Sex and the Citizen

JUNE 2000

by Edward Jay Epstein

Stanley Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut and HBO's first 12 episodes of Sex and the City have much in common. Both are derived from steamy works of fiction — Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle and Candace Bushnell's Sex in the City. Both are set in the same town — contemporary New York City. Both are picaresque adventures in kinky sex. Both make a point of differentiating female from male erotic fantasies. And both, ultimately, are about the same problem: alienation in a urban universe of promiscuous strangers. Despite such similarities, they treat this subject quite differently.

Kubrick is, of course, one of the acknowledged innovative geniuses of the American cinema. He has also had a long-standing interest in exploring the taboos and boundaries of sexual liaisons. One of his earliest major film, Lolita (1962), was based on Nabokov's novel about a forbidden liaison between a college professor and a 12-year-old girl. His adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971), from an Anthony Burgess short story, contained such an explicit rape that it was banned in England and received an "X" rating in America. In fact, every one of his films since 1971, with the exception of his Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket (1987), contain female pubic nudity — a definite taboo line. His concern with the sexual frontier, only adumbrated in his earlier films, is given full vent in Eyes Wide Shut (which contains such a profusion of public nudity that the distributor, Warner Brothers, after Kubrick's death, digitally masked much of it in order to get the minimum "R" rating needed to release it widely). Eyes Wide Shut is about how closely beneath the thin veneer of rationality wild sexual fantasies lurk. A highly rational doctor (Tom Cruise) is told by his wife (Nicole Kidman) that she entertains sexual fantasies about making love to a stranger— fantasies that, given the opportunity, she would act on even if it meant destroying their civilized relationship. He finds, thereafter, that he cannot control his own sexual fantasies. Although the subsequent exploration of the male psyche is drawn out in a visual trance that extends over two hours, this is not only an extraordinarily controlled film, it is, in my opinion, the most truly erotic film ever released by a Hollywood studio.

This was not the view I had when I first saw it in a theater. Whether it was the tenseness, impatience, and disquiet of other members of the audience or whether it was the baggage of expectation I brought with me, I found EWS tedious, exhaustingly indulgent, and disappointing. It was only later, when I saw the two-hour-39-minute film on DVD in half-hour segments, that I realized how purposefully, and at how many levels, Kubrick had designed and orchestrated a dream experience that becomes increasingly mesmerizing and traumatic. For example, Chapter 3 of the DVD presents flashes, while Kidman is being waltzed around the room at an ever-increasing tempo by a tall, erect Lothario, of flirtatious encounters of other characters, so that the viewer is also being spun in many directions and invited, like Kidman, to skid out of control. The problem here is the viewer's willingness to slip out of his comfortable mooring and go on this organized flight from reality— a willingness that is not aided by the distractions of a restive or snickering theater audience. Eyes Wide Shut is thus one of those films that works better in DVD than in movie theaters. (Warner Brothers could not restore the deleted scenes to the DVD since Blockbuster and other video chains have a policy against carrying any movie for which an unrated as well as a rated version exists.)

Sex and the City, which also can be seen on DVD in half-hour episodes, is much more grounded in reality. Four New York career girls—journalist, lawyer, public relations promoter, and art dealer—go on and off sexual adventures for fun and profit. Instead of concerning itself with the effects of sexual drives on participants' rationality, this movie examines how these drives can be used strategically to achieve rational goals -- career advancement, networking into elite establishments, accessing chic summer homes in the Hamptons, pre-marital screening, and orgiastic satisfaction. In one episode, the heroines acquire shoes by taking advantage of the foot fetishism of a shoe salesman. And instead of awakening the sexual imagination with enigmatic aperçus, the scene anathematizes it with witty verbalization — women's proverbial knowledge that makes it seem possible to control sex. There is a good deal on the technology of sex—another illusion of control—the vibrator in the episode, "The Rabbit and the Turtle," for example, which the heroine uses to replace men. In other episodes, the art of love is neatly replaced by the science of measuring (especially penis dimensions) and negotiating protocols for getting preferred sexual positions. This is all done with great verve, lucidity, candor, and wit, and even may prove helpful to singles in the city. It is amusing because it is the very opposite of erotic sex.