Revisiting Eyes Wide Shut

Tracie Morris – Neo-Benshi

When I first saw Eyes Wide Shut, I hated it. 20 years later, thanks to poet and sound artist Tracie Morris, I took a second look.

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TRANSCRIPT

Tracie: You better hope Jesus saves you. You better hope Jesus saves you. You better hope Jesus saves you. You better hope Jesus saves you, save you, save you, save you, Jesus. You better hope Jesus saves you, save you, save you, save you, save you. You better hope Jesus saves you, save you, save you, save you Jesus. You better hope Jesus saint you, saint you, saint you, saint you. You say you better hope Jesus aid you, aid you, aid you, aid you, aid you Jesus. You better hope Jesus saint you, saint you, saint you Jesus. You better hope Jesus saint you, you, saint you, ain’t you ain’t you, you bet. Hope Jesus say so, say so, say so, say so, say a soul, say a soul. You better hope Jesus say it’s all, save souls, save souls Jesus. You better hope Jesus save soul, save a soul, save a soul, save a soul. You better hope Jesus say so, say so, say so, say so, Jesus. You better hope Jesus say so, say so, say so, say so, say so, say so, say it’s all. You better hope Jesus save you, say you, save you, save you, say so, say so, Jesus. Jesus saint you, saint you, saint you, saint you, saint you, Jesus.

Nick: Hey there it’s Nick. This is the very last episode of the season. So I wanted to do something a little bit different. That is, I wanted to actually give you a little background on the conversation you’re about to hear, weird. It’s with Tracy Morris. Morris is a poet and sound artist and I first saw her perform a piece called Eyes Wide Shut and Not Neo-Benshi read at the ICA in Richmond, Virginia. I had never heard of Benshi before but it’s a Japanese tradition of live narration from the silent film era. And Morris used that as inspiration for live poetry reading during a screening of the Stanley Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut. It’s a film that, when I saw it as a teenager, shortly after it came out, I despised…

Tracie: A 10 sentence synopsis of this film, I think that’s going to be impossible.

Nick: Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s last film. He died six days after completing the final cut in 1999. In it, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who were married in real life at the time, play a married couple Bill and Alice. For getting into an argument, Alice tells her husband, Bill that a year prior to that, she saw a Naval officer in a hotel, as in, she literally saw him, they didn’t even speak with one another. And her attraction to him was so intense, she briefly considered leaving the family. That’s it, she made eyes with a hot guy and thought about leaving the family for a second. But this news is so upsetting to Bill that he immediately goes on an all night bender during which he unsuccessfully solicits a prostitute and eventually, sneaks into an orgy party, run by a shadowy cabal of powerful rich people.

Nick: For me, the main hurdle to enjoying the film is Bill’s completely over the top reaction to what I personally, would consider an extremely minor transgression of marital fidelity. The film repeatedly comes back to Bill’s imagined scenes of Alice having sex with the sailor, intercut with shots of Tom Cruise’s face in the throws of debilitating jealousy. These are scenes that become increasingly tedious with every repetition. A few days after I first watched it, I had dinner with a group of middle-aged folks who had already seen it. They all loved it and rather patronizingly, I felt, told me that I would understand when I was older. I took this to mean, they felt I would eventually become consumed with the kind of toxic and security that plagues Bill. I don’t know if that’s a fair interpretation or just a teenager lashing out against generational baggage but 20 years later, when I heard about Tracy Morris’s upcoming performance, I thought it would be a great opportunity to put that claim to the test.

Nick: And, I’m sorry to say, I had pretty much the exact same reaction. I just couldn’t get past how supremely annoying Tom Cruise is. But Morris adores this film. And when she spoke after the screening, the exhilaration she displayed when describing it, made me question if I had wildly misinterpreted everything I had just watched. On this show, I often ask you, at least, implicitly to get out of your comfort zone. And it’s in that spirit, that I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, a little bit and try to understand what I might be getting wrong about Eyes Wide Shut.
Tracie: It’s interesting hearing you talk about it and seeing it when you were 18 because, I had the absolute mirror experience. I watched it for the first time and I said, “why do I like this movie? Why do I like this movie?” And I just kept watching it over and over and over. And I was like, “what is it that’s pulling me towards the movie.” And you were sitting there saying, “well, what’s pushing me away from the movie.” It was annoying me that I couldn’t figure out what it was that really drove me to watch it several times. I just said, ” out of all the movies that I could like and that I do like, why am I liking this one so much?” And it definitely wasn’t the titillating factor which at a time was something, in ’99, might’ve been more something, but you know, after the eighth time, you’re just like, “okay.”

Tracie: I thought there was certain things that were more interesting than the actual orgy scene. Like the guy with the mask who introduces him and does this beautiful balletic gesture with his hand to invite him in. I think that is just as interesting, if not more interesting. And then Kubrick, he has these moments even in the orgy scene and after, where people are doing things that, like you said, very quaint, like there’s a man and a woman just outside of one of the big rooms where they’re engaged in sex. And the woman has a dress on, it’s such a… It’s like a flowery dress. And I’m like, “why is that there?” It’s like the show. There are people having sex all over the place, I guess. But she has a flowerly dress and we’ve already seen people with like G strings. And I thought it’s a charming thing. And I think, there’s a lot of reasons why he put these little knots of consent and things, in the movie. I think, I think he was trying to do a lot of interesting stuff there.

Tracie: Cruise in that movie, is playing the most naive person in the whole movie. And you don’t see the ingenue framed like a guy like Tom cruise, especially, at the time in the 1990s when he and Nicole Kidman were the, “it couple.” You don’t see a guy who, at that time, especially, was presented very masculine, sexy, stray, wealthy, the gorgeous wife. As the most naive person in the whole movie, he knows the least about what’s going on in the whole movie. And he tries to do “the right thing” even when he’s mad but he just doesn’t know anything. Everybody knows more than him. And I’m just like, “why did Kubrick do that?”

Nick: It’s not that he doesn’t know stuff but he doesn’t even know about how the world works, you know what I mean? It’s not a mystery where he doesn’t have certain piece of information, he’s actually a naive person.

Tracie: He’s an innocent, he’s an ingenue. And the scene where he and Nicole Kidman is smoking a joint or I shouldn’t say… Well, Bill and Alice are smoking a joint.

Speaker 3: “Because I’m a beautiful woman, the only reason any man, everyone wants to talk to me because he wants to fuck me. Is that what you’re saying?”

Tracie: Several times when I saw that scene, the Nicole Kidman’s character is just as fascinating, if not more than his because, she seemed like a real jerk in that scene, you know, “why aren’t you jealous that these men are interested in me because I’m beautiful and why aren’t you…”

Nick: I think we both know what men are like.

Speaker 3: “So on that basis, I should conclude that you wanted to fuck those two models.”

Tracie: And of course he says the thing he’s supposed to say.

Speaker 4: “There are exceptions.”

Speaker 3: “What makes you an exception?”

Speaker 4: “What makes me an exception is that, I happen to be in love with you.”

Tracie: Well, because you’re my wife and I love you and I know you wouldn’t dare. But at a certain point because this character, she knows this man. And she’s like, “no, that’s not what you’re saying. What you’re saying, is women don’t actually have desire.”

Speaker 5: Men have to stick it in every place they can. But for women, it is about security and commitment and whatever the fuck else.
Tracie: And he agrees with this boy. He says, “well, it’s over-simplified, but yes.”

Speaker 4: A little over simplified Alice but yes, something like that.

Speaker 3: If you men only new.

Tracie: And you’re like, “Oh, see, now I know why she’s pissed off because he has no sense of who she is. This is somebody who’s very much out of touch with his sexuality, the way that I read it. Even the way that he exudes sexuality to other people, he just doesn’t know. I think that he knows that he’s an attractive guy but he’s not in tune with the way that that has consequences or interacts with the rest of the world. He just…

Nick: Despite half of the characters in the movie trying to hump him every moment.

Tracie: Oh my gosh.

Speaker 4: Do you suppose we should talk about money?

Speaker 6: Yeah, I guess so but it depends on what you want to do.

Tracie: This is another one of my favorite scenes.

Speaker 6: What do you want to do?

Speaker 4: Well, what do you recommend?

Tracie: The actor is perfect. He just says, “what do I recommend?”

Speaker 6: What do I recommend?

Tracie: She’s so trying to hold it together. She’s like, “I’ve never heard that in my entire life of being a prostitute.” She’s so charmed by it. But you just think, does he really know anything about sex and sexuality in a woman’s body, besides the clinical? No. He thinks he’s at a certain status and he’s even wrong about that. “I’m a doctor.” He’s always pushing, pulling his doctor card out. He’s showing people he’s a doctor and…

Nick: Set that up a little bit more because this is one of the most interesting points I think you made. Can you just say for someone who hasn’t seen the film, what is his social class, I guess for [inaudible 00:12:37].
Tracie: He is a doctor that works with elite people. He has probably, a Park Avenue Practice somewhere. He helps people and he refers people like Victor Ziegler but Victor and he are not in the same class. He thinks he’s in the same class because he helps people like Victor. He’s not in the same class because he helps people like Victor, he’s help and he doesn’t realize he’s help. Now, there are different echelons of help that I think is a very class focused picture and we see people at different strata in Kubrick’s film but he is not even in the same universe as Victor Ziegler.

Speaker 7: Are you playing?

Speaker 4: No, I’m just knocking a few balls around.

Tracie: We don’t know what Ziegler does. We don’t know why Ziegler does what he does. We don’t even know why he has these parties. We don’t even know the people at these parties. Victor doesn’t have to work. Victor’s interest doesn’t have to work but Victor always talks about playing. He never talks about working. One of my favorite scenes in the movie and there’s so many that I love is, when Victor puts his hands on Bill’s shoulders, when Bill is in the corner, realizing that Victor is lying to him.

Speaker 7: Suppose I told you that everything that happened to you there, the threats the girl’s warnings, her last minute intervention. Suppose I said that all of that was staged, that it was a kind of charade, that it was fake.

Speaker 4: Think.

Speaker 7: Yes, fake.

Tracie: Victor is absolutely lying to him and he realized he’s trapped and he can’t manage it.

Tracie: Tom Cruise’s character, Bill Hartford, goes to a secret party that he doesn’t realize is an orgy with powerful people. He gets a mask, everybody is wearing a mask and he has a mask and a cloak and a suit. After he has this incredible experience there which is titillating, sexual and traumatizing, he takes his mask and his cape and his clothes that he got from a rental agency. And he puts it in a bag and puts it away and he doesn’t want to deal with it. And he’s going to return them the next day to the rental house.

Tracie: The mask is missing when he returns them and he says, “I must’ve dropped it.” It was such an intense experience, he’s not going to just leave stuff, lying around. He’s being very careful but he can’t find it and he pays for it. Fast forward, many hours, Alice is laying on the bed asleep and the mask is next to her. And the way that the scene is set up, Bill Harford realizes that they could get to his wife and he’s absolutely terrified. And he’s terrified about what his involvement in this and experiencing this private club or G situation could mean to the death of his family and he was already threatened. So he was quite afraid. And then he breaks down and he starts to tell her what happened.

Speaker 4: I’ll tell you everything.

Tracie: Kubrick loves actors. I don’t know how he treated actors. I know that Tom Cruise had to go through many takes because Kubrick was breaking down the character and breaking down the actor, which is a choice, I guess. I wonder if people have ever asked him, I mean, I know that he and Nicole came in and said they worshiped Kubrick, they just would do anything that he said. And they they talked about how much his loss meant to them. But I think, in general, he really loves actors and he appreciates actors, Kubrick.

Tracie: There’s a death in the movie and Tom Cruise’s character, Bill is going to the mortuary to confirm the death of this person. There’s an orderly, one of the few black characters we see on screen, not so in the earlier script but in this scene. And he takes him there and the orderly brings the body out of the closet or the drawer or whatever they call it. And then he just steps to the side. It’s very small. It’s not a… But Kubrick makes sure to give him care, that actor, that moment. And I feel touched by it. I think the actor did a wonderful job. They say, no small roles just small actors. I think that he embodied that in that little moment that he had. The only person who didn’t get any attention, who had a larger presence in the film was Kubrick. You never saw him but he was actually made a cameo in the movie.
Nick: Because it’s a super White film, I think there’s two black characters in the whole thing.
Tracie: Yeah. That are actually featured. I think in the first party, there’s a couple of black people floating in the back that are not even really focused on. It’s just notable because of sea a whiteness.

Nick: Right.

Tracie: But besides that, there are two characters that you see, the orderly and the bodyguard which is not the case in the original script, any removed
black people from the script.

Nick: So when did you find that out?

Tracie: When I read those earlier scripts at the Kubrick archives in London. He removed black characters from earlier versions of the script. He is making a political comment, I think, about the absence of black characters in the film to highlight danger and meta commentary on the type of world that Bill Harford allows himself to be in. He doesn’t have black patients. There is a Latino woman that is featured as the maid of one of his clients, that we see Rosa. And as far as I know, those are the three characters of color that come to mind immediately from the film.

Tracie: It is interesting to see who we took out. One of the models who was hitting on him at Victor’s party, was originally a black character. And he also, in an earlier version, had a driver. Bill Harford had a driver and that chauffer was black. So now we see him in a cab which creates more of that class contrast that we were saying. And the model being white and with a particular type of posh British accent, it was that character who was originally a black character. It heightens the context in which Bill Harford is slowly being initiated. I suspect that those two models were also involved with the sex group.

Nick: If we could just pause for a second though because that just blows my mind that they erased black characters and made them white. Normally, if you hear about black characters being erased from scripts, that’s usually to highlight how racist it is and your interpretation is, “no, that is evidence that the movie is more racially conscious by removing these black characters.”

Tracie: Because he co-wrote the script, the earlier versions of the script. So, I think that he’s consciously taking these black characters out because he’s making a meta commentary on whiteness. And I think that that meta commentary also has to do with his background, Kubrick’s background because Kubrick’s father was a doctor. And I think in that immediate post-Holocaust generation, they’re also thinking about, what is their standing in terms of whiteness, even in a city like New York and interacting with different strata of society. So I don’t think that he’s making an explicit commentary about that, about Jewishness, in this context because Sydney Pollack, clearly Jewish character with a Jewish affect in this particular performance. But I think in Kubrick’s mind, somebody who’s from the Bronx, he’s thinking about this meta commentary, like, how does his life and his understanding of New York, before he moved to England, reflect what he saw all the time?

Tracie: But I want to say and I haven’t really said this before. He is still tenuous because money doesn’t buy everything. And how we know this is because in that final scene, when he’s in conversation with Tom Cruise’s character, he talks about the other people at the party as if he’s not really part of the group. He says, “though, that guy made me look,” talking about a Nick Night and Gayle, “like a complete asshole to those people, don’t want to know who those people are.” He says “those” a lot, which to me means, his status with all of his wealth, gets him into the door. Right. But it’s still actually a bit tenuous. He doesn’t say “we”, he says “they” and “those.” Like I said, I’ve never really talked about this before. It’s all relative. And I think that might be because of his ethnicity and religion, that he’s not really there, he’s in but he’s always got to prove that he should be and that’s why he was worried. And that’s why he had to have the attention of Tom Cruise’s character, Bill. He’s like, “I’ve got to tell you what’s going on because, first of all, you’re not going to endanger my position. And second of all, because you have something that I don’t have with all my wealth and that is wasness”

Tracie: All right. So again, he can be naive. Now, it’s interesting also, because there’s a book that this is based on, which Kubrick took very interesting directions that does refer to antisemitism and sub textually in a Trump Novell dream story. So, none of this is far a field and I’m very happy that we had this part of the conversation because, I don’t think that Victor is just an object either. I definitely don’t think he’s a good guy. That was pretty much made clear throughout the movie, victor is not a good guy but he is not at the absolute top of that food chain either. So, we don’t know who’s at the top of the food chain and that’s also the point, it’s invisible, we can’t even speculate. So all of these issues of class, all of these issues of knowledge from the microcosmic to the macro cosmic, meta commentaries on race, sex, sexuality, the luxury to be invisible, the luxury to be naive, all of these fantastic contrasts are embodied in this movie.
Tracie: And it’s also beautifully shot and it’s off, it’s a nerving in really beautiful ways through gesture, through performance, through the script, through the casting that I just think is revelatory. So I’m very much indebted to Kubrick and all of the actors and all the people involved to taking me on this journey of working more with film. So my question is, have I converted you to liking this film?

Nick: I’m converted enough that I’m willing to give it another shot, let’s let’s put it that way.

Tracie: Baby steps. Let me know what you think.

Nick: That’s it for season nine of Love and Radio. We’re going on a brief hiatus but stay tuned for more. To be the first to know when new episodes drop, you can sign up for our mailing list at our website, loveandradio.org. This episode was edited with help from Pollis Van Horne. Special thanks also to the Brooklyn Museum. Love and Radio’s producer is Phil Dmochowski. We are brought to you by Luminary and Made Possible Things to its subscribers. Thank you. Don’t forget, if you haven’t already, be sure to check out our brand new Secrets Hotline podcast online at secretshotline.org, on Instagram at thesecretshotline on the luminary app for free, wherever you find the podcast. I’m Nick van der Kolk. Thanks for listening.

CREDITS

Featuring:
Tracie Morris

Opening piece: “My Great Grand Aunt Speaks to a Bush Supporter” by Tracie Morris

Production:
Nick van der Kolk, Host and Director
Paulus van Horne, Editor

Published on: February 11, 2021

From: Episodes, Season 9

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