Though Harvey Keitel has become a listing in our cinema icon treasury, he's still been booted off at least two films: EYES WIDE SHUT and APOCALYPSE NOW, and considering the films in question, must be one kinky wildman. Therefore, these two films might be considered bookends of an era, because he kind of nailed similar roles in 1993, as a kind of gone-native Kurtzian honorary Maori in THE PIANO and a depraved representative of power in BAD LIEUTENANT, where, interestingly enough, he does full frontal nudity ( in both films).
But that's not why we're here. We need to discuss EYES WIDE SHUT and the late, beloved director/ actor Sydney Pollack, who had a pretty good film career playing rich, smartass New York Jews (as Randy Newman would sing) with penchants for beautiful prostitutes and heavy nostril breathing. There's something about his casual older guy frankness that adds chilling layers of ambiguity to his performances; as a nonchalant womanizer he's unsettling in the Lacanian-Zizek anal father horrific way (1). It makes his a disturbingly intimate presence, like catching your girlfriend's dad in bed with your little sister.
Pollack's character in EYES especially is chilling in his unconscious acceptance of his privileged status quo: he sees nothing wrong with spending more money than you make in a year in order to hire sweet young things as his coarse pleasure tools... is there any more subtly offensive line in all of Woody's oeuvre than Pollack's glowing review of a hooker in HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1993, below left): "She has a mouth like velvet," as if describing the seats in first class? But it works because Woody is horrified he said it and no doubt later, when no one is around to appreciate his moral outrage, intrigued.
But that's just a warm-up for EYES WIDE SHUT (and may have been what got Pollack the role). There's something about the way he says the word "hooker" in EYES that makes the blood run cold. the hooker in this case is a beautiful, tall, perfectly figured lass who seems to be everywhere at once in Cruise's big night of almost-passion, including the big masked orgy.
I never understood this orgy scene, and I've understood many an orgy scene. First of all, if everyone is masked, why is everyone so uptight? No one knows who they are! Does security have to be that tight because human sacrifices are occurring shortly? And why is dopey Cruise so anxious to crash in where he's not wanted, especially in this dreary scene, more a bourgeoisie museum retrospective version of a masked orgy than a real thing, where people come and go whispering of fellatio / while all the while maybe 2-7 people per gigantic room are actually getting it on, and only in the most dull lifeless way imaginable (lord knows how many takes Kubrick demanded, but every time I watch this scene I shudder in sympathy for those poor models with their achingly perfect, breasts, being banged around like lifeless cattle, their masks no doubt suffocating their skin). And we have to wonder which came first -- does Kubrick make films about dehumanization because he's worried about us, or because he's cold and clinical by nature, and so he changes the message to match his limitations? (i.e. when you're a rich sadist, you can pay huge amounts of overtime to watch perfect breasts jiggle from doggy style thrusting, take after take, until the poor girls have nervous breakdowns?)
Masked scenes in pornography are never a good idea, since facial expressions are important for arousal, unless of course, a) you want to hide and b) fetishize some particular body part that precludes any real eye-to-eye connection. But if you want your lovers anesthetized like the night upon the table... man, I guess that could work. T.S. Eliot is really creeping into this entry. But then again, that makes perfect sense. For if EYES WIDE SHUT has a iconographic codex, it would surely be "The Wasteland":
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
which an age of prudence can never retract
by this, and this alone, have we existed
which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficient spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor. (405)
I've been obsessed with orgies since I was nine years old and didn't even know what they were. But man, what a great name, orgy... they sound so wild and crazy. Then again, if we bring this back like a long chalkboard curve to the Lacanian model of desire, it makes perfect sense that it turns out to be such a dull, humorless show --the closer our proximity to our desire (objet petit a) the more nervous and self-sabotaging we become, for it's just a big empty finish line and the momentum of the race is all there is to keep us from falling off the planet.
Of course this weird mix of prurience and play is part of the film's swirling appeal for some people and I can appreciate that. I can appreciate the beauty of all the women and wallpaper in the film and the way Tom Cruise kind of bashfully lets his character be sucked up into various hottie vortices, so to speak, but if the rumors as to why Keitel was fired are true, then it just goes to show you what powerful prudes Cruise and Kidman really are. Who cares if he came in her hair? This is acting! In a goddamned sex film! Would Arnold Schwarzenegger fire someone for accidentally punching him in a fight scene? Would he run and call his momma in Germany? No, he wouldn't. At least Keitel would have at least brought a kind of legit sexual energy (did he come on that car door in BAD LIEUTENANT?) that Pollack just can't duplicate and probably doesn't want to. Even playing rich sleazebags he's a gentlemen of poise and money, yet that's what ultimately works - his character seethes with menace because Pollack the actor's inherent decency isn't subsumed but merely switched over to mask status. He is a man who goes to orgies yet has given up on orgies and sex as his objet petit a. To him these young beauties are little more than distractions, like the 800th time you go to yoga class and realize you're falling asleep during your asanas. For Pollack's rich Jews the only concern is the risk his young chippies will embarrass him in front of his heavy intellectual friends (talking about astrology at his bourgeois friend's dinner party in HUSBANDS AND WIVES, or worrying the girl in his bedroom doesn't O.D. and thus embarrass him in EYES WIDE SHUT, below).
If you've forgotten that last one, it's after the lengthy preparation for the birthday party scene, and the Cruise-Kidman's nervous arrival (all beautifully done). Upstairs we see the birthday boy Pollack getting hurriedly getting dressed as a beautiful naked woman lies splayed out on a chair in his room. He's sent for Cruise because she "O.D.-ed, doing a speedball or something." Which is ridiculous, since the chick's lips aren't even blue (above). Dude, she passed out, so the fuck what? She's fine. Put her into bed and turn the lights out. She'll probably just come to in a few hours and sneak out the back with your whiskey decanter and wife's fur coat. Instead, Cruise brings her out of her stupor and gives her a patronizing lecture about how she almost died, which carries all the inauthentic ring of a Sarah Palin lecture on international affairs. Dude, how can you talk about things of which you know less than nothing? Pollack for his part is worried not because he cares about her but that disposing of the body would be hard with so many people downstairs, kind of like he just spilled red wine on his tuxedo jacket and doesn't have time to yell at the cleaning lady.
But the cool thing is, I do believe this is all intentional and that Pollack is brave and focused as an actor, especially for his willingness to play with moral ambiguity, to use his own aging, hairy bourgeois Jew profile as an exmple of what William Burroughs once described as "the cold, dead look of heavy power," tapping into a common racist/classisct/ageist phobia that rich old Svengalis are stealing off our Trilbys. Like Christophe Waltz in BASTERDS, he uses deep, relaxed nasal breathing to make you feel very close to him and you don't want to be; you feel like he's stolen something from you and you're afraid to ask for it back. There's something incestuous about the way we're conditioned to accept him as a "good guy" via his ease with signifiers of wealth. He seems to turn the viewer into a prostitute through his nostrils and through his use of anonymous but gorgeous younger women for sex, the way most people wearily order pizza, "again" for a dull dinner. But with that heavy serpentine weariness comes the knowledge that as a representative of the power elite it's his job to posit himself as "the one who enjoys," to situate the rest of us as outsiders in the fantasy realm so that we can keep ourselves in a distracted orbit around the real and thus preserve the gravitational field. Notein the scene below, Pollack's genial massage of Cruise's shoulders. This is a man who lives his pleasures close to the hairy surface; he's tactile. He forces us to imagine him having sex via his physical looseness. Cruise by contrast is repressed, i.e. 'normal' and like us, he worries the whole world is a continual orgy the moment his back is turned, that he and he alone is the odd man out, the one everyone hides their stash and their nudity from, even when fully undressed in his doctor's office.
So while I have yet to like EYES WIDE SHUT as a film, in general, when the time is right, and I get over my revulsion/admiration for Pollack's casually evil performance, his superb grasp of "prohibitive enjoyment," I'll probably dig it. And Kidman is amazing, running acting rings around her narcissist husband while he flexes into the mirror. On some level you can understand both Pollack's and Kidman's frustration; it is a dream world, and they are surrounded by idiots like Cruise, who so desperately wants to live a dream he can't even see he's already asleep. Kidman and Pollack don't have much interaction in this film (whatever that "hairy" scene was with Keitel was presumably cut at her and Cruise's insistence) but they anchor the main character's delusional pursuit of orgiastic experience with their adult understanding that even in the thick of a wild drug-fueled orgy you sometimes have to fantasize in order to feel like you're really even there.
And Kubrick, the Tiresias who perhaps has not fore-suffered all, tacitly stands on the sidelines leaving us to wonder if he's so far behind the cinematic times that he's ahead of them (as he was in LOLITA) or just utterly lost due to his hermitage (as he was in FULL METAL JACKET). We can wonder, and I'm glad we'll never have a clear answer, for the hazy ambiguity of intent adds to WIDE SHUT's luster. The impossibility of desire's fulfillment has seldom been more lushly, mercilessly illuminated in sex cinema. For what Pollack represents in the Kubrick stable isn't the Tiresias of Eliot nor the impotent hermit wrestling with his genius mantle of the auteur himself, but the stale endgame of accumulated wealth and power. Pollack's billiard room may be lush, but it's still just a room with a pool table, and sex is still just sex, regardless of the wealth and masks and perfect breasts. Actual emotional connection is what makes sex hot, and it's missing altogether in EYES WIDE SHUT. In order to perpetuate the myth of "hot" anonymous sex, or the GQ/Maxim subterfuge of confusing sex, love and consumer goods, Pollack keeps his orgy mask on 24/7, even though he's perhaps all to aware its become saggy and old -- or to paraphrase Nick Tosches' biography of Dean Martin -- "no matter how far you get in life, your dreams of success just wind down to a drink and a blow job." The trick is to pretend you don't care so the masses think you do and hate you for it so they can continue to live in the illusion that your lifestyle would solve their problems and bring them satisfaction if they only had it.
But maybe, just maybe, you don't have to choose between the smarmy unconsciousness of Cruise, nor the withered entitlement of Pollack, nor the primordial mockery of Kidman. You can be free, and real, like Harvey Keitel.
Only they won't let you swagger around nude on crack and masturbate into people's hair at these hoity toity big budget control freak orgies (if ever there was a contradiction in terms!) To really "bring it" you have to find a dark alley with Abel Ferrara's camera rolling on 'e,' and in the dark ominousness of a real New York, not Kubrick's expensive indoor studio sets. Kubrick's film tries to deconstruct the notion of a "No sex, please, we're British" sex film about sex in New York, but it has nothing to do with New York, per se (as in the bridge and tunnel gang making homphobic remarks at Cruise like its 1979) and instead ends up lost in its own self-reflexive maze of overthought set design, suffocating luxury and meaningless sex.
But what does that matter? Jesus said a rich man can no more enter the gates of heaven than a camel can pass through the eye of a needle. Pollack's elite power broker is the rich man going through camel after smashed and twisted camel, trying to compact them and force them through that needle so he can feel as alive as reckless Harvey's BAD LIEUTENANT, who just goes around snorting coke, passing out, making bets on the Dodgers, jerking off at underage Jersey girls, and screaming through the gates of heaven into the arms of Christ our Lord as He appeareth in a crack withdrawal flashback. Amen, brother.
------I wrote the above, then found this from Zizek, which doesn't mention the anal father aspect, but is nonetheless interesting as an explanation of the orgy scene's antiquated timidity:
"It is only Nicole Kidman’s fantasy that truly is a fantasy, while Tom Cruise’s fantasy is a reflexive fake, a desperate attempt to artificially recreate/reach the fantasy, a fantasising triggered by the traumatic encounter of the Other’s fantasy, a desperate attempt to answer the enigma of the Other’s fantasy: what was the fantasized scene/encounter that so deeply marked her? What Cruise does on his adventurous night is to go on a kind of window-shopping trip for fantasies: each situation in which he finds himself can be read as a realized fantasy – firstly the fantasy of being the object of the passionate love interest of his patient’s daughter; then the fantasy of encountering a kind prostitute who doesn’t even want money from him; then the encounter with the weird Serb (?) owner of the mask rental store who is also a pimp for his juvenile daughter; finally, the big orgy in the suburban villa. This accounts for the strangely subdued, statuesque, ‘impotent’ even, character of the scene of the orgy in which his adventure finds its culmination. What many a critic dismissed as the film’s ridiculously aseptic and out-of-date depiction of the orgy works to its advantage, pointing towards the paralysis of the hero’s ‘capacity to fantasize." (173-175)
But there you go again, Harvey Keitel ain't paralyzed! He lives the fantasy cuz he's much too drunk to fantasize! (TDTF). Go Harvey! Oh wait, is he passed out?
Read more on Harvey Keitel and whoremongering in my Funkamatic Piece on Cinematic Pimps!