Arts: Auteur of the erotic

Did Terry Southern, counter-culture's secret genius, inspire Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut? By Michael Collins
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The Independent Culture
When Stanley Kubrick read Terry Southern's 1970 satire, Blue Movie, detailing the attempts by an Oscar-winning Hollywood director to make the most expensive and X-rated film ever, he congratulated the writer with: "You've written the definitive blow job." The novel, and the conversations with Southern in 1963 that inspired it, seem to have borne curious fruit more than three decades later in Kubrick's 13th and final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Completed a week before his death in March, Kubrick's last feature was a project that he had long planned to make.

Since the early Seventies he had declared his ambition to transpose the fin de siecle decadence of Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle from 19th century Vienna to contemporary New York, and the big screen. But equally, he may have harboured a desire to show that a great auteur could make a great erotic movie. Certainly it's this second element that signposts the film as a break from Kubrick's traditional beat.

The trailer for Eyes Wide Shut was deemed too explicit for television, and the R for Restricted certificate for screening the film in the United States was the subject of some debate. The secrecy that has shrouded the project since news first emerged that the director was once again behind the camera - and had cast Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as the leads - was finally shattered earlier this month. Film critic Alexander Walker, a friend of Kubrick, managed to see the film weeks before its US release on July 16. He then revealed - in an Evening Standard review - hook, line and plot, so incurring the wrath of the film's distributors and fans, in a flurry of faxes, letters and Internet activity.

In the film, Cruise plays a wealthy physician with the perfect marriage to Kidman, until a series of erotic confessions and fantasies begin to drive the pair apart. He is propelled into a liaison with a prostitute and becomes a participant in a sex ring of the rich and famous. According to Alexander Walker: "Few will deny this excursion into the erotic is the strangest path taken by a film-maker whose themes often included the world and the devil, but hitherto omitted the flesh." The screenwriter, Frederic Raphael, has said he believes it was the menace of the eroticism and the sexual misadventures in the original story that appealed to the director. After his initial meetings with Kubrick, he was uncertain what was expected from his script "beyond eroticism".

Kubrick's interest in eroticism is shown by his filming of Lolita (1962) - although its most explicit scene is a pedicure. The following year however he met Terry Southern during the making of Dr Strangelove. At the request of Peter Sellars, the film's star, Southern had been enlisted as a scriptwriter. Sellars had read the author's third novel The Magic Christian, and bought 300 copies as Christmas presents. Like Kubrick, the film's director, Southern was a private figure, of considerable cultural influence, but hidden behind the scenes. He appears alongside his hero Edgar Allen Poe, and wearing shades, on Peter Blake's Sergeant Pepper album cover for The Beatles. Tom Wolfe credited him with creating the Gonzo journalism, now synonymous with Hunter S Thompson. Gore Vidal called him "the wittiest writer of his generation".

Southern's comic and explicit first novel, Candy, paved the way for the parodic porn of Vidal's Myra Breckinridge a decade later. It found a publisher in Parisian pornographer Maurice Girodias' Olympus Press, the sole outlet, initially, for such diverse titles as Lolita and the SCUM Manifesto. It was also Southern who persuaded the publisher to take up the novel of his friend and fellow Beat, William Burroughs. Skimming the manuscript of The Naked Lunch, Girodias suggested it wasn't pornographic enough, until Southern drew his attention to the fellatio in the opening pages. A contract followed. "Pornography had a comic oddness about it that fascinated Terry", says Jonathan Miller, a friend of the author, who first introduced Southern and Sellars.

"I remember he showed me this shakily-shot Cuban porn film. These grainy images of men and women in glasses and socks screwing each other in Havana in 1932." During a break from filming Dr Strangelove, Southern showed Kubrick a porn film and discussed his ideas for what would eventually become the novel, Blue Movie. Kubrick was intrigued: "Wouldn't it be interesting if an artist were to do this with beautiful, first-rate actors and good equipment?" This sketchy template chimes, in part, with Kubrick's vision as revealed to Frederic Raphael in the planning of the script for Eyes Wide Shut. The subject was desire, says Raphael. Kubrick wasn't concerned with the mechanics of copulation, he wanted "to photograph feelings, to catch the impalpable and palp that".

In Blue Movie, which is dedicated "to the great Stanley K", the film's producer Sid Kassman has Kubrick's initials and hairy, chunky figure. But the director, King B, has his reputation as a serious film maker, in "the tradition of Chaplin, Bergman and Fellini". He embarks upon making a stag film that would be genuinely erotic and beautiful. "I've got to find out", says King B, "how far you can take the aesthetically erotic - at what point, if any, it gets to be such a personal thing that it becomes meaningless."

In Cruise and Kidman, Kubrick found his beautiful actors, along with guaranteed audiences. But it may be that the original idea for an erotic movie owed more to Southern. The writer himself once said of his own pornographic prose that the most important thing was not he capacity to shock, but to astonish.

Jonathan Miller believes that "a lot of the ideas that have been credited to Kubrick over the years came from Terry".

Like King B in Blue Movie, Kubrick was "an artist whose responsibility for his work was total, and his control of it complete". But, unlike Southern's creation, the great Stanley hasn't made Eyes Wide Shut the most expensive and X-rated film ever made. Maybe he simply settled for the cinematic equivalent of the definitive blow job.