparatus in tension, literally intense.

 

The first form of human slavery, is our addiction to the orgasm drug (the lure by means of which the organic death machine reproduces itself). It's inevitable that the elite should fixate on this bio-default as one of its principal means of exercising control. The really rather trivial transgressions at Somerton (masked sex!) serve also as an Initiatory Secret, less important for its own content than for dividing those in the know from outsiders.

 

Kubrick's obsessively cultivated ambiguity leaves open the possibility that the whole episode at Somerton - TOGETHER WITH the later scene in the pool hall - are some kind of initiatory rite which draws Bill into closer proximity with the power elite. As if what Zeigler himself calls the 'staged charade' was, like the gate in Kafka's famous parable, meant only for him. So that Alice's final 'fuck' - the last word in the film, that is, the last word in Kubrick's last film - operates as the order word indicating the Harfords quietist acceptance of/ into the Core (or at least, in an inner circle closer to the Core).

 

In any case, Eyes Wide Shut demonstrates that, however banal it must be in order to be normalized into, power depends upon mystagogic authoritarian ritualization. There is always a secret society, even if the secret it protects is its own vacancy, void.

 

'Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers threw themselves into the black appartment, and seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.' - ('The Masque of the Red Death')

 

The theatrical show, the mystagogic mummery, is there to conceal this Void. Hence the elite's need for (simulated) superstitions. Hence also the need to diagonalize between Ziegler-esque commonsense and Monarch paranoia. 'Like all conspiracy fictions, this is spun out of an all-encompassing narrative that cannot possibly be falsified because ‘they’ want you to believe in their non-existence.

 

To attempt to refute such narratives is to be drawn into a tedious double game. One either has to embrace an arbitrary and outrageous cosmic plot (in which everything is being run by the Jews, Masons, Illuminati, CIA, Microsoft, Satan, Ccru etc), or alternatively advocate submission to the most mundane construction of quotidian reality, dismissing the superstitional chaos that operates beyond the screens (cosmological ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ - virtual, imperceptible, unknown). This is why atheism is usually so boring.

 

Both conspiracy and common sense - the ‘normal reality’ script - depend on the dialectical side of the double game, on reflective twins, belief and disbelief, because disbelief is merely the negative complement of belief: cancellation of the provocation, disintensification, neutralization of stimulus - providing a metabolic yawn-break in the double-game.Unbelief escapes all this by building a plane of potentiality, upon which the annihilation of judgment converges with real cosmic indeterminacy.

 

For the demons of unbelief there is no monarch programming except as a side-effect of initiatory Monarch deprogramming (= Monarch Paranoia). Deprogramming simultaneously retro-produced the program, just as witch-trials preceded devil-worship and regressive hypnotherapy preceded false memory syndrome. Yet, once these ‘fictions’ are produced, they function in and as reality. It isn’t that belief in Project Monarch produces the Monarch Program, but rather that such belief produces equivalent effects to those the reality of Project Monarch would produce, including some that are extremely peculiar and counter-intuitive.

 

Within the paranoid mode of the double game even twins are turned so as to confirm a persecutory unity - that of the puppet master, the reflection of God, the Monarch. How absurd to imagine that Lemurian Pandemonium has One purpose or function, or that it could support the throne of a Monarch. From the perspective of Pandemonium gods and their conspiracies emerge all over the place, in countless numbers. “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

 

Unity is only ever a project, a teleological aspiration, never a real presupposition or actual foundation. Monarch paranoia is primordially an allergic panic response to seething, teeming Pandemonic multiplicity. Everywhere it looks it finds the same enemy, the Rorschach-blotted hallucinations of the Evil One masked deliriously in its myriads of deviations, digressions and discrepancies.

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Grotesque Caricature: Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut as the Allegory of Its Own Reception

Stefan Mattessich

Loyola Marymount University

blzbub@msn.com

 

© 2000 Stefan Mattessich.

All rights reserved.

 

“Such was the fashion, such the human being; the men were like the paintings of the day; society had taken its form from the mould of art.” - Charles Baudelaire, "Some French Caricaturists"

 

“It is a historical fact that irony becomes increasingly conscious of itself in the course of demonstrating the impossibility of our being historical.” -Paul de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality"

 

“He was like a father.” -Nicole Kidman[1]

 

1. Stanley Kubrick's final movie was released last summer to almost universal disappointment.[2] Except for those accounts that read like copy produced by a hired public relations firm, the critical appraisals were more or less the same: Eyes Wide Shut is a "decorous gavotte... more studied than a fashion shoot" (J. Hoberman in The Village Voice, 59); "portentous" and "bizarrely devoid of life" (David Denby in The New Yorker, 86); "the work of an artist who long ago stopped paying attention to the world around him" (Stuart Klawans in The Nation, 42); "generic and hokey, like a tendentious art house version of a holiday television commercial" (Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, 22). The film has been variously called ponderous, soporific, passionless, sex-phobic, sexist, frozen, and dead. These varied sources of critique all claim that Kubrick has violated an organic principle--linked to metaphors of sexuality, development, internal consistency, and verisimilitude--in the choices he makes. This trope of a violated organism remains active especially when the critic understands Eyes Wide Shut in the context of Kubrick's other work. For the claim is not that Kubrick has made another cold or lifeless, sterile or impersonal film and demonstrated once more his disinterest in psychological realism (this has always been in evidence), but that the trait of coldness in this case fails to live up to the Kubrick standard: Eyes Wide Shut fails because it is not internally consistent with his corpus as a whole. Thus Michiko Kakutani can centre her critique on the bad choice of an "intimate, emotional material fundamentally at odds with the director's cool, visual intelligence and lapidary style." The two principal characters, Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman), are "not meant to be caricatures like the blackly comic characters in 'Strangelove' or faceless cut-outs like the astronauts in '2001.' They're supposed to be fairly ordinary, albeit privileged, New Yorkers: a doctor and his wife who live in an art-filled apartment on Central Park West--yuppies who like to smoke a little pot before bed."

 

2. The problem with Eyes Wide Shut, in other words, is that it imports the techniques of caricature into the intimate space of realism, and this grotesque conjoining both offends sensibility and exposes as a precondition for sensibility itself that the two modes remain distinct. The film doesn't "work"; it proceeds, as David Denby says of Cruise's Bill, "without purpose," wandering aimlessly through an "indistinct" landscape where "everything seems wrong," because of a fatal hesitation between the merely stereotypical and the three-dimensional, the type and the person, dream and reality, and also between the abnormal and the normal (86). Denby, for instance, writes that watching it "we experience no special violation of the normal--the normal is vaguely and dispiritedly 'off' from the beginning" (86). This "off" quality resembles neither drama nor comedy; it denies not only the norm, and not only deviation from the norm, but also the "special violation" of the normal that disciplined art is said to give us.

 

3. I'd like to start with this "special violation" as I explore the curious way that Eyes Wide Shut prefigures its own (mis)reception precisely in the "bad" choices Kubrick makes. That Kubrick expected his final filmic caricature to be misrecognized, I argue, can be inferred even from the film's title, in which a failure to see is inscribed within perception itself. A sensibility that accepts caricature as a mode only if it clearly cues the reader to its specific non-realist functions misses the fact that caricature has often worked without such cues. That is, caricature has always been grotesque in the sense that it combines forms (think of Goya's monsters and animalised faces in the Los Capichos and Disasters of War series) and blurs generic boundaries (think of the "Flaubertian irony" in Madame Bovary that comes from applying caricature to realist subject matter).

 

4. Historically, caricature has also gone hand in hand with social and political critique, utilizing techniques of exaggeration, typecasting, and catachretic abuse to satirize the pretensions of the ruling classes. In Britain, caricature played a conspicuous cultural role during the American War in the late 1770s, and then again during the wars with France beginning in the 1790s. And in nineteenth century France, caricature flourished particularly around the revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1870.[3] Its privileged target in this period was the bourgeoisie and its cultural pretensions, which shifted gradually from a self-idealizing romanticism to a fetishizing realism of the downtrodden and dispossessed. By the time the bourgeoisie began to consolidate its power in the 1850s, both romanticism and realism bore the stigma of philistinism. In response, writers and artists honed caricature into a weapon against this new romantico-realist hegemony. In "The Essence of Laughter," published in 1855, Baudelaire distinguished between an "ordinary comic" quality at work in representations of social manners or inter-personal situations, and an "absolute comic" quality which elevated particular examples of humour (caricature, commedia dell'arte, English pantomime) into the more exalted function of genuine critique. As Paul de Man writes of this essay in "The Rhetoric of Temporality," the "absolute comic" designates not a relation between subjects ("man and man") but between the subject and the material discursive element by means of which he comes to distinguish himself from the non-human world.[4] This relation implies an internal fracture of the subject, a double-minded negotiation of, on the one hand, an experience given in its chaotic or unbound totality, and, on the other, the linguistic medium of the latter's conversion into intelligible events or forms. Language turns this two-fold ironic subject into a sign, a category, a meaning which is prior to its empirical determination. The absolute comic "experience," according to de Man, is therefore predicated on the impossibility of projecting a self into the world before its encounter with language, and hence before its enmeshment in the problems of reflection and reason. It implies a necessarily inauthentic relation of the self to its experience that makes possible a process of interminable demystification of those structuring discourses at the heart of the "real."

 

5. For de Man as for Baudelaire, social rationalization can be observed only in a mode of strange self-implication. What makes caricature a modern cultural form is the way it takes aim at those authentic gestures that cover over or deny the event of a deeper rationality so dexterously concealing itself in the non-rational, the immediate, or the experiential. Caricature, as an art form rooted historically in a fascination with physiognomic and/or pathognomic classifications of people into types, uses categories to destabilize categorization itself as one trait of a bourgeois sensibility; it blurs the lines of differentiation and upsets the language-world that makes identity--as a site stabilized over and against what it is not--possible. It's therefore ironic to suggest that Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is grotesque for the way it juxtaposes the generic simplifications of caricature with the psychological and emotional depth of realism. For realism has always been a target of caricature insofar as those depth-effects entail the possibility of an authentic position for the subject and the world that subject inhabits. Thus in choosing to mix drama and comedy, Kubrick draws far more solidly on historical precedent than critics seem willing to grant.

 

6. For Eyes Wide Shut is indeed a caricature in the more precise sense of the absolute comic: its structure at a fundamental level is the relation between self and world-as-discourse, the self as it comes to the forms of its own self-presence. Baudelaire characterized this delimitation in terms of a fall, both the Fall and more literally the falling down that envelops the subject in its own facticity and hubris. As de Man puts it, "The ironic, two-fold self... constitute[d] by his language seems able to come into being only at the expense of his empirical self, falling... from a stage of mystified adjustment into the knowledge of his mystification" (214). This knowledge, which again yields no authentic understanding, inscribes the subject in a repetitively "self-escalating act of consciousness" (216) that generates a more and more fictive sense of its universe. The subject refuses a "return" to the empirical world in favour of its own progressively ironic fictions about the world; it exacerbates the difference between the real and the fictive in order to maintain the maladjustments of that demystified knowledge.

 

7. This excessively fictive and maladjusted world constructed at the expense of the real describes the "off" overdetermination of Eyes Wide Shut, although the film involves an additional claim about the already fictive nature of the real world set off against it.[5] That is, it draws us as viewers from the side of the real into a fiction that then presents us with the fiction of the real. It caricatures the two central characters, couples, marriage, ordinary '90s yuppies, and also dramatic form, iconic movie stars, and finally itself as a movie inscribed in an institutionalized practice of production and consumption. It caricatures that empiricist pragmatism with which we, as critics, artists, or consumers, look upon the world without seeing its discursive nature, or look at a text without reading its specificities in terms of an ironic self-implication in the world that text represents. This peculiar involvement of the spectator in the flat, aimless, affectless space of Eyes Wide Shut helps to account for the discomfort implied in the various dismissals of the film--the way it hits home in the very untimeliness of its odd representations. Some critics have suggested that Kubrick was mistaken not to have set the film in the Vienna of Arthur Schnitzler's novel Traumnovelle or alternatively to have updated it with details appropriate to the contemporary New York it portrays. Yet, the estranging anachronisms of its setting, no less than its stilted dialogue, its hermetic and generic interiors, its random or pointless plot twists, work to thwart the aesthetic categories which require of narrative art that it seduce its viewers via identification and dramatic unity. By disrupting these narrative expectations, Kubrick guarantees its judgement as a bad movie, but unlike most bad movies, not before it questions our own assumptions about contemporary society and the role and function of art in it.

 

8. Eyes Wide Shut speaks to us about that society in the ways it fails as narrative. It is an allegory in the standard connotations of the term: i.e., in its thinness, its lack of substantiality, its second degree relation to more primary symbolic and expressive forms, its essential artifice. Allegory implies not modes of description and perception that secure an objective rendering of a world closely linked to the subjectivity of the perceiver, but an intertextual deviation into conventional figures, types, and rhetorical modes that is deliberately awkward vis-à-vis the standards of romantic or realist representation.[6] Eyes Wide Shut, as an allegory, therefore works by not working, by focusing "'90s yuppies" in the lens of a caricature recent culture has tended to accept only when its objects are two bit hoods (Sterling Hayden in The Killing), sociopathic punks (Malcolm MacDowell in A Clockwork Orange), failed writers (Jack Nicholson in The Shining), low class Irishmen (Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon), Marine drill sergeants (Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket), or various other socially marginal types populating Kubrick's movies. That Bill and Alice might not make appropriate material for caricature implies a substance to the life they exemplify that Kubrick denies them just as he denies the characters of his previous films the possibilities of class mobility or social success. One of the most timely aspects of Eyes Wide Shut, then, is the wrench it throws in the increasingly rigid and mystified class machinery of American life in the '90s--one symptom of which would be our desire to locate authenticity in the experience of people like Bill and Alice. Eyes Wide Shut exposes the fiction at the heart of that experience. The film conjures "fashion shoots" and "holiday television commercials" because it reads the world it depicts not as exceptional to these spectral aberrations but as modelled on them. No wonder, then, that art plays such a conspicuous visual role in the film. Almost every wall has paintings on it (and of all kinds, classic and modern, figurative and abstract): in apartments, in mansions, in doctor's offices, in hospital foyers, in department stores. Bill and Alice "take their form from the mould of art," and in this they verge on a caricature that draws attention to the film's own mediated and rendered form. That their lives are also rendered by Kubrick is a literal truth as well as a figurative one; thus art in the film signals the intention of its own fictiveness to tell the story of a life that cannot take itself seriously because seriousness has become ideological, a mystification of the discursive medium in which that life unfolds.

 

9. The film's interest in the mediations of discourse is revealed in a number of details. First, it situates sex, sexual pleasure, and the sexualized body in highly conventional settings. We see the idealized female nude dressing up in a boudoir, peeing in a bathroom, slumped unconscious after overdosing on an eight ball in a rich man's house, auscultated in a doctor's office, dead in a morgue. Such scenes comment on the conventional way of seeing--rooted in the notions of perspective, determined by social and economic practices of the production and consumption of prestige, essentially masculine--at work in art, film, and advertising. This way of seeing is in turn linked to modes of social organization (the family, corporate back rooms, hospitals) that not only represent but elicit the body in the service of the reproduction of an expressly specular power. Likewise, the desire felt or articulated by the characters in the film is never separable from this reproduction, never more than the empty expression of an inwardness that has shrunk to an abstract point in the spectacles of that power. Desire here is not a substance but a structural effect, a symptom of a rationality whose form (transcendent, biunivocal) mirrors that of satisfaction (orgasm) itself, which is a transcendence (of will or consciousness) and also a "coming together" (as in the Lacanian formulation, "There is something of One" in the sexual relation [Feminine Sexuality 138]). Sex isn't an act but a meaning in the film, albeit the meaning of action itself, and this sort of insight can only "come" at the expense of narrative conventions themselves uncritically assuming that meaning--through a fiction that subverts its own rational and orgasmic form.

 

10. A second indicator of a discursive interest in the film occurs in the reaction Bill has to Alice's articulation of her desire. The pot-smoking scene between Cruise and Kidman has been referred to by critics as the crucial moment of the film. Alice's fantasy of a naval officer who stirs in her a profoundly erotic (and potentially destructive) passion holds down the one chance for a "free" desire capable of escaping its discursive straitjacket. Unlike Bill, who never speaks his desire or figures out what he (or anyone) wants, Alice's disclosure feels genuine and constrains one to read the film in one of two ways: either it's about the disruptive fantasmatic power of her desire, or it's about rational Bill's surprise that his wife could have such a fantasmatic desire in the first place. But these readings lead to the impasse of an inter-subjective logic which the film as a whole works resolutely to undermine. By granting Alice a psychological depth in this scene, one has to take seriously both Bill's naivete and the drama of unconscious drives threatening to tear their marriage apart. (Most critics didn't get beyond these interpretations and the double binds they suggest.) If one assumes, however, that the film intends to caricature the couple and their marriage, one discovers the trope of non-relation that governs the scene and that Kubrick announces in a shot of Alice looking at herself in the mirror as her husband caresses her. Critics have pointed out the lack of chemistry between Bill/Cruise and Alice/Kidman, in spite of their "real" status as a couple outside the film. But none of them consider this either as an intentional abyssal effect or an effect tout court that marks the film and asks to be read. Bill's and Alice's dislocation from one another indicates the caricature at work and the social critique that goes along with it. The film fails to take either Alice or Bill seriously in this moment because in fact its logic is that of an intrasubjective encounter with the discursive limits of narrative, social power, and the medium of film itself (signalled, most obviously, by the self-consciously hand-held camera that watches Kidman as she relates the fantasy).

 

11. The story that unfolds from this scene, then, turns not around Bill's tortured recognition of the sado-masochistic, jealous, and obsessive underworld of desire which the film literalizes during his subsequent Walpurgisnacht (the film is not psychoanalytic in the sense that it dramatizes psychosexual urges and repressions, and as such it could not in fact work if it were set in Vienna at the turn of the century). Rather, it turns around that limit where the fictive nature of "real" life becomes apparent. This is why we are watching Tom Cruise the star (for instance, of that Reaganite watershed and fascist fable Top Gun), not a doctor named Bill, wander the generic streets of downtown New York (an effect Kubrick curiously highlights for us by oblique references to the rumours of Cruise's homosexuality). Cruise was chosen for this role to be the vehicle of the film's commentary on an expressly spectral and reactionary social period exemplified by the glamour of movie stars. Bill/Tom is wandering through the fiction of his own allure, the fiction of a desire for power and in power that Kubrick links to a paternal metaphor when the pot-smoking scene is interrupted by a phone call announcing the death of an important patient, a nameless uptown New York patriarch. Bill/Tom leaves, tortured by black-and-white images of his wife fucking a naval officer, and pays his last respects with maybe the most bizarre gesture of the entire film: he places his hand on the dead man's head and bows, while the latter's hysterical daughter throws herself at him with wild declarations of love.

 

12. This--rather than the pot-smoking scene--may in fact be the signal moment of the story, since it inaugurates the subsequent delirium at a decidedly comic, even absurd, register. Bill/Tom's aimless quest is not intelligible as a psychological drama but as a search for the Law (of the Father) which structures that drama in its conventional forms. Bill/Tom's search for the Law is ultimately futile; Kubrick withholds it from him (as both Bill and Tom, since the actor seems at times manifestly at a loss for what emotions to express) and from us, as we search the film for the principle of narrative intelligibility, the mark of symbolic difference stabilizing subjective and dramatic forms, the (political) economy of desire, and the pleasure principle of spectatorship. The loss of meaning that the film sustains is not, therefore, tragic or Oedipal, not that negation or beautiful dialectical death making possible a unification at the level of the idea. The form of that loss is double and ironic: a loss of loss itself, a loss of that "special violation of the normal" which redeems us in our normality through the function of a catharsis. What is lost, in other words, is the normal as the precondition for a transgression. What remains is a film without any transgressive intensity at the inter-subjective level, presenting a number of possible readings, none of which can be taken seriously, even that of the non-serious itself. This is why Sydney Pollack's millionaire articulates the abyssal logic of the film by telling Bill/Tom that the scene of sacrifice at the orgy had been staged, thus reducing even that abyssal logic to a content which then loses its ability to frame what happens. This lack of substantiality, this double and ironic intention, in fact reveals itself at nearly every point in the film where intertextual reference is active or where tropes of symmetry and inversion are used. Such, for instance, is the pun at work in the Russian's costume store, where Bill, looking for the mask he will wear to an orgy that will turn out to be fake (on more than one level), finds a "real" orgy taking place between two Asian men and the costume store owner's daughter. The result of such ironies is not so much vertigo as estrangement and deflation, an inability on the part of the viewer to find the Law or mark of difference that would resolve either the narrative or our spectatorship into a clear meaning.

 

13. Few of the critics of Eyes Wide Shut, I suspect, will be moved by the foregoing interpretation to revise their initial negative judgments. Even if the film's allegorical structure can be demonstrated, it remains a failure, a broken narrative machine that doesn't manage to persuade the viewer of the cultural timeliness of its interpellations, or of the value for culture of such ironic modes in the first place. In the '90s, it no longer seems enough to turn the lights on the audience and expose its desire for symbolic order as I am suggesting Kubrick has done--much in the same way, for instance, that Robert Rauschenberg did in New York during the 1965 premiere of Merce Cunningham's now infamously controversial dance piece, Winterbranch.[7] Indeed, another semantic element of resistance to a double and ironic approach in the initial responses by critics to Eyes Wide Shut was a tendency to situate the film in the cultural parameters of a bygone time, the '60s or early '70s. J. Hoberman writes, "Eyes Wide Shut is ponderously (up)dated--as though Kubrick had finally gotten around to responding to Michelangelo Antonioni's druggy Blow-Up--if not weirdly anachronistic" (59).

 

14. This tactic to periodize Kubrick by way of dismissing the film's ironic specificities as dated throwbacks to a time of cultural experimentation that no longer bears on the present underscores the interpretive stake in the film's allegory of its own reception--that is, of the way that its critics reproduce the same discourses (symbolic, romantic and realist, natural, authenticating) that allegory undermines. The same problem of a form that establishes itself at the expense of an empirical world (and its reference points in narrative) which I have discussed in terms of caricature recurs here at a more distinctly temporal register. By locating and containing the allegory at work in Eyes Wide Shut as an anachronistic exhibit of the now periodized '60s, one assumes a temporal structure in history that, not coincidentally, allegory itself undoes and challenges.[8] To turn the light on the audience, to make reception a component of art or of its interpretation, to assert irony as the trope of a (discontinuous) time, engenders today a very pronounced boredom and even hostility in cultural circles. But the disavowal of this discontinuity--and it can work by rejection or by the kind of fetishism observable in the current retro interest in styles and music of the '60s and '70s--combines two cases of cultural misprision: on the one hand, it assumes an historical movement which is causal and successive (we have "outgrown" the conceptual and anti-humanist indulgences of the '60s and embrace a newly serious focus on the realism of our emotional lives); and on the other hand, it blinds itself to the insight, articulated in criticism by writers like Paul de Man, that history itself has become a limit-concept, impossible except precisely in the modalities of performative reading. For de Man, temporality and history are distinct from one another. The former is a cognitive (or tropological) category implying the ideological determination of an event which happens in a mode of non-dialectical contradiction. This contradiction is felt as a force or "power" that resists any meaning and, as such, cannot occur in a temporal mode. It is historical, however, because it locates the singular point (or limit) of the real within its synthesis as an (intelligible) event. History may not be temporal, then, but time is the allegory of history to which every reader inevitably submits.[9]

 

15. To periodize the moment of this allegory and this sense of history (which is, on my account, what a critic like J. Hoberman can be said to do when he disavows the "druggy" aspects of Kubrick, or Antonioni for that matter) is to miss the historical sense of that moment. It amounts to a negation of the '60s and a clear symptom of an ideological closure at work in the '90s (a closure that is not innocent even when it finds a voice in people whose stated aims are progressive and critical). The reception of Eyes Wide Shut takes on its greatest interest when it comes to be understood as one example of a cultural trend to distance the '60s and repress the ironic, contingent, and critical energies the '60s generated. The last twenty years of American cultural life have been a time marked by precisely this kind of repression, and at many political, social, and economic levels. Eyes Wide Shut attempts to speak of this repression in its "art house" portentousness, to give it shape and resonance for Americans now. For what we see empirically blinds us to the rationality of our social existence in a late capitalist dispensation and to the discourses that underpin its deep abstraction. Those discourses are pragmatic, psychological, and privatizing in nature--neo-liberal might be the right word—and their amazing intractability to critique today demands strangely asynchronous artifacts and statements precisely such as Eyes Wide Shut: repetitions, ironic provocations, returns to the recent past where, in effect, our blindness has been keeping us awake.

 

Notes

 

1. Quoted by Jack Kroll. Kidman, of course, is referring to Kubrick.

 

2. A welcome exception turned out to be Lee Siegel's very good chastisement of the critics in the October, 1999 issue of Harper's. He astutely analyzed the refusal to see (or read) the movie as a symptom of an "art-phobia" which resists or even prohibits the production of art that does more than "reflect [one's] immediate experience" (77). Although his notion of art seemed at times a little too uncritically "high," it did allow him to raise important questions about the critics' unwillingness to see the irony and doubleness at work in the film's representation of contemporary life.

 

3. See Judith Wechsler's book A Human Comedy for an account of the prevalence and functions of caricature and satire during these periods. Baudelaire makes a similar statement about 1830 and 1848 in his essays on caricature.

 

4. Baudelaire's term for that to which the absolutely comic subject relates is "nature," understood by de Man as "precisely not a self" (213), and as such an intrasubjective and discontinuous space of reflection where the subject encounters the materiality of language as that element of categorization and self-identity prerequisite for an understanding of one's existential place in the world. As such, the absolute comic entails an irony about the empirical and inter-subjective world of experience as an already rationalized space that has been naturalized. On my reading, this sort of irony works to expose in this experience the abstraction it conceals and as such constituted for a writer like Baudelaire a critical apprehension of bourgeois life.

 

5. De Man makes it clear that the ironic subject of his discourse in "The Rhetoric of Temporality" differentiates its fictive universe from the empirical world and holds to this distinction by way of asserting the priority of its fictions. The fictive and the real are irreconcilable, and this remains the precondition for insight into the mystifications to which that subject is always prone. The nuance I would like to add here is that the fictive register also makes possible a demystification of the real as already a fiction, that utopic space of a rationalized society in a capitalist mode of production that Baudelaire, for instance, knew one could only understand (after, say, 1848) through the elaboration of discourse and the materiality of language.

 

6. I am thinking here of de Man's reading of Rousseau in "The Rhetoric of Temporality," and in particular his reading of Julie's garden in La Nouvelle Heloise. The representation of this garden runs through traditional topoi of gardens and suggests not a close observation of nature (or the expression of intimate correspondence between the subject and nature) but a deliberate deployment of conventions, types, and traditional figures. De Man sees in the literary antecedents of this representation, and in how explicitly those antecedents are marshaled by Rousseau, the presence of an allegorical rather than a symbolic or "Romantic" mode. Like Julie's garden, Eyes Wide Shut concerns itself, over and against that Romantic mode, with a discursive mediation that envelops not only characters in the story, or the story itself, but its spectators in the real world it allegorizes.

 

7. Winterbranch, Cunningham's most famous succes de scandale, was a bizarrely disjointed, random meditation on the numerous ways his dancers could fall down. Rauschenberg, who was responsible for lighting the show, decided to leave the dancers in darkness (with the exception of Cunningham himself, who carried a flashlight) and douse the audience in a white glare. Meanwhile, a musical score by La Monte Young, which consisted of screeching and grating noise, filled the theater. The audience reacted with outrage. The event, occurring some time before de Man wrote on Baudelaire in "The Rhetoric of Temporality" or worked out in print his sense of the irony in the German word Falle (signifying both fall and trap), nonetheless seems indebted to his particular line of reasoning.

 

 8. For de Man, once again in "The Rhetoric of Temporality," allegory implies an "ideal time that is never here and now but always a past or an endless future" (226). Allegorical duration, like irony (curiously distinguished but also linked to allegory in a "knowledge" or insight that is "essentially the same" [226]), targets the assumption of a temporality organized according to successive self-present moments (or periods). It grasps the present in its essential negativity as the place of an historical implication that is more radical for the displacement of empirical categories it entails.

 

9. Another way of putting this would be to say that, although between time (as cognitive and tropological) and history (as singular and performative) there is an "absolute separation" (Aesthetic Ideology 134) and no possibility of a dialectical mediation, history only appears in the tropes which signify a subject's fallen status within the allegories it constructs. De Man mentions Jauss's theory of reception in this regard, arguing against his contention that reception can be the model of the historical event. My own sense of this problem is that indeed reception can be exemplary in this fashion, with the important qualification that the structure of its exemplarity be precisely that of allegory itself. The singularities of history are inaccessible except in the languages or discourses that convert them into temporal events, and the ethical question of respecting those singularities unfolds nonetheless in acts of language and reading that repeat (rather than reproduce) the violence of their repression. The goal, it seems to me, is to hear in one's language the echoes of its own historicity.

 

Works Cited

 

Baudelaire, Charles. "Some French Caricaturists." Selected Writings on Art and Artists [of] Baudelaire. Trans. P.E. Charvet. London: Penguin, 1972.

 

de Man, Paul. "The Rhetoric of Temporality." Blindness and Insight. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1971.

 

Aesthetic Ideology. Trans. A. Warminski. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

 

Denby, David. "Last Waltz." The New Yorker 26 July 1999: 84-88.

 

Hoberman, J. "I Wake Up Dreaming." The Village Voice 27 July 1999: 59.

 

Kakutani, Michiko. "A Connoisseur of Cool Tries to Raise the Temperature." The New York Times 18 July 1999: AR1.

 

Klawans, Stuart. "Old Masters." The Nation 9 August 1999: 42.

 

Kroll, Jack. "Cruise and Kidman: Our Friend Stanley." Newsweek 22 March, 1999.

 

Lacan, Jacques. Feminine Sexuality. Trans. J. Rose and J. Mitchell. New York: Norton, 1982.

 

Siegel, Lee. "Eyes Wide Shut: What the Critics Missed in Kubrick's Last Film." Harper's October 1999: 76-83.

 

Wechsler, Judith. A Human Comedy. U of Chicago P, 1982.