Home > Uncategorized > Revisiting “Eyes Wide Shut”

Revisiting “Eyes Wide Shut”

My acting experience is limited not only by geography (appearing only in local productions), but also by the fact that I’ve yet to act in anything other than a live theatrical setting. As such, it comes as a surprise to most people that I’m far more enthusiastic about film than I am about theater, television, writing, music, or any other form of creative expression.

I always enjoyed movies as a child, but more often than not veered towards the television set for entertainment. You’ll often hear critics talk about childhood experiences in the movie theater, where something borderline magical happens to them and they’re taken to some far-off place as soon as the house lights go out and a new light emanates from the big screen. This didn’t happen with me. In fact, my favorite movies growing up were film installments of televised cartoon properties: “G.I. Joe,” “Transformers,” et al. Which made the development of these properties as terrible live-action 2009 summer blockbusters all the more painful…but that’s a blog for another time.

My love and appreciation for film blossomed when I was roughly twelve years old. That’s when my father sat me down to watch Tarantino’s breakthrough film “Pulp Fiction,” a fact that really threw my friends (and my math teacher at the time) for a loop.

“Wait, your Dad really let you watch ‘Pulp Fiction’? And he had already seen it beforehand? Seriously?”


My father always had respect for my mental capacity, and knew that I would be able to handle some of the more graphic content of the film in a mature manner. He also knew that I was old and mature enough to be able to put all of these images in their proper context, thus not be one of those instances of a child supposedly coming under the “bad influence” of an evil entertainment industry.

To make a long story short, the film blew my mind and made me re-examine how I saw movies and question if I actually liked “Forrest Gump” as much as I thought I did. From there, it was Roger Ebert’s constant championing of independent films that led me to find movie fare beyond what was presented at the multi-plex.

The illusion of security: the Harford's prepare to embark on an evening of adventure.

As I grew older, I shifted from Tarantino and Kevin Smith towards the works of Kurosawa and the filmmaker who I often cite as my favorite, Stanley Kubrick. I became an unapologetic devotee of any and all works I saw from him, with one glaring exception: “Eyes Wide Shut.”

It’s been nearly a decade since I first saw the film. At the time I felt that I had gotten what Kubrick was going for, but felt it was plodding and the most disengaging narrative Kubrick had ever filmed. Whenever I was conveying my appreciation and love for Kubrick’s entire body of work, “Eyes Wide Shut” was the asterisk I would append to the end of my statement. I found that if I didn’t, whomever I was conversing with would ask if I would include Kubrick’s swan song in my undying and unwavering praise of him.

I was never able to fully and adequately explain what it was about the film that I disliked, and recognized that the explanations I gave were more of a cop-out. Additionally, there have been times where I’ve wondered if my initial criticisms of the film were valid.

The upper-crest of society maintains anonymity as it casts its eyes on Dr. Harford.

A recent post on Kim Morgan’s “Sunset Gun” blog inspired me to revisit the film, owing to her exemplary taste in film and a need to resolve my apprehension towards it. I needed to figure out if my inability to explain why I so dismissive of the film was due to the fact that I hadn’t seen it in so long, or if the person I’ve become over the course of the last ten years simply couldn’t fathom disliking a film for the reasons I gave at the time.

After watching it on Friday evening, I’m ready to say that I’m comfortable putting “Eyes Wide Shut” in the same company as Kubrick’s other works, including but not limited to “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” My dislike for the film at the time of my initial viewing I can chalk up to a generally impetuous nature and complete lack of patience. I couldn’t appreciate personal examination the protagonist undertakes and the ruminative nature of the film, nor did I have the maturity and experience to appreciate the themes conveyed.

Kubrick’s final work is far from the laborious and pretentious star vehicle I thought it was. “Eyes Wide Shut” isn’t merely an adult film with adult themes of sex, lust, and moral crises tied in to a neo-noir investigation into a possible murder conspiracy. It’s also a magnificent and illuminating examination of the concept of marital fidelity, jealousy, moral uncertainty, paranoia, and how those concepts tie in to the precarious nature of upward social mobility.

Where did he sleep last night?

Kubrick, like a master sculptor, meticulously shapes every scene with masterful precision and creates a dream-like world that is but isn’t quite New York City (appropriate that the exterior scenes were actually careful recreations constructed in a British studio). Kubrick’s hazy representation of reality accentuates the fine points of the protagonist’s angst over his wife’s admission of near-infidelity and the uncertainty of reality against perception and intent.

I also need to give praise where it’s due towards Tom Cruise. As someone whose now put in some real effort towards the craft, I was in awe of his performance. Having the experience I’ve had in the past year made me appreciate his physicality and the subtleties he injected into this performance. In my mind, it’s easily the best performance of his career. Perhaps it’s best that I didn’t appreciate it until now, as his descent into poor professional choices (compounded by and/or attributable to his increasingly erratic behavior) would have seemed all the more tragic.

I’ve already written far too much on this subject than I intended and I don’t have the critical chops to write a full-on review of the film. I’ll save that for Kim and Roger Ebert (whose 1999 review of the film you can read here). Instead, I’ll urge those of you who like me dismissed the film on initial viewing to revisit it with a more adult, and hopefully more mature and sophisticated, mindset.

I almost said “eyes” instead of mindset. That would have been awful.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Eric
    December 14, 2009 at 3:01 am

    I’m still not sold. I revisited this one a few years back and found that I was OK with the things that I didn’t like about it before, but had found new things to not like about it. I can’t remember specifics, but I remember thinking that, despite the source material, it was taking a lot from things that Joyce did better.

    But perhaps you’ve inspired me to take a look at the film again. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

    I’ll also admit that I think Kubrick is hit-or-miss. His films are art, to be sure, but many of them leave me feeling sort of “eh.” I preferred both book versions of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining (despite…speaking of laborious…Stephen King). I also tend to dislike movies that are about the problems of rich white people. So maybe EWS is just not for me….

    • December 14, 2009 at 3:12 am

      I also love Wes Anderson, but considering your dislike of problems of rich white people, I don’t think we’d see eye to eye on him either. :\ Although in the case of Anderson, I’d say his obsession with the upper crest of society (or those that fake it well) and their quirks is most definitely starting to limit him a bit as a director, and it’s shown from his most recent efforts. Though I’d never put him in the same company as Kubrick.

      I’ll be honest, “A Clockwork Orange” doesn’t rank all that high on my personal list of Kubrick’s works and, in fact, is probably towards the bottom. As far as the comparisons to the work they’re adapting, in recent years I’ve come to remove myself from comparing adaptations in different mediums. I’ve found that whatever manner I entered into first – reading the book before the film or viewing the film before reading the book – was preferred, and as such I now force myself to not compare them on any level, whether it be in terms of quality or accuracy. I think it’s actually led me to appreciate certain films and books a lot more.

      I’m with you a hundred percent on Stephen King, though. Gad zooks.

  2. Eric
    December 14, 2009 at 3:54 am

    I am generally with you on the adaptation thing. With A.C. Orange especially, though, I felt that the omission of the last chapter of Burgess’ novel undermines every single skillfully crafted aspect of the film that comes before it. And with The Shining, I’ll be honest…I was just sad to see Halloran die. He was the only part of the whole affair that I liked.

    Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest films ever made, though.

    Ironic you should bring up Wes Anderson. I have only just had time to see The Fantastic Mr. Fox tonight. I’m actually a big, big fan of Anderson, and I think the class issues are actually a part of it. His rich-whites-with-problems come in the form of comedy. In the end of The Royal Tenenbaums, for instance, the problems of the characters are sometimes ones that we can identify with, and sometimes made light of because they’re magnified by the fact that the Tenenbaum kids have time and money to sit around and be moody. The even wealthier characters in the Darjeeling Limited are so rich they can’t even be human anymore, try as they might to purchase that humanity. For most of the film, I don’t think you’re even supposed to identify with them, but instead sort of gawk at them. And Anthony in Bottle Rocket has his nervous breakdown because of his rich idleness. Poor people don’t experience ennui because they have to go to work in the morning. And I don’t think Anderson positions the problems of the rich as, “Look, they’re people just like us,” so much as, “You people need to learn to get over yourselves.”

    Someone’s voice comes across in the films, especially the first few, as someone who grew up on the edge of wealth, but wasn’t really a part of it. Though I grew up quite poor, I was always in classes with upper middle class kids because I was smart. I really identify with Max Fischer in the moment where he introduces Blume to his father in the barbershop, and think that Murray’s reaction in that moment is one of the finest pieces of acting of all time. In a sense, you get some of this with Eli Cash in the Tenenbaums, living across the street from wealth, but not ever able to be a part of it. And it’s echoed even in Mr. Fox, in the titular character’s decision to buy the tree.

    Apologies for dominating your blog comments section! I didn’t intend for this to be an essay.

    • December 14, 2009 at 8:12 pm

      What’s really amazing is that we seem to like Anderson for the exact same reasons, right down to growing up as poor kids but being in classes with the upper middle class kids because of honors courses and “gifted and talented” programs.

      When you do get around to viewing it again, I don’t think you’ll see “Eyes Wide Shut” as a film about the problems of rich white people at all. On the contrary, it’s more about a guy who has been suddenly thrust on the cusp of that society but clearly wasn’t brought up in it, which I think is evident by the fact that despite his wealth and the prestige he carries as a doctor, Sydney Pollack’s character most definitely treats him like a plumber (“Can you take a look upstairs? My whore’s all backed up.”). Also by the fact that he’s so insistent on establishing his position to everyone else – he flashes his medical license like a badge. It isn’t so much to remind other people of his accomplishments, so much as to try to convince them – and more importantly himself – that he’s in the upper-middle-class and belongs there. Though the people he comes across and events that unfold before him clearly show that no, he doesn’t belong there, nor is he welcome.

    • ellsbells
      December 15, 2009 at 1:37 am

      I’m a big big fan of Wes Anderson as well, but more so because of the Darjeeling Limited and ironically enough how much I identify with the characters. It’s the story of my sister and I; we don’t know how to be siblings or even human to each other. We grew up with little money, and then as our parents rose in the financial strata so did we. Oddly enough, when I watched that movie, I saw how my sister and I treat each other. It was further compounded recently when our grandmother died that I saw the only time we can function as a family unit is when there’s some tragedy – similar to the brothers at the funeral of the boy they failed to save.

  3. Eric
    December 14, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    I also like the Kinks quite a bit, and that helps.

  4. December 14, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    I’m glad you wrote about this– for the past year or so I’ve had a hankering to re-watch Eyes Wide Shut. I saw it the day it was released and liked it in a “Look at how deep I am that I can appreciate this” manner (otherwise known as stupid immaturity. My family was out of town and left me home alone for the first time that weekend, too– woo-hoo!). Admittedly, I couldn’t tell you what I liked about it even the next day. This just might be the push I need to go back and see what the movie’s really about.

    • December 16, 2009 at 12:24 pm

      I definitely think you should. It’d be interesting to see what you think of it.

      PS It’s on Netflix’s “Watch it Now” option.

  5. December 15, 2009 at 3:00 am

    I liked a clockwork orange myself. It introduces those to a remarkable 13 yr old Alex who is played by Malcolm McDowell and his “Droogs” aka partners in crime and mayhem. Speaking a largely invented (by Burgess) slang, Alex happens to be into Beethoven and ultraviolence. With more than 25 yrs under the belt people are still taken back by this

    A Clockwork Orange is an assault on the brain in regards to music, visuals, and mentality for conformity on society even today. At the same time thought it does reflect Burgess’s catholic views on sin and to do with free will. Take this as an example? Alex is brainwashed and conditioned to become physically ill at the sound of Beethoven after being incarcerated for his crimes.
    Destruction of young Alex’s freedom of will leaves him a mere husk of a being – someone devoid of the ability to become a genius, suffer madness, encounter rapture or become inventive.

    • December 16, 2009 at 12:23 pm

      I should note that I don’t necessarily dislike “A Clockwork Orange.” My previous statement was more along the lines of least favorite Kubrick films.

      It’s sort of how I’d say “Magical Mystery Tour” is The Beatles weakest album, but it’s still better than 90% of what was coming out at that time.

    • December 16, 2009 at 12:23 pm

      Though I am inspired to revisit it now that you mention those aspects.

  6. Eric
    December 16, 2009 at 4:24 am

    …I’ve just remembered that I walked out on Eyes Wide Shut when I first saw it in a theatre in favor of Muppets in Space, which started 30 minutes later.

    • December 16, 2009 at 12:21 pm

      Let the record show you walked out on Kubrick in favor of Hulk Hogan and Loni Anderson.

      • Eric
        December 18, 2009 at 5:42 am

        I was willing to forgive the Muppets almost anything up to the point of Muppets Wizard of Oz. Such is my love of Muppetdom.

  1. December 20, 2009 at 8:49 pm

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