A friend recently recounted how she settled in one night to watch the DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and, no matter how hard she tried, couldn’t get the sound to work.
So she watched the entire movie without the soundtrack.
“It was absolutely stunning, visually,” she said. “Did I miss anything?”
“Oh, just a word or two,” I replied.
When interviewed in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, Nicole Kidman reportedly volunteered, “So I said, ‘Stanley, what’s this film about?’ and he just turned and looked away, in that way he does.”
One wonders . . . did Nicole also act the movie with the soundtrack turned off?
Although I’m sure I missed many reviews, I had to give up after reading scores of them. All the fascination and speculation that poured forth was getting nowhere. It seemed that each “theory” only made an apparently complex situation more complicated still—or oversimplified to the point of pointlessness. Indeed, one memoirist famously summarized the entire situation by declaring that in this film, Kubrick “has virtually no ideas at all.” One wonders to whom he was actually referring.
From the first time I saw the opening sequence—Nicole dropping her dress and standing naked (rear-wise)—it struck me that Kubrick was up to something here. Maybe I’ve spent too much time with Marshall McLuhan and his use of the Gestalt psychological terms of “figure” and “ground,” but the thought was persistent: Her red-headed ass is the movie’s figure. But where’s the ground?
According to the Gestalt approach, our psychology disposes us to be distracted by what is termed the “figures” in our lives. The “ground” of our experience is subliminal—integrating our senses, establishing our place in our environment—but is not fully accessible to us in our conscious “conceptual” life. McLuhan favored a “perceptual” approach and he credited artists with a greater capacity to remind us of that which is commonly just outside our conscious grasp. Kubrick was quite familiar with McLuhan and his role as a critic; he conducted a private screening for McLuhan and claimed to have made 2001: A Space Odyssey for him.
So, in search of the “ground” of Kubrick’s experience, I decided to ask some of the people who knew him well. I got a very simple (albeit still open-ended) answer.
“What is this movie about?” I asked.
“Darned if any of us know, but one thing’s for sure, it’s the best whatever-kind-of-movie that anyone ever made. Kubrick always set out to make the best of the breed. Figure out what kind of movie it was and you’ll be on the right track,” was the reply.
Good. New question—Just what kind of movie is Eyes Wide Shut?
Noir? War? Adaptation? Seduction? Black Comedy? Sci-Fi? Psychological Thriller? Historical Drama? Horror? Vietnam?
It’s clearly none of these. In fact, as many critics have noted, EWS is arguably not a very good movie at all. This is particularly so if you don’t know what kind of movie it is.
So, if the actors and those who knew Kubrick well aren’t clear, and the reviewers seem to flop around in their own analysis, what kind of movie is this? Why does everyone seem to be so thoroughly in the dark?
Then it hit me. Conspiracy.
Eyes Wide Shut is simply the best conspiracy movie ever made . . . or such was Kubrick’s intent.
Whatever Kubrick’s own beliefs might have been on conspiracies (certainly a topic with which he was well versed), this movie is itself a conspiracy. Against the audience. Against the cast. And, against the critics. This is a movie that is designed to be distracting and confusing. Frustrated and exhausted, even the most dogged Stanley-phile would eventually have to give up—by design. And it worked.
How about the screenplay? What does it say? Are there any clues to help solve this mystery?
In this case, it’s the title that tells all. Eyes Wide Shut must refer to something that is right in front of us in plain sight but—like Poe’s “Purloined Letter”—something that we cannot “see.”
Let’s start with the movie’s carefully chosen solitary clue, the password—“Fidelio.”
Could Kubrick have been referring to the Beethoven opera? After all, it was the piano player who passed it along. But the password wasn’t selected by a musician, it was selected by Kubrick.
Perhaps studying the libretto of the opera—filled with deceit and imprisonment and valor and rebellion against tyranny—will help us. Perhaps, but with its setting in Spain and its early nineteenth-century political motifs, it could prove to be just another distraction.
Are there any other meanings of “Fidelio” that might more directly tie into our theory of the genre of Eyes Wide Shut? What do “Fidelio” and “conspiracy” have in common? It was time to ask some conspiracy buffs.
Eureka! Fidelio is the magazine of the Lyndon LaRouche organization—probably the most famous of the “intellectual” conspiracy-inspired movements of recent history. Still being published, Fidelio: Journal of Poetry, Science and Statecraft was founded in the early 1990s by the Schiller Institute, based in Washington, D.C., where LaRouche and his associates are based. But does this magazine tie into the movie?
As has been noted, Eyes Wide Shut contains many specific departures from its supposed literary “source text”—Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle. Case in point is the fact that the original password to the orgy was “Denmark.” Is it possible, then, that Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, set in fin-de-siècle Vienna, is just another distraction? Just another figure intended to obscure the movie’s ground? By selecting “Fidelio,” was Kubrick telling us to discard the Schnitzler text?
Another departure—which I haven’t seen mentioned in the critical literature—is the complete shift in costuming for this orgy. In the novella, the costumes are bright and multi-colored. Dionysian. Baroque, if you will—even harlequin. In the movie the costumes (when worn) are simple and ominous—black capes—with those masks. Indeed, Kubrick forces us to focus our attention on this aspect through the entire costume shop sequence in Eyes Wide Shut—presuming we can “see,” that is.
There’s more. The movie adds a crucial figure, a man dressed in red who utterly rules the scene in the Long Island mansion. With the apparent power of life-and-death, he confronts Tom Cruise’s character, Bill, and demands—the password!
As if that wasn’t enough, he tricks the apparently clueless interloper with the notion that there are actually two passwords—again drawing our attention to the critical significance of “Fidelio,” the one and only clue.
If our ears are open to hear the word, that is.
Who is this man in red? Why are the masks so familiar?
Have you ever been to Venice? Many years ago I attended a conference out on the Lido and stayed just off St. Mark’s. One afternoon, I wandered deep into the neighborhoods, over many bridges and eventually found myself at a Venetian mask shop. I bought three. The one I got for myself depicts a Norse myth in which the hoof-prints of the God-mounted steed sprout into fairy draped mushrooms. It hangs over my desk to this day. The other two were for my children. They are exactly like the masks in the movie. Indeed, many of the masks in the movie were made in Venice.
Might the history of Venice have something to do with the conspiracy around which this film is constructed? Could the man in red be a “pope” (or a cardinal)? Could the conflict between the Vatican and Venice somehow be depicted in the film?
While the LaRouche group’s magazine covers many subjects, its treatment of Venice bears their particular signature. According to those who follow the more elaborate and long-term historically oriented conspiracy constructs, one of the most far-reaching schemes is one associated with LaRouche that identifies Venice as the primary “conduit” for the attempted destruction of the West by the East over many past millennia.
This schema apparently holds that a world-shaping conflict between East and West—beginning at least as early as Alexander the Great’s avenging of his father’s death by the Persians—continues to this day. Persia (modern-day Iran) and its close neighbor Media (modern-day Kurdistan)—or for that matter Babylonia (modern-day Iraq)—continue to be of up-to-date significance, but it is the role of Venice as the dominant Mediterranean power for much of the period from the fall of Rome until the fifteenth century (as well as its longstanding role contra Rome) that has greatly absorbed contributors to LaRouche’s Fidelio.
In the Summer 1995 issue of the magazine, Webster Tarpley’s “Venice’s War Against Western Civilization” appears as the lead article. I will leave it to the reader to reconstruct the details of this fascinating exposition, but it is probably worth noting that the widely reported “conflict” between LaRouche and the British Royal Family traces some of its genealogy to the role played by Venice (along with, most likely, LaRouche’s own anti-monarchist and millenarian Quaker roots).
In brief, it appears that as military expeditions against Venice by various groups of opponents (Florence, Rome, and the like) became more and more threatening, and as the value of controlling the Constantinople-based Mediterranean trade-routes collapsed, the powers that were “Venice” hoisted their sails and moved on . . . largely relocating to London and Amsterdam. Those of you who have followed the writings of the LaRouche coterie will probably recognize that the presumed follow-on to this earlier migration establishes the next stop after London as New York City. In this reading of history, then, London (and New York) actually are Venice—transposed through the centuries.
Could Kubrick have simply been making a conspiracy movie about a world-controlling cabal based in New York that self-consciously (okay, ritually) traced its origins back to Venice? Is much of what appears in Eyes Wide Shut an elaborate distraction from the retelling of what is perhaps the grandest and boldest conspiracy theory of the modern era? Is there any significance to the fact that the European premiere of Eyes Wide Shut was held in Venice?
Stanley Kubrick has been confirmed as a long-time subscriber to the magazine Fidelio. He even had some conversations with some of the magazine’s authors. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are other overlaps between the “political” subjects Kubrick treats and those discussed by LaRouche and his associates.
As LaRouche himself wrote in 1995, the “inventor” of the Atom Bomb, Leo Szilard—a figure who has been written about disparagingly and frequently in various LaRouche publications—was commonly known as “Dr. Strangelove.” LaRouche associates are also responsible for extensively documenting various “brainwashing” experiments carried out by the British (which remain largely undocumented elsewhere, unlike such U.S. counterparts as MK-ULTRA). It has recently been revealed that much of the source material for A Clockwork Orange was obtained by Anthony Burgess from British Intelligence and was based on these experiments.
As an American ex-pat living in Britain and reputedly a voracious reader of history, Kubrick might very well have been fascinated with the bold sweep of the Persia-to-Venice-to-London-to-New York conspiracy-that-rules-the-world storyline. What a great movie that would make!
Perhaps we should watch Eyes Wide Shut again. This time be sure to have the dialogue turned on and pay close attention to what is recorded there.
Watch the movie—with your ears wide open.
Loen Weber is a media ecologist who has spent much of his life in the Midwest, the Northeast, and on the West Coast. His interests include the ear, the eye, the skin, noses, tongues, fingers, hair, and most other sense organs. He strongly suspects that H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man refers to another place and another time when television was once important.