Are Stanley Kubrick Films Like Immersive Video Games? The Case of Eyes Wide Shut

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Life & Work of Stan­ley Kubrick in a Sweep­ing Three-Hour Video Essay

How Stan­ley Kubrick Made His Mas­ter­pieces: An Intro­duc­tion to His Obses­sive Approach to Film­mak­ing

Steven Spiel­berg on the Genius of Stan­ley Kubrick

The Worlds of Hitch­cock & Kubrick Col­lide in a Sur­re­al Mashup, The Red Drum Get­away

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.

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