I CAN KEEP MY EYES WIDE SHUT
Stanley Kubrick's last film opens in the US this week, and David Thomson thinks he knows what its title alludes to: the deep link between cinema and psychoanalysis
Sunday 11 July 1999
I don't know where the title Eyes Wide Shut comes from, either, or what it's meant to mean. But I am writing in the last remaining innocence about it. A few days from now, it may be all too plain. I'm grateful to Stanley Kubrick and Warner Brothers that the film will open, starting in the US this Friday, without giving us much of a chance at understanding it first. There are trailers now playing, but they don't give you more than an anxious Tom Cruise, a slinky Nicole Kidman and the overall feeling that we're not far from the Overlook, that hotel where The Shining took place, the huge lovely set that held the memories of every movie or story that had ever played there. You could start them off with just a little shining.
Do you shine? Yes, I thought you did. Me too, and that's how I think I know how to keep my eyes wide shut - you see, it's that trance or attention we get into only at the movies, with our eyes wide so as not to miss a thing, while, really, they're shut, because we're sleeping or dreaming.
You know how to tell that moment, don't you, that little agitation? When your lover's dreaming, the eyes make small, quick flickers - "rapid eye movements". I remember the day, long ago, when it occurred to me that those spasms were just like the stop/start shudder of the projector and the camera, 24 times a second, the whole mechanism flickering. Just the way at the Overlook you always felt a slight tremor in the structure - as if an earthquake were passing by. Or was it just the wind?
NOW, I wouldn't be surprised if you said to yourself about that opening, well, that's nice, but what does it mean and where this article is going? So the best thing I can do is to tell you that this is an essay on psychiatry in the movies - which means, essentially, stories where psychology plays a significant part.
It was always vital to the promise of Eyes Wide Shut that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were married. And whenever stars - or the figures in so many strangers' dreams - are married, there is a turmoil of admiration and envy in the public. In one way, it's only true to dreaminess that stars should be married. But, equally, if we want to think of these burning images as ours, then real marriage is an interference. So we have fantasies of removing the unwanted partner. One such impulse whispers that it's not a real marriage - that they are together for their careers, for publicity, that actually they love their own sex, or only themselves. Cruise and Kidman have been subject to such stories, and so when Kubrick cast them together - like protagonists in some intense sexual cockpit - rumour easily concluded that the film would be their great test. Only the other night at dinner, I heard a man who knows neither of them, but who was certain that Eyes Wide Shut would end their marriage.
"Because one of them will be better than another?" I asked.
"Probably," he said. He had seen Kidman on stage, in The Blue Room, taken from the work of Arthur Schnitzler, the man who wrote the novel that is the basis of Eyes Wide Shut. He said she had come into her own on that stage, nearly naked, flaunting her power and daring. "Tom can't stand that," he said. "Tom's so uptight."
"Maybe," I said. "I think Tom's pretty smart. Suppose they're both good, better than we've ever seen?"
Somehow it was impossible, in advance, to consider the film without beginning to analyse them. And I wondered how far Kubrick had foreseen that, had brought them together in some brilliant artistic and commercial flux? And whether he knew how quickly rumour would take off. After all, very soon after the first announcements, it was said, or known, or assumed, that the husband and wife were both playing psychoanalysts. Our voyeurism had stepped in a glue no amount of truth can shake off. For, in the movies, we are so disposed to follow the psychological track.
I hope to show you, nearly all movies can be said to act upon the psychotherapeutic urge. But one can hardly take on such a subject without tracing the historic relationships between movie people and those practitioners who treat disturbance.
I know, some examples would help. Very well. In the film of The Prince of Tides (taken from Pat Conroy's best-selling novel) Nick Nolte plays a big strong wreck of a man whose past conceals all manner of unadmitted psychic damage - most of which stems from that inescapable condition known as family. The Nolte character would not, of his own volition, admit to such trauma or think of seeking help - he has that manliness that is let down by any admission of psychic weakness. But his sister is suicidal, and her psychiatrist needs help - or back story. That psychiatrist is played by Barbra Streisand, who also directed, produced and willed the picture into being. In time, she reduces Nolte to the tearful wreck he must be before he can "grow" again - and, of course, Nolte falls in love with her. All too often, in life and on screen, picture people see the shrink's couch as another version of the casting couch.
If you detect something unsympathetic in my tone, I plead guilty. Still, no one could complain at the textural quality of Prince of Tides - granted the stupefying arc of crisis and confession, the sigh that frees the flashback of troubled truth, the helpless tangle of family ties. The film is well written, well made, and Nolte lets us see the wretched failure hiding in so many strong guys.
Let's move on to a new film, Instinct, which has no positive qualities whatsoever. In this one, Cuba Gooding Jr plays a hip psychiatrist who is given the great case of a once world-famous anthropologist, an expert on gorilla life, Anthony Hopkins. Neglecting his own wife and daughter, he went to the African jungle to watch the shy gorilla. Until, one precious day, the gorillas let him into their circle.
For two years he lived as a gorilla - his hair growing long, his body plump. Then he killed a couple of game wardens and is now in a prison asylum. He does not speak. He is dangerous but impassive, removed, refusing to be part of the story, or tell his own. Anthony Hopkins? Well, of course, in 20 minutes he's talking his head off. The film never stops talking. And the point is that gorillas are noble and people aren't. If you want a decent family life, get with another species.
I mention Instinct for one reason only: because as I watched it, I felt an unintended, subterranean resemblance - something more intriguing than the picture itself. For there are scenes where Gooding goes down dark corridors to find the barbaric cell that holds Hopkins, an alleged figure of danger or malice, yet a man who knows the "truth", if only he will speak. I thought of The Silence of the Lambs.
I know, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) isn't a doctor or a psychiatrist; and Hannibal Lecter hasn't the faintest notion that he is ill or deranged. But Starling is a seeker in the mythic replay of mystery; and Lecter is a kind of ogre of knowledge - the lecter must be read. So, rather, it's Clarice who is disturbed, or overly innocent, in need of enlightenment. And Lecter may become her teacher, her father- figure, even her remote lover - he looks at her with yearning. If you think that is an over-ingenious reading, why are we pleased to have Lecter go free? Don't we chuckle at his plan to have the real villain for dinner? Don't we feel something like a bond of healing between Hannibal and Clarice?
ALWAYS remember the form of cinema, the geometry of desire or fascination. It's only when we understand that that we can really ride on those tracking shots that insist on carrying us forward, into the burning light, to the place where reason tells us we cannot go.
At the movies, we are trapped and enclosed in an infinite dark place from which there is no escape - we should be in the middle of the row, among strangers, so that to stand up and leave would be a disturbance, an act of assertion, beyond our strength.
We face an enormous light, many times larger than ourselves. Images appear in that light, and often they carry a level of threat or danger, albeit a threat that may creep up on our desires - especially the most furtive, or guilty, longings. Do you want to see that? Do you think you are confident enough to look at that? And so the imagery frequently explores our areas of fear and desire, sex and violence, murder and orgy, dream and dread. And always the mechanism asks, are your eyes open still, can you bear to watch still, or is this vision so beautiful or so terrible that you close your eyes? And then peep through the bars of your fingers?
Now, notice one thing further. The great light does not originate on the screen - like a new world, the future, the thing ahead. Indeed, before and after the show, you can see - like the spectators at a magic act - that the screen is pale, inert, passive. The light comes from behind you. What does that mean? Only that the light comes from your past, your history, your tradition, your culture, your family, your parents - from some ancient, prior, superior and knowing version of yourself - and that it knows the delight and dismay you will feel, are feeling, and that it has the same determination and duty to school you. You are being shown a mystery to which the mechanism knows the answer.
That is why in Citizen Kane, say, only you, only we, not the other people in the film, hear "Rosebud" or learn what it means. That is the extraordinary intimacy of message, or dream interpretation, at the movies, and the way it feels like healing. Or rape. That is how, at the start of Un Chien Andalou, by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dal, a young woman waits as a cloud spears across the moon before a man takes an open razor and slits her eye. Can you watch that? Can you accommodate the wound and the healing that an image may bring? Even if it is your forebears' most precious message for you, even if it comes from the taller people standing behind you?
IF THE apparatus of cinema so duplicates that of dreaming, do movie characters need to dream? Why invest in a dream sequence when any shot aspires to dream simply because of its seductive surface reality and its actual lack of substance? In which case those movies that employ psychiatrists as characters may be so much more ponderous, or less intuitive, than others. Is that why The Prince of Tides feels so predictable? Or why Hitchcock's Spellbound (even though it hired the producer's own analyst, May Romm, as technical adviser) feels ridiculous. It would explain why those passages in Klute when Bree Daniels talks to her analyst are so redundant. One close-up of Jane Fonda's inward anxiety tells us all we need to know about her uncertain sense of self: the actress watching her own performance is the perfect embodiment of the analysand's self-scrutiny.
Which is not to deny or belittle the therapeutic model in so many film narratives. Consider: The American heartland, 1930-ish. A bored young woman, going to waste, on the edge of depression. A strange, limping guy comes by. He sees that she could be something. He lifts her out of her dull life. They rob banks. They could become lovers, but he is victim of some denial or depression, impotent? So just as he gives her life, action, she writes about him in the newspapers, makes him famous. They both of them only wanted to be known - to be the opposite of anonymous. They make love now. And so it is all right if they are then shot to pieces. Bonnie and Clyde. Just a story about two people who talk together enough to help each other - and notice, in passing, how the bright mania of "being themselves" more than makes up for murder and mayhem. Do we really need to ponder any longer whether the movies are dangerous? Or can we just settle for being danger addicts?
Shall I go on? The Godfather, beneath its facade of criminal enterprise, is just the dream of a cold, withdrawn personality who wants order and control, and who settles family turmoil by eliminating relatives. Blue Velvet is the parable or dreamsong of a boy who finds the body (that severed ear) and is torn between sweet womanhood and femme fatality. Leaving Las Vegas is a rhapsody on how the death wish needs only to find fit (or uncritical) company on its last journey. In The Shining, it is the house that brings about the proper break-up of the Torrance family and freezes Jack in the perfect end-game for a blocked writer. The house gives everyone what they need. Just like the movie house.
Put as bluntly as that, it's easier to see how, in modern times, the cinema has endorsed conclusions that are anti-social, deeply pessimistic, destructive, death-wishy. How well the medium knows us. Bonnie and Clyde end as a blood-stained headline. Michael Corleone becomes a presidential figure, a dark angel who can turn baptism into funeral march. There is no cure for Nicolas Cage's alcoholic, and no guilt. The family has to break up.
THIS was not always the case. Once upon a time, the movie enacted a healing process akin to the working of moral redemption in the great novels. If you doubt that, consider three films made in 1940, close to the height of the entertainment movie, just before confidence crumbled. They may also be three of the best films ever made.
In His Girl Friday, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell teach each other that the precepts of marriage and fidelity are less profound than just sticking together, and playing the game of talk. That playfulness, that dangerous sport, is so much more searching and interesting than those stupid, irrational hopes - long-lasting marriage and sincerity. In The Shop Around the Corner, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan come to realise that there is more poetry in loving strangers than in the supposed claims of physical attractiveness. In The Philadelphia Story, the Katharine Hepburn character learns the danger of prideful independence. She sees her way to "behaving naturally", forgiveness and re-marriage to her ex-husband, Cary Grant.
Maybe the most impressive thing about these three films is the agility with which the roles of doctor and patient are passed back and forth, like advantage in any good conversation - for these are rare American pictures in which men and women play as equals.
Extraordinary changes overtook American film-making in the next 10 years, not least those that ruined the world's optimism: the full reach of war, the revelation of concentration camps, the consequences of the atom bomb. More than that, Hollywood went psycho - by which I mean to say that Los Angeles was blessed with the arrival of several refugee psychoanalysts. Within a few years, those practitioners had become prosperous on the neuroses of studio executives, artists and all their unfortunate spouses. Moreover, movie people loved analysis (or recognised it) not just because it was such an indulgence of narcissism, but because it so mimicked the process of making a film - working out the story and its motivation, experimenting with new directions and abandoning old structures, and finding the conviction to act it all out. From the mid-Forties onwards there was a stream of psychiatrically attuned films - Cat People, Lady in the Dark, The Ministry of Fear, Spellbound, Leave Her to Heaven, The Lost Weekend, The Seventh Veil, Notorious, It's a Wonderful Life, The Dark Mirror, Gilda, Humoresque, The Secret Beyond the Door, The Snake Pit, Caught, Whirlpool - that merged with film noir, the one genre with a depressive sensibility that Hollywood has ever allowed itself, and which - as hysterical optimists like Louis B Mayer warned - signalled the destruction (the suicide even) of the Hollywood picture itself.
By 1950, as the business began to falter, so the pace of story-telling was multiplied by television. On the small screen - without beauty and with mocking interruption - there were so many more stories. If the movie- goer saw two or three pictures a week in the Forties (not unusual), by the Fifties that person could see at least two or three scenarios a night on the small screen. So it was television that taught us how formulaic story was, how monotonous its problem-solving thrust was, and how routine acting had become. And so a kind of contempt or cynicism for film narratives and sincere acting has sprung up. That is why the laborious psychological realism of "Method" acting now looks so dated. Sincerity of that kind seems like showing off, and so we begin to prefer the nearly blank affectlessness of insolent presence, as opposed to "acting".
What I am describing here are reasons for the death of film - or, if not that (for the dead do lumber on), its mortification, its woeful removal from the cutting edge of our culture. There are exceptional films, of course - like Blue Velvet, like Eyes Wide Shut, I hope. Kubrick's film promises to explore the psychic consequences of sexual obsession, or belief (is there a difference?). I'm pleased to discover that the characters are not psychiatrists; I'd like to think that the movie itself will work as naturally and arbitrarily as a dream. And that cure or healing will be less at issue than the current of fantasy. Who knows, but Kubrick's last film might be as good as nearly everything Bunuel ever did.
Therapy is not as fashionable as it was. Like talky movies, explanation has faded, as drugs have become more adept at hitting some silly imbalance. But does it please or dismay you to think that your depression is less your novel waiting to be written than correctable brain chemistry? I suspect that drugs and the Internet will bury film early in the next century - along with cute media we can't yet grasp. But that may leave it clearer how far in this century the movies were the dramatic exposition of our central uncertainty - whether to be happy or unhappy, whether to settle for reality or encourage dreaming. Eyes open, or wide shut? Are we nearing the last moments of human history in which anyone could, with confidence, distinguish life from fantasy? 1
Above: Nicole Kidman in Kubrick's `Eyes Wide Shut', in which she co-stars with her off-screen husband, Tom Cruise: `Somehow, it was impossible, in advance, to consider the film without beginning to analyse the couple'
Clockwise from above: `Un Chien Andalou'; `The Silence of the Lambs'; `Blue Velvet'; and `The Shining' - all films that ask `can you bear to watch still, or is this vision so beautiful or so terrible that you close your eyes?'
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