Secrets and Spies
The saturation-bombing approach to promotion taken by this summer's blockbusters Phantom Menace and Austin Powers 2 throws into relief the very different tone of hype surrounding the third film event of the summer, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Sure, no one seems to be queuing up outside theaters a month in advance, perhaps because sex-obsessed people don't have the same amount of free time as Lucas fans. Yet ever since Warner Bros. announced the production of Eyes Wide Shut in December 1995, Kubrick's dome of secrecy had proved even more leak-proof than Lucas's attempts to keep Phantom Menace details under wraps. In the absence of any real information about the film's plot, production, or completion date, Eyes Wide Shut (which opens next week) became the decade's most guessed-about film, generating enough theory, conjecture, and apocrypha to rival alien-abduction literature.
That is, until Kubrick's death last March, when the dome began to crack. After a private screening, British film critic Alexander Walker published a "review" of Eyes Wide Shut in the June 22 London Evening Standard that, while highly favorable, revealed the plot of the film in great detail. Appearing the same week was the memoir of Eyes Wide Shut co-screenwriter Frederic Raphael, which chronicles his collaboration with Kubrick in preparing a working script for the film. While associates of Kubrick remained silent during his lifetime, awed either by his presence or propensity for litigation, his unexpected death has seemingly triggered a crisis of authority. "There's no way any of these things would have appeared if Kubrick were still around," insists Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound. "No one has an investment in being a good boy or girl anymore."
Walker's premature review in particular has provoked the wrath of Warner Bros. and the Kubrick estate, both of which were taken completely by surprise. As one Warners exec put it, "If Stanley were alive, he would be calling for somebody's head right about now." Walker, who was invited to the screening of Eyes Wide Shut by Kubrick's widow even before many studio execs had seen it, rebuffed this criticism, insisting, "I was not under an embargo. My association with Kubrick went back 40 years and I have written the definitive Kubrick book, which comes out in the autumn."
Whether Walker's motivation for jumping the gun stemmed from a desire for the first scoop or the opportunity to promote his Kubrick tome is open to speculation. "He had a very close relationship with the Kubrick camp for many years," says a source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And this is the one moment where he didn't need them anymore." The American press, for the most part, is trying to keep a safe distance from the Walker imbroglio. While the New York Post reprinted Walker's expectation-dashing piece, Web sites like Entertainment Weekly Online have provided links to the original review, refraining from divulging details themselves. This conforms to the current Internet custom, maintained even on unregulated film gossip sites, of warning readers about information that may spoil their eventual viewing experience.
Kubrick implicitly understood that the power of cinema relied to a great degree on mystique, and that a cinema of mystique required secrecy; that there was a direct correlation between the amount of real pre-release information circulating about a film, the amount of pseudo-information that appears in its absence, and the ultimate reception of a film.
The irony is that Kubrick's career-long insistence on airtight information security he once hounded an associate suspected of leaking the identity of Lolita star Sue Lyon has since become standard practice in Hollywood. Studios' fear of the competition has made such legal devices as confidentiality clauses the norm. Yet many filmmakers sustain a somewhat inconsistent policy toward the public, relying on test screenings for feedback (witness Barry Sonnenfeld's recent sad statement regarding Wild Wild West that without audience pre-screenings he doesn't "know where the laughs are") while simultaneously withholding information for fear that it will wind up on the Internet. Absent from many present-day industry concerns is Kubrick's belief in cinema as a mystical medium.
Ironically, Frederic Raphael's memoir even while it may have confounded Kubrick's secrecy precautions sheds light on the less-is-more political economy Kubrick enforced in both the production and promotion of his films. "Genius simplifies," Raphael observes. "Only modest players, and artists, entertain a huge range of possible responses." During their two-year collaboration, Raphael found that Kubrick's distaste for disclosure stemmed less from a "control-freak" temperament or a "secrecy fetish" than a belief that words hamper the creative process, on the level of both production (for the director forced to conform to a screenplay) and reception (for the audience given advance knowledge of a film's contents). "Kubrick wanted to show, not to tell," Raphael argues. "What he 'meant' was never explicit. Ambiguity left him free but not responsible." For Kubrick, only a cinema of underdisclosure retained the magical properties necessary to spellbind an audience.
Mystique making, rather than secrecy, was Kubrick's real stock-in-trade, and in his covert film productions and the cultivation of the Kubrick "aura," he deployed the same deliberate obscurity. The quintessential Kubrick promotional campaign may be the one for Lolita, which consisted of the simple tag line "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" In like fashion, the most recent TV promo for Eyes Wide Shut raises more issues (like, why is Tom dressed like a gargoyle?) than it resolves.
Speaking of Kubrick's on-set behavior, Raphael writes, "He was a huntsman who watched, and waited, but could never say for what exactly." The same could be said of his fans. It's a tacit tribute to Kubrick's lifelong desire to intrigue the public that so many people felt cheated, rather than enticed, by Walker's premature review of the film. The suspense may have been killing us, but in a neoclassical style of delayed gratification that may go out with the 20th century. Had Kubrick succeeded in keeping Eyes Wide Shut a secret till the very end, it would have been his last magic act.
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