BrandonHabes’s review published on Letterboxd:
The phrase “eyes wide shut” is a contradiction in terms. Eyes can be “wide open,” suggesting a conscious knowledge or clear awareness of something, but eyes cannot be literally “wide shut” unless we approach the confusion of the term as a paradox of perception. For example, eyes might be figuratively “wide open” in the dream world with eyes literally “wide shut” to reality. A person’s eyes can be “wide open” to a number of pleasures and fantasies while keeping their eyes “wide shut” to the true nature of themselves. Where fantasy and reality begin is never entirely clear, but the paradox pulls us into a method of “seeing” that keeps our eyes “wide open” while watching the film, but also perhaps “wide shut” to its ultimate meaning. The critical takeaway is how to place Alice and Bill in relation to the film’s title, a married couple that is forced to confront the confusions of a world that is either lived, dreamed, imagined, or staged, or maybe a combination of all four. What we actually “see” with eyes “wide open” may not actually be happening, except in the imagination of the characters. Physical, dream-like environments may reflect nothing more than spiritual inner conflict, like the Freudian Id, or the Jungian Shadow. While it’s easy to say nothing’s real in the film, Kubrick confers each event we “see” with a specific objectivity wherein “no dream is just a dream,” making the film much more complex than a simple exercise in solipsism. The film’s ontology, if anything, invites us into Bill and Alice’s dualistic headspace, a place where dream and reality, denial and awareness, consciousness and unconsciousness, honesty and dishonesty, masks and unmasks, and clothing and nakedness swirl together in surreal unison.
Speaking of clothing and nakedness, the very first image we see in the film shows Alice undressing and revealing her stunning nude body. The image abruptly cuts to black and is countered almost immediately with a shot of Bill dressing for Ziegler’s Christmas party. Those first two images—Alice undressing and Bill dressing—behave as the thesis to the entire film and tell us everything we need to know about these characters. To see how this works, let’s do some big time character study. Alice and Bill Harford are a couple of upscale rich socialites living in a beautiful New York apartment straight out of Vanity Fair. Pay attention to their meticulously adorned home, the way it feels cluttered to the gills yet carefully “dressed” for misdirecting our attention away from the “naked” disorders that hide behind the veneer of their “perfect” life. Bill’s a young doctor and family man with an opulent clientele, accustomed to positions of power. Throughout the film, he flashes his money and his credentials, using wealth and professional rank to get what he wants. Alice, a former art gallery director, is now a stay-at-home mom to their young daughter, Helena. Tonight, they’re dressed to the nines going to a lavish Christmas party hosted by one of Bill’s very wealthy patients, Victor Ziegler. The Harfords are rich, but they’re not stupid rich like Ziegler. They’re lower-crust petite bourgeoisie compared to Ziegler’s high-baller grande bourgeoisie. And if you know anything about social climbing, you know two things 1). it never ends, and 2). dressing up and wearing a “mask” are required components for feeding that ever-exhaustive climb to the top. In this way, and others, the Christmas party is critical for setting up the pattern of dressing and undressing, masking and unmasking, as it relates to the high society of an extremely rich and powerful elitism that Bill and Alice aspire to.
The dressing/undressing duality I’m referring to specifically applies to how Ziegler’s guests are joined together in luxury wearing the masks of respectability and social normality, but in secret are unmasking the opposite sex with a desire for extramarital affair. Like LOLITA, another film in Kubrick’s catalog that relies upon innuendo and implication to mask grotesque psychological interiors, Ziegler’s Christmas party is a civilized beard that masks an undercurrent of sexual temptation and wanton desire, slaking both Bill and Alice into the wake of its predations. At one point they split up and experience separate but parallel sexual advances, as if unconsciously seeking release from the masks of etiquette and yuppie perfection. Alice is hit on by erudite Sandor Szavost, a distinguished-looking grey who appears at least 20 years older than her, and who cynically quotes Ovid (a Roman poet’s pocket guide to adultery 101) as a way to usurp her marital vows and get into her pants. Bill, meanwhile, is hit on by a female sex sandwich, Nuala and Gayle, both of whom assault his mask of “playing it dumb” (“Where exactly are we going…exactly?) and promise to show him “where the rainbow ends.” In both cases, Alice and Bill are bilaterally undressing and being undressed by the opposite sex as a way of exploring the boundaries of their monogamous sexual unconscious.
In an upstairs bathroom, beyond civilized sight, Ziegler calls upon Bill to examine a beautiful and naked hooker, Mandy, who’s overdosed on a speedball. There are so many things wrong with this scene, many of which have become even more intensified since The New York Times dropped its damning exposé on Weinstein in 2017. The first thing you notice is the profound age difference between Ziegler and Mandy, there’s gotta be at least 40 years between them. You also gotta wonder, did Mandy, of her own volition, party too hard? Or, like many date-rape scenarios, did Ziegler slip her something? Has Bill been called upon to repair (and potentially cover up?) a near-scandal? Notice Mandy’s naked body sprawled over the couch, while nearly all the men remain clothed, emphasizing their dominance. Ironically, Kubrick disrobes Ziegler of his public, overly-dressed formality, trading in his Christmas charisma for an ugly, half-naked man who is anxious and vulnerable behind closed doors. The connection between old men of power preying after young, drugged women gets into one of the darkest aspects of EYES WIDE SHUT, which I’ll unpack with more creepy theories later on. Perhaps most disturbing about the Ziegler-Mandy scene is Bill’s “professional” response to the matter. At best, he could’ve scolded Ziegler for his feckless dealings with the young girl. At worse, he could’ve reported Ziegler to the authorities. He does neither. Instead, he patronizes and effectively blames Mandy in her half-lucid state: “You are a very, very lucky girl. You know that?…you can’t keep doing this. You understand?” In other words, Bill automatically assumes Ziegler is guiltless and agrees to a gentlemen’s confidence to keep the affair “just between us.” It’s the classic case of a nobody protecting a rich and powerful somebody from exposure, wherein the mask of civility is more important than unmasking the ugly truth. Bill does this, of course, because Ziegler possesses the kind of obscene wealth that supports his and Alice’s lower-level bourgeois lifestyle, so to expose Ziegler would be to indict the very lives they lead. Bill is not ready for that kind of unmasking. Not yet. There’s more to unpack later regarding the relationship between capitalism and the abuse of women, but for now it’s important to note that Bill wears the impersonal mask of “professionalism” as a way to hide the courage and honesty it would’ve taken for him to confront the evil of the moment. Honesty, as we’ll learn, is Bill’s biggest character flaw. He “dresses” honesty up in the clothing of ambition, status and wealth, like Redmond Barry Lyndon, choosing to preserve the illusion of his perfect life with Alice, if only to hide from his failures as a doctor, husband, father, man and human.
As the film is primarily about unmasking Bill’s artificial life, sending him into a waking nightmare to confront the shadows of his unconscious, there’s a critical, pot-smoking conversation that occurs post-Christmas party between he and Alice that’s endemic to the dressing/undressing thesis. In a moment of riveting emotional candor, wherein both characters are stripped down to only their underwear equal in dress, Alice reveals to Bill a sexually illicit desire she had for another man while they were vacationing in Cape Cod. So powerful was this sexual dream she was even willing to “give up everything. You, Helena, my whole fucking future.” It’s an explosive revelation. It leaves Bill emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually castrated. It’s as though he’s not only been unmanned by the confession itself, but by the sheer honesty it took to utter it (thanks Mary Jane). And speaking of honesty, that’s precisely what this moment is about. It’s about Alice emotionally undressing herself before Bill, away from the masked fakery of the Christmas party, trying to become vulnerable with her husband as she uncovers the fraud of their “perfect” little marriage. She plays the “truth game” with him. She attempts to pry off his mask of “professionalism” that pretends to never have any sexual thoughts about his patients, but what she gets in return is an escape artist who evades giving her a “straight fucking answer.” At least Szavost’s primitive yet well-mannered advances toward Alice were honest in their intention, whereas Bill’s emotional dishonesty and stubborn denials of extramarital fantasies is simply an insult to Alice’s discerning gaze. She knows Bill’s eyes were “wide open” to the Nuala-Gayle sex sandwich at Ziegler’s party, and she knows further that his eyes are “wide shut” to confronting the shadows of this unconscious desire. She resents the “impersonal” mask he wears of “I’m a doctor,” as if this status automatically shields him from the turbulent emotions of sexual ambivalence. Alice’s “fucking laughing fit” thus becomes our own as we both laugh at Bill’s mechanical composure that simply isn’t ready to be unmasked in the presence of truth’s unexplored shadows. Alice’s haunting confession is so important, not only because it sets up Bill’s waking nightmare to come, but more significantly it allows Kubrick to psychologically undress the fraudulent nature of Bill’s character, who’s done nothing but mask the truth of himself since the beginning.
Whereas Alice has already confronted the dark psychological terrain of Bill’s frightening journey ahead, Bill is just starting that journey and has yet to see himself or his marriage in the light of Truth’s searing gaze. What happens to Bill from here on out is difficult to describe, but Kubrick gives us a hint as to what may be happening: “Realism,” he says, “is probably the best way to dramatize argument and ideas. Fantasy may deal best with themes which lie primarily in the unconscious.” Bill tumbles down the rabbit hole, so to speak, slipping into an inverted version of Alice’s disclosed fantasy, perhaps even reflected through nothing but his own mind. “We can actually observe the subconscious,” says my good friend Alexander. Which is to say everything we see from here on out might be nothing more than Jungian shadows made flesh by Bill’s traumatized thought process, as though we were cinematically and expressionistically stepping into his mind. On the other hand, the events we “see” might also be objectively happening in the real world, even while our eyes remain forever “wide shut” to the objective truth of what those events mean. Kubrick lets us, like Bill, consciously decide what we’re going to believe. Do Bill’s eyes gradually move from “wide shut” to “wide open” at the end of his nocturnal odyssey? Does the exact opposite occur? Somewhere in between? I’ll return to these questions at the end.
Driven by jealous anger and feelings of castration following Alice’s confession, Bill heads into the dark NYC underworld looking for his own brand of sexual fulfillment and extramarital revenge. Kubrick maps Alice’s fantasy onto Bill’s graphically male imagination as he passes hookers and sex shops, almost like we’re watching his repressed desires materialize in the theater of his unconscious. Doubles and doppelgängers begin to emerge. Marion, his patient’s daughter, confesses her love for Bill and tells him she’s willing to “give up everything” to be with him, despite being engaged. Her confession doubles as a transmogrified blip in Bill’s brain, as if he’s still subconsciously cooking with rage over Alice’s confession to “give up everything.” Domino, a beautiful hooker, invites Bill into her home and asks him all sorts of direct questions about his desires (“What do you wanna do?”), only for him to once again assume the role of escape artist who evades giving her a “straight fucking answer.” Marion and Domino might be real encounters, or they might be the unstable workings of Bill’s unconscious desire. We don’t know. One thing is certain though, says Thomas Allen Nelson: Marion and Domino are now two more women, since Alice’s dream story, to confront Bill with confessions of illicit sexual desire. In each case, Bill struggles to maintain the impersonal mask of “professionalism” while in the presence of a woman’s emotional honesty. His eyes are “wide open” to the sexual opportunities each woman provides, but are “wide shut” to the social masks he wears and the dishonesty they exude.
Nowhere does all of this paradoxical doubling of dressing and undressing, masking and unmasking, honesty and dishonesty culminate with more terrifying psychological effect than it does in the eerie pornographic mansion of Somerton. I’m still wrestling with what I find scarier—Somerton’s masked orgy or Ziegler’s opening Christmas party? They’re two sides of the same coin, just inverted versions of each other. The same people who attended Ziegler’s formal party are debatably the same people in attendance at Somerton’s depraved, near-Satanic orgy. The only difference between them are the kinds of “masks” people are wearing. Figurative social masks at Ziegler’s party have now been replaced by literal carnival masks at Somerton’s mansion, which is to say, paradoxically, that the masks of cultural civility on display at Ziegler’s party have now been unmasked down to grotesque pornography at Somerton. The guests are the same in both locations, only here they’re shown for who they really are. At the Christmas party, old greying men in high positions of authority could simply hide behind their fancy dress, sculpture galleries and other masks of social charm, but at Somerton all of that clothing is shed for an ugly shadow world that appears to be run by some really wealthy and scary fucking criminals. With all of the profound age differences we’ve already been exposed to between the genders (Ziegler-Mandy, Alice-Szavost, Milich’s teen daughter-Asian sandwich, etc.), you can’t help but feel that Bill stumbled into some dark underground scandal involving child-sex trafficking and prostitution rings, all of it funded by powerful elites and the world’s wealthiest satanists. This is some of the freakiest shit Kubrick ever filmed. Tim Kreider calls it “the clearest condemnation, in allegorical dream imagery, of elite society as corrupt, exploitative, and depraved — what they used to call, in a simpler time, evil.” Accompanied by an equally freaky and moody score, Somerton essentially becomes a sacrilegious ceremony of Black Mass, pornographic fuckery, a salacious place where “shameless, naked wealth” has made possible the rape and exploitation of countless faceless women. The sinking feeling of Ziegler’s earlier Christmas party being a normalized mask for Somerton’s pedophilia and sexualization of women/children grows only more disturbing as you consider the secret lives of real Hollywood elites doing Epstein-Weinstein shit behind closed doors. Does EYES WIDE SHUT give any legitimacy to all those QAnon wack jobs out there? Is this why Kubrick died so suddenly after the film’s completion? Zack Mosley speculates: “It’s truly a shame that Stanley Kubrick was murdered for exposing the secrets of an international sex cabal, but at least he died in his sleep and was not strangled in a prison cell.” Cheeky maybe, but still, it gives you the chills.
That Bill is drawn into this grotesque male fantasy seems telling of the kind revenge scheme he wanted to inflict upon Alice. He isn’t necessarily a misogynist as he is dealing with issues of his own castrated manhood which was stripped by Alice’s confession. The nightmare world of Somerton thus works to expose his repressed fears and desires related to that castration. What’s hilarious is that even at Somerton, Bill is still trying to wear the mask of “professionalism” by having chosen a totally human-looking mask that doesn’t at all congeal with the more devilish and forbidding masks of his peers. His eyes are “wide shut” to how the masks of Somerton work, what they represent, and how they turn the wearer into a “soulless object,” says Kreider. For men, being masked gives them the power of anonymity and the ability to exploit without accountability. For women, being masked turns them into faceless commodities that robs them of their humanity. Krieder continues: “[the masks are] creepy as hell. We see a bird with a scythe-like beak, a cubist face fractured in half, contorted grimaces and leers, a frozen howl, painted tears, blindly gazing eyes. These revelers have “lost themselves”…The utterly still, silent shots of staring masks at Bill’s “trial” are images of empty-eyed dehumanization, faces of death.” Maybe if Bill had chosen a more twisted and dehumanizing mask, says Nelson, he might have gone undetected by the Weinsteins in the room. Instead, his eyes remain “wide shut” to the abuse these masks inflict, similar to how his eyes remained “wide shut” to the abuse of the Mandy-Ziegler relationship, and the abuse of Milich’s teen daughter whored out to the Asian sandwich.
Given the precedent for how women have been treated up to this point, is there any wonder why Kubrick situated the story during the Christmas season? Christmas, a holiday associated with warmth, cheer and belles of holly, at Somerton means capitalizing on the holiday’s consumerist aspects, turning women into festival objects and playthings who are packaged, bought, and used to slake men’s appetites throughout the world. Christmas and misogyny go hand and hand at Somerton, a total and complete desecration of the Christian tradition that masks male aggression as pleasure-seeking ritual. Somerton not only transmutates Christian tradition into an orgy of consumerism, it sacrifices its constituents, Christ-style, at the very moment of Bill’s unmasking, which culminates, we later learn, in the ritual mass rape and sacrificial murder of a woman. Who is this mysterious woman who steps forward to ransom herself for Bill? We assume it’s Mandy, who Ziegler (also at the mansion) later confirms was in attendance. But why would she save Bill from such nightmarish and humiliating exposure? We get nothing but question marks. The bigger, more unsettling takeaway is that the ultra-wealthy have orchestrated an event that provides cover for predators of imperial high culture to exploit, rape, and presumably murder a woman in the name of a secret society whose password is “Fidelio,” whose method is satanic, and whose mask-wearing agenda is made possible through the system of capitalism disguised as Christmas celebration.
If this isn’t enough to “terrify the shit” outta Bill, as Ziegler later scolds him, he may as well be one of those Kubrickian machines out of DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and FULL METAL JACKET. Interestingly, the beguiling climax at Somerton where Bill is commanded by Red Cloak to “remove [his] mask” and “remove [his] clothes” is one of the great reversals of Bill’s character that prepares him to see with eyes “wide open.” Recall how Bill has wandered from room to room just “watching” people engage in various sexual activities. He doesn’t participate, just like he hasn’t participated in any of the sexual encounters he’s experienced thus far. He just simply “watches,” suggesting that voyeurism is an activity that helps him regain his male position of power that was lost through Alice’s confession. As long as he controls “the gaze,” he is empowered and his eyes remain “wide shut” to realities of exploitation; when he is “gazed upon,” his power diminishes and his eyes gradually start to turn “wide open.” The act of Red Cloak commanding Bill to remove his disguise — which metaphorically feels like a call for Bill to remove all of the masks he’s been wearing up to this point — is humiliating, disempowering, and yet eye-opening. Bill, a man whose profession allows him to observe naked women from a position of professional authority, becomes completely objectified as he is now subjected to the gaze of the masked voyeurs around him. This terrifying reversal of being “gazed upon,” while demeaning, works as a kind of deranged elixir that begins to shed the scales of Bill’s unconscious fears and desires and bring them into light. He’s still piecing the puzzle together at this point, but everything that happens to him post-Somerton feels as though the tiniest part of him is beginning to wake up. Specifically, he seems to be awakening to the idea that, while he hasn’t actually yet fucked or killed anyone on this nocturnal odyssey, he is nevertheless “implicated in the exploitation and deaths of all of the women [he’s] encounter[ed].” Bill’s passive voyeurism makes him an accessory before the fact, someone who aids, abets, or encourages the commission of a felony without actually doing the dirty work of those who commit the crimes. He was reticent to speak up at the Ziegler-Mandy chiller. He was past-feeling over Milich’s prostitution business involving his teen daughter. He was defensive and constantly covering up his sexual insecurities in front of Alice to avoid the honest emotional landscape she’s already achieved. And now, in light of “Mandy” having been murdered for his sake in a cult of secrecy, Bill enters the apocalyptic bottleneck of his unmasking that makes what was previously unconscious, conscious, and dishonest, honest. More to come on this point in a moment.
All of the creepy genre stuff that Bill encounters post-Somerton (in particular, the cult’s stalking servant) works on multiple levels. The film’s ontology allows for both conscious-literal and subconscious-metaphorical interpretations. For example, the warning he receives to “Give up your inquiries” could, on a subconscious level, be the accompanying guilt (superego) he feels as he confronts, with eyes “wide open,” the reality of all the unadorned exploitation and death that surrounds him (ego). Maybe this is all just more dream theater that lends us expressionistic access to Bill’s apocalyptic awakening. On a conscious-literal level, murderous, rich elite members of Somerton might actually be trying to snuff him out to eliminate public, legal incrimination over Bill’s knowledge of Mandy’s death. Mandy was presumably killed because of Bill’s voyeuristic entry into the orgy, and the ruling elite superpowers know this, and know further that he now poses a threat to their evil underground dealings. It’s “how to be a criminal” 101: snuff out the whistleblower, preserve your unholy power. Whatever is happening to Bill, literally or metaphorically, he’s slowly waking up as he continues to find clues to lead him to the girl who saved him. That journey eventually leads to a morgue where he comes face to face with his own fear of death, displayed on a cold table as Mandy herself. It’s a chilling moment for Bill, for he not only connects this lifeless body to the mysterious woman who saved him, he more significantly recognizes her face as the same face he failed to save at Ziegler’s Christmas party. Perhaps if he had turned Ziegler over to the police then-and-there Mandy would still be alive now. Maybe she would’ve escaped the clutches of the cult’s satanic grip had Bill’s voyeurism not led him to Somerton. It’s too late now. He gazes on her dead naked female body with eyes “wide open,” recognizing that a woman saved his life at the expense of his refusal to save hers. He recognizes he chose Ziegler’s wealthy secret combination, along with the mask of objectified “professionalism,” over the life of a woman. Through Mandy’s deceased penetrating gaze, he now recognizes his failure as both a doctor and a human being.
Mandy’s unlucky death now forces Bill to confront Ziegler at his mansion in a moment of unexpected emotional candor, convincing us further that Bill’s impersonal mask of “professionalism” is indeed cracking. Ziegler tries to chalk up the events of Somerton as a “charade,” a fright-fest for the benefit of someone who didn’t belong, to which Bill, now angry with moral indignation, asks: “Do you mind telling me what kind of fucking charade ends up with somebody turning up dead?” The conversation moves from civilized to primitive. Bill lets down his mask of “polite young doctor” and for the first time sounds like an outraged ape concerned over how fucked up the situation appears. It’s the kind of honesty Alice craved in her husband from the beginning, and the kind of honesty Bill lacked when he first encountered the prospect of Mandy dying in Ziegler’s bathroom. Now that she’s actually dead, and the stakes matter, Bill’s eyes are “wide open.” Ziegler, perceiving that Bill is awake, responds with his own defense mechanism and doubles down by calling “bullshit” on his conspiracy theories. It’s a fascinating moment. Ziegler either perceives Bill as a threat to the cult’s murderous dealings, or, he legitimately wants to clear up a misunderstanding related to the real “overdosed” cause of Mandy’s death. The brilliance of the scene is how Kubrick preserves the ambiguities of what actually occurred at Somerton, what it means to Bill, and what it says about the film’s overarching dreamlike structure. We never really discover whether Ziegler’s telling the truth or lying to cover up Mandy’s murder, but this ambivalence sets up what is perhaps the most mysterious scene of the entire film.
The mask on the pillow. What does it mean? Did Alice intentionally leave it there for Bill as an accusation, adding insult to his already castrated manhood? Did the cult sneak into their home and leave it there as a final warning for what will happen to his family if he keeps investigating? Is the moment even real? Is it more of Bill’s obsessive mind theater? Krieder postulates the following: “Bill’s reaction when he sees the mask in his bed could be interpreted either as shame and relief at having his lies exposed, or as the terrified realization that his wife and daughter could have been murdered in their sleep.” All of these options deeply resonate with me. All of them collectively speak to the ways that Bill’s eyes, from the moment his harrowing journey began, have remained either “wide open” or “wide shut” to the shadows of his conscious-unconscious desires. No longer looking through the mask of a voyeur, Bill sees the mask on the pillow and is immediately confronted with a swath of truth’s unexplored shadows, all of which do the final agonizing work of undressing him completely. He relives his complicit role in the Mandy-Ziegler bathroom scandal. He connects the Milich’s and Ziegler’s of the world to the pornography of Somerton, only now he sees himself responsible for adding his gaze to their dungeon of exploitation. He recalls the shattering experience of seeing Mandy in the morgue wearing a death mask that he himself helped to engrave. He recalls all the masks in Domino’s apartment and wonders not only if she’s involved with the cult, but if she was in fact killed by HIV for servicing people with Bill’s proclivities. He makes all these small connections, Domino having been replaced by Sally, Mandy who will be replaced by another hooker, and he extends the assembly line further down to his own daughter Helena, wondering if the fate of female children is to become sex slaves and playthings to the wealthy elite. It’s too much for him to bear. It’s all so fucked. As he looks down on his own mask and gazes into its sightless eyes, seeing those slits filled by the eyes of other abused women, he succumbs to his human decency and cries with “eyes wide open” over his failures as a doctor, husband, father, man and human. It is now time for Bill to leave clothing behind and share a naked confession with Alice.
“I’ll tell you everything.”
As a play on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” Bill’s journey through nightmare-wonderland has allowed him to achieve the same “eyes wide open” Kubrickian stare that Alice, through her own looking glass, had already achieved in the mirror of self-awareness. “We’re awake now,” Alice says, “and hopefully for a long time to come.” They tell the truth to each other. They’re still alive, still rich. Neither one has actually been unfaithful. Bill has even reached the same naked liberation from Alice’s dream (“lying in a beautiful garden”), no longer having a desire to leave her in search of the false clothing from Eden. They seem in every way to have endured the most frightening night of their lives, only for Bill to then respond to Alice’s “for a long time to come” with a classic Kubrickian predicament. “Forever,” he says, meaning they’ll “forever” stay awake with eyes “wide open.” The word “forever” haunts Kubrick’s work. Eternity is never visualized in clear linear terms, like a recursive, ascending spiral upwards. No, to the contrary, eternity for Kubrick is more like an endless, repeating circle of self-destruction and annihilation. From the perspective of the Star Child, “forever” in DR. STRANGELOVE means infinitely reducing humanity to a plume of mushroom clouds. In 2001, “forever” means humanity is endlessly caught in the ambiguous glare of the Star Child, undecided whether they will escape annihilation or be buried under moon rubble. In A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, “forever” means endlessly watching the mechanical patterns of humans struggling to achieve autonomy in the face of an oppressive monolithic Institution. In BARRY LYNDON, “forever” means endlessly watching the evolution of a low-brow primitive transform into an artificial elite without any respect for morals or human decency. In THE SHINING, “forever” means sending history towards the blade of an ax by endlessly butchering itself “forever and ever and ever.” FULL METAL JACKET becomes Kubrick’s first work that actually challenges “forever” and its endless cycles of destruction by unambiguously committing itself to humanity, even though it’s clear that dehumanization is just around the corner.
In the Kubrickian universe where order always decays to disorder, where creation always bends to destruction, Alice rightfully counters Bill’s “forever” with her own word of caution. “Let’s not use that word…it frightens me.” Alice has obviously seen all of Kubrick’s previous films and knows well the repeating patterns of annihilation filtered through the Star Child’s gaze. She knows that people, at the very moment of keeping their eyes “wide open,” always tend to regress backwards with eyes “wide shut” to the likes of a Ripper, Alex, HAL, Barry, Jack, Pyle, Ziegler, Milich or Red Cloak. She’s knows that awareness eventually collapses to denial, consciousness to unconsciousness, honesty to dishonesty, nakedness to clothing, and reality to fantasy. Because she knows that “forever” is a dangerous game in relation to these paradoxical dualities, Alice finally challenges Bill’s “forever” with a word that doesn’t frighten her: “Fuck.” There are several ways to interpret the meaning of this final grace note, which, depending on how trustful you are of the Star Child’s gaze, could be either optimistic or utterly depressing. You first need to ask yourself, are the Harfords truly okay in the end? Is the threat really over? Are their eyes fully “wide open” to a new kind of intimacy?
Fucking in the here and now with literal bodies, as opposed to their dream bodies, feels like the perfect grounding for all of their illicit fantasies, dreams, and unconscious desires to be fleshed out in the present moment. Fucking might be the first legitimate step towards ritualizing their newfound emotional honesty. Fucking may even perpetually keep their eyes “wide open” to the dangers of masking, along with the dangers of material wealth, sex abuse, social climbing, and the powers of the rich. Maybe “I will tell you everything” is what marriage and love is really about. Honest, naked, repeating confession might even carry them through the apocalyptic bottleneck to new horizons never before seen from the Star Child’s gaze. Maybe Bill and Alice’s eyes, after cathartically crying them out all night, are truly enlightened. Maybe the ending really is hopeful. Yet, what if Bill and Alice’s dark night of the soul isn’t really over, but simply beginning? What if we choose to look beyond mere metaphors of “eyes wide open” and “eyes wide shut” to the literal realities that Mandy is dead, the cult is still child trafficking, Ziegler was lying, and now Bill, Alice and Helena are the next victims to be fucked by the ruling elite? Fucking in the here and now would then be nothing more than hedonistic retreat, temporary satisfaction, preferring to live in ignorant bliss by assuming that evil is an illusion. I read a super cynical theory online that even goes as far to suggest that there are two rich old white men seen behind Helena at the toy store, the same at Ziegler’s party coincidentally, both of whom supposedly are leading her away to the cult to be groomed like Mandy and Domino as the next iteration of abuse and ritual sacrifice. Krieder questions the ambivalence of the lines, “What should we do?” and “Maybe we should be grateful,” suggesting that Mandy’s death is something that can’t be reported to the authorities or even talked about, so they should just be grateful their lives are still in tact. If you choose to believe this, he says, then “the Harfords aren’t just reconciling over their imagined and attempted infidelities; they’re agreeing to cover up a crime, to be accomplices after the fact to a homicide.” The brilliance of EYES WIDE SHUT is that it doesn’t commit to either optimistic or depressing af conclusion. It leaves the power of interpretation for us to decide. What’s real, dreamed, imagined, or staged? Who’s awake, who’s asleep? Kubrick’s final film is both exasperating yet enlightening to the core, a masterpiece that pulls us into a method of “seeing” of how to answer these questions for ourselves. He keeps our eyes “wide open” while watching the film, but also “wide shut” to its ultimate meaning. It’s the perfect swan dive for a filmmaker who always ambiguously straddled the paradoxical edge between secret optimism and craven nihilism. Even until the very end of his life, Kubrick “forever” kept us from knowing whether the Star Child’s gaze was hopeful or pessimistic, whether its eyes were fully open or fully closed, or just somewhere in between.