Posts Tagged ‘Eyes Wide Shut’
Like a lot of obsessive film fans, I’ve spent much of the weekend poring over the individual critics’ lists at the Sight & Sound movie poll, looking up favorite titles, searching for trends, and pondering inexplicable patterns. (My favorite discovery so far is the fact that of the four critics who included Eyes Wide Shut among their list of the greatest films of all time, three of them also included The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassevetes, which also received only four total votes. I have no idea why this is the case, and if critics Craig Keller, Adrian Martin, or Stanislav Zelvensky want to enlighten me, I’m all ears.) Yet if there’s one conclusion I can draw from these lists, it’s that there’s something genuinely mysterious about most great works of art. You can’t just disassemble Vertigo or Tokyo Story or L’Atalante to see how they work, and even movies that ostensibly show us their moving parts, like Citizen Kane, become all the more enigmatic with time. As a writer, I’ve learned a lot from great movies, but less than you might think: it’s often in the flawed, the mediocre, and the outright terrible that the fundamentals of storytelling can most clearly be seen.
Which brings us to Mystery Science Theater 3000. There was a time in my early teens when I was convinced this was the best television show ever, or at least the ultimate distillation of the culture of my generation, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong. When I first saw those wisecracking silhouettes at the bottom of my television, I didn’t quite understand what was going on, and the moment when it all clicked into place—it was during Time of the Apes, if you’re curious—still feels like an epochal revelation. Watching this show at its peak, which, as in the case of The Simpsons and Mad Magazine, often means whenever the viewer first encountered it, was like being given the access card to a mad scientist’s laboratory where the building blocks of the culture around us were being taken apart, analyzed, and recombined in surprising ways. Godard says that the way to criticize a movie is to make another movie, but MST3K did him one better, by turning bad movies into commentaries on themselves until the result almost achieved sentience. And it was impossible to watch it without relating to movies on an altogether different level.
What made the show special was right there in its premise: the writers talked back to the screen. They took movies designed for the laziest, most passive of audiences—the exploitation film, the TV movie, the sci-fi cheapie—and engaged them with savage humor and intelligence. Each episode was like a miniature war against shoddiness, cynicism, and cliché, and the moral was that if we can’t prevent bad movies from existing, we can at least confront them on our own terms. The show turned bad filmmaking into comedy in a way that bears comparison to the best of found art, and its ad hoc influence has been incalculable, especially among fans who were inspired to hack the elements of pop culture into something undefinable and weird. The show’s greatest popularity happened to coincide with the rise of Internet fan fiction, which included MST3k-inspired commentaries on other works of fanfic, and much of the show’s spirit lives on, for better or worse, on sites like TV Tropes, in which the layers of commentary on shows like, say, Stargate SG-1 expand into something far more interesting than the original series itself.
That’s why the host segments were so crucial, and it’s the element of the show I miss the most, even as its legacy lives on in successors like RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic. If the show done nothing but made fun of bad movies, it would have seemed arch and disdainful, but the host segments made it clear that the show’s creators were in the same boat as the filmmakers they were mocking: constrained by low budgets, cheap sets, and recalcitrant robot puppets, even if the result was delivered with far more wit and imagination. Much of the show’s appeal arose from the fact that it looked like it had been filmed in someone’s garage in Minneapolis: its funky aesthetic made you want to go out and try it yourself, as a lot of fans undoubtedly did. As a result, there was a DIY sweetness under the snark that made it endearing in a way that a lot of its imitators don’t understand. The show wasn’t just about making fun of awfulness, but about turning it into something better, to the point where, as in the case of The Girl in Lover’s Lane, they rewrote the ending of the movie itself. And the result was undeniably empowering. If life gave us bad movies, the show said, we didn’t have to sit back and take it. Maybe we could even do better ourselves.
For most of the past decade, the Kubrick film on this list would have been Eyes Wide Shut, and while my love for that movie remains undiminished—I think it’s Kubrick’s most humane and emotionally complex work, and endlessly inventive in ways that most viewers tend to underestimate—it’s clear now that The Shining is more central to my experience of the movies. I realized this only recently, after seeing it at midnight earlier this year at the Music Box in Chicago, but this is still a film that has been growing in my estimation for a long time. The crucial factor, perhaps unsurprisingly, was my decision to become a writer. Because while there have been a lot of movies about novelists, The Shining is by far our greatest storehouse of images about the inside of a writer’s head. “You’ve always been the caretaker,” Grady’s ghost says to blocked writer Jack Torrance, and his personality suffuses every frame of the movie whose uneasy center he occupies.
The visual, aural, and visceral experience of The Shining is so overwhelming that there’s no need to describe it here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the performances, which are the richest that Kubrick—often underrated in his handling of actors—ever managed to elicit. At one point, I thought that the film’s only major flaw is that it was impossible to imagine Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a married couple, but I’m no longer sure about this: there are marriages this strange and mismatched, and the glimpses of their relationship early in the movie are depressingly plausible. As David Thomson was among the first to point out, Nicholson is great when he plays crazy, but he’s also strangely tender in his few quiet scenes with his son. And Duvall gives what is simply one of the major female performances in the history of movies, even if we suspect, after hearing of the hundreds of takes she was forced to endure, that something more than mere acting was involved.
Tomorrow: The triumph of the studio system.
The release of Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence, a grand summation of a life in letters by a major critic at the age of eighty, gives me a welcome excuse to reflect on the legacy of our leading reader, canonical champion, and defender of the great books. As I’ll point out below, Bloom has severe limitations as a critic of contemporary literature, and he’s often made himself into a figure of fun. His evolution from serious academic into something close to a brand name hasn’t been entirely painless. But there’s no doubt that he’s one of our greatest living intellectuals—his omission from both editions of the Prospect public intellectuals poll is a crime—and his impact on my own life and reading has been surprisingly substantial.
First, the bad news. Bloom has various minor shortcomings as a writer—notably his tendency to repeat himself endlessly, with slight variations, which makes me suspect that his books lack a strong editorial hand—but his real problem is that he no longer seems capable of discussing authors with anything other than unqualified praise or sweeping condemnation. When he’s talking about Shakespeare or Tolstoy, no one is more eloquent or insightful, but he seems incapable of performing nuanced readings of lesser writers. This leads him to brusquely dismiss certain authors of unquestioned canonicity, such as Poe, and into such travesties as his attack on the National Book Awards Medal for Stephen King, in which his only evidence was a critique, also completely nonfactual, of J.K. Rowling. (As I pointed out at the time, this is sort of like saying that Steven Spielberg can’t be a good director because Attack of the Clones was a lousy movie.)
It’s clear, then, that we shouldn’t turn to the current Bloom for credible opinions on contemporary culture, but for deep, almost aspirational readings on authors whose canonical eminence is undisputed. And he remains unmatched in this regard, both for his passion and his readability. At times, it isn’t clear what his point is, except to create in us a state of mind receptive to being changed by literature—which is a worthwhile goal in itself. And his isolated insights are often exceptional. His thoughts on the strangeness of the Yahwist—as in the uncanny moment in Exodus 4:24, for instance, when God tries to kill Moses—and his writings on Joseph Smith, whom he considers a great American prophet, have deeply influenced the novel I’m writing now. And his observations on sexual jealousy in Othello have shaped my understanding not only of that play, but of Eyes Wide Shut:
Shakespeare’s greatest insight into male sexual jealousy is that it is a mask for the fear of being castrated by death. Men imagine that there can never be enough time and space for themselves, and they find in cuckoldry, real or imagined, the image of their own vanishing, the realization that the world will go on without them.
In recent years, Bloom has become less a literary critic than a sort of affable cheerleader, moving past his old polemics on “the age of resentment” to simply extoll the cause of close reading of great books for the pleasure they provide. It’s a simple message, but a necessary one, and one that he is qualified above all other living critics to convey, with his prodigious reading, infinite memory, and nervous, expansive prose. I’ve always been a sucker for canons—I tried to read all fifty-four volumes of the Britannica Great Books series in high school, came close to applying to a similar program at St. John’s College, and finally ended up in the Classics—and Bloom remains my primary gateway into the great books, as he is for many of us. For that, his influence has been incalculable, and I’m glad we still have him around.
On Saturday, in what seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate the completion of Part I of my new novel, my wife and I caught a midnight showing of The Shining at the Music Box in Chicago. Watching The Shining again was a reminder of how central this extraordinary film is to my experience of the movies: while 2001 may be Kubrick’s most ambitious film, and Eyes Wide Shut his most narratively intricate (as well as underrated), The Shining strikes me as his most purely satisfying work, and as such, it has always occupied a peculiar place in my imagination. The Overlook Hotel, as conceived by Stephen King and brought to life by Kubrick, is one of the greatest locations in all of cinema, and it’s the perfect stage for a series of unparalleled set pieces that are frightening, beautiful, and often very funny.
After the movie was over, I showed off a bit to my wife by pointing out the symbols that Kubrick uses to imply that the story of the Overlook is, in fact, an allegory for the history of America: it was built on an Indian burial ground, occupied by the British (as symbolized by the incongruously English ghost of Grady, the hotel’s previous caretaker), and inherited by American pioneers (hence Jack’s lumberman’s jacket and axe). And this network of symbols informs many aspects of the film, both large, like the uncomfortable fate of Scatman Crothers’s black psychic, who makes the long trip back to the Overlook only to be slaughtered on arrival, and small, like the designs on Danny Torrance’s sweaters, with their handmade versions of Mickey Mouse and the Apollo 11 spacecraft. It all ends with a closeup of a single date: July 4, 1921. And I believe that Kubrick’s use of such images is very intentional.
But then my wife asked a question that brought me up short: “So what is it trying to say?” Which caught me at a bit of a loss. My first response was that trying to sum up The Shining into a single message was doing the movie a disservice. After all, if Kubrick had meant it to be an allegory, clearly the movie itself was the simplest possible expression of the message he had in mind. But the more I thought about it, the less certain I became that there even was a message, which raises the question of what the allegorical elements were doing there at all. The question seemed all the more urgent because I’d had a similar experience, earlier that week, while watching Apocalypse Now Redux on Blu-ray. Coppola’s flawed masterpiece openly evokes not only Heart of Darkness but also the Odyssey—the river patrol boat encounters the Cyclops, the Sirens, Hades, and (in the extended version) the Lotus-Eaters. Which is great for critics playing a game of spot-the-reference. But what does it really mean for the viewer?
My more considered response, which I’m still working through in my own head, is simply this: it doesn’t necessarily need to mean anything. The role of allegory, at least in terms of my own reactions, isn’t so much to convey a message as to set up a chain of associations in the viewer’s mind. The Shining and Apocalypse Now are echo chambers in which images and symbols can jangle against one another, evoking other myths and works of art, and setting off unexpected vibrations within the story. The best allegories should be all but invisible, at least at first viewing, and even afterward, they continue to resist verbalization, because any allegory sounds weak and reductive when boiled down to a sentence or two. If we say that The Shining is about the violence inherent in the American experience, we risk two responses: first, a sense that this message isn’t exactly original, and second, a stubborn insistence that the movie isn’t about this, but rather a series of images and moments that can take up their own life in the experience of the viewer.
Which brings us to perhaps the most useful aspect of allegory: it helps the author find his way. I’ve written before about how structural constraints allow a writer to make unexpected discoveries about his own story, and though I was referring mostly to genre and plot, it also applies to allegory—which is only another way of bringing the reader from point A to B. And it seems clear that Coppola and Kubrick came up with artistic discoveries, using their allegorical elements as a guide, that they wouldn’t have made otherwise. Coppola admits that he didn’t have an ending to Apocalypse Now until almost the day they shot it, when he saw that a mythic journey had to have an equally mythic ending—that is, the sacrifice of the divine king. And The Shining is full of design choices that owe their existence to an almost subterranean allegory, invisible at first, but imperceptibly enriching the viewer’s experience. Is there a deeper meaning? Sure. But not one that can easily be put into words—at least not when it’s all there in Nicholson’s eyes.
Essential films: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, Barry Lyndon, and many others.
Kubrick’s case is an unusual one. Film for film, he has the most impressive body of work of any director from the last half century of movies, and no other filmmaker can match him for ambition, intelligence, and attention to detail. Yet his example is dangerous. Kubrick gets away with habits that would be deadly in a lesser director—the obsessive perfectionism, the countless takes, the frequent indifference to recognizable human emotion—because he’s Kubrick. A talented director who had seen nothing but Kubrick’s films would end up with a very distorted sense of what movies can, or should, do; the result, at best, might be something like Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo. Far better, if an aspiring filmmaker had access to only one director’s work, to study Michael Curtiz, or even Steven Spielberg.
That said, Kubrick remains the most imposing of all modern directors, and his methods are justified because they resulted in a series of extraordinary films. The most striking thing about Kubrick’s work is that, the more you watch it, the more the comedies begin to feel like tragedies, and the tragedies like comedies. The Shining grows funnier, and better, each time I see it, while Eyes Wide Shut—my own favorite—has gradually come to seem like a screwball comedy slowed down to the speed of a dirge. His best movies, aside from the unique vision of 2001, are finely balanced between comedy and despair, which is the only sane response to the human condition, at least as Kubrick saw it. Paul Thomas Anderson, speaking of Barry Lyndon, said it best: “When I saw it, I thought it was very serious, and then I saw it the second time, and I said, ‘This is fucking hilarious!’” Which is exactly right.