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Miscellaneous & Additional Discourse

With so much connective ground to cover as relates to the unique particulars of Eyes Wide Shut and Kubrick’s filmography in general, this page is dedicated to items and key analysis that fall outside of the site’s currently documented EWS “cipher” schemas. Many of these entries were originally written and created as posts under my reddit account.

Assessing Eyes Wide Shut’s State of Completion

This pertains to what has been an ongoing point of confusion and contention for over two decades now: to what degree can Eyes Wide Shut be considered a film “finished” by Kubrick, aligning with a specific and singular vision of his, and exactly which amounts of it were completed after his death?

This is a question for which the avenues of conventional research run into common limitations. Of course, there are some obvious obstacles in trying to chase down the facts while separated from them by decades of sparse anecdotes, evolved mythos, and a failure of relevant parties to clarify in regards to a film production that was already unusually secretive to begin with.

However, we aren’t to despair entirely, because it turns out that some fairly satisfactory answers can actually be yielded by a syntagmatic analysis of the content of the film itself!

To begin, let’s consider how, like A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal JacketEyes Wide Shut is pointedly divided into two distinct halves. In this respect, EWS is most similar to ACO: in both cases, the protagonist revisits characters and locations from the first half of the film, now in a much altered context (interestingly, both of these repeating halves are native to the respective source materials, and were not concocted by Kubrick). But despite these similarities, the structural mirroring in Eyes Wide Shut appears much more quantitative and amplified, and takes on a broader variety of form.

As well as scenes in the film echoing each other visually, narratively and semantically, Eyes Wide Shut adopts (or is adopted by) what could almost be called a palindromic structure, being squarely demarcated into exact halves by the literal centrepiece of the film; the mansion orgy sequence.

r/StanleyKubrick - Assessing Eyes Wide Shut's State of Completion

As we can see in the above screencap, the divide of the mirrored halves is marked by the dissolve to the orgy sequence which occurs at the precise midpoint of the film’s runtime in what seems to be a very pointed structural decision on Kubrick’s part. But, not to hinge our theory too heavily on a plain numeric observation, let’s colour in the details with some more context, here.

Of particular interest with regards to the mirrored nature of the film, and a good demonstration of it, is the character of Mandy. We can consider how her character arc is essentially identical when chronologically reversed, or if the film were to be played backwards: Bill is summoned to a discussion of her unconsciousness with Ziegler, she is revived to consciousness, she later dies, and Bill is summoned to a discussion of her death with Ziegler. Notice how, in both forward and reversed chronologies, Bill examines Mandy’s unconscious eyes “after” the discussion with Ziegler, and “before” her revival. Bill checks the overdosed Mandy for ocular symptoms when in the bathroom, and he looks to see if he recognizes Mandy’s eyes from the Somerton ritual when examining her corpse in the morgue.

Framing the key scene of Mandy’s “sacrifice” as a focal point, we can notice another stark identifier of the film’s distinct halves: the repeating piano motif of György Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata“. This piece plays on 5 separate occasions, but only appears after the dividing orgy scene; empirically demonstrating an intentional division of the film through its quantity and frequency. As the attentive listener can discern, not only is Musica ricercata used as an emphatic component in a larger syntagmatic mirroring, but it is in fact comprised of such in itself. The piece’s signature piano phrase is a musical palindrome; consisting of four eighth notes arranged to rise a semitone from F to F#, and then descend from another F# back to F. Like the fate of Mandy, the pivotal moment of which ushers in the first use of the piece, these notes are played the same backward as forward.

Now, aside from its exclusive appearance in the film’s second half, and its own mirrored structure within its actual musical notation, there is even a third way in which the Ligeti motif is used to signify mirrored properties. However, like the film’s numerically precise midway divide, this subtle signification seems as though it needs to be recognized through conscious scrutiny, and isn’t likely to be readily happened upon through a casual viewing experience of the film. It is to do with another of the film’s recurring motifs: the blue-tinted “naval officer” flashbacks.

At first glance, neither seems to have much in common, but, as I’ve previously described in “The Metafictional Genius of Eyes Wide Shut“, both the “naval officer” flashbacks and the Ligeti motif are used for similar diegetically transformative purposes– albeit along different dimensional lines– as two sides of the same coin. They are, in quite a few additional respects, complementary opposites of one another: one is characteristically visual in nature, where the other is oriented more around sound. One employs Jocelyn Pook’s original score where the other uses pre-existing composition. One presents in monochrome, the other as multi-coloured. One refers to dreams, the other to reality. One invokes the procreative act, while the other heralds death. The complementary nature of the paired motifs can even be extended to refer to the sexual dichotomy of “man and woman”, or to the two characters in the simultaneous scenes which instigate the film’s plot at Ziegler’s Christmas party (Sandor Szavost, the Hungarian analogue for the naval officer in the downstairs ballroom, and Mandy in the upstairs bathroom).

The link between the motifs is further concretized by two scenes which are presented as mirror doubles for one another. The first time Bill comes home at dawn and awakens a sleeping Alice, Jocelyn Pook’s score is playing, and Alice cries as she confesses her dream to Bill. The second time Bill comes home at dawn to awaken Alice, the final instance of Musica ricercata is playing, and it is Bill who cries as he begins to confess the reality to Alice. The earlier scene follows Bill’s mask being hidden away. The latter scene follows Bill’s mask being revealed. The dualistic nature of the two confessions presents us with the film’s characteristic entwinement of sex and death, just like the motifs themselves.

r/StanleyKubrick - Assessing Eyes Wide Shut's State of Completion

Crucially, both the “naval officer” flashbacks and the instances of Musica ricercata appear an equal number of 5 times each throughout the film. This brings with it some added significance for us to look into, here.

There is a latent temporal relationship between these twin motifs which was emergently brought to my attention during an offhand exchange. While discussing how these two recurring types of scenes correlated with each other, another frequenter of the Stanley Kubrick subreddit and myself pretty much inadvertently trip-lined each other into realizing that the sequential presentation of these twin motifs is structured in a mirrored fashion.

The chronological order of the motifs is as follows:

Naval Officer Flashback #1 – Seen when Bill takes a taxi to the Nathanson apartment.

Naval Officer Flashback #2 – Seen when Bill jealously eyes a necking couple while walking the street after leaving the Nathanson apartment.

Naval Officer Flashback #3 – Seen when Bill takes a taxi to Somerton.

Musica Ricercata #1 – Heard when Bill is brought before Red Cloak for interrogation (this instance pauses when Mandy yells “Stop!” and resumes from midway through the piece).

Naval Officer Flashback #4 – Seen when Bill is sitting in his office before returning to Somerton.

Musica Ricercata #2 – Heard when Bill returns to Somerton.

Naval Officer Flashback #5 – Seen when Bill is sitting at his office before calling the Nathanson apartment.

Musica Ricercata #3 – Heard when Bill is being followed in the street by the baldheaded stalker.

Musica Ricercata #4 – Heard when Bill learns of Mandy’s death in the newspaper.

Musica Ricercata #5 – Heard when Bill finds his mask placed on his bed room pillow.

So, if we map out the order of the two motifs, we can see they form the following pattern:


Hopefully, this gives an indication as to the kind of extreme pre-meditation of cinematic form that we’re talking about, here. It’s worth observing that this sequencing is a notably discrete example of mirroring from the film’s split halves, since the inverted sets of five are not arranged to be proportionately spread across the film’s runtime (if we were to divide the sequence based on the central orgy scene, the uneven sets would read as AAA/BABABBB). The midpoint division is still relevant to the motif sequence, though, because the flashback scenes after the halfway mark change from being scored by the “Naval Officer” music cue to the “Alice’s Dream” cue; corresponding with Alice’s two confessions in either half of the film.

Whether the binary motif sequence on its own requires (or offers) any larger thematic explanation, not already introduced by the other examples of mirroring, is perhaps yet to be realised. However, it does shed some light on the main question of this article when weighed in relative conjunction with these other elements.

When combined with the structural concerns required to divide the film into two halves of exactly equal length, and the inflexible chronology of the scenes as we see them on screen, the mirrored binary sequencing of the twin motifs adds yet another layer of rigid prerequisites; cumulatively narrowing down the film’s formal possibilities into an unusually fixed and non-malleable final product. This is to say that, given all of the codifying “rules” that Eyes Wide Shut sets for itself, there is little possibility for “significant” rearrangement.

It is also of particular interest that the twin motifs make unusual but highly purposeful and specific employment of both visual and audio elements, since it is often the latter which is mentioned in reference to Eyes Wide Shut‘s “incomplete” nature (we’ll have a closer look at its use of music, below). This further cements the inflexibility of the film’s current version.

As has long been noted, Kubrick was known to tinker with the content of his films right up until their release dates, and in the case of The Shining even made edits after the movie had been released in theatres. This fact is often cited as a potential indication that Eyes Wide Shut may have turned out with significant differences from the submitted cut, had Kubrick not passed away until after the film’s theatre run. But unlike with The Shining— which was developed from conception to completion in a fraction of the time that it took to create Kubrick’s last movie, and understandably appears not to be quite as densely orchestrated– we can see how the current cut of Eyes Wide Shut is somewhat “gridlocked” by its formal complexity.

As best I can tell, these are the artistically pivotal aspects of the film that were handled after Kubrick’s passing:

(1) The looping/voice overdubs of certain characters, including– although perhaps not limited to– Cate Blanchett’s providing the dubbed voice of Mandy as played by Abigail Good during the Somerton ritual sequence. Good has said that Kubrick had intended to dub her, but passed away before a suitable voice actor could be found. It was Leon Vitali who eventually settled on Blanchett for the job at the recommendation of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise.

Note: if we consider the voice overdubs in light of factors covered across a couple of my previous posts [1 , 2], we can perhaps see how it seems plausible or even likely that the dubbing of masked characters was a premeditated choice designed to function as a diegetically transformative cinematic device, rather than simply being a case of aesthetic or logistical necessity. We can see how, particularly for the character of Mandy, dubbing over an unseen or inanimate mouth seems to be consistent with the film’s pronounced and multifaceted attempts at a sonically confused diegetic frame via the formal and technical context of its dialogue, music and sound effects.

(2) The selection and application of music. According to Jennifer Lauren Psujek’s 2016 dissertation ‘The Composite Score: Indiewood Film Music at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century‘, which cites primary sources from the Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of Arts London, there is a “temp mix” document from the film’s production which lists proposed musical cues for different scenes. There are a number of cues from the list that do not match their equivalents in the actual film. This temp list is dated 15th March, 1999, about a week after Kubrick’s death; seeming to imply that some of his outstanding track proposals at the time of his passing did not make the final cut. Psujek hypothesizes that this was likely due to the common issue of the production team being unable to secure all the rights to the proposed music.

In part due to information introduced by the temp list, the history of the composition of the film’s original score seems a bit confused, also. An interview with the film’s composer Jocelyn Pook, for the September/October 1999 issue of Film Score Monthly, reads:

“Pook finished her work before Kubrick’s untimely death, four months before the film was due to open. “I was finished working and he had heard every note I’d written and supervised its placement in the film,” she recalls.”

This statement from Pook is at anachronistic odds with the temp mix listing (from after Kubrick’s death), which states “Cue to be written” in the “Title” fields corresponding to the scenes “Naval Officer Dialogue Sc.” and “Alice’s Dream”. We should note that (A) these two scenes feature both of the only original tracks used in the film, (B) that all of the “naval officer flashback” scenes use short edits of the same tracks, and (C) Pook has described writing the score to “Alice’s Dream” so that it would sit “under the [almost whispered] dialogue”, indicating that the longest edit of that piece appears in its native context. All put together, the information here is logically incompatible. Barring dishonesty or error, one possible explanation for this is that the date on the temp list is reflective of the document’s reproduction, rather than its origin. Unfortunately, the true answer to this may be permanently lost to time. Based on the close coordination of the score cues with Kubrick’s specific structural context as we see and hear it on screen, I am somewhat inclined to believe Pook’s version of the timeline (although it has been elsewhere posited that Kubrick left behind detailed enough notes for Eyes Wide Shut‘s post-production team to “complete” it, which would theoretically account for much of the score’s consistent structural placement).

All murky historical accounts aside, there is at least one definitive example of the film’s music being changed after Kubrick’s death. Following initial screenings of Eyes Wide Shut, Jocelyn Pook’s featured piece “Migrations” was replaced in all subsequent releases of the film by a version of the track with altered lyrics. This was done in response to complaints made by an activist group, the American Hindus Against Defamation.

Beyond the factors of dubbing and music, other choices that would’ve been made after Kubrick’s death include sound mixing (which is not to be underestimated as an integral part of film artistry) and perhaps some smaller tweaks to editing, foley work or additional visual processing of the film. There are also some queries to be voiced regarding the film’s home media transfers. However, specificities aside, it would seem that we can garner enough context from the nature of the released film to determine that most of the nebulous uncertainty which clouds over it can at least be localised to some key areas of its sonic aspects.

In regards to the state of Eyes Wide Shut as a whole, this is just about as close to a conclusion as I can reach through all of the available information. Of course, to play devil’s advocate, we could consider the unfalsifiable “what-ifs”, such as if an alternately still-living Kubrick ultimately decided to withdraw the film before release, or completely remove the rigidly interwoven formal elements, or reshoot the entire film from the ground up, etc. It goes without saying that the case presented here is based on waged probabilities rather than direct proofs. But, given his satisfaction with the film– which Kubrick reportedly expressed to brother-in-law and executive producer Jan Harlan during post-production– I believe we can make fairly informed assumptions about how the “canonical” cut of the film would have ended up, which is reasonably close to where it is now, a few indeterminable posthumous decisions (and doses of dishonest studio branding) notwithstanding.

I hope this hasn’t come across as a forceful effort to wash my hands of the initial question (I do think a more definitive answer would be nice), but ideally this has introduced a more nuanced, higher-resolution path to ironing out the wrinkles from the film’s contested history.

Can anyone identify any other structural patterns that might narrow things down even further?

The Metafictional Genius of A Clockwork Orange

This article is intended as a companion piece and a direct extension of “The Metafictional Genius of Eyes Wide Shut“, and I would recommend digesting that previous entry before continuing here. While it might seem more intuitive by some to look at the films in chronological order, I think the reader will become more attuned to the concepts at hand by engaging their milder application in Eyes Wide Shut as a primer for their arguably more arcane counterparts detailed in A Clockwork Orange. The previous entry describes a central “mechanism” which will serve as a sort of decoder for Clockwork Orange as a whole.

Once again, we are talking about Kubrick’s particular and uniquely inventive application of trans-diegetic sound and music.

Although there are other metafictional aspects of A Clockwork Orange that we will touch on in the second half of this article, the sonic elements will be the main focus due to their having the greatest commonality with similar techniques in Eyes Wide Shut. As we’ll quickly see, we can basically jump right into things without much prologue here, because despite thematic differences between EWS and ACO, the actual use of the “mechanism” is so seamlessly interchangeable between the two that we can basically just continue listing off examples to further demonstrate its centrality as a self-evident meta-cinematic campaign that stretches across both movies. As before, let’s get into the what and how first, and colour in the why afterwards.

Part I – The Trans-Diegetic

The film begins with a synthesized rendition of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary over coloured title cards, and the music continues through the film’s famous first zoom-out shot of Alex staring menacingly across the Korova Milkbar. The piece, accompanied by Alex’s voice-over, would seem to be presented as non-diegetic, given the surrounding context… but, as we’ll come to realize in retrospect, things are not quite so simple.

The final percussive hit of Music for the Funeral… is matched precisely to the cut to the next scene in the pedestrian tunnel. Here, it overlaps with the old vagrant singing the traditional Irish song, “Molly Malone”, as a pointed contrast between a diegetic and non-diegetic piece of music, each opening their respective shot. This scene starts with a zoom-out shot like the first, as well Alex’s ongoing voice-over. The sonic context of the voice-over is important here, and will come to prove itself a key variable in Kubrick’s trans-diegetic toolkit. Note how, after the vagrant finishes lamenting the state of the world, the droogs assault him right as he begins singing a new song (“Oh dear land, I fought for thee…“)

As the droogs are beating the vagrant, we cut directly to the third consecutive scene to be introduced by zoom-out. Again, it is accompanied from its very beginning by music, this time being the non-diegetic overture to Rossini’s La gaza ladra. Notice how in the cut between scenes, the screams of the vagrant, whose voice was used to relay diegetic music to us, are replaced by the screams of Billy-boy’s female victim, which run in ironic concurrence with the whimsical score. This is an early indicator for the aforementioned crucial aspect of voice in the overall trans-diegetic structure of the film, and the relationship is further complicated by Alex’s voice-over narration of this scene. We can see that the sexual assault occurs on the stage, connoting diegesis, and that Alex’s insults to Billy-boy are hurled from off-stage and (at first) off-screen; a voice-over “within” a voice-over. After the gangs fight each other, we hear off-screen police sirens from outside the theatre, emphasizing the “expansion” of the diegetic boundary from the edge of the stage to that of the theatre itself. The reaction of the droogs to the police sirens shows their conditioned response to sound, which has obvious relevance to the main themes of the film.

Complicating the above relationships, the Rossini score plays all throughout this theatre scene, and continues over the next scene of the droogs menacing other drivers in the Durango ’95. The score eventually quiets and stops during the establishing shot of the following scene in which the droogs break into the Alexander’s home. In stark contrast, this next scene is scoreless, begins with the diegetic sounds of the Alexander’s house doorbell playing the opening phrase of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and of course contains the infamous (diegetic) “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence. We should also note how Alex’s made-up story about the car accident is told through the door— since the story is a lie, it is a fiction within a fiction, matching Alex’s outdoor voice as a voice-over “within” a voice-over. The police sirens from the theatre scene have already primed us to associate the outside of the building with the edge of the diegetic frame… and, speaking of a “frame within a frame”: notice how it is Mr. Alexander’s writing desk that Alex jumps up on top of to use as his impromptu dancing stage.

So far, the scene-by-scene count is: non-diegetic, diegetic, non-diegetic, diegetic…

As the scene in the Alexander’s home draws to a close, we briefly hear a few transitional seconds of the overlapping score from the following scene in the Korova Milkbar, which is once again the “Music from the Funeral of Queen Mary” from the opening of the film. So, as with the opening of the film which takes place in the same location, this piece is once again presented as non-diegetic. But pay attention to Alex’s dialogue when the score draws to a close and is replaced by the woman in the bar who begins to sing Beethoven:

Then the disk on the stereo twanged off and out, and in the short silence before the next one came on, she suddenly came with a burst of singing“.

We can see how the film has given us a bait-and-switch as to the nature of the Purcell score. This is the same trick that Kubrick would later pull with repetitions of Shostakovich’s Waltz 2 in Eyes Wide Shut. It is compounded, here, by the fact that the very same Purcell begins playing again right as the woman stops singing, indicating that the bar’s playback system has in fact not moved on to the “next” disk, and that the piece may actually have been score after all.

By now, the pattern should be becoming quite obvious to us, and the movie’s purposeful back-and-forth between these sonic forms starting to reveal itself not just as an incidental product of Kubrick’s unconscious sensibilities, but a full-fledged mission of rationalistic deliberation that plays out in every single scene.

The next scene gives us a pretty easy one: Alex is whistling the Theme from Clockwork Orange, intermingling with the score, as he wanders back into his apartment complex. The score, which confirms itself as such by playing over temporally disparate shots of Alex in his apartment, is replaced as soon as it stops by the diegetic Beethoven’s 9th on Alex’s record player; a reversal of what we heard with the opera singer in the previous scene. The 9th is also reflexively confused, however, due to being matched to a stylized montage of images from Alex’s room and gruesome scenes from his imagination, as well as the fact that it continues over until the temporally disparate scene where Alex is visited by Mr. Deltoid.

Next, we see Alex in the record store. I suppose the ambiguous use of music here (March from A Clockwork Orange) should be relatively apparent, given the context… but have you noticed how up until now, all the instances where the film has exploited the audience’s presumption of non-diegetic score are centred on composer Wendy Carlos’s synthesized pieces that she produced and recorded specifically for the film, as opposed to older pieces like the orchestral Rossini? As we will recall from The Metafictional Genius of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick employed a very similar treatment of Jocelyn Pook’s originally composed score for that film. Also, for a bit of extra meta-musical fun in this record store scene, we can see the soundtrack for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on one of the racks.

In the next scene, we have Alex having a threesome with the girls from the record store, played in fast motion. There is no dialogue or sound from the room in this scene, and it is accompanied by a fast paced version of the last movement from the William Tell overture, which continues over into the next scene where Alex meets his droogs in the apartment lobby. All the contextual primers would suggest to us that this a non-diegetic piece of music… except that it was only in the last scene that Alex specifically mentioned inviting the girls to his house to play their “fuzzy warbles” (vinyl records) on his sound system. As it relates to the sonic discrepancy with temporally disparate cuts that we noted earlier, it is very interesting that this entire scene is played out as a single, static shot.

After the encounter in the lobby, we cut to the droogs walking on the marina, where Alex knocks Georgie into the water and cuts Dim’s hand. In nearly every significant respect, this scene is an inverse variation of the threesome scene. Alic tussles with two people at once, albeit violently instead of sexually. It is in slow motion instead of fast motion. It is a series of cuts instead of one shot. We again hear Rossini, except is the orchestral iteration rather than the electronic (and it is his La gaza ladra overture instead of William Tell). One is narrated, and one is not, although neither feature any environmental sound or dialogue. Most importantly: instead of Alex proposing a diegetic music only for it to then be presented as score, this scene features the opposite. Alex’s narration tells us that there was “a window with a stereo open“, and so what was presented as the “score”, playing while he thrashes Georgie and Dim, is now ostensibly “diegetic”. Notice how this “diegetic” application of La gaza ladra contrasts against the expressly non-diegetic version of the same recording that we heard earlier in the theatre fight scene.

This second use of La gaza ladra continues playing from the slow motion marina scene, through the scene at the pub where the droogs recuperate, and through the scene where they break into the cat-woman’s house. Now, let’s consider these three scenes. We have (A) one artificially muted scene with Alex’s voice-over. We have (B) one unmuted scene with both dialogue and Alex’s voiceover. We then have (C) one unmuted scene that does not have Alex’s voice-over… but does have Georgie’s voice-over-within-a-voice-over, because the film correspondingly cuts to the cat-woman’s house while he describes the details of that night’s upcoming robbery. All of these together make the relationship of the Rossini background score very complicated, indeed.

But we’re forgetting something, aren’t we? The scene at the cat-woman’s house actually has two “voice-overs-within-voiceovers”. Once again, Alex tries to sell his off-screen accident story through the door (the mail slot), but this time his fiction is not immersive enough for the cat-woman, who is familiar with the genre. She does not believe him. She is medium aware.

There is still more going on, here. Remember, the droog’s previous break-in at the Alexander house was very emphatically unscored. Similar to the contrast of the “threesome” and “marina” scenes, the sex from the earlier break-in scene is once again exchanged for an asexually motivated violence (although not so subtly, given that Alex kills the cat-woman with a giant, ornamental penis). As with the last time we heard La gaza ladra, we hear the offscreen sounds of police cars as they come to arrest the blinded Alex.

After he’s hit with the milk bottle, we cut to Alex in the police station’s holding cell. There’s an interesting subliminal detail here: this scene opens with someone’s diegetic whistling, and the click-clacking of a typewriter. This is a direct mirror for the break-in scene at the Alexander house, which opened with Mr. Alexander’s click-clacking being interrupted by his (diegetic) Beethoven doorbell. Neither scene is scored.

After the holding cell scene, the film cuts to an establishing shot of the prison, marking the beginning of the second “section” of the film. Right from its beginning, the prison section signals to us a radical paradigm shift that the film undertakes here. Having been presented with nothing but music used to serve trans-diegetic goals up until now, the prison section turns that concept on its head by only featuring music that can be definitively and exclusively classified as either diegetic or non-diegetic.

During the establishing shot of the prison and Alex’s inspection, we hear the melancholic opening of the William Tell overture which is plainly non-diegetic, because we as the audience are presented with no environmental possibilities as to the origin of the music. In the following scene in the prison chapel, we have the inmate’s singing of “Hymn 258”, which, while in juxtaposition with the William Tell overture from the establishing shot, is still in itself obviously diegetic. After that, we have the scene where Alex is reading the Bible while daydreaming about living in ancient times, which is straightforwardly scored by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The next piece we hear is Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, which plays when the Minister of Interior visits the prison, and then we hear another of its movements as Alex is transferred into the Ludovico program. Neither of these instances of score are confusable.

The next leg of the film is Alex’s Ludovico conditioning, and as we will see, the film abandons the definite presentation of music from the prison section, and fittingly returns to its old meta-cinematic shenanigans precisely when the straitjacketed Alex is sat in the cinema, being shown the conditioning footage. Here, we hear Wendy Carlo’s Timesteps which makes a careful point to ease us back into the world of ambiguous sonic form. The way this is done is exceedingly clever: the diegetic ambiguity of this piece cannot be discerned except in retrospect. When Alex is watching the conditioning footage, it is at first not specified as to whether the footage is meant to have musical accompaniment as part of its soundtrack, and so Timesteps exists in an undefined but easily ignorable grey area. It is not until Alex’s next Ludovico session— accompanied by the March from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ that we heard earlier in the record store— that Alex comments on the music accompanying the footage. From this, the audience intuits that Timesteps has been lent a new contextual qualifier, and now requires to be somehow married to their organisational sense of experience and the overall trans-diegetic schema of the film. Kubrick has pulled off the seemingly impossible trick of subliminally catching the audience off their guard, not by creating ambiguity, but by retrospectively resolving an existing ambiguity that has been subconsciously taken for granted by the viewer and clandestinely replacing it with another, more confused iteration. By inverting the “mechanism” and placing the “payoff” before the “buildup”, Kubrick has effectively created the perfect transitional gradient to segue the audience back into the psychedelic, technicolour realm of the trans-diegetic.

Following Alex’s treatment, we have the scene in which the Minister of the Interior hosts a demonstration of Alex’s “reformed” behaviour in an auditorium. Although the visual and conceptual parallels between the treatment cinema and this auditorium are fairly apparent, there is a more latent similarity between the use of sound in each. First, we hear Sunforest’s Overture to the Sun while an antagonistic performer berates and abuses Alex. As in the cinema, it is at first not altogether clear whether there is a sound system to certify the diegetic nature of this piece— the Minister does not even use a microphone to address the crowd. After Alex is beaten up, an undressed woman enters the stage accompanied by the decidedly “non-diegetic” synthesized version of Music for the Funeral for Queen Mary in what is now its third appearance in the film. Very notably, the scene has no voice-over narration until this piece of music begins, and all 3 iterations of the piece have been accompanied by voice-over. There is no music in this scene except that which accompanies the stage performers. For both the cinema and auditorium respectively, the first piece makes its sole appearance in the film, and the second piece is one that we have heard earlier.

In the scene after the auditorium, Alex is released from the treatment centre and surprises his parents by showing up at their flat. From the start of the scene, we can hear Sunforest’s I Want to Marry A Lighthouse Keeper out of a portable radio until Alex’s dad turns it off. After a couple of unscored minutes, when Alex recovers from his conditioned reflex and takes an accusatory tone towards his parents, we hear the second instance of the weepy opening of the William Tell overture. As one of the five pieces of music from the prison section of the film, this bit of Rossini retains its status as a definitively non-diegetic part of the score, almost as though this were an immutable property of every piece used in that portion of the film. No other piece from the prison section is used more than once, and no other piece outside of the prison section is treated as unambiguously non-diegetic in all its iterations. Looking back, it feels as though this isolated piece of definite score should jump out at us as such, but its particular nature seems to evade our recognition as we fall for its charm and have our attention sucked towards the melodrama at hand.

The Rossini carries over into the next scene by the river, scoring it up until Alex encounters the vagrant that’d he’d beaten up previously, who now gets a revenge tunnel beating along with “droogs” of his own kin. Remember, the last tunnel beating was also preceded by an overlapping score before the soundtrack went silent. Alex’s voice-over narration takes on a unique affect, here: it is given a shallow reverb that matches the sound of how his and the vagrant’s voices sound once they enter the acoustic environment of this tunnel. After the beating, Alex is immediately met by Dim and Georgie, now policemen, to the 4th instance of “Music for Funeral of Queen Mary”. This iteration is almost the first of its kind to be presented with diegetically unconfused properties… except that, when Georgie is hitting Alex with his baton, each blow corresponds exactly to a percussive, flanger-addled sound effect sting from the same kind of synthesizer patch that is performing the piece. Close, but no cigar.

After his near-drowning, Alex stumbles through the rain to the doorstep of the Alexander house, where the score disappeared just as on his last violent visit. Here, we have Mr. Alexander’s recognition of Alex and his convulsive, post-traumatic reaction to Alex’s singing that of course echoes the effect of the Ludovico conditioning. Once again, the music heard in the Alexander house consists only of Singin’ in the Rain and the innocuous 5th symphony Beethoven doorbell. When he Alex regains his consciousness in a new location, we hear the decidedly more impactful instance of the Beethoven’s 9th symphony playing from speakers for the purpose of torturing Alex to the point of suicide. After Alex regains consciousness in the hospital, we see a montage followed by a scene of Alex’s mum and dad by his bed, musically accompanied by Theme from A Clockwork Orange, which is unambiguously part of the score (the film’s use of this piece would be almost entirely non-diegetic if it weren’t for Alex’s whistling intermingling with it during its first instance). This is followed by a test exercise Alex has with the hospital psychiatrist, featuring no musical accompaniment.

The final scene in the film is Alex’s conversation with the Minister of the Interior, which is also unscored, but ends with the Minister arranging for some Beethoven to be played for Alex. This is presented as diegetic, except the other sounds in the scene are muted, and it plays over a cutaway to one of Alex’s fantasies, linking it to the ambiguity that the 9th had when we heard it in Alex’s bedroom. We should also note that Alex’s imagination can be seen as a “frame within a frame”, just like the Ludovico treatment, and accompanied by the voice-over delivering the last line of the film, “I was cured alright!” (which is itself thematically relevant to the trans-diegetic elements at hand). The fantasy is of course followed by the original Gene Kelly recording of Singin’ in the Rain over the closing credits, which is directly non-diegetic by contrast, and brings us to the end of the film.

All told, and as similarly noted with Eyes Wide Shut in the companion article, nearly every single piece of music in ACO has been used for trans-diegetic ends, and nearly every instance of trans-diegesis is in some way different from the others that precede it. The permutational nature of this approach is so maximally exploratory that one could almost believe the other aspects of the film as being an incidental pretext for the use of these techniques… except that these other aspects themselves have been so extensively workshopped in the same fashion. We’ll get a taste of those in the next part of this article.

We’ve now exhausted the “what” and “how” pretty thoroughly. But I’ve also promised you the “why”, and for that we will need to move from the syllogistic mode of analysis into something a bit more abstract. To kick this next section off with something resembling an objective reference point, we’ll start with a name: Marshall McLuhan.

Part II – Marshall McWho?

McLuhan was a media theorist who came to prominence in the 1960s for his views regarding the societal impacts of electronic media. He believed that the invention of written language introduced a “mechanical age”, in which man’s sense of visual space took a disproportionately defining priority over the other senses. In the same way that the written alphabet fragmented meaning into smaller context-dependent units, McLuhan supposed, the ensuing dominance of the visual sense allowed for the detachment and compartmentalization of common social operations, alienating them from their native communal contexts and in some sense birthing the “private worldview”. This predominately “visual” mode of existence is proposed as replacing what McLuhan referred to as a “tribal” state of being: man’s multisensory engagement to his environment as a tactile and acoustic space, which he interfaced with not as a series of isolated units, but as the balanced, irreducible totality of all combined sensory data— the fluid world of speech as opposed to the piece-by-piece world of writing.

According to McLuhan, the written word had fundamentally altered not only the way in which man engaged his environment, but, consequently, the very structure of society itself. He claimed that notions of individualism, the specialised division of labour or “jobs” and industrial mechanization had emerged as the eventual product of a hyper-extension of our faculties for visual space; a “breaking up” into discrete units as opposed to that previous haptic existence in which people’s lives were more collective or multidisciplinary.

McLuhan believed that the pervasiveness of the modern electronic media landscape would usher in an undoing of the “mechanical age” perspective, and that the fragmentary world of the written word would be reverted (or rather, made to go full-circle) to its “tribal” predecessor. The envelopment of society by an electronically interconnected informational environment would make the aforementioned social operations so instantaneous as to override their imprisonment by Euclidean thought and the unitary alphabet. As with the written word, the societal ecology of electronic media would set the ground rules and precedents for all perception and communication that exists within it. In short: the means by which we receive information is more important than the informational content itself.

In considering McLuhan, we might bring to mind similar retrospective thoughts of Sigmund Freud or Francis Fukuyama— that is to say, his work has had a measurable impact on its contemporaneous zeitgeist, regardless of how accurate or predictive it has turned out to be. But McLuhan is distinguished in this regard: maybe it is the relatively vague, one-size-fits-all applicability of his core maxim— “the medium is the message“— that has made it an enduring and irrevocable gene in the DNA of the post-structuralist tradition which seems to have influenced Kubrick right up until the end of his career.

It is evident that the film version of A Clockwork Orange— more so than Anthony Burgess’ novel— is a direct zeitgeist corollary of McLuhan’s theories. In the same way that the eclectic Kubrick has often drawn from Freud without necessarily being a card-carrying Freudian, we can see that, regardless of any overt espousal of ideas, his Clockwork Orange shows a wholesale aesthetic, conceptual and formal embrace of McLuhan’s premises. Not only that, but, in a way comparable to Freud’s influence, the absence of an overt espousal is itself McLuhanesque.

McLuhan’s best selling book is 1967’s “The Medium is the Massage [sic]”; a brief, synoptic read that essentially condenses his central perspective into a series of quotable aphorisms. The influence of McLuhan on Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is so patent that one could almost pull a random excerpt from this book out of a hat and find that it is in some way a functioning thematic summary of the film. For example:

The idea of detention in a closed space as a form of human punitive corrective action seems to have come in very much […] at the time perspective and pictorial space was developing in our Western world. The whole concept of enclosure as a means of constraint and as a means of classifying doesn’t work as well in our electronic world. The new feeling that people have about guilt is not something that can be privately assigned to some individual, but is, rather, something shared by everybody, in some mysterious way.


Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience coexist in a state of active interplay.

Or, how about this:

Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The groundrules, pervasive structure, and over-all patterns of environments elude easy perception. […] The interplay between the old and the new environments creates many problems and confusions. The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of the new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view. We speak, for instance, of “gaining perspective.” This psychological process derives unconsciously from print technology. Print technology created the public. Electric technology created the mass. The public consists of separate individuals walking around with separate, fixed points of view. The new technology demands that we abandon the luxury of this posture, this fragmentary outlook.

The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models for exploration—the technique of the suspended judgment is the discovery of the twentieth century as the technique of invention was the discovery of the nineteenth.

Indeed, Kubrick’s vision for the world of A Clockwork Orange is a McLuhanesque dystopia, in which the proposed requirements described above have been neglected to their detrimental extreme. The character of Mr. Deltoid expresses the collective frustration of the establishment after studying the issue of crime for “damn well near a century” and having nothing to show for it; the fruitlessly blind operation of an outmoded, static, mechanical solution in the approach of a dynamic, fluid and ever-transformative problem… a problem driven by a cause which seamlessly pervades the social reality to the point of being totally invisible.

It is crucial to recognize that A Clockwork Orange‘s incorporation of McLuhan’s theories does not simply end with their inclusion as some vague thematic wallpaper that hums in the background of the narrative. Rather— and suitably, given the subject matter— their essence is infused into the film at frequent, subtle and discrete junctures of a particular nature, which we’ll explore here.

One of McLuhan’s best known concepts is the spectrum of what he called “hot” and “cool” media. A “hot medium” is a type of information transmission that enhances a single sense, presents content with a high detail of definition and requires little cognitive involvement from the consumer— for example, a movie on a cinema screen. In contrast, a “cool medium” is one where the definition is low, and a focused consumer must unpack and extrapolate the full meaning of the information by cognitively “filling in the blanks” (an example of this would be a regular novel).

The film is filled with many sub-textual allusions to the McLuhan’s contrast between the mechanized, fragmentary world of the word and the total immersion of electronically curated experience. But the film also maps a second, more diffuse contrast on top of (and aligned with) those allusions— that is, the contrast between “cool” and “hot” media. It should be noted “hot” and “cool” are very relative and general categories, and items of a shared form of media are classified on a sliding scale depending on their specific qualities. However, the film is more binary in its classification of media, owing to the fact that it often associates electronic media with low cognitive participation and involuntary conditioned response, thus innately making those instances “hot”.

The specific way that the subject of “cool” and “hot” media manifests in the film is through the respective juxtaposition of words with the seamless continuum of “direct” experience and conditioning stimulus. For example, the Minister of the Interior says to the auditorium crowd before Alex’s conditioning demonstration: “But enough of words. Actions speak speak louder than. Action now. Observe all.” Notice how the Minister’s speech is decidedly “hotter” than would be the same words written down, which as we will see is part of an exploration of contrast within McLuhan’s spectrum in the same permutational fashion that Kubrick has explored trans-diegetic sound. The absence of a microphone or amplification system is relevant, here.

Another reference to the juxtaposition of “words” and “action” is relayed to us through Alex’s one-sided review of the Old and New Testaments: “I didn’t so much like the latter part of the Book, which is more like all preachy talking than fighting and the old in-out. I like the parts where these old yahoodies [jews] tolchok each other and then drink their Hebrew vino…” Notice how, despite being a fairly accurate description, this is a reversal of its typical Christian designation of the Testaments (“The Word [O.T] became flesh and lived among us [N.T]”). Keep this “accurate-but-reversed” representation in mind, because it is directly relevant to our next example from the immediately preceding scene.

With the scene in the prison chapel, we get a similar juxtaposition of words and music/experience/conditioned response, but this time as a sort of cross-pollinated inversion: The prisoners read the hymn lyrics from the projector screen as they sing along, whereas the chaplain’s fiery sermon is delivered as a performance to invoke a visceral, “low participation” reaction as though it were music. So while the ongoing pattern of contrast is held within this scene, this time it’s the words that are “hot” and the music that is “cool”!

In the prison library, the chaplain asks Alex how he discovered the existence of the Ludovico program. Alex responds: “Two warders talk, as it might be, and somebody can’t help overhearing what they say.”——————[“…And even if I tried to move my glazzballs about, I still could not get out of the line of fire of this picture…”]—————— In his very next sentence, Alex describes the alternate means of acquiring information in prison: “Then somebody picks up a scrap of newspaper in the workshops and the newspaper tells all about it.” Low and high participation! “Hot” and “cool”!

When Alex begins reading the contract for his transfer to the Ludovico program, the Chief Guard aggressively interrupts him: “Don’t read it! Sign it!” The conscious vs. the involuntary… words vs. action… high vs. low…

Later, when Alex is inducted into the Ludovico program, Doctor Branom takes away his reading material so she can tell him about the treatment.

When Alex is at the Alexander house, being interviewed by the saboteur as she writes down his answers, she interrupts his fragmentary spelling of “Beethoven” (“B…E…” – “It’s alright, thank you“). Surely, you must be seeing the pattern by now!

After being released from the Ludovico treatment, Alex makes a surprise visit to his parent’s flat— that is, he experientially subjects them to his presence involuntarily (low participation)— at the exact time as they are reading about his release in the newspaper. This echoes Alex’s surprise visit at the cat-woman’s house, where he tells her: “At last we meet! Our brief govorett through the letter-hole was not, shall we say, satisfactory”. Alex’s other two surprise visits to the Alexander home are also dichotomous echoes of this: the first time, he gains entrance by telling a lie to Mrs. Alexander (the same lie that the cat-woman says she read in the newspaper and sounded suspiciously familiar), and the second time he gains his access wordlessly, collapsing into the door after having been beaten by the police. The fact that Alex goes from masked/dressed in black and white to unmasked/dressed in colour between these latter two visits is undoubtedly relevant, here; likely representing the distancing proxy of the printed page vs. the immediacy of experience.

When Alex is abducted by the droogs-turned-police, he has the following exchange with Dim: “I’ve been cured!” – “That was read out to us! The inspector read it all out to us!

When Alex is doing free association tests with the hospital psychiatrist, one of his responses is: “No time for the old in-out, love. I’ve just come to read the meter.”

Another good allusion to the contrast of words with the experiential continuum of music and conditioned action is made via the character of Mr. Alexander. While we first see Mr. Alexander behind his typewriter (words), we later seem him similarly poised behind the tape player instead, like a classical performer; his face wincing and convulsing in vengeful ecstasy towards the heavens. This performative association is cemented for us in the earlier scene: it is while Mr. Alexander is clacking away behind his typewriter that we hear his doorbell play the opening phrase of Beethoven’s 5th.

So, what are we to make of these examples?

The key here is the “corrective instrument” engaged with by Alex in the different sections of the film— that is, the Bible (even if only ironically) in the case of the prison section, and the cinema screen in the case of the Ludovico section. The Bible is made of “words”, the syllogistic dictates of law and order, fragmentary, mechanized, compartmental; a “cool” media, low on descriptive detail and dependent on the effort of the reader. The cinema screen is an experiential continuum, singular, panoramic, indivisible by concrete units; a “hot media”, high on descriptive detail and unreliant on the effort of the viewer. From this, we can see how it makes 100% thematic sense for the diegetic nature of the music during the prison section to be definitive and unmistakable, whereas the blurred diegetic quality of the rest of the movie sensibly aligns with the delocalised, haptic expanse of electronic media.

This unlocks our “why”: a diegetic certainty for the codified, unitary parameters of the old world, and a diegetic indiscernibility for the sensorily unified totality of the new world. Importantly, we also have the three divided sections of the film— a “tribal”, a “mechanical”, and another “tribal”— which align with the general timeline of societal evolution proposed by McLuhan.

Notice how the fact that “cool” media prompts the chosen psychological participation of the consumer is directly referenced by the film: it is when Alex is reading the Bible that he has his vivid daydreams about living in ancient times; his own active imaginings taking the place of what we later see projected onto the cinema screen for his low-participation envelopment during the Ludovico section. The specific spectre of McLuhan’s concepts is so ubiquitous in the film, I am almost willing to refer to his writings as a direct literary source rather than a general influence.

From the above observations, we can also see how Kubrick respectively marries the dichotomy of “cool” and “hot” media to the source novel’s native dichotomy of “free will” and “determinism”. That is to say, a “cool” medium with low descriptive value prompts its consumer to choose their own degree of involvement and freedom of mental exercise, whereas a “hot” medium with high descriptive value makes no allowances for the consumer to “fill in the blanks” with their own chosen psychological effort. This is conveyed in the film, fittingly, via the dialogue of the prison chaplain. With the Bible and the Ludovico treatment, we are presented with three simultaneous “tiers” of the “free will/determinism” dichotomy: 1. the choice to engage the medium (Alex chooses to read the Bible whereas the Ludovico films are mandatory), 2. the freedom of psychological involvement (which is much broader with the “cool” Bible as opposed to the “hot” films), and 3. the path of “moral” action in response to the educative properties of either medium (which is a choice in the case of the Bible but involuntary as a product of the films).

To conclude, I suppose that is enough of the “why”, insofar as it is possible for us to summarize the irreducible. Kubrick has made a film about the idea that the medium is the message by making the medium the message, and the fact that the message of the film is that the medium is the message is an example of the medium being the message! Hell, even this very article you’re reading is a case of “the medium is the message”, because the only way to describe what Kubrick is going for is by pointing to a series of empirical examples and letting them make their cumulative argument. It’s medium all the way down!

On a final note, we should address the fact that, due to the relevant formal devices making a similarly dominating appearance in Eyes Wide Shut, it would be easy to prematurely suppose McLuhan as the overarching influence on that film, too… but this is far is too reductionist. Suffice to say: what is owed to Marshall McLuhan by A Clockwork Orange is owed to Jean Baudrillard by Eyes Wide Shut. A tale for another time, perhaps…

The Metafictional Genius of Lolita

Pop quiz, hotshot: at the beginning and closing of Kubrick’s Lolita, we see two different takes of the “same” shot. Why do you think that is? Just for the Rashomon effect? Some highbrow statement about subjectivism?

Here’s a hint: what if this is less about what we can see, and more about what we can hear? What if it’s about how we hear?

This is a companion piece to “The Metafictional Genius of Eyes Wide Shut” and “The Metafictional Genius of A Clockwork Orange“, in which we will look at how Lolita serves as the prototype for the trans-diegetic “mechanism” that Kubrick would return to as an essential framing device on multiple productions throughout his filmography.

In Lolita, diegetic and extra-diegetic sound are not only juxtaposed for the purpose of contrast, but are opportunistically incorporated into the narrative as a means of affecting the formal qualities of the film in a very particular way. Let’s track the film’s exploration of this before eventually returning to the bookending scenes in Quilty’s mansion.

After Humbert shoots Quilty, the film takes us to a title card (“4 years earlier“) followed by a montage of Humbert travelling to America accompanied by an upbeat score and his voiceover narration. This is an offering of 4 simultaneous extra-diegetic elements (score/voiceover/title card/montage), which is not in itself particularly unusual. But when Humbert arrives at the Haze house in Ramsdale, the following scene in which he tours the property and meets Charlotte and Lolita (Lo) is entirely devoid of the extra-diegetic. There are no temporal breaks in the conversation — everything is one continuous flow of events — and there is no score at all. We only hear music when Humbert and Charlotte enter the garden, where we hear the catchy “Lolita Ya Ya” playing from Lo’s tinny portable radio (on which she pointedly turns down the volume at Charlotte’s request). The song is first heard when Humbert nears the house’s French doors, with no discernible origin. It is confirmed as diegetic when the film cuts to Lo in the garden; the first shot in this scene to show us a part of the house before Humbert has been introduced to it, or the first time the audience is made aware of a part of this scene before the protagonist is. This relevance of this meaningfully fluid frame of perspective will prove relevant.

While not additionally significant except in retrospect, Lolita Ya Ya will resurface soon as score rather than diegetic music. This is a blurring of the narrative frame such as has been documented in Eyes Wide Shut and A Clockwork Orange, and signals an ambiguous point-of-view, sensibly aligning with our departure from Humbert’s perspective when the film cuts to Lo in the garden.

The end of the scene in the garden marks the film’s first major, identifiable foray into the meta-cinematic/trans-diegetic. As Humbert and Charlotte laugh and Lolita Ya Ya plays on the radio, the film makes a sudden cut to a clip from 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, which we soon see is being watched by our characters at a drive-in movie theatre. However, this is only ever implied by the Kuleshov effect. The ‘Frankenstein’ clip is presented directly to the audience without any diegetic primers. When we see the clip, it is as though the film from that movie itself has been spliced with our copy of Lolita, occupying our full screen. It is not shown as being projected on a drive-in screen, shows no signs of in-world visual obscurity, is not seen from an angle, etc. The score of ‘Frankenstein’ comes to its natural close as the scene fades to black, just as though its music were Lolita‘s score. In a matter of seconds, the audience has been presented with Lolita Ya Ya (diegetic music soon to be used as score) and the ‘Frankenstein’ music (score later to be revealed as diegetic). The already-jarring nature of the juxtaposed pieces progressively becomes an even more complicated relationship as the audience has their frame of reference subliminally toyed with over the course of the film. We might ask ourselves how Lolita has such a formally oriented “jump scare” if it is simply supposed to be Humbert’s recount of events.

We should also note that The Curse of Frankenstein is Hammer Film Production’s very first colour horror film! The fact that this is the first of its kind to be shot in colour almost seems a bit too coincidental, given the specific meta-cinematic context. I would be willing to wager that Kubrick is here banking off the common cultural associations of the classic Hammer horror films as being characteristically black-and-white (how we see ‘Frankenstein’ in Lolita); a way of lending an additional layer of diegetic confusion to the scene. On top of this, the original score for ‘Frankenstein‘ has been replaced in this re-appropriation, further blurring the diegesis. Is this then Lolita‘s score? Lolita‘s diegetic music? Frankenstein‘s score? Kubrick has taken even more special care not to give us the tools for narrowing down this sonic context: the shots and actions of Humbert, Lolita and Charlotte feature no corresponding dialogue or diegetic/ambient noise. For all intents and purposes, the sound tracks of Frankenstein and Lolita are here one in the same.

The film wastes no time with its shenanigans: it is immediately after the drive-in scene that we hear Lolita Ya Ya used as score, while Humbert teaches Charlotte chess. It continues over to the temporally disparate shot of Humbert clandestinely watching Lo play with her hula hoop. The score comes to its natural ending along with a fade to black, just as The Curse of Frankenstein‘s did in the previous scene.

For the next scene, the film fades into the Summer Dance, where a live band is in mid-performance. Pointedly, as earlier in the Haze house, we are shown an unbroken on-screen continuum of conversation and action throughout two of the band’s songs, each ending to crowd applause. The third song, a slower piece, then starts. This song receives a purposefully contrastive diegetic treatment compared to the last two: the music continues playing uninterrupted while the film dissolves into a temporally disparate shot of Charlotte bringing Humbert food in the upper seating area. As we will recall from the relevant accompanying article, this scene and treatment is extremely reminiscent of the ballroom scenes at Ziegler’s Christmas party in Eyes Wide Shut, where the music of the live band was also granted impossible time-manipulating qualities!

Unlike during the previous dissolve, the band’s music fades out in the appropriate diegetic fashion as the film crossfades into the next scene of Humbert and Charlotte having dinner at home. Here, the scene is without music until Charlotte puts a cha-cha record on the player so as to dance with Humbert. The music draws to a close as Lo surprises them by arriving home early, offering her own half-mocking summary of the music that just finished: “cha-cha-cha“. This vocal emulation of instrumental music will become apparent as a meaningful relationship when considering the film’s similar connection between score and voiceover. The remainder of the scene is unscored before fading to black.

The next scene fades in to Humbert at his desk, writing in his diary with an accompanying voiceover. The voiceover continues as the film cuts to a shot in the kitchen of Lo and Charlotte arguing, which, in the traditional visual language of film, would suggest a temporal disconnect between these two shots. But when Lo ascends the stairs to bring Humbert breakfast, she interrupts his diary writing (for which the voiceover is now meaningfully absent). This misdirect of the “omnidirectional” voiceover is amplified by diegetic relationships within the film’s world. When Lo is climbing the stairs, we hear one side of her mother’s phone conversation (here, the spoken-but-unheard words match Humbert’s now written-but-unvoiced diary entry). Her voice fades as the camera follows Lo upstairs. In Humbert’s room, he reads Edgar Allen Poe to Lolita, adding his own editorial narration to the poem in the exact way that he has ceased doing for the film we are watching. Also notable is that this whole scene is unscored.

The film cuts to the next scene of a “romantic” dinner between Humbert and Charlotte, introduced by Charlotte’s abrupt ringing of a dinner bell (not too dissimilar to the earlier cut to The Curse of Frankenstein). The music here has no discernible source, but fades out mid-piece along with the visual fade to black, suggesting a diegetic quality.

In the next scene, Humbert awakes to see Lo and Charlotte packing to leave for the camp. There is a melancholic score as Lo embraces and talks with Humbert, interrupted by a “hurry up!” beep of the car horn heard from outside. After the car leaves, the score continues as the maid gives Humbert the love letter Charlotte has written for him. Humbert laughs mockingly at the letter, suddenly lending an ironic bent to the previously sincere nature of the ongoing score. Humbert reads the letter to himself and us; the diegetic inverse of his earlier voiceover. Note how he is doing this for no present audience but himself (and us as the audience, though how directly?), which will be relevant later.

Do you notice how Charlotte’s voice seems meaningfully excluded from this scene? We only have non-verbal communication from her, in the form of the beeping of the car horn and the written love letter. Have you noticed anything musically unusual about the scenes featuring Charlotte? Are any of them scored by a piece of music that does not appear in the film diegetically?

Next, we have the scene depicting Charlotte and Humbert now living without Lo for the first time, where Humbert is seen pausing his writing to close his diary. However, it is while he is sneaking with his diary to the bathroom that we now hear what is presumably his written entry. That we hear Humbert’s entry while he is not writing is an inverse of the last time we saw him with his diary, when he was writing to no voiceover accompaniment. This pattern here cements itself: the voiceover stops as Charlotte starts talking to Humbert through the bathroom door. When we next cut to Humbert, he has begun writing his diary once more while answering Charlotte, again evading alignment with the narration. There is, once again, no score for this scene.

The scene continues into the bedroom, where a morose Charlotte produces her dead husband’s gun (make note of how, as the camera follows the pair into the bedroom, it gives the incorporeal impression of passing through the wall; something it has not yet done at any point while moving around the house. The reason for this anomaly will become apparent soon). During their conversation here, Charlotte asks “Do you believe in God?“, to which Humbert chucklingly responds “The question is, does God believe in me?“; lending an existential dimension to the film’s blurred diegesis and foreshadowing a similar use of technique that Kubrick would eventually return to in Eyes Wide Shut. After sharing a half-heartedly requited embrace, Charlotte receives a call from Lo at camp and has an argument with Humbert while still on the phone. After Charlotte storms away, Humbert picks up the phone only for him (and us) to hear a dial tone — a one-sided exchange. If he can hear the dial tone, should we not then have been able to hear Lo’s voice only moments earlier?

When Humbert realizes that the late Mr. Haze’s gun is in fact loaded with bullets, we hear him scheming his murder plan. This features a “voiceover-within-a-voiceover”: Humbert begins with a description of the plan, but transitions without announcement into the rehearsal of his alibi for the killing (one-sided conversation) before returning to description. Here, Humbert’s voice is here given a reverberation effect, which is a priming trope for inner monologue, and is used throughout the film on diary entries but not on the overarching narration. We can see that Humbert is not writing in his diary. Kubrick is blurring the line between inner monologue, diary entry and voiceover narration, and therefore blurring past and present tense. Neat trick!

The “inner” monologue itself goes from present tense (“No man can bring about the perfect murder“), to past tense from the view of a prospective future where Humbert is giving his alibi (““She said it wasn’t loaded. It belonged to the late Mr. Haze…”“), back to present tense (“Simple, isn’t it?“) and then to regular past tense (“She splashed in the tub, a trustful, clumsy seal…“). The “voiceover” is interspersed with Humbert’s calls through the bathroom door to Charlotte, who is non-responsive (ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION). marrying this V.O to its “implied” silent equivalent from when Humbert was writing his diary in the very same bathroom earlier. As an additional inversion of its twin scene, this time it is the voice “inside” the bathroom which can’t be heard, rather than the voiceover.

Humbert, finding the bathtub empty, then walks in on an inconsolable Charlotte reading his diary (first SILENTLY, then ALOUD). She runs to lock herself in the bedroom where she talks to the ashes of her late husband (ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION). As she sinks weepingly to her knees, the camera makes an incorporeal descent through the floor into the kitchen where Humbert is frantically making her a martini. He calls upstairs, pathetically claiming that his diary was in fact a novel that he’s writing (blurred-diegesis-within-blurred-diegesis). Remember: earlier, when the camera view passed through the bedroom wall, the temporal continuity of the scene was uninterrupted. However, its descent through the floor must necessarily signify a passing of time, because there is only 53 seconds between when Charlotte falls to her knees and when Humbert receives the phone call informing him of her death. What this means is that when Humbert is calling upstairs, he is having a ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION with a woman who is not there, a woman who is in fact dead, in the exact same way Charlotte was talking to her dead husband moments earlier. In keeping with the trend we have noticed following Charlotte, this scene’s tense score does not kick in until the camera goes through the floor, at which point we will no longer see her alive again. In fact, the score kicks in at the exact moment that she leaves the screen for the last time. All of the film’s non-vocal score pieces have successfully evaded her.

By now, we should be noticing there is a pronounced pattern of occurrence linking together the tetrad of the diegetic/extra-diegetic/verbal/non-verbal. Is all of this not particularly reminiscent of the “Phones and Phonecalls in Eyes Wide Shut“?

From the scene of Charlotte’s car accident, the film dissolves to Humbert privately celebrating in the bathtub with Lolita Ya Ya playing as ironic score. The piece continues throughout the full scene and then over a montage of Humbert traveling to Camp Climax, before fading out while he seen waiting in the camp’s laundry. The piece soon returns, again as score, in the next shot when Humbert is driving Lo and lying to her about her mother being in hospital. Note how, after this conversation, the score suddenly drops out with a cut to a static, exterior shot of the moving car; the music replaced by the sound of the car roaring by.

The film dissolves to the exterior of the “Enchanted Hunters” hotel at night, being scored by a dissonant musical sting which resolves in the following shot of Clare Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom approaching the hotel’s receptionist. Darkbloom is notably without dialogue for the whole film, though at the end of this conversation with the receptionist, she leans in to say something unheard into Quilty’s ear; the voiceless party of another one-sidedness (we can see how this slots in neatly with the aforementioned tetrad). We hear the score of Lolita Ya Ya as Lo and Humbert enter the hotel, which continues until the film crossfades to them settling in to their hotel room. The score goes on until resolving just as the film fades back to the lobby. Here, casual, folksy string music fades in. Quilty and Darkbloom are seen pretending to read newspaper comics to hide their activities; a kind of inverse of Humbert hiding his own activities in his diary, as well as a throwback to Humbert pretending to read while spying on Lo using her hula hoop. We might ask ourselves how Humbert can recount Quilty’s presence, being unaware of him in that moment.

As Humbert exits the lobby, the film cuts to him outside on the back porch, where he is to be trapped in conversation with an in-character Quilty, whose face is hidden from him like the source of a disembodied voiceover. The music is now more distant, and we hear the chirping of crickets. We hear these crickets in the next scene, too, where Humbert and the hotel assistant are comically attempting to straighten out the cot in Humbert and Lo’s room. After the cot is setup, there is a dissolve to a later time in the same room where, just like the live band at the Summer Dance, the diegetic chirping of the crickets continues uninterrupted! Interestingly, this transition begins as a fade to black before becoming a dissolve. After Humbert lies down to sleep in the collapsed cot, the film fades to black and fades in on the same room at morning time; the crickets now replaced by chirping birds. Lo whispers a barely audible line in Humbert’s ear, much like Mr. Milich’s daughter does to Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut, again adding to the meaningfully diverse usage of the spectrum of language and verbalisation.

The film fades to black after the implication of an imminent sexual scenario, then fades in on an exterior shot of Humbert’s travelling car which is very much an echo of the earlier shot where the noise of the car roaring by replaced the score. As a reverse of that sequence, the film now cuts instead from the exterior to the inside of the car, now with both the diegetic roar and the musical score not present. In the car, Humbert tells Lo she can’t call her mother because she is dead; an echo of Charlotte talking to her husband’s ashes and Humbert trying to call upstairs to Charlotte while on the phone to the person reporting her accident. The film dissolves to distant shot of the car entering a small town, then to the exterior of a motel — echoing the “Enchanted Hunters” hotel — where we can hear crickets as before. Another dissolve takes us to the motel room interior where we can now no longer here the crickets, differentiating the auditory environment to that of the “Enchanted Hunters” room (the reason why should become more apparent to us soon). Instead, it is Lo we hear sobbing offscreen. In the next shot, she enters the bedroom from the bathroom, another inverse of the previous hotel room scene where Humbert did the same as she lay asleep on the bed. Whereas the previous hotel room scene was completely scoreless (almost as though not to wake the sleeping Lo), there is here the slow introduction of a tender score as Humbert consoles Lo, with the piece coming to its natural ending as the scene fades to black. While the music plays, and perhaps not coincidentally, the weepy Lo asks how she will retrieve her record collection from their old house, and Humbert offers to buy a new Hi-Fi set.

After the motel scene, the film fades in to a montage of Humbert and Lo’s entrance to the town of the Beardsley, echoing the earlier montage of Ramsdale with its own upbeat score and Humbert’s narration addressing the audience; a literal “new start”. The montage ends with a dissolve into a scoreless scene of Humbert painting Lo’s toenails, the s chirping of birds again in the background. There are two things of note regarding sound, here. One is that this is a throwback to the title sequence, also depicting Lo’s toenails being painted, which was contrastingly scored with a romantic theme unlike its extra-diegetically mute counterpart. The other is that every instance of the chirping crickets and birds, in an evasive fashion quite similar to the voice of Lo’s mother Charlotte, never have any overlap with the film’s score. Evidently, the film makes structural concessions between its diegetic and extra-diegetic elements, which is why earlier we couldn’t hear any chirping crickets from inside Humbert’s motel room (as so to “make space” for the sad score which arrives mid-scene as Humbert starts consoling Lo).

The (daytime) toenail painting scene dissolves into a night scene of Humbert’s car pulling into the house driveway. The chirping of the birds fades seamlessly into that of crickets; a reversal of what we heard at the “Enchanted Hunters”. As before in the motel, the crickets are not heard after the next dissolve which takes us to the scene interior. Inside, Humbert turns the light on to see find Quilty (disguised as the psychologist Dr. Zemph) to the same dissonant musical sting as heard earlier in the Enchanted Hunter’s lobby. This 6 minute scene is otherwise unscored. At some point in his interview/interrogation of Humbert, Quilty/Zemph says: “We have questioned Lo on the home situation, but she says not a word, stays with her lips buttoned up. So we are speaking with her friends, and they are saying things which I wouldn’t repeat to you here“. Note again this almost fractal treatment of implied verbalisation as we have seen earlier with Humbert’s narration and his diary; Lo’s own refusal to talk “within” Quilty’s refusal to describe a third-party narration aloud.From “Zemph” and Humbert, the film dissolves to the school play at night, scored by a variation on the same dissonant musical sting that follows Quilty in his wake. The school play reads as a variation on the “frame within a frame” mise-en-abyme aspect that has thus far been surfacing throughout the film. Here, we have a fairly frank visual expression of the film’s blurred diegesis, with Quilty looking at Lolita across the curtain, the “4th wall” of the play dividing them.

Notice how in this scene, the introductory shot of Lo is at first framed ambiguously. Due to there being three parallel theatre curtains, and the film at first neglecting to show us the onstage action, we cannot tell if Lo is entering from stage left or stage right. This also means that we can’t tell if Quilty is closer to the theatre audience or to us as the movie-going audience. Here, we are “watching the watchers” just as we were when Hum, Charlotte and Lo were seeing The Curse of Frankenstein at the drive-in theatre, only this time we see the audience before the media, rather than the other way around. This “watching the watcher” association is heightened even further: Quilty takes a snapshot of Lolita on his camera as she walks onto the stage in same way that Charlotte earlier took one of her doing hula hoop twists in front of a spying Humbert. This would perhaps appear to be a formal attempt at likening the audience to Humbert and lending a voyeuristic connection to the notion of cameras themselves.

Perhaps the film-going audience’s role in this equation was being referenced in the last scene by a double-entendre line of dialogue from Quilty as Dr. Zemph: “We believe that it is equally important to prepare the pupils for the mutually satisfactory mating and the successful child rearing”. Note how Lolita and her husband will be preparing to have their child at the end of the film.

The school play ends with diegetic trumpet fanfare as a counterpart to its scored introduction. Off stage, an applauding Humbert chats with Miss Starch, who informs him that Lo has not been attending her piano lessons for weeks (remember, the “interruption of music” has already been used to trans-diegetic effect earlier in Lolita, not to mention its recurrent prominence as detailed in The Metafictional Genius of Eyes Wide Shut). Clearly attracted to him, Miss Starch says to a disinterested Humbert: “By the way, Dr. Humbert, there’s so few people in Beardsley who appreciate music. I was wondering if sometime perhaps you’d like to come around and I could play something for you“. Firstly, this is reminiscent of Charlotte’s earlier efforts to get a reluctant Humbert to do that cha-cha. But note also how this reads as an associative pairing between sex, or “coitus interruptus”, and music; an association that would be specifically revisited in Eyes Wide Shut. We can recall how Lo previously arrived home early and interrupted the “cha-cha-ing” between Humbert and Charlotte, too. Dr. Zemph (Quilty) also proposed participation in the school play as a prescription for “acute repression of the libido”.

The next scene finds Lo and Humbert back at the house having an aggravated argument. Lo is shouting very loudly, in response to which Humbert closes the French doors so that the neighbours won’t hear. He tells Lo: “All right, now the doors are shut. Come on, shout! Let’s hear how loud you can shout. Come on” (ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION). Remember, these are the same doors through which Humbert first heard Lolita Ya Ya from the portable radio. This scene, as the reader might now be safely assuming, is without score. Humbert’s invitation for Lo to shout louder contrarily causes her to quiet down, and he accuses Lo of being with the “leading man” of the school play. Lo tells him he’s imagining things, echoing how Humbert had tried to convince Charlotte of the same when she found his diary. Note how referring to the boy Lo is seeing as a “leading man” also connects to Humbert’s excuse that the use of Lo’s and Charlotte’s names in his diary were stand-ins for characters in a novel he was claiming to write. Humbert also says to Lo, angrily: “Don’t start talking about the play to me, that’s just what’s come between us“. The fact that Lo is still wearing her theatre costume is certainly a point of deliberate relevance, here.

The argument explodes back into shouting again, and a neighbour stops in saying she can “hear every word”. Lo leaves out the door, while an again-disinterested Humbert gets stuck talking to the neighbour. The film dissolves to a gas station, where the searching Humbert finds Lo in a phone booth, mid-conversation (unheard by us and him). Humbert asks who she was talking to, and she says she was trying to call him. He says he saw her talking, and Lo claims she “got a wrong number”, evidently a variant on the ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION.

The gas station fades to black — taking a chorus of chirping crickets in tow — and the film fades in on another dissolving travel montage of Humbert and Lo, continuing across country, once more with score and voiceover narration. The score is upbeat and happy, but takes on a tense, forbidding tone when an unknown car begins secretly following the duo. This is another of many examples where the audience being shown something outside of Humbert’s field of awareness, “breaching” the format of the film as a personal recount. This specific instance is particular interesting, however, because the score is upbeat when accompanying Humbert’s narration, as though in league with his point of view, then becomes sinister only after the narration stops, and then returns to its upbeat theme when Humbert and Lo begin a spoken conversation. Once again, the entire tetrad of verbal/non-verbal/diegetic/extra-diegetic is being invoked by juxtaposition. In keeping with this, Lo jokingly imitates a car engine now while hiding her mouth behind a scarf as though it were a veil. The music becomes tense again when Humbert mentions noticing the car following them, as though the score has been unable to decide whether it is reflecting his range of awareness or ours as the audience.

The score continues across dissolves of the two cars travelling over many day. Lo and Humbert stop at a gas station, where Humbert uses the bathroom and sees her talking to someone in a car through the window (this shot assumes Humbert’s point of view). Once again, Lolita is party to a ONE-SIDED CONVERSATION with persons as unseen as the late Mr. Haze; both sides again unheard to Humbert, just like at the earlier gas station only a scene ago.

The pair continue travelling across country, arguing back and forth once more. In a fashion directly reminiscent of the earlier travel scene, where Lolita Ya Ya was interrupted and replaced by a cut to a static shot of the car exterior and the sound of it roaring by, the score for this later car conversation is abruptly interrupted by a blown tire. From here (when the unknown car stops and abandons its pursuit), the score does not resume for the remainder of the scene, and remains absent all throughout the next scene where Lo is in hospital with fever.

In the hospital, a paranoid Humbert attempts to read what he thinks are notes to Lolita, but turn out to belong to the nurse, who interrupts and takes them from him; an interesting treatment of media that may echo Charlotte’s earlier discovery of Humbert’s diary. Humbert also asks Lo in this scene if she is going to read or talk to him during this scene. Perhaps of additional note is how the books Humbert brings to Lo in hospital are both fiction and non-fiction. Of the books is Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a novel with blended fictional and autobiographical elements which is written in free direct speech, colouring its third-person narration with hallmarks of first-person perspective.

The next scene fades in on Humbert being awakened by the phone in the cabin where he is awaiting Lo’s release. The phone is heard distantly from outside during the establishing shot of the cabin, then is accordingly louder upon the cut to the cabin interior. Humbert answers the phone and we hear Quilty’s voice through the line. For the first time across all the phone calls in the film, we at long last hear the party on the other end and are therefore exposed to an uncertainty of perspective that it implies by context. The fact that we can hear the phone ringing from the exterior shot and we can hear the crackly voice on the other line indicates a shared treatment of both elements; a frame-within-a-frame and a decidedly less hermetic treatment of sound than we might have come to expect by now. This scene is scoreless until Humbert hangs up the phone, where tense music accompanies an exterior shot showing him travelling to the hospital and then fades out in the next interior shot as he approaches the hospital reception desk. This scene remains scoreless until Humbert is pinned to the ground by hospital staff. Dramatic music kicks in and naturally resolves as the scene fades out.

The next shot is a closeup of typewriter punching out Lo’s complete letter to Humbert, voicelessly and without score, with no person visible. I suppose the significance of this is fairly apparent by now! The scene fades out before the completion of the letter.

The film fades in on another travel montage of Humbert arriving in a new town, this time with no voiceover and very tense music (an inversion of the previous examples of Ramsdale and Beardsley) as he makes his way to Lo’s new house and knocks on the door. The score continues over the pair’s reunion, coming to halt when Humbert asks if the man out the window is Lo’s new husband, Dick. In the wake of the music’s absence, we hear distant industrial noises such as a steam whistle. These continue until Lo tells Humbert that the man who took her away was Quilty, at which point the score returns, now more melancholy. Strangely, the music continues until Dick comes inside, where it becomes just sound effects again, circumventing him as it did Charlotte. He mentions Humbert not responding to Lo’s letter (ONE-SIDED). Lo tells Humbert he’ll have to speak louder due to Dick’s deafness in one ear (“his phone’s on the blink“), again one-sided, and as a throwback to the film’s other “audibility”-centric aspects. Faithful to the pattern, the evasive score doesn’t return until just after Dick leaves out the back again and Humbert tries to get Lo to leave with him.

The film dissolves from Lo’s house to a familiar shot of a heavily fogged road, and we find ourselves back at the opening scene in Quilty’s mansion, where things are the same and yet different.

The opening version of the scene in Quilty’s mansion is accompanied by an eerie but quiet and un-intrusive score. As Humbert explores the disheveled lobby, he runs his fingers across an antique harp, producing a rising set of musical tones punctuated at the end by the pluck of a string with his thumb, which synchronizes with the start of a new bar in the score (presumably unheard by Humbert). The second version of this scene features a different, dramatic score that is much louder; its volume overtaking most other sounds in the room except the noisy clinking of toppling glassware. Once “again”, Humbert runs his hand over the harp, only this time it produces no tones. We can tell that both versions of this scene are using live sound, due to the complex and particular relationship of Humbert’s interactions with the environment (in particular, the very specific visual/acoustic correlation of his kicking past the piles of glass bottles gives this away). If one listens very carefully during the latter version, they can hear the muted snap of the (now manually deadened) harp as Humbert plucks it with his thumb. This sonic variation between the two versions appears to be specifically cultivated from their very conception.

In the first version of the scene, the eerie score fades out when Humbert picks up the paddle to play Quilty in “Roman ping pong”, in essence making space for Quilty’s diegetic, humourously sycophantic piano song that he sings for Humbert. Just like Lo with her own unattended piano lessons, Quilty abruptly abandons his piano as a means of escaping Humbert, though his attempt, as we see, is not successful.

In the first version of the scene, we see and hear Humbert call out for Quilty each time. In the second version, the score pauses as the film fades to black, and from this darkness we hear Humbert’s last call: A disembodied word floating somewhere at the confused crossroads of a live voice in physical space, an inner monologue, a narration, a diary entry, the script of a “leading man”, and the haunting specter of a dead man. This last echoing word (“Quilty!“) is supplanted by a written epilogue (at once also an epitaph) and the image of a still portrait, again in evident breach of the film’s format, and again as a meeting of juxtaposed media types. Humbert and Quilty’s deaths are here signified simultaneously.

Perhaps, in the context of everything told, our initial question is answered.

It is interesting that, unlike the film, Nabokov’s novel is framed as a manuscript that has been posthumously recovered by a fictional editor and presented to a jury at the behest of the late Humbert Humbert’s lawyer. The omission of this framing device from the movie would seem to highlight how the audience’s engagement with the specific formal boundaries of film as a medium, and the ambiguous auditory context of Humbert’s narration, is a key element of the viewing experience. This can additionally be inferred by the fact that this framing device has been replaced by one of Kubrick’s own concoction — the two different bookending “tellings” of the scene in Quilty’s mansion — which itself is largely contingent on an ambiguous positioning of the film’s sonic elements, like the rest of the film. I would say it is a fairly safe bet that this innovative, top-down approach may have stemmed from the self-evidently un-filmable cleverness of Nabokov’s novel, with all its wordplay and inventive linguistic properties, which has essentially forced Kubrick to try for similar ends via different, medium-specific means. This addresses the film’s scandal-aware tagline as though it were a literal query: “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Lolita?

In the related articles, I’ve presented Kubrick’s trans-diegetic schemas as an incorporation of Marshall McLuhan’s media theories (in the case of A Clockwork Orange), and as a means of confusing the barrier between the narrative world of the film and the real-life world of the viewing audience (in the case of Eyes Wide Shut). For Lolita, as Kubrick’s earliest outing with these manipulative techniques, I would say that the schema seems to serve the comparatively more simple purpose of supplying a diegetic unreliability to match the accounts of its unreliable narrator. I have previously said that what is owed to Marshall McLuhan by A Clockwork Orange is owed to Jean Baudrillard by Eyes Wide Shut, so it’s worth noting that the key works by both of these theorists are predated by the production of Lolita. It’s fascinating that Kubrick managed to find inventive new homes for these techniques across three decades of his career, reflecting his diligence in keeping up to date with contemporary discourse and skillfully incorporating its influences.

Beyond LolitaA Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut, it isn’t immediately clear to me as to whether Kubrick’s other films make such extensive use of this specific class of techniques that they require their own entire article, so this might be all I have to write about this topic for the foreseeable future. Thank you for reading!

[Author’s addendum: This goes back a bit further than my favourite era of Kubrick, but I felt compelled to write about it now for particular reasons. More and more, I am noticing a somewhat inexplicable pushback against Kubrick’s extreme formalist preoccupations as part of a trend to “recast” him simply as some kind of para-philosophical dramatist for “the human condition” who follows his aesthetic whims as they occur to him. I think that this is an overreaching reclamation effort by a common film culture that has become generally disenchanted with auteur theory– with arguably good cause– and is at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater with regards to an entire hemisphere of very unique properties that help make Kubrick’s films so special. I figured going all the way back to a classic in Lolita might make it easier to trace the evolution of a particular set of concepts from their embryonic beginnings and show just how huge of a directorial focus it was for Kubrick.

The core takeaway I hope to instil in readers is this: That the reflexive nature of Kubrick’s films have the narrative and the formal elements so intertwined, and in such a schematically consistent fashion, that the bare minimum amount of pre-meditated orchestration necessary for them to exist is in GARGANTUAN excess of what could be plausibly assembled by this other, milder Kubrick. The on-screen narrative and form must have been conceived with some simultaneity, and whatever improvisational explorations Kubrick has made must therefore necessarily exist within unusually stringent formal “guidelines”. These formal parameters are clearly the products of a hugely coordinated cognition, and not shoot-from-the-hip gut instinct. This becomes more and more observably true towards the tail end of Kubrick’s filmography.

I am not the first to observe Lolita’s unique employment of mise-en-abyme… and this is precisely the point. For whatever reason, despite fair documentation, this stuff somehow does not seem to trickle down from academia into the popular culture. Hopefully, this attempt to lubricate the plumbing has been useful. I refuse to believe that this is too complicated for the average Kubrick fan, and so this trilogy of articles has been put together as a sort of “unzippable” analysis, one that can be ported into any context for the casual reader and is self-evident enough not to rely on citation or complex interpretive tradition.

On a more exciting note… If one were so inclined, they could look at this “trilogy” of films as an embedded series of ontological dichotomies, each encompassed by a more comprehensive successor: the pairing between information and media (Lolita), the pairing between media and perceived environment (A Clockwork Orange), and the pairing between perceived environment and reality (Eyes Wide Shut). Now we’re thinking in fractals!]

Symmetry Comparisons from Eyes Wide Shut

Bathroom/Rumpus Room
Rainbow Fashions/Domino’s Flat
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