Quite a Night!

Michael Wood

  • Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrik and ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ by Frederic Raphael
    Orion, 186 pp, £12.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 7528 1868 6
  • Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler, translated by J.M.Q. Davies
    Penguin, 99 pp, £5.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 14 118224 5

‘I can’t say he’s reasonable,’ a colleague remarked of Stanley Kubrick, ‘I can only say he’s obsessive in the best sense of the word.’ Because he was obsessive without being crazy, many people have thought Kubrick was a genius, but the word is chiefly a gesture of admiring incomprehension. What Kubrick’s films suggest is that he was some kind of meticulous master, but a master of the obvious, and anyone who is surprised by the ponderousness of his new work, Eyes Wide Shut, must have forgotten what the other films were like. Vincent LoBrutto, from whose biography (Faber, 1998) I’ve borrowed the above quotation, inadvertently sums up a whole career when he says: ‘Stanley Kubrick didn’t take vacations.’ We could sum up the master’s film style by saying: ‘Stanley Kubrick didn’t hint.’

Dogged tracking shots through the French trenches of World War One, an elegant ball on the eve of an execution; Laurence Olivier as a Roman patrician in the bathtub suggesting the joys of sex and power to the slave Tony Curtis; a cowboy riding a hydrogen bomb as if in a rodeo, an American strategy expert whose artificial arm keeps offering a Hitlerian salute; a large bone twirling into the sky in slow motion, the use of ‘The Blue Danube’ to accompany the circling motions of a spacecraft; the use of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ over the credits of a movie that Kubrick himself withdrew from circulation in the UK because of arguments about its depiction of violence; Jack Nicholson’s manic performance as writer-turned-axe-murderer: all of these images and associations, from Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1959), Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001 (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980) respectively, are powerful, and some are unforgettable, but not one is swift or delicate. The same goes for the less famous but equally startling clown mask used by a robber in The Killing (1956), and the long fight in a mannequin factory in Killer’s Kiss (1955). If we are inclined to think of the words ‘subtle’ and ‘interesting’ as close to each other in meaning, Kubrick’s work makes us think again. We need to understand how the crass and the clunky can be interesting.

Frederic Raphael’s memoir doesn’t help us much here. Raphael began writing what was to become Eyes Wide Shut in 1994, and describes in detail the harrowing job of producing draft pages for the scrutiny of the courteous, but demanding and uncommunicative Kubrick. Raphael is often very funny (a tanned Jean-Paul Belmondo, glimpsed in a Paris café, ‘looks like a crème brûlée with white hair’), and he has a good ear for speech patterns, so that we do consistently seem to hear Kubrick speaking (‘Freddie? Can you talk?’ ‘You’re stopping work for Christmas?’ ‘Think that was about the Holocaust?’ – Kubrick is asking about Schindler’s List. ‘That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t’). The whole memoir is moving in a prickly, rather disorienting way, since a reluctant affection for Kubrick, along with a daunted but substantial admiration for him, comes across very clearly. What these feelings have to counter is Raphael’s eager desire to compete and collaborate with Kubrick, artist with artist, and more symbolically, writer with director. Raphael is quite open about this, and means, I think, to sound rueful about his mistake. How could he have thought he was anything other than the provider of a blueprint on which the master would go to work? But the inferiority of his role still rankles, and a scene in which he pictures Kubrick as waiting in trepidation while he, Raphael, casts a critical eye over the director’s rewrite, looks like the sheerest fantasy. Raphael suggests that he engaged in a (foolish) battle with Kubrick, and Kubrick won hands down, but I’m afraid the memoir implies that things were worse than that. Only Raphael thought there was a battle.

Raphael gets around to a little scepticism about the word ‘genius’, but rather late in the day, on page 158 to be precise. He is convinced Kubrick is a great director, but doesn’t do much to show us why, and while his epigrammatic analyses of Kubrick’s character are clever and plausible, they have the air of self-contained fictions, unruffled by any complication or resistance in the object of study. ‘The recluse imagines that if he can reduce the possibility of surprises the world will become orderly, but the more order he contrives, the more it is vulnerable to fortune. The wish to eliminate chance leads to the madness of which method is the symptom.’ ‘The camera is free alike of scruples and of morals; by virtue of its cold nature, it flinches from nothing visible. Kubrick wishes he could be like that.’

These remarks are better written than most of their relatives, but their substance is the common stock of commentary on Kubrick: the control freak as lonely moviemaker, the cold photographer who became an icy director. Sometimes this psychology is bluntly moralised, as when John Baxter, another biographer (HarperCollins, 1997), says that Kubrick’s making Eyes Wide Shut, ‘a film about self-involved people and their fantasies’, has ‘a sour inevitability’. And sometimes it is aestheticised, as when LoBrutto calls Kubrick ‘a pure artist’. But none of these claims gets us very close to what’s on the screen. Coldness can be a virtue as well as a failing, and not all directors’ cameras are cold anyway. Think of Bertolucci, say, in comparison with Buñuel.

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