Opening the Eyes Wide Shut censorship battles for a close look
A recent viewing of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) on HBO reminded me when, three summers ago, I had counted down to July 16th, opening day of Kubrick’s first film in 12 years. The hype for the film seemed extraneous to me but necessary for Warner Bros. because $60 million had been spent for the film’s production. Unexpectedly, Kubrick died and general anticipation only intensified, culminating in a Time cover story and avowals from the world’s best-known Scientologist about his affection for the late director. Compounding the hype was a ratings controversy that seemed unreal or forced, making people sick of the film before it had reached the box office. Moreover, some pre-opening reviews, especially by Alexander Walker, seemed defensive in their praise of the film, as if knowing the prevailing response would be negative and/or disappointing. Yet, what did I care about the response of public and critics? Most people were befuddled by or misunderstood Full Metal Jacket (1987) and had misapprehended The Shining (1980). I expected nothing less when Eyes finally arrived.
The ratings battle, R vs. NC-17, dislocated the publicity blitz for the film, taking on the added complication that Kubrick’s contract called for his hand, and his alone, making the final cut. His finished, but probably not absolutely finished version came a few days before he died. At stake were 65 seconds of an “orgy scene”; a desperate Warner Bros. seemingly took the middle way by not cutting the scenes but adding digitized partygoers standing in the way of raw sex. Ineffectual howls of censorship and for the integrity of the artwork were uttered, but Warners was desperate to avoid the NC-17 rating because common wisdom said that such a rating would diminish box-office. (Below: before and after censoring.)
After seeing the film, I was mildly bewildered that it could have been rated NC-17 when it barely seemed to deserve an R. First, Eyes had no gratuitous violence and foul language; second, the sex was purely in the background, and no principal players pounded away at each other. At most, the female nude body was shown amply, pissing off the feminist contingent, but not always in a sexually thrilling pose, pissing off the male contingent. On a subsequent viewing two days later, I observed more and more nude bodies, and the adult-minded content whittled a claim I had made to friends that the film barely deserved a PG-13.
Besides, compared to other NC-17 movies – Henry and June (1990), Crash (1996), and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), for example – Eyes Wide Shut does come off as PG-13 material. In Henry and June, one of the first NC-17 rated films, director Philip Kaufman created an erotic story to match characters who had both written about and lived hard sex and erotica, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin respectively. Why make a film about Henry Miller that’s not risqué and for everyone’s taste? The content and rating belonged to the story’s subject and aesthetic. Henry and June included full treatment of heterosexual and lesbian sex, sexuality that, frankly, turned people on and might have been the best reason to give it the NC-17 rating. Besides, it also established the line over which a film must step to be deemed strictly adult fare but not necessarily pornography.
Peter Greenaway’s films always luxuriate in erotic elements and will earn R ratings and above, if only for his predilection to have male frontal nudity (8-1/2 Women  may be the greatest testament to this, and actor John Standing should have received a special Academy Award for the length of time he showed his cock and balls), one of the last taboos of mainstream film. Greenaway has had one arthouse hit, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, which contained highly charged sexuality and a climactic cannibalistic dinner. Yet its opening scene was the most jarring. The “Thief” (Michael Gambon) exemplifies a persistent type in Greenaway’s work, a larger-than-life bully; Greenaway himself has become the aesthetic bully par excellence. Gambon leads a criminal organization and must punish one of his minions and leave a lasting reminder, worse than breaking an arm or leg, as a henchman picks up freshly laid dogshit and forces a man to eat it. I couldn’t erase that scene from my mind or, for that matter, help thinking about a movie I’d never seen but knew about, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972), in which Divine eats a dog turd. Frontal nudity, cannibalism, and gut-wrenching violence are barely noticeable beside a long scene of a man eating freshly laid dogshit.
Crash‘s NC-17 rating, in contrast to Henry and June‘s, stirred little directorial protest. David Cronenberg saying the rating was justified ranked as gross understatement! Ted Turner, whose company distributed the film, was upset over the content, although not having seen the film did not influence his opinion. Crash‘s profusion of abrupt sexuality had rarely been seen in public exhibition, so a different plane from Henry and June‘s erotic depictions of sex couldn’t be imagined. True, Crash explored a fetishism that few people indulged in, but sexual arousal by car crash within the film neatly fitted Cronenberg’s career-long interplay of mankind and its machines. Crash’s disturbing content should have surprised no one, for Cronenberg’s films are in their best element when they screw with the audience’s mind. The Brood (1979), Videodrome (1983), Naked Lunch (1991), eXistenZ (1999), not to mention his early project, Crimes of the Future (1970), will never be everyone’s or every tenth person’s movie fare, but Crash starts with graphic scenes of sexuality to leave little doubt that by staying in the theatre you have accepted his terms of engagement. Nor does the film let up, consummated by James Spader and Elias Koteas, late in the film, going at it salaciously in the front seat of a car.
One X-rated film surpassed the above three NC-17s put together. Empire of the Senses (1976) broke every sexual barrier for a nonpornographic film such that few regular filmgoers could have distinguished it from pornography! Where Midnight Cowboy (1969) intimated Jon Voight getting a blowjob in a movie theatre, Empire shows the woman giving her lover head from start to finish until the seminal fluid drips from her mouth. Director Nagisa Oshima’s latest film’s title, Taboo (2000), best summed up his career and the ground from which Empire emerged. In this last film and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), he explored homosexual desires among warrior cultures; in Max, Mon Amour (1986), the wife of a diplomat had an affair with a chimpanzee. Indeed, bestiality might be the last frontier of taboos. Empire itself had prolonged scenes of penetration, showing different positions and many orifices penetrated, and was capped off by the man’s dismemberment. The film was banned in New York, and time has not dimmed its effects on the viewer. You can’t help responding to it as if it were pornography, and nothing Greenaway, Cronenberg, Kaufman, and Kubrick have produced closely compared. With the advent of the rating with Henry and June, Empire of the Senses was eventually given an NC-17, thus establishing the back boundary for this rating.
The battle over Eyes Wide Shut‘s NC-17 rating appears needless when stacked against the imposing films mentioned above. Yet I agree with several critics who had suggested that Warners should have accepted the NC-17 rating, kept the film uncensored, and have it play less widely than had been planned. Realistically, the ratings decision – despite the received wisdom that NC-17 is “box office death” – probably would have had little impact compared to the number of viewers who eventually saw the film. Despite a good opening weekend, weakened a little by the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., Eyes‘ audience diminished and in five weeks was gone from the 2,000 first-run theaters it had opened. In fact, publicity over the ratings controversy simply made the public sick of the movie faster.
The wrangling over the rating and potential number of customers excluded by an NC-17 reflected, on the one hand, the studio’s desire for a profit, and on the other the inherent schizophrenia in the marketing of Kubrick’s last film. Despite the presence of Tom Cruise and the growing popularity of Nicole Kidman, I can’t help believing that Warners knew that it had a bomb or, at best, a disappointment in the works that might only be salvaged by world grosses, which tended to be strong for Kubrick’s films. The anticipated return of Stanley Kubrick was, in fact, a mixed blessing. He had been gone from the screen so long that many people had forgotten that audiences and critics received Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket lukewarmly. The fans of auteurs, unfortunately, can be counted on one hand. Warners could have bitten the entire bullet, left the orgy scene intact, and accepted the bitter reality that it had the most expensive arthouse film ever.
The critical broadside, with many broadly snide remarks, did its damage but probably not as heavily as the word of mouth, which was bluntly saying the damn thing was a bore, a legitimate response from a moviegoing public used to a swift pace, sentimental lessons about life, and easy humor. The dearth of overall acceptance reduced the ratings controversy to nothing, and may, at best, generate comments in ten years that Eyes Wide Shut was overhyped, and in a curious play of cause and effect, the hype will have been blamed for the failure.
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As the film was being laid to rest and the producers could mollify their economic angst with the thought of overseas grosses, a letter was sent to Warner Bros.:
To Whom it may concern at Warner
On behalf of American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD), we would like to express serious concerns about the inclusion of one of the most prominent Hindu scriptural quote [sic], in the movie “Eyes Wide Shut”. Midway in this movie, the character played by Tom Cruise goes to a mansion where what could best be described as an orgy party is taking place. When he enters a large room where several sex acts are taking place, the background music subsides and the shloka (scriptural recitation) from Bhagwad Gita, one of the most revered Hindu scripture is played out. The shloka is: “Parithranaya Saadhunam Vinashaya cha dushkrithaam Dharmasamsthabanarthaya Sambhavami yuge yuge …” which means “For the protection of the virtuous, for the destruction of the evil and for the firm establishment of Dharma (righteousness), I take birth and am incarnated on Earth, from age to age.” Hundreds of Hindus have contacted us to express their shock at the use of Hindu scripture as a background for this scene in the movie. There appears to be no connection, or apparent justification for the use of this shloka. It appears to be totally out of context! We, American Hindus Against Defamation are baffled, disgusted and annoyed by the use of the shloka, and fail to understand your intent and the relevance of its usage. We have also been contacted by major media organizations, including BBC-London, NY Post, etc., seeking our comments. Before we make any comments to them, we have decided to first contact you and seek a prompt and honest explanation as to why it was decided to use this scripture during this scene in the movie. We are not launching a protest at this time, however, we do request an explanation as soon as possible. American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) is the pioneer Hindu rights coalition consisting of several major Hindu organizations. AHAD was responsible for movement that successfully sought withdrawal of Aerosmith – Nine Lives album cover, and recent withdrawal of Universal television’s Xena episode “The Way” from circulation. For more information about AHAD, please contact….
I found this letter on an Internet web site nine months after the protest and Warners’ apparent response to future AHAD demands, which can be found on the same web site as the original protest letter:
1. Warner Brothers apologize to the Hindu community for the indiscriminate and abusive use of Hindu scripture.
2. The movie be altered to remove this shloka.
3. CD containing this shloka (verse) be withdrawn and re-released.
4. The video distribution of the movie not contain this shloka (verse).
5. The TV/cable distribution of this movie not contain this shloka (verse)
We certainly hope that Warner Brothers has depicted this shloka as an oversight and not to hurt the sentiments of a billion strong Hindu community around the world. We are also certain that Warner Brothers will respect the demands we have made above. If Warners does not accept the Hindu demands, the Hindu community will not be a silent spectator to the humiliation of its religious beliefs and scriptures.
By the time Warner Bros. released Eyes in England, it had altered the music, with the consent of the director’s widow, Christiane Kubrick, and executive producer Jan Harlan. I compared the disputed passages of Jocelyn Pook’s music during the orgy walk in the HBO version, to the CD, which I had bought before the protest, and recognized a difference. The film’s music sounded similar but is what can only be described as a Muzak version of the original. In response to an e-mail query, Jan Harlan wrote that the disputed passage was replaced by a similar sounding but innocuous passage.1
Usually I’m unsympathetic to religious groups that have great sensitivity to everything except individual rights and freedom yet are offended by the slightest thing regarding their beliefs. Religions, like it or not, must subordinate themselves to greater realities than their own righteousness and warped senses of absolutism. The use of shloka, sacred or not, does not come to close an abridgement of a religion’s right to worship and believe. Religions are free to condemn but not to make demands to suppress speech. Because in this instance the demands were made to a corporation, another entity enjoying freedoms but, historically, little mindful to individual freedoms, the corporation decided to act against the integrity of the artist and the work of art. The corporation hoped to avoid a boycott, a boycott of a film which would be lucky to earn a profit, but Warners was ever hopeful for a miracle to keep India’s billion-viewer market open.
The hell with Kubrick’s intentions. As with the NC-17 controversy, Kubrick’s absence again took the producers off the hook; yet it appears as if the maneuver will have made little difference. In a sense, Time-Warner choked financially on a speck of Hindu dust raised by the protest, apparently under the impression something worse had stuck in its throat. The appeasement strategy failed miserable.
Possibly, Warners affected its own karma by digitizing bodies to obscure the orgy scene because, you may have recognized, the scene offending the Hindus was the very same. Respecting the beliefs of these Hindu representatives, as greatly as Warners understood the art of Kubrick’s film, the conglomerate again changed Eyes Wide Shut. Had I known this at the time, I wouldn’t have had the heart to bother Warners by e-mail protest about that scene again: I had basically asked if they could release the original movie at some point and, you know, slip one past the half-shut eyes of the Hindu censors. Yet, I wonder why Warners had bothered to answer the protest. Did the “suits” understand the movie well enough to defend it? Did Mrs. Kubrick and her brother understand?2 AHAD had left open the possibility when it said that “there appears to be no connection, or apparent justification for the use of this shloka. It appears to be totally out of context,” and AHAD wanted an “honest explanation.” Not that anyone believes that this was what AHAD really wanted, which is why I will get some pleasure from giving an explanation.
The shloka controversy revealed an element of Eyes that wouldn’t have been noticed otherwise. The presence of the Gita links the film to the Hindu caste system or, more generally, to the shadow of a rigid hierarchy impervious to attempts to leave or destroy it. The specter of the caste system, while profoundly negative in most respects, in Kubrick’s filmed world represents unquestioned hierarchy handing down orders and plans from “above.” Kubrick’s critique of this hierarchy has been constant and consistent since Paths of Glory (1957). He has depicted those in charge of a society living in a “closed world,” one in which no one shall enter without approval from those already inside. Kubrick’s closed worlds have had Army Generals (Mireau and Broulard; Dax is the outsider) in Paths of Glory; Roman patricians with slaves on the outside in Spartacus; a pornographer (with Humbert on the outside) in Lolita; the men of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove; scientists (Dr. Floyd and his superiors) in 2001; criminals and politicians (Alex and the Minister of the Interior) in A Clockwork Orange; eighteenth-century British aristocracy (Redmond Barry is the outsider trying to become Barry Lyndon) in Barry Lyndon; the Overlook Hotel (Jack is the perennial outsider) in The Shining; and the Marines (Joker is and is not a member of this club) in Full Metal Jacket.
Eyes Wide Shut‘s Kshatriyas, so to speak, are the masked figures at the Long Island Mansion led by a red-cloaked man. Many of the orgy participants wear masks resembling the aristocrats of Barry Lyndon (1975), in a mansion much like those in Barry Lyndon and Paths of Glory. Bill Harford has witnessed secret rites of the “best people” pleasuring themselves, and he must be sent away into the night, warned off the trail. The participants may seem to overreact in wanting to scare him, let alone kill him or, Harford’s old buddy, pianist Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), but the absurdity of the threat’s extreme nature fits perfectly with our potential apprehension of the real power that these “best people” have.
The “hierarchy” theme is not predominant in this movie nor does it represent the sole reason for the shloka during the orgy scene. It’s the context of the Gita itself that has a bearing on the shloka’s presence during an orgy. In this Hindu sacred song, Arjuna searches for the meaning of his actions in the midst of a war. Bill Harford’s search for sexual meaning in the midst of a sexual battle with his wife parallels Arjuna’s actions. Mrs. Harford has just unloaded a barrage on her husband, which knocks him senseless. When he’s called out of his apartment, Bill uses this opportunity to embark on a sexual odyssey. He clearly wants sex with anyone in his path, and women continually thrust themselves toward him. Trying to make sense of his wife’s desires, he wants to explore (or runs into) all aspects of sexual desire (his and others). As in 2001, though, the odyssey transmigrates from the character to the viewer. We’re watching what Bill is watching. Watching the movie becomes a parallel practice to the following passage in the Gita (chapter 6, verse 10):
Once, someone asked, “Why is it said that the eyes should be half-open and half-shut?” I said, “The answer is easy. If you shut the eyes completely, you fall asleep. If you keep them fully open, they turn on all sides and prevent concentration.”
Bill Harford’s quest becomes a literal and metaphoric opening of the eyes. At the heart of all of Kubrick’s movies is an ambivalence toward the moviegoing experience; the very things that transfixed one to the screen molded the viewer into a passive receptor to myths and the authority of the screen. Kubrick slowly but surely detonated story and genre to shake people from their stupor and managed to entertain filmgoers. Maybe Eyes Wide Shut went too far in its contemplative mode. I can’t help thinking of the way Nicole Kidman spoke throughout much of the movie, in a near agonizingly slow and affected cadence, which tended to draw attention away from, not toward, her words. Just as Dr. and Mrs. Harford must sort out their marital differences, so too the viewers must come to grips with the movie’s meaning and heed the Gita‘s verse:
Sacred stories send us to sleep; / Care keeps us awake in bed; / Obscure is the way of karma; / Why weep?
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“Dharma” may not have an exact equivalent in the English language, but it has generally been defined as “righteousness” or “duty.” Much of the critical, economic, and religious pieties thrown against this movie do not have the same spirit of “dharma” that the Gita speaks about. Yet the shallow righteousness of our reigning if bumbling commentators and censors could have been alluded to by Kubrick through the choice of the particular shloka from the Gita.
Besides alluding to the caste system, the verse indirectly references one of Eyes‘ cast members, Thomas Gibson, who had the nearly speechless role of Miranda Richardson’s fiancé. Gibson currently stars in the sitcom Dharma and Greg, and his presence in the movie seems justified by two factors. Kubrick often selected lookalike cast members – especially vivid doublings can be seen in Barry Lyndon – and Gibson makes a competent physical double for Tom Cruise. The doubling in Eyes is akin to the kind in The Shining when Jack Torrance, being interviewed, is seated next to Bill Watson, whose brief function in the movie seems nothing more than to resemble Jack.
Yet, the Dharma and Greg allusion only comes into play when the viewer becomes aware of the meaning of the shloka in the chant during the orgy scene. Such a remote allusion is not uncommon in Kubrick’s movies and usually functions as an added detail of character or depth, not exactly necessary but helpful in understanding a character’s psyche or filling out a motif in the film. For example, in The Shining, when Jack Torrance enters the bathroom and sees the naked woman in the bathtub, they eventually embrace and Jack kisses her. When he glances in the mirror, the woman becomes a decrepit hag and Jack recoils in horror. An early movie in Jack Nicholson’s career, Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963), ended with a scene in which he’s kissing a beautiful woman who turns into a skeleton in his arms. Putting a similar scene in The Shining accentuated the narcissistic core of Nicholson’s character, in the sense that Torrance’s delusions were inspired, in part, by the films of the actor who played Torrance!
Only with the presence of the now displaced shloka does Gibson’s casting make sense. He serves as a near invisible pun – maybe AHAD should have been wailing about this desecration of their holy verses as well – and a statement on the shallowness of the television culture of which Gibson was a part. The same television ethos envelops the main characters of Eyes, as well those in The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. When Eyes incarnates Kubrick’s pessimistic vision of contemporary Americans grappling with themselves, their sexual desires, and their understanding of reality, Dr. Bill and his wife come up short. In a sense, television cultivated and maintains a superficial dharma or righteousness.
Eyes Wide Shut strives for a deeper, more elusive spirit that will not eschew the superficial but, rather, will use it for protection, the way an “animal mother” protects its brood, but also as a means for discovering a serious spiritual meaning without actually uttering the word “spiritual.” This very superficiality infected the critical response to the film two-and-a-half years ago. Too many critics carried shallow notions and expectations of “great art” by which to judge the film, whereas the mass of filmgoers became frustrated over its lack of an easy understanding. Many modes of trite righteousness, including that of the censors, washed over Eyes Wide Shut and led to fundamental perplexities over its intentions and meaning. This shouldn’t daunt or bring to tears anyone trying to understand and value the film.
An interesting news article from September 1999 on the shloka controversy can be found at www.rediff.com/news/1999/sep/01us1.htm. Sérgio Telles’s intriguing analysis of the source of Eyes Wide Shut, Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novel Traumnovelle, and its relationship to the film is available atwww.psychematters.com/papers/telles2.htm. Check rohznuka.tripod.com/eyeswideshutorgy.html for a description of the censored scenes. And … if you’re in the U.S., where only the censored version has been released on video, get a multi-region DVD player and buy the European (PAL) DVD, which restores what was cut by the skittish brothers Warner. Ebay, natch, usually has several copies up.
- He also said that the intent of the music was purely for its exotic atmosphere. Pook had recorded the shloka a few months before and nobody knew what the verses were. I am skeptical of this explanation and would excuse it as a defensive reflex, one which in the circumstance when religious feelings are hurt, one could call “the Rushdie defense.” [↩]
- Jan Harlan insisted to me that there was no reason to “interpret” the scene, there was no conscious meaning attached to the shloka’s inclusion in the film. I will take his advice and only offer an explanation for its presence. [↩]