fidelio password

GONE GIRL and EYES WIDE SHUT:        

A Study of Psychopathy in the Heteronormative Patriarchal Occult

 

I

 

It all started with an Aerosmith video.

It was Midlothian, Virginia—sometime in October, 1990. I remember sitting on the couch after soccer practice. This had become a routine. MTV was constantly playing in our living room and this was when music videos had begun to achieve substantial budgets and truly lush visuals. A new medium had been born in the preceding decade and it was now hitting some aggressive stage of puberty. 

Janet Jackson had blown the doors off the network with her silky black and white Rhythm Nation: 1814 epic narrative compilation. It was an event: My first sort-of girlfriend Ashley and the other ninth grade “cool girls” were mimicking Janet’s military-industrial-female-empowerment-complex choreography with an obsessive degree of worship.

I loved the Janet stuff, but it was the Aerosmith video for “Janie’s Got a Gun” that I just couldn’t stop watching. I kept waiting for MTV to replay it because our VCR didn’t yet have a record function.

The chiaroscuro, rain-drenched images felt like clips from some kind of detective crime noir movie that I had somehow missed. I thought that Aerosmith had done the theme song.  I desperately wanted to see this movie in its entirety. It appeared to star Lesley Ann Warren as the mother of a sad teenage girl who had shot and killed her abusive father and gone on the run.

And then it happened: MTV finally started to caption the director’s name in the lower left corner of the screen along with the artist, song title, album and label.

That’s when I learned who David Fincher was.

I soon put the whole puzzle together: Fincher had done all of the amazing Madonna videos and the George Michael “Freedom ‘90” video with all of the gorgeous supermodels and exploding guitars.

To some degree the videos were all about sexual politics, empowerment and liberation. They had a cohesive vision and they almost entirely focused on women. They were visionary standouts from the pack with the imprint of an auteur—a word that I didn’t even know existed.

Soon after I bought a copy of the now defunct Premiere magazine at Sam Goody records and read an in-depth article about Fincher directing the troubled third chapter in the Alien franchise—the sequel to two science-fiction films that had absolutely floored me.

It all started to make sense.

 

It was Cancun, Mexico—some cheesy resort hotel in March, 1999. I was sitting by the pool with some USC friends. College had officially ended the year before and yet here I was, still clinging to some spring break fantasy.

Maybe not as much clinging… but hiding. I had written the script for Donnie Darko the previous summer and by December I had somehow hit the jackpot: Creative Artists Agency was representing me… and I was still a fetus.

I had been meeting all sorts of fancy industry people. They were reading my script—mostly telling me they thought it was a terrific and very ambitious writing sample—but most likely un-producible. They certainly didn’t believe that I was capable of directing it. The consensus was that it would never get made unless someone more experienced was behind the camera. 

Feeling defeated, I was brainstorming some new, more “producible” script ideas—something about a genetically engineered talking cow and this big, sprawling Los Angeles crime satire. It was there by the pool in Cancun that I started reading Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick—a novel that would heavily influence my script for Southland Tales

Feeling hung-over and exhausted from the omnipresent techno music at the pool, I grabbed my Dick novel and beach towel and went back up to the room to get some rest before another obligatory night of crusty Jell-O shots at Senor Frogs.

It was then that I first stumbled upon a USA Today paper that had been left outside the hotel room door—and the headline made things devastatingly clear: 

Stanley Kubrick had died in his sleep at his London estate.

One of the world’s greatest living artists was gone and I was still lingering in some Spring Break episode of MTV’s The Grind—a dance show that had long since been cancelled.

I immediately felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to go home and get back to work.

Eyes Wide Shut was released on July 16, 1999 with much fanfare, mixed-praise and an overall sense of confused dismissal from audiences. Digitally composed figures had been unceremoniously added to the orgy sequence (after Kubrick’s death) to obscure pelvic thrusting at the request of the MPAA.

Those sick nerds had just shot up Columbine and those pelvic thrusts might have been especially dangerous. This sad act of censorship seemed to mirror the response to the film itself: truth had been obscured.

Perhaps it was there all along, but a blindfold had been placed over our eyes, just like they did to the hapless piano player, Nick Nightingale. And the wizard behind that mysterious orgy was no longer alive to enlighten us.

 

It is now Los Feliz, California—October 4, 2014 and I am sitting in a crowded coffee shop surrounded by hipsters. MTV is no longer playing music videos with the art form dying somewhere in the sprawling YouTube wasteland. Janet Jackson and Aerosmith have essentially retired from making new music and Nicki Minaj has the zeitgeist clenched squarely between her considerable butt cheeks with a hit song called “Anaconda”. 

I hear Nicki and her Sir Mix-A-Lot samples throbbing from a passing Escalade on Hillhurst Avenue. The young blonde behind the wheel looks like a USC sorority “cool girl”. She is texting on her phone. Not one of the jaded hipsters in the coffee shop seems to care. 

Things could be better in the overall cultural conversation—but, Goddamnit! There is a cause for celebration. David Fincher (famed director of Se7en, Zodiac and The Social Network) has just released a new film—and that film is called Gone Girl

There are very few true wizards of cinema and Fincher clearly belongs on that list along with Stanley Kubrick. The release of Gone Girl feels like a welcome relief. An event long overdue—worthy of an epic three-part spoiler-filled 4741 word essay for Talkhouse Film—(God bless you if you’re still reading this). 

Fincher’s 10th feature film is riveting, exquisitely crafted and spectacularly entertaining. It walks a tightrope above the trappings of various genres, rising above them all to become the most unique of cinematic experiences. It is the movie we have been waiting for—and the movie we sorely deserve.

Having read Gillian Flynn’s novel before seeing the film it became clear to me that the filmed version of Gone Girl would become—in Fincher’s deft hands—some kind of kindred spirit to the misunderstood Kubrick sexual odyssey released fifteen years ago. The blindfold is now off and the ugliness is there in plain sight. 

Both Gone Girl and Eyes Wide Shut are deeply twisted, satirical and borderline maniacal erotic thrillers that seem to be made my a snickering auteur—well aware that the institution of marriage itself is being bathed in a hot dose of Tyler Durden’s corrosive lye soap from Fight Club.

Both films show broken marriages that can only be repaired by ritualistic, meticulously calculated blood sacrifices. 

Both films deconstruct the patriarchal, heteronormative surface world with the introduction of a dangerous psychopath intent on preserving it.

Psychopaths—and the lesser sociopaths that fit within this diagnostic criteria—are everywhere in this world. If you don’t believe in silly things like Satan and the Occult—read up on the behavioral science of psychopathology and you will be presented with a very troubling biological manifestation of evil. 

If Satan doesn’t exist—well, it really doesn’t matter because the earth has essentially been filled with his foot soldiers for thousands of years and they are more prevalent than ever. Especially in Los Angeles. These people lack empathy—as familiar media personality Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) reminds us—in a pointed scene from Gone Girl.

They want a piece of the action, at any cost. They desperately want to be part of the 1% and they will lie, cheat, manipulate and steal their way into that exclusive mansion to which so few people have the password to gain admittance.

Pssst… the password is: Fidelio Rainbow. Come inside if you dare to explore two of the most thought provoking films about marriage ever made.  

 

II

 

A general Internet search for Eyes Wide Shut will lead you to a vast array of zany interpretations and conspiracy theories that are worthy of their own Room 237 documentary film. There is a lot of speculation about the Illuminati and secret societies—and diving down the world-wide-rabbit hole of this film is admittedly quite fun.  

A conspiratorial analysis of the Kubrick swan song will lead you to believe that perhaps the wealthy and powerful Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) is the true psychopath whose machinations set the entire dream-like narrative into motion.

Ziegler welcomes beautiful Manhattan yuppies Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) to his lavish Christmas party—which they seem to enjoy despite not knowing any of the people there or why they are repeatedly invited.

A bit of Internet trivia tells us that Kubrick told his co-screenwriter Frederic Raphael that he wanted Bill to be a “Harrison Ford-type” noble doctor—thus the surname Harford.

Perhaps the clueless Bill and Alice have been strategically lured to the party so that they can be manipulated into participating in a macabre sexual ritual that will unfold in the subsequent 48 hours.

While dancing in a glowing ballroom adorned—like most of this film, with a veritable rainbow of Christmas lights—Bill and Alice are immediately separated by the appearance of an old medical school colleague-turned piano player named Nick Nightingale (Todd Field). Nightingale appears to make strategic eye contact with Bill from up on stage. He looks prepared.

After a brief discussion where Nick invites Bill to a future jazz show at the Sonata Café, one of Ziegler’s foot soldiers immediately ushers the piano man away like a pawn on a chessboard.

In the next room, Alice swallows an entire glass of champagne that appears to put her into some kind of trance-like state. An older Hungarian lothario named Sandor  Szavost (Sky Du Mont) suspiciously drinks from another one of Alice’s champagne glasses—without her permission—as a way of engaging her into conversation and a seductive dance.

Internet Eyes Wide Shut conspiracy theorists will tell you that the name Sandor Szavost is a reference to Anton Szandor LaVey—the notorious founder of the Church of Satan in 1966 San Francisco. Google image search this guy and you will discover he looks almost exactly like Ming the Merciless—the villain from Flash Gordon.  

Meanwhile, Bill has been targeted by a pair of high fashion models who seem to be drugged-out on the same champagne high that Alice is experiencing. Their flirtatious conversation ends with them yanking him in opposing directions with a cryptic invitation for Bill to venture… “Where the rainbow ends.”

Their flirtation is immediately interrupted by yet another one of Ziegler’s henchman, and Kubrick leaves us with a lingering moment of sinister eye contact between the two fashion models. A seed has been planted.

Bill is ushered into the royal Ziegler bathroom to administer life-support to an unconscious woman named Amanda Curran (Julienne Davis). Ziegler claims that she has ingested a speedball cocktail of heroin and cocaine but there doesn’t appear to be any drug paraphernalia lying around and Kubrick presents no visual evidence that this is what actually led to her condition. Maybe it was too much champagne.

The woman is roused awake by Bill’s nurturing “good doctor” voice, and thus some sort of spiritual bond is made between him and the mysterious former beauty queen whose fate will become pivotal to his survival.

On the subsequent night, a restless Alice gazes at her reflection in the mirror and decides to roll a joint—which Kubrick photographs in a rare close-up shot—perhaps to accentuate its importance. Is what follows just a stoner’s dream? Personally, I think Kubrick had much more up his sleeve than that.

Alice begins to become combative with Bill, who immediately accuses her of having a “bad reaction” to the marijuana, although there appears to be something much more sinister and troubling beneath the surface as she relapses into that familiar champagne trance we saw at the party.  

Alice begins to recount—in an almost deliberately methodical and hurtful way—a story about a chance vacation encounter with a military officer that seems to implant itself inside Bill’s subconscious like a seed of sexual jealousy.

Like clockwork, the telephone rings and Doctor Bill is sent off on his nocturnal odyssey to the end of the rainbow.

He arrives at the home of a wealthy, elderly white patient who has quietly and abruptly died in his sleep. His daughter, Marion Nathanson (Marie Richardson) makes a bizarre pass at Bill in the midst of a tearful meltdown.

Jennifer Jason Leigh was originally set to play this role but she didn’t have months to spend waiting around Pinewood studios while Kubrick meticulously re-calibrated his vision. Richardson gives a wonderful, haunted performance as a woman who seems almost possessed with the conflicting emotions of despair and sexual longing—and in this scene we get the film’s first big comedic release.

While walking down Kubrick’s dream-like Manhattan streets—re-constructed by the meticulous wizard in his adopted London—Bill is bizarrely confronted by a group of homophobic fraternity guys who nearly knock him to the ground. 

Moments later, a rattled Bill is sexually targeted yet again by a woman named Domino (Vinessa Shaw), who lures him back to her apartment.

An intimate encounter with Domino is interrupted by a cell phone call from a concerned Alice. (Only later do we realize that Alice saved her husband from potentially contracting the HIV virus from the young woman, who had yet to discover her diagnosis.)   

Bill then stumbles upon the Sonata Café where Nightingale gives him the password “Fidelio”—ironically the title of Beethoven’s only opera—that will successfully gain him admittance to a mysterious orgy. Conspiracy theorists will remind you that Beethoven was an instrument of mind control in A Clockwork Orange. They will also say the same about The Wizard of Oz with regard to rumors of various brainwashing techniques.

With a cape and mask costume rented to him by Mr. Milich (Rade Serbedzija), mysterious new proprietor of Rainbow Fashions—and secret promoter of child prostitution—Bill arrives at the mansion (delivered in a bright red Jeep Cherokee) where a ritualistic event is already underway.

Apparently in an early draft of the script for Eyes Wide Shut, the password was actually “Fidelio Rainbow”.

Soon after entering the mansion—curiously devoid of any Christmas lights—Bill makes eye contact with one of the dozens of Pagan-masked attendees. A close analysis concludes that it is a masked Ziegler who nods deliberately at Bill.

The orgy ceremony itself shows naked women in a ritualistic magic circle being indoctrinated by a man in a Red Cloak with an imposing staff and some kind of chained metal incense ball that emanates smoke.

A blindfolded Nightingale plays piano chords as we hear a Romanian Orthodox Divine Liturgy played backwards—courtesy of composer Jocelyn Pook.

Bill is repeatedly warned of imminent danger by a masked Amanda Curran—but has no idea that she is the woman he helped treat in Ziegler’s bathroom the previous night. Repeat viewings indicate that Amanda knows that her number has somehow been chosen and her sacrifice is imminent. 

The sex that Bill witnesses is very orchestrated and choreographed like an Italian Renaissance oil painting. There are also healthy doses of homosexual behavior on display.

After his voyeuristic escapade, Bill is apprehended and then led back to Red Cloak (wonderfully played by Leon Vitali, who was Lord Bullington in Barry Lyndon and then went on to become Kubrick’s longtime assistant). His demonically masked minions are elegantly assembled in the same circular formation that indicates all attendees were expecting Doctor Bill all along. It is almost as though they needed an interloper to complete their ritual—or, perhaps, this is Bill Harford’s initiation into the secret society.

This is his test. A test to see if he can keep his Eyes Wide… well, you get it.

What follows is the pivotal event of the film, when the masked Amanda Curran offers herself up to be sacrificed in exchange for Bill’s life. She is ready to “redeem him”.  The question remains—would Bill Harford have been bludgeoned to death by a mob of masked men had Amanda Curran not bravely stepped forward? Was the decision hers… and hers alone?

The scene is truly chilling—especially when Red Cloak demands that Doctor Bill remove his clothes. But then a woman bravely gives her life to redeem the man who unknowingly helped save her own life the night before.

There is an incredibly powerful scene—later in the film—when Doctor Bill goes into the morgue to stare at Amanda Curran’s dead body. He leans down—in a long, deeply uncomfortable moment as her voice echoes in his head—wanting to kiss this woman who might have performed the most altruistic act imaginable.

Why any of this is necessary—beyond Kubrick’s longtime obsession with filming Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story)—remains the subject of intense debate.

Was this all a dream? Perhaps. But it is much more fun to think of Alice with her dream and Bill with his reality.

Stanley Kubrick has a long history of satirizing the patriarchal power elite with dubious portrayals of government agencies bent on achieving good old-fashioned imperialism (Paths of Glory), Armageddon (Dr. Strangelove), interstellar imperialism (2001: A Space Odyssey), psychological conditioning (A Clockwork Orange), and finally: catastrophically botched imperialism (Full Metal Jacket).

Kubrick gave us a satirical portrait of sexual obsession in Lolita, wherein two men (James Mason and Peter Sellers) corrupt and destroy the lives of two women (Shelley Winters and Sue Lyons).

With Barry Lyndon, he gave us one of the all-time great portrayals of a sociopath (played by Ryan O’Neal) who destroys everyone and everything around him in his quest to be part of the 1%.

In one of the penultimate scenes of Eyes Wide Shut, Ziegler convinces Bill—while knocking balls around an almost demonically red felt billiard table—that the whole ritualistic sacrifice was just a charade. Amanda Curran was, after all, just another doomed hooker.

Sociopaths can be very, very convincing.

Bill, the good doctor, remains unconvinced; but he is grateful and so very, very lucky—as the brazen New York Post headline tells him—to be alive.

Who knows if any of this is what Kubrick intended to say with his final film. But all of these years later, the picture seems so much clearer—like a sick joke that finally makes sense.  A mission accomplished.

Perhaps the Wall Street patriarchy must make some kind of annual Christmas blood sacrifice to maintain their cult-like hegemony over women. They need an easily manipulated doctor to attend to their beta kitten sex slaves and keep them in line.

But the grand irony is that Kubrick’s final film is really the only one with a truly hopeful ending. Bill and Alice end up Christmas shopping in a fancy toy store, professing renewed love for one another and a commitment to the holy—if only fleeting—institute of marriage.

And yet—in the background of the scene—there is one last sick joke.

As Bill and Alice settle in for their final confession in an aisle filled with stuffed animals—their young daughter is seen grabbing a Barbie doll dressed in a fairy tale gown. Alice barely registers her with a detached smile, and the young girl disappears around the corner where some old, white men are lurking.

A large number of plush, stuffed lion dolls are on prominent display behind Alice.

If you re-watch Eyes Wide Shut, pause on the scene where Bill is about to pay for sex with Domino the prostitute. There, sitting on her bed, is the exact same stuffed lion doll bought from the exact same toy store. 

 

III

 

“He who dies with the most toys, wins.”

Whomever coined this term and began printing it on t-shirts back in the Me Decade was (perhaps unknowingly) promoting—or at least endorsing—psychopathic tendencies. It is a truly Western philosophy. Some might say this is one of the primary reasons why the East hates the West. That We, as Americans, are a fundamentally materialistic culture.

Marriages are often fueled by conspicuous consumption. Gone Girl chronicles the implosion of the marriage of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike).  They are both smug Manhattan magazine writers—Gillian Flynn made a name for herself working at Entertainment Weekly so she knows this territory—and Amy has some particularly obnoxious parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) who have made a small fortune on a series of children’s books about a character named Amazing Amy.

The real Amy can never live up to her fictional counterpart. And when the recession leads to her family’s mounting debt and both spouses lose their cushy magazine jobs—followed by Nick’s mother being diagnosed with cancer—a move back to Carthage, Missouri is the only card left in the deck.

Amy immediately feels like an outcast in Missouri. Their McMansion is a prison. In the opening title sequence Fincher treats us to a quick montage of the (literally) deteriorating Middle Class—shot on location in—wait for it… actual Missouri. Homeless people roam the streets filled with foreclosed homes and sleep in an abandoned shopping mall.

Fincher has long been the master of film noir. And with Gone Girl he has made perhaps the very first Missouri Noir.

Amazing Amy is anything but “middle class” and when she discovers Nick kissing a nubile young woman named Andie (Emily Ratajkowski) outside of The Bar—a meta-named-dive pub which he owns and operates alongside his stalwart twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon)—a trigger is switched inside her psychopathic mind.

Psychopaths don’t like to be ignored. Even worse… they don’t like to be discarded.  

The story—told in a structurally innovative way that gives way to delicious reveal after reveal—becomes one in which Amy’s act of revenge disappearance is slowly digested by Nick, Margo and two detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) through a series of clues left behind on their fifth wedding anniversary.

Nick, of course, becomes the prime suspect.  

The town, of course, sees the missing Amy as some kind of saint—and the arrival of the media galvanizes the community in a way that is all too real.

There is an incredibly revelatory sequence in Gone Girl where the entire town has gathered at a hotel ballroom that has been transformed into an Amazing Amy search command center. Even the mayor is there—wearing an orange vest—no doubt looking for a chance to be on camera.  

A group of single and divorced-looking women—several of whom look like they might have prison pen pal boyfriends—are eyeing Nick from across the room while his mother-in-law looks on in dismay. 

These women want his newfound fame. They see a mark with the potential to earn lots of money from the media exposure he is receiving. They see a fresh meal ticket.

As Nick follows a lurking Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris)—childhood friend and alleged stalker of Amy—out into the hallway, one of the Real Housewife Groupies approaches Nick and quickly manages to get herself a selfie photo with him.

The scene is stomach churning in the way Nick immediately realizes that this selfie-from-Hell was a very bad idea and asks her to delete it. She of course refuses, and the encounter immediately grows tense and hostile. She got him. The next evening the selfie is being analyzed by the sneering Ellen Abbott in front of a nationwide audience that has already begun to convict Nick based on his smiling demeanor and body language.

A large display of mancave toys are found in Margo’s shed. Golf clubs. A flatscreen television. Some ridiculous robotic dog toy that becomes a running gag. The items were purchased by Amy (under Nick’s name) in an act of brazen identity theft to further incriminate her husband and even poor Margo. Yet the irony is that Amy wants the toys back in her life more than anything. She wants to reclaim the life they had in New York.

Her exit strategy—detailed in notebooks, post-it-notes and a calendar as she remains holed up in an Ozark trailer park motel—is divided into two options.

Option #1: Kill herself and let her submerged body be the final stroke that leads to Nick’s incarceration.

Option #2: Frame Desi Collings for her kidnapping, and murder him in a staged act of “selfie” defense.

I don’t think that Option #1 was ever in the Amazing Amy playbook. And a pair of white trash grifters accelerate her decision-making process when they run off with all of her money—leaving Amy with mere pocket change for one last desperate payphone call to her old pal Desi.

This plot twist thrusts Amy into true survival mode. If she were to merely go home and confess—her reputation and life would be ruined and she would probably face some serious criminal charges for her actions—an insanity plea the only option.  

Nick would divorce her and survive. This girl is done for—unless blood is spilled.

Desi Collings—like Amanda Curran in Eyes Wide Shut—is the blood sacrifice necessary to restore order after these transgressions and deliver Amy to the promise land. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is there waiting.

When Amy emerges from Desi’s car—covered in at least a gallon of his blood—only to fall into Nick’s arms in front of a throng of reporters, the film has become the most wicked of Paul Verhoeven-esque satires.

Basic Instinct is a film that comes to mind. That film was also a relentlessly trashy, borderline satirical thrill ride with an exceptionally well-structured script by Joe Esterhaz and a lush Jerry Goldsmith score.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross very much set the mesmerizing, genre-defiant tone for Gone Girl with their score—which is like a trip to the Burke Williams spa that devolves into a scary sonic acid trip with a scalpel-wielding masseuse.

Some have accused Gillian Flynn of being misogynist. This is unfair. With Amy Dunne she has created a complex, brilliant female character that just so happens to be a dangerous psychopath. To suggest that women don’t have the capacity for such degrees of psychological darkness is absurd.

Margo Dunne is the moral compass of the entire film—and in this character I think we see a portrait of Flynn herself—someone who is sickened by the evil in the world and unflinching in portraying it within her own gender.

Amazing Amy is the product—some might argue victim—of a heteronormative patriarchy. The final card in her deck is her own fertile womb: artificially inseminated with Nick’s frozen sperm. She knows that her husband is too much of a narcissist dolt to tarnish his unborn child’s life by exposing his mother’s sins.

More importantly, there is a lot of money to be made—and in the end it’s better for Nick to keep those Eyes Wide… well, you know.

The grand, hilariously sickening irony of Gone Girl is that this entire ordeal results in wealth and fame for Nick and Amy beyond their wildest dreams. Ellen Abbott and the media taketh away… and then giveth back tenfold.

In the end—Gone Girl isn’t an evisceration of marriage—it’s an evisceration of greed and narcissism as the driving motivation of psychopathy within a horrid, unholy marriage.

Welcome to the 1%, Nick and Amy. I think you’ll find yourself in some familiar company. I hear Bill and Alice Harford have finally called it quits and their Manhattan apartment is for sale.