Culture

Eyes Wide Shut Meets a New Age of Hetero Anxiety

Nicole Kidman in “Eyes Wide Shut,” by Warner Bros.

I just rewatched “Eyes Wide Shut” — or Stanley Kubrick’s unofficial sequel to “The Shining,” as I like to call it — for the first time since we publicly began having all these conversations about the way men treat women. It was absolutely riveting, and it’s great knowing the film’s return to Netflix will guarantee that even more people revisit this instant classic, whether out of curiosity or boredom (or both).

Adapted from the 1926 novella Traumnovelle and completed just before the director’s death in 1999, this film polarized audiences and critics alike, though overall it’s regarded as a worthy swan-song to Kubrick’s incomparable artistic career. Much of the writing about “Eyes Wide Shut” revolves around the film’s “true” meaning, aiming to liberate it (as well as viewers) from the expectations associated with an “erotic thriller,” which it was erroneously marketed as.

Tim Kreider’s “Introducing Sociology” remains one of the best deep-dives into the film. In his introduction, Kreider writes:

The real pornography in this film is in its lingering depiction of the shameless, naked wealth of Millennial Manhattan, and of the obscene effect of that wealth on our society, and on the soul. National reviewers’ myopic focus on sex and the shallow psychologies of the film’s central couple, the Harfords, at the expense of any other element of the film—its trappings of stupendous wealth, its references to fin-de-siecle Europe and other imperial periods, its Christmastime setting, the sum Dr. Harford spends on a single night out, let alone the unresolved mystery at its center — says more about the blindness of our elites to their own surroundings than it does about Kubrick’s inadequacies as a pornographer. For those with eyes open, there are plenty of money shots.

Twenty years onward, issues related to gender inequality are on the forefront of our minds in a way they pointedly weren’t in ’99, or even in ’06 when Kreider had his say. All the same, and whatever it also may have been, Kubrick’s movie was a meditation on exactly this subject, and still is; it’s impossible to watch now without noticing how much society has already benefited from the openness that’s increasingly available to men and women alike, regardless of how fiercely certain cultural enforcers may cling to “traditional” concepts related to heterosexuality.

To these fresh eyes, Nicole Kidman’s monologue early in the movie will resonate more powerfully than ever. You’ll find many complaints out there about her being relegated to a “supporting role” in a film where she and husband (at the time) Tom Cruise were given equal billing. The fact that Kidman also ended up baring more flesh than Cruise has not been overlooked in feminist critiques, though her character’s exposure ends up playing such an important symbolic role in what follows, it feels anything but exploitative.

As you may recall, affluent couple Alice and Bill Harford have been married for years, and even have a child together, but only now — and only under the influence of weed and alcohol — does Alice find the courage to unmask herself, attacking the perceived difference between the sexes in a few precise strokes.

Refusing Bill’s suggestion (backed by pseudo-medical jargon) that men experience desire differently than women, are essentially different from them, and that only certain exceptions (such as himself) have managed to conquer those animalistic drives, Alice levels with him.

“If you men only knew,” she begins, and then reminisces in exacting detail about a time not too long ago when she found herself  overcome with lust for a handsome naval officer the Harfords encountered while on vacation; for an entire night, Alice obsessed over the possibility of a one-night stand with this stranger, even if it meant throwing her entire life away. In the end, she was spared having to consider it any further when the man in question checked out of their hotel.

“I didn’t know whether I was afraid that he had left or that he might still be there,” she concludes. “But by dinner, I realized he was gone and I was relieved.”

Alice has taken off her disguise as the perfect wife, the refined woman — psychologically speaking, she’s as flippantly bare as she was in the film’s opening shot, essentially laying down the proof that says: I know exactly what you are – and I am no different. A gambit, if you will, to coax Bill into showing his own true face. Instead, this  unprecedented honesty shakes her husband to the core; he lacks the courage or awareness to accept it, let alone reciprocate.

Over the past few years, variations on this exchange have no doubt been happening in bedrooms all over America as couples come to terms with the consequences of unchecked male power, from cat-calling on the sidewalk to workplace harassment to long-buried instances of violent assault. From 2014’s #YesAllWomen to the more recent groundswell of #MeToo, women of every background are challenging men to consider what they experience on a daily basis — and holding men to a higher standard when it comes to recognizing their participation, active or otherwise, in the patterns and power structures that allow so much misbehavior to go unchecked.

Though it’s inspiring to see how many men are up to that challenge, or aspire to be, many more can’t seem to clear even the lowest hurdles toward recognizing the equality of a woman’s mind, body, work, pleasure, or pain. So often, that litmus test seems to be: Can you stand to be corrected by a woman — on any subject, but particularly those that pertain to her lived experience?

Bill is spared from having to answer Alice’s question right away (and it’s worth noting that his shocked response is all Kubrick, as this departs from Arthur Schnitzler’s novella in which the husband character simply responds by divulging a sexual fantasy of his own).  Instead, the phone call that interrupts their domestic scene takes Bill on a series of nighttime adventures, though Alice’s revelation burns inside him every step of the way.

Throughout the night, every woman he encounters demonstrates an aspect of the wild, “irrational” sexual impulse that he’s used to attributing to men, and which men take so much pride in controlling – as well as (under certain circumstances) in abandoning control thereof. He’s viewing their interactions through new eyes, though one could  hardy describe them as “open.”

First there’s Marie Richardson as an heiress, who sees in her own grief an opportunity to make a pass at the handsome doctor, an echo of Alice’s willingness to forsake her family for one illicit encounter. Then Vinessa Shaw and Leelee Sobieski appear as blonde temptresses who’ve embraced carnality as a form of capital. Bill is also harassed and cat-called in the street by a group of men who perceive him as a homosexual, flipping the script on his elite (and effete) alpha male persona — feminizing him, in a sense.

His uneasiness grows with each successive encounter, punctuated by vivid fantasies of his wife coupling with that naval officer back at the hotel. Because what if men are not actually the sexual apex predators they fancy themselves after all, but also number among the devoured, subject to the same hungry gaze? And how terrifying to consider that everyone around him has been wearing a mask, whether for his benefit or their own. The security of Bill’s insular mirror-world of privilege is being stripped away, the walls revealed to be made of two-way glass.

As a rich, good-looking white, male doctor, it’s never occurred to Bill just how his interactions with others may have been contaminated all along by status, by privilege, by prurient interest. You might ask: how could such an intelligent and discerning man have made it this far in life without questioning whether his various admirers, sycophants, and dependents really are the people they outwardly appear to be? Can this possibly be realistic?

Observing men’s incredulous reactions to women’s tales of harassment and abuse – or even encounters that might have traditionally passed for “romance” – it’s obvious the answer to that question is a resounding YES.

This remains as much of a blind spot for men today as it was when the film first debuted. As one male critic commented back in ’99: “Who are these people played by Cruise and Kidman, who act as if no one has ever made a pass at them and are so deeply traumatized by their newfound knowledge of sexual fantasies – the kind that mainstream culture absorbed at least half a century ago?”

And yet here we are almost a fifth of a century later, with men (and women) reacting incredulously to the persistence of misogyny, remaining just as oblivious to the way it’s colored their own reality as well as everyone else’s. And only now are we beginning to accept that the effects of oppression can be cumulative – that the hundredth threat or unwelcome pass can actually disturb us more than the first, or fiftieth.

Even so, and despite living in an age defined by its relative proximity to “wokeness,” the mainstream’s eyes remain as firmly wide shut as ever.

***

Having watched everyone else’s metaphorical masks slip — including his wife’s — Bill experiments with shedding his own, exploring the raw, honest truth of his desires. However, his efforts are clumsy and his concept of unbridled sexual freedom is still bound up in crude fantasies of exploitation. Remember: this is all his wife wanted him to cop to in the first place, but he was too weak to abandon that thin veneer of respectability that his identity (including his material success) hinges on, regardless of how freely or carelessly others may forsake their own. He simply must keep that mask on, even if it’s slowly suffocating him or impeding his peripheral vision.

After an insane night of misadventures, culminating in a ritualized display of sexual power (and powerlessness) that Bill can neither control nor understand, he returns home and blunders into another exchange with his wife, or is it just a continuation of the last? Alice is freshly awakened from a bizarre dream, the details of which inflame Bill’s anxiety that she sees him more clearly than he can see himself. Despite her standing invitation to do so, he still can’t conceive of speaking this freely in front of another living person, let alone a woman — let alone his wife. Their relationship, as well as the very fabric of his reality, depends on keeping that veil from being lifted.

There’s a common theme in folk tales where a character puts on a mask to deceive others, only to find it’s become stuck to their own face. The 1964 film “Onibaba,” adapted from a Shin Buddhist parable, is one such story, in which a middle-aged woman dons a demon mask to frighten her step-daughter into obedience — successfully, at first, but then the mask refuses to come off, and she’s left disfigured by efforts to remove it.

From "Onibaba," 1964

From “Onibaba,” 1964

Kubrick’s emphasis on false faces is by no means limited to the costume Bill wears to the oft-discussed (and oft-imitated — just google “Eyes Wide Shut fetish party” if you don’t believe me) masked orgy. The motif is actually present from the very first scene, when the Harfords spruce themselves up for a Christmas party hosted by one of Bill’s elite patients. The roles that Bill and Alice willingly step into as handsome, prosperous husband-and-wife socialites dictate every word they say, every move they make. (As Kreider points out in his essay, Kubrick makes sure we see their daughter, Helena, being groomed for the exact same life.)

The more accustomed they are to wearing those masks, the more difficult it becomes to slip out from under them, even when they’re alone together. Remember, even the sexual moment they share when they get home from that party takes place in front of a mirror, as if performing for themselves, each other — and us, the unseen multitudes whom Kubrick knew would be watching avidly from the shadows, from behind masks of our own.

Masks serve another purpose, in myth as well as in the film: to obscure hideousness. They’re the perfect symbol for a film about the corrupting influence of wealth, and Kubrick stealthily sets up a nice parallel between the Ziegler’s Christmas party and the Satanic one later in the film. In fact, we know that at least four of the characters from the former party are also in attendance at the latter: Bill Harford, the wealthy Ziegler, doomed call-girl Mandy, and musician Nick Nightingale. The actual tally is probably much higher, since Ziegler later hints at the identities of the orgy’s other guests: “Not just ordinary people. If I told you their names, you wouldn’t sleep so good.”

This line is a callback to two other Kubrick films. In “Barry Lyndon,” Lord Wendover tells the young fortune-hunter:

When I take up a person, Mr Lyndon, he or she is safe. There is no question about them any more. My friends are the best people. I don’t mean that they’re the most virtuous, or indeed the least virtuous, or the cleverest or the stupidest or the richest or the best born. But the best. In a word, people about whom there is no question.”

Years later, in “The Shining,” the Overlook manager informed the Torrances that in its glory days, the hotel hosted “all the best people.” And don’t forget, that story also culminates in scenes from a masked ball.

This article links the recurring line to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair — not The Luck of Barry Lyndon, as one might expect.

Across all three films, Kubrick’s suggestion is the same: the “best people” described are all linked in their inherent, unmistakable supremacy. You can’t beat them, and there’s no way to join them. The best any of us can hope for is to serve them, as Barry Lyndon, Jack Torrance, and Bill Harford all learn the hard way.

There’s another reason this phrase might ring familiar: Donald Trump’s been using it in pretty much the same way ever since being elected President in 2016, promising to fill staff his administration with “the best people,” and then attempting to pass off tycoons, heiresses, and corporate lobbyists as qualified civil servants. These are also people “about whom there is no question,” from a certain perspective. Not coincidentally, Trump also happens to embody the other aspect of absolute power in “Eyes Wide Shut,” which is the cruelty of male sexual dominance.

That may shed some light on the orgy scene, which is carefully scrubbed of any overt religious or occult symbolism. What, or whom, are they worshiping? Why, simply themselves, naturally – they’re in thrall to their own power, which is precisely why it’s inappropriate for someone as powerless as Bill to attend.  In a recent interview, the actor Terry Crews – himself an outspoken victim of Hollywood sexual predation, summed up this aspect of our culture by observing that “masculinity can be a cult,” speculating that men rarely see women as “all the way human.”

Kubrick’s orgy scene epitomizes this idea precisely, which could explain (reassuringly) why so many viewers were left cold by the images they saw onscreen. Even at the most stupendous heights of excess, wealth doesn’t buy liberation. It only buys tyranny – over others who are blindfolded or stripped bare and forced to perform, over the self that must be secure behind layers of masks, cloaks, and passwords in order to indulge.

***

Only after another full day of bizarre aftershocks related to the previous night’s events does Bill’s face finally crack, as it were. He now knows he may or may not have been complicit multiple deaths, including (nearly) his own. While he still hasn’t technically managed to cheat on Alice, he can no longer believe himself to be any “different” from the animalistic men they discussed the night before. And though Bill figured his fancy carnival mask had been lost in the shuffle somewhere along the way, it turns out it has stuck to him: he returns home to find that false face on the pillow next to his sleeping wife, taunting him. The dam breaks. Alice awakens to find him sobbing: “I’ll tell you everything.”

And presumably he does. In a tender gesture by Kubrick, we only get to view the result of this unmasking: Alice’s red eyes and stunned silence as she absorbs everything he’s shared. This is, after all, what she wanted in the first place: true openness and an acknowledgment of their essential equality as raw, animalistic beings; liberation from a false marriage between cold, masked figures. And so even though it hurts, she accepts it, all of it – or at least promises to try.

Fraught as it may still be, their real life together begins now.

What if men and women really told each other everything about how they experience the world, including all their sordid mistakes and false awakenings? Could relationships survive it? Would anyone truly find each other lovable? So many men — and women — have openly fretted that this recent uncorking of toxic gender issues signals the end of heterosexuality as we know it. Comedians groan about having to consider how women colleagues expect to be treated, and a bewildering amount of elders in the arts have complained about the lack of “due process” for prominent men accused of sexual misdeeds – as if there’s any process whatsoever that leads to justice for most victims, especially in the workplace, as women like Ryan Seacrest accuser Suzie Hardy are finding out. If your abuser is rich, white, and/or beloved (one of society’s “very best people”) then you may find that no significant change has actually occurred at all.

And while men like Anthony Rapp and Terry Crews have proven that there’s also a place in this dialogue for male victims of sexual harassment and abuse, this is ground that men are still unused to breaking in their everyday lives, and many are uncomfortable with the expectation that they share the microphone with women. “As a male survivor you’re always an adjunct… You’re never the leading subject of a conversation,” one such man complained to the AP, which sort of epitomizes the recurring problem of men feeling excluded from any discussion that doesn’t revolve around their perspective.

Male victims have lost nothing because of #MeToo – if anything,there’s a greater opportunity to finally speak and be heard and supported, even if doing so still comes (as women have found) with all the hazards of airing vulnerable sexual details in public, which includes being labeled a “whiner,” a liar, or an opportunist.

Some of these men have reconciled this unease by adopting the #MenToo hashtag, which becomes an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy: by setting themselves apart, they miss the wave, and thus confirm their own suspicion that no one cares about male victims. They also unwittingly play into the stereotype of men responding to every feminist cause with a “What about men?” derail, an attitude that reminds me of the conclusion drawn by the ruling class of livestock in Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

Too many men in 2018 are all for equality — as long as it they don’t have to sacrifice any of the prominence or authority that maleness confers.

The pushback against the pushback is encouraging. Last month Harper’s Bazaar suggested: “If you’re a guy who feels the #MeToo movement is preventing you from flirting, it’s possible you were never actually flirting in the first place.” And if it’s any comfort whatsoever, the ending of “Eyes Wide Shut” seems to suggest there is sexual harmony to be found in at least attempting openness, as well as in admitting fault. Don’t forget Alice’s final word on the matter: “There’s something very important we need to do as soon as possible: fuck.”

The Harfords’ sexual journey as true equals (with Alice emerging as the more surefooted guide) awaits them. Their past forced them to walk together through an unsettling shadow-world full of psychic traps and power struggles, magnifying the differences between people and covering up the deleterious effects of oppression. While the cost may have proved forbiddingly high, the Harfords still managed to stumble into a deceptively elusive discovery: it simply doesn’t have to be this way. 

In 2018, women are suddenly unmasking all over the place – and challenging men to do the same. Challenging as it may be to cope with whatever’s lurking under there, we can no longer coast along pretending the mask is the true face. While many men share in the excitement and relief of answering this challenge, embracing a gender dynamic of sincere equality and openness, still others find they can only accomplish this in the form of purely symbolic gestures — and based on their partially-obstructed view from behind the mask, they cynically imagine the gestures of other men to be just as empty as their own (hence the rise of terms like “virtue signaling“).

Men like these are likely to only unmask as a last resort, experiencing it as a total breakdown and a dissolution of their identity. They may never know their own true face.

There are many women, too, who find their mask has become indispensable to the version of reality they’ve grown accustomed to, and would truly rather die than know life without it; as the movie underscores in nearly every scene, imbalances related to money and status complicate these matters for women even further. (I’d like to think it’s this — and not “bad acting” — is why so many conversations in the “Eyes Wide Shut” ring so false and stilted. The characters exist in a world where no one can be honest about anything, speaking entirely in innuendo, from behind disguises.)

In the past couple years, I’ve had and witnessed a lot of arguments about “identity politics,” which so many see as an unnecessary complication of certain plain facts about society. However, acknowledgment of identity and certain social constructs are a crucial part of the unmasking process. I find it impossible to believe anything someone else says about themselves if they aren’t able, in one way or another, to own up to the problems and advantages inherent to the face they wear in public – even if, like Bill Harford’s, it’s one they never consciously chose.

And just as in the movie, nothing threatens another masked figure more than a demonstration of your ability and/or willingness to remove your own. That’s why coming out of the closet still has power for LGBTQ people, regardless of the challenges that still await them afterward. That’s why speaking up about harassment and assault still has power, even if snide onlookers laugh in your face.

And the journey never ends there, because the one thing we know for sure about human psychology is that it’s basically (as Kubrick’s film handily illustrates) masks upon masks upon masks. There will never be a point when you’ve finished learning about yourself, or about about others. The eyes that are finally pried open today may be wide shut again tomorrow. For all their progress, there’s nothing “progressive” about where the Harfords end up together at the end of this story.

Even so, the later the hour, the more inevitable that moment of reckoning becomes, for all of us. And yes, that includes “the best people,” even as their ghostly voices mock us from the hallways of the Overlook Hotel:

Midnight! Unmask! Unmask!