Stanley Kubrick at the Fin de Siecle: Eyes Wide Shut and its Intertexts
by Bob Mielke
For St. Stanley (1928-1999), who got me first interested in film as an aesthetic medium; and my Dad (1908-2000), who swapped me a ticket to 2001 for a trip to Disneyland
Frederic Raphael's recent memoir of Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Open, does a fair job of misleading its readers about the level of thought that Kubrick gave his most recent, and last, film. Raphael thought that Kubrick "has virtually no ideas at all. He's like Diaghilev with Cocteau; he wants to be surprised by joy" (43). In the co-screenwriter's opinion, Kubrick wanted to film the Arthur Schnitzler novella because of its unusual emphasis upon married sex and because of its "atmosphere of eroticism" which hearkened back to discussions with Terry Southern about doing an "elegant blue movie" under studio conditions (43, 117). In Raphael's portrait, Kubrick seems like an idiot savant passively letting the co-screenwriter generate text which the director will then remove the flash from.
This record is not a complete distortion of Kubrick's process of filmmaking, but it is a bit like the visually impaired gentlemen describing the elephant. For a long time, Kubrick decided to give out information about his projects on a strictly "need to know" basis. For Kubrick, written dialogue is one filmic element to be put in balance with mise-en-scene (sets and acting and lighting), music and (especially) editing. Inspired by Pudovkin's treatise on Film Acting, Kubrick realized that one could create a performance in the editing room.
As he explained to a journalist,
Everything else [in film] comes from something else. Writing, of course, is writing, acting comes from the theatre, and cinematography comes from photography. Editing is unique to film. You can see something from different points of view almost simultaneously, and it creates a new experience. (in Baxter 40).
Kubrick's method of operating thus became a quest for an emergent vision in the editing room, when all the elements of a film could be assembled. The price of this method, beginning as early as Spartacus (when he first had an ample budget for film stock), was endless exploratory reshooting of scenes--not because actors necessarily failed to hit certain thespian marks, but because Kubrick wanted to investigate all the possible variations of a scene. This exhaustive approach enabled him to walk into the editing room with a copia of options. What Raphael fails to realize, I think, is that for Kubrick editing was an intellectual as well as an intuitive process. There are intertexts that emerge from editing choices as well as from the actual screenplay. I want to consider the following intertexts in Eyes Wide Shut, confident that alert cineastes will find many more: fin de siecle Viennese culture in general; Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Klimt and Arnold Schoenberg in particular; Kubrick's other films (for his self-referentiality kept growing by leaps and bounds).
As his biographers reiterate, Stanley Kubrick had an abiding interest in Viennese culture and Arthur Schnitzler, the author of his Traumnovelle source text. His great-grandparents came from Galicia, a region between eastern Poland and the western Ukraine which was part of Austria at the time they lived there. Viennese culture, in a sort of personally mythic way, embodied for Kubrick his civilized origins (Baxter 15). He began reading the novels and plays of Arthur Schnitzler in the early 1950's, when he was dating his Viennese second wife Ruth Sobotka, whom he would eventually direct in Killer's Kiss (1955). He heard of Schnitzler through his admiration of director Max Ophuls, who pioneered fluid camera movement and long tracking shots (stylistic obsessions that persist in Kubrick's oeuvre: think of the opening track of Eyes Wide Shut when the couple go down the corridor of their apartment). Ophuls adapted Schnitzler's stories in his film La Ronde (Baxter 60). Kubrick thought of the Austrian writer again when actor James Mason initially turned down the Humbert Humbert part in Lolita because of a prior commitment to acting in a musical based on Schnitzler materials on Broadway, a vocal disaster that sent him back to Kubrick (Baxter 146).
Stanley continued to have Schnitzler on his mind after 2001: A Space Odyssey when he was trying to get MGM to finance his aborted Napoleon project. He told a film critic that Napoleon's "sex life was worthy of Arthur Schnitzler" (LoBrutto 322). Kubrick expressed such interest in Schnitzler and Traumnovelle that Warners executives announced to the press in 1971 that this would be his next film after A Clockwork Orange (Baxter 260). In that same year, Frederic Raphael published his novel Who Were You With Last Night?, a stream-of-consciousness tale of marital infidelity with a very similar feel to the Schnitzler (Baxter 263). As we know, Kubrick got sidetracked by other projects for some 24 years--most likely because of his inability to resolve how to package the Schnitzler for a modern audience. But in 1955 when he resolved to find a way to tell the story, Kubrick turned to Raphael as the most likely collaborator for an update.
Between 1971 and 1995, another source text appeared that I would submit casts a long shadow on Eyes Wide Shut: Carl Schorske's magisterial interdisciplinary study Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980). This book provides a major point of entry into much that is going on in Eyes Wide Shut visually and conceptually. In addition to its particular attention to Schnitzler, Klimt and Schoenberg to be considered below, I think this book is a source text for the title of Kubrick's film. The last essay in Schorske repeatedly quotes ocular imagery, an obsession of Kubrick's since 2001. (Consider, for example, Bowman's blinking eye in the Star gate sequence, followed by his squinting as an old man in the Louis XIV set before he has the wide-open gaze of the Star Child at the conclusion of the film [Nelson 120].) Carl Schorske describes an Oscar Kokoschka self-portrait as having "tired eyes, wide open" (342); a few pages later, he quotes Arnold Schoenberg's definition of art as the production "not of those who avert their eyes to protect themselves from emotion, but of those who open them wide to tackle what has to be tackled' (357). Any casual exploration of Kubrick's later life turns up his use of serendipity in making aesthetic choices: these few indications may well have suggested a title possibility to be permutated.
Kubrick would have read Schorske for his background on Arthur Schnitzler. As Schorske suggests. Schnitzler's central theme in his writings is what happens when his bourgeois characters receive "a call to a Dionysian existence, which involves a plunge into the torrent and is thus also a call to death" (11). If the world of comfort they leave is "impotent," a Beidermeieresque insulation from instinct and desire, the new world of passion can be terrifying. Schnitzler can neither "condone nor condemn" his characters; his works are sad. but not tragic (14). They seem caught between two worlds: a bankrupt rational order and a glimpse of modernity that can only manifest as monstrous eruption trampling upon the old dispensations: in Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, for example, the orgy scene has an explicitly ecclesiastical context. The rutting partygoers are dressed as "monks or nuns" (Kubrick 220). Such monstrous liminality, able to tear down but not to reassemble, is the very hallmark of the Gothic sensibility.
I shall consider later why, aside from questions of both heritage and whim, Kubrick might have wanted to film the Schnitzler. First, let's see what he did with it. Most obviously, he moved the setting to 1990's New York from turn-of-the-century Vienna (although published in 1926, the novella in no way seems post-World War I). Fridolin and Albertine are Anglicized to Bill and Alice Harford, a last name Raphael thinks both invokes the "Harrison Fordish goy" he wanted to convert Schnitzler's main character into and Kubrick's Hertfordshire home (59). Schnitzler's novella begins with the couple discussing their flirtations at a party the night before and their mutual sexual fantasises that occurred on a vacation in Denmark "the previous summer" (Kubrick 178). In the film, this is scene 32, which begins with Alice rolling a joint. Kubrick and Raphael added 30 earlier scenes to show the party (and provide motivation for the "sacrifice" on behalf of Bill/Fridolin at the orgy with Mandy's overdose scene). Kubrick's scene 19, the notorious mirror shot of the trailers, is a complete invention which hearkens back to his lifelong obsession with the mirror world in such diverse films as Killer's Kiss, Dr. Strangelove and The Shining. Another perspective on these added scenes is Kubrick's quip that "it's easier to expand a small thing into a large one than vice verse" (Baxter 304) -- the difference he had between adapting Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" into 2001 and filming Thackeray.
The middle third of the film is quite faithful to the Schnitzler, though updated, with a few striking exceptions. The password to the orgy in Schnitzler is "Denmark," not "Fidelio." Kubrick has several agenda here. Most likely, he made the change to downplay Raphael's reading of Schnitzler's whole novella as a dream, as its title implies. The "Denmark" password explicitly echoes the two Denmark fantasies of the couple (only the story of Alice's officer survives in the film). Kubrick fretted to Raphael: "If there's no reality, there's no movie" (Raphael 39). "Fidelio" removes the surreal linkage between the password and the couple's fantasies -- if translated into the film, the password would have to be "Cape Cod," where Alice meets the naval officer in her narration. "Fidelio" is a wonderful substitute, since it raises other kinds of ambiguities. Since Beethoven's opera is about a wife who assumes a disguise to save her husband, this password evokes a possible reading that suggests Alice attended the orgy and may even have helped save Bill in some way -- an ambiguity Kubrick is far more interested in conveying than the prospect that the whole narrative is a dream. I have already noted how the orgy is more secularized in the film, and how the woman who sacrifices herself for Bill has a motive, unlike the Schnitzler character (which seems to support the Raphael reading of the book as running on dream logic). Still, overall, the middle third follows Schnitzler closely.
(continued on the next page, please keep reading)