Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dreamlike Films: Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), with additional notes on Inception

Yesterday was Stanley Kubrick's birthday. In his honor, I'm gonna take a moment away from Inception and talk about his own dream odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut, although there will be a touch of convergence between the two discussions.

What an interesting film, right? So many of Kubrick’s great films (The Shining, 2001, Full Metal Jacket) take place in universes that are wholly divorced from our own – hermetically sealed mansions and space craft, barracks and war zones – even Clockwork Orange’s future-verse seemed to have its own alien logic – that it’s striking to see a film that takes place right here on Earth, in the bowels of New York City. But STILL, it doesn’t feel like our New York City, our Present Day, our Planet Earth, because it’s not a realist film. It’s still a hermetically-sealed universe, but in a deft deconstruction of his own style, Kubrick gives us a real-world that’s sealed up inside a character’s head, shaped and influenced by that character’s jealousies and obsessions.

In Eyes Wide Shut, Bill escapes into a hypnotic New York City that’s hyper-sexualized, with every remark and casual encounter having an erotic component (except, arguably, passing the frat boys, whose comment is less erotic than emasculating). Read this however you want, but I have no doubt that Bill is experiencing his world this way because of his recent conversation with Alice, which has forced him to confront their respective romantic and sexual roles in their relationship. In the course of the film’s central narrative – which I would suggest is brought on by marijuana and the experience in the presence of death, signaling implosion and descent – there’s something simply off-kilter about the way things happen. This is an alternate-universe New York City, and I believe that it’s Bill’s dream-city.

Some of the best commentary on the film -- like this Film Quarterly article by Tim Kreider -- argue that the psychoanalytical reading of Eyes Wide Shut is a red herring, and that it should really be looked at sociologically, in terms of class, wealth, and human commodification. I'd agree that this is an important pillar of the film's framework, but I don't think it's a dead-end to consider the film on an atmospheric and aesthetic level. The film may include real-world subtexts, but they're all placed within a very cerebral world. I can't read Eyes Wide Shut in a purely realist-symbolic-allegorical way, because there's so much stylization, and because the experience is so distinctly disconnected and hypnotic. So even if I don't go for a strict ego-superego-id reading of the film, I do believe it speaks with an oneiric voice, and that the dynamic of sex and desire is one of its definitive registers.

[EDIT -- on re-reading, I realized I had pretty seriously misrepresented the FIlm Quarterly article. I insinuated that Tim had rejected all psychological and subjective readings entirely, which he absolutely did not do... if anything, he did the opposite. So I edited that part. Sorry about the original misrepresentation.]

There are a couple things that lead me to believe that even if Bill isn’t literally dreaming, he’s at least entered a sort of fugue. It fits with a couple of my first-post principles: the film certainly makes use of an intensely heightened reality, a veritable painting of crimsons and golds, reds and blues injected at key moments, and expressive spaces that sharply influence the mood of the moment. There is also a dramatic emotional disconnect between Bill, the audience's avatar, and the events that he's falling into. At his wife's dramatic confession, he seems to go numb, and at each key emotional moment -- his departure from the prostitute's apartment, his revelatory conversation with Nick Nightingale, his jarring tour through the orgiastic celebration -- his reaction seems blunt and detached, like a man watching the world through a pane of glass. This is because the film is less about Bill himself, and more about the alternate reality he's entered, which now bears his imprint.

Bill’s downtown NYC seems alien, but navigable. At the very least, he manages to find Nick Nightingale, and to acquire a mask and a robe. However, after passing a series of gateways (most notably giving the password to the doorman), he finds himself in a deeper level of his subconscious: a clandestine party where primal urges are given free reign. Here the bystanders are truly faceless, and they’re openly hostile to outsiders. It turns out that Bill’s biggest problem is that he stands out, and almost as soon as he enters the revelers’ sanctum, he starts feeling like he’s being monitored, and forces are rallying against him. Unfortunately, no amount of warning from a sympathetic spirit can dissuade him from exploring this new space that’s opened up.

The revelers in Eyes Wide Shut treat Bill as a pathogen, an outside agent that has to be destroyed, or at least rejected. This is closely paralleled by the behavior of the projections in Inception, and if you read the structure of the latter film retroactively onto the former, you can easily interpret the party as a stage for Bill’s subconscious, an inner layer where his conscious mind isn’t welcome. The Inception protagonists infiltrate this part of the mind in order to achieve a mercenary objective; Bill gets down inside there not knowing what he’ll find, and unprepared for the consequences of digging too deep (eek! Was that a Lord of the Rings reference?).

And so Kubrick’s story shifts fluidly from a fable of descent to a chronicle of unforeseen reversals, apparently the ramifications of his dangerous curiosity. When he emerges from the Dionysian underworld, Bill discovers that everything in his sexually-charged universe is broken, spent, disturbed, and overturned: his friends and admirers have moved away, or they’ve been “disappeared,” or (in the most unsettling developments) they’ve submitted to macabre breakdowns and perversions (I’m referring specifically to the shop owner who’s suddenly become his daughter’s pimp, and to the prostitute who’s been diagnosed with HIV). Bill’s friend Victor is finally there to wrap up Bill’s loose ends – he provides the necessary guilt (“What were you thinking?”) and the rationalization required to move on, and though he doesn’t actually answer our questions, he at least paves the way for Bill to return to the appropriate private spaces of his own life. There, he can go through a cathartic release, and complete the movement of “waking up” in his own bedroom, with his own wife.

My Inception parallels are still thin, but there are probably a lot more to work through. After all, both films rely on opulence and commodification as a subtext, whether it's prostitution and objectification of the body in Eyes Wide Shut, or mercenary ethics and territorialization of the mind in Inception. Both create multi-tiered spaces that provide an allegory for different cognitive functions, with an "inner sanctum" as the final, dangerous, and unstable destination for the unscrupulous explorations of the main character(s). And both of these main characters embark on these explorations in order to come to terms with their marriage issues.

I'm always fascinated by these kinds of shared structures in unrelated films. Both Inception and Eyes Wide Shut play with the concept of oneiric interiority and infiltration of the subconscious -- the padlocked bank vaults and sacred spaces of the protected mind.