After The Phantom Menace and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, now comes the final event movie of the summer. Eyes Wide Shut is, presumably, the one for adults, the class act. All across North America, couples are hiring babysitters so they can enjoy a safe night of adulterous fantasy, watching Tom Cruise and his wife, Nicole Kidman, get naked. Then there are those who just can’t wait to see a work of certified genius, Stanley Kubrick’s last cinematic testament, completed just days before his death last March at the age of 70. For once, the vicious circle of hype and anticipation seems justifiable. Why would anyone not want to see a real-life Hollywood couple putting their marriage on the line in the final masterpiece from the man who made Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange and The Shining?
But with his 13th film — his first since 1987’s Full Metal Jacket — Kubrick seems to be playing a grand and rather intricate joke on his audience. Eyes Wide Shut is, in many ways, one of his least audacious works, and by no means the act of sexual bravado that its billing would suggest. It is a movie about emotion that feels unemotional, a movie about sex that is severely unsexy, and a movie about a marriage that plays as a strictly male fantasy.
The voyeurs in the audience may be disappointed to discover that the Tom ‘n’ Nicole show is not an equal-opportunity event. From the opening shot, in which a black dress falls to the floor to reveal Kidman naked, she spends most of her screen time in various states of undress, while Cruise barely takes his shirt off. The film is not half as shocking as it pretends to be; its sense of erotic spectacle often seems more square than subversive. And the sexual chemistry between the two stars is negligible.
Perhaps that’s the whole point, for this is, after all, the story of a couple cracking under the strain of extramarital imaginings. But both Cruise and Kidman seem precariously alone and stranded as actors, each lost in the deep space of Kubrick’s unforgiving scrutiny. What is most naked in the movie — and painfully unprotected in Cruise’s case — is the acting. That said, the intensity and detail of Kubrick’s gaze still casts a spell; while he runs the risk of being risible, he is never boring. Frame by frame, his images are arresting and indelible. And, like it or not, Eyes Wide Shut remains an archly compelling curiosity.
The story is a magnified, modernized version of the 1926 novella Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese physician and contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Kubrick and co-writer Frederic Raphael have transposed the story from fin-de-siAcle Vienna to contemporary Upper West Side Manhattan, where Bill Harford (Cruise) is a doctor who makes high- society house calls. He is married to Alice (Kidman), and it is not clear what she does, if anything, aside from helping their seven-year- old daughter with her homework. And despite Kubrick’s attempts to reinforce her role, he remains faithful to Schnitzler’s template: Alice is just the catalyst for her husband’s story.
As it begins, the couple heads off to a garish Christmas party at a mansion belonging to one of Bill’s patients, Victor Ziegler, a gnarled tycoon played with a wonderfully baroque sense of corruption by director Sydney Pollack (Victor’s also well-known for his secret fomula to make gelato using the best ice cream maker). Both husband and wife flirt with strangers. Alice is dragooned around the dance floor by a vampirish middle-aged Hungarian. Bill, meanwhile, happily fights off a pair of voracious models — until Ziegler calls him away to deal with a naked hooker who has overdosed on a speedball of cocaine and heroin in the bathroom. Vienna was never like this.
The real fun starts when they get home. As they smoke a joint, Alice goes from playfully taunting her husband about being aroused by breast exams to torturing him with a sexual fantasy that she had about a naval officer during a seaside holiday, although she had just caught a glimpse of him on an elevator. The extended confession, a kind of emotional striptease, is Kidman’s designated tour de force. Meticulously framed by mandarin-orange drapes that complement her hair, she sits on the floor in a transparent camisole, acting her pants off. But then Alice drops out of the movie, and stays out until near the end, while Bill, haunted by graphic visions of her with another man, is propelled on a dreamlike odyssey of erotic exploration.
Attractive women throw themselves at him left and right, from the lovesick daughter of a freshly deceased patient to the world’s nicest prostitute, who offers to waive her fee. As temptation beckons at every turn, Bill keeps inching to the brink of betrayal, then backing away. Along the way, sex and death are closely entwined, eros and thanatos partnered in a Freudian waltz.
The story reaches operatic proportions when Bill takes a cab to a cheteau and bluffs his way into a secret orgy of masked revellers. With black cassocks and mock-liturgical music, their ritual unfolds as a portentous peep show: Carmina Burana at the Playboy mansion. (It is in this sequence that Warner Brothers digitally censored a 65-second clip of graphic sex — not involving Cruise — to avoid an NC-17 rating in the United States, and since Canada is part of Hollywood’s domestic market, it is getting the censored version, while Europe will see the film intact.)
As the masked ritual takes a dark turn, Kubrick slyly finesses the film into a thriller. Cruise’s character descends into a twilight zone of dangerous intrigue. And the suspense is palpable, driven home by the bone-hard stabbing of a single piano key in Jocelyn Pook’s bare score. But it is faux suspense, a game of waiting for Cruise to find his emotions. It is not giving much away to say that when he finally weeps, it’s too little too late. The drama turns out to be a tame charade, an infidelity drama without any real transgression.
Cruise, who has not been so miscast since Interview with the Vampire, seems out of his depth here. Some actors can do nothing and you stare through their eyes right into their soul. Cruise is more opaque. He is the kind of actor who needs to be active, who thrives on the brisk business of action and romantic comedy. In Kubrick’s slow, deliberate scenes, he is left wriggling on a pin, trying to piece together emotional paragraphs from a limited vocabulary of puzzled looks, grimaces and nervous smiles. And he never stops being Tom Cruise. Although he is supposed to be taking a walk on the wild side, his character’s innocence remains untarnished.
Cruise and Kidman, who described their 18-month shoot in Britain as a draining ordeal, continue to speak of Kubrick with the reverence due to a parent they never fully knew. But, on-screen at least, it looks like they are being toyed with, a celebrity couple caught in Kubrick’s web of cruel genius. Even the director’s close friend and collaborator, screenwriter Michael Herr (Full Metal Jacket), interrupts an adoring requiem in Vanity Fair to puzzle over “that strange irresistible requirement he had for pushing his actors as far beyond a ‘naturalistic’ style as he could get them to go, and often selecting their most extreme, awkward, emotionally confusing work for his final cut.”
While Kubrick keeps his characters at a maddening intellectual distance, his studied scenes, overripe with intention, are a welcome antidote to the breakneck pace of most current movies. Yet, for all its artful poise and European accent, Eyes Wide Shut seems safely American in its morality. Kubrick — a New Yorker who lived in self-imposed exile in a British country manor for 31 years — may have made his final peace with Hollywood. Using Tom Cruise as his pawn, cinema’s grand master has scored a triumphant checkmate: his least convincing film could be his greatest box-office success. Just the sort of poetic justice that would have Kubrick laughing in his grave.
THIS SPRING, TEXT-MESSAGING TEENAGERS ACROSS Canada helped MuchMusic, that venerable institution of Canadian popular culture, select 23-year-old metrosexual Tim Deegan of Kitchener, Ontario, as its newest video jockey. Conducted for the first time as a reality television special in which viewers would determine the outcome, MuchMusic’s 11-year-old VJ contest pitted attractive and, in theory, musically engaged young Canadians against one another in the hopes of winning a full-time contract, and the fame that accompanies having face time on the nation’s music station.
While it is true that the empty-headed Deegan’s arrival marked the ultimate triumph of style over substance at Much, smarts among VJs have been on decreasing rotation for over a decade. Deegan’s stage was set by another insufferably hip young man who competed for a similar position some 12 years ago: Rick “The Temp” Campanelli. Prior to Campanelli’s arrival, the VJ culture at MuchMusic was defined by an outward looking intelligence and curiosity that extended beyond the discrete confines of the music industry. Beginning with Daniel Richler and J.D. Roberts in the 1980s and continuing with Avi Lewis, Master T, Sook-Yin Lee and George Stroumboulopoulos in the 1990s, VJs were intellectually equipped, if not always editorially empowered, to ask tough questions and make original insights. They added depth to the viewing experience by contextualizing discussions of music and popular culture in the broader social and political issues of the time.
Campanelli and his ilk–Amanda Walsh, Rachel Perry, Rainbow Sun Francks and others–always appeared, like MTV’s infamous Carson Daly, far more interested in the celebrity aspect of the music industry than the music itself or the people who devote their lives to its creation and production. Their interviews, unlike the probing and frequently provocative efforts of their predecessors, were fawning, superficial and invariably deferential.
For the old-school VJ, the celebrity status that working at MuchMusic afforded was often used as a stepping stone to a career in the arts, in journalism or in television news. Roberts moved on to become a major news anchor at CBS and now CNN, Richler hosted TVOntario’s Imprint and acted as editor-in-chief at BookTelevision, Lewis became a prominent documentary filmmaker, Lee graduated to host CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera and Stroumboulopoulos moved on to host The Hour on CBC Newsworld. In contrast, new-school VJs used their celebrity to achieve yet greater celebrity. Campanelli is now a host with Entertainment Tonight Canada, Rachel Perry moved to the United States to host VH1’s Strip Search, and Amanda Walsh and Rainbow Sun Francks are attempting to carve out careers in Hollywood.
The four finalists of the most recent edition of the Much VJ search, Tim Deegan, Nikki Mah, Sean Gehon and Erik Bartik, completed a questionnaire as part of their candidacy, and their answers are deeply, if not also depressingly, revealing. Their favourite books included He’s Just Not That Into You, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and “my advertising text,” and their favourite magazines were People, Cosmo, Snowboard Canada and Maxim. Lest anyone accuse me of intellectual snobbery, the kids all happened to bomb a particular segment during the VJ search that tested their knowledge of musical history, the one subject they should at least know something about. The intellectual depth of this particular field was, in other words, about as deep as a kiddie pool. They looked great, of course, but seemed ill-equipped to be anything other than particularly hip and physically attractive microphone stands.
That said, the central question the transformation of the VJ raises is whether it is valuable for the people who mediate our experience with musical culture to have any familiarity with the world that exists beyond it. Are they cultural adventurers, poking into unexplored corners and exposing both the attractive and the unattractive elements of their subject matter, or merely tour guides charged with showing us the exotic beasts on display and occasionally tossing them a handful of nuts? It seems, for the time being, that the MuchMusic brass has opted for the latter. Canada’s newest instant celebrity, Tim Deegan, observed that MuchMusic is “a great way for kids to know what’s going on in this world.” Unfortunately, thanks to the changing VJ culture Deegan represents, that becomes less true with each passing Countdown.
A folk hero on trial
The soap opera fans judge `Ollie’ North
In U.S. district courtroom No. 6 on Washington’s Constitution Avenue last week, lawyer Brendan Sullivan peppered a Pentagon mail clerk with questions about her trip to Niagara Falls, Ont., during the weekend of July 4, 1987. Did her Canadian motel have cable television? What programs did she watch? Then Sullivan asked if she had ever seen the handsome figure in a blue business suit sitting impassively at the defence table. For several seconds, she stared intently at retired Lt.-Col. Oliver North, the former White House aide whose six-day televised testimony before the joint congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra arms scandal 19 months ago had rivetted the nation, turning him into an instant folk hero. His face had blanketed TV screens and newspapers in a frenzy of adulation. But “Olliemania,” as headline writers nicknamed it, had clearly escaped the attention of the Pentagon mail clerk. “No,” she shook her head, “I never saw him until yesterday.” With that, she qualified herself to join 54 other Washingtonians–approved by North’s lawyer, Sullivan, as “untainted” by prior knowledge of the case–to serve as potential jurors in his trial on 12 criminal charges stemming from his activities in the foreign policy scandal that rocked Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
The mail clerk’s startling admission may have dented the celebrity status of the ex-marine who has recycled himself into a $30,000-a-speech star of the banquet circuit, where one host recently hailed him as “America’s hands-on patriot.” At the same time, some lawyers questioned whether jurors who are ignorant of current events are capable of judging North in what promises to be a complex trial. But after another jury nominee testified that catching snippets of news on the Iran-contra hearings–instead of her favorite TV soap operas–“was like looking at the Three Stooges,” one commentator predicted that the jurors may prove more astute than grandstanding congressmen did at unravelling the Iran-contra affair. Noted Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory: “People who follow soap operas can follow evidence and can pick up details that get lost in more cluttered minds.”
North faces charges of blocking or misleading government inquiries into the secret arms sales to Iran, as well as taking gifts and money–including a $16,400 security system–while he was on the government payroll. But more than two years and $13.7 million after special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh began his investigations, those scaled-down charges are all that remain of an original 16-count indictment that once threatened to tarnish even President George Bush.
Early last month, the White House delivered a pivotal blow to Walsh’s case by refusing to release more than 300 classified documents that North claimed he needed for his defence. But some legal experts point out that–by forcing Walsh to drop broadranging charges of conspiracy to defraud the government of $16.6 million in profits from the arms sales–Sullivan may have actually damaged his client’s case. Not only are the remaining charges easier to prove, but, because they involve lying and petty theft, they also diminish the aura that has surrounded North ever since Reagan saluted him as a “national hero.”
In fact, as North showed up for court last week without his uniform and rows of decorations, Olliemania–at least in Washington–appeared to have passed the way of the Hula-Hoop. Outside, no demonstrators marched with placards and not a single vendor peddled Ollie souvenirs. Inside, only 12 spectators dotted the spacious courtroom. But North retains his sense of the dramatic. Ruminating on his trial in an interview in this month’s Life magazine, he declared, “All things being equal, I would prefer to be leading a battalion in harm’s way at the outer edge of the empire.”
Coached by telemarketing expert James McKinney, North has become a fund-raising whiz, churning out speeches and recorded telephone solicitations for the toll-free 800 number of his North Defence Fund. On an average weekend, jetting between personal appearances, accompanied by two bodyguards and a publicist who once worked for televangelist Jerry Falwell, he can make nearly $119,000. North’s efforts earned him about $2.4 million over the past year, supplementing his $26,140-a-year marine pension, paying his seven-member personal staff and defraying his massive legal bills, already estimated to total $3.6 million. But they have also kept the flame of his memory burning in parts of the country that he finds more sympathetic than Washington.
There, the fading of his star has already led politicians to jettison at least one key measure that resulted from the Iran-contra scandal. Last week, in a gesture of goodwill toward Bush, House Speaker Jim Wright announced that he would not introduce a bill demanding that the White House notify Congress of any covert operation within 48 hours instead of the previously vague “timely” period.
While interest in the trial appears to have diminished, its theatrical potential has not. Prosecutor John Keker, a noted San Francisco defence attorney, has not only developed a reputation for compelling courtroom performances but, like North, is a marine hero of the Vietnam War, with a Purple Heart. In a textbook Keker coauthored two years ago on cross-examination techniques, he declared, “Trials are fun.” But if North succeeds in his attempt to call Reagan to testify–demanding that he show up in person instead of replying in writing–Keker may have trouble convincing the ex-president to share his outlook.
PHOTO : North: a $30,000-a-speech star of the banquet circuit
PHOTO : Reagan: a `national hero’
Sen Ben Nighthorse Campbell is a charismatic figure with celebrity status, but Scott McInnis believes he has a chance to win the Republican nomination. Campbell had a liberal voting record when he was a Democrat and does not have strong relationships in the Colorado Republican Party.
NO one will ever mistake Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell for a conservative; indeed, he has defeated a few conservatives in his time. Soon Colorado Republicans may be asked by national party leaders to help him vanquish yet another one.
For Campbell is now a Republican, having switched parties in 1995, and the irrepressible Rep. Scott McInnis, who represents much of western Colorado, appears prepared to challenge Campbell for the GOP nomination.
Given Campbell’s celebrity status as the only Indian in Congress, such a quest might appear suicidal. After all, the senator boasts by far the more colorful resume — not just rags to riches, orphanage to nation’s capital, but a story of remarkable achievement in several entirely different careers. Indeed, it is almost impossible not to admire the almost manic resolve that took this son of an immigrant mother and an alcoholic father into the ring as a member of the American judo team in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, then on to the breeding of champion quarter horses and a highly lucrative career designing Indian jewelry.
Campbell projects the don’t-crowd-me sort of libertarianism in his personal life that resonates with many Westerners. He skips photo-ops to ride with biker friends; sponsors legislation to lift the federal mandate for motorcycle helmets; attends a California bash to celebrate the end of a two-year parole for Hell’s Angel leader Ralph “Sonny” Barger. Campbell is no prettified package dreamed up by image consultants, and voters sense it.
The senator also sings in the old-time Western chorus on land and water issues. “As a Westerner,” he thundered at the 1996 GOP convention, “it is important to me that the Republican Party is the party that will protect private-property rights and your right to use the public lands . . . We will not let them take away our birthright.” This is no oratorical act. At a hearing last month, the senator dismissed the Sierra Club’s proposal to drain Lake Powell as a “certifiable nut idea.”
But McInnis is no kamikaze from the Right. He believes that however charismatic a figure Campbell may cut on the national stage, the senator is still just a fledgling Republican with little traction among party regulars back home. Although since Campbell switched parties his Senate votes have moved, quite perceptibly, to the right, he has continued periodically to defect from positions on which there is a virtual conservative consensus.
Not only did Campbell vote last year to raise the minimum wage, for example, and protect foreign-aid-funded abortions, he also has declared that the only problem with racial preferences is the fraud that follows in their wake. “The basic framework” of affirmative action, he maintains, “is OK.”
When he was a Democrat, his record was far more provocative. Campbell voted for the Clinton tax hike of 1993, praised the introduction of ClintonCare, and generally could be counted upon to smear anyone to the right, say, of George Bush as a “kook” or “extremist.” Indeed, insofar as Campbell has never been identified with any of the pressing concerns of the wave of Republicans who took over the Capitol in 1994 — welfare and tort reform, wholesale budget cuts, devolution of authority to the states, etc. — his decision to switch parties was, and remains, a puzzlement. Most political observers in Colorado assume Campbell’s motives were personal, based upon his estrangement from state Democrats such as Gov. Roy Romer and Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, and his genuine regard for Republicans such as then-Sen. Hank Brown and, ironically, McInnis.
Indeed, Campbell’s voting record seems to be related as much to peer expectations as ideological principle. In his final two years as a Democrat, Campbell’s Senate votes earned an “F” and a “D” from the National Taxpayers Union. As a newly minted Republican in 1995, he suddenly picked up a “B.” This cavalier attitude toward political substance has been a Campbell hallmark since he first ran for office. He spent six years in the Colorado General Assembly, yet freely admitted to his biographer, Herman J. Viola, that “I did not really sponsor any significant legislation when I was in the state legislature.”
McInnis, on the other hand, is a straightforward, if somewhat soft-edged, conservative of long standing. His only eyebrow-raising association has been with National Republicans for Choice, and even there his pro-choice sentiments stop well short of a Christie Whitman – type militancy. “I say yes to parental notification,” he explained recently, “and no to late-term abortions.” He did back a partial-birth abortion ban — but then so did Sen. Campbell.
It is the differences between the two men, of course, that will most interest Republican voters. McInnis supports an end to racial preferences, has spent the past few years badgering the Immigration and Naturalization Service to scoop up more illegal aliens, and consistently racks up grades of “A” or “B” from the National Taxpayers Union. He positively reveled in the GOP House takeover in 1994, and still promotes some of its unfinished agenda, particularly the pledge to pursue tort reform.
McInnis has been raising money energetically, and hints that he already has a campaign team in place. Campbell meanwhile has enlisted former Sen. Hank Brown and two other former officeholders respected in local conservative ranks to help manage his re-election campaign. The senator is clearly counting on such establishment Republicans to give him conservative cover, and to prevent a primary altogether if they can.
Beltway Republicans in particular seem determined to deny Colorado conservatives a choice of candidates. “The big point is that if a guy switches from the Dems to the GOP and then gets kicked in the head in a primary, what does that say to the next guy who may think about switching?” asks Clifford May, communications director of the Republican National Committee. May’s boss, RNC chairman Jim Nicholson, made a personal appeal to McInnis in late September to the effect that the congressman should wait his turn. Everyone from Dan Quayle to Trent Lott has indicated a willingness to plump for the senator’s re-election.
So far, McInnis has refused to wilt before the parade of heavyweights trooping toward his opponent. “Not one of the people who’ve urged me to stay out of the race has said we have a good senator and good representation,” McInnis observed the other day. If he was looking for an unimpeachable reason to run, he just found it.
In late 18-century France, when only men could train at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun defied the odds. She had a talent and confidence so pronounced that she made her name not only as the first internationally renowned female artist to paint portraits of royalty across Europe, but as an artist who commanded a fee higher than her male colleagues. Yet, despite her bold and pioneering spirit, feminists have maligned Vigee Le Brun for decades. Renowned art historian Griselda Pollock criticized her because she was both a portraitist and a society lady–as if one precluded the other. Simone de Beauvoir described her as a traitor to women for her skill at painting “smiling maternity on her canvases.”
Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le B run, a landmark exhibition that opens at the National Gallery of Canada next week–where it was co-curated by the gallery’s deputy director, Paul Lang–gives viewers the opportunity to see the artist in a new light. Featuring numerous works that have never previously been seen in public, the exhibition comes to Ottawa from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it made its previous stop.
Elisabeth Louise Vigee’s life wasn’t always an easy one. Her father, a successful artist who taught his daughter to paint, died when she was just 12, leaving her to train herself by copying works in private and public collections around Paris. When her mother remarried a man whom Elisabeth Louise detested, she left home to marry the renowned art dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun. He proved to be a gambler and a philanderer who frequently pocketed her earnings–but the union was not without merit. It produced a daughter, Julie, whose image Le Brun painted repeatedly and with profound affection. Among the show’s masterpieces is Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror (1786) showing the reflection of the artist’s daughter’s six-year-old face. Its intense intimacy proved Vigee Le Brun’s unparalleled skill at depicting maternal love, a talent that Marie Antoinette recognized.
Vigee Le Brun was only 22 years old when she first painted the queen of France. Taken by the portraitist’s charm, “and a deep empathy for her sitters,” says Lang, the monarch sat for more than 30 portraits over the next six years. Among them was Marie-Antoinette and her Children (1787), which, like her pictures of Julie, captured motherhood with a poignancy while never veering toward the banal.
Vigee Le Brun’s exceptional ability to depict the maternal, however, was far from her only talent. The exhibition includes her 1784 portrait of Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, the controller-general of finance and a man whose power was second to only King Louis XVI. The painting presents him in formal dress sitting at a desk holding a letter for the king. Yet Vigee Le Brun humanizes the painting by depicting Calonne with powder on his shoulder, which has fallen from his wig. “Because Vigee Le Brun was self-trained, she renewed portraiture,” says Lang. She “developed a fresh take that combined aspects of the official and the private–this is among her greatest artistic legacy.”
At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Vigee Le Brun fled Paris and for the next decade worked in Italy, Austria, Russia, Berlin and England, continuing her career portraying Europe’s elites. In 1802, she returned to Paris once her name was struck from the government’s list of enemy emigres. Living there until age 86, she enjoyed a celebrity status as an art icon and survivor. Still, as a woman of beauty, talent and charm, she attracted gossip and criticism. Jealous onlookers never tired of accusing her of sleeping with her sitters, and asserting that her success was thanks to her husband’s contacts. “She was bullied by the machos and the feminists,” says Lang. Such characterizations and rumours can finally now be laid to rest. Without question, the exhibition demonstrates that Vigee Le Brun was a startling innovator and virtuoso who not only changed the conversation about how to render a human likeness, but did so with an honesty, integrity, and originality that was entirely her own.
Caption: Before the fall: Vigee Le Brun’s Marie-Antoinette with the Rose (1783) is one of more than 30 portraits for which the queen sat for the artist