[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]
Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick
By Frederic Raphael
Reviewed by Scott Von Doviak
When Stanley Kubrick died in March 1999, the curtain of secrecy and silence
that had cloaked his life's work rang down once and for all. Or so he might
have hoped. In fact, the director's death opened the floodgates, unleashing
a torrent of words in newspapers, magazine articles and on the Internet.
It was as if Kubrick's former associates couldn't wait to be the first to
rip down the curtain and reveal the great and terrible Oz for all to behold.
Frederic Raphael's Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick was
the first postmortem to reach bookstores. A veteran screenwriter and Oscar
winner for Darling, Raphael was contacted in 1994 by the reclusive
filmmaker, who had not made a movie in seven years. Kubrick (whose classic
films include Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A
Clockwork Orange) sent Raphael an unidentified manuscript, later revealed
to be a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler entitled Dreamnovelle.
Five years later, this virtually unknown story had been transformed into
a motion picture event starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; the final
film by Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut.
Raphael's slim volume details the year and a half period he spent working
on the screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut. It incorporates diary excerpts
and telephone conversation transcripts into a roughly chronological reminiscence
that allows for digressions into other areas of Raphael's professional life,
as well as no small amount of armchair psychoanalysis of the notoriously
obsessive director. For Kubrick aficionados, as well as anyone interested
in the often tortuous collaborative screenwriting process, Eyes Wide
Open proves at least as frustrating as it is rewarding.
There is a kind of unpleasant aura about the book and the motivations behind
it. The timing of the publication, a scant three months after Kubrick's
death, calls into question the sincerity of such a "memoir," capitalizing
as it does on the scheduled release date of Eyes Wide Shut. And much
of the content does little to dispel such suspicions. At times, it smacks
of a revenge ploy of a particularly cowardly sort. At his worst, Raphael
comes off as a disgruntled former employee sounding off against the boss
who can longer respond in kind.
It doesn't take very many pages for Raphael to firmly establish his monumental
self-regard. He treats us to recollections of projects he has turned down
for other directors, all of which naturally met with failure. He deigns
to meet with a pair of buffoonish television executives and reluctantly
agrees to write a miniseries for them. He then shunts them aside to make
time to work for Kubrick, only after receiving assurances that the proposed
assignment is not (sniff) science fiction.
Though Kubrick at first makes pains to conceal the source of the material,
Raphael guesses that it is most likely the Austrian writer and Freud contemporary
Arthur Schnitzler (and delights in telling us that he has so guessed). Raphael
is presented with the challenge of updating the story from 19th century
Vienna to contemporary Manhattan. Though he finds Schnitzler's themes a
bit "dusty," he agrees to take a crack at it.
Kubrick initially pronounces himself "thrilled" with Raphael's
efforts, a reaction that sets off an inexplicable emotional response in
Raphael. He is at first delighted to meet with the auteur's approval, then
angry with himself for feeling such delight. His displeasure deepens when
the honeymoon phase comes to an end and Kubrick begins to demand revisions.
Slowly, Raphael realizes that his actual role in the project is not what
he had envisioned:
[Kubrick] never explains why he doesn't like a scene, especially
when he has to concede that it is pretty funny. I have come to see that
he distrusts my jokes -- any jokes -- probably because a well-scripted passage
of dialogue which presages a climactic laugh demands that the scene be shot
precisely to that end. Joe "All About Eve" Mankiewicz used to
say that a good script had, in some sense, been directed already. That is
not the kind of script Kubrick will ever want. Anything too finished
leaves him with an obligation to obedience. He did not want the scenes to
carry any authorial mark but his. If I was preparing the way for him to
do his stuff, anything that was markedly mine was never the stuff he was
going to do.
And so, Raphael finds himself stripping the screenplay down to its bare
essence. Any variation from the original Schnitzler text is met with Kubrick's
disapproval: "Let's stick with Arthur's beats." Any attempts at
jazzing up the dialogue are likewise rebuffed. "I don't like the scene
with the hooker. I mean, she sounds like she's Barbra Streisand, you know
what I mean? Doing the New York hooker. The dialogue kinda goes boom boom
and a boom boom, which I don't...I don't want that. How about we just follow
Eventually, Raphael delivers his putative final draft of what has come to
be known as Eyes Wide Shut. Months later, he is summoned back to
Castle Kubrick by the director, who has completely rewritten the screenplay.
Raphael reads the new version with a heavy heart. While many of his contributions
remain, the script's pages have become "a blueprint for a movie. They
contain only enough words to remind the director of what he means to do
or have people say."
One of the most exasperating aspects of the book is that we are forced to
take Raphael at his word regarding the superiority of his original draft.
This is not entirely his fault, of course, since the work-for-hire provisions
of the Hollywood studio system dictate that the script is the intellectual
property of Warner Bros. It would therefore be impossible for him to provide
side-by-side comparisons of the respective drafts without the studio's permission,
a highly unlikely prospect at best. Nevertheless, one of the few concrete
examples given of Raphael's contribution to the finished film does not necessarily
bear out his thesis.
All along Raphael had insisted that the screenplay required an overall shape,
something to tie the beginning in with the end (a quality he felt Kubrick's
previous film, Full Metal Jacket, lacked). After much prodding, the
director agreed to a penultimate scene that would provide a certain amount
of narrative closure, yet still leave a hint of ambiguity. Unfortunately,
the scene as written proves to be a clumsy and prosaic wrap-up spiel in
the tradition of the psychiatrist's speech that concludes Psycho;
it serves to dissipate the atmosphere of mystery and dread that has suffused
the film to this point. Though one can't be certain to what extent Raphael
is to blame for the dialogue's plodding rhythms, his desire for such an
expository denouement is curiously at odds with his and Kubrick's mutually
expressed distaste for 2010, the overly-literal sequel to the director's
most visually driven film.
All of this is not to say that Eyes Wide Open is without its merits
and small pleasures. Anyone familiar with Kubrick's notorious perfectionism
and protracted shooting schedules will get a chuckle out of this exchange
regarding the late director Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10-part film Decalogue:
S.K.: So what do you think of the Kieslowski?
S.K.: I'll tell you what's amazing, he did all ten of those things in one
year... Ten movies in one year, can you imagine?
F.R.: Sure. Do you want to do something like that? Because I'm sure you
S.K.: Think so?
These conversational transcripts provide the book's most rewarding moments.
Raphael deftly renders Kubrick's Bronx-bred speech patterns and chatty style,
and we are treated to his insights on such subjects as his fellow filmmakers
(Woody Allen is a favorite, and he admires Pulp Fiction for "the
way it was told...the pace."), the game of chess, the O.J. Simpson
trial (one of the book's least surprising revelations -- Kubrick thinks
he's guilty) and, most controversially, the Holocaust.
Eyes Wide Open received some notoriety upon its release due to an
excerpt published in the New York Post under the headline, "Stanley
Kubrick -- Self-Hating Jew." Though this phrase is used nowhere in
Raphael's book, the author (himself Jewish) does wrestle with the director's
ambiguous relationship with his own Jewishness. Kubrick insisted that the
Jewish characters in Schnitzler's novella be transformed into WASPy "Harrison
Ford-ish" types. An incident wherein the main character is assaulted
by an anti-Semitic gang is transformed into a gay-bashing in the film (a
change, incidentally, that ties the scene thematically to the character's
other sexually-charged encounters). Raphael goes along with these changes
reluctantly, suspecting that Kubrick is making them primarily as a sop to
the box office. The finished film suggests another reading, however. The
Upper West Side setting, with its lushly appointed trappings, as well as
the relationship-centered subject matter, evoke at times the work of Woody
Allen (as does the presence of Sydney Pollack, who also appears in Allen's
Husbands and Wives). Kubrick may have recognized this similarity,
and not wished to push further onto Allen's turf by making the characters
Ultimately, Raphael reveals far more of himself than he does of his book's
ostensible subject, and the resultant self-portrait is less than flattering.
The author certainly hasn't been at the top of anyone's list of hot screenwriters
for several decades, and one can't shake the feeling that this enterprise
is a thinly-veiled attempt to elevate his stature through the (partial,
at least) denigration of a far more recognized artist. The arrogance on
display here is most unseemly coming from a writer whose most recent screen
credit prior to Eyes Wide Shut was a 1990 TV movie called Women
and Men: Stories of Seduction. And while the telephone conversation
transcripts provide the most delightful reading, suspicion about their origin
lingers. Does Raphael have a home taping system on his phone line -- or
is this perhaps more of the author's "pretty good dialogue" Kubrick
so often praises herein? There is no way of knowing for sure.
It would seem the definitive Kubrick volume has yet to be written (see --
or rather, don't see --Vincent LoBrutto's massive 1995 biography
Stanley Kubrick, a stultifying compendium of second-hand anecdotes
that, for all its girth, sheds precious little light on its subject). However,
even within the narrow sub-genre of collaborator-penned reminiscences, Raphael
has been beaten at his own game. Michael Herr, author of the nonfiction
classic Dispatches and co-screenwriter of Kubrick's Vietnam epic
Full Metal Jacket, contributed a similar account to the August 1999
issue of Vanity Fair. The lengthy article proves to be a much richer,
more insightful and above all, more human portrait of the director
than Eyes Wide Open, without ever succumbing to hagiography.
In the end, the most dismaying aspect of any such memoir may be the circumstance
that allowed it to be written at all. In a better world, Stanley Kubrick
would still be out there, hunkered down in his compound in the English countryside,
picking the brain of yet another collaborator and laying the groundwork
for another powerful and unique cinematic experience. His untimely death
leaves a void that will not be easily filled anytime soon.
Wide Open from Amazon.com.
Scott Von Doviak
is a screenwriter living in Austin, Texas. He co-wrote and co-stars in the
indie comedyWhat I Like About You. He has also written for Very
Vicky comics and starred in the film Apocalypse
Bop, now available on video.
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