[Author’s note: This page consists of a scruffy, disjointed series of thoughts and considerations which I will periodically expand upon as they occur to me. I have tried to put additions to this article in places/paragraphs where they make the most contextual sense, so as to at least give the semblance of a sequential train of connected ideas. I believe there will need to be a proper, detailed body of organised analysis on this topic and its relationship to cinema studies/film history. However, while I plan to eventually coalesce my position into something more unitary, I hope this modular smörgåsbord will at least provide some food for thought in the meantime.]
This is the subject which I suspect the more excitable among the readers have perhaps been anticipating. The big, tinfoil-hatted elephant in the room is the meta-narrative question of “What does the inclusion of a Masonic code in Eyes Wide Shut say about Stanley Kubrick?”, as well as “What is Kubrick saying about Freemasonry, specifically?”
As they say, the simplest explanations are often the best. My first guess is that Kubrick is trolling his audience, having become well acquainted with the conspiracy theories that had been connected to him in popular culture throughout his life. Either way, he had to have been aware, whether it was his original artistic intention or not, that much of the iconography of his films (including the close-up low angle shot of the monolith from 2001 or the poster for A Clockwork Orange) had been interpreted as being Masonic in its symbolism.
Kubrick must’ve known that the eventual discovery of the code would not only change the way Eyes Wide Shut is evaluated, but also cast his entire filmography in a new light. Since he was a self-professed enthusiast for ambiguity, this level of expansive uncertainty does seem to match his modus operandi… especially if he thought Eyes Wide Shut was going to be his swan song, and that no later opportunities for further clarification would ever arise.
At the start of the film, Bill Harford turns off the non-diegetic Shostakovich soundtrack from the stereo, already confusing us as to where the edge of the narrative frame is. Cruise and Kidman were married in real life. Things such as the birth dates of actors have been factored in by Kubrick as phenomenological components of the movie. Clearly, reality and fiction are being purposefully blurred here. The ‘meta’ of the film is such that when it ends, not only is Bill Harford awakened from the “rainbow” dream of his odyssey, but we as the audience are awakened from the “rainbow” dream of the movie and into our real lives. However, we are left suspended by a hanging note of equivocacy: Is Bill really awake now? Are we? Was what we just saw merely dreamt up? Or was Eyes Wide Shut communicating something about reality?
With these ‘meta’ concepts in mind, the Scottish Rite code invites us into a paranoid re-lensing of Kubrick’s whole body of work.
Just think: could Bill Harford’s journey– which begins in ignorance, then proceeds from the Blue Lodge through the illusory “rainbow”– be likened to A Space Odyssey, which begins with unenlightened primates, then introduces technology to the joyous orchestration of “The Blue Danube” before eventually ending with the astronaut Dave Bowman passing through the rainbow ganzfeld of the “star gate”? It’s been often suggested that another iconic piece of music from the film, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, appears to have been selected at least partially for it’s nominal relationship to Nietzsche’s concept of the “Übermensch“. Could The Blue Danube, then, not also have been selected based on it’s title?
Is the recontextualization offered by Eyes Wide Shut the final phase of a premeditated master plan that spent a career in the making? Or is it just a very clever retcon; a parting gift of illusion from one of cinema’s greatest magicians?
Maybe the code just matches the “secret society” theme of the movie, and this is all just a laboriously crafted easter egg that took many years to realize.
I suppose it is also possible that the reclusive Kubrick himself was a philosophical Mason or had benefited from some kind of Masonic affiliation. But if he was fond of them, he wouldn’t be doing them much of a service by thematically linking them to a clandestine fraternity which engages in depraved orgies and murders people.
Now, the time has unfortunately come for me to potentially take the wind out of a few sails, hurt a few feelings, and perhaps even stomp on a few dreams.
If you, the reader, have an inclination towards conspiracy theory, and have been reading my analysis with the impression that Eyes Wide Shut is Stanley Kubrick’s secret confessional about an elite cabal which runs the world from behind closed doors: please understand that it is not my intention to dash your worldview, or jade your ways of thinking. I don’t even think you are necessarily incorrect in your basic assumptions regarding how certain elements of society are not quite what they appear to be…
…but there seems to be a fair likelihood that Eyes Wide Shut is actually intended to be about you.
There is some decent tangential evidence to support the idea that the hidden Masonic substrate of Eyes Wide Shut was intended by Kubrick not only as a sort of trickster-esque “bait”, but even as part of a commentary on the more conspiratorially minded members of his audience. We can find this evidence by looking to the work of one man in particular: the Italian author, Umberto Eco.
After the release of Full Metal Jacket (1987), Kubrick approached Eco hoping to create a film adaption of his 1988 novel, Foucault’s Pendulum.[source] Eco refused to let Kubrick create the film; a choice which he later came to regret.
[Author’s note: According to Filippo Uliveri’s “Waiting for a miracle: a survey of Stanley Kubrick’s unrealized projects”, the approach of Eco has been disputed by Kubrick’s personal assistant, Anthony Frewin. Frewin is quoted as saying that while he did receive a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum, Kubrick either “…didn’t read it, or he read it but didn’t like it”. In spite of this, I will include my related commentary here for reference.]
To get an idea of the kinds of things Kubrick may have been thinking about at this time, or what his influences may have been prior to devising his Masonic code, we might do well to review the subject matter and themes of Eco’s book. From Wikipedia:
“A man named Casaubon is hiding in the Musée des Arts et Métiers after closing. He believes that a secret society has kidnapped his friend Jacopo Belbo and are now after him, and will meet in the museum. As he waits, Casaubon reflects on his life that led him here, but it is implied he is an unreliable narrator whose mind has been warped by conspiracy theories.”
“[the protagonists] become submerged in occult manuscripts that draw flimsy connections between historical events, and have the idea to develop their own as a game.” … “the three create what they call “The Plan” using a program that rearranges text at random. The Plan becomes an intricate web of conspiracy theories about the Templars and their goal to reshape the world” … “In addition to numerous other historical organizations apparently involved in The Plan, the three invent a fictional secret society” … “The three increasingly become obsessed with The Plan and wonder if it could be true.”
“…the novel may be viewed as a critique, spoof, or deconstruction of the grand overarching conspiracies often found in postmodern literature.” … “the conspiracy theory provided is a plot device, rather than an earnest proposition.”
I am sure I don’t have to paint much more of a picture as to what this might imply for Kubrick’s intentions with Eyes Wide Shut‘s hidden messaging.
As for the structure of Eco’s novel: Foucault’s Pendulum is comprised of ten parts, with each part being represented by one of the ten Sephiroth (in Kabbalic mysticism, the Sephiroth are the attributes through which a higher cosmic intelligence reveals itself). Clearly, this is especially similar to Eyes Wide Shut‘s modular subdivision into the Degrees of the Scottish Rite. The parallels here are so patent that I am almost willing to call one a direct influence on the other.
Regarding the notion of “ten modular subdivisions”, we can turn our attentions to Frederic Raphael’s memoir, Eyes Wide Open (1999), in which he documents his first-hand experiences as Kubrick’s co-screenwriter on Eyes Wide Shut. In Raphael’s recount, he repeatedly details having a constant sense that Kubrick is not fully divulging his intentions with the film as they work together. Kubrick asks Raphael if he’s ever seen Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog— a ten episode series of one hour films, with each instalment representing one of the biblical Ten Commandments. Kubrick then sends the complete Dekalog for Raphael to review, and says that the pair of them should keep the ten episodes in mind as they work on the screenplay. Raphael describes his private confusion, wondering why Stanley would want to make his film disjointed like the Dekalog.
Further to this, we should note how Kubrick was actually so fond of the Dekalog that he wrote a foreword for the published screenplay in 1991, saying of its writers:
“…they have the very rare ability to dramatize their ideas rather than just talking about them. By making their points through the dramatic action of the story they gain the added power of allowing the audience to discover what’s really going on rather than being told.”
I’m sure you can see how the 33-part Masonic code offers something of a definitive explanation for the conspicuousness that Raphael experienced during the writing process.
There is still more to be said regarding Kubrick’s familiarity with Umberto Eco. Given that a huge proportion of Eyes Wide Shut‘s meaning is hinged on semiotic priming/association, I think it is also worth making its comparison to an earlier work of Eco’s– 1980’s The Name of the Rose. Again, from Wikipedia:
“Eco was a professor of semiotics, and employed techniques of metanarrative, partial fictionalization, and linguistic ambiguity to create a world enriched by layers of meaning.”
“…Eco explains in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose, “very little is discovered and the detective is defeated.” After unraveling the central mystery in part through coincidence and error, William of Baskerville concludes in fatigue that there “was no pattern.” Thus Eco turns the modernist quest for finality, certainty and meaning on its head, leaving the nominal plot, that of a detective story broken, the series of deaths following a chaotic pattern of multiple causes, accident, and arguably without inherent meaning.”
There is so much about these descriptions which is reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut— even down to an investigative protagonist named William– that they could almost resemble a source material for the film.
Indeed, if Eyes Wide Shut really was produced from within an Eco-esque post-modern framework, Bill Harford could pass quite readily as a caricature of a conspiracy theorist such as those in Foucault’s Pendulum. Here is a character who, in his indulgent pursuit of a hidden mystery at the fleeting periphery of his understanding, overlooks the comparatively ‘mundane’ injustices that happen in plain sight, such as Mr. Milich prostituting his underage daughter. Through this lens, it almost seems like the film is asking the audience: ‘Why did you need to invent the elusive boogeyman with so much real horror right under your nose?‘
Is Eyes Wide Shut saying that the everyday social narrative is a mask for a sinister underlying conspiracy? Or is it saying the opposite: that the conspiracy theory is a convenient scapegoat used to avoid addressing an everyday evil? Bearing in mind we have already touched on Kubrick’s predilection for ambiguity, I suspect the answer to this question might be a Heisenbergian “both at the same time”… but we may never know for sure.
I will say that the “post-modern hoax” angle is only one potential explanation, and it is not a hypothesis that I stand behind with any whole-hearted or authoritative certainty. On this note, I would like to acknowledge to the conspiracy crowd: If the comparison between Kubrick and Eco holds true enough, and Eyes Wide Shut features a similar “partial fictionalization” as that employed in The Name of the Rose, then there exists an implicit counterpart in the form of “partial fact”. Certainly, the film’s relationship to the real world is embroiled in enough strangeness to make even a more studious rationalist do a surprised double-take… but this invokes a level of speculation which is truly beyond the scope of this analysis.
Once again: Who can really say?
The fact is, we are playing right into Stanley’s hands if we accept the ambiguous messaging of the Eyes Wide Shut code at the untrustworthy face value of what it may or may not be communicating to us. It isn’t until we get past the novel, conspiratorial thrill of the code’s discovery– when we free ourselves from the sensationalistic strings of the master puppeteer– that we can start to get into the real “meat and potatoes” of what the code means for Kubrick’s oeuvre as well as the broader medium of cinema as a whole.
To start, this is certainly a historic first. One of the larger difficulties in emphasizing the ground-breaking significance of the Masonic substrate is rooted, ironically, in the fact that there is simply nothing similar to compare it to. I cannot think of a single other example, earlier or since, whether from films or literature or otherwise, that even begins to approach the enormous scale of hidden meaning which has been embedded into Eyes Wide Shut— let alone such a meaning that has gone undetected for multiple decades. Honestly, the next closest versions of something like this are probably other Kubrick movies, which I should address here.
I opened this analysis with mention of “Kubrick the Codemaker”, but a more apt title for this aspect of the director– while, admittedly, a far less sexy one– would be “Kubrick the Semiotician”.
With regards to Kubrick’s filmography prior to Eyes Wide Shut, one of the elucidating outcomes of identifying the Masonic substrate is that it confirms that Kubrick was as big of a semiotician as many viewers have long suspected him to be. To demonstrate, consider The Shining as an example. This film has been routinely consecrated (or plagued, depending on who you ask) by a compelled portion of its fanbase who, invited by the film’s air of uncanny inconclusiveness, have ascribed all sorts of visually implicit sub-textual meanings to it. Obviously, since the only man who can confirm these interpretations is now dead, they will technically always remain in the “maybe, maybe not” category– however, the expansive nature of the all-but-verified Eyes Wide Shut code practically cements for us that, yes, such levels of cryptic referential layering really were in Kubrick’s wheelhouse. Due to this, the more convincing of those fan theories are now given a new lease on life and a larger window of plausibility.
[Author’s note: I do not want to spend too much attention here on fan theories of ‘The Shining’ or the notorious documentary which details them, but if I can briefly throw my hat into the ring on this topic… the “Native American genocide” and “child sexual abuse” sub-text theories seem to be grounded by a persuasive amount of evidence. They connect easily with The Shining’s broader themes relating to the cyclical legacy of trauma. However, pretty much every other one of these “hidden meanings” seems to be based on undisciplined inductive reasoning and highly speculative apothenia.]
I hope the Scottish Rite code will inspire others to contribute lots more commentary regarding earlier Kubrick films, but for now, let’s narrow the scope of our attentions back down to Eyes Wide Shut. At the present point in this meta-analytic overview, we could say that we’ve pieced together a few likely explanations of techniques and intentions; of means and ends… but we are still missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. As one baffled reader has so succinctly posed the lingering question: “WHY?”
Why would anyone go through the gargantuan effort of constructing something like this? Why would the inclusion of a coded substrate hold such a lasting attraction for someone to devote what was obviously an enormous amount of time towards manifesting it on film?
I believe a sufficient answer to these queries can be garnered by attempting to assess Kubrick’s unannounced goals as an artist. Whereas other directors are interested in conveying a story with as much clean-cut utility as possible, or allowing for the naturalistic expression of actors to become the creative mission of their work, Kubrick’s objectives have shown time and time again to be concentrated largely on the capabilities and limitations of film as a medium. There is a sense in which many of his movies are movies about “the movies”, or films about the art of film.
In an interview from the “Special Features” section of the initial Eyes Wide Shut DVD release, director Steven Spielberg, a long-time friend of Stanley’s, had this to say about their exchanges:
“[Kubrick] would tell me, the last couple years of his life when we were talking about the form, he kept saying, ‘I want to change the form. I want to make a movie that changes the form.’ And I said, “Well, didn’t you with ‘2001‘”? He said, “Just a little bit, but not enough. I really want to change the form”. So he kept looking for different ways to tell stories”.
As much as I want to steer away from purer speculation and not have my analysis hinged on anecdotal evidence, I am beginning to feel like a more de-mystified vision of Kubrick’s private artistic intention is starting to come into focus, so to speak. We’ve already noted how the textual substrate of Eyes Wide Shut has no obvious analogue in film history… meaning that, if Kubrick did indeed have driven ambitions to “change the form”, his mission was a smashing success. At this stage in our investigation, we may have found the central fulcrum point which lies at the heart of all the great detective stories: a motive.
The specifics of Kubrick’s aspirational undertaking should be described here, lest we underestimate just how much of “the form” he has managed to transfigure. If I might nominate what is possibly a new word to describe the innovative nature of Eyes Wide Shut: the film is what could be termed an ambitext, or is infused with a quality of ambitextuality— that is to say, it is an adaptation of both the narrative of the purported source material (Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle) and the official Degree texts of the Scottish Rite at the same time. Similar to the function of the homonymic wordplay in the dialogue or the cross-referential parallels of the film’s mise-en-scène, the story arc deftly ‘splits the difference’ between the structures of both works and marries them into a bi-narrative whole; subverting the tropes of conventional act-based storytelling to create something completely unprecedented. Unlike the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) or Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” (2017), Kubrick is not simply presenting us with one text as a metaphor for the other, but with two separate texts that thematically interrelate to each other while being enacted simultaneously. This feat of union is made all the more impressive by the fact that Traumnovelle and the Degrees of the Scottish Rite were conceived independently of each other, by separate authors, with no initial designs for narrative cross-pollination.
Now, praise for this creative accomplishment is well-deserved, and I don’t think anyone can really deny that Kubrick’s conception and execution of such ambitextuality is revolutionary in its own right… but I feel that if we hang our hats too intently on the stuffy intellectualism of traditional film and literary theory, we’re at risk of overlooking another revolution of form that Eyes Wide Shut offers.
Just stop and think about it for a second. Since we started poring over each scene, scanning every inch of film for the 33 degrees and tallying them up on the board throughout the course of this abstract scavenger hunt… what have we really been doing this entire time?
We haven’t been watching the film. We’ve been playing it.
Eyes Wide Shut is a game.
HELENA: Hi, Daddy. Look, I got all these right.
BILL: You got all of those right? Every single one of them? That’s good.
As we’ve discussed, the blurring of the narrative frame through the use of ‘meta’ elements is designed to tinge the audience members’ viewing experience with uncertainty and bait them into paranoia. This is so as to liken their state of mind to that of the protagonist, and allows them to identify (or even synonymize) with him. In light of this, the conceptualization of Eyes Wide Shut as an interactive work, or game, makes even more sense. Just like what occurs with the curious and probing Bill Harford, the transient scintilla of an intangible secret slowly draws us into the plot until we, the audience, literally become investigators. This so happens, with such subtlety and gradual enchantment, that those who become deeply invested in the film often seem unable to pinpoint the exact moment when they ceased to be “spectators” and started to be “participants”. Some of them actually appear to become truly ‘lost’ in the film; not even aware that they are playing. Again, all of this is evidently by design.
If we can prevent ourselves from getting too lost, we can reach a semi-comprehensive recognition of the movie’s invitation to play. From this vantage point, we can notice that even the title “Eyes Wide Shut” could sit comfortably alongside the names of perception-testing games like “I Spy (With My Little Eye)” and “Hide and Seek”, or the “Magic Eye” style of autostereograms. On a related note: one of the visible street signs in the movie reads “Benton”, and– while I have no substantive evidence to verify such a claim– I wouldn’t be too surprised if this turned out to be a distanced reference to the Benton Visual Retention Test, which gauges an individual’s visual memory abilities. Remember, we also see a visual acuity test (a unique variation on a Snellen eye chart) placed directly at centre frame in Dr. Bill’s office during the “working weekday” montage. Both the (fake) street name and the eye chart were produced specifically for the film.
Perhaps what we are looking at here could be classed as simply another facet of the Eyes Wide Shut‘s ambitextuality: it can authentically claim to be a movie and a game at the same time.
Now, let’s widen our lens all the way out so that we can really get a look at the big picture. With a comprehensive, top-down schematic understanding of the film’s textual pedigree and the experiential mechanism through which it interfaces with the audience, there now comes to mind yet another common piece of perception-related phraseology that runs easily parallel to the film’s title: “Hindsight is 20/20”. Looking from where we now stand, not only can we see how obvious the film’s secret elements seem in retrospect, but we can also start to make sense of the unique collection of strangeness and obfuscation that surrounded the production of Eyes Wide Shut, as well as how all the necessary precautions were taken to conceal the extravagant Masonic substrate.
Everything starts falling into place. The trademark tight-lipped and un-clarified stance of the director in regards to his work. The compulsory non-disclosure agreements that were required to be signed by all participating cast and crew members.[source] The heavy security detail on the film sets.[source] The fact that Eyes Wide Shut retains, to this day, an entry in the Guinness World Records for “longest constant movie shoot” at 400 days.[source] The excesses of the shoot, including 95 takes being done of Tom Cruise walking through a door (keeping in mind that we’ve already made note of the way in which doors are relevant to the Scottish Rite code).[source] The close-knit ‘skeleton crew’ production unit, kept to a minimum number of people at all times.[source] The compartmentalization of the film’s production– which is comparable to the construction of the atomic bomb under the patronage of the Manhattan Project– keeping everyone involved on a strictly need-to-know basis. The fact that Kubrick’s favourite book was reputed to be David Kahn’s The Codebreakers (1967), which documents the history of cryptography and secret communication dating back to ancient times.[source: The Stanley Kubrick Archives, p. 518] The routine, procedural cremation of production materials, after the completion of the film, at the hands of Kubrick’s assistant, Leon Vitali. And, of course, the crown jewel that makes it all possible: the perfectionistic brain of an obsessed auteur.
What other movie is surrounded by suspicious enough conditions that could be justifiably explained by the presence of a secret code? The glove fits only too perfectly. If there’s one film in history where such a thing as the Masonic substrate could have gotten away unnoticed for so long, it’s this one. A more ordinary film production environment would have made such a feat simply unmanageable.
I really have to take my hat off, here. After all these years of critics referring to Stanley Kubrick as a “master of the craft“, who knew just how right they would turn out to be all along?