What links Joe DiMaggio, Iris Murdoch, Dusty Springfield and Stanley Kubrick? They all sadly didn’t quite make it with us into the 21st century, cruelly falling at the final hurdle. The year 1999 was also, perhaps more notably, the year of the Columbine massacre, the creation of the European single currency and the first airing of one of the definitive television series of our time – Grand Designs.
The final year of the millennium is also significant as the year that marked both the sad end – and the triumphant apotheosis of – Kubrick’s career. Kubrick, arguably the greatest film-maker of the 20th century, died in his sleep on 7 March 1999 – only six days after submitting the final cut of what would be his last film. Now, two decades after his death, and with this month marking the 20th anniversary of the UK release of his final masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut, it seems a fitting moment to revisit the astonishing career of one of cinema’s most legendary figures, and re-evaluate this most mysterious and captivating film.
Kubrick was born 26 July 1928. The great-grandson of Austrian-Jewish immigrants who had left Vienna and arrived at Ellis Island, New York – via Liverpool – in 1899, he spent his childhood in the Bronx, flunking school, following the New York Yankees and devouring Greek and Roman mythology and European fable-stories.
He would later go onto direct some of the most visually arresting and critically acclaimed films of all time. Even if you are not knowingly familiar with his work, you are likely to be at least aware of it, as his filmography reads like a catalogue of the 20th century’s greatest motion pictures, including but not limited to: Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1973), The Shining (1980), and of course, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Kubrick’s untimely death also left a series of unfinished projects. These included A.I. – a film that was later successfully taken on by Steven Spielberg and notably described by Mark Kermode as Spielberg’s “enduring masterpiece” – and The Aryan Papers, a film about the Holocaust in development during the early 1990s, which due to its subject matter and the release of Schindler’s List (1993) was eventually shelved. Kubrick also had an unfinished project on Napoleon and had walked away from One Eyed Jacks (1961) – eventually directed by Marlon Brando – a title which should be familiar to any Twin Peaks fans.
Kubrick is also one of only a few artists who have bequeathed to us a new adjective, Kubrickian, which – like Dickensian, Lynchian and Shakespearian – constitutes high praise, and instantly evokes notions of his unique filmic mode. Kubrick’s films have an unquestionable idiosyncrasy: the repeated use of one-point perspective and symmetry, the masterful use of score, tracking shots and zoom-outs and the use of organic lighting embedded within the mise-en-scéne are all unmistakably Kubrickian features.
To understand the impact that he had on modern cinema, one need only look at the list of directors who list him as an influence: Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, James Cameron, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton – the list is nearly endless.
In turn, he notes that Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pdovkin and Konstantin Stanislavski were all notable influences on his own style, alongside others such as Max Ophüls and Ingmar Bergman.
Let’s now turn our attention to the raison d’etre of this piece, Eyes Wide Shut. The crowning glory of a career spanning five decades and 13 feature films – it constitutes one of the most unique and underrated pieces of modern cinema. Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle (Dream Story), the film is a fittingly dreamy 159-minute venture through end-of-the-century New York. Following protagonist Dr. Bill Hartford through a night of sexual impropriety and super-rich societal sub-strata, the film is a comment on power, gender-relations, capitalism, monogamy, fantasy and sexual deviancy.
The film represents near-peak Kubrick, the most realised vision of his artistic style, that whilst lustful on the surface, is in fact an anti-erotic vision, a psycho-carnal thriller that leads the viewer on a stimulating journey through desperation, deceit and debauchery.
Starring then real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as the leads Bill and Alice Hartford, it is a seedy tale of desire, corruption and power. Warner Bros. had asked Kubrick to cast an established movie star in the film – something he hadn’t done since his work with Jack Nicholson in The Shining, three films prior. Eyes Wide Shut also holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot at over 15 months.
It is worth noting that Kubrick’s work is widely available online, with the selection of his films available on streaming platforms changing with the seasons. Currently Spartacus (1960) and the Vietnam war classic Full Metal Jacket (1987) are on Netflix, whilst his debut feature film Fear and Desire (1953) and the proto-Kubrickian First World War feature Paths of Glory (1958) are on Amazon Prime-Video.
As 2019 ages, Brexit looms and the leaves turn a crispy golden brown, now more than ever Kubrick’s legacy is one of unparalleled artistic vigor and ingenuity. In a year that will see the fourth Toy Story, the ninth Star Wars, the 23rd Marvel cinematic universe picture, and the latest in a number of lukewarm Disney rehashes with Aladdin and The Lion King, Kubrick’s imaginative and unique collection of seminal works have – like a fine red wine – matured with age.
Eyes Wide Shut is undeniably challenging viewing not only in a literal sense but also morally, as it confronts the viewer with the glaring imbalances of power that are the inevitable product of a late-stage capitalist society. A fitting swansong to a career unparalleled in both creativity and controversy, it demands our attention as not simply a piece of cinema, or a piece of art, but as a piece of socio-political commentary, that today seems more relevant than ever.