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Stanley Kubrick: Eyes Wide Shut [Warner Brothers]

“That’s what you say now, so at this moment you may even believe it.” (1)

1. A yuppie nightmare movie segues into the enigma of its director’s death. There are no more questions that could be answered. As there were previously no answers to be had. The director could be anonymous. But the author too is dead. Schnitzler died in 1931 and his traumnovelle lays it out: traum as dream and as trauma. The two almost interchangeable if it is that the dream is that which can present the ‘demand of the other’ and present it in such a way as for us to feel it as a pressure to respond (to our ‘other’ so to speak). But dream is fantasy too and the core here, the propulsion, comes as an imaginary infidelity. That it is desire that is beyond the demand. But is it good? Is it bad?

2. Being subjected to adverts:- cinema’s nemesis is that the adverts now condition the movies having been inspired by the very movies that the movies now attempt to caricature. The hip slickness of style (right down to dirty timbre hip-hop and pastiched brit-pop punk) married to commodities (trainers) and services (banks) illustrates again and again that the creative impulse has been bought and sold like any other labour power. We must thank the adverts for this. Creative labour power selling capital as if it could only be capital that exists. Worse selling capital as non-existent rebellion. A creative labour power so desperate for our attention that it threatens to short circuit and burn through the frame until we cannot see anything other than this desperate competition for our eyes. Our eyes wide shut to ‘dead boss’ capital. After being subjected to the adverts:- the speed of shot of the montaged surefire message is tempered by the slow descent into the credits that this time are more like a gateway. The pace has decay. The waltz takes us back until Cruise switches off the stereo and our eyes are wide shut. The splendour is our bourgeois dream. It’s very overdetermined opulence – the cascading lights of the staircase wall – are a reminder of those ‘street-level’ ads before Cruise too goes slumming. But our eyes are opening to what is normally disavowed. Kubrick is elaborating on the mainstream so what does that make of the other detritus? Kidman is overacting but isn’t that overwrought, monied self-conceit? After the adverts cinema is having its last gasp and in two hours we’re soon to be left to Spielberg.

3. It is established in the camera-plot that Kidman shall be circled. There shall be a vertigo of the dance as a spiralled forgetlessness and an oncoming pace of seduction and flirtation. She speaks slowly as if to a ghost, as in a dream, as if to remember every word she says for she may want to savour them later, to have them traumatise her. And so the camera circles her but we never get level. We are already beginning to loose Kidman to postponed moments of drama. Her words are too slow. She has given herself over to another’s fantasy. She’s having intellectual sex with words that are as cheap as they are scripted. For Cruise it is the solid framing of corridor-walls as he walks toward the camera and towards us. The famed frontal tracking shot means he will not escape from these confines for he is an adult-child. A man who refuses to respond to the ‘demand of the other’ but responds instead, if it is that his journey is fuelled by jealousy, to his own insecurity: the other being nothing more than the worse projection of himself. Kidman sparks it off. She responds to her other (the officer) after being lulled into a haze of memory by the music and a Hungarian wraith. She remembers not only the risk of her words but another moment when a glance immobilised her; she was on the brink of leaving, of abandoning her children. So trauma comes with the recollection. It is a repeat of the moment of immobilization and it immobilizes her again. Into the breach of confession which is just as dangerous because her husband is a doctor, an analyst who ‘does not know’ but to whom one speaks and to whom one speaks freely for he cannot answer back. The words come as fragments: give it all up…pity. She mothers Cruise. His eyes are wide shut. She is his wife but he cannot enter her fantasy. He cannot place his own fantasy. He does not even notice a hotel clerk’s gauche gay come-on. He asks the hooker: “What do you recommend?”. He needs the real dream of the masqued dance. He needs to see only what can be before his eyes.

4. But our eye are wide shut. Shut to the fact that our identification in one or the other, the man or the woman, will lead to the adoption of a point of view. Could even be built into defence. Is it not that Kidman challenges Cruise’s flirtation with the two models as a ‘covering over’ of her own flirtation with the Hungarian wraith? That she has committed an imaginary infidelity? Is it not this very game of conjectural accusation that binds them closely together so that they cannot admit of any other? Is this game the game of a stilled desire? The fear of aphanisis and impotence? Is it rather that aggression should flow, that jealousy should be used as a ploy to arouse the other whose desire slumbers? And then the confession. Everything must be confessed: “the unsaid manifests itself in speech through paradoxes, hesitations and sudden changes in tone” (2). She must make herself known, but known as desire, the desire to offer herself up to be known through her intimate failures.She remembers the officer as vividly as if she had made him up in an idle fantasy. He may not have been real for she says she didn’t sleep that night and that she had seen what was not before her eyes. It is this confession of the unsaid which binds them, makes them secure, and it is right at the very beginning of the film. But we must doubt it for we do not know them. We do not know that what quickly follows, a protestation of love after the death of a father, is for Cruise a second and third trauma. He is, after all, fatherly: “trust me I’m a doctor”. He shows his badge like the cop he is. But, desensitised, he makes of the confession a blue movie. Notably he is absent as the officer ‘screws’ his wife.These overdetermined crudities, being rejected and sought in consecutive sequences, may not be Kubrick’s fault for are they not Cruise’s projections? Seeing through his eyes that are wide shut? But we do not know. Most of all we do not know when we watch.For this is cinema and what follows can always change things. Our eyes are wide shut: to reality or to fantasy or to the provocation of a trauma that is the message of what we do not know?

5. We are forced into looking. There is a coercion like the coercion to speak of sex, to have it everywhere, to see and see and speak. To formalise it as ‘specular concupiscence’.The porno of the adverts. The deployment of passivity. And so the scenes of sex and nudity in the rooms of the country mansion are already what there is to see anyway. But Cruise devours it from behind his mask. Maybe, at last, he will come across a fantasy other than the fantasy of besmirched honour,or perhaps, from those damp eyes we can see through the holes of the mask, Cruise will be able to forget himself and his conformist drive and confront the unsaid rather than say the right thing at the wrong time. But maybe, all along, he is not out to wreak revenge on Kidman, but simply to see, from a position of anonymous security, what it is that he thinks he is missing. Perhaps he needs to see to be able to fantasise; to be able to partake in his wife’s fantasy. Perhaps his is the voyeurism of those that lack internal perception: a perception of their own perception that makes the perception of the desire of the other not simply a matter of seeing what is empirically real. But what do we see? We see the nudity with our eyes wide shut. We see Kubrick offering us a return to the days before psycho-analysis began its masculinised dissection of sexuality. In the country mansion we return to the scene of the traumnovelle (itself echoed by the Hungarian wraith and the Serbian costumier) when nudity and sex was that which was to be explored, which was still a subversive, diffusing continent of dirty little secrets; an unchallenged ‘imaginary signification’. Kubrick, by casting the two Scientologists as central to his film and by having these ‘orgies’ presided over by (presumed) members of state and judiciary, presents us with an ‘orgy’ that we have already seen: autistic sexual gratification as a metaphot for an anonymous economic power. But we see the ‘orgy’ through Cruise’s noble eyes and our overfamiliarity is overwhelmed. Our eyes are wide shut so that we too may be shocked and aghast but, disentangling ourselves from Cruise’s gaze, we can look further and see how the ritualistic opening ceremony turns into another “fake” of gratification: “the codification of pleasure by the ‘laws’ of sex” (3). These are codes and rituals,laws of masculinised sex, to which Cruise would gladly take off his mask. And, adopting the imaginary significations of male desire as his own, he dutifully does as he is told. But neither of us, watching and watched, is glad to be an animal.

6. The music sells a film before a film can be pre-released. The music in a film becomes a selling point for another film that is a thinly disguised borrowing of mise-en-scenes from other movies that had music in them.Then there’s a music that is made by several orchestras all playing the same thing in a quadrasonic studio and when it comes to dubbing this is a music from which, with our eyes wide shut, we could follow a movie to its conclusion. We could almost remember every scene and our not being seated from the very start, our being late, does not distress us. Instead, our emotions overburdened, we’re falling over ourselves to get to the front row. To be blown away by the air from the speakers as if it too is the wind cast our way by an explosion punctuated by the same string stabs as last time and the times before that. So what occurs when there is an interleaving of a simple piano refrain and a pseudo gothic plaint? Our eyes are wide shut so that the ears can hear more than the eyes can see. The simplicity of the plaint, its ominous strains seem to both enchant and horrify our anticipation of the outcome of the nude ritual. This music is its outcome but it still manages to play on our diffuse fears to the extent that, in rousing our anxieties, it both bids us to be desirous of an unsatisfied desire and offers up the trauma of our being, like Cruise, late to understanding. Such stimulus makes us take the pretentious ritual seriously as a tawdry burlesque, a diversionary spectacle, that Cruise adopts as his fantasy. Seeing it with eyes wide shut we are enabled to be as entranced and as shocked as Cruise, to be voluntarily in the presence of the manipulative power of the cinema: a series of perfectly symmetrical shots in which the actors, in masks, become ciphers for the choreographed movements worked out by a deity-director, are accompanied by an almost mournfully ominous music that makes our fantasy for us. It is through this music that a little death is brought back back into the sexual for a secret society of noblemen de-sublimated enough to be able to go back to a pre-century Vienna to become perverts without, however, having the diffuse libidinal drive of perversion. The shock of the ritual is its normalisation of perversion, its striving towards a masculinised re-sexualisation rather than “towards a de-sexualisation… a general economy of pleasure that would not be sexually normed” (3). So, then, the simple piano notes: loud, singular and sharp, almost violent, violently spaced, too spaced for multiplex sound in that, as notes, as isolated notes, they leave enough room for one that is off-key. This is the music that accompanies Cruise at those times that we feel he is almost auto-traumatising – remembering, thinking, thinking of what he remembers but being, just yet, unable to think it in words, unable to even be unsaid, unable to acknowledge his own meconnaissance. With our eyes wide shut all we have got to go on is this lag of our understanding, a space from which to challenge those imaginary significations that make our fantasy for us.

7. Defamed. A screen full of masks. No faces of celebrity. What we expect from the adverts is that even the bit-part actors, even the three second face-ups, are straining every cheek muscle to prove their mastery of the demanded expression.The fake of the face on the screen chosen from thousands of gleeful applicants and seen for a fraction of a second is enough to highlight the pornography of frantic competition. To be seen once is enough, but the image of the face, when multiplied, when forced to speak as if it believes in what it is saying is the disavowal of the desire to say otherwise: it reinforces economic power as anonymous.These faces keep things from us, keep things the same. So, the trauma is in the masking-up of the ball’s participants, in the visualisation of the freedom to abuse as it hides away from its own motives and fills the cinema with a recognisable expressionlessness through which we face up to the masks that are always around us. Yet, in these shots Kubrick briefly resists the cinema industry by refusing to profile the actors and actresses. He defies actors in this sequence wherein the very craft of facial expression is temporarily suspended and with it the whole industry of faciality, its unremitting neurosis of visible surface-effect. Our eyes are wide shut. We are in a kind of limbo, from where, with everyone acting a part, it is possible for Kubrick to present us with what could amount to a dream sequence: the faces of the characters in our dreams are often obscured and difficult to remember, they are all but actually physically masked. But in this sequence only Cruise is unmasked (his counterpart in the traumnovelle is resistant to the unmasking) and once unmasked we see the face of celebrity unmasked. Our eyes are wide open. Cruise is illumined by a light that shines from the eyes of the audience and, as a proper noun, he looks insecure. His face becomes the depersonalised object it actually is. He is as dead as the director and the author: “The proper name, like the dead person, is untranslatable: it can only be exchanged, in a rigorous sense, for the person himself” (4). The enigma of characters whose actions and motives need translating, whose desire needs locating, becomes the cipher of the untranslatable proper noun. Cruise is Cruise is Cruise and the unending signifying chain of advert-movies never meets with anything that could abolish the repetition of its formalist perfection. Such an overdetermined and ritualised content for vision (Cruise as Cruise, ‘orgy’ as ‘slave-show’) is the ‘covering over’ of the unsaid that, unprovoked, remains unthought. We will always be compensated for our lack of vision for we are always permitted to be anonymously abusive in our conformity to a codified and formalised pleasure.

8. Eyes wide shut we dream and dreaming we still see. Kidman slowly recounts her dream. The officer is making love to her. She is at a masked ball being fucked by many men (including, from behind the mask of the lens, Kubrick?). But no dream is just a dream. No scenario an objectively filmed fact.And so Cruise is hypnotised, he is in a steady state wherein he appears not to allow the images Kidman recounts to become memories. He cannot allow them to break through. But, Kidman, again confessing, is confessing almost in full knowledge that the “desire of the dream is not assumed by the subject who says ‘I’ in her speech” (5). Rather, Kidman is able to confront the trauma that comes with the memory of the creativity of her desire – the dream, her creative act, offers her the undisguised fulfilment of a previously avowed wish. This way she can have her desire become a full figure in front of her. But Cruise cannot enter her fantasy. Nothing can be built between them and Cruise’s silence during her speech is as much a silence that is awed by a desire that outstrips him but,being, in part, masculinised and subject to the same imaginary significations, it is a desire that does not totally out manoeuvre him. And so, being witness to Kidman’s lascivious laughter, he prompts her to recount the dreams final scene and as Kidman moves towards saying the unsayable we are witness, once more with our eyes wide open, to how Cruise must be able to empirically perceive what is directly in front of him so as to cushion it from being fraught by the delay of internal perception: the cathecting of memories … the elaboration of fantasies … the enacting of desire. This needing to see, so as to check and be in knowledge, is the fate of the trained doctor accustomed to physical symptoms and their routine treatment and informs, to some degree, Cruise’s repeated visit to all the sites of the previous days experiences. This becomes a journey of self-proof at the same time that it is a means to lessen the pressure of the internal perception of memories: meaning must not be open meaning. And so Cruise almost orders Kidman to finish her recollection of the dream, coaxing her like a frightened patient but interested, most of all, in the knowledge that he has located the lacuna of the dream and that he was correct in his diagnosis that there was more to come. The content that Kidman tried to protect him from is that, in the dream-images, she was laughing at Cruise as she fucked other men. Cruise looks on with eyes wide shut and, with our eyes are wide shut too, we wonder: Was she there? Was she one of the masked women? Yet Kidman’s full knowledge is in a script that has transposed the anxiety of the traumnovelle’s central character (“He couldn’t help feeling – irrational though the notion seemed to him – that she might be aware of what he had been through during the night”) into the forevision of a dream, a forevision that, to some extent, makes a metaphor of that portion of the super-ego that acts as the ‘agency’ of conscience. Kidman and Cruise are bound by this agency of conscience. Kidman’s dream perhaps assigns Cruise the most important role: he is present as the paternal overseer of her marital transgression, a transgression that overcompensates for the demand of the other being a desire for several others which functions as a signal for him; the one who can only look on and never enter her fantasy in person. For Cruise conscience is all powerful. It forbids him to fantasise and it forbids him to doubt what he sees and what he hears. Cruise’s faith in the ‘social imaginary significations’ of society (marriage, ritual, authority, masculinity, femininity, profession) are such that, in the pseudo-denouement scene in Pollack’s snooker room, he cannot disbelieve, or even doubt, the explanation of the previous night’s events that Pollack, a father figure, furnishes him with. Our eyes are wide shut. There is no proof that the hooker had not overdosed, there is no proof that what Pollack says isn’t to be believed (that there is no murderous conspiracy) but, just as Cruise barefacedly denies being at the masqued ball, so, too our eyes become wide open as Pollack slithers along the signifier and eludes and elides along the chain until Cruise is faced with something that it would be very hard to disbelieve: an overdetermined ‘truth’ with little time, little stomach, to entertain the imaginative ‘false’. But Cruise is in the thrall of an authoritative super-ego to such a degree that when confronted at the ball he says, even though masked: “I think you’re mistaking me for someone else”. Even when Cruise is disguised he feels naked to the glare of his own conscience. From behind the mask, with his eyes wide open, he is still perceiving as if his eyes are wide shut but it is not the uncensored dream of the empirical real that he sees but the anxiety of a censored desire, an imagination that has become conflated with the ‘imaginary infidelity’ that has already unravelled his sense of self-worth. And so, when Cruise returns for the last time to Kidman and sees her sleeping with the mislaid mask beside her he responds to the demand of the other as a demand of responsibility, cracks up and offers to tell her everything. What has he got to tell? That he too has committed imaginary infidelities (with a hooker, a child prostitute, a gay man, a dead body)? That his desire, as with that of the impresarios of the masqued ball, is already overrepresented, normed, to the degree that, unable to negotiate the demand, it cannot fantasise its own volition? Maybe his is a desire that, being stated everywhere as standard fantasy, can remain unsaid, for Kubrick makes the implications of Cruises’s avowal wait until the next scene: a scene in a resplendent toyshop where Cruise, his daughter’s brother, intones the fairytale word “forever” and Kidman, offering the panacea of sex without the tenderness of fantasy, adopts the imaginary significations of male desire as her own.
(1) Arthur Schnitzler: Dream Story, p11, Penguin, 1999.
(2) J.B. Pontalis: Frontiers Of Psychoanalysis, p112, Hogarth,1981.
(3) Michel Foucault: Foucault Live, p212, Semiotext(e) 1996.
(4) Jean Laplanche: Essays On Otherness, p244, Routledge, 1999.
(5) Jacques Lacan: Ecrits, p 264, Tavistock 1977.

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