Explore the Hidden Occult Symbolism Behind ‘Eyes Wide Shut’
By now any conspiracy weirdo worth his salt – I’m looking at you – has seen Room 237 – the Rodney Ascher documentary about interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 stone cold classic The Shining. Its true meaning is tied in with the genocide of Native Americans, because of the imagery throughout associated with the American West – for instance, cans of Calumet Baking Powder noticeable in the background of two central scenes – because a calumet is a ceremonial pipe, and the cans featured the image of a Native American, therefore American imperialism is the subtext of the film, duh. And so on and so forth.
I am reminded of a Kubrick quote from his famous 1968 Playboy interview about 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.”
Those who have also seen author Jon Ronson’s 2008 documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, will however be familiar with the extreme obsessions of the master director himself. The documentary, filmed at the Kubrick household in St Albans, England – one half of the house taken up by these boxes, relics – explores among other things the photographic research for 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, everything from doorways to mortuaries and “every costume shop in the South East of England”. His location photographer Manuel Harlan (also his nephew; Kubrick liked to keep a tight ship) estimates there were 30,000 photographs at one point; “the whole of London.” A year of documentation, Kubrick purveyed them all “with tremendous excitement.” His obituaries liberally spotted with words like perfectionist and recluse, Kubrick didn’t need to go out because the whole world came to him – literally – in a box. All his films after and including 2001…followed a similar vein, with Kubrick getting involved in everything that went on. The documentary shows photographs of his gang of droogs trying on every hat going in an effort for Kubrick to pick the ‘most sinister’ for 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, before settling on the infamous bowler that would become synonymous with sociopathic Alex DeLarge. Once a symbol of civility and domestic uniformity, they’re worn to chilling effect in the film, and well…the rest is history.
On his films, he did everything: fix the sound machine, operate the camera. He even sort of handled the wardrobe — for all his dressing low-key, Stanley actually loved clothes.
– Nicole Kidman; Alice in Eyes Wide Shut
Kubrick’s autumnal work, a tale of jealousy and sexual obsession, Eyes Wide Shut follows the erotically charged misadventures of Dr. Bill Harford (fun fact! ‘Harford’ is a condensation of ‘Harrison Ford’, due to Kubrick stating Harford should ‘be like’ Ford, the whitest bread guy Kubrick could think of), who is shocked when wife Alice reveals she contemplated having a one night stand with a naval officer a year earlier. A yuppie who likes to smoke a little pot before bed, Harford embarks on a night-long endeavour, during which he infiltrates an unnamed secret society’s masked orgy. The film is full of puzzles, riddles, and games, symbols helping to reveal the truths of the unconscious mind, this large symbolic dimension helping foster emotional involvement. The master director’s swan song and unconscious spiritual testament, which meditates on such ontological questions as life and death, as well as on cinema viewed as a visual art at the crossroads between concreteness and abstraction. Charged as his last film is with symbolic references to death, we should not overlook the fact that in all of Kubrick’s films fear of dying is a constant presence and an apparent mirror image of his obsession with control.
The film’s production, at 400 days, holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot – for over 15 months – a period that included an unbroken shoot of 46 weeks. Given Kubrick’s fear of flying, the entire thing was shot in England – with sound-stage works at London’s Pinewood Studios, which included a detailed recreation of New York’s Greenwich Village. Kubrick’s perfectionism was so he sent workmen to Manhattan to measure street widths and note newspaper vending machine locations.
Kubrick worked on the film’s script for almost 30 years, but his perfectionism led to script pages being rewritten on the set, though it is this attitude of precision and attention to detail that makes all his films so special. During the course of shooting Eyes Wide Shut, the director filmed 95 takes of Tom Cruise walking through a door. It seemed Kubrick was merely torturing two of the world’s biggest stars. Instead of knowing what he wanted on the set, he waited for the actors to seize upon it themselves, his intent being to film scenes so many times that it would wear down his actors and they’d forget the cameras existed. His process: repeated takes designed to break down the idea of performance altogether. During the making of The Shining, he’d put Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall through so many takes to figure out what he wanted, he notoriously caused Duvall to have a nervous breakdown.
Eyes Wide Shut has gained a reputation as the unfinished Kubrick film, despite its creator hanging on just long enough to oversee the final cut. He died only six days after. Some believe Kubrick was murdered because the film was essentially an exposé of the secretive world of sex orgies in the upper echelons of old boys’ networks (where billionaire bankers, media moguls and royalty alike engage in anything from gay sex and paedophilia to the murder of children) and that the film was re-cut as a form of damage control before it was eventually released. The most famous version has it that he used Eyes Wide Shut to rat on the Illuminati, who retaliated by having him killed on 7th March, 1999—666 days before 1st January, 2001— a gruesome nod to his most famous film. In scenes that Warner Bros now refuses to release, the director apparently expounded at some length on the existence of actual cults. The theory goes that to protect the nefarious leaders, Warner Bros quietly had the picture re-edited—and now denies this ever happened. Citing contractual obligations to deliver an R rating, Warner Bros digitally altered the orgy for the American release, blocking out graphic sexuality by inserting additional figures to obscure the view, avoiding an adults-only NC-17 rating that limited distribution. Conspiracy theorists argue that Kubrick had never been shy about ratings (A Clockwork Orange was originally given an X-rating).
Occult symbols like the pentagram can be found throughout the film, as well as multiple references to rainbows and looking glasses – representing going beyond the looking glass, altered dreamlike states, and what the world is like on the “other side of a mirror’s reflection.” During the Christmas party scene, at first glance traditional looking star decorations are actually made up of small pentagrams. The placement of the eight pointed Star of Venus is again undoubtedly purposeful. The name of the costume shop is Rainbow, meanwhile when Bill asks the two girls at the party where they are taking him they reply “where the rainbow ends.”
Conspiracy theorists have also dove upon the fact that on the official movie poster, Alice (played by Nicole Kidman) shows one eye, representing the illuminated eye, which we must take to mean that she is aware, enlightened. This rings true again when minutes into the film Alice instinctively knows where Bill’s wallet is to be found in an otherwise puzzlingly pointless scene, then about a minute later, he asks what the name of the babysitter is, even though she just told him her name, and later on when Dollar Bill, sorry…Dr Bill, finds his way into a prostitute named Domino’s home. Just as things are heating up, Alice interrupts the encounter with a phone call, again seeming to have a sixth sense about things. All this seems to suggest that she is all seeing, her eyes are wide open. She possesses the knowledge, while he is clueless.
We also arguably see Alice grooming her daughter, Helena, throughout the film. We see her rolling deodorant under her arms (whilst looking in one of those ever present mirrors) as Helena brushes her teeth next to her, this mother/daughter grooming ritual repeated when we see Alice brushing the young girl’s hair. Remember, absolutely nothing in this film will have been left to chance – everything is painstakingly nuanced to paint the precise picture Kubrick was getting at. How uncoincidental still that Helena happens also to be the name of the Greek goddess of beauty. Michael Koresky, writing in the 2006 issue of film journal Reverse Shot, writes “this director, who defies expectations at every turn and brings genre to his feet, was … setting out to make neither the ‘erotic thriller’ that the press maintained nor an easily identifiable ‘Kubrick film’.”
Of course, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, the phrase itself, is a calling card among secret societies, meaning ‘my eyes are shut to your misdeeds, brother.’ This anonymity is required of participants, in order to cloak society’s moneyed elite. As shady and super wealthy Victor Ziegler says at one point, “If I told you their names I don’t think you’d sleep so well.” Also note the very title of the film is a reference to the 1%ers who know exactly what’s happening but don’t say a word about it. The film is also heavily entangled with the cult of Scientology, not least because both stars tied the knot in a Scientology ceremony in 1990 (they famously divorced not long after EWS finished shooting, gossip columnists at the time actually pinning it on Kubrick ‘psychoanalysing’ the couple’s marriage for so long; Kubrick’s on-set wall of secrecy even divided Cruise and Kidman. To exaggerate the distrust between their fictional husband and wife, Kubrick would direct each actor separately and forbid them to share notes. In one painful example, for just one minute of final footage where Alice makes love to a naval officer, Kubrick demanded that Kidman shoot six days of naked sex scenes with a male model. Not only did he ask the pair to pose in over 50 sex positions, he banned Cruise from the set and forbade Kidman to assuage her husband’s tension by telling him what happened during the shoot.)
Bill is sent for by Ziegler to attend to a prostitute named Mandy who has overdosed and needs medical attention, which Bill provides. Child sex slavery, rape, drug overdoses, money can be used to buy everything. As Tim Kreider points out in his essay Introducing Sociology A Review of Eyes Wide Shut, ‘Kubrick and his collaborator, Frederic Raphael, discussed exactly how much money a New York doctor like Bill Harford must earn per year. The Harfords’ standard of living raises questions about their money, and where it comes from–from Bill’s sparsely scheduled private practice, or the sorts of under-the-table services we see rendered upstairs at the party? Dr. Harford is on call to that class of person who can afford not to wait in emergency rooms or die in hospitals–people like his friend Victor Ziegler, whose name denotes him as one of the world’s winners’.
The real pornography in this film is in its lingering depiction of the shameless, naked wealth of millennial Manhattan, and of its obscene effect on society and the human soul. National reviewers’ myopic focus on sex, and the shallow psychologies of the film’s central couple, the Harfords, at the expense of every other element of the film-the trappings of stupendous wealth…even the sum Dr. Harford spends on a single night out-says more about the blindness of the elites to their own surroundings than it does about Kubrick’s inadequacies as a pornographer. For those with their eyes open, there are plenty of money shots.
– Introducing Sociology
A Review of Eyes Wide Shut by Tim Kreider
The mansion in which the orgy scenes were filmed also just so happens to be Mentmore Towers in Somerset, England, built for the Rothschild family in the 1850s, a family with many ties to conspiracy theories because of their history of running the banking industry; which effectively made them the wealthiest family in human history. There are pictures readily available on the internet from a large gathering in the 1970s that the Rothschild family hosted with masked guests and somewhat disturbing table decorations of shattered porcelain baby dolls. This has also fed some theories that the orgy scene was at least somewhat inspired by the Rothschild family and those they associate with. Like everything else in the world of Stanley Kubrick, the masks worn in the infamous orgy scene are symbolic; of Venetian carnivals and their reputation for being the centre of civil disorder, moral debauchery and eroticism. As one critic pointed out, why ask the biggest star in the world to carry your film and then hide his face under a mask for 20 minutes? This again could be considered symbolic of Kubrick using the film as his own mask through which he is able to say much more than would be otherwise possible. It’s possible that Kubrick wanted to give us the feeling that something more depraved would be possible if we looked behind the wrong door in the mansion. This is of course even more relevant today because of the astonishing rape-allegations that came out in 2017 concerning Hollywood’s top brass.
Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.
– Oscar Wilde
For those still in doubt that Kubrick set out with every film to create a many layered cake, it seems appropriate to leave the final word to the man himself – talking about 2001: A Space Odyssey, a technically flawless production that took three years and $10,500,000 (in 1968) to create. An uncompromising film, placing a heavy intellectual burden upon the audience, compelling each viewer to unravel for himself its deeper meaning and significance. Of it, Kubrick told Playboy:
It’s not a message that I ever intend to convey in words. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content…I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does; to “explain” a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. …It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a “reality” other than his own…the momentum of a movie often prevents every stimulating detail or nuance from having a full impact the first time it’s seen.