Other People’s Eyes, and why Kubrick’s last film is, I think, unfinished
An editor will prepare a cut in near-isolation. It would be total isolation if it wasn’t for the director (or Edit Producer, who does the director’s job in the cutting room, but wasn’t involved in the shoot) and the handful of producer’s who drop in to make sure you’re not making Ishtar. Both the editor and director will become very close to the material, and their particular presentation of it. There’s been much written about the importance of accepting notes in a dispassionate and professional way (here’s an article by Chris Jones, for example, with which I couldn’t agree more), but there’s another aspect of presenting a late, hopefully very close-to-finished version to a person or group who have little knowledge of your process, that’s extremely beneficial: as well as gauging their reaction (which they’ll be all too happy to tell you about), you’re suddenly aware of, and often surprised by, your own.
The resistance to submit to this judgemental scrutiny can be very powerful, but thankfully the editor doesn’t need to summon any will-power: he or she is powerless to prevent it. Whoever writes the cheques wants to see a cut, and there’s no arguing with that. So you cue it up, make you’re excuses (I wish I’d had more time to finesse the audio, there are still some black holes where we’re waiting for graphics) and let it roll, terrified that your superior’s reaction will be negative. Unwilling to accept that you’re labour thus far is worthless, you’re ready to believe that any criticism stems from sheer idiocy.
But then, as you’re watching, something magical happens. Despite being convinced that your great skill and experience have kept you objective throughout your toils so far, you see the thing with fresh eyes, and suddenly want to make changes voluntarily. God knows why this happens. To me, it feels like the presence of the new person allows me to empathise with them in particular and see the piece as if for the first time, in a way that I am completely incapable of doing without them. Passages I thought unimprovable are now interminable, and should be halved in length if not ditched altogether. Nuanced points are now laboured, clear lines of thought are now opaque, and what made us think that music would ever work?
Sometimes (but not always) the actual feedback you get is far less brutal, but in your own opinion, things now need to change. If this hadn’t been part of the editorial process, it would have occurred as the programme went to air, beamed into millions of households like an insult you can’t take back.
3 minutes, 44 seconds into this video, Quentin Tarantino describes something similar to fellow Oscar-nominated directors in 2013:
I’m talking from a TV perspective, but the image of the test screening in Hollywood for me has gone from one of a art-nullifying exercise in dumbing down to one of career and soul-saving necessity. (My original opinion was probably based on the Grapefruit Effect, or what Daniel Kahneman calls availability bias: the only time you hear about test screenings are when they ruin good films, so you assume all they ever do is ruin good films.)
But why can’t I just imagine such a stranger is in the room? Why do I actually need to open myself up to the indignity of receiving criticism from some oik just to objectify my own experience? Ideally, for my ego, I’d just work alone, myself the only critic, and present my finished work to the public and await the plaudits. But this is a false fantasy. I know because there’s a real-world example.
No film director got to exert so much control over his own methods, with top-dollar Hollywood product, as Stanley Kubrick. And he was an editor’s director, in that he saw editing as the whole point. He likened the usual process, of letting the editor work away on a first cut, only popping in to offer notes during photography, and then only sitting down after the shoot to work on refinement of of that first cut as, “trying to design a city by driving through it.” Not a frame was cut without his explicit instruction.
And Kubrick lived that fantasy of having no one to answer to. He’d present what he’d consider a final cut to Warner Bros. and they’d be grateful for it. End of story. In the case of his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, this had occurred 6 days before his death on March 7th, 1999. Except…
You only had to look at previous Kubrick releases to see that, despite living the dream in terms of not having to show his work to others for pre-release approval, he obviously experienced the very same phenomenon. After all, he did have to show the film to someone eventually, it’s just in his case, it was the audience at large.
In 1968, Kubrick cut 19 minutes out of his greatest work, 2001: A Space Odyssey, after it was released. The Kubrick Site lists all the things that were altered, and it seems that these were done to speed sequences along or to clarify—like me with my lowly television work, the main thing that stands out when you borrow from someone else their fresh eyes is how long you’re taking to do everything. It’s like Tarantino says, you look at things you were in love with and you suddenly hate them, because they’re holding things up, they’re getting in the way. They’re ruining it, and they’ve got to go.
We have more than just a list of cuts when it comes to The Shining. Between it’s US release on 23rd May, 1980, and it’s UK release six months later, Kubrick cut 25 minutes, but the US version remained available (though he’d cut two minutes from that after it’d been out for a week), so we’ve always been able to compare two versions of this movie.
The first time I saw it, it was the longer, American version. In the UK, the ITV channel had a habit in the 80s and 90s of showing the wrong version of films, to the great benefit of film fans. The guy at my high school who would secure pirate copies of banned films would constantly marvel that they’d shown some cut of an obscure Italian zombie movie that was supposed to be illegal. The Shining totally blew me away when I saw it (and this is before I knew the first thing about The Great Stanley Kubrick™, so I wasn’t being a smart-arse by “getting it”, I just genuinely thought it was fucking awesome). So much so, that I insisted (as I sometimes did) that my friends come over at the weekend and watch it. I rented it on VHS, and as it rolled, I was shocked that large, important scenes I remembered from earlier that week were entirely absent. It wasn’t until much later, when I definitely knew who Stanley Kubrick was, that I understood that I had benefitted from another happy ITV screw-up.
For years, I had to live with the UK version, and the assumption that the US version was superior, featuring, as it did, more movie. When we reached the Bluray era, I suddenly realised that I could simply buy an American copy online, and I promptly did. When it arrived, I was taken aback.
As I watched, I kept getting a sensation of deja vu in that I was aware of being given much of the exposition twice. My ears would prick up at some unfamiliar piece of dialogue, and I’d always be thinking, “But we’ve already been told this.” In other words, what Kubrick had done, for the most part, was take out needless duplication, and I found myself wishing (inconceivably for a fan-boy like me) that he’d just get on with it.
Slightly different is the case of the major scene near the beginning that was really conspicuous by its absence on my second viewing with friends on that 90s weekend: the psychiatrist who visits the Torrance household in Boulder, after Danny’s had his vision-laden seizure. It must have killed Shelley Duvall to have it removed for us Europeans, because her performance is nothing short of spectacular, although all she’s doing is talking in a very calm, matter-of-fact way. In it, she tells the visiting psychiatrist of the incident that prompted Danny’s fits: the drunken physical abuse by his father, her husband, that resulted in the dislocation of his arm. It’s devastating, the way she sounds so calm and reassuring as she retells it, like she’s been over it a million times with everyone she’s ever met and has learned through years of practice to phrase it in just such a way as to preclude any comment from the listener. Before you can say, “For God’s sake, leave that monster,” she quells you with, “He promised never to touch another drop, and he never has.” Before you can protest, she gives you a smile that says, I know you think I’m wrong, but I’ve come to this decision very carefully and I’m utterly committed to it, so save your breath. It’s perhaps the greatest feat of acting I’ve ever seen… and I think Kubrick was right to cut it.
After that scene, I can’t help but empathise and sympathise completely with Wendy. I watch Jack Torrance, his obvious contempt for her, his own sense of emasculation and know from the start that he’s both pathetically weak and homicidally dangerous. I hope he chokes on a pretzel before he can do any harm.
Without it, I give him the benefit of the doubt: he’s obviously the protagonist. He has his super-objective, to use his self-imposed isolation to write a novel, and I naturally hope he succeeds. Wendy is a very, very good sport for joining him in the Overlook Hotel over winter, but, for my part—and I hope this doesn’t make me, too, a monster—I share his irritation with her. She seems so ineffectually chipper that, without knowing that she’s actually the platonic ideal of self-control in the face of the horrendous human being she’s married, I was always lulled into siding, as it were, with Jack. This is, for me, the film’s greatest strength: that it makes me empathise with Jack before I find out what he’s really like. The revelation of his abuse of Danny comes late, and we’re only given his side of it. “As long as I live, she’ll never let me forget what happened… A momentary loss of muscular coordination. A few extra foot-pounds of energy of per second, per second.” To learn I’m on the side of the monster is the most horrifying thing.
(Stephen King, no less, has complained about the depiction of Wendy in this version of his story as there only to “scream and be stupid“. I freely admit that my preferred version of The Shining is the one in which she’s weaker, but in both versions she gets the better of Jack and triumphs over him, despite the fact he has supernatural allies. She may appear weak for most of the European version’s running time, but in the end she’s obviously not, in either version. Considering 95% of all films (including, sure, some of my favourites) feature a heroine who’s only there to be saved by the male hero, I think we’re further down the misogyny scale here than King claims.)
So, having already released The Shining, Kubrick made what I consider to be vast improvements, simply by excising material (rather than, say, massively restructuring it). Why could he not have got it right first time? I believe because he needed the audience. Not their feedback, as such, but just the knowledge that they’re watching to make him see his protractedly realised movie anew.
So there’s at least a very good chance that Eyes Wide Shut would have been further trimmed had he lived a little longer. It’s a film that has its supporters, and may yet be reevaluated, but the overriding consensus is that it falls far short of his best work. Would more time in the editing room have elevated it to the heights of Dr. Strangelove, 2001 or A Clockwork Orange? Unlikely, but not impossible when the mere act of taking a few bits out completely transforms The Shining. We’ll never know.
Which is all to say that my need to watch my work through other people’s eyes, whether they’re wide open or shut, puts me in pretty good company, don’t ya think?