“If there was one thing that I learned in my relationship with Stanley,” film critic Alexander Walker says, “it’s that nothing was ever simple with him. Issues with other filmmakers that would have been considered black-and-white were with him endless shades of gray. The intentions and meanings behind his films are vast.”
And so it continues with Stanley Kubrick, even after his sudden and unexpected March 7 death. As the U.S. reaction to his last film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” reaffirms, the initial reception to his work has been a case of eyes wide puzzled, perplexed and astonished, ranging from Time magazine’s Richard Schickel declaring it “a masterpiece” to former New Yorker magazine critic Pauline Kael coming out of retirement to condemn it as “a piece of crap.”
So much controversy has dogged the film — highlighted by the continuing debate over Kubrick having to digitally alter his work’s centerpiece orgy scene to avoid the verboten NC-17 rating — that it hardly surprises when Indian censors demanded further trims, citing “blasphemous” use of material from the sacred text “The Bhagavad-Gita” in composer Jocelyn Pook’s music for the same orgy scene.
Fresh in his first months as director of the Venice Intl. Film Festival after being appointed in November 1998, Alberto Barbera would allow neither controversy nor critics from his pursuit of “Eyes” as the festival’s coveted opening-night event.
“To begin with,” says Barbera, “‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is one of the most anticipated films of the last few years, ever since Kubrick announced the project. It was an obvious candidate.”
But, as always the case with Kubrick, it’s not so simple as that. The director long had made a policy of turning down major festivals’ requests for his latest film. The only exception, ironically, was Venice ’72, when “A Clockwork Orange” screened out of competition.
Fear of flying
Kubrick’s reasoning was clear, according to Walker, who had a closer friendship with the director than any other journalist and who wrote the only authorized book on the filmmaker, to be reissued in September as “Stanley Kubrick Director.”
“He almost never traveled,” says Walker, “so he wouldn’t be able to accompany the film to the festival. If he couldn’t do that, he couldn’t control the way in which it was presented, which mattered as much to him as anything. So he took the direct path and simply said, ‘No,’ to festivals. He also felt it was inappropriate to set his film up in comparison or competition in a festival atmosphere. I suggested several festivals he should participate in, and he always turned down the suggestion.”
Nevertheless, Barbera, “as one of my first tasks for the festival,” queried Warners’ Rome office, which confirmed that “Eyes” would be ready for a summer U.S. release, followed by an international rollout. He also conferred with Warners’ chief of international sales, Edward Frumkes, who in turn discussed it with Kubrick.
“Ed told me that Kubrick’s reaction was ‘Yes, why not? If Venice is interested, I’d like it to go there,’ ” Barbera says.
The Venice Connection
Though neither Walker nor Kubrick’s closest personal associate in the studio’s European operations, marketing head Julian Senior, could pin down a definitive reason why Kubrick changed his policy this time, there are grounds for it in what can be called The Venice Connection.
First was the “Clockwork” selection, followed later by Kubrick signing a group statement of filmmakers’ rights organized by then-festival director Gillo Pontecorvo, capped in 1997 by Venice’s honorary Golden Lion to the director for career achievement.
Kubrick’s death caused a sudden delay in plans, however, and rumors arose of Cannes’ desire for “Eyes.”
Senior says Cannes was never considered since Kubrick always insisted on premiering his films to the U.S. public, “and with Venice, you don’t have the attached market, but a pure festival. Venice fits perfectly with the schedule Stanley mapped out for the European openings from early September through mid-October.”
“Venice is also about major films, like ‘Michael Collins,'” Walker says. “It’s the official start of the fall season and it tends to validate films for exhibitors in Europe.”
Near the end of July, Barbera — who had viewed the film in mid-June — picked “Eyes” for the opener, and “because we want to make the presentation a major event, not only for the cinema world, but for the city of Venice,” chose to screen the film simultaneously in the festival’s three largest venues.
Bernardo Bertolucci will introduce the film with a personal speech about Kubrick. Kubrick’s widow, Christiane, as well as his three daughters, Katharina, Anya and Vivian, will attend, as will just-departed Warners’ film chief Terry Semel (with fellow departee, Robert Daly, unconfirmed) and stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who will also tub-thump for “Eyes” at the Paris, London and Hamburg premieres.
“I don’t think we thought of this at the time it was first offered to us,” reflects Kubrick’s executive producer, Jan Harlan, who is about to prepare a documentary film on his filmmaker partner of 30 years, “but Venice is the ideal launch. It is the perfect opening for Europe, and though it’s unusual for one of Stanley’s films to open this way, it is best for his final film.”