Beyond the Infinite: Part Two

Eyes Wide Shut

by Leah Hendriks Volume 6, Issue 9 / September 2002 31 minutes (7705 words)

In addition to similarities with Belson and Brakhage, Kubrick also shares an affinity with experimental filmmakers such as Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, Maya Deren, and Kenneth Anger. Each of these filmmakers is interested in experimenting with narrative structure, cinematic time and space, character subjectivity and point-of-view, the idea of film as dream, journeys through the unconscious, rituals, trance states, and ambiguous meanings. These filmmakers push cinema beyond its perceived limitations and experiment with its medium specific qualities to achieve these ends. Like Kubrick’s 2001, Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928), Deren and Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (USA, 1943), and Anger’s Lucifer Rising (1973) represent attempts on the part of the filmmakers to search for a new cinematic language that can be used to tell stories in ways that challenge the codes and conventions of mainstream narrative cinema.

Meshes of the Afternoon opens with a shot of an unnaturally long thin arm and hand that drops from the top of the frame and places a flower in the middle of a road. As soon as the hand places the flower on the road the arm vanishes into thin air. This first shot introduces the sense of ambiguity, illogic, dreams, and the unconscious that pervades the film. It also introduces the idea of discontinuous space: the arm appears from some unknown source and drops down into the frame and then abruptly vanishes from the frame into a hidden space that is never revealed.

Presumably, the arm that drops down from the top of the frame extends downward from the sky. The arm is not an ordinary human arm and its movement down from the sky is not ordinary movement. As such, it sets up the theme of illogical spatial relations that will come to dominate the film in different ways. The sense of illogical spatial relations is particularly pervasive in scenes that take place inside a house that overlooks the road where the arm drops down from the sky. This sense of spatial disorientation continues in scenes that take place inside a house that stands beside this road. In these scenes the film discombobulates our sense of continuous space and creates optical illusions such as the sense of floating or drifting through air or up walls and ceilings as well as sudden, disjunctive transitions from one space in the house to another. The sense of spatial disorientation also extends to scenes that take place beyond the house.

In a particularly interesting sequence four different shots are edited together to create the sense of discontinuous temporal and spatial coordinates that link together metaphorically to create a surprisingly fluid conceptual sense of the passage of time. In this montage sequence the passage of time is signified by four separate, discontinuous representations of time and space. In these four shots we see a woman’s legs and feet striding along sand and ocean, grass, pavement, and a rug. This montage sequence is preceded by a shot of a woman walking over to a one of her two twinned selves who is sleeping in a chair. As the woman raises a knife into the air the film cuts to a close-up of her feet striding across the floor and then cuts to the four shot montage. Following this short montage the film cuts to a shot of the woman’s head as she plunges the raised knife towards her sleeping self. This sequence is a perfect example of the use of camera placement and editing strategies to confuse the spectator’s sense of continuous space and to create complex metaphorical associations through the blending and juxtaposition of discontinuous temporal and spatial coordinates.

The use of camera placement and editing strategies to manipulate the spectator’s sense of continuous time and space in Meshes of the Afternoon is reminiscent of Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Like Meshes of the Afternoon, Un Chien Andalou thwarts a rational sense of spatial and temporal continuity and does so through specifically cinematic means, with a particular emphasis on juxtaposition achieved through montage. In 2001 Kubrick experiments with cinema in much the same way as Meshes of the Afternoon and Un Chien Andalou to achieve a similar sense of spatial and temporal disorientation. In the process, like his predecessors, Kubrick seeks to introduce a new dimension into the language of mainstream narrative cinema.

The centrifuge sequence of 2001 disorientates the spectator’s sense of space through a combination of camera placement, camera movement, and movement of the set itself. This sequence involves the character Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) jogging around a circular centrifuge track. The floor of the track is curved to form a circle shaped like a round wheel, with the floors equivalent to the curved underside of the wheel’s interior walls. The ceiling of the centrifuge is equivalent to the circular hub in the center of a wheel. The side walls are flat with curved edges where the wall meets the circular track and interior hub of the room. As Frank jogs around the track he seems to defy a logical reading of space and gravity, jogging horizontally, vertically, and upside-down along the curved, circular track. As he jogs around this impossible space, the camera fluidly pans his movement in one long take, creating the illusion of continuous, streamlined movement.

Like Meshes of the Afternoon and Un Chien Andalou, the centrifuge sequence presents an optical illusion that thwarts a logical reading of spatial organization. In the first two films space is fragmented and discontinuous, with disparate spaces linking together metaphorically to create a sense of discontinuous continuity, or a sense of nonlinear, illogical spatial continuity. In the case of the centrifuge sequence space is unbroken and continuous, but this sense of continuity defies a logical reading of spatial organization and creates a comparable sense of visual and conceptual confusion in the spectator. [41]

The confusing sense of space conveyed in the centrifuge sequence is linked to the idea of space travel and zero gravity, whereas in Meshes of the Afternoon and Un Chien Andalou the confusing sense of space is associated with the idea of dreams and the unconscious. A key difference between Meshes of the Afternoon and Un Chien Andalou is that the former is a reflexive, personal film that evokes the sense of an interior quest, whereas the latter is a voyeuristic imitation of irrational, unconscious experience. [42] Both Meshes of the Afternoon and Un Chien Andalou evoke the oneiric space of dreams. However, unlike Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid in the creation of Meshes of the Afternoon, Dali and Bunuel did not set out to create a film that operates according to dream logic or that creates the atmosphere of a dream. Their intention was to create a film structured completely against the laws of rationality, linear thinking, and cause and effect. This film is an exercise in constructing a narrative that functions according to the illogic of irrationality. It is not meant to represent a dream, but its structure does rely on mechanisms found in dream logic. [43] In Sitney’s words, “by a surrealistic principle, Dali and Bunuel sought to combine images so that one would bear no logical or rational connection to the next.”44 Like Un Chien Andalou, the optical illusion presented in the centrifuge sequence creates a sense of unreality that can be associated with dreams, but this sequence is not intended to connote a dream space. Nor does it evoke a sense of interior or unconscious experience. The key similarity between the centrifuge sequence, Meshes of the Afternoon, and Un Chien Andalou is the use of cinematography and editing strategies to manipulate space.

2001’s isolation room sequence operates much more along the lines of dream logic than the centrifuge sequence, and experiments with camera placement and editing strategies in ways that challenge cinematic conventions of time and space in much the same way as Meshes of the Afternoon and Un Chien Andalou. Like the earlier two films, the structure of this sequence uses mechanisms of dream logic and its spatio-temporal dislocations are directly linked to these underlying mechanisms. Moreover, like these two films, the isolation room sequence presents an unstable, shifting world where time and space melt together like shifting sands and the character’s journey through it is marked by a sense of an all-consuming, ever-present time and space. The sequence is structured according to a sort of dream logic where each shot surprises and perplexes the spectator by thwarting their expectations of logical temporal and spatial continuity. In Falsetto’s words, this sequence is structured around “the gaze, off-screen space, and elliptical cutting.”45

In this sequence we are led to identify our perspective with Bowman’s point-of view, but we soon realize that point-of-view in this sequence is unstable, unreliable, and ambiguous. For instance, early in the sequence the film presents us with three different long shots of the starkly decorated white isolation room with the space pod visible in all three shots. At first it seems that the film is presenting us with three shots taken from Bowman’s perspective, but each shot is taken from a different place in the room and presents a different view. As Falsetto aptly notes, this leads us to conclude that all three shots cannot possibly “represent Bowman’s perceptual point-of-view.”46 Where is Bowman looking? Whose perspective is it? Is it the spectator’s unique perspective, unshared by Bowman? Is it a roaming camera? Is it an off-screen, unseen character’s perspective? We can never really be certain whose point-of-view we share, and this ambiguity continues until the end of the sequence.

As the sequence unfolds we continue to be sutured into Bowman’s POV only to have our sense of a stable and uniform perspective thwarted over and over again. We see a shot of Bowman looking somewhere off-screen and the film cuts to a medium shot of an older Bowman looking back at us. In multiple overlapping instances we are implicated in a series of shots that present two Bowmans, each existing in his own time and space, but the existence of each fused into one shared present. This temporal and spatial overlap and ambiguity continues until the very end of the sequence, when we see Bowman as a decrepit old man who looks and points toward the enormous black monolith that suddenly appears at the foot of his bed. In a shot-reverse-shot that follows this series of shots we suddenly see Bowman in his re-born form as the Star-Child curled up in a small spherical uterine dome that hovers over the bed covers. These temporal and spatial dislocations are achieved through camera placement and editing strategies in ways that are reminiscent of Meshes of the Afternoon and Un Chien Andalou. Through these strategies 2001 produces a similarly oneiric atmosphere as the earlier films to similar formal and thematic ends.

In his excellent description and analysis of this sequence Mario Falsetto notes, “the space-time continuum, as it is normally understood, has clearly been ruptured. The viewer’s sense of a linear progression of time and space is undermined.”47 In his description of the unconventional editing strategies used in this sequence Falsetto goes on to say, “the audience clearly cannot rely on its cognizance of traditional point-of-view editing (a shot of a character looking, then cut to a shot of what the character sees) to navigate through this territory.”48 These are important points that illustrate the experimental nature of this sequence and that align this sequence with experimental films such as Meshes of the Afternoon and Un Chien Andalou.

In addition to its play with cinematic time and space, the isolation room sequence of 2001 illustrates two important characteristics of films that have a transcendental theme: the idea of a particular place being the site of transcendence and the idea of a key being used to get there. In 2001 the monolith acts as a key that directs the astronauts towards “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,” which eventually leads to the Star-Gate and the transcendent space of the isolation room and culminates in Bowman’s ultimate transformation into the Star-Child. In Meshes of the Afternoon the site of transcendence is a house, in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising a transcendental ritual takes place in a specific part of a room, and in Eyes Wide Shut a similarly ritualistic event takes place at an enormous mansion called Somerton. It is interesting to note that the ritualistic events that take place in Lucifer Rising and Eyes Wide Shut involve a circle as part of the symbolic iconography, and all four films involve the use of a key in the passage from one realm to another. In Meshes a literal key is used to unlock the passage that leads into the site of space-time transcendence. In Lucifer Rising the circle and the ritual that takes place inside the circle is the key that brings forth a new phase of consciousness. In Eyes Wide Shut the word fidelio is the key; it is the password that allows access to the orgy ritual that takes place inside Somerton mansion. Finally, in Jordan Belson’s transcendental cinema, the key is the form of the circle that pervades his films. These similarities reveal significant links between the form and content of these films and carry us directly into a discussion of Kenneth Anger’s visionary film Lucifer Rising.

All that I have mentioned so far in terms of the importance of circles, the concept of inner vision, a focus on transcendence of time and space and the idea of the merging of microcosmic and macrocosmic elements of the universe, and the use of particularly cinematic means to explore all of these can be seen at work in Anger’s film. Like Belson’s films and Kubrick’s 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut, circles are a recurring symbol in Lucifer Rising. In the context of this paper there are two circular forms that are of particular interest. The first is a circular form used as a site of ritual and the second are circular UFOs that appear at the end of the film. A painted circle inscribed on the floor of a larger sacred space functions as a site of ritual for the transcendence of time and space as well as for the evolution of human consciousness. The circle is surrounded by a series of glowing candles. This circle is the key that brings on the next phase of consciousness. In this sequence a young man, Lucifer, clad in white flowing robes enters the circle and walks around the inner circumference several times. His movement becomes progressively faster with each cycle around the circle, thereby creating the impression that he is physically and psychologically merging with the circle as he walks within it. As he walks within the circle the film inter-cuts to images of rushing, swirling water. The movement of the water speeds up as Lucifer’s movement within the circle speeds up, until the water swirls in a rapid spiraling motion, thereby creating a circular form that spirals inward infinitely. The image of swirling water is reminiscent of swirling images in Belson’s work, and the inter-cutting between the circle and the water suggests a relationship between meditative forms that are observable in nature and our own attempts at reaching higher states of consciousness through ritual. This key, the walking of the circle, summons the circular UFOs who bring upon the seekers a new level of consciousness, just as the alien monolith does in 2001.

In Lucifer Rising the circle as a site of ritual and the action of carrying out the ritual by entering the circle and merging with it by repeatedly walking around its inner circumference brings forth the appearance of glowing, circular UFOs. The UFOs fly over stone structures and costumed people that represent ancient Egyptian civilization. The circular UFOs relate to ancient mythology that an alien race from outer space may be responsible for some of the advancements in human consciousness and human civilizations as we have evolved over thousands of years. This idea also applies to the monolith in 2001. Like the UFOs in Lucifer Rising, the monolith represents an alien presence that signifies the advancement of human consciousness. In both films the alien presence is directly associated with transcendent experience, and although the reference to the advancement of human consciousness is more overt in 2001 than in Lucifer Rising, this is an important concept in both films.

The Many Circles of Lucifer Rising

Anger’s Lucifer Rising illustrates another transcendental journey through cinematic manipulation of time and space involving a specific site of transcendence and a key being used to get there. In Lucifer Rising Anger uses optical strategies such as wipes and dissolves and editing strategies such as inter-cutting to juxtapose different times and places. For instance, Anger manipulates time and space through inter-cutting between shots of different people ascending to a sacred place of ritual and worship at different times of night and day. This juxtaposition between night and day within the same space suggests different times, but also creates the sense of people traveling back and forth through time, thereby suggesting different planes of existence. The film also uses wipes to juxtapose disparate times and spaces. For instance, one sequence juxtaposes daytime shots of a young woman climbing a steep, winding staircase that leads up to a space of ritual at the top of a large stone structure with nighttime shots of a small group of people walking with glowing torches through stone ruins. The use of the wipe to juxtapose these two regions of time and space suggests that they are somehow linked, but the precise nature of this linkage remains ambiguous. In this case the wipe might juxtapose night and day within the same general time frame and region of space. However, as in the previous example of the use of editing strategies, perhaps it is meant to suggest entirely different planes of existence that are nonetheless directly linked.

The film also illustrates how the theme of inner vision and intuitive experience is directly linked to the themes of worship and ritual. Ritual is often used as means to get in touch with our innermost being in order to connect with something that transcends our selves. Anger’s film is about a ritualistic spiritual journey inward that ultimately brings forth contact with UFOs, a symbol of the greater cosmos. It is important to note that UFOs are circular flying objects and in this film the UFOs are bright and luminescent. Throughout the history of human civilization people have repeatedly reported seeing circular UFOs, and the circular form of these objects is yet another example of the fundamental and mysterious significance of the symbol of the circle to human beings.

Within the film there are several specific illustrations of reaching inward into our selves as well as outward to the cosmos. Lucifer Rising abounds in images of people reaching out to nature and the sky in an effort to connect with elements that exist beyond themselves. The film is filled with images of nature and the universe, such as raging fires, billowing smoke, bubbling lava, landscapes, rocks, trees, lightning, storms, rain, rivers, oceans, the sun, and the moon. These images are often inter-cut with images of people performing rituals of worship such as beckoning the earth and heavens with sacred objects or ascending to sacred spaces. Several of these instances have a double signification whereby the experience of reaching outward is matched by an experience of reaching inward. This inward experience is represented through visual abstraction or images of nature that take on a dreamy, surreal atmosphere. An example of this is a sequence in which a young woman is seen lying in a hollowed out stone that is set within a small open cavern. As she looks up toward the sky the film cuts to a surreal shot of a full moon and night sky filled with wispy grey clouds. The film cuts to an extreme close-up of the moon and cuts again to a shot of a vaporous, swirling sky that is reminiscent of Belson’s work and the Star-Gate sequence of 2001. These images are not meant to represent a naturalistic setting; they are meant to represent the merging of interior experience with the external world, thereby functioning as a representation of inner vision. Other examples of this type of imagery include a partial solar eclipse and an extreme close-up of a human heart that abstracts into an image of fluid, pulsating shades of red. Furthermore, the shots of nature bursting, bubbling, and exploding can be interpreted as a representation of the powerful force that exists between human beings and the universe.

In addition to the many allusions to inner vision and interior experience via representations of the natural world, Lucifer Rising also incorporates hypnagogic and hallucinatory imagery in the form of flying flecks and flashes of light. Significantly, this imagery appears at the end of the sequence in which Lucifer performs the ritual of stepping into and repeatedly walking around the inner circumference of the sacred circle. Like Belson’s films, Brakhage’s films, and Kubrick’s Star-Gate sequence, the flying flecks and flashes of light represent closed-eye visual experience such as hypnagogic vision or hallucinations. In this case, as with Belson’s films and the Star-Gate sequence, this representation of inner vision signifies an experience of transcendence and spiritual ecstasy. Finally, the use of Tarot cards is another form of ritual that illustrates the idea of reaching inward to tap into some of our internal mysteries. Tarot card reading involves using a mediator (the cards) as means to get in touch with one’s inner vision and intuition in order to reveal hidden aspects about oneself and the larger world beyond one’s self.

Lucifer Rising’s emphasis on ritual and inner vision makes it the perfect conceptual bridge between 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut. These two Kubrick films explore similar issues to the experimental filmmakers I have discussed so far in conjunction with a similar interest in experimenting with the technical, aesthetic, and conceptual possibilities of the medium, all of which are crystallized in Lucifer Rising. Eyes Wide Shut is about one man’s journey through inner vision and interior experience, spatial and temporal discontinuity, microcosmic and macrocosmic states of being, and rituals that are part of our attempt as humans to make sense and meaning out of our experience of life and existence. In this film, as in the other films I have discussed in this paper, specifically cinematic means such as cinematography and editing strategies are crucial to the way in which these concepts are expressed and explored. In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, like the female protagonist in Meshes of the Afternoon but unlike Dave Bowman in 2001, Bill Harford’s journey relies more heavily on metaphor and allusion than it does on overt visual representations of his interior experiences.

Eyes Wide Shut is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story, 1926), a story that explores different dimensions of the self and different orders of the real through the scope of dreams, the unconscious, and interior experience. The film is a close adaptation of the novella and presents an oneiric atmosphere, one that slips between different orders of the real and different levels of the psyche using cinematic means. The focus of the film is Dr. Bill Harford’s (Tom Cruise) psychological journey through the jealousy and paranoia of marital infidelity. He is guided more by intuition than logic, but his unhealthy state of mind prevents him from reaching a true state of transcendence, and so he becomes confused and wanders around aimlessly, lost in the time and space of his own thoughts.

The orgy sequence at Somerton mansion is the clearest link with Lucifer Rising. In both films the central protagonist comes upon a ritual that begins within a circle and in both cases cloaked figures are integral to the unfolding drama. The orgy sequence of Eyes Wide Shut involves several circular forms, shapes, and patterns of movement, as well as circles within circles. The central circle as site of ritual consists of a bright illuminated circular area within a large red carpet. The circumference of this carpeted circle is made up of a group of women who are masked and cloaked in black. Within this circle of women a masked red-cloaked figure, Red Cloak (Leon Vitali), leads the ritual and carries a staff and spherical thurible (incense dispenser) that hangs loosely from a long chain. Red Cloak walks around the inner circumference of this circle of women, much like Lucifer’s ritualistic walk within the circle in Lucifer Rising, and as he walks he swings the thurible in a circular motion. As he swings the thurible, smoke rises and spirals as it swirls through the air. The circle of women is surrounded by a large group of cloaked and masked figures, and this group is in turn surrounded by another group of cloaked and masked figures that stand along a balcony that overlooks the action below. As the ritual progresses, these women shed their cloaks to reveal their naked masked bodies and perform a series of rituals before Red Cloak beckons them, one by one, to leave the circle. Before they leave the circle these women, kneeling on the ground, turn to embrace and kiss one another in sequence, tracing the circumference of this circle with their embraces.

This ritual is photographed by a steadicam that moves fluidly around the room in a circular motion as it follows the action. As Bill walks around the mansion in the middle of the sequence, the steadicam follows him from room to room past masked cloaked figures that congregate in circular groups as spectators gather around naked masked orgy participants. During Bill’s trial at the end of the sequence, which takes place in the same circular space as the opening ritual, large groups of masked cloaked figures encircle him and the circular movement of the camera intensifies and becomes almost hypnotic and dizzying.

The series of circles within circles in this sequence signifies the idea of repetition and this sense of repetition is echoed in the multiple cloaked and masked guests who all look alike, as well as in the series of nearly indistinguishable naked, masked women. In addition to looking alike, the idea of repetition also extends to the way in which these figures move as well as the way in which the camera moves as it follows the action. The camera movement is slow and fluid, the revelers move slowly and speak little, and the naked women walk and move their bodies sensually. In their visual appearance and physical movement, the revelers and the naked women look like clones of one another and give the impression of existing within a trance state as they glide almost speechlessly throughout the mansion. The masks heighten the sense of trance states and clones; although each mask is different, these masked figures are devoid of emotional expression and create the eerie impression of entranced somnambulists.

From a psychological perspective, the idea of repetition is crucial to the dream logic that guides Bill’s experience throughout the film. The sense of dream logic and repetition culminates in the orgy sequence at Somerton mansion. The concept of the double or doppelgänger is a common motif in dreams, and the idea of multiple doubles carries especially strong symbolic significance. In this case, the cloaked and masked guests resemble each other; Bill, who is also masked and cloaked, effectively stares into a sea of his own likeness. In this environment Bill’s sense of self is disturbed and unsettled when he is faced with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of replicas of himself. The idea of losing oneself in an endless sea of replicas is extremely frightening and can be interpreted as Bill’s sense of psychological fragmentation and anxiety as his psyche journeys further and further within itself. Moreover, the series of naked masked women all resemble Bill’s wife Alice (Nicole Kidman), and can be interpreted as dream motifs that represent Bill’s unconscious attempt to restore a sense of psychological connection and balance with his wife. In the film, therefore, the idea of repetition takes on a highly oneiric quality and represents Bill’s emotionally disturbed psyche as he journeys inward into himself.

The idea of repetition ties in with fractal geometry, Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and Yogic philosophy. In fractal geometry a pattern of infinite complexity is created through repeatedly graphing the same formula. The theory of the collective unconscious involves the idea that common and inherited symbols and archetypes are repeated and shared by all human beings as a function of our physiological and psychological structure. Finally, Yogic philosophy espouses that through meditation one can learn to recognize oneself in all creatures and elements of the universe and through this repeated self-recognition one can merge with the world beyond oneself and achieve a sense of cosmic unity.

The idea of ritual and repetition in the orgy sequence at Somerton ties directly in with similar issues that are explored in Meshes of the Afternoon, Un Chien Andalou, Lucifer Rising, and 2001. As mentioned earlier in this paper, one important similarity between these films and Eyes Wide Shut is the idea of a space of ritual or transcendence that involves a key to get inside. Another similarity is the idea of the double or doppelgänger. The idea of the double or doppelgänger is present in Meshes in the form of the central protagonist’s multiple selves that collapse and fragment her sense of a continuous and unified self as she slips deeper into her reverie. The double or doppelgänger motif is present in 2001 in the form of multiple embodiments of Bowman at different stages of physical aging and deterioration that appear within the same temporal and spatial frame. In Eyes Wide Shut the multiple cloaked and masked figures as well as the series of nearly indistinguishable naked masked women function as doubles or doppelgänger motifs for Bill and Alice respectively. In this sequence it is as though Bill enters an otherworldly place suspended between different levels of the psyche and different orders of the real where he can recognize himself in everyone and is confronted by himself at every turn. In the case of Eyes Wide Shut, it is interesting to note that Bill is confronted by doppelgänger figures that put him on trial, threaten him, throw him out of the house, and tell him never to return. It is as though his mind turns on itself and ejects him from the train of thought he embarked upon after his wife’s disturbing confession of extramarital fantasy and desire.

Another way in which Eyes Wide Shut is similar to the films I have discussed throughout this paper is the fact that it plays with time and space through cinematic means. In Eyes Wide Shut the play with time and space is subtle and less overt than it is in the other films I have discussed, but no less innovative or interesting. In this film Bill’s journey through New York City is akin to a journey within his own mind that takes on the atmosphere of a dream and is structured according to dream logic. If this is a dream story, Bill’s reverie might have begun immediately after a Christmas party the couple attends in one of the opening sequences of the film, but his inward journey really takes off with his wife’s confession of an unconsummated extramarital fantasy and desire.

Alice reveals her story one night when she and Bill discuss the events that had unfolded at the Christmas party they had attended the previous evening at the home of the wealthy Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). At the party both Alice and Bill had flirted with and been propositioned by members of the opposite sex. This conversation leads the couple to discuss their feelings related to each other’s flirtations and potential desire for other men and women. Alice is unsatisfied and irritated by her husband’s calm sense of confidence that she would never cheat on him and his belief that when it comes to extramarital sex and desire men and women are different. He claims that men only approach women they want to have sex with but insists that he is an exception to this rule because he is in love with his wife. Alice is unconvinced by Bill’s argument and becomes increasingly enraged at the idea that he takes her beauty and sensuality for granted and underestimates the potency of her sexual desire. In an effort to destabilize what she interprets as Bill’s arrogance and presumptuousness, she reveals an unconsummated adulterous fantasy she had while on vacation with Bill and their daughter Helena (Madison Eginton) the previous summer. In great detail, she tells a story about a handsome young naval officer with whom she exchanged an electric, sensual gaze while on this vacation. Alice admits that if the opportunity had presented itself she would have acted on her lust, which at that moment was so strong that she would have been willing to risk her marriage, child, and even her entire future for even just one night with the young naval officer. This story leaves Bill in a state of cold shock, and just as Alice finishes they are interrupted by a ringing telephone.

Immediately after Bill hangs up the telephone the film cuts to a medium shot of Bill in the back seat of a taxi that drives through the city streets at night. In the taxi he visualizes his wife’s adulterous fantasy and the film cuts to an insert of a love making scene between Alice and the naval officer. This scene is shot in slow motion and bathed in shadowy tones of black and white. The fantasy visualization is repeated at various junctures throughout the film as Bill’s journey progresses. As he descends further into his dream space and deeper into his feelings of jealousy and resentment, this visualization becomes increasingly intense and explicit. These fantasy visualizations are significant on a number of levels, but one of the ways in which they are pertinent to this discussion is that they are cinematic representations of interior visual experience. In this case, these visualizations represent a form of memory feedback as Bill’s visual memory plays back images that he imagined as Alice revealed to him the details of her adulterous desire. However, since the fantasy visualizations are embedded within the larger dream structure of the film they could also be interpreted to represent one of many dimensions of Bill’s dream space. Either way, the fantasy visualizations are interior visual experiences that represent Bill’s inward psychological journey as he grapples with the concepts of marriage, fidelity, jealousy, sexuality, and desire.

Dream Visions in Eyes Wide Shut & Meshes of the Afternoon

The play with interior vision extends beyond the idea of memory feedback or dreams and encompasses all manner of interior visual experience that represent different dimensions of the psyche and different orders of the real. Eyes Wide Shut is imbued with ambiguity and the distinctions between reality and fantasy and open-eye and closed-eye vision is never clear. With the exception of the fantasy visualizations, perhaps the film is a representation of Bill’s wakeful, fully conscious, open-eye visual experience. Or maybe it is all a dream. My interpretation is that it unfolds as reality and fantasy that merge to complete and compliment each other. I think that Eyes Wide Shut slips freely between different dimensions of the psyche and different orders of the real and collapses the rigid demarcations people often make between reality and fantasy, conscious and unconscious, wakefulness and dreams, open-eye and closed-eye vision, etc. This sense of ambiguity is one of the film’s greatest accomplishments. The film explores the fluidity that I believe exists within the human mind, body, and soul, whereby different dimensions of the mind and different orders of the real are free to intermingle. It also frees up notions of continuous time and space.

In Eyes Wide Shut time and space are not as fragmented and discontinuous as they are in some of the other films I have discussed. However, Eyes Wide Shut does present a view of time and space that transcends everyday Western notions of their perceived continuous nature. In this film time and space take on the ambiguity, fluidity, and elasticity of a dream, and it is this oneiric quality and cinematic experimentation with dream logic that links the film with Un Chien Andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon, and 2001. The setting of the story in contemporary New York City is one of the ways in which the film constructs an oneiric atmosphere and distorts the sense of reality by playing with temporal and spatial coordinates. For one thing, although the film takes place in contemporary New York City, it does not offer a naturalistic representation of the real New York City; this New York City is impossible to locate in time and space because it is a city built on metaphor and allusion. This is a dream city that is seen through a prism that distorts and collapses rigid demarcations of time and space, inner psyche and outer world, fantasy and reality. Moreover, it combines elements from different countries, cultures, and eras, presenting a mixture of the New York City of different decades and merging this New York City with elements of fin de siècle Vienna, which is the temporal and geographic setting of the novella.

The oneiric atmosphere and ambiguous quality of the setting in time and place is matched by the narrative structure based on dream logic. The film begins with a sequence of the Harford’s attending a Christmas Ball that introduces the themes and motifs that will come to dominate the film as it shifts from a sense of reality and wakefulness to one of fantasy and dreams. The film challenges us to constantly reevaluate conventional demarcations between different levels of the psyche and different orders of the real. One of the ways in which it does this is by progressively releasing time and space from a sense of clear and fixed points of reference outside of Bill’s psyche. The film constantly challenges us to retroactively rework our understanding of narrative events by introducing details and elements to the story that shed new light on things we have previously encountered. The film also encourages a questioning of what is real and what is fantasy and whether Bill’s point of reference is a wakeful one or one permeated by dreams and the unconscious. There are myriad examples that would help to illustrate this point, but I will limit myself to a few key points.

For instance, in Eyes Wide Shut the characters and narrative events are linked together through relationships that are bound together through a series of coincidences; the narrative links together like a dream, where metaphors and allusions trigger the unfolding of seemingly chance meetings and events. The use of metaphor and allusion to connect the dots between disparate narrative events encourages a questioning of whether the events unfold as a result of logic and cause and effect relationships, or whether the events unfold as a result of symbolic linkages that represent Bill’s inward psychological journey.

Secondly, Bill’s journey is fraught with interruptions of sexual fantasy. These interruptions begin with the ringing of the telephone just as Alice finishes telling Bill her tale of adulterous fantasy and desire and continue throughout the film whenever Bill is presented with an opportunity to explore his own repressed sexual fantasies. The concept of interruption lies at the heart of dream logic in terms of the narrative unfolding of dreams, and also informs our experience and memory of dreams. For instance, it is not unusual to rapidly shift from one dream to another, breaking dream continuity before a dream fully plays itself out, and we often wake up in the middle of a dream. This interruption is part of the fragmented nature we ascribe to dreams and dream logic, and it is this sense of interruption and fragmentation that informs the narrative unfolding of Eyes Wide Shut.

As a final point about the play with dream logic and time and space in Eyes Wide Shut, I would like to briefly discuss these concepts as they relate to the orgy sequence at Somerton mansion. The sequence at Somerton represents the point at which Bill has strayed furthest from a secure hold on reality and has descended most deeply into his psyche. It is also the sequence that is most heavily structured according to dream logic. Like the house in Meshes of the Afternoon and the isolation room in 2001, Somerton mansion has no fixed referent outside of itself. In each case, neither the spectator nor the characters have a clear sense of where they are in time or space when they enter into these transcendent spaces. Like the central protagonist in Meshes of the Afternoon and Bowman in 2001, Bill’s sense of time and space becomes completely unstable and disorientated once he enters a transcendent space. As in the other films, it is in this transcendent space that his psyche undergoes a pivotal transition that could either lead him toward destruction, as is the case in Meshes of the Afternoon, or enlightenment, as is the case in 2001. In Bill’s case, this transition leads somewhere between these two poles, and the rest of his journey is fraught with events that threaten to spiral off into either direction until the film’s conclusion brings these events to an ambiguous, open-ended close.

Through an analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut several important elements of Kubrick’s cinematic project become immediately apparent and a direct lineage can be traced between these two phases of Kubrick’s career. In this paper I chose to focus on the ways in which Kubrick’s work fits in with the traditions of experimental cinema. Although 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut are distinct works that represent different periods of the filmmaker’s career, both films reflect a profound interest in experimenting with the cinematic medium as means to explore physiological, psychological, and philosophical dimensions of the human condition. Kubrick’s interest in experimenting with the technical, aesthetic, and conceptual possibilities of cinema to explore what it means to be human, links his cinematic project with the work of experimental filmmakers such as Dali and Bunuel, Deren and Hammid, Belson, Brakhage, and Anger.

All of the films I have examined in this paper share similar formal and thematic interests that reach beyond cinema into other facets of human life and the cosmos. Through a look at recurring motifs and aesthetics in the work of the filmmakers concerned, I have suggested that there is a common thread of archetypes, symbols, forms, shapes, and patterns that ties these works together. This thread of commonality includes the mandala and imagery associated with ritual, fractal imagery, and myriad forms of closed-eye vision such as what Brakhage describes as hypnagogic vision, moving visual thinking, dream vision, and memory feedback. I would add to this list other forms of closed-eye vision such as the interior vision Belson explores in his work relating to meditation and transcendental experience as well as visual hallucinations. These visual connections are astounding in themselves, but this is only the tip of what strikes me as an infinitely more complex and revealing series of relationships and interconnections that might ultimately reveal some of the innermost workings of life and the cosmos.

The recurrence of archetypes, symbols, forms, shapes, and patterns through this disparate group of films and filmmakers helps to support and illustrate Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, a theory that can be extended to include other living creatures and phenomena that exist on myriad levels of the universe. The idea that all levels of life and the universe share a fundamental connection helps in turn to support the Yogic belief that all phenomena of the universe are ultimately linked and that through meditation one can reach a state of transcendence whereby the self unites with the cosmos.

Why do these elements converge in so many experimental films? I believe that experimental cinema’s interest in exploring relationships between the medium and the larger questions of life and the universe has made it a particularly apt form of visual art for tapping into the intuitive knowledge that is stored in the deepest regions of our minds and bodies. The list of experimental filmmakers discussed here is by no means complete; I have offered but a glimpse into the ways in which Kubrick’s work is deeply imbued with an experimental sensibility. It would be interesting to go much deeper into a study of Kubrick’s work as it relates to experimental filmmakers and flesh out more of the relationships between this great director and his sphere of influence. Kubrick’s work has helped keep the lofty goals of his experimental predecessors alive and well into the new millennium, a time when new digital technologies have opened up a whole new world of interest in visual art’s capacity for teaching us about ourselves in vastly unforeseen ways. Hopefully the work I have done here can be seen as a new beginning in understanding how, in the age of the fractal, Stanley Kubrick is more relevant now than ever. [49]


41. The optical illusion of space and gravity that is conveyed in the centrifuge sequence is also conveyed in other parts of the film, such as a sequence in which a stewardess walks upside down inside a portal that links different parts of the spaceship as she delivers space dinners.

42. In Sitney’s words, Un Chien Andalou “depends upon the power of film to evoke a mad voyeurism and to imitate the very discontinuity, the horror, and the irrationality of the unconscious.” (Sitney 11).

43. Sitney 3-4.

44. Sitney 3.

45. Falsetto 112.

46. Ibid., 112.

47. Ibid., 113.

48. Ibid., 113.

49. Many thanks to Randolph Jordan for his patience in proof reading this paper and offering numerous helpful suggestions.

Beyond the Infinite, Part 1

Volume 6, Issue 9 / September 2002 Essays   avant-garde   experimental   kenneth anger   maya deren   stan brakhage   stanley kubrick