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Popular Representations

Eyes Wide Shut

In order to fully engage with the project brief, it has been highlighted that more than simply Venice, the place itself, should be considered. In a brief meeting last term it was mentioned how we should not simply limit ourselves to the ‘hexis’ (as it is theoretically regarded) of Venice alone but should also conduct research into other representations of Venice throughout different eras and different mediums. Also, one of the aims of the project brief is to consider the different representations of Venice in literature and film, for example, and a short but non-exhaustive list of different films that represent Venice was compiled. One film on the list was the Stanley Kubrick creation “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and I went to the liberty of purchasing this film in order to begin my initial research.

Before watching the film I had already researched the film, outlining the plot of the movie, which famous actors and actresses feature within the cast and I had also tried to obtain information on the movie’s relevance to Venice and the Carnival. Equipped with this basic knowledge, I proceeded to watch the film, rather intrigued about what I was about to watch.

As soon as the movie begun, I was greeted with several scenes that featured nudity and sound; the sound featured within the scene was diergetic, coming from the character’s stereo. The sound was classical music which sounded archaic and dated; typical assumptions associated with classical music. It was also quite eerie and created a tense atmosphere up until the point Tom Cruise proceeds to turn the music off before leaving the house with his wife. Already I am trying to make connections but to no avail, I finalise that I will have to wait until the movie is finished in order to make any form of conclusion.

As scenes develop and new ones replace the original, classical music is still heavily featured. This time Cruise and Kidman are attending a Christmas party, hence the classical music. Although this time not as eerie as in earlier scenes, it still sound old, but fitting for the scene. In one scene Kidman is conversing with a gentleman who is displaying a keen, sexual interest in her and when she mentions that she used to manage an art gallery, her proceeds to disclose that he has many artistic contacts and one contact has a collection heavily influenced by the Renaissance period. Alas, my first connection. Perhaps purely coincidental but important, nonetheless, I feel. From reading through the work of Stallybrass and White (1986) in order to familiarise myself with the concept of Carnivalesque, it was mentioned in “The Politics and Poetics of Transgression” (1986) that Carnival dates back to the Renaissance period. The connection I felt was that although this mention was entirely minor, it still added relevance to where the film takes inspiration from. Why didn’t Kubrick want the work to date back to the Stone Age era? As the film progressed, I still felt content with this connection.

As the movie progressed it became very apparent to me that the film deals with several key themes, some being sex, love, jealousy and deception. In one scene, Cruise begins to seduce his wife, before declaring his love to her, followed by Kidman telling in graphic detail how she contemplated engaging in an illicit affair a year previous, resulting in Cruise’s jealousy reaching fever pitch, after declaring he “doesn’t get jealous”. At this point I was only half an hour or so into the movie and I felt that this film was going to get more and more emotionally and psychologically confusing.

It wasn’t long before I began to feel bored; the movie was moving along very slowly and was beginning to become a tad predictable. This probably had a lot to do with me knowing what I wanted to gain from the movie; I wanted to establish some form of connection between the movie and the Carnival, and it wasn’t long before my thirst for knowledge was satisfied.

Mid-way through the film was perhaps the most famous part of narrative from the entire movie – the sexually charged, Venetian masked ritual. I had been told by many people that this scene was extremely graphic and was the “best part of the movie”. Well, I was about to find out.

The mis-en-scene within this section of the movie was highly prominent. The main setting was inside a large mansion, situated in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. Inside all guests were clothed in black robes and stunning Venetian masks. The females that were being ‘sacrificed’ were wearing nothing but a Venetian mask. And, of course, every ritual has a Master of Ceremonies who was clothed in a blood red cloak and mask.  This imagery was by far the biggest connection to Venice and the Carnival. At this point I proceeded to pause the movie and research exactly what Venetian masks symbolise in Venetian culture. However, this is an area I want to investigate in more depth; I want to read and research exactly what the masks represent not only within Venetian culture but also within relation to Carnival. Why are the masks worn? What do they represent? These are questions to answer another day, but from my brief research I found that Venetian masks have a history of being worn during promiscuous activities. And there is my connection.

If this reasoning is true, and I will investigate further and update, then the relevance in Eyes Wide Shut meant that the participants partaking in the ritual could be as promiscuous as they wished without having to reveal their identity. Perhaps many of the participants were sinning; perhaps committing an infidelity against their marital partner and the mask allowed them to hide themselves, perhaps determining that if their identity was hidden, so was their secret. An author called Carolin Ruwe published a book called “Symbols in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Eyes Wide Shut” and in this book she discusses various themes from within the movie, such as the masks. My next step is to obtain this book as it will be beneficial to see how she interprets the use of masks within the films to the way I do. Also, I am hoping that it will clarify the use of masks in the film and the reasoning and justification behind it.

Mitigating my point about the masks concealing the individual’s identity, when Cruise is warned by a female stranger that he is in danger he asks her to come with him and remove her mask which she abruptly refuses. Thus, the reason for masks at the ritual really is to protect an individual’s identity.

The rest of the film deals with Cruise trying to come to terms with what he witnessed at the ritual, as well as coming to terms with the issues arising in his marital relationship. New themes are introduced, one theme being that of death; something not typically associated with Venice, but very commonly associated with the representation of the country within contemporary media. Apparent that my Venice/Carnival connection was coming to an end, I began to conclude my thoughts regarding the movie.

As this was my first time watching this film I was very disciplined on myself by doing my best to ensure that I watched the movie as a researcher and critic, not as a spectator whose only aim was to simply enjoy the movie. Trying to indentify connections between the movie and the research topic proved problematic and quite frustrating at times. Once the Venetian masks were featured, a lot of what I had witnessed for the last two and a half hours slowly started to make sense. If Venetian masks have a history of being used throughout promiscuous activities, this explains why they were featured in the particular ritual scene. Also, carnivals in their most simplistic sense are related to rituals and this is something I have only just begun discovering but am intrigued to learn more. In modern day carnivals, wearing Venetian masks is almost a ritual; in Venice it would be strange, I would imagine, seeing anybody partaking in the carnival to not be wearing a mask, almost alien. Drawing more basic conclusions, the classical music that was heavily featured created the tense atmosphere that remained almost throughout the entire movie. However, this is something I will research further; to see whether classical music is something that is popular within Venetian carnivals and if so why.

These movies definitely highlighted key areas for me to research further and in more depth and these areas are applicable throughout the duration of the research project, not just to this movie. The next step is to continue to watch more movies that incorporate Venice as the setting for the movie and the next movie I intend to watch is The Talented Mr Ripley (2001) starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. Before that, I intend to conduct research into Venice to understand the history behind it as well as the origin of the Carnevale Venezia, the annual carnival that takes place in Venice every February.

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