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[whitespace] 'Eyes Wide Shut'
Sex Fantasy: Stanley Kubrick's last film, 'Eyes Wide Shut,' concerns unfulfilled sexual longings.

Stanley Kubrick's Orgy of the Dead, or It's a Wonderful Sex Life

By Richard von Busack

"Ah, the curiosity of youth! On the road to ruin! May it ever be so adventurous."

--The Amazing Criswell, Orgy of the Dead

MOVIE-WATCHING doesn't pay money or build muscles, so there's still a stink of guilt surrounding the habit. Tell people you went to a movie in the daytime, and they'll all but hold their noses. The most well-scrubbed movies are about people who are too pure to watch movies: Tibetans, Amish, the old-fashioned Irish, Amazonians.

Thus also, the most spiritual directors are the ones who make movies only sparingly. Isn't that part of the reason the late Stanley Kubrick was so revered: his reluctance to pick up a camera and direct?

Kubrick approached the problem of movie-making from a position of unassailable loftiness. He made monuments--2001, A Space Odyssey, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange--but I preferred him when his movies were both less intermittent and less interminable. The director of Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, Paths of Glory and The Killing is preferable to the solemn recluse Kubrick became after the turn of the 1970s.

So when one of his new movies comes out, it's a trip to church. Eyes Wide Shut features a middle sequence that ought to be laughed off the screen. Only the sacred-art atmosphere of the event--the last holy movie from the late genius--kept the critics I saw this with from guffawing. (To their credit, some were shaking their heads afterward.)

But Kubrick was up to something, no matter how he backed off from it. Once I was through chuckling over his roundly failed orgy sequence--that would be about 12 hours worth of chuckling--I had to admit that the nature of his failure may be less important than the bravery of his last act.

Eyes Wide Shut's topic would have been commonplace 30 years ago but is highly uncommon now. Is Eyes Wide Shut a breakthrough because its topic doesn't get touched anymore? Or is the film a throwback for revisiting the open-marriage films of the late 1960s? Kubrick's last opus concerns unfulfilled sexual longings in a couple. Today, if these longings are discussed at all, they're discussed by Mike Figgis in the likes of One Night Stand and The Loss of Sexual Innocence.

The Harfords of Manhattan, are well-off and bland. (The name may be a case of erasure, since stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman seem like suburban visitors from Har[t]ford.) They are the parent of a 7-year-old daughter so perfect that she might as well be a ceramic doll. Alice Harford is a housewife and mom who once ran an art gallery. Her husband is a society doctor.

One night, the doctor hears his wife confess a sexual fantasy of complete abandonment. He is shaken to his roots, and the revelation sets him prowling. (The nighttime Manhattan he visits is a realistic set constructed by Kubrick--perhaps the most ambitious artificial city since Francis Coppola's fake Las Vegas in One From the Heart.) Dr. Harford meets prostitutes, homosexuals, even an underage kinder-slut played by Leelee Sobieski.

Threats of violence, the police, blackmail and disease keep him from joining this demimonde. Still, Harford is tormented by fantasies of his wife in the arms of another man. The husband's visits to Nighttown endanger him; he's exposed as a trespasser at the nameless orgy club in the wealthy suburbs of New Jersey. A woman that he meets at the orgy ends up dead, perhaps murdered by the masked orgiasts. At the end of the trail is a confrontation with his wife, staged in a toy store during Christmas.

Shining Orgy

The orgy scene is the film's most risible moment. Kubrick stages it in a Moorish auditorium, with music by Jocelyn Pook. Ordinarily Pook goes for the deafening single-note piano plunk, a la John Cage. Here, her backward-masked music is the cue for the entrance of Anton LaVey and a goat. Robed acolytes gather in a circle around a masked antipope, swinging an incense burner. (You'd already heard that this movie was "censered.") At a signaling thunk from the dark lord's staff, the women discard their caftans and stand in a proud state of toplessness.

"Orgy of the Dead," whispered a friend. The scene did recall Ed Wood Jr.'s 1965 macabre-manqué soft-core effort, hosted by the Amazing Criswell.

During the orgy, a shocked but fully masked Cruise observes scenes of sinister copulation. Masked sex is a terror of Kubrick's. Remember that two of the demons that haunted the Overlook Hotel in The Shining were people in dog masks having at one other?

Most of the orgy has been masked, too, thoughtfully eclipsed at the request of the MPAA, which at first refused to give the movie an R rating. Thus it was ordered that the backs of some participants be added digitally, to block our view. Roger Ebert has wittily called this edition of Eyes Wide Shut "the Austin Powers version" in honor of the running gag about the various props that shield one's eyes from the secret agent's private parts. It's not the only tease in the film, anyway.

The orgy gives Eyes Wide Shut a turn into paranoia country. Alice, safe in bed while her husband roams, recedes into her mom role. The film ends up ignoring Alice's own fantasies--which would have been the focus of even the most unassuming Emmanuelle movie.

During one of Alice's brief visits to the last two-thirds of Eyes Wide Shut, she tells of a dream. She was naked. Bill was going out to fetch her "warm clothes"--i.e., he was out working and making money--but she suddenly had a desire to stay naked and have sex with multitudes of men, mocking and laughing at her husband's earnestness. What man this side of Borneo couldn't figure out what that dream meant?

New York Via Vienna

The film is "suggested" by a novella by Arthur Schnitzler. The author also wrote La Ronde, a story of a sexual merry-go-round, filmed by Max Ophuls and adapted into Kidman's recent Broadway play, The Blue Room. Schnitzler was a Viennese, a friend of Sigmund Freud's (hence the creaky Freudianess of Kidman's dream).

I think Kubrick was smart to understand the parallels between modern-day Manhattan and 1920s Vienna. Both are uneasy, polyglot cities with vast gulfs between the rich and poor; both are renown for the proud stuffiness of the bourgeois; deadly syphilis then, deadly AIDS today, is the threat behind very easily available sex.

Still, it's Kubrickian stubbornness not to understand how Austria and New York are different. There's a New Age tinge in the deepest conservatives today; how many people of the Hartford's wouldn't have known how to handle a wife's announcement of a sexual fantasy? Or have matters really got that retrograde? It has been a long time since the erotic scene of the wife urgently confessing her sexual fantasy in Godard's Weekend. We may never see a moment like that again in our lifetimes.

It's a Wonderful Sex Life

On the most basic level, audiences are hoping, I think, for some sort of sexual passion between the real-life actor team of husband and wife. The two don't bring sexual heat to this table, however. Cruise isn't an actor one thinks of as smoldering with passion; he's the boy next door. While it's an interesting idea to see this ageless gee-whiz kid lurking at orgies, sexual tension is beyond Cruise's ability to express. And Kidman retreats to almost Melanie Griffith levels of little-girl namby-pambiness.

Harford's visits to the sexual fantasy world scares him and return him to the fold right at Christmastime, with a lesson about how lucky he's been. Eyes Wide Shut could be retitled It's a Wonderful Sex Life. However challenging the film might be in its fantasies, it has a good, rock-solid, square base that can offend no one. Compare it to similarly themed phantasmagorical soft-core--such as the early 1970s films of Radley Metzger, recently released on video--and you'll see how meek Eyes Wide Shut really is.

Even Kubrick, who was one of our most boundless filmmakers, shows that there's a line that American movies won't cross in 1999: the presentation of adultery as anything but a death sentence. Kubrick was brave even to approach the topic in these restricted times. Cruise and Kidman were brave to put themselves in his hands. But ponderousness and guilt overcomes all three. Between too much solemnity and too much silliness, today's moviegoer continues to search for something great and ageless.

Eyes Wide Shut (R; 159 min.), directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Frederic Raphael and Kubrick, based on the story by Arthur Schnitzler, photographed by Larry Smith and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, plays at selected theaters.

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Web extra to the July 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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