It was 12 years ago today that one of the greatest filmmakers of all time died. On March 7, 1999, Stanley Kubrick, just weeks before the release of what would be his final film, went to sleep and never woke up again. I can say with absolute conviction that my approach to film, my love, passion and admiration of the art form, is a direct result of seeing Kubrick’s films at an early age.
I saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in its initial release. I was six years old. I returned again on opening day for its re-release in 1972. For me, Kubrick understood cinema, the language of film, like few others. He lived it, breathed it, consumed it. And even more than that, he consistently pushed the boundaries of what cinema was, what it was capable of, even in the face of harsh criticism.
EYES WIDE SHUT was his final masterpiece and it was, like so many Kubrick films, misunderstood in its time.
“If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones), you’ll see that all his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realization that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since.” -Martin Scorsese
There are those who argue that EYES WIDE SHUT is a failed film because they believe Kubrick would have re-cut it in the final weeks before its release. And he may well have. He had certainly done that previously with other films. But never in a way that dramatically altered the film’s essence. 2001 was shortened by 17 minutes (that footage was recently rediscovered). However, Kubrick claimed that he did not prefer one cut over the other.
“I didn’t believe that the trims made a critical difference. The people who like it, like it no matter what its length, and the same holds true for the people who hate it”.
I believe the same holds true for EYES. The film as it stands is, in my opinion, one of the only film masterpieces to come out of Hollywood in the last three decades. This was the work of an artist at the top of his form and not, as many in Hollywood would have you believe, the work of a man secluded and out of touch with the world.
From the New World Encyclopedia:
According to his friends and family, Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s personal favorite of his own films… The general consensus is that Kubrick was very happy with his final film at the time of his death.
Kubrick’s in-depth exploration of sex, relationships, marriage, fidelity, sexual fantasy and society, particularly American society and its oftentimes hypocritical notions of social morality, was beyond anything audiences had ever seen. Kubrick always felt that film should be more like music than like fiction; that it should be felt before it was understood. It seems that in not “understanding” the film, audiences and many critics dismissed the work as a failure. But it was, in fact, a work told in a language enhanced and explored by its maker. Like those who cannot put down a book by Stephen King but find it difficult to get past the first page of a book by Evelyn Waugh, the cinematic language of EYES WIDE SHUT left many bewildered and, instead of looking inward, they pointed their fingers at the film and its filmmaker. Luckily, many of Kubrick’s filmic peers recognized the mastery of his work. Steven Spielberg commented that the way in which Kubrick “tells a story is antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories.” Martin Scorsese, in his introduction to Michael Ciment’s Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, observed of EYES WIDE SHUT:
“Many people were put off by the film’s unreality – the New York streets were too big, the orgy scene was a total fantasy, the action was slow and deliberate. All of this is true, and if the movie were designed to be realistic, it would be absolutely reasonable to judge these as failings. But Eyes Wide Shut is based on a Schnitzler novella called Dream Story, the story of a rift in a marriage told with the logic of a dream. And as with all dreams, you never know precisely when you’ve entered it. Everything seems real and lifelike, but different, a little exaggerated, a little off. Things appear to happen as if they were preordained, sometimes in a strange rhythm from which it’s impossible to escape. Audiences really had no preparation for a dream movie that didn’t announce itself as such, without the usual signals- hovering mists, people appearing and disappearing at will or floating off the ground. Like Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, another film severely misunderstood in its time, Eyes Wide Shut takes a couple on a harrowing journey, at the end of which they’re left clinging to each other. Both are films of terrifying self-exposure. They both ask the question: How much trust and faith can you really place in another human being? And they both end tentatively, yet hopefully. Honestly.
“Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountaintop. You look up and wonder, how could anyone have climbed that high? There are emotional passages and images and spaces in his films that have an inexplicable power, with a magnetic force that draws you in slowly, mysteriously. [Like] the raw intimacy of the exchanges between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut.
“…[Kubrick] was unique in the sense that with each new film he redefined the medium and its possibilities. But he was more than just a technical innovator. Like all visionaries, he spoke the truth. And no matter how comfortable we think we are with the truth, it always comes as a profound shock when we’re forced to meet it face-to-face.”
Whatever reactive buttons Kubrick’s final film initially pushed in audiences, it doesn’t change the fact that time has a glorious way of allowing masterpieces to rise to the surface. I have no doubt that EYES WIDE SHUT will find its rightful place among the great, daring works of American cinema.
A film made by a man who knew that he did not want to live in Hollywood, who created an idyllic life surrounded by friends, family and nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the movie-making machine and the egos and tyrants that are, to this day, drawn to it. And in his relatively simple life, Kubrick was able to explore not only himself, but those around him. No, Kubrick was not cut off from the world; he was closer to it than most any other filmmaker living and working in Hollywood today. And EYES WIDE SHUT is the final gift he gave us. Hopefully, as a society, we’ll catch up to it one day and give it the recognition it deserves.
“If Kubrick had lived to see the opening of his final film, he obviously would have been disappointed by the hostile reactions. But I’m sure that in the end he would have taken it with a grain of salt and moved on. That’s the lot of all true visionaries, who don’t see the use of working in the same vein as everyone else. Artists like Kubrick have minds expansive and dynamic enough to picture the world in motion, to comprehend not just where its been, but where it’s going._ –Martin Scorsese