Piercing the Veil

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Eyes Wide Shut is New York back lot

Pauline Kael’s review of Blade Runner, from 1982, contains a complaint that sounds to me more like a compliment, or even a clue: “We’re always aware of the sets as sets.” The future Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic is a jumble of exotic soundstage locales from Hollywood’s Golden Age: “Oriental” market stalls and Persian latticework and Deco neons, done up in a hysterical Sternbergian miasma of rain and smoke and spotlights. Kael called it “2019 back lot.”

This elaborate backlot design is a nod to the offscreen, as well as the onscreen, history of Hollywood, particularly in its architecture. When the movie barons arrived in Los Angeles to reinvent themselves and America in each other’s image, they retconned a mythology in territory they considered unclaimed: they lived in Mission Revival mansions or Swiss Chalet bungalow courts, and erected movie palaces like Grauman’s “Chinese” and “Egyptian” theaters, imperial pastiches similar to the Egyptian or Mayan pyramid that houses Blade Runner’s godlike Tyrell, the maker of artificial life.

The film is steeped in spurious pasts—just like its “replicants,” artificial humans with implanted memories. Tyrell’s prized Rachael comes to learn that her master programmed her to recall the girlhood that marked her, she thought, as a “real woman.” (Her relationship with Harrison Ford’s Deckard, characterised by his alternating sexual attraction and psychic repulsion, his abuse and dependency, plays a bit like trans panic.) Fundamentally a fiction—an actor playing a character with a backstory—she tries to convince, dragging herself up with the cinched waist, padded shoulders, bumper bangs and victory rolls of a film noir femme fatale.

A few years on in the late 1990s, as a newly logged-on culture anticipated a coming century of proliferating virtual worlds, a number of sci-fi features followed Blade Runner in imagining that our new simulations would look like simulations of our past—would look like, you know, movies

1998’s Dark City shares its title not just with a 1950 Chuck Heston B-noir, but with the entire premise of the B-noir—which it also references with its city of perpetual nighttime, full of fedora’d cops, black sedans, tenement apartments and German-Expressionist flourishes to go along with its jumble of architectural styles. Its protagonist is plagued by amnesia and haunted by visions which promise an answer to the riddle of his identity, though the truth he uncovers is that his city is an experiment, in which bodies like his are empty vessels which alien experimenters fill with different memories in turn. The Thirteenth Floor, from 1999, is set in Los Angeles, initially in two timelines, one contemporary and one Classic Hollywood. The film concerns a modern-day employee at a VR company who has built a simulation of 1937. In the 1937 scenes, for which Los Angeles played itself, the film’s production design emphasises the city’s Deco and Hopper-esque accents. As the now sharp-suited protagonist programmer becomes swept up in the intrigues of the 30s characters—like a fan-fictional Mary Sue fantasising his way through a pop-culture playground—the AI figures gradually come to realise their artificiality. And so does he—the twist is that he, too, is a character in a simulation, and Los Angeles 1999 is another open-world video game. 

Wandering fictional dream-worlds incepted by the cinema, these characters are fictional people themselves based on noir archetypes—the Hitchcockian Wrong Man falsely suspected of murder and on the run from the cops; the mysterious woman. Noir signals “old Hollywood,” thus instantly invoking our shared cultural illusions, and is distinguished by a style which is easily imitated and highly artificial—conspicuously authored. Too, the alienation of the sci-fi man is an analogue to the alienation of the noir man: both are unmoored, made superfluous by artificial intelligence or postwar Organization Man capitalism. 

Though perhaps the alienation is more fundamental. Following Blade Runner, both films use false memories as a metaphor for our consciousness, and planned obsolescence as a metaphor for mortality. The characters must figure out, quite literally, who they are and why they are here, and are plagued by the question of what happens to them when their memory is wiped. (“It’s too bad she won’t live… but then again, who does?”) The Venerable Bede’s parable of the sparrow in the banquet hall—“flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight,” just as man passes through this earth for just a short time—gets an update. “Passing from winter to winter again […] but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all” is like a hard drive that is booted up and then unplugged. Or like a spool of film that passes through a projector. By whose hand was it threaded?


The conventional thing to say here is that this millennial meta-movie brain-in-a-jar cycle peaks with The Matrix, released in spring 1999, on the cusp of Y2K. Following Blade Runner with its tech-noir trenchcoats and rainy metropolis, The Matrix was prescient about the future in the way that it drew from the past of Chinese cinema as well as American, referencing wuxia wirework alongside stuff pulled from the Hollywood image library. The Matrix offers the most literal interpretation of the Cartesian mind-body problem, as it shows actual brains being poked and prodded as if by the evil demons of Meditations on First Philosophy, the work in which Descartes proposed that the senses could be misled. And it gives that philosophical template its most overtly political spin: the masters of reality in The Matrix are fascistic, even more overtly suppressive than the godlike Tyrell, or the world-builders of Dark City and Thirteenth Floor.

But three months after The Matrix, in the summer of ’99, came another film that sent a character questing through an eerie hyperreal world, chasing after authentic truth. The inciting event of Eyes Wide Shut is a confession of experience—sexual, emotional—that makes Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) question, as the saying goes, everything about his existence. When wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) admits to a wandering eye, the bourgeois stability of his marriage, family and material comforts is shattered. He embarks on an Odyssey that redraws his map of the world and shows him the masquerades of New York’s masters-of-the-universe class—though any definitive answers about who or what is behind their masks remain tantalizingly out of reach.

Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another film about a seeker captivated by artifice and tormented by the unfathomable essence of lust and power, Eyes Wide Shut consists in significant portion of stately backward-tracking shots of its star stalking through a city—though even more than Jimmy Stewart, Cruise appears to be a sleepwalker that never quite wakes up, because his city is a dream-world, a Manhattan recreated with uncanny accuracy at London’s Pinewood Studios.

To paraphrase Pauline Kael, Eyes Wide Shut is New York back lot—we’re aware of the sets as sets. It’s around Christmas, so artificial lights are everywhere. The Greenwich Village set is so precise—down to the width of the streets, which Kubrick had measured—and dressed with the right telephone poles with the right graffiti, the right phone booths and mailboxes, the right newsstands, even the right depth of water pooling in the cracks in the pavement (Kubrick’s punishing, deific perfectionism makes him something like the Tyrell of filmmakers). Yet it’s also off, somehow, with close-but-no-cigar Village street names like “Wren,” “Benton” and “Miller,” and a scary-good knockoff of the iconic Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery sign. The exterior of the Hotel Jason is the Washington Square Hotel, and the interior of Sharkey’s is Caffe Reggio. The Village set, with the awnings of the Mexican restaurants and the lurid red neon of the sex shops, is like a neural-network version of the blocks just west of Sixth Avenue where the IFC Center is now. Kubrick adds to the confusion by including rear projections of this very part of New York: you can see the actual Pink Pussycat, which is still there on West 4th Street where it jogs north. In this part of the Village, many streets do end at T-junctions, as Kubrick’s set does on either end—a street layout which, in New York movies, usually signifies a soundstage replica. Eyes Wide Shut is set in a doubled world, fabricated from the raw materials of cinema.

Bill glimpses the ominous rites of an elite cabal; as in Vertigo, glimpses of true “power and freedom” pass past his eyes in a flash. The weirdness, specificity and Occam’s Razor-blunting unlikeliness of Vertigo’s murder plot speaks to our paranoid imagination of what shape power takes, and the grandiose decadence of Eyes Wide Shut’s orgy does similarly. The workings of power are so opaque, and so sinister in their consequences, that it’s tempting to believe that those workings must be sinister as well—that the banal everyday of social networks and shared economic incentives, with no one pulling the strings, are not sufficient explanation. Such a conviction, almost mystical in its speculations, unites groups as disparate as JFK assassination scholars, QAnon followers, CIA watchdogs and Jeffrey Epstein truthers. (Some of these people are more right than others, please don’t email me.) Where does networking end and conspiracy begin? To hear Sydney Pollack tell it, it was just some friends cutting loose on a weekend in the country. 

Bill’s investigations are stymied, and his perceptions are questioned. A la Dark City, where the amnesiac topography reorients itself as its subjects are implanted with new souls, Bill returns to locations to find them somehow changed, the people somehow different. Kubrick redressed his single Village set to represent multiple blocks, jumbling the geography and trapping Bill in a single bubble standing in for the real world. Like The Matrix’s Neo, Bill is told that he didn’t really see what he saw, with Sydney Pollack standing in for Agent Smith.

The New York of Eyes Wide Shut is like Plato’s Cave, and though Bill tries to shed his false consciousness, he sees only shadows of the true essence of things, which misdirect as much as they signify. I don’t wish to proclaim that Eyes Wide Shut is “about” how he’s living in a simulation—there are already more than enough people out there eager to take their own dubious close reading skills as evidence of Stanley Kubrick’s genius. (Just see Room 237.) But placing the film in the lineage of films about artificial intelligence and simulated worlds, in which the stakes for the protagonist are something like the source code to his or her own existence, helps to explain how Eyes Wide Shut remains so tormenting in its evocation of knowledge never quite grasped. Kubrick likely felt those torments too—why would he be so exacting about his productions, why would he demand so many takes, except in obsessive search of the world behind the world?

Eyes Wide Shut’s dialogue is incredibly stilted, in the Kubrick fashion—actors’ inflections are flattened and obscurely ironical. The film “feels,” as Screen Slate’s Cosmo Bjorkenheim has so aptly written, “like a video game: its dialogue is clumsily literal, repetitive, and expository; its plot is linear and structured like a quest; its protagonist encounters almost exclusively non-player characters, simple ciphers with no purpose beyond helping or obstructing him. Its simulacrum New York recalls the game-worlds traversed by Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh in eXistenZ, where the plot stalls if the players don’t use the correct phrases.” The password is “Fidelio.”

The casting of Tom Cruise adds to the alienating effect. Cruise is our quintessential movie star, in that it’s impossible to imagine him as anything but a movie star—whether he’s playing a Navy pilot, a pool hustler, a mixologist, a stock-car driver, a Judge Advocate General, a vampire or a sports agent, he plays him as a movie star. His and Kidman’s fame attracted intense, lurid attention during Eyes Wide Shut’s legendarily protracted shoot. Reports and rumors of its difficulties were covered extensively in the media as the great stars’ overseas ordeal stretched across two years; I remember “tie a yellow ribbon” jokes recalling the Iranian hostage crisis, and I remember Cruise and Kidman suing Star magazine for reporting that a sex therapist had been hired to help the real-life married couple credibly simulate intimacy for the camera. Does Tom Cruise truly exist offscreen? With its suddenly estranged wife and vanishing temptresses, Eyes Wide Shut follows Blade Runner, Dark City and Thirteenth Floor—not to say Vertigo—in its fixation on the Unknowable Feminine, but the madeleine that Bill is searching for may just as well be himself.

In which case, he receives two very explicit pieces of guidance from the film, both of them written down. You know the first: “Give up your inquiries which are completely useless.” On the one hand, this seems threatening, a heavy door swinging shut in his face. On the other hand, it’s good advice, especially if you remember the second message: the headline of the New York Post he picks up and reads: “Lucky to Be Alive.”

The final line of dialogue in Eyes Wide Shut—the final word from Kubrick himself, who died as he completed the film—promises a marital reconciliation, and evinces an incredibly hopeful belief in the evidence of the senses. If our feelings and perceptions are what locate us in the world, then the world—no matter how fleeting and unresolved our experience of it—is whatever our senses say it is. What Alice proposes to Bill is that, if he keeps his eyes wide open and fixed on what’s immediately before him, he will find it real and enveloping enough to still his existential anguish. To paraphrase Descartes: I fuck, therefore I am.