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Cinema Interruptus

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Critic David Thomson is kept waiting for 'Eyes Wide Shut'

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting films in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"HMMM," I am thinking as I stand on the corner of Mission and Sixth in downtown San Francisco, surrounded by 275 anxious people clutching press kits and backpacks. "If a large airplane fell from the sky right now, and crashed right here, it could eliminate every Bay Area movie critic in one incredible instant."

Such an event would be worse than it sounds.

Partly, that's because one of those critics is David Thomson (author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film and Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts)-- whom theIndependent of London has named "the best film critic in the world"--and mainly, because we've only seen the first half of Eyes Wide Shut .

"And we were just getting to the 'orgy' scene,'" Thomson points out.

True. Talk about coitus interruptus.

It's been half an hour since our jarring evacuation (something about "fire alarms") from the new, state-of-the-art Sony Metreon entertainment complex. That was an hour and 15 minutes into a secret press screening of Eyes, the much anticipated last film to be directed by the late, great Stanley Kubrick. Apparently the alarm was a false one--yet here we stand, wearily watching two actors, dressed as funny monsters, attempting to cheer us up.

"So far," Thomson remarks, "the film's been dreadfully slow, don't you think?" Frankly, I've been enjoying it--if only for the peculiar Kubrickness of the thing, and for the performance of Nicole Kidman (yes, she gets naked, but she acts too) and the inexplicable, Jerry Maguire-on-downers performance of Tom Cruise, playing a well-to-do, married New York doctor struggling with unexpected sexual conflicts regarding the fidelity of his wife (Kidman).

At last we are let back in, only to be told that we've missed several minutes of the orgy (the Metreon folks left the film running awhile after we were chased outside), and that the aforementioned "state-of-the-art" projection equipment is incapable of rewinding to the place we left off. We either watch the film without the missing minutes, we are told, or we start over from the beginning.

No one is eager to do that.

"This never would have happened if Kubrick were still alive," murmurs Thomson, smiling. "The poor guy dies and efficiency goes right out the window."

One of the movie's put-upon publicists appears to crack under the pressure. "Mr. Kubrick, Mr. Kubrick!" he wails. "We're so sorry!"

"It's all right," one woman says, attempting to soothe him. "Kubrick had a sense of humor. Wherever he is, I'm sure he's loving this."

She's probably right. Kubrick never thought much of critics.

"I THINK that lots of people, critics and the general public, will make fun of this film," predicts Thomson 90 minutes later as we sit down to a late lunch. "For all its packaging as a serious exploration of sexual obsession, Eyes Wide Shut has got a kind of built-in foolishness to it.

"That orgy scene," he laughs, "was, I think, the orgy of a man who's never been to an orgy."

"What? You mean orgies aren't like that?"

I'm crushed. The erotic gathering in question--a bizarre pageant of masked, nude women being solemnly boffed by masked men in robes and capes (while the disguised and uninvited Dr. Cruise stands around gawking)--is the favorite function of a secret New York "club," to which only the wealthiest and most powerful men are invited. It's exactly what we like to think goes on at Bohemian Grove.

"There's a whole lot of fascinating sex going on in the world," Thomson says, "sex that Stanley Kubrick, I suspect, did not know a great deal about. This orgy, at best, is wildly implausible, and at worst, is just rather silly."

"Is it even possible to do all those things without your mask falling off all the time?" I wonder.

"Probably not," he laughs. "And those 'sacrificial virgins,' dropping their clothes on demand before this roomful of mysterious men--there was a bit of old-fashioned candy porn about that."

"Why is it," I ask, "that filmmakers--even great ones like Kubrick--can never create on screen sexual encounters that aren't either silly or tasteless?"

"Well, I think, in real life, sex is what's going on inside the head," he replies, considering the question. "For most people, the visual aspects of sex--call it foreplay, and isn't that mainly what cinematic sex is?--is very different from the actual experience of having sex.

"If you show two people at an orgy," he continues, "a very cold-blooded orgy scene where they don't know each other and it's just raw, heartless sex, and then you show a lovemaking scene between Cruise and Kidman--a married couple who know each other and love each other--those two scenes are going to look very much alike. The camera can't get at that difference, because the camera can't get inside the heads of the couples--which is where the true difference lies.

"Kubrick, I think, was a devout 'watcher.' Not a 'doer' so much as a committed voyeur. And it shows in the way he portrays sexual behavior." Not that Thomson doesn't think the film has its merits. "Kidman's performance was very intriguing," he agrees, "and the cinematography was quite beautifully done." He even thinks it could find an audience. But not the audience Kubrick was aiming for.

"I think this would make an excellent midnight movie," he suggests, laughing.

Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

"Yes indeed. I can see scenes where the awful dialogue would be shouted back at the screen. Entire audiences would show up dressed as the people at the orgy. I can see, in years to come, an entire midnight movie audience waiting for the last final line of the movie"--it's a doozy, by the way, a piece of advice that is filthy and funny at the same--"so they can shout, 'Yes!' at the top of their voices.

"Who knows," Thomson grins, "Kubrick may have made his most popular film ever."

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A web extra to the July 22-28, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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