Eyes Wide Shut and the Paranoid Style in American Pop Culture

What is it about Stanley Kubrick that makes people crazy?

I was truly excited about the release of last year’s film Room 237—as a historian and Kubrick fan, the idea of an hour or two of deep interpretation of the themes and symbolism of his 1980 horror classic The Shining sounded delightful.  It would be like taking a cultural history or film studies class where all the insights of a semester’s discussions were distilled into one megacut.

As it turned out, though, the film was more like a documentary about a cult or conspiracy theory, or simply the adherents of a weird fetish or hobby (say, a King of Kong for ersatz anthropologists).  Fairly ludicrous and elaborate inferences about the genocide of Native Americans or the faking of the Moon landing were narrated by the film’s motley, disembodied lot of amateur analysts, who even admitted that they may be reading too much into something but nonetheless went off on their ridiculous flights of hermeneutic fantasy.

What makes this all possible is the legend of Kubrick as the perfectionist. (The word “perfectionism” comes up frequently in Wikipedia entries on the filmmaker and his work.) He has the reputation of a director for whom every granular detail on screen is purposeful and rich with intent—a director who is also a consummate cinematographer, art director, and general freebase control freak.  Thus, the box of Calumet baking powder in The Shining is not just an aesthetic detail or, God forbid, a random, throwaway gesture, but the opening into a rich and complex tapestry of meanings about European conquest of the Americas and the return of the repressed.  Given the license to view every pixel as a potential message in a bottle, the Kubrick interpreter can make the text mean almost anything, because that’s what Stanley intended.

It is perhaps well to ask what this exegetic excess says about Kubrick and the generation that grew up with his movies—he, one of the great artists who passed through Hollywood’s auteur era of the 1970s, when desperate studios, still reeling from the challenge of television, greenlighted a lot of ambitious and groundbreaking films (Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver) that probably wouldn’t get made today; the generation being one that came of age in the paranoia and disillusion exemplified by Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, films that depicted a society where institutions and authorities simply could not be trusted.  In a post-Watergate world of pervasive cynicism, the truth was still “out there” nonetheless—and coded into the work of a mysterious, austere auteur.  Nothing captures this better than the incredible theory that Kubrick helped fake the 1969 Moon landing and then larded The Shining with clues to his deceit.

Nothing, that is, except the remarkable theories advanced about Kubrick’s last film, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut.  The fungal interpretive world that has grown up around the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman sex vehicle is in many ways less outlandish than that of The Shining—there is no massive coverup like the Moon landing involved—and yet it is more sinister and more telling about a particular strain of American political culture, one that is perpetually prone to view stories of inequality or injustice as allegories of elite conspiracy, often tinged with anti-Semitism or racism.

I recently rewatched Eyes Wide Shut, nearly fifteen years after seeing the film on its first release.  It may have been the first Kubrick film I’d ever seen, a situation akin to Time Out of Mind being your first Dylan album.  The movie was heavily promoted and the studio undoubtedly aspired to make this esoteric, idiosyncratic film a hit—Warner Bros reportedly pushed Kubrick to cast a star in the movie, noting that he hadn’t done so since Jack Nicholson way back in 1980—and the then-power couple of Cruise and Kidman seemed bankable enough.  Wikipedia notes that attendance at the film dropped over its opening weekend, allegedly because of media attention to JFK Jr.’s disappearance, but an objective observer might attribute this trend to word-of-mouth from Friday night viewers bewildered by what they’d seen.

As a young and not particularly perceptive viewer, I saw the film as just a weird, awkward story about one man’s attempt to compensate for his wife’s imagined infidelity by embarking on journey through a dreamlike New York of perversion and pathology. In other words, a happy family man, shaken in his marriage, decides to go out and see all the weird things that a deviant nighttime gesellschaft can offer.  He eventually returns home penitent, scared by things beyond the ambit of his ordinary world, and sort-of reconciles with his wife in the midst of Christmas shopping.

Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut

Looking back now, this interpretation seems radically incomplete.  In the early scenes, Kubrick could not be more blunt about presenting the contrast between Cruise’s carefree, conceited life as a breast-fondling, debonair doctor and Kidman as a frustrated wife and mother whose career ambitions and libido have been severely truncated.  Cruise’s character is a handsome doctor to the elite who enjoys his apartment on Central Park West as well as the gorgeous women who eagerly cling to his arm and the wealthy clients who defer to his medical authority.  Throughout the film, Cruise makes things happen two ways: one, by flashing his medical license and saying “I’m a doctor,” and two, by throwing money at people. (As commentator Marcus Yavith notes, Cruise’s character—“Dr. Bill”—sounds a lot like “Dollar Bill”: “Bill is part of the upper class, and his dealings with members of the lower class are often resolved with money.”)

Yet Kidman’s several monologues in the film call Cruise’s self-satisfied feeling of power into question.  Despite their privilege, despite his accomplishments, he’s still vulnerable to the inadequacy and lack of fulfilment felt by his wife, who resents his canoodling with gorgeous young women and describes in lurid detail her fantasy of sleeping with a muscular Navy captain she had seen on holiday with the family.  She’d have given everything away, she said, for a night of passion with this man—and it’s not long before Cruise is off to explore the perversity of New York’s underworld and, particularly, its elite in the topsy-turvy remainder of the film.

To me, now, the movie is not just about the sexual malaise of a long-married couple—which it undoubtedly is (indeed, the entire movie goes by without any of its principal characters actually having sex, and ends with Kidman’s statement that they need to fuck “as soon as possible”)—but also a comment on the gross inequality of America in the 1990s and 2000s.  Cruise’s character is a vain, unaware asshole who revels in his status as a doctor, but he floats in a world of wealth and privilege that is vastly beyond his own bank account.  The financial and business elite bow to him when they have a nearly dead hooker on their hands, but he is really a guest in their world.  When Cruise finds his way to the clandestine sex party on Long Island, where the elite of the elite don eerie Venetian masks and fuck freely, assured that membership in a super-secret society will shield them from scrutiny or consequences, he trespasses on a terrain where he is far from welcome.  Kubrick conveys the impersonality and inhumanity of this super elite—presumably CEOs, bankers, political insiders, and a young Anthony Weiner—through their dark cloaks and inscrutable, yet expressive masks.  Cruise may be a rich Manhattan doctor, but he is still just a lackey for the super-elite and an unwelcome interloper in an otherwise unimaginable world of privilege.  He almost pays for the transgression with his life, but instead there is a disposable female character who is worth far less than the exclusive members of the secret society or the errant doctor himself.

From the perspective of 2013, Eyes Wide Shut looks like a prescient allegory of the late 1990s bonanza of the superrich—the same people who plunged the economy into collapse in the dot-com bubble and again in the financial crash of 2008.  The Ziegler character, brilliantly played by an avuncular Sydney Pollack, treats Cruise a lot like he treats his overdosing hooker—as just another cost on the ledger books, to be manipulated by pretty talk or massaged by an accounting trick.  The whole orgy, the secret society, all the life and death is a game to him, because he’s immune to any real danger.  Risk, to paraphrase the great Leona Helmsley, is for the little people.

As it happens, a surprising cottage industry exists online to pick apart Eyes Wide Shut as a window into a vast conspiracy theory. Like The Shining, the film is believed to have a much deeper meaning, but one that is more insidious and explosive than a mere allegory of economic inequality or marital discontent.  Kubrick died a few days after showing the final cut to Cruise, Kidman, and the studio executives, and several commentators have viewed his death under “mysterious circumstances” as indicative of the fact that he was revealing something important people didn’t want revealed.  Oddly, Kubrick was offed and the film was still released, despite its message that supposedly posed a threat to the status quo.

According to numerous online commentators, Eyes Wide Shut is an oblique commentary on a ruling global elite—not just the rich, but a “globalist” Illuminati, a “synarchist group of global rulers who believe in rule by birthright,” often characterized as Jewish or Satanist. “The phrase ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ relates to one of the methods the Illuminati employ to hide their crimes and nefarious activities,” says Marcos Yavith (a purveyor of 9/11 and Sandy Hook conspiracy theories). Yavith sees Kidman’s character, Alice, as a reference to Alice in Wonderland, who goes through the looking glass.  As she is changing in front of a mirror, the half-shown image of a painting of a sunflower supposedly alludes to the Illuminati, Yavith says, because they are well-known “worshippers of the sun.” “It could not have been an accident, and had to be inserted into the story on purpose.”  He sees Ziegler and his fellow elites as essentially the same as “globalist figures [who] are constantly walking away from serious crimes without so much as a slap on the wrist.”

Videos linking Eyes Wide Shut to some sort of coded interpretation of an Illuminati conspiracy are surprisingly prevalent online, following a far more pernicious line than the creative and sometimes fanciful exegeses of The Shining or other Kubrick films. “I wasn’t indifferent to the film,” French film critic Michel Ciment says. “I felt there was a hidden meaning.” He notes Kubrick’s use of the color red, “which is often associated with the Rothschilds. Their name comes from Rot Schild, which means Red Shield.” For Ciment, the early appearance of the Hungarian character Sandor Szavost, who waltzes with and attempts to seduce Alice, clearly refers to Anton Szandor LaVey, the founder of the Satanist church, because the globalist elite pursue a Satanist faith in unlimited self-aggrandizement.  You could be forgiven for doubting whether the use of the name “Szandor” was an unmistakable reference to Anton LaVey.  And if you think unlimited self-aggrandizement sounds a lot more like capitalism than Satanism, you wouldn’t be wrong.

The impulse to infer knows few bounds, especially where Kubrick is concerned.  As the old saying goes, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  And when you’re a conspiracy theorist, everything connects to everything.  Ciment sees a pyramid shape in the scene where Nicole Kidman is undressing, and links it as a subliminal message to the Eye of Providence on the back of the American dollar bill, which supposedly resembles the triangle shape and eye on the A Clockwork Orange poster.  All totems of a Masonic, Jewish, and/or Satanic world conspiracy that Kubrick decided to expose—at the cost of his life.

To be fair, Ciment does not appear to link the film’s Masonic subtext to Kubrick’s death (or murder), but others have. “Kubrick died 666 days before 2001,” a young man by the name of 99Filmo says on YouTube.  He’s not the only one to tie Kubrick’s unfortunate and premature death to Christian eschatology and the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I just find it fascinating how all these coincidences occur. The day before he died he was perfectly healthy, and there are suspicions that he was actually killed by a member of the Illuminati.”

As film critic John David Ebert says, paranoia is an excess of pattern recognition.  “Mythology is pattern recognition systematized and stylized and later turned into religion,” Ebert argues. “Paranoia, however, is a caricature of this myth formation function… pattern recognition gone awry.”  Everyone has to recognize patterns—whether it’s in personal relationships or politics or simply analyzing a piece of literature to discern its motifs and themes—but there is always the danger of analysis going into overdrive, inferring too much from insufficient evidence and drawing spurious or too-easy connections between things.

We can examine a film like Eyes Wide Shut for its mythic qualities, focusing on its archetypal portrayal of a husband and wife, infidelity, a journey to the underworld, a venture into a secret society.  We can look at it as a political allegory of class and sexuality in gentrifying late 1990s New York.  Or we can see it as a multilayered uber-text of the international Illuminati conspiracy.

Tropics of Meta has delved into this kind of conspiratorial thinking before, particularly the deranged “Sovereign Citizen” movement that may have motivated the gunman who assaulted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed several others in 2010.  This violent and paranoid part of American life derives from a desire to see a world behind the world, a truth behind the so-called “truth”—a conviction that there is so much more than meets the eye, that only those who are “awake,” as Marcos Yavith puts it, can perceive.  That this sense of being awake versus sleeping or dreaming comes up in the interpretation of a film widely regarded by mainstream critics as being about a dream state—and based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, or “Dream Story”—is even more telling. “Why are conspiracy theories so fascinating?” Ciment asks. “They make our complex world more logical. Nothing happens by accident… a damn reassuring worldview. The unknown parts of life cease to exist…”

It seems unlikely to me that Kubrick intended any sort of conspiratorial message in Eyes Wide Shut, as the film is very much a piece with the cold, clinical, foreboding aesthetic that he brought to 2001, The Shining, and other films, which ultimately center on the director’s familiar themes of alienation and human frailty. It is hard to understand how a filmmaker who was such an unforgiving ironist would inspire such resolute certainty and conviction in so many people, who see in his work a dead-serious message of conspiracy and malfeasance.  It is not unwise to doubt fate and mistrust institutions, as Kubrick’s films repeatedly remind us.  But when it comes to elaborate political fantasies, I’m reminded of Johnny Clay, the failed criminal in The Killing whose girlfriend implores him to do something as he sees his money blow away and the police approach: “Eh, what’s the difference?”