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Lee Siegel on ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

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The longest film shoot in history (400 days) included a ten-day overage about whether to let the dead woman make a gun out of her hand.

This is one my favorite essays on Kubrick and art in general, and it was written eleven years ago, but I think the sentiments expressed still stand. Below are some of the first reactions to Eyes Wide Shut.

“I can state unequivocally that the late Stanley Kubrick, in his final

film, ‘Eyes Wide Shut,’ has staged the most pompous orgy in the history

of the movies.” -David Denby in The New Yorker

“Ridiculously though intellectually overhyped for the very marginal

entertainment, edification and titillation it provides over its somewhat

turgid 159-minute running time.” -Andrew Sarris in The New York Observer

“This two hour and 39 minute gloss on Arthur Schnitzler’s fantasmagoric

novella feels like a rough draft at best.” -J. Hoberman in The Village

Voice

“In Eyes Wide Shut nothing works.” -Louis Menand in The New York Review

of Books

“An unfortunate misstep.” -Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times

I soon began to discover something even more startling. Not a single

critic, not even those few who claimed to like Eyes Wide Shut, made any

attempt to understand the film on its own artistic terms. Instead, the

critics denounced the film for not living up to the claims its

publicists had made for it, reduced it to a question of its director’s

personality, measured it by how much information it conveyed about the

familiar world around us. And I realized that something that had been

stirring around in the depths of the culture had risen to the surface.

After years of vindictive, leveling memoirs of artistic figures; after

countless novels, plays, films, paintings, and installations constructed

to address one social issue or another; after dozens of books have been

published proclaiming the importance of the “great books” and “humanist

ideas” to such a point of inflation that the effect was to bun’ the

specificity of great books and of original ideas-after the storm of all

this self-indulgence had passed, a new cultural reality had taken shape.

Our official arbiters of culture have lost the gift of being able to

comprehend a work of art that does not reflect their immediate

experience; they have become afraid of genuine art. Art-phobia is now

the dominant sensibility of the official culture, and art-phobia

annihilated Stanley Kubrick’s autumnal work. Much talk–some of it real,

a lot of it fake–has been in the air over the last decade about empathy

for the “other,” for people different from us. But no one has dwelled on

the essential otherness of a work of art. There is, after all, that

hackneyed but profound notion of a willing suspension of disbelief.

Genuine art makes you stake your credulity on the patently counterfeit.

It takes you by surprise. And for art to take you by surprise, you have

to put yourself in the power of another world–the work of art–and in

the power of another person–the artist. Yet everything in our society,

so saturated with economic imperatives, tells us not to surrender our

interests even for a moment, tells us that the only forms of cultural

expression we can trust are those that give us instant gratification,

useful information, or a reflected image of ourselves. (Italics mine)

Whole article

3 thoughts on “Lee Siegel on ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

  1. I’ll proudly defend EWS all day long, even though it isn’t my favorite Kubrick film. I wasn’t surprised when people bashed it upon it’s initial release, but I did think they were wrong (and still do).

    History has shown that, starting with 2001, critics and audiences have often initially disliked or been mixed on Kubrick’s movies before eventually coming around. Just read the initial reviews of 2001. For instance, from the Variety review:

    But “2001” is not a cinematic landmark. It compares with, but does not best, previous efforts at science fiction; lacking the humanity of “Forbidden Planet,” the imagination of “Things to Come” and the simplicity of “Of Stars and Men,” it actually belongs to the technically-slick group previously dominated by George Pal and the Japanese.

    Ebert has posted a nice collection of critical responses here. Note Pauline Kael’s now-legendary pan:

    “It’s a monumentally unimaginative movie… The light-show trip is of no great distinction; compared to the work of experimental filmmakers like Jordan Belson, it’s third-rate. If big film directors are to get credit for doing badly what others have been doing brilliantly for years with no money, just because they’ve put it on the big screen, then businessmen are greater than poets and theft is art.” –Pauline Kael, Harper’s (February, 1969) anthologized in her collection For Keeps (1994)

    I don’t believe all Kubrick films masterpieces (both Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket are, for me, failures—but what failures!), but they’re all fascinating, and requisite viewing. EWS is no exception. If I had to rank them into three tiers, it would look something like this:

    Faves:
    1. The Shining (1980)
    2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
    2. Barry Lyndon (1975)
    3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

    Middle:
    4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
    4. Killer’s Kiss (1955)
    4. Paths of Glory (1957)
    4. The Killing (1956)

    Bottom:
    5. Lolita (1962)
    5. Spartacus (1960)
    6. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
    6. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
    7. Fear and Desire (1953)

    Returning to EWS: You can be sure that if Michiko Kakutani dislikes it, it’s worthy of your attention. No doubt she would have panned 2001, too (though less interestingly than Kael).

  2. Listomania!

    1. The Shining
    2. Barry Lyndon
    3. Eyes Wide Shut
    4. 2001
    5. A Clockwork Orange
    6. Dr. Strangelove
    7. Lolita
    8. Paths of Glory
    9. The Killing
    10. Spartacus
    11. Full Metal Jacket

    I regret to inform you I haven’t seen the first two.

    I’m at work on an essay (in my head) wherein I’ll argue that Kubrick will be remembered not for 2001, Dr. Strangelove and Clockwork, but Barry, Shining, Eyes.
    There’s just more more more in them.

    I also think he knew he had failed with Full Metal Jacket and hence the 12 year lay off.

    Besides Vermeer and Alice Munro, there is no artist I feel as close to.

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