I finally saw Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which although set in Manhattan was filmed in London due to Kubrick’s fear of flying. According to Vanity Fair, the highly meticulous native New Yorker “sent a designer to New York to measure the exact width of the streets and the distance between newspaper vending machines.” He constructed New York with the control and precision of a man wielding dollhouse-tweezers, but designed it to make you squint – at the Hotel Jason, for instance, which has the same iconic iron canopy as The Washington Square Hotel but is plopped in a different neighborhood, at identical deli awnings, and even at the sidewalks which feel too wide and too lonely. A friend of mine called Kubrick’s New York “a wax museum.”
This is a town where subways don’t exist, sex workers stand along MacDougal, and street toughs shove you with their elbows: “I got dumps that are bigger than you!”
As for the plot, well, the well-to-do Doctor Bill (Tom Cruise) is getting some air, having a real think around the city. It’s the march of the preoccupied – a march that’s marched by hundreds daily, pacing in detachment, alone in the clouds. Bill focuses on his feet and is wholly contained in his peacoat, except when he claps his hands at the passing of an ugly thought. His wife has confessed a sexual fantasy and he’s walking it off, turning corners, meandering repetitive lanes, his mind repeating the facts of her fantasy.
These scenes, many of which were shot using a treadmill, took weeks to film. They present New York as an conspiring backdrop, a false exit and relief, an escalation of a personal crisis. Poor Doctor Bill, adultery on the brain, doesn’t look up except to see a steamy make-out. Traffic lights accommodate his clean, straight walk except to allow the introduction of a sex worker named Domino. This is the treacherous city that panders to singular manias – one that every New Yorker occasionally occupies.
Everything moves together, and towards the same point. Even the newspaper Bill haphazardly purchases has the headline “Lucky to be Alive” and reports the death of the former Miss New York – the death at the center of Bill’s big mess. Everyone seems to be in on something. Maybe it’s Christmas? The same string of rainbow bulbs light every room. Outside, the ground’s wet but I don’t remember it raining.
Between two strolls and before crashing an elite orgy, Bill carries his anonymity as power, invisibility as invincibility, and feels mighty on account of the bills in his wallet. I’ve never seen a Bill so bewitched with what money can do. Cash is his magic trick: he opens up a costume-rental past business hours, pays Domino for services never rendered, insists that everyone “keeps the change,” and rips a hundred dollar bill in half to keep a cab waiting for him. “Let the meter run,” he says.
He feels too smooth, our guy, and New York City, the great vindicator, notices his hubris and punishes him spectacularly. Still feeling very clever for conning his way into a mansion-sex-party, Bill is publicly shamed, unmasked, and sent away. The next day, his investigation into the orgy is fumbling, actually stupid. He rushes through town, this time with real purpose, but finds his every move anticipated, worthless. Bill – in a stew, unzipped and at large, confusion and fear ascendant where arrogance once reigned – finally returns home, wakes his wife (Nicole Kidman), and sobs a confession into her lap. The cardboard New York streets are happy for a break.