The myth of the overlooked film, shunned by critics and audiences, only to be later discovered as a masterpiece is a bedtime story cinephiles love to fall asleep to. At this point Eyes Wide Shut
is one of the classics of that stable of ignored but secretly brilliant films. After a 12 year respite, the K-Man came back with movie stars in hand, only to be panned to moderately cheered at best. The story now goes that the film’s marketing is what sabotaged it; it was an art film sold as the “sexiest movie ever”. Certainly releasing it as a summer movie was a mistake, but I wonder if there are other problems than just the erroneous marketing.
The film opens with Bill and Alice getting ready for a party. She asks him how she looks and he gives an automatic response without looking at her. His apathy is striking, to the audience it’s Nicole Kidman, but to Bill she’s an old pair of shoes – although not a particularly comfortable pair as we’ll learn soon. Scenes from a marriage indeed.
At the party Bill and Alice immediately part ways and have some fun. She dances with a smooth operating Hungarian who engages her in a fairly ridiculous conversation. Tilling the soils of seduction, he explains to her about marriage, virginity, and horny adulterous women. Seemed like an odd thing to say to me, but Alice enjoys the attention and goes along with it for a while. Not to be outdone, Bill merrily flirts with some babes with accents of their own. But before long Bill’s little revelry is interrupted when Victor (Sydney Pollack) needs a hand.
Alice ditches the Hungarian and we cut to her back home, standing nude in front of a mirror. It’s the first time the cut isn’t a fade and in rare Kubrick form rock music plays. Bill comes into the frame and things start to get down and dirty. The sequence ends on Alice’s face and her expression embodies the first 20 minutes of the film. Despite the life of luxury, expressed in various ways, not the least which being Tom and Nicole’s own beauty, she’s bored and unsatisfied. Furthermore her look expresses her anxiety about what Bill was up to when he disappeared at the party. After all, those models were awfully pretty. As of this point, I’m intrigued.
The next big scene, "reefer madness", is crucial. The pot smoking scene, way more so than the infamous orgy sequence, is when fans are made or not. If you’re into it, you’re going to forgive any subsequent missteps, or not see them, and be mesmerized. I didn’t quite make it there.
After a long day at the office, or in Alice’s case --- breakfast, childcare, deodorant application, wrapping presents --- the Harfords like to unwind with a little half nude dope smoking (side note: Central Park West yuppie pot smoking is fairly obnoxious, but I concede that could be the point). The first half of the stoned scene feels stiff and inauthentic. For the record, I quite like Nicole Kidman, but her playing stoned is serious Cringe City, population: anybody who’s ever seen the movie. Worst of all is when she, in a high-pitched Muppet voice, chatters about Bill’s patients' “tiny titties” and their curiosity about the good doctor’s “dickie”. Above I stated that this scene is the lynch pin of the movie, and so far things are not going well.
Half way through her marijuana cigarette, things really start to get serious. Alice’s dissatisfaction with her marriage and her insecurity about the models manifests itself in her dwelling on the night at Victor’s. Bill is unfazed by Alice’s dance with the Hungarian, “why are you never jealous about me?!” she demands to know. She then breaks into her mythical naval officer story. Kidman redeems herself here and delivers the monologue quite effectively, which is of course important, because it’s this speech that sets the rest of the film in motion. She confesses her desire for the Navy man, and how for a brief moment she was entirely willing to throw away her comfortable life and family for the liaison.
What follows is a string of near sexual encounters for Bill. It’s like a waking dream or something, so it’s all surreal and stuff. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, which would be fine if I was captivated. That’s not a criticism of the film as much as it’s a description of my own experience. People complain that 2001
and Mulholland Drive
are boring and indecipherable, I disagree but how or why would I convince somebody otherwise? If Bill’s odyssey floats your boat, all the power to you, personally too much of it felt lumbering and awkward. Oh, and another thing, they looked cool at first but before long Bill’s visions of Alice with the sailor started to look like outtakes from a No Way Out
wannabe. And if you’re Kubrick that’s probably not what you’re going for.
I guess I should address the orgy sequence. Ceremonial sex, while on paper sounds terrific, on screen is quite silly. If Kubrick can’t make this material of passwords, cloaks, masquerade masks, eminent danger, and self-sacrificing prostitutes, not seem like uber-hokey suburban Caligula
, well then nobody can. Because Kubrick is such a master, and he doesn’t mange it, then by definition it’s a silly idea. I’ve heard a lot of Eyes Wide Shut
enthusiasts admit that they haven’t fully made peace with the orgy sequence, but I don’t understand how you can be so enthusiastic about a film when its centerpiece is such a failure.
Conceptually I think I get what’s going on here, Bill is unaccepted, he’s not a part of the elite and when he’s found out he’s banished. It’s manifested through sex, but it’s really about power, about measuring up. To make matters worse, he’s spared only when a woman sacrifices herself for him; how emasculating.
This brings me to what I guess the film is all about, a crisis of masculinity. In an earlier verdict skjerka points to a critique of wealth and power, and I think there’s definitely something to that considering the homes these people own and the art that decorates them, and I may be splitting hairs here but I think Kurbrick’s aim is a violent form of masculinity. A form personified by Pollack’s Victor. Bill’s strange journey is catalyzed by Alice’s fantasies of another man, but he is not so much haunted by Alice’s desire for another man, as he is tortured by his own insecurity. Bill doesn’t measure up, he is not the kind of man that he feels he should be, instead he helps powerful men fix their messes; Victor’s Mandy (speedball victim from early on) is nearly killed by their CINECAST!ing, while Bill can’t get laid to save his life. Of course Victor’s form of masculinity is violent and by my rational estimation a cancer on our culture, but Bill is conflicted. He knows Victor is a bastard, but he still wants in the (ceremonial sex) club, because with it comes status.
Some might extend this exclusion and crisis of what a man is to some kind of latent homosexuality (“Highway to the danger zone”), I’m not going to go there. Maybe somebody else will.
On a technical visual level Eyes Wide Shut
is an achievement, but it’s Kubrick so we would except nothing less. Moreover, personally I don’t go for that thing in as big a way as some of our fellow Filmspotters. Maybe my cinephilia isn’t as well-developed, but for me lyricism is nice and all but I can’t love a movie unless I’m engaged in other ways as well. Intellectually the ideas at play here, masculinity and power, are fascinating, but I grew tired of the “waking dream”, had no idea what was going on at Leelee Sobieski’s father’s costume rental place, have mixed feelings on the reefer madness scene, and what can you say about the orgy sequence? Long story short, minor Kubrick (tee-hee).
Hartley’s version of suburban Long Island is not a particularly pleasant one. In Trust,
Levittown, USA has not aged well, and for our two misfit leads, is something of a prison (you’ll notice the omnipresent institutional lighting). The lighting, camera angles, and surreality suggest a European touch, and indeed the Google Machine tells me that critics have called Hartley’s films Godardian. What that means I don’t exactly know, but I suspect it makes me sound smart. I also suspect it has something to do with existential malaise, and a critique of modern/consumer culture. And Trust
is about a guy and a young girl --- hey, so is Breathless
Indeed back in the early 90s, Hal Hartley was kind of a big deal. Being a guy who made cerebral but witty films, he was crowned the heir to Jarmusch’s American indie throne. I don’t think Double H’s audience ever grew quite as big as Double J’s, my own ignorance of him being exhibit A. Trust
is the story of two misfits. Maria and Matthew’s bond is built on their shared problem of contemptuous surviving parents who treat them with equal parts malice and dependence. Despite their disparate age and literacy levels, they’re kindred spirits of sorts. They talk about marriage for a while but that’s not really what this is about. Both are survivors of dysfunction and what they need is comforting and acceptance, “do you trust me?” she asks, and he responds “do you trust me first?”.
The film opens on Maria’s (Adrienne Shelly) mouth as she applies another coat of purple lipstick, and informs her parents she’s done with school and has a bun in the oven. Dad gets mad and drops dead of a heart attack. This first sequence establishes much of the film’s format. The striking camera angle and zoom holds on Maria’s face while dialogue is heard without other speaker’s faces being seen. The scene is striking and works visually, however a lot of the dialogue and acting is stilted and unconvincing. I wondered if this was by design (art films, eh), but later when Edie Falco’s character is introduced, suddenly we have a great performer amongst all this amateur hour.
Maria runs off to talk to jock boyfriend, but he informs her that he’s not interested in this baby and needs to get ready for the road to the NFL. Maria’s lousy morning continues as she hits the abortion clinic, learns that dad is dead, and nearly gets raped. It sounds ridiculous on paper, but in the film this series of unfortunate events doesn’t play out as overkill. Broken up with humor, moments of pathos (Maria’s monologue at the clinic), and a gentle pacing keep it from getting silly. Going back to that monologue for a moment, over the course of the film Maria undergoes a transformation, this is her first step towards that maturity. And Shelly is terrific in that scene.
Matthew is also having a rotten day. His principles get him in trouble at work and he comes home to his abusive father. In a really conventional bit of psychological circumstances, dad blames Matthew for mom dying in child birth. “You think you shit ice-cream cones, is that it?”, asks dad. The repetition of the bathroom cleaning is quite funny, probably my favourite part of the film.
Going back to the stilted acting for a moment, there is no bigger offender than Martin Donovan. I had never seen him before and to tell you the truth, I’ve always thought Andrew McCarthy was in this movie. I know Matthew is all angsty (he will not fix TVs!) but does Donovan have to play him like a zombie? I can’t tell if it’s a choice, or if the actor just stinks.
Hartley’s humor tends to have two modes, dry dialogue or surreal imagery. I’m a bigger fan of the former. For example:Matthew
: I had a bad day, I had to subvert my principles and kowtow to an idiot. Television makes these daily sacrifices possible. Deadens the inner core of my being. Maria
: Let's move away then. Matthew
: They have television everywhere, there's no escape.
On the other hand the surreal moments seem half baked to me. There’s a nugget of a good idea there but it isn’t executed in a particularly effective way, in other words it’s very indie movie. I don’t expect others to agree with me, I get the impression that people like those moments. But for me they felt like first season Kids in the Hall, before they had the budget to do things like “Sausages”. It really took me out of the movie.
In his unfavorable review Ebert complained that “I was never sure exactly what he (Hartley) wanted me to think about his characters and their world”, I say balderdash to that. That’s a strength of good writing, be an active viewer and engage the story, Roger. To my mind Trust
is a good but not great film. It’s totally uneven and I suspect its biggest fans are people who were in college when it first came out. Despite that it has a lot of good writing and should be part of any American indie primer. I liked the music too.
: I really did a lot of hemming and hawing on this one. Both are good films but I don’t think either belong in the 6th round. Ultimately the tie breaker was something Ballgame said during Adam and Matty’s scolding of Ben Lyons. Matty implored Lyons to “have a little intellectual curiosity” (or something like that), and with that in mind I’m going to have to vote Eyes Wide Shut
is no cerebral slouch, but EWS
is the film that really challenges the viewer and in that sense it's rather irresistible. It may also be totally silly, but it gets my vote nonetheless.