Video games have long attempted, to an ever more impressive degree of realism, to conjure up their own virtual realities. But then, so have filmmakers, for a much longer period of time and — at least so far — with more effective results. The most respected directors fully realize "virtual reality" with each film they make, and Stanley Kubrick stands as one of the best-known examples. During his almost fifty-year career, he immersed his audience in such distinctive cinematic worlds as those of Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket, leaving us in 1999 with the final, much puzzled-over feature Eyes Wide Shut.
The atmospherically uneasy story of a doctor who spends a night in New York City wandering into ever stranger and more erotically charged situations, Eyes Wide Shut both adapted material not well known in America, the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella "Dream Story," and starred two of the biggest celebrities of the day, the then-married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman playing the married couple Bill and and Alice Harford. Kubrick made use of these qualities and many others to deal with such traditional subjects as love, sex, infidelity, and secret cults while, in the words of Evan Puschak, better known as the video essayist Nerdwriter, "making our engagement with these things one-of-a-kind."
"Reviewers complained that the Harfords were ciphers, uncomplicated and dull," writes Tim Kreider in "Introducing Sociology," his much-cited breakdown of Eyes Wide Shut. "These reactions recall the befuddlement of critics who complained that the computer in 2001 was more human than the astronauts, but could only attribute it (just four years after the unforgettable performances of Dr. Strangelove) to human error." He argues that "to understand a film by this most thoughtful and painstaking of filmmakers, we should assume that this characterization is deliberate — that their shallowness and repression is the point."
Puschak's video essay "Eyes Wide Shut: The Game" names those qualities, especially as they manifest in Cruise's protagonist, as among the techniques Kubrick uses to make the movie a kind of virtual reality experience for the viewer. "You're experiencing the night from the perspective of Bill, but not from a position of empathy — or even sympathy for that matter. Instead, the viewer engages in what philosopher Alessandro Giovannelli calls 'experiential identification,' in which the result of occupying Bill's perspective while not empathizing with him is that the perspective becomes your own."
What Kreider sees as ultimately part of Eyes Wide Shut's indictment of "the capital of the global American empire at the end of the American Century," Puschak interprets as Kubrick's "systematic effort to swap you in for the protagonist" in service of "an ode to the experience, to the raw impression, of seeing something marvelous." But both viewers would surely agree that Kubrick, to a greater extent than perhaps any other filmmaker, made something more than movies. One might say he crafted experiences for his audience, and in the truest sense of the word: like experiences in real life, and unlike the experiences of so many video games, they allow for an infinitude of valid interpretations.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.