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Baudrillard Cipher

Part I. – The Metafictional Genius of Eyes Wide Shut

When it comes to Stanley Kubrick’s movies, the mid and late period entries in his catalogue can give an impression of having been extensively workshopped in so many different conceptual directions that it is tough to identify any simple, linear metrics along which they can be comprehensively graded or understood. They often encompass enough concurrent strains of narrative, thematic, aesthetic and technical interplay that it becomes easy to neglect one in favour of another (or many in favour of a few). At the most immediate levels of engagement, there is a constant temptation to surrender our sense of conscious apprehension and give in to the spellbinding iconography with which the films envelope us. Across repeat viewings, as their atmospheres become more familiar, we increasingly notice their more unannounced, subcutaneous qualities. They are inexhaustible, ten-for-the-price-of-one experiential megastructures that almost give the sensation of interfacing with a polymorphous, psycho-responsive entity. As a result of their wealth of detail, there are aspects to the films that can go relatively underappreciated as we get wonderfully ‘lost’ within their gorgeous, labyrinthine walls. Of these, I think one of the most routinely overlooked and undervalued through-lines of Kubrick’s movies is their cerebral application of metafictional awareness.

Most of Kubrick’s movies from 2001: A Space Odyssey onward display a diverse-yet-distinctive brand of cinema-centric metafictional qualities; marking them with a reflexive consciousness of the medium that manifests not just in terms of style, but as part of their narratives and themes. In A Clockwork Orange, the protagonist is forced to endure acts of violence being projected onto a cinema screen, just like the movie’s actual theatre audience. In Full Metal Jacket, one of the Marines refers to the battlefield conflict as “Vietnam: The Movie“, while being taped by a camera crew. There is a sense in which Kubrick films are movies about “the movies” (bringing to mind Jack Nicholson’s recount of Stanley telling him that a film is a “photograph of a photograph”).

While it would be reductive to say that these meta-cinematic factors have all been employed for the same purpose in each of the individual films, I do think it is in Eyes Wide Shut that this set of ideas reaches its developmental apex as a fully refined ‘experience enhancement’ device. Whereas the prior films seem to periodically foreground their metafictional awareness at opportunistic intervals, Eyes Wide Shut is practically drenched with it as the core characteristic which ubiquitously defines how the viewer engages the narrative. In spite of this, the film doesn’t really wear this essence “on its sleeve”, and is relatively subtle in how it communicates its central nature to the audience.

Although there is a fairly common tendency to think of Kubrick as a primarily visual filmmaker– especially given a perception-oriented film title like Eyes Wide Shut— a large bulk of the of the movie’s unusual meta-medial properties are actually delivered to the audience through sound, or more specifically, music. To this end, the film uses a curiously unique juxtaposition of diegetic and non-diegetic musical contexts. Before detailing why this has been done, let’s first have a look at this set of techniques in action and see what answers might become self-evident from its usage.

For the unfamiliar: diegetic music is music that is coming from a sound source within the world of the movie, such as when a character in the film is listening to a song on the radio. Non-diegetic music, or dramatic score, is music that cannot be heard by characters in the movie, and is played directly to the audience for the enhancement of their viewing experience. Since it is detached from the world of the film’s story, non-diegetic music does not need to conform to any logic of physical continuity, and can be played uninterrupted over shots in the movie that are separated in time (such as in the case of a song being played over a montage).

Eyes Wide Shut‘s metafictional shenanigans begin right out of the gate with the very first piece of audio-visual stimulus given to the audience, after the pre-credits Warner Brothers vanity card. The movie opens with Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 playing over the opening credits, and we are shown a shot of Alice undressing in her room. We then see the film’s title card, and, soon after, we cut to Bill standing in the same place where we just saw Alice, only much later. Waltz No. 2 continues uninterrupted despite the temporal discrepancy of these two shots, which communicates to us that the music is non-diegetic

except that the music can’t be non-diegetic, because Bill turns it off at the stereo as he’s leaving the room.

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If this ambiguous diegesis was an isolated incident, we could perhaps think of it as a kind of aesthetic flourish with no readily discernible purpose. To someone unfamiliar with Stanley Kubrick’s renowned attention to narrative detail, it might even seem like an accident or goof. But that’s just the thing: it isn’t an isolated incident. In fact, most if not all of the music in the film has been utilized in a similar fashion; illustrating a demonstrably pre-meditated modus operandi and revealing intentions that become clearer and clearer with each iteration.

Literally less than a minute after the opening sequence in the Harford’s bedroom, the film dissolves to the scene where Bill and Alice meet Victor and Illona Ziegler in the foyer of their mansion. We can hear ballroom music playing while the couples talk with each other for about 25 seconds. Then, as the Harfords pass through a doorway, the music continues as the film dissolves into the ballroom, where we can see them dancing in the centre of the frame. In the world of the movie, time has lapsed between these two shots.

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Are you starting to see the pattern? We know that the ballroom music is diegetic because it’s being played by the live band on screen, but, just like in the opening scene of the movie, the music continues uninterrupted despite the temporal discontinuity of the two shots. Once again, the music is being impossibly suggested as both diegetic and non-diegetic at the same time.

A mere minute later, the band finishes performing its song (“I’m in the Mood for Love“), and the bandleader announces that the band is going to take a ten minute break. As Bill walks over and starts talking with Nick Nightingale, we hear a new ballroom tune begin (“It Had to Be You“). Obviously, it’s not being performed by the band this time, so we are left to assume that it is perhaps a recording being played over some unseen speaker system in Ziegler’s mansion (either that, or it is an oddly quiet part of the film’s score). This piece of music continues as the film dissolves to Alice in the adjoining room, standing at the table where she is approached by Sandor Szavost. The tune reaches its end and transitions immediately to the next one (“Chanson d’Amour“), which plays as we watch Alice and Sandor talk for a minute and a half. Then, we are presented with another impossibility: Chanson d’Amour continues uninterrupted as the film dissolves directly into the next shot of Alice and Sandor, who are now dancing to the very same music. As the shot rotates around the ballroom, we see that the tune is being performed by Nick Nightingale and the house band! When did we make the switch back to live performance?

The seamless continuity of the soundtrack in this scene also creates another paradox with regards to the passage of time. If we measure time by the uninterrupted stream of diegetic ballroom music from when the band leaves the stage, they return from their “ten minute” break after only 2:45 minutes, and that includes the time it would take for them to both retire from the stage and then come back again! The laws of time and space at this party are clearly not in proper accord.

If we move on from the ballroom scene, we’ll see that a repeat of the movie’s first trick is played later, when Bill is with Domino in her apartment. From a shot of Alice smoking cigarettes in the Harford’s kitchen, the film dissolves to Bill and Domino, looking sensuously at each other, with the jazz piano of “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” playing as what might seem to be the score for this scene… then, like in the film’s opening, Bill walks over and turns the music off at the stereo again!

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Something important to note here is that the “diegetic” music in this scene has clearly been added in post-production. No effort has been made to give the impression that the music is interacting with the physical environment on screen (i.e. no reverb, directionality, frequency muffling or playback artifacts have been affected in order to realistically integrate the music into the world of the film). What we hear is the song’s master track being directly played back to us, as though the original recording is coming straight from our sound systems. The piece is being treated as though it is part of the score; a paradoxical framing choice which presents the artificial as the natural, and instils a subliminal sense of unease within the viewer. This treatment (or lack thereof) has been applied to quite a few pieces of music featured in Eyes Wide Shut.

After the scene at Domino’s flat, when Bill goes to see Nick Nightingale at the Sonata Café, the film gives us an exact repeat of shifting diegetic frame that we saw at Ziegler’s Christmas party. We see Nick on stage with a band, playing live music like before, and once again, the music continues to play after all the musicians leave the stage– a piano performance of “Blame It on My Youth” can be heard while Bill and Nick talk. The only relevant difference here is that, unlike Ziegler’s mansion, the Sonata Café has a visible array of mounted house speakers, from which the recording would seem be playing… however, due to the precedent set for us by the film’s warped diegetic frame up until this point, we can’t easily be certain. Just like the tinkling ivories from Domino’s bedroom, this disembodied piano shows no obvious signs of acoustic interaction with the room in which we hear are supposedly hearing it.

As well as the music continuing to play after he leaves either stage, there is another parallel between Nick’s respective performances at Ziegler’s ballroom and the Sonata Café which we should mention here: in both cases, the music played by his band is heard as being panned into the left stereo channel, to show where the sound is coming from relative to Bill’s positioning. The music then shifts to the centre of the stereo field as Bill enters the room where Nick is playing (indicating diegetic sound). As we’ve seen, this dynamic display of directionality is notably absent from other diegetic music in the movie. The clear symmetry of the ambiguous diegesis in these two scenes gives us a good indication as to just how pre-meditated these applications of music are.

Just in case the two examples involving Nick Nightingale aren’t enough to establish a clear intentionality on Kubrick’s part, we are given a third instance during the Somerton mansion ritual/orgy sequence. We can see the blindfolded Nightingale performing the ritual music on his keyboard, so we know it’s diegetic… but then, just like at Ziegler’s party, the next piece of music (Jocelyn Pook’s “Migrations“) follows immediately, and continues uninterrupted while the film dissolves between all the temporally distant shots in the orgy rooms. Every single time Nick Nightingale performs music, it is immediately followed by a paradoxical shift in diegetic frame. It’s the same trick from the first scene of the movie, but in reverse. Notice also how this particular shift in frame comes right after a prostitute (Mandy) leans in from screen left during a close-up shot and kisses Bill, similarly to one of the earlier shifts which comes right after another prostitute (Domino) does the same.

After all the dissolves between the orgy rooms, Bill and Mandy walk out of the library, and the ambiguously “non-diegetic” Migrations crossfades into an instrumental version of “Strangers in the Night“. This new tune is decidedly diegetic: it is first muffled as though being heard through the wall, echoing in accordance with the physical dimensions of the mansion, and it is then heard clearly as we see a room full of party guests slow-dancing to it. The crossfade between these two songs, which is plainly intended to emulate what Bill and Mandy hear as they shift their proximity between the two sound sources, communicates an acoustic relationship which is physically impossible. As Strangers in the Night plays, we see Nick Nightingale being walked by a butler across Somerton’s ballroom, once again down from a stage while music continues to play. We can recall how he was also guided away by one of Ziegler’s assistants at the Christmas party (again, briefly after leaving the stage while a recording was playing).

Five seconds after Bill walks out of hearing distance from Strangers in the Night, he finds himself in Red Cloak’s court. Here, we immediately hear the sinister, minimalistic piano motif of György Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata II“, which is clearly intended to be part of the score (this is further confirmed for us through the film’s later uses of the same piece). But there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trick that this scene plays on us: during this sequence’s climactic shot, the masked woman abruptly yells “STOP!“, and her voice sharply silences the piano motif which awkwardly ends mid-phrase, as though in surprise. However, it is not simply as though the recording of the piece (performed by Dominic Harlan) is immediately muted. When it stops, we can hear a short tail of piano reverberation following the interrupted note. The brief time it takes for this reverberation to dissipate actually exceeds the time it would normally take for the next note in the piece to be heard (it usually comes in at 3:15 in the unaltered recording). From this, we can deduce that the reverb has been at least partially affected in post-production. Thus, on top of being causally impacted by a physical event in the film (which is relatively common in movies), the playback of this “non-diegetic” music shows an interaction within an acoustic environment that is separate from the recording itself; indicating its position inside the film’s physical world.

Having only analysed pre-existing compositions used in Eyes Wide Shut up until this point, let’s turn our attention to the film’s original score, written by Jocelyn Pook. The original score is heard only very sporadically throughout the movie (and, in general, there is a permeating absence of music altogether throughout large amounts of the film’s runtime). These original pieces can only be heard (A) when Alice recounts her story of fantasizing over the naval officer, (B) when Alice describes to Bill her surreal “garden” dream featuring said naval officer, and (C) during the five blue-tinted “cutaways”, when the film shows Bill’s imaginings of Alice having sex with the officer. On first consideration, it might seem very obvious to us what all of these instances have in common. However, beyond the straightforward narrative touchpoint, there is a very clever dynamic at play here which is artfully hidden away. To glean it, we need to observe not just where the original score is used, but also the significant breadths of the film where the soundtrack is lingeringly silent; save for the character’s uncanny, stilted dialogue and the pronouncedly unaccompanied ambience/noises from the film’s sets. Let’s now have a closer look.

In the uses of music that we’ve covered so far, the blurring of the diegetic frame has been syntactic, or shown across time– that is to say, a piece of music is presented as being either diegetic or non-diegetic, and then the film trickily subverts our expectations using some subtle “sleight of hand”. It would appear that Pook’s original score has been purposed towards similar ends; however, it uses a method which functions along a different dimension from all of the previous examples. The key here is that Pook’s score exclusively accompanies a narrative within a narrative, or a frame within a frame. All of the the parts of Eyes Wide Shut‘s story that can be definitively confirmed as involving ‘fantasy’ are the only parts that have been originally scored. Rather than directly warping the diegetic frame, Pook’s score serves to establish a microcosm of the diegetic frame within the film itself. By relegating all of the original musical material to this ‘lower level’ naval officer narrative, the film forms a paradigmatic relationship between the paired opposites of of ‘fantasy – reality’ and ‘original score – pre-existing music’, and the notably unscored parts of the film become all the more “real” purely by way of contrast. We should consider how intuitive of an association this is, since, in the narrative world of the movie, the pre-existing compositions “exist” whereas the original score compositions do not. Because it changes how we conceive of the frame as an entirety, rather than just impacting it for a specific length of the film, this single scoring decision actually compounds the effects of all the other diegetic ambiguities.

Now, to get back to our syntactic mode of analysis, let’s revisit Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2; the “theme” of Eyes Wide Shut. The recurring use of this piece is arguably the most syntactically exploitative musical choice in the film, because it hits the audience with what could be called a “double fake-out”. In it’s first usage, we are led to believe that the piece is part of the score before being surprised by its sudden physical tangibility. However, we also have our expectations doubly subverted when the same music is used again over a montage, and then a third time over the end credits; “confirming” it as a piece of non-diegetic score. Recalling what we noted earlier in regards to the music heard in Domino’s bedroom, all three instances of Waltz No. 2 have received an identical lack of sonic treatment. In both it’s diegetic and non-diegetic incarnations, the waltz is simply played back to us as an unaffected master track on every occasion, further heightening our subconscious confusion.

Following up on the series of “unaltered master track” hoodwinks, I want to highlight one last example which might serve as the quintessential representation of the film’s trademark shifting diegesis. As the film’s most straightforwardly iconic use of music, this will perhaps provide us with the most unfiltered vantage point from which we can evaluate Eye Wide Shut‘s musical methodology as part of a broader, holistic context.

When Alice and Bill embrace nude in front of their bedroom mirror, we can’t hear any sound effects or acoustical indications– the scene is muted and we just hear the master recording of Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing“. This music is confirmed as non-diegetic, since it goes uninterrupted as the first shot of this scene suddenly cuts to the Harfords in a different position, indicating a brief temporal leap. This invites a question which might not be obvious on the first watch of the film, namely: if this music is part of the score…

…then why is Alice dancing?

As many can probably attest, the ambiguous diegesis in this short transitional scene is quite easy to overlook due to the comparatively provocative subject matter. It perfectly encapsulates something which you may have begun realizing about the other musical examples I’ve listed here. These diegetic shifts in frame consistently appear when the film is priming the audience to voyeuristically anticipate some kind of promised sexual exoticism. You’ll notice that the film is playing one of its little “music games” on all eight of the occasions where Nicole Kidman is seen without panties on, and even the final employment of Shostakovich over the end credits is associatively entwined with her use of the word “fuck“.

Further to the above, there are a couple of other prevalent sonic trends which are similarly resistant to immediate recognition: not only is every single instance of sex and nudity in Eyes Wide Shut accompanied by music, but the sex we see is also exclusively visual. The movie contains absolutely no “sex noises” to speak of, or articulation during sex; from Alice and Bill in front of the bedroom mirror, to the soundless “naval officer” cutaways, to the Somerton orgy sequence. Strangely, no one can be “seen” talking while nude, either– the only lines of dialogue delivered by characters when their bodies are naked are spoken from lips that are obscured behind masks, or heard as a disembodied “flashback” in the case of Mandy’s corpse at the morgue.

Looking back at the use of all the relevant techniques, we can gain some insight just by observing how systematically they’ve been applied. Aside from the sheer multitude of examples, we should also note the diversity in how many of them use a unique function to reach their shared goal, or how each one is a novel variation on the same concept. There is a sense in which the film tries “every trick in the book”: the diegetic musical frame has been toyed with in just about every conceivable way that it can be toyed with. Upon each fresh permutation, we are given a slightly different angle of perspective from which we can further extrapolate their desired collective effect.

While the viewer assumes a literal “Peeping Tom” role and is pre-cognitively occupied by what they can see, they are (at first) not intended to consciously realize that what they hear is muddying the once-distinct division between fiction and reality. There doesn’t seem to be any two ways about it: Kubrick is purposefully employing what can only be described as psychological manipulation protocols on the audience. This is a meticulously deliberated attempt at mental conditioning, with sex and music as the catalytic triggers. That last sentence might ring a few bells for Kubrick fans: it’s literally the plot of A Clockwork Orange.

Of course, just as the same is true for Bill Harford, the audience’s sense of voyeurism is never fully satiated. We are perpetually kept at an arm’s length from pseudo-orgasmic closure, and that barely-out-of-reach release is always “just around the next corner”, and then the corner after that, and then the corner after that. The viewer’s focus is held captive by the tension of this perpetual, carrot-on-a-stick storytelling, which, in a combined distractive function with the film’s blurred diegetic frame and visual provocations, serves to not only put the audience “in the shoes” of the protagonist, but to subliminally melt away the sense that Eyes Wide Shut is even being mediated by a narrative format. This results in the viewer and the protagonist being progressively assimilated into a single role (or arguably, even a single entity). As we will explore in Part II, many audience members actually prove to be a lot more susceptible to this campaign of mental manipulation than they might think.

[Note: I had not read it at the time of writing this section, but a few of my observations on the applications of music in Eyes Wide Shut bear similarity to some of those in Kate McQuiston’s 2013 book, “We’ll Meet Again: Musical Design in the Films of Stanley Kubrick”. This book is a great resource which probes the Kubrick filmography and highlights the purposefully-minded and reflexive textuality of music and sound in the films.]

Part II. – The Forensic Audience

[Author’s note: this section is currently in the research and drafting phase and will be available soon.]

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