Monthly Archives: March 2012

An episode from Alphaville by Michael Codella and Bruce Bennett

A grim and compelling book about Codella’s times as a cop in the Alphabet City neighborhood, and his life growing up in Canarsie.

An incidental, fascinating, and disturbing anecdote about one of his Canarsie neighbors.

For a while when I was a kid, the house next door to us was occupied by an off-the-boat Sicilian named Paulo and his family. Like my grandfather, Paulo had an old country ease and pride that showed in the way he did little things. Just strolling down the sidewalk or watering his lawn he had a kind of swaggering walk—shoulders back, stomach out, feet angled out to either side in a reverse pigeon toe. No one actually born in Brooklyn in the twentieth century walked like that. Paulo was as Old World as grappa.

Around the house Paulo was a happy-go-lucky guy—always whistling to himself, singing, narrating what he was doing in the mixture of hyper-speed Sicilian and slow English that earned native guys like him the behind-the-back handle “zips.” He loved kids and played with me sometimes when I was young. Paulo had two daughters and for a while I guess I was a stand-in for the son that he probably always wanted but never got. We played a game together that Paulo called “focu” (Sicilian for “fire”) that mostly involved us chasing each other around the outside of our semidetached houses. But Paulo had an edge. He was always fiercely competitive in the checkers games we had on his porch, and quick to loudly announce he had beaten his eight-year-old neighbor. When the mood struck him, he would go around to the back of the house where his daughters kept a rabbit hutch, remove one of the bunnies from the cage, snap its neck in a single shake of his arm, and deposit it on his kitchen counter. Lunch. It didn’t rattle him one bit.

If his wife spoke a word of English or any other language she never felt obliged to show it. She was always in black, scowling like she was born in mourning. Their daughters were beautiful girls. Olive skin, deep brown eyes, long dark hair like burnished mahogany—they were the apple of their father’s eye and the object of desire of every guy in school. Paulo ran his home like a castle where those girls were concerned. It was like they lived on the right side of the tracks and the tracks ran around the outside of the house. When his daughters were done at school and their retail jobs afterward, they went home and they stayed home. Selling lemonade together on the corner of Avenue M when we were little was one thing, but once we all got older, no amount of hormones in the world would’ve made me ask either of them out. It was just understood. I pictured Paulo and the rabbits.

Eventually, Paulo bought his family a big place on the water in Mill Basin and they moved away. How a roofer could afford to move into a five-bedroom home with an in-ground pool was the subject of some very quiet talk among the people he left behind in Canarsie. You really only had to look at his Mill Basin neighbors—made guys, mob lawyers, Canarsie crew stars and their families to start forming ideas. Paulo, the rumor went, had a side business, closer to what he did to those rabbits than what he did with a hammer on construction sites. The word was that he’d been imported from Sicily to use that skill on someone who pissed someone else off. The money was good, the work didn’t rattle him and he decided to stay. He sent for his wife in Sicily and started a family in Canarsie.

By the time I was working in Alphabet City, Paulo had achieved what he set out to do. He married his eldest daughter off to an Italian guy who had passed inspection in a huge wedding staged in a rented tent in their sprawling backyard by the water in Mill Basin. Paulo installed his daughter and her new husband into a similar house just down the street, and bought her a wedding boutique to operate while making her papa proud and her mother hint at a smile with a dozen or so grandkids. That was the plan, anyway.

One morning in the late eighties a man walked into the boutique. If you saw him come through the door you probably wouldn’t remember much about him—what he wore, how tall he was, what he looked like, other than a pair of dark glasses covering a lot of his face and a bright smile he occasionally flashed below them. The man browsed the glass cases displaying crystal and bone china, his gloved hands clasped behind his back, then flipped through a sample book of wedding registry patterns and sets until he and Paulo’s daughter were both alone in the store. When they had the place to themselves he locked the door, pulled out a butcher knife and began stabbing her. Paulo’s daughter was petite but she was her father’s child to her last breath. She fought and twisted against the knife, tried to push the man away, tore at his face, yelled for help, and demanded to live, but the man just kept pushing the knife blade in and out of her until she was silent and still. The medical examiner logged over eighty stab wounds in her.

Detectives found nothing missing from the store, the register, or Paulo’s daughter’s purse except her car keys. A short while later they discovered her cream Mercedes ragtop parked across the street from Paulo’s old house—the one next door to my family’s old place—a home neither Paulo nor his family had set foot in for more than seven years.

I was out in Canarsie at the Six-nine Precinct interviewing a robbery perp a few years after it happened. Out of curiosity I took a look at the investigating officer’s case file on my old neighbor’s homicide investigation. The file itself was a mess—badly organized and typed up—a textbook example of sloppy police work. I could handle that but I couldn’t handle the pictures. I knew her, I knew the store, and knew that no one anywhere needs to die of eighty stab wounds or see what that looks like. According to the Six-nine’s detectives, despite the blood on the counters, the carpet, the door to the store, in Paulo’s daughter’s Mercedes, and on the sidewalk, there was only one partial fingerprint successfully lifted. The FBI database supposedly identified it as belonging to a Sicilian national, whereabouts unknown.

The grieving father offered a huge reward to anyone who could identify the killer. He even hired a famous private detective to do his own investigation, but the case remains unsolved. I don’t have any more actual insight into what happened than anyone else. But I do have a feeling. It feels like a message. An anonymous Sicilian assassin cuts the thing you love most out of your life and leaves a reminder about it a few yards from your former house before shifting into park, stepping out onto the sidewalk, and vanishing? What that says to me is no matter where you go, remember where you came from. No matter what you do, remember that there’s someone you’re doing it for, and doing it to.

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Julian Sanchez, Mike Daisey, Trayvon Martin, Ron Paul

“The Anatomy of Media Bias” by Julian Sanchez is an attempt at analysis of two separate tragedies, that of the deplorable conditions of workers at Foxconn, and that of the senseless death of Trayvon Martin. I believe there is a link, though not the one that Mr. Sanchez has found. For Mr. Sanchez, the lying of Mike Daisey in his story on a Foxconn plant and the lack of coverage Fox News gave to the killing of Martin represent an example of disproportionality. The Daisey story ultimately involved a smaller number of affected workers than Daisey misled listeners to believe. Fox News did not give proper coverage to the Martin killing because of their sense that it was an isolated event. I believe Mr. Sanchez misidentifies in both cases the proper crux of both stories, a simple question of what sells and what does not, as well as who is invisible, and who is not, in the United States, and the world.

Let us consider first the story Mike Daisey told of conditions at a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen. Mr. Daisey’s account has been properly exposed as so many layers of deception (PDF transcript). Beyond simple lies of what he saw and did not see, Mr. Daisey took factual incidents reported by various sources and placed them all in a narrative about this one factory. That Mr. Daisey has been shown to be a liar is not enough for Mr. Sanchez: the incidents inserted into his story have somehow been demolished as well. “While most commentary on the story has rightly rejected Daisey’s invocation of “‘artistic license'” writes Mr. Sanchez, a misrepresentation is perpetuated, with the idea that Daisey’s version “of labor practices at Chinese suppliers like Foxconn, is true”. Sanchez buttresses this argument with two pieces, “Attacking the Press” by Erica Greider, and “Mike Daisey Was Wrong About Apple in China” by Daniel Engber.

The piece by Ms. Greider, unless I have misunderstood it, does not quite support the point Mr. Sanchez makes for it. Ms. Greider points to the miserable conditions of chinese factories, in a sentence that Mr. Sanchez appears to have missed: “We know that most of the things [Mike Daisey] describes happening at the Foxconn factory actually have happened, if not at the factory in question” (my bolded emphasis). Ms. Greider’s thesis, is that when Mr. Daisey places all these incidents in one factory, for himself to heroically discover, he may make points about chinese labor and media blindness, he does so not for the principle of story-telling economy, but for Mr. Daisey’s own self-aggrandizement. The horrors of these factories could be found, if only the media had been as willing to look as Mr. Daisey. An amateur in a hawaiian shirt discovered the truth, because he had a curiosity and righteousness the mainstream press lacked. This same mainstream media, of course, had already done substantial in-depth reporting on factories manufacturing products for Apple and other companies, in such articles as “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad”, “Workers Sickened at Apple Supplier in China”, and “Explosion at Apple Supplier Caused by Dust, China Says”. Let us be clear, however, once again: Ms. Greider does not question that the details of horrific labor conditions are very much the case.

“Mike Daisey Was Wrong About Apple in China” by Mr. Engber serves as the main buttress for Mr. Sanchez’s point, then, and it is more problematic. “I’m told again and again,” writes Engber, “that it’s a tragedy Daisey misrepresented the little stuff because his main argument is so important and true.” It is wrong, according to Mr. Engber, for “This American Life” host to claim that basic story was true, on the details reported on such details that “Foxconn employees are overworked and underaged; Chinese workers are in fact poisoned by something called n-hexane; living conditions are crowded; attempts to unionize are busted; et cetera.” Any claims Mr. Daisey’s story makes about these, according to Mr. Engber, are “substantially false.” Mr. Engber then focuses entirely on the number of underage workers at Foxconn; Mr. Daisey gives us a rate of five percent underage workers when the actual number is 0.05. Were Mr. Daisey’s report a scientific paper, according to Mr. Engber, it would be considered fraudulent, for this very manipulation of data, whatever the soundness of the conclusion. Mr. Engber does not provide a source for his counter figures, as one would in a scientific paper, but I’ll take his word for it. The gap in underage workers in verified reports and Mr. Daisey’s monologue is employed as the sole point of refutation of any other claims.

Mr. Engber’s focus on the figure of underage workers to the exclusion of all other details of factory working conditions is a little strange, since the difficulties of chinese factories involved in ipad production have been thoroughly and reliably documented. The most chilling detail of Mr. Daisey’s piece, the nets outside of Foxconn factories to deal with the problem of suicides, is very much the case, and can be found in the story “1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?” by Joel Johnson in Wired. That many workers suffered long-term damage at the Suzhou Wintek factory which designs the ipad screens is well documented in “Workers Sickened at Apple Supplier in China” by David Barboza. An example is given of Jia Jingchuan, whose nerve damage was so severe he now must wear down-insulated clothes indoors. This came from handling what Mr. Engber calls “something called n-hexane”. After they suffered this damage, many were pressured to leave without compensation, their pleas to Apple for relief ignored. Improper ventilation in the Pegatron factory in Shanghai and the Foxconn factory in Chengdu resulted in explosions, causing severe burns and death in both locations. Accounts of both fires are ably documented respectively in “iPad Workers: Plant Inspected Hours Before Blast” and “Explosion at Apple Supplier Caused by Dust, China Says”. The overcrowding and strain of Foxconn factories, with employees forced to work overtime and workers’ legs swelling from standing ten hours a day, with barely edible food, and marginal living facilities, are all documented in “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad”, by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, as well as the report “Foxconn and Apple Fail to Fulfill Promises: Predicaments of Workers after the Suicides” by the heroic Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM).

Mr. Engber argues for the falseness of the claims of Mr. Glass that the details of the labour conditions has been corroborated by other sources. I have just linked to those accounts which I believe give such substantial backing to Mr. Glass. By stating that the details of factory work, including the toxic effects of n-hexane and overcrowding are “substantially false”, he indicts not Mr. Daisey, but the appropriated research of Johnson, Duhigg, Barboza, and SACOM. So, I make a similar challenge to Mr. Engber and his counterclaims. Demonstrate that the points on Foxconn overcrowding and improper ventilation, on the poisoning by “something called n-hexane” are substantially false, as he claims. If he cannot, then either he or Slate should retract their assertions. If they do not, then they abide by standards lower than that of most scientific journals, but “This American Life” as well.

That Mr. Daisey’s examination of chinese labour conditions was so extraordinarily popular, the most downloaded program in the history of “This American Life”, lies not just, I believe, with Mr. Daisey’s ability at storytelling but the very quality that Ms. Greider identifies, the placing of Mr. Daisey at the heroic center of these wretched factories, against the monoliths of corporate indifference. Where the superb accounts of Mr. Duhigg and Mr. Barboza place the reader in a passive role, a guilty party who consumes these products whose construction others investigate, Mr. Daisey gives the listener a heroic proxy, someone like himself, an ordinary schmoe who wants to do good, an enthusiastic well-meaning amateur much like the listener, or how the listener sees himself, surrounded by the treacherous and callous, including, I suppose, the employer of Messrs. Duhigg and Barboza.

So, Mr. Daisey’s program has given the audience what they wanted. In their own way, Apple has given their audience what they’ve wanted as well, a magical gadget at a very low price. Perhaps Messrs. Engber and Sanchez have given this same audience something as well, brushing aside all thought of labor conditions because of one man’s lies. This dovetails with Mr. Sanchez’s other point about the lack of coverage Fox News gave to the death of Trayvon Martin. The starting point is the now infamous graph detailing the miserly amount of coverage that Fox News gave to the shooting, as featured in this Think Progress post “All Major News Outlets Cover Trayvon Martin Tragedy, Except Fox News”:

graph of Martin shooting coverage

Though the amount of coverage, according to Mr. Sanchez, may be inherently defensible, the contrast in coverage with other media may also lie with “whether one thinks institutional racism remains a serious problem in the United States”, whether this killing is a lone occurrence or part of a larger context of prejudice, with Fox News taking, obviously, the former position. I will offer a simple alternative, without righteousness, which is that, given its audience, this was the financially smart position for Fox News to take. That the positions of the network are not the result of the brainstorming of various solons, as Mr. Sanchez appears to think, but a simple, crude calculation of the appetites of its viewers. Ultimately, I think this means heavy coverage of the alien, the foreign, invading the abode of the decent, domestic american, and I think it is easily understood that american is euphemism for a certain skin color and religion. This is why the network gives uncritical emphasis to the possibility that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fake. This is why so much stamping and gnashing is given to the prospect of a Ground Zero mosque. Ultimately, a story about a man killing an unarmed black teenager goes entirely against this narrative, puts it entirely on its head, makes the alien a decent, law abiding innocent, and the gun wielding authority into something else.

The objection might be raised that there is nothing in the heart of the Fox viewer that is anything as rancid as this. That the choice made is similar to the rational calculation which Mr. Sanchez describes. I offer as possible refutation, two sets of statements, both collected courtesy of Little Green Footballs, which I learned via the invaluable Eric Boehlert.

I note that these statements appear to have been made with the comfort that the writer is among brethren, like minded men and women, so they may say these things without shame, compunction, or expectation of censure.

The first set of statements are comments made at the Fox News site, posted to the story reporting Whitney Houston’s death. The language is offensive. This is a partial listing, with the full set to be found at Little Green Footballs.

A tragedy is when someones passes away from a terminal disease or something else that no one saw coming.Whitney is just an inferior lo w life ni gg er that needed to go,no tragedy,no loss.

Any death is a tragedy you heartless bástard.

not nignogs their death is a plus

SHe couldn’t even sell issues of “the national enquirer” anymore. Everyone was tired of the TNB. Niqqer flaps her lips and screeches, niqqer becomes rich. Niqqer ends up nearly broke after spending all of her money. Niqqer in constant fights and drug binges. Niqqer ODs when she learns she’s nearly broke and she is so wasted physically she can’t make another album. Niqqer hit the end of the road, niqqer thinking and niqqer behavior led her to where she had nothing. She couldn’t face life without the “bling bling”, she knew she would never have any more “kaching kaching”

I am now patiently waiting for the grand messiah Obama to have a blk fundraiser in honor of Whitley with Kevin Costner as guest of honor with all the Hollywood elites invited along with Alan Colmes, Al Sharpton, Jeremia Wright, Charles Rangel, etc. with a menu featuring blk eyed peas, grits, Imported Kobe steak, Dom Perignon, sweet potato pie and a mus lll im scarf as a momento of this great occasion.

Of course the door prize will be an all expense paid trip to Kenya to visit the Obama tribe and birthplace of his ancestors while the American people still look for this imposter’s birth certificate in Hawaii !!!

This is typical of the blk gene pool; it happens all the time. They cannot handle fame and fortune whether it’s derived from music, acting, sports or just plain entertainment. Too much fame and too much money at one time will ki ll ll you.

How many blk people have died from drugs including alcohol that have been in the sports and the entertainment industry or screwed up their married lives like Tiger Woods or worse, OJ Simpson !!!

This is the same disease that got Obama voted into the White House.

i don’t even consider them to be included in the human race let alone on a pedistal. the people that do are a bunch of loosers.

Story goes Obama sh0ved to much cr@ck up the wh0res @zz when he was going to sniiff it…

Obvious the use of to much hair strengthener did her in.That s__t will peel paint!

unfortunately like most nignog crack hoes she was able to apply her trade on “da streets”

Another nignog off the public social rolls

BIack females are the fattest segment of the population. BIack males are the most murderousss segment of the population. Africans have the lowest IQ of all people.

Like most of her species, she suffered from chronic stupidity.

tough break niqqer.

Nothing wrong with Coors, what is good about it most_n i g g e r s_ don’t like it

oh niqqa please,nigga please.

one of the only b l a c k chics i would have ever banged…..once you go c r ack er… dont do cr a c k

Woo Hoo One less obama voter

Whitney who?!? some /\/iggress music artist that had a couple of hits in the early 90’s. She’s since been forgotten and now she’s dead.. Who cares..

Africans love their drugs.

Here is a second set of comments, again posted to the Fox News site, in reaction to the story of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Again, the language is offensive. Again, this is a partial listing, with the full set to be found at Little Green Footballs.

What a shame—a tragedy, really— because the dead lil’ gangsta could’ve used “‘A-FIRM-TIV AK-SHUN” to go to kollige an play footballz and make lotsa cash munny!”

Fast and Furious didn’t work to pass new gun control so now Eric Holder will try the race card.

No matter how crime figures are massaged by those who want to acknowledge or dispute the existence of a Dirty War, there is nothing ambiguous about what the official statistics portray: for the past 45 years a large segment of bIack America has waged a war of v i o l e n t retribution against white America.

Zimmerman was attacked by the man and defended himself with a gun. Zimmerman’s wounds were verified by police.

17 = child. LOL!!!!!!

Let the LIB word games begin.

Yet the “justice department” refuses to prosecute any voter intimidation that involves a blac k as the intimidator.

Why should anyone care about this kid? Because he is of color? People don’t value kids period. They are property. BTW, I am a conservative that cares a great deal about kids. We follow hundreds of cases each year, many white babies and children, none of them get attention. But he does??

Zimmerman felt threatened by Martin’s gang’s actions…this could have possibly lead to these terrible circumstances. Gang violence MUST BE STOPPED OBAMA!

Blacks can do no wrong, period! That is the DOJ’s excuse for becoming involved. 50+ years of being told they are special and entitled and the gov’t’s only focus is to make it so!!

In any event, it appears to be a case of one sc u m bag Cuban-type (Zimmerman) offing some scummy b l a ck kid (Trayyy-Vonnnn)…in some trash neighborhood….

but now, because the dead kid’s a kneegrow, we have:

the BIG BAD FBI on this “important” case…and

the usual BLACK-RADICAL-PROTESTERS who can’t mind their own business!

Gated communities exist because people are afraid….& negros thrive on crime…Look at our prisons.

Need that too….But Negr0s only have their welfare checks….and in any event can’t follow rules

What time do the riots start? Gotta get my popcorn and munchies ready for the “hood” burning!

Funny you never see them rally against the drug dealing murderers that control their neighborhoods. LOL!!!

How does anyone know what this 17 yr old said, Most likely he threw the race card out ” you stop me because I*M B L ACK” and then became threatning. The media alway plants the seed of doubt when when a B l ac k is sh ot by a caucasian

maybe his gang brothers incited violence too?

I close with this observation: there are things that are very profitable whose profitability makes us very uncomfortable. Such things include pornography and drugs. They also include hatred of our fellow man. Many years ago, a presidential candidate oversaw the publication of directions on how to deal with black men in your neighborhood, and I find it very prescient in foreshadowing details of the Martin killing.

If you live in a major city, you’ve probably already heard about the newest threat to your life and limb, and your family: carjacking.

It is the hip-hop thing to do among the urban youth who play unsuspecting whites like pianos. The youth simply walk up to a car they like, pull a gun, tell the family to get out, steal their jewelry and wallets, and take the car to wreck. Such actions have ballooned in the recent months.

In the old days, average people could avoid such youth by staying out of bad neighborhoods. Empowered by media, police, and political complicity, however, the youth now roam everywhere looking for cars to steal and people to rob.

What can you do? More and more Americans are carrying a gun in the car. An ex-cop I know advises that if you have to use a gun on a youth, you should leave the scene immediately, disposing of the wiped off gun as soon as possible. Such a gun cannot, of course, be registered to you, but one bought privately (through the classifieds, for example).

I frankly don’t know what to make of such advice, but even in my little town of Lake Jackson, Texas, I’ve urged everyone in my family to know how to use a gun in self defense. For the animals are coming.

This story, of course, was published in a newsletter by Ron Paul, a newsletter whose active oversight by Paul was confirmed in “Paul pursued strategy of publishing controversial newsletters”, by Jerry Markon and Alice Crites, of the Washington Post. It was, not incidentally, first investigated by Mr. Sanchez himself, along with Dave Weigel in very good work, “Who Wrote Ron Paul’s Newsletters?”. I consider Paul to be a man of mediocre intellect, who, however, now holds one distinction few writers can claim: what he wrote two decades ago is still very much relevant today. This newsletter was a very successful commercial venture, making Paul a multi-millionaire, successful not despite its targeting of black men and women, but because of it. This shrewd business calculation is, I believe, the same one Fox News makes now. The only question is whether we are willing to see it clearly as such, state it clearly as such, and ask for a world where our fellows are something more than paving stones to misanthropic wealth and worker ants for the building of our toys.

(This piece was edited for style with corrections made for grammar and spelling subsequent to its initial posting. I also negligently did not give a proper link for the Think Progress story featuring their graph on Fox News coverage of the Martin killing, nor did I give proper mention to Mr. Sanchez for his past work on the Paul newsletters.)

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J.G. Ballard’s Definitions

From A User’s Guide to the Millenium.

Jazz Music’s jettisoned short-term memory, and no less poignant for that.

Pornography The body’s chaste and unerotic dream of itself.

Genocide The economics of mass production applied to self-disgust.

Forensics On the autopsy table science and pornography meet and fuse.

Answering machines They are patiently training us to think in a language they have yet to invent.

Criminal science The anatomizing of illicit desire, more exciting than desire itself.

War The possibility at last exists that war may be defeated on the linguistic plane,. If war is an extreme metaphor, we may defeat it by devising metaphors that are even more extreme.

Modernism The Gothic of the information age.

Apollo mission The first demonstration, arranged for our benefit by the machine , of the dispensability of man.

Personal computers Perhaps unwisely, the brain is subcontracting many of its core functions, creating a series of branch economies that may one day amalgamate and mount a management buy-out.

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J.G. Ballard Turns Down A Project

From A User’s Guide to the Millenium.

As far as the novel is concerned, the importance of the writer is still paramount, though all of us have learned to keep a close eye on the rear-view mirror. In the theatre the playwright is at least the equal partner of the performers, but in film the writer is shouldered aside by director, actor, producer, and editor, who together transform the printed word into something far more glamorous and evocative.

Years ago I was offered the chance to do the novelization for a film then being made by a leading British director. The script outlined a hackneyed story about a malevolent stowaway, with dialogue that rarely rose above “Chow-time. Where’s Dallas?” “Topside.” “Uh-huh.” What amazed me was not that someone had decided to film this script but that he had been able to form any idea of the finished movie from these empty lines. Yet the film was Alien, one of the most original horror-movies ever made, and the throwaway dialogue perfectly set off the terrifying vacuum that expanded around the characters.

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A Death in Sicily 1983

From Italian Labyrinth, by John Haycraft. An account of reading about Benedetto Grado, an agricultural laborer and supervisor of a large market garden, killed at seventy-eight, at eight a.m. November 15th, 1983.

A photograph showed a sheet-covered shape on the pavement, from which shoes protruded at one end, with a half folded umbrella which looked strangely like a dolphin’s head, at the other. Blood trickled down to a little pool nearby. One of the three women in black ranged against the white wall behind was kneeling. Another stood, leaning against the bricks, while Grado’s wife sat crouched on a low wooden chair.

The article explained that Grado was probably killed only because he was related to a Mafia boss, who had recently disappeared. Grado himself appeared to have had no criminal involvement since 1934 when he was sent to the prison colony of Lampedusa, suspected of belonging to the Mafia.

When he was killed, Grado was wearing his son’s black coat, which still had bullet holes in its back from the day when the boy was gunned down, ten months earlier. As a final dramatic point, the shots which killed Grado were heard in the church nearby, where helpers were preparing the funeral of Salvatore Zarcone who had been killed the previous weekend in another feud. “One corpse in church and another on the asphalt,” as the journalist writing the article put it.

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Paul Theroux and Sandra Fluke

A gifted writer whose books have given me much pleasure, Paul Theroux, has written an essay on the Sandra Fluke controversy. There isn’t much to be said of it, because the essay doesn’t have much to say.

His main prongs of irritation are that this was just name-calling so get over it, the hypocrisy of those critical of Limbaugh’s remarks, and a litter of other paragraphs that don’t quite rise to the level of these heady thoughts.

What Limbaugh said, Mr. Theroux concedes, was offensive. But, he continues, “it is little more than flapdoodle. Did anyone really think that the earnest, scholarly Sandra Fluke was a prostitute?” This is a strange test of how offended we should be by loathsome speech. I’ll give an example of truly vile speech. Let us suppose Jon Kyl or Rush Limbaugh had called the president “a retarded nigger born to a crack baby mom”. Does the fact that this statement is false, that no one would mistake the president for this, make the statement any less offensive? According to Mr. Theroux, bomb throwers are given license to say these things as long as they are obviously not true. Let us suppose, back in that bygone erea when newspapers still had book reviews, that some hack, making up in provocation what he lacked in style or insight, reviewed a book by Mr. Theroux, and in all sincerity had called the author a murderous plagiarist. Should calls for this man’s dismissal be tempered at all by the simple fact that such a statement is obviously not true?

This ties into the problems of his related point, that the nation has more important things to do than this. Following Limbaugh’s insult, “the president of the United States called Ms. Fluke to tell her that her parents should be proud of her. The war in Afghanistan is deadlier than ever, Israelis are on the verge of bombing Iran, Syria is imploding, gas is inching to $5 a gallon and the president is bucking up a law student who was called a naughty name?” I do think it’s important to give a context of how we got here, one that Mr. Theroux does not provide. The republican party decided to appease its supporters in the vestiges of the religious right, by making great issue about the incursion of state into church matters over the possibility that some employers with a religious affiliation would be required to pay for contraception. It was one more manuever, alongside various aggressive anti-abortion efforts in various states, such as Virginia’s ultrasound law, and the personhood amendment of Mississippi, which made women, whose concerns are indifferently noted by culture and politics, once more chits on the table, to be gambled for a few more zealots’ votes. After hearing on contraception legislation, which, featuring an ovary challenged series of witnesses, Ms. Fluke had the audacity to give testimony, for which she was rewarded with Limbaugh’s attentions.

So, the reason for the anger may not simply be the final gob of spit in the face, but all the previous cajoling and nonowing before. The refrain that Mr. Theroux sounds, that there are more important things than this, has been sounded before, here and here, unsurprisingly always by men. Women already have to shoulder much of the burden of the uncomfortable details of reproduction; on top of finding some protection that actually works and doesn’t make them sick, they now stand accused as enemies of the faith for being responsible enough to avoid the inevitable consequences of sex, while in Virginia they will now be probed and mauled if this inevitable consequence occurs. They recoil against this maltreatment, and they are called prostitutes. These are not marginalia, but issues now enchained with the intimacy that bedevils and haunts us all. Mr. Theroux’s dismissive wave of all this, is something like the complaint of a fading rock star aching for significance: What I really want to do is write music about things like water pollution and nuclear war, things that actually matter to people, not sex and love. War, no doubt, is something we all want to talk about, but as many know, Lysistrata least of all, some things are of occasional importance as well.

Mr. Theroux’s other points can be quickly dismissed. He mentions the lack of equal attention given to Limbaugh’s slurs against Charles Barkley, Kweisi Mfume, as well as liberal attacks against George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, all public figures, with both Barkley and Palin having no compunction about throwing their own verbal lobs. The distinction between these public figures and a woman who gave simple testimony to a Congressional committee has already been made in many places, most notably by Timothy Noah. That Mr. Theroux brings this trope up yet again suggests a yokel who’s very well informed on the issues from three week old newspapers.

Theroux further contends that anyone who believes Limbaugh holds anything like leadership or influence should have their head examined by a proctologist. As counterpoint, I link to this magazine cover and this one. I quote a relevant section from the latter:

Limbaugh has wielded political influence since his show first went national 22 years ago. In 1994 he was so important to the Republican congressional landslide that the GOP House freshman class made him an honorary member. But never before in his long career has Limbaugh had the degree of political influence he currently enjoys.

I am ignorant of the details of the transition of editorship at Newsweek, so I’m unaware of whether Tina Brown or Jon Meacham was responsible for the latter, and whose head is to be removed from whose ass.

Later, we are informed, Limbaugh, is only a mirror for “the justifiable anger of a large proportion of the white American public.” Anger at falling incomes and a more marginal place, sure, justifiable anger at that marriage of politcos and industry who gladly moved work overseas is understandable. I am, however, curious why Ms. Fluke is the justifiable scapegoat for this. This smacks of “any bitch will do” mentality, and it speaks well that many in the United States stared it down.

“It occurred to me that in this fairly illiterate, irony-challenged country we have no notion of what satire actually is.” It occurs to the reader at some point that Mr. Theroux has been commissioned to write five hundred words, and has only relevant thoughts for two hundred. “Satire is merciless, unsparing, savage. It is not the genial teasing comedy of The Daily Show, or the fooling of Saturday Night Live.” It appears that Mr. Theroux is unfamiliar with Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, South Park, Mr. Show, or Family Guy, all programs, whatever you think of them, that are ruthless in their razing, all produced by the same irony-challenged illiterate nation.

Mr. Theroux finds it startling that no one seems able to be both outraged both by the persecution of Bill Clinton on his sexual life and the non-inquiry into his execution of Ricky Ray Rector, yet Joan Didion’s Political Fictions managed to do both, with the essays “Vichy Washington” and “Eyes on the Prize”, respectively. He bemoans the lack of attention given to Newt Gingrich’s dalliances, rather than his cash machine, Sheldon Adelson. I am happily ignorant of Gingrich’s sexual life, and this lengthy article on Adelson is more words devoted to the gambling magnate than that liberal bastion has ever devoted to the resting places of the Gingrichian penis.

I end with Mr. Theroux’s claim that the very passion of the defense of Fluke implies that “many of her defenders actually believe there is a vicious taint of self-indulgence, if not sluttiness, in a female student’s clamoring for a federal mandate of subsidized contraceptives.” This point is appropriate cornerstone for a discussion of Limbaugh, since it is a good mix of provocation and stupidity that his program embodies. A too passionate defense against a baseless charge leaves us suspect: if one weren’t guilty of something why would one protest so loudly? The original sin of some is that they were born women, and thus, easy victims. Their sin now, it appears, is that they have made their targeting a little less easy.

Mr. Theroux, as I said already, is an excellent writer whose books have given me great pleasure. However, he has produced here something extraordinary for a brilliant man: an essay as thoughtful and well-argued as a column by Ross Douthat.

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Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

(Obviously, SPOILERS. One image used to support a point contains nudity. The nudity is blurred for the usual reasons of public safety.)

A movie about a director in experimental theater who receives a Macarthur genius grant, allowing him to work on an increasingly complex theater project, whose rehearsal space eventually takes up several city blocks, all part of his obsession of exactly detailing his own life.

I know of some of the analyses of this film, though my reading is very incomplete. Any examination, I think, must rest on one specific, crucial detail of the film. Any further examination follows from this.


The lead character, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), commits suicide before the movie starts, dying at the very moment of the time of the digital clock at the beginning, 7:45 am.

seven forty five on digital clock

His time in the film is spent in purgatory, his world formed by details of his past memories. It is this which gives the movie its title, with the synecdoche, the representative details of the past life, recreated and expanded in this transitory plane. Also, it is this purgatorial state which allows for so much of the film’s surreality to take place.

The theme is made almost thuddingly obvious in dialogue and visual allusions.

Perhaps the most explicit is the following segement with Cotard and his therapist, Madeline Gravis, when they talk about the book “Little Winky”:

Wow. Written by a four year old.

That’s because he killed himself when he was five.

Why did he kill himself?

I don’t know. Why did you?


I said: why would you?

Oh, I dunno.

This context is key: the child wrote this book at four, with the book expanding out on his imagined life past the age of five when he kills himself. The very same thing takes place with Cotard, the purgatory consisting of a life imagined, after the point of suicide.

The similarity between these two, Little Winky and Caden, is made humorously obvious here:

Cotard and Winky poster at bus stop

When Millicent (Dianne Wiest) is asked about the character of Caden Cotard, she gives the following answer:

Caden Cotard is a man already dead. He lives in a half-world between stasis and anti-stasis. Time is concentrated. Chronology confused. Up until recently, he’s strived valiantly to make sense of his situation but now he’s, he’s turned to stone.

This shattered chronology of the movie starts from the beginning. In the opening scene, Caden wakes up, and the radio mentions that it’s the second of September, and there is a reading of a poem for the beginning of fall.

When Caden reaches his kitchen, starts breakfast, where everything seems to take place right after he woke up, we’re suddenly in October, based on the newspaper he’s reading:

front page of newspaper

It’s October 14th on the front page. While this is on-screen, there’s this on the radio:

–march in Washington, D.C., today, October 15th.

Caden then looks at some news, and it’s now October 17th.

article inside paper

While he reads, his wife and daughter bustle about, and there’s an announcement on the radio:

Happy Halloween, Schenectady.

He goes to the obituaries, and starts reading those. Suddenly it’s November 2nd.

newspaper obituaries

Before he goes to these obituaries, he goes to the fridge for milk.

expired milk

He smells it, and gives the line:

Milk’s expired.

The milk, of course, has gone bad because the expiry date is October 20th, and it’s already November.

He goes to a doctor, in a period of time that seems to be only a few days, at most a few weeks after the sequence in the kitchen, and it’s already March 2006:

March 2006 Calendar

In what feels like a period of just a few weeks later, there’s another scene in the kitchen. Caden sniffs the milk, it’s gone bad, again.

milk is bad again

He picks up the paper. Though it feels like it’s only a few weeks later, it’s suddenly almost a year since the start of the movie, May 25, 2006:

front page of newspaper

Caden turns to the obituaries, and sees one for Joseph Rolland D’Atillio, born in August 29, 1982. His age is listed as 24. Time has shifted forward past August, just in the course of moving to another section of the paper.

newspaper obituaries

It feels as if Caden receives his MacArthur grant, a happy result of his production of “Death of a Salesman”, within a few months of the start of the movie. The letter with the grant in fact comes four years since 2005, the film’s beginning:

grant letter

That Caden has entirely lost his sense of time is in this dialogue with Hazel:

She hasn’t called since she left. It’s been a year.

It’s been a week.

Gonna buy you a calendar.

In a conversation with Maria about his daughter Olive:

She’s a four year old. SHE’S A FUCKING FOUR YEAR OLD!

She’s almost over eleven now.

Caden’s building of this world from past memories is analogous to what’s given in the preview for Adele’s gallery.

Adele Lack was born in 1965 in Lawton, West Virginia. Recounting her childhood, she says, “Lawton is a mining town. The only art I ever saw was the smear of coal dust on my father’s shirts but that was enough to stimulate my fascination with the idea of markings on fabric, traces of the real world left to linger as memory.

text for Adele's exhibit

This continuing of a life terminated, building on the memories, is what takes place with his daughter’s diary. She leaves for Berlin at age four, the same age of Horace Azpiazu when he writes Little Winky, leaving the diary behind. Yet somehow this diary grows more and more entries, far past the age of four, to the point when she becomes a teenager and beyond, embodying a vision of how Caden sees her, a girl who despises her father:

The first entry read is in childish script, before Olive left.

Olive's diary

The other entries grow in maturity, a text written and expanding long after Olive has left the diary behind.

Olive's diary

Dear diary,

How I love Maria. She is so much more of a father than Caden ever was, with his drinking and unfortunate body odor and rotting teeth. I could only loathe him, and perhaps pity him.

But Maria!

Olive's diary

Dear diary,

Today I felt a wetness between my legs. Maria explained to me that now I’m a woman. And being a woman is wonderful with Maria to guide me.

This diary, left behind when she was four, continues on up to the day of her death:

Dear diary,

I’m afraid I’m gravely ill. It is perhaps times like these that one reflects on things past. An article of clothing from when I was young.

Something of a more mild aspect of this takes place in Adele’s notes in her new apartment, with the cough she had at the start of the movie persisting for decades, and coming through whenever Caden reads them.

Another implication of purgatory: the cartoons that play in the kitchen and basement. Significantly, Caden shows up as a character. In one, he is parachuting down before his parachute breaks, falls into the ocean, is courted by three mermaids, then swallowed by a fish. The three mermaids can be taken as the three women he sleeps with during the film: Claire, Hazel, and Tammy.

Caden dying in cartoon

Caden dying in cartoon

Caden dying in cartoon

The lines from the accompanying song are relevant:

There’s no real way of coping
When your parachute won’t open

You’re going down
You’re going down

You fell
Then you died

Maybe someone cried
But not your one-time bride

One cartoon shows Caden, a jackal waiting by a rotten carcass, the jackal waiting for Caden to die as well, an image of a clock floating between them, Sammy Barnathan observing silently, as he does for much of the film:

Caden with jackal

Again, the accompanying line from the cartoon is relevant:

When you’re dead, there’s no time. The world is–

In another cartoon, he is accompanied by a lamb while being pulled to a corral, a place for animals to be held before they’re slaughtered.

Caden brought to corral

The lamb has a traditional christian significance, a symbol of god or a messenger of god. It has a significance in muslim and jewish faith as well, as an animal of religious sacrifice. A lamb shows up in one other context.

This movie is about an afterimage, the residual glow of past memories, persisting and expanded upon in purgatory, the past memories now barely discernible. A suitable metaphor for this might be the faint, emergent image against a wall, which the viewer assumes is the remnant of one of Adele’s paintings. It’s an image of a man with his back to us, hands clasped behind him, looking into the distance, a dog by his side.

painting remnant

Later, this image is gone:

kitchen painting gone

The second lamb shows up in a similar place. It’s painted on the wall of Olive’s room, seen twice when Caden looks in her diary:

lamb in Olive's room

Another detail that might point to Caden’s death. His family forms a trinity, of Caden, Adele, Olive.

Three owls, a trinity, on the wall in the kitchen at the beginning, with one missing:

missing owl

Some dialogue between Caden and Hazel in the middle of the movie, about their respective families. Hazel has a husband and three sons.

The boys?

Yeah. I-I thought you knew.

How old?

Five. Uh, twins. Robert and Daniel and Alan.

Three sons, but she says “twins”, not “triplets”, one member of the trinity missing.

There is an actual suicide in the movie, that of Caden’s shadow, Sammy. He jumps from a height after seeing Hazel with Caden. It is a reprise of Caden’s own suicide attempt, which takes place after he sees Hazel with her family, and realizes the depth of his lover for her. The viewer might guess that these are the same circumstances which prompted Caden’s own suicide, before the start of the movie, depression over a lost family.

Sammy's death

His dialogue after Sammy’s death is important.

I didn’t jump, Sammy. A man stopped me before I jumped. Get up! I didn’t jump.

When I watch this, I wonder if Caden’s assertion is for Sammy, or for himself, a denial of how his own life ended.

A hypothesis can be made that Caden kills himself in the bathroom, perhaps shooting himself in the head. This memory underlines his later dreamworld.

His injury right before shaving early on, which results in a scar to the head:

Caden injured in bathroom

An actress in his production of Death of a Salesman suffers a similar injury:

injured actress

The apartment of Adele’s house has a strange layout, with a shower constantly running out in the open, at the center:

shower always on at Adele's

When Caden first arrives at Adele’s house, freshly brewed coffee, so freshly brewed fumes rise from it, is out there. A memory of the coffee waiting for him at breakfast the morning he died:

Coffee at Adele's

His mother is killed in a home invasion. The blood in the bedroom is a reminder of his own death:

bedroom of dead mother

The dialogue between Tammy and Caden when they see this awful mess is relevant:

CADEN and TAMMY see the blood in the room.

I thought someone would have cleaned it up.


I don’t know. Someone.

Caden, of course, finds his redemption through cleaning.


The world shown of Synecdoche is a skewed vision, Caden’s perspective on those he knew in his past life. He finds his marriage with his wife increasingly difficult. He longs for a past version of her, before their difficulties.

Of all the women in the film, his wife, portrayed by a beautiful actress who looks much younger than her age, Catherine Keener, is alone shown as utterly haggard and tired:

Adele by the window

Caden has conflicting attitudes about his wife, both wanting the woman she once was, not wanting her now, seeing her as this old, fatigued creature. Though the woman we see from his perspecitve is utterly callous and unsympathetic, not going to his premiere, refusing to join the standing ovation for the piece, cruelly jibing on the production after it’s over, he longs deeply for this woman after she disappears. She is gorgeous in her Elle magazine spread, and gentle in the notes she leaves at the end.

The sentiment that Adele expresses in their therapy meeting,

I’ve fantasized about Caden dying. Being able to start again, guilt-free.

may well be something she felt, but I think it’s also a reflection of Caden’s own wants, wanting his wife and daughter to disappear, so he can start again. They leave for Berlin, and he has a new family with a much younger wife. Whether Adele was attracted to a woman like Maria is something I cannot discern. In the film, they come across as utterly shrewish, nasty creatures, so cruel you take much of it as Caden’s distorting perspective. The viewer notes another detail of the distortion: Maria somehow acquires a german accent as the film progresses. Another is that the poem read on the radio at the beginning is by Rainer Maria Rilke, the name transferred from there to this character.

What happens to Olive is a parent’s nightmare of what takes place when one loses custody of one’s child. Olive becomes a tattooed stripper and the lover of his wife’s partner. Again, this is very much Caden’s projection. Tellingly, the voice heard in the beginning on the radio becomes the adult Olive’s voice.

A pattern emerges as you watch the movie, with almost every woman exposing her cleavage or leg. This, again, is Caden’s own emphasis.




As Hazel grows older, a younger substitute comes in, and Caden sleeps with her. The dialogue is something like that willed by Caden. She is casual about nudity, casual about sleeping with this much older man. There are no details as to why she would want to sleep with him, it is only an act desired by him in this dreamworld.

Where are you going to sleep?

The living-room couch.

Don’t you want to sleep with me? It’s just sex.

Okay. If you think it’s okay.

Tammy nude

The only exceptions to this sexualized perspective are Adele, his new wife Claire, Millicent, and Ellen. His view of Adele has already been discussed. Claire is made into an acolyte, a devotee to a religious cause. That Millicent and Ellen are women older than the original age of the character, not women he sees as potential mates, is important: he’ll grow in empathy with Ellen not out of any sexual desire, but a genuine dissolving of his own self.

At the same time that certain physical aspects of these women are emphasized, Caden’s vision emphasizes the price to be paid, the exertion to look good. This comes through emphatically with Madeline Gravis, a very stylish woman with very beautiful legs. Her heels highlight these very attractive legs, but there is a problem: the straps are so tight as to cause rashes and blisters. This also undercuts her rather simple philosophy: behind her relaxed, successful professional exterior is a certain amount of physical pain1.

Madeline's feet

Madeline's feet

Madeline's feet

A counterpoint to Caden’s vision is Adele’s work. While Caden’s grows larger and more encompassing of the world, Adele’s gets smaller. Caden is imprisoned in his solipsism, his reconstruction and extension of the past, while the very underlying reality of these women recedes and diminishes.

looking at Adele's paintings

painting of Adele

A final note on how the vision of these women is very much tied to Caden’s perspective. There is the name of the hotel where Caden commits suicide. I do not think its name is arbitrary.

tethered maiden hotel

The tethered maiden hotel.


A focus for criticism and analysis of the film is death, but an equal and important theme is women, and how men relate to women. Other than Caden and Sammy, all the major parts are female. After Adele leaves, Caden moves between two mates, a woman who works at the theater’s box office, Hazel, and an actress, Claire.

They are set up as contrasts, both having several strong distinct qualities.


Hazel is earthy, sexually aggressive, and perceived by Claire and Caden as slightly prole, a woman in her thirties who still works the theater box office, who has never heard of Franz Kafka’s The Trial until recently. She, ultimately, is the better match for Caden, though he moves away from her, because she is of a different economic and cultural class, because Caden seems to have mixed feelings of female sensuality, which Hazel is unabashed about. The women in this world display their cleavage and leg in ways that seem incongruous, unnatural to their character, so it feels as if this is something he wants. Yet each moment, he shies away from the sexual moment, and he ends up with Claire, the most chaste in appearance of the women he’s attracted to.


The first thing I think of with Claire is with regard to her name, Clair, french for clear, she’s a blank, a tabula rasa, a possible necessary condition to be a successful actress.

She uses phrases she doesn’t quite know the wrong way. There is nothing wrong with this, there are always things we don’t know, but whereas Hazel admits to not having heard of The Trial, Hazel doesn’t admit to not knowing the meaning of Freudian slip:

Well, it was nice meeting you. Oh, God, did I just say “meeting”? I’m sorry. I’m so stupid.

Slip of the tongue, is all.

Yeah, it’s a Freudian slip, right?

I don’t know how it’s Freudian.

To meet, you know? Like, to meet.


Perhaps the quality that Caden most values in her is a a wide-eyed devotion that’s something like a disciple has for the leader of a political or religious movmeent, who has a blind optimism in this man’s abilities:

It’s brilliant. It’s everything. It’s Karamazov.

I’m so excited.

Really? Why?

Because I think that it’s brave. And I just feel like I’m gonna be part of a revolution. I keep thinking about Artaud, Krapp’s Last Tape, you know, and Grotowski, for chrissake.

I don’t know what I’m doing.

But that’s what so refreshing. Knowing that you don’t know is the first and the most essential step to knowing, you know?

There is a synchronicity of interests in the relationship between the two, the usual one between a director and a beautiful actress. He gives her the possibility of a coveted role, she gives him confidence, an attractive woman affirming every decision he makes.

Claire’s encouragement of Caden’s introspction, his mad project to construct a detailed recreation of his own life, ultimately seals him off from others. His path out of purgatory is entirely in the opposite direction, through the submersion of his own self, becoming Ellen Bascomb.

The movie gave a hint that this is the wrong path very explicitly through Claire’s back tattoo:

back tattoo of devil

An image of a man of wealth and taste.

In contrast, Hazel is considered Caden’s ideal match, though Caden turns away from this. The movie is shown almost always from Caden’s perspective, with him on-screen. The only exception given is for Hazel, who, in brief moments, is followed by the camera, with Caden offstage. It’s an open question for me whether she’s a fellow member of purgatory, someone in stasis, waiting for release, or another recreation of Caden’s past memories. She moves into a house that is always on fire, she stays in a place waiting for the point of death. There’s a line in the dialogue with the realtor that stands out for me:

I’m just really concerned about dying in the fire.

It’s a big decision how one prefers to die.

How one chooses to die suggests a voluntary preference that is lacking in a natural death, that’s only available to the suicide. After Adele, Hazel is the woman Caden is most attracted to, their long delayed sexual coupling a union of souls, long past the erotic drives of youth2. Only after they finally sleep together does Hazel die, and Caden starts his transformation into Ellen Bascomb.


The one that’s read on the radio is “Autumn Day” by Rainer Maria Rilke. Here it is in full, translation by Stephen Mitchell, courtesy of web site po-‘i(-tre-.

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Only the last third is quoted, and apt for Caden’s existence. He has perhaps committed suicide in grief over losing his family in a separation. The world he forms from his memories is one where his wife is a malicious creature who’ll leave him, and his daughter will end up a tattooed stripper as a result. He wanders the city streets alone, reads and writes long letters to his absent wife in her new apartment.

The flurostatin ad on TV is briefly interrupted by an image of Caden, just in the poem, wandering alone about desolate smoke. It might be said that this is what he does throughout the movie, roaming endlessly in purgatory, enshrouded in illusion that he’s still alive.

Caden wanders alone

Caden wanders alone


The movie is very much about the disconnect between the various characters, with the focus on Caden’s inability to see outside himself. There is further emphasis given to this in the portrayal of the three doctors, all of whom are cold, nasty, utterly without sympathy for Caden at a time when he most needs it, as a patient suffering great illness.

The maladies all begin after the episode in the bathroom, which might be a projection of his own suicide. The decay which sets in is a kind of rapid entropy, this whole world an unsustainable creation of past memories, doomed to collapse, his body exhibitng this in physical symptoms.

first doctor

Will there be a scar?

Probably. It looks like a mud flap.

I prefer there not to be a scar.


Man in another bed is crying in pain.

That fellow is annoying. He’s in here every week, like clockwork.

second doctor

Thanks for getting me in right away.

DOCTOR doesn’t look up, keeps looking through notes.

Was it the bump to the head?

DOCTOR looks up briefly.


DOCTOR goes back to notes, then answers again.

Could be, but I think we need to get you to a neurologist.

Just for a look-see. The eyes are part of the brain, after all.

No, that’s not true, is it?

Why would I say it if it weren’t true?

It doesn’t seem right.

Like morally correct, or “right” as in accurate?

I don’t know. Accurate, I guess?


The mis-hearing of what specialist he should go to points, I think, what feels like utterly arbitrary recommendations by the doctors, and what he identifies as the true point of illness. He’s just suffered a head injury, but he is to go to an opthamologist, not a neurologist, as he hears. He has issues with his eyes, but he is now told to go a neurologist, though he hears urologist, since he continues to have issues with his bowel movements throughout the movie.

third doctor

You’ve had a seizure of sorts.

– What does that mean?

Seems to be some synaptic degradation, fungal in origin.

Autonomic functions are going haywire.

You’ll lose your ability to salivate, cry, et cetera.

Is it serious?

We don’t know. But, yes. We’ll get you enrolled in some biofeedback program. Maybe you can learn some sort of manual override.

The relationship of a doctor giving pronouncements on high to the patient is replicated in Caden’s notes to his actors, a diktat on what to do in his lunatic unending project.


When Caden steps out of his house in the early minutes of the film for his mail, Sammy Barntham makes the first of his many appearances in the background, before he finally speaks any dialogue, auditioning to play the man he has followed and observed for two decades. There are two striking details of Barntham. The first, is that he never ages. We clearly see him at the beginning as an older man, bald, long trills of white hair. One might expect a natural death for the man within the course of the film, yet decades later, when Caden has lost much of his hair and now walks with a cane, he remains frozen in appearance.


The other, is that this man is like Nebraska: there is no there there. He is entirely empty, never giving explantion as to the why of his obsession or why this particular man. He is something like Claire, a tabula rasa, only to a greater extreme. Any feelings he shows are those of Caden; what ultimately brings about his death is the love of Hazel, a feeling he’s adopted from Caden.

Sammy foreshadows what Caden will do, as Caden becomes Ellen, just as Sammy becomes Caden. I think there is something of the divine in Millicent, who helps guide Caden out of purgatory, and I think there is something of the divine in Sammy as well. He has two supernatural qualities, an inability to age, and the power to somehow be everywhere, following Caden no matter what the location, entirely impervious to being observed. It should be noticed that after he makes his successful audition, it is he that moves Caden further along the path to becoming Ellen. It is he who gives the address of Adele. Caden will leave purgatory through sublimation, by losing himself, becoming this woman. This is the dialogue when Sammy hands over Adele’s address:

Why are you giving me this?

I wanna follow you there and see how you lose even more of yourself. Research. You know, for the part. Partner.

It is Sammy who helps push Claire away from Caden. It is Sammy who falls for Hazel, which makes Caden jealous, and prompts him to tell Hazel how much she means to him. Hazel’s purpose for going out with Sammy is in turn only to get the attention of Caden.

I should never have gone out with Sammy. I was just trying to get to you.

Right before Sammy’s suicide, this is what he have to say. He makes explicit what Caden’s problem is. Makes clear what others feel. By commiting suicide, he may also take on the role of the lamb, portrayed on Olive’s wall and the TV cartoons, a sacrifice for the purpose of moving Caden to his goal, but also to remind Caden of the horrific deed he did in the past, taking his own life.

I’ve watched you forever, Caden. But you’ve never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break.


In his purgatory, Caden is guided by two figures, his therapist, Madeline Gravis (Hope Davis), and an actress, Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest).

Madeline Gravis

Millicent Weems

Gravis counsels a self-help therapy, with Caden focusing on himself rather than others and the outside world. The development of a vast superstructure of a theater which agonizingly goes over the details of his life is the embodiment of this. It is a theater which, whatever its diligent study, fails to look into or offer sympathy of those about him. He remains hurtfully blind to his second wife, Claire, as well as the other actors, who wait and wait for his orders. He does not listen to their thoughts, but instead, gives them theirs. While Caden becomes more and more obsessed in his introspective project, the world around him falls under a vague tyranny, its skies patrolled by zeppelins, its citizens herded forcefully into buses labeled “FUNLAND” by clowns, some wear gas masks in fear of threat.

Going to Funland


The self-obsessiveness is Caden’s, but ours as well, our larger culture. While he struggles, his wife has found enviable success, the sort of ostentatious success of our celebrity age. She is a painter given a bombastic multi-page spread in Elle which renders painting into something glamorous, elite, disdainful of the hoi poloi: “I’m at a point in my life where I only want to be around joyous, healthy people”. This is a knock against Caden, but also very much part of the vaporous commonplace exclusivity to be found in any glamour page mag. Any art involves incredible technique and diligence, but her captions stress the popular belief of art as something that one “feels”, and as soon one “feels” it, the work is over: “When I look, I see. When I see, I paint. It’s that simple.”

Adele magazine spread

Adele magazine spread

Adele magazine spread

Adele magazine spread

Caden hires Millicent in order to play the role of Ellen Bascomb, a cleaning lady. Millicent will, in some ways, serve as his guiding angel, so it’s appropriate where Ellen works:

Angel Day Spa

Caden has been indifferent to many throughout the film. He is not a villain, nor particularly notable in his indifference to many, but very much like those around him, and very much like us. He is not malevolent or unusually selfish; he dearly loves his daughter. His selfishness and indifference is our own. One of the first scenes has each family member, Caden, Adele, Olive, each in their own world. Before reaching Ellen’s new apartment, he is asked to hold the door, casually refuses, then lies about it. In the last section of the movie, he overcomes this, becoming an entirely different character. Caden first ceases to be a director, giving orders, instead handing over the reins to Weems. He becomes a simple actor, playing the part of Bascomb. Caden has felt an urgent desire to clean beforehand, in the basement of his old house, and his cleaning there unveils a gleaming white room not unlike the look of Adele’s apartment.

Caden cleans basement

Adele's apartment

The cleaning is in part metaphorical, to discern the substance beneath the surface, though it also exists as a form of humbling, of placing oneself among the multitude, rather than above it. Eventually, Caden, like some actors, becomes this person. We get hints of Ellen Bascomb’s life, a woman in an unhappy marriage with a deeply cherished memory of her mother.

This very same memory appears in a TV ad early on for a cancer treatment drug, an ad which also features Caden:

The picnic memory we see later:

Ellen's picnic memory

THe Flurostatin ad:

Ellen's picnic memory in ad

Caden in ad

The insistently sunny attitude of this ad, the unending optimism of all TV, is in stark contrast to the necessary expected pain of our lives.

At the end, Caden achieves transcendence. This transcendence is what Caden hoped to achieve with his own theater work:

It’s love in all its messiness. You know, and I want all of us, players and patrons alike, to, uh, soak in the communal bath of it, the mikvah, as the Jews call it. Because we’re all in the same water, after all. You know, soaking in our very menstrual blood and nocturnal emissions.

The merging of two people, the binding into one of two genders that takes place in carnal love, is referred to by Sammy when he auditions for the role of Caden:

‘Cause I’ve never felt about anybody the way I feel about you. And I wanna fuck you until we merge into a chimera, a mythical beast with penis and vagina eternally fused, two pairs of eyes that look only at each other, and lips ever touching. And only one voice that whispers to itself.

This same union is achieved between Caden and Ellen, though it is not carnal, and by not being carnal, it lacks this insular aspect of eyes looking at only each other and a voice whispering only to itself. Caden must fully see the world as Ellen sees it.

He has been staying in a waiting room of the building, and now he leaves it. While he walks out, out into the city, he is given a message from Millicent.

The “you realize you are not special” is not said with malice, but only a truthful note of this life.

You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone. So you were Adele. Hazel. Claire. Olive. You are Ellen. All her meagre sadnesses are yours. All her loneliness. The grey straw like hair. Her red raw hands. It’s yours. Time for you to understand this. Walk. And the people who adore you stop adoring you. As they die. As they move on. As you shed them. You shed your beauty. Your youth. As the world forgets you. As you recognize your transience. As you begin to lose your characteristics one by one. As you learn there was no one watching you. And there never was. You think only about driving. Not coming from any place. Not arriving at any place. Just driving. Counting off time. Now you are here. It’s 7:43. Now you are here. It’s 7:44. Now you are gone.

Note the time. He is moving up to the point where he commits suicide, and now he’ll leave this in-between world.

A chalk drawing on the wall further marks the time.

chalk drawing of seven forty five

As he walks toward the end, he passes books by Gravis, now abandoned, out on the street.

Getting Blissed Out by Madeline Gravis

I Don't Feel Well Today by Madeline Gravis

He lies on a couch next to an actress who played Ellen’s mother. He is entirely Ellen, and this line he says not as himself, but as Ellen to her mother.

I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter. I feel I’ve disappointed you terribly.

He places his head against her, as a daughter might lie her head on the comforting side of her mother.

This very moment of being entirely this other woman give him insight into how the play should be done. This insight is what allows him to end this, the play is no longer of any necessity.

I know how to do this play now. I have an idea. I think –


It ties in with his earlier insight on how to improve the work:

None of those people is extras. They’re all leads in their own stories.

Caden leaves purgatory by becoming one of these extras. The extras cease to be extraneous, cease to be extras.


1 The painfulness of heels is captured well in this passage from Elizabeth Eaves’ Bare, a memoir of her youth and her brief career as a stripper:

Footwear, so often the only thing to stay on, came first. I needed a few pairs of sky-high heels. My feet had only occasionally seen the inside of a truly high heel while I was away. I had a pair of stilettos that I had sometimes worn to go out, provided I could take cabs and lean on others. They made me feel bound up and observed. High heels, like any tight, strappy undergarment, bore a direct connection to sex for me, because they made me notice them. They were uncomfortable enough that they were a constant reminder of their own presence.

I was astounded at the way high heels wee so persistently in vogue. Of all the things women can do to look attractive to men, short of surgery, wearing high heels is the most physically painful. Aesthetically, the only reason to wear them is to make one’s ass stick out. In high heels a woman sways her hips when she walks, whether she remembers to or not. Many of the most fashionable ones force her to give up her own powers of locomotion and submit to helpless hobbling. They are hard to balance in, they hurt, and if she wears them too much they can cause permanent physical damage, shortening the length of the tendon at the back of the leg. But none of this stops them from remaining relentlessly in style. Every season’s offerings are more delicate and less practical than the least. Women call one another chic for clattering around in them like geishas, while wearing Band-Aids under the straps in a losing battle against blisters.

2 A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke opens the movie, and this passage from a letter by Rilke, part of the Letters to a Young Poet collection, captures well the feeling between Caden and Hazel:

And perhaps the sexes are more related than we think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maid, freed of all false feelings and reluctances, will seek each other not as opposites, but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will come together as human beings, in order simply, seriously and patiently to bear in common the difficult sex that has been laid upon them.

I came across this excerpt from Jeffrey Meyers’ account of the marriage of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, The Genius and the Goddess, a book that avoids the dross of showbiz gossip and the highfalutin philosophy that the blonde icon so often inspires; I am grateful to the writer for a solid read, and I am grateful for his drifting Rilke’s fragment across my pass.

(The footnotes to this post were added on April 2nd, 2013.)

All images and screenplay copyright Likely Story, Projective Testing Service, Russia Inc., and associated producers.

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What I Think About When I Think About Salem

You’re probably familiar with the band, a group I have much affection for. Some of their work I find very interesting, some I do not.

What I always think of when I hear their music; the first paragraphs from an old essay, “The Devil in Long Island”, by Ron Rosenbaum, a writer I sometimes disagree with, but always read. I am unaware if any band members are from the much low land mass.

“He wondered every once in a while what life would be like without a second story and how it was people managed to get along in ranch-style or split-level houses without running amok once a year or so.” Thomas Pynchon, from “Low-lands”

It would be foolish to believe that a single story could sum up the entire range of bizarre and sensational behavior that is Long Island Babylon. Particularly a story that doesn’t even mention Amy or Sol, Joey or “Joel the Ripper,” little Katie Beers or Howard Stern, much less the “Homeroom Hit Man,” the “Angel of Death” nurse, the Islip Garbage Barge or Geraldo Rivera.

Nonetheless, I feel that the story of the unprintable Satanist Ritual Killing Ground Photo comes close.

Some years ago in Northport — not far from the birthplace of Pynchon, who is, far more than the frequently invoked F. Scott Fitzgerald, the true literary avatar of the Long Island soul — two allegedly angel-dusting, devil-worshiping teen-agers were branded as “ritual cult murderers” of another teen-ager in the Aztakea woods.

It was one of the first such episodes in what would become an overhyped national trendlet, and perhaps the first signal that something sinister was stirring out there behind the split-level shutters of Long Island’s suburbs. But this particular story about the unprintable photo, one I heard from a former Newsday editor who swears it’s true, isn’t about the killing itself; rather about something that happened the night after the death became public.

It seems the paper had dispatched a photographer to get a nighttime shot of the supposedly spooky, satanist ritual killing ground out there in the woods, something that would capture the diabolical horror of it all. But when certain pictures came out of the darkroom, they just weren’t . . . suitable. Unusable. Not because they were too terrifying (at least not terrifying in a Luciferian way). But because many photographs of the alleged cult coven’s killing circle prominently featured a large boulder, across the face of which was scrawled the following somewhat-less-than-terrifying cult slogan:


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Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story Part Two


(SPOILERS for both the movie Eyes Wide Shut and “Dream Story”. The translation of “Dream Story” is an excellent one by Margaret Schaefer from the collection Night Games. To supplement some points, stills from the movie have been used. Some of these stills contain nudity. For the usual tiresome reasons, the usual suspect parts of these stills have been distorted.)


It is here that the historical context of “Dream Story” intrudes, one absent in Eyes. Fridolin reaches the house of his dead patient to comfort his daughter, Marianne. While there, he fixes on an image which is of key importance for understanding Fridolin’s struggles throughout the story, and one missing from the film. Fridolin lives in Vienna, during the decline of the Habsburg empire, and after it has already lost a war with the ascendant Prussian state. Where before the weapons and uniforms connoted strength, now they are a reminder of this loss. Throughout the story Fridolin tries to make some claim to heroism through physical force, often fantasizing about duels or fights, a place where he can demonstrate a masculinity that is thwarted in his dealings with women. It is this plight that the picture, mentioned several times in the story, embodies. It is a soldier in uniform, sword out, charging at an invisible enemy:

Her brother was now living somewhere abroad; a picture he had painted when he was fifteen was hanging over there in Marianne’s room. It depicted an officer galloping down a hill. Her father had always pretended not to see the picture at all. But it was a good painting.

The father has disdain for the picture, since he is very much part of the old martial tradition and has contempt for the soft, feminine arts, among them, painting.

As he turned up the gaslight over the desk, his glance fell on the picture of a white-uniformed officer galloping down a hill with a sword drawn against an invisible enemy. It hung in a narrow gilded gold frame and made no better impression than a modest print.

That this theme begins here is not arbitrary either. What Marianne, the daughter, badly needs right now is the display of another noble virtue, simple compassionate empathy. Fridolin, however, is a cold, distant man, more suffused with the rational aspect than the sensual, and he entirely misses the need for what is wanted. This emotional blindness prevents him from helping Marianne, just as it makes him so emotionally clumsy with his wife.

This is the relevant portion where she expresses her extraordinary need for comfort in this moment:

She scarcely heard what he said. Her eyes moistened and large tears streamed down her cheeks; once more she buried her face in her hands. Instinctively he placed his hand on her hair and stroked her head. He felt her body beginning to tremble as she sobbed, first hardly audible sobs, then gradually louder and louder, and finally completely unrestrained. All at once she slipped down from her chair and lay at Fridolin’s feet, clasping his knees with her arms and pressing her face against them. Then she looked at him and with wide-open, suffering, and wild eyes, whispered ardently, “I don’t want to leave here. Even if you never return, even if I’m never to see you again, I want to live near you.”

He was more touched than surprised, because he had always known that she was in love with him or imagined that she was in love with him.

“Please get up, Marianne,” he said softly, bent down to her, and softly raised her head. He thought: of course there is hysteria in this, too. He cast a sideways glance at her dead father. I wonder if he can hear everything? he wondered. Maybe he isn’t really dead. Perhaps every man only seems dead the first few hours after he dies – ? He held Marianne in his arms but kept her a little away from him. Almost unthinkingly he planted a kiss on her forehead, an act which seemed a little ridiculous even to him. Fleetingly he remembered a novel he had read years ago in which a very young man, almost a boy, was seduced, in fact, raped, really, at his mother’s deathbed, by her best friend.

Fridolin is at many points ridiculous in the story, but I think it is here that it’s really comic. Marianne is devastated in this scene, in great emotional need, and the ridiculous, self-centered Fridolin takes her plea as a statement of long-standing love, a compliment he desperately needs after his wife’s fantasy of infidelity. This delusion is followed with an even more ridiculous one, a fantasy about the possibility that he might be sexually assaulted by this unbalanced woman, who simply wants a hug and words of comfort after the loss of her father.

The movie substitutes something more overtly lustful, Marion (slight variation in name) giving Bill an open mouthed kiss, while whispering “I love you.” The impulse stems from the death and demands a reciprocation not just in comfort, but in lust as well. This, I think, is one of the first points where the movie transforms Schnitzler’s work into one where sex is made into something alien and threatening. This is lust made frightening and morbid, because it erupts out of tragedy, a crude, degrading demand for solace.

When Marion’s fiancé appears, we get a possible explanation for this outburst.

Bill, Marion, and Carl

Carl and Bill have many similarities in look, and I think there’s a possibility that Marion is momentarily drawn to Bill because he is, in effect, Carl, but without their shared memories, a man with whom she can start afresh, and walk away from this tragedy rather than reconcile herself with it. The story’s Carl, a professor of philosophy named Dr. Roediger, may be a double for Fridolin, as almost all the men in the story are, but he serves as a reflection of Fridolin’s own coldness. Marianne desperately needs comfort, but she is unable to find any with her own fiancé so she turns to an expected figure of compassion, a medical doctor, but he fails her as well. There is one change from Roediger to Carl that I find puzzling; Roediger is like Fridolin, though devoted instead to purer intellectual pursuits, with Fridolin conceding that he went into the medicine partly for the material comfort. He is, however, very much Fridolin’s intellectual equal or superior, marked by his forthcoming professorship at the University of Gottingen, possibly one of the best institutions in Europe at the time. The movie instead has this character getting a professorship at the slightly less prestigious University of Michigan – the American equivalent for Gottingen would be Princeton, MIT, Harvard or Yale. However, Marion’s need for Bill has nothing to do with money or mobility, since, given her apartment, her family clearly has a great deal of money already.

The scene in “Dream” ends with one of the first details that make the narrative more fantastic and dream-like, though we have had no indicator before now that Fridolin was dreaming this. He leaves the house and:

The people he had left behind up there, the living as well as the dead, seemed equally unreal and ghostlike.


Now begins the sequence of events leading up to, and including, the second masquerade, all of which can be considered of one section, where are all of the story’s increasingly surreal, dream-like details, where the erotic feeling reaches a crescendo, but remains unfulfilled.

Appropriate to the heightening sensuality of this part, the air on this winter night becomes warmer and warmer. A passage from just after Fridolin has left the house of the dead father:

Here and there tightly clasped couples were sitting on shady benches, as though spring had already arrived and the deceptive warm air was not pregnant with dangers.

Another, later passage describes the increasingly warm night. Note that the source of the air is from a distant pastoral mountaintop, not unlike the setting of Albertine’s sexual dream.

Meanwhile it had become even warmer. The warm wind was bringing an odor of wet meadows and intimations of spring from a distant mountain into the narrow street.

First, there is an encounter with university students. This might be where Schnitzler makes the most merciless fun of Fridolin. The heroic virtue he most needs in the situations of the story, that would be of most benefit to him and others, would be empathy. However, the one he most ardently wishes for is strength. He sees the students and they remind him of what he no longer has, or perhaps, what he never had.

In the distance he heard the muffled sound of marching steps and then saw, still quite far away, a small troop of fraternity students, six or eight in number, turning a corner and coming toward him. As the young people came into the light of a streetlamp, he thought he recognized a few members of the Alemannia fraternity, dressed in their blue, among them. He himself had never belonged to a fraternity, but he had fought a few saber duels in his time.

That he feels the need to stress that he fought a few saber duels in his time explains what he sees in this man, strength, military valor, the qualities of a man that can only be demonstrated and acquired through combat. That I do not entirely trust his statement of having actually fought these duels has to do with how he, Fridolin, is presented up to this point and afterwards, a rather timid man who constantly protests that he’s not as timid as that.

The passage continues, this encounter reviving the image of the mysterious women of the first masquerade:

The memories of his student days reminded him of the red dominoes who had lured him into the loge at the ball last night and then had so despicably deserted him soon after. The students were quite near now; they were talking and laughing loudly. Perhaps he knew one or two from the hospital? It was impossible to make out their faces accurately in this dim light.

That the students’ faces remain blurry is another element of the dream-like setting, people are out of focus, somehow known but unknown.

He had to stay quite close to the wall in order not to collide with them. Now they had passed by. Only the last one, a tall fellow with an open overcoat and a bandage over his left eye, seemed deliberately to lag behind, and bumped into him with a raised eyebrow. It couldn’t have been an accident. What was he thinking? though Fridolin, and instinctively stopped. The other man took two more steps and also stopped. They looked at each other for a moment with only a short distance separating them. But suddenly Fridolin turned back and went on. He heard a short laugh behind him – he almost turned around again to confront the fellow, but he felt his heart beating strangely – just as it had on a previous occasion, twelve or fourteen years ago, when there had been an unusually long knock on the door while he was with that charming young creature who was always going on about a distant, probably nonexistent fiancé. But in fact it had been only the postman who had knocked so threateningly.

The man’s bandage suggests that he has perhaps been involved in violence, a wound from a pistol duel maybe, experiences Fridolin foolishly covets, but which he has never known. This is followed by another comic moment for Fridolin, his memory of once truly being scared as he is now by the knock of a postman at a lover’s place. I give a full excerpt of Fridolin’s inner monologue, to make clear the writer’s mockery of this man.

He now felt his heart beat just as it had at that time. What is this? he asked himself angrily, and now noticed that his knees were shaking a little. Coward – ? Nonsense! he answered himself. Should I go and confront a drunken student, I, a man of thirty-five, a practicing physician, married, and the father of a child! Formal challenge! Witnesses? Duel! And in the end get a cut on my arm and be unable to work for a few weeks because of such a stupid affair? Or lose an eye? Or even get blood poisoning – ? And perhaps in a week end up in the same state as the man in Schreyvogel Street under the brown flannel blanket [the dead father of Marianne]! Coward – ? He had fought three saber duels and had even been ready to fight a duel with pistols; it wasn’t his doing that the matter had been called off amicably at the end. And his profession! There were dangers, everywhere, anytime – one just usually forgot about them. Why, how long was it since that child with diphtheria had coughed in his face? Only three or four days, no more. That was a much more dangerous thing than a little fencing match with sabers. And he hadn’t given it a second thought. Well, if he ever met that fellow again this affair could still be straightened out. He was by no means obligated to react to such a silly student prank at midnight on his way to or from seeing a patient – he could just as well have been going to a patient – no, he was not obligated at all. On the other hand, if now, for example he should meet that young Dane with whom Albertine – oh, nonsense, what was he thinking? Well – well, really, she might just as well really have been his mistress! It wasn’t any different. Even worse. Yes, just let him cross his path now! Oh, what joy it would be to face him and somewhere in a forest clearing aim a pistol at that forehead with the smoothly combed blonde hair!

Fridolin assures himself that he does indeed possess the qualities of valor and strength, for not only has he been in several duels, he’s had a child cough in his face. The episode ends, significantly, with Fridolin connecting the weakness felt confronting this man and the revelation from Albertine about the young Danish man.

In the movie, the episode is outwardly similar, though much less subtle. There is no ambiguous bump, hard stare, and single laugh, but instead a group of students pushing him to the ground and overtly taunting the man, taunting him that he is gay. This is an appropriate jeer for youth, but it misses entirely Fridolin’s crisis. Bill and Fridolin feel unmanned because of their heterosexuality, their failure with their wives, something very different from being insecure about their heterosexuality.

After this, Fridolin walks into an area filled with prostitutes. We have a scene that is more realistic than the solicitation in Eyes, while more unreal as well, with these women as ghost-like as Roederer and Marianne when he leaves their house.

Suddenly he found himself past his destination, in a narrow street in which only a few pathetic hookers were strolling around in their nightly attempt to bag masculine game. Like specters, he thought.

He meets one, we have the recurrence of red, and its association with sex.

One of the girls wandering about invited him to go with her. She was a delicate, still very young creature, very pale, with red-painted lips.

During their brief meeting, there is a mention of the red of her lips, and her age is the same of his wife when they were engaged.

He noticed that her lips were not made up but colored by a natural red, and he complimented her on that.

“But why should I use makeup? How old do you think I am?”

“Twenty,” Fridolin guessed.

“Seventeen,” she said and sat on his lap, putting her arms around his neck like a child.

The meeting progresses, reaching a sexual height, and the red theme intensifies.

She took a red dressing gown, which was hanging over the foot of the unmade bed, slipped into it, and crossed her arms over her breasts so that her entire body was wrapped up.

Nothing, however is consummated. For the reason that Fridolin is not brave enough, again, he is lacking the valor that he truly wants. There is now a movement from red to blue.

She refused his money with such vehemence that he could not insist. She put on a narrow, blue woolen shawl, lit a candle, lit his way, accompanied him down the stairs, and opened the door for him.

A few changes make the movie’s scene no longer about bravery, but loyalty, with the coitus put off because of a phone call from his wife. The prostitute’s clothing embodies the more complex color scheme of the film, a purple worn by no other character, possibly a merging of the red and blue polarities. Where the story has no intimacy between the two, the film features a deep, slow kiss, beautifully shot.

After the encounters in both film and story, the protagonist meets an old acquaintance, a former medical student who ended up a musician. The movie introduces this character already at Ziegler’s party, the story only brings him in now, and makes him into something fantastic, giving him the name “Nightingale”. Where the movie tries to treat this as an actual name, calling him “Nick Nightingale”, in the story it is a name to be found only in a dream world, that we accept as part of the story’s dream logic. The character in the story is not an actual acquaintance, but perhaps a composite of many things, partial memories of a past friend and Fridolin’s own ideas. Nightingale is just what his name implies, a musician of the night – a night-time piano player, like the bird that sings at night. He is also a missing or submerged half of Fridolin, someone intuitive, musical, sexual, more successful with women than Fridolin, while Fridolin is closer aligned with the rational and scientific. He is also an exile of this society in a way Fridolin never can be, his speech touched by a “jewish twang” (his first language is Yiddish), and it is this apartness which perhaps made it more difficult to complete medical school.

He looked up from the newspaper and encountered two eyes fixed on him from the opposite table. Was it possible? Nightingale-? The latter had already recognized him, threw up both arms in happy surprise, and came toward Fridolin. He was a tall, rather broad, almost stocky, and still young man with long and blonde, slightly curly hair with a touch of grey in it, and a blonde mustache that drooped down Polish fashion. He was wearing an open grey coat and underneath a somewhat dirty suit, a crumpled shirt with three fake diamond studs, a wrinkled collar, and a dangling white silk tie. His eyelids were red as if from many sleepless nights, but his blue eyes beamed brightly.

“You’re here in Vienna, Nightingale?” exclaimed Fridolin.

“Didn’t you know?” said Nightingale in a soft Polish accent that had a moderate Jewish twang. “How could you not know? I’m so famous!” He laughted loudly and good-naturedly, and sat down opposite Fridolin.

And Fridolin realized that he had heard piano music drifting up from the depth of some cellar as he entered; in fact, that he had heard it even earlier, as he was nearing the caf&ecacute;. “So that was you?” he exclaimed.

“Who else?” laughed Nightingale.

Fridolin nodded. Why of course – the idiosyncratic vigorous touch and the strange, somewhat arbitrary but wonderfully harmonious left-hand chords had seemed awfully familiar to him. “So you’ve devoted yourself to it completely?” he asked. He remembered that Nightingale had given up the study of medicine after his second preliminary examination in zoology, which he ahd successfully passed though he had taken it seven years late. Yet for some time afterward he had hung around the hospital, the dissecting room, the laboratories, and the classrooms. With his blonde artist’s head, his ever-rumpled collar, and the dangling tie that had once been white, he had been a striking and, in a humorous sense, a popular figure, much liked not only by his fellow students but also by many of the professors. The son of a Jewish tavern owner in a small Polish town, he had left home early and had come to Vienna in order to study medicine. The trifling subsidies he had received from his parents had from the beginning hardly been worth mentioning and in any case had soone been discontinued, but this did not hinder him from continuing to appear at the table reserved for medical students in the Riedhof, a circle to which Fridolin also belonged. After a certain time, one or another of his more well-to-do fellow students had taken over the payment of his part of the bill. He sometimes was also given clothing, which he also accepted gladly and without false pride. He had already learned the basics of piano in his home town from a pianist stranded there, and had also studied at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he was alleged to be thought a musical talent of great promise, at the same time he was a medical student. But here, too, he was neither serious nor diligent enough to develop his art systematically, and soon he contented himself with musical triumphs within his circle of friends, or rather with the pleasure he gave them by playing the piano.

This piano player isn’t quite the smoothie musician of Eyes, but someone a little louche, cheap looking, ostentatious and insincere – so succinctly captured in the beautiful detail, “a crumpled shirt with three fake diamond studs”. He is an exile of bourgeois society, and yet his exiledom is intertwined with an enviable gift which Fridolin and his peers lack, for he hears a music of the spheres that they do not, captured in another beautiful deatil – “the idiosyncratic vigorous touch and the strange, somewhat arbitrary but wonderfully harmonious left-hand chords”*.

Nightingale tells the doctor that he will be playing blindfolded at a strange erotic masquerade that night, and Fridolin begs to go with him. The pianist gives him the password, which, significantly, is “Denmark”, the same place where both Fridolin and his wife felt lust for others. The masquerade will be a path to fulfill the doctor’s own secret, submerged desires. The movie’s password is “Fidelio”, a Beethoven opera which Nightingale is familiar with – but Bill is not – and the opera’s theme of a woman who infiltrates a prison to save her husband is either a possible foreshadowing of the sacrifice that will take place later, or of Alice’s forgiveness of Bill’s attempts at infidelity.

A small important detail in the conversation between Nightingale and Fridolin absent from the movie’s dialogue, stressing again the theme of the doctor’s lack of bravery, the same absence he felt during the confrontation with the students:

“Listen,” said Nightingale after a slight hesitation. “If there is anyone in the world that I would like – but how can I do it -” and suddenly he burst out, “Do you have courage?”

“That’s a strange question,” said Fridolin in the tone of an offended fraternity student.

After arrangements are made, in both versions the doctor visits a shop for the costume necessary for entrance to the masquerade. We have again an indicator in the story that Fridolin moves in a dream world; he is never told exactly what costume he should wear, yet somehow he intuits that it must be a religious one. This might be the key distinction between the masquerade of the movie and story. That of the movie involves a vaguely mystic cult, with an opening ritual where a masked leader circles with a censer and a staff. It’s a variation on the trope of a shadowy cabal, a select one percent of one percent that give wealth and sex a religious veneration. They are a sinister group in opposition to the values of Bill and the viewer. The masquerade of the story, on the other hand, is very purposely in Catholic outfits, of monks and nuns. This is not a critique of the church or religion, but there for the simple reason that Fridolin is Catholic. The outfits at the party serve as a metaphor for Fridolin’s internal self, his sense that beneath exteriors of piety and religious virtue are impulses of rabid carnality. Tellingly, Fridolin, for obvious reasons, is given the costume of a pilgrim.

Both movie and story feature a costume store owner with a strange, lustful daughter. The treatment of this character is another key distinction. In the story, she is just one more of a series of young women who are the age of his wife or younger when they were engaged, part of a fantasy of being with his wife before she was his wife. In the story, there are two men whose description is vague, but are of a position of authority, who are engaged, one assumes, in sexual play with this girl. The men, like others in the story, are not apart from Fridolin, but a projection of Fridolin – his own dualities. They are dressed as inquisitors, the outward costume of authority and judgement, though their robes are red, a sexual note, while one wears a wig that is white, a note of purity. The lusts they express are the lusts of Fridolin, for his wife, the young Danish girl, the various other young women of the story.

Two men dressed as inquisitors in red robes arose from the chairs to the left and to the right of the table, while at the same moment a graceful little creature disappeared. Gibiser rushed forward with long strides, reached across the table, and grabbed a white wig in his hand, while at the same time a graceful, very young girl, still almost a child, wearing a Pierrette costume with white silk stockings, wriggled out from under the table and ran to Fridolin, who was forced to catch her in his arms.

The movie handles this part very differently, making this lust not Bill’s, but that of grotesques. I think Kubrick here demonstrates something awkwardly crude here, with the two inquisitors made into very obvious, cheap asian sterotypes. By making the inquisitors into simple pedophiles, and men who clearly are not Bill, this moment loses the meaning that exists in the story, and again, makes sex into something like a malevolent outsider that intrudes on the doctor’s life, rather than the doctor’s own impulses.

asian grotesques

The girl of the story is dressed as a Pierrette, a clown pining for a lost love. This is an unsubtle mirror of Fridolin, but also an image of a woman in need of compassion, not valor. A helpful illustration can be found here. We see again two of the thematic colors, the white of the face, the red of the lips. It is also a mask, another female surface Fridolin cannot decrypt or see beneath. The girl of the movie has the lustfulness, but not the counterpoint of sadness of this character, making her into a simple perverse type. A Pierrette costume shows up in the second masquerade of the film, possibly worn by Ziegler’s betrayed wife (she stands next to a man who instantly recognizes Bill and gives him a nod), but the reason why a betrayed wife would wear a mask pining for a lost love is obvious.

Pierrette at masquerade

Before he receives his costume, the Pierrette offers a suggestion.

“No,” said the Pierrette with gleaming eyes, “you must give this gentleman a cloak lined with ermine and a doublet of red silk.”

Milich's daughter and Bill at costume shop

This makes sense in the context of the story’s color schema, it’s a white outfit of sensual softness with a red interior, a simple image of purity on the outside and carnality hidden inside, a reiteration of Fridolin’s recurring vision of his world. This line is repeated in the movie, but I have difficulty making sense of it given the film’s very different color mapping.

Fridolin receives his costume and mask, which carries a strange perfume. I assume that it is from the Orient, another intrusion of the exotic like the “1001 Nights”, one that is outside him yet part of him as well. He feels an urge to stay and protect the girl, yet once again, he finds himself painfully lacking the valor to do so.

Gibisier, standing on a narrow ladder, handed him the black, broad-brimmed pilgrim’s hat, and Fridolin put it on; but he did all this unwillingly, because more and more he felt it to be his duty to remain and protect the Pierrette from the danger that threatened her. The mask that Gibiser now pressed into his hand, and that he immediately tried on, reeked of a strange and rather disagreeable perfume.

Fridolin leaves the store, and we have another discordant note which establishes that we are in a dream world. Where the movie might imply a fantastic quality through heightened colors, here we have a moment that is not a more vivid reality, but one that establishes the dream state because it could not take place in reality. The men who were in the clothes of inquisitors are – in a sudden jump cut – now in another formal outfit, black and white tails, with red, sensual, masks.

Pierrette turned around, looked in the direction of the end of the hallway, and waved a wistful yet gay farewell. Fridolin followed her gaze. There were no longer two inquisitors there but two slender young men in coat and tails and white ties, though both had red masks covering their faces.

The doctor sees his reflection in the mirror and though he does not think of himself as this figure, a pilgrim into the sensual, nor as the man he does not want to be, someone “haggard”, a much older man than the Pierrette, he is very much these men.

She stood in the doorway, white and delicate, and with a glance at Fridolin sadly shook her head. In the large wall mirror to the right, Fridolin caught a glimpse of a haggard pilgrim – and this pilgrim seemed to be him. He wondered how that was possible, even though he knew it could not be anyone else.

In the movie, Bill leaves the costume store and travels far outside the city to vast estate where the masquerade is held. Before the story’s Fridolin leaves, however, he confronts the owner about his daughter:

But Fridolin did not stir from the spot. “You swear that you won’t hurt that poor child?”

“What business is it of yours, sir?”

“I heard you describe the girl as mad – and now you called her a ‘depraved creature.’ Rather a contradiction, don’t you think?”

“Well, sir,” answered Gibiser in a theatrical tone of voice, “aren’t the insane and the depraved the same in the eyes of God?”

Fridolin shuddered in disgust.

“Whatever it is,” he finally said, “I’m sure something can be done. I’m a doctor. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow.”

This is an important dialogue, as much about Fridolin as about the daughter. The doctor is confronted with the idea of his own sexual desire as a lunacy, something irrational, both part of himself, and entirely in opposition to the rational individual that he considers himself to be, as much a pervert and lunatic as this young girl.

Fridolin now leaves, following the carriage of Nightingale, the details having the fantastic quality of a fairy tale. A few fragments from the ride:

They crossed Alser Street and then drove on under a viaduct through dim and deserted side streets toward the outlying district. Fridolin was afraid that the driver of his carriage would lose sight of the carriage ahead, but whenever he stuck his head out of the open window into the unnaturally warm air, he saw the other carriage and the coachman with the tall black silk hat sitting motionless on the box a little distance in front of him.

Suddenly, with a violent jolt, the carriage turned into a side street and plummeted down as though into an abyss between iron fences, stone walls, and terraces.

A garden gate stood wide open. The hearse in front drove on, deeper into the abyss, or into the darkness that seemed like one.

When the doctor arrives at the house, the password is given. Again, we have the image of two men, the duality of Fridolin, it is he himself who is the guardian over this secret place, allowing himself entrance.

He heard a harmonium playing, and two servants in dark livery, their faces covered by grey masks, stood to the left and right of him.

“Password?” two voices whispered in unison. And he answered, “Denmark.”

As said before, the movie features a mystic cult, while the story’s characters are clearly in Catholic clerical dress:

One of the servants took his fur coat and disappeared with it into an adjoining room; the other opened a door, and Fridolin stepped into a dimly lit, almost dark room with high ceilings, hung on all sides with black silk. Masked people in clerical costume were walking up and down, sixteen to twenty persons all dressed as monks and nuns.

This is a contrast with the costumes of the film, which are variations on the historical outfits of a Venetian masquerade. A good contemporary example of such dress is here, “The Ridotto” by Pietro Longhi:

Ridotto of Venice

Eyes Wide Shut

Continuing the religious theme, the music of the story’s masquerade is liturgical:

A woman’s voice had joined the strings of the harmonium, and an old sacred Italian aria resounded through the room.

At a point in the ceremonies of both film and story, the women disrobe:

All the women stood there completely motionless, with dark veils around their heads, face, and necks, and black lace masks over their faces, but otherwise completely naked. Fridolin’s eyes wandered thirstily from voluptuous bodies to slender ones, from delicate figures to luxuriously developed ones – and the fact that each of these women remained a mystery despite hr nakedness, and that the enigma of the large eyes peering at him from under the black masks would remain unresolved, transformed the unutterable delight of going into an almost unbearable agony of desire. The other men were probably feeling what he felt.

A clear difference between the two is the variety of the bodies of these women, these are women that Fridolin has seen on the streets of Vienna that he has fantasized about, that he now sees exposed. The bodily perfection of the film’s women is something entirely different, women of a wealthy elysium, the models from an upmarket magazine, unclothed, their bodies like the marble of the bar of a VIP room of an exclusive club, unseen and known to only the elect. There is also the obvious point that if these were women of the streets of New York now re-created in Bill’s dreams, there would be a greater variety of skin tones.

nude woman of the masquerade

The men in the story now lose their monk robes, and display a range of rainbow colors in costumes of cavaliers, the noble warrior of the painting seen in Marianne’s apartment. They are, disturbingly for Fridolin, simultaneously the virtuous ideal and lusty animals. This contradiction is absent from the film, the martial ideal which existed in Vienna of the time, absent now. In the most infamous part of the film, there is now open and explicit sex, which is not at all a verbatim reading of the story, where no sex is visible in the house, and perhaps none takes place. The cavaliers and the nude women dance, yet never become closer than that. The events are part of Fridolin’s mind, yet this encounter, like the ones before, is frustrated by his own restraints; were he to imagine such an orgy as takes place in the movie, it would be a sign of a release from his inhibitions.

In both, however, the doctor is now warned by one of the women of the danger he’s in. This passage details the mysterious woman’s warnings, as well as the relative chastity of the event, despite what Fridolin himself deeply wants. A digression about the “wild tunes of the piano” in the following quote: in Eyes, the piano of the masquerade is an archaic relic, a marker of a society that is cultured, isolated, elite. The piano of “Dream Story” is simple sensual music, something like the torrid song of Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata”. A true contemporary equivalent for Nightingale in Eyes would be a frontman for a Prince cover band.

“It’ll soon be too late, go!”

He wouldn’t listen to her. “Do you mean to tell me there are no out-of-the-way rooms here where couples who have found each other can go? Will all these people here say goodbye with polite hand kisses? Hardly!”

And he pointed to the couples that were dancing in time with the wild tunes of the piano in the too bright, mirrored adjoining room, white bodies pressed against blue, red, and yellow silk. It seemed to him as though no one was concerned with him and the woman next to him now; they were standing alone in the smei-darkness of th middle room.

“Your hopes are in vain,” she whispered. “There are no small rooms such as you are dreaming of here. This is your last chance. Flee!”

“Come with me.”

She shook her head violently, as though in despair.

He laughed again and didn’t recognize his own laughter. “You’re making fun of me! Did these men and these women come here only to inflame each other and then go away? Who can forbid you to come away with me if you want to?”

In both story and movie, he is now found out and confronted by the partygoers. Again, another crucial change. The film has the doctor remove his mask, but he refuses the humiliating demand of taking off his clothes. The viewer might sympathize with this, few would want to take part in such a degrading exposure, but what takes place in the story is far more apt for the character. He is asked to remove his mask, and this is what he refuses, since this would be admitting that he, Fridolin, had these lusts. In fact, he states explicitly that to remove his mask would be worse than to be naked among these people.

“Off with the mask!” a few demanded simultaneously. Fridolin stretched his arms out in front of him as though for protection. It seemed to him a thousand times worse to be the only unmasked one among so many masks than to be the only one naked among people who were dressed. And with a firm voice, he said, “If one of you is offended by my presence here, I am ready to give him satisfaction in the usual way. But I will not take off my mask only if all of you will.”

Note the “I am ready to give him satisfaction in the usual way”, which would be a duel. He has once again been thwarted in his desire, so he seeks the security of the role of noble warrior.

The next voice, not incidentally, has the quality of a military man.

“Take off the mask!” another commanded in a high-pitched, insolent voice, which reminded Fridolin of the tone of an officer giving orders. “We’ll tell you what’s in store for you to your face, not your mask.”

“I won’t take it off,” said Fridolin in an even sharper tone, “and woe to him who dares touch me.”

Given what we know of Fridolin’s character, we may consider the last line either one more piece of comic ridiculousness, or, in a story made up of dreaming, a moment of heroic fantasy.

The mysterious woman is now, appropriately, back in the clothes of a nun to redeem Fridolin:

An arm suddenly reached for his face, as if to tear off his mask, when suddenly a door opened and one of the women – Fridolin had no doubt which one it was – stood there dressed as a nun, as he had first seen her. Behind her in the overbright room the others could be seen, naked with veiled faces, crowded together, silent, a frightened group. But the door closed again immediately.

“Leave him alone,” said the nun. “I’m prepared to redeem him.”

This heroic desire is thwarted, just as his sexual desire is frustrated again and again. Fridolin attempts to block this woman’s sacrifice by finally allowing his mask to drop, but it is too late, her redemption has been accepted. The movements at the end are properly fantastic, the disrobing, the falling of the hair, the doctor pushed away and out, as if propelled by the waves of a repulsing magnet, a not uncommon sensation of dreams where motions are not our own, or have sudden, greater momentum than they ever would in waking life.

“No,” he said, raising his voice. “My life means nothing to me if I have to leave here without you. I won’t ask who you are or where you come from. What difference can it make to you, gentlemen, whether or not you keep up this masquerade drama, even if it’s supposed to have a serious ending? Whoever you may be gentlemen, you surely have other lives than this one. But I’m not an actor, not here or elsewhere, and if I’ve been forced to play a part from necessity, I give it up now. I feel I’ve happened into a fate that no longer has anything to do with this masquerade, and I will tell you my name, take off my mask, and be responsible for all the consequences.”

“Don’t do it!” cried the nun, “You’ll only ruin yourself without saving me! Go!” And turning to the others, she said, “Here I am, take me – all of you!”

The dark nun’s habit dropped from her as if by magic, and she stood there in the radiance of her white body. She reached for her veil which was wrapped around her face, head, and neck, and unwound it. It sank to the floor. A mass of dark hair fell in great profusion over her shoulders, breasts, and hips, but before Fridolin could even glance at her face he was seized by irresistible arms, torn away, and pushed to the door. A moment later he found himself in the entryway. The door fell shut behind him; a masked servant brought him his fur and helped him put it on, and the outer door opend. As though driven by an invisible force, he hurried out.

The film has a woman who offers herself for sacrifice as well, but there are no protests from Fridolin, no attempts at gallantry, no expression of desire for this woman which requires him saving her. The nature of the sacrifice in the two works is different as well; the movie implies that her life will be taken, while in the story, the redemption will take place through this woman being ravaged sexually by the cavaliers: “Here I am, take me – all of you!” So we again have another paradox of the house. The partygoers are dressed as holy figures, the lust ridden men as cavaliers, and then we have a wanton woman who acts virtuously, and now there is now a holy redemption through debauchery.

Before reaching home, there are a few more details in the story establishing a dream state, not simply of atmosphere or vividness, but fantastic moments entirely alien to reality. Fridolin enters the carriage after leaving the party:

The servant replied with a wave of his hand so little servantlike that any objection was out of the question. The coachman’s ridiculously high top hat towered into the night sky. The wind blew gusts; violet clouds flew across the sky. In view of his experience tonight, Fridolin could not fool himself into thinking that he was free to do anything but step into the carriage, which started off the moment he was inside.

Note the surreal size of the top hat, and the unnatural violet of the clouds. Violet is used previously for the imperial robe of the prince, and later, for the imperial robe of an imaginary queen. Here it elevates the chaotic, the pagan, these violent unruly clouds, to the point of supreme power.

At the end of the journey, the carriage doors move entirely on their own, like objects animated by magic. The coachman, though never seeing or speaking to the doctor, knows where to go and when to depart, like someone spellbound and receiving orders from somewhere else:

The carriage began to jostle, going downhill, faster and faster. Fridolin, gripped with anxiety and alarm, was just about to smash one of the opaque windows when the carriage suddenly halted. Both doors opend simultaneously as if through some mechanism, as though Fridolin was sarcastically being given the choice between the right and the left door. He jumped out of the carriage; the doors closed with a bang – and, with he coachman paying not the slightest attention to Fridolin, the carriage drove away across an open field into the night.

At this point in both stories, the doctor returns home, where his wife wakes from her sleep in a burst of laughter, then tells him about her troubling dream.


Beside the changes to the masquerade, from one in Catholic costume to that of a mystic sect, those made to the dream of the doctor’s wife are the most important in the migration from story to film. The movie’s dream is in many ways much simpler, though carrying a common seed: that while Bill moves through his own dream world, tantalized by images he creates from his own past memories, his wife carries an image of him as well, traveling in her own world with this man, then betraying him. Alice dreams of a pagan place, an empty beautiful field, where she and Bill have sex before he disappears suddenly. She then has sex with the naval officer she fantasized about, before she is suddenly in an orgy among thousands of men and women, where she has sex with countless more men. When her husband returns she laughs at the way she betrayed him, and it is in the middle of her laughter at his humiliation that she awakes. The dream parallels what has taken place with Bill, though her fantasies are consummated while his are not. He avoids the degradation of being forced to disrobe at the masquerade, only to be humiliated in his wife’s dream. The shame of disrobing that he avoids at the house is of no importance in his wife’s dream, where she and her lovers are naked, and he may well be clothed.

We were in a deserted city…and our clothes were gone. We were naked…and I was terrified…(ALICE starts sobbing)…and I felt ashamed. Oh, God…and I was angry because I thought it was your fault. You rushed away to go find clothes for us. As soon as you were gone, it was completely different. I felt wonderful. Then I was lying in a beautiful garden…stretched out naked in the sunlight…and a man walked out of the woods. He was the man from the hotel, the man I told you about. The naval officer. He stared at me…and then he just laughed. He just laughed at me.

But that’s not the end…is it? Why don’t you tell me the rest of it?

It’s too awful.

It’s only a dream.

He was kissing me…and then we were making love. Then there were all these people around us…hundreds of them, everywhere. Everyone was fucking. And then I…I was fucking other men. So many…I don’t know how many I was with. And I knew you could see me in the arms of all these men…just fucking all these men. I wanted to make fun of you…to laugh in your face. And so I laughed as loud as I could. That must have been when you woke me up.

Albertine’s dream of the original story plays on the themes of Christian and heroic virtue that are prominent in the story’s masquerade, where the partygoers dressed in clerical outfits denoting Christian virtue, their carnal selves underneath, a tainted woman demonstrating a heroic bravery that Fridolin lacks.

Her dream is set in a pre-Christian pagan place where a virtuous act, his fidelity to his wife, isn’t heroic, but laughed at as weakness. It is all deeply upsetting for Fridolin, a man who wishes to hold onto the idea of a rational, moral universe. The dream opens with her near a city both European and that of the East, a union of their world and that of the “1001 Nights”:

“I didn’t see this city, but I knew it was there. It was far below and was ringed by a high wall – a really fantastical city that I can’t describe. It was neither an oriental city nor an old German one, exactly – rather it was first one and then the other. In any case, it was a city buried long ago.”

It is a city buried and behind a wall, a place of submerged, hidden carnal urges.

She gets dressed and Fridolin arrives, now both in the clothes suitable for the roles Fridolin wishes for them, a princess and a virtuous warrior whose appearance connotes his valor and purity, clothed in gold, silver, and a dagger. Note the galley slaves which bring Fridolin to Albertine, just as in the “1001 Nights”, and that among the costumes are Oriental ones.

I opened the wardrobe to look, and instead of the wedding dress a great many other clothes were hanging there – costumes, actually, like in an opera, splendid, oriental. Which of these should I wear for the wedding? I wondered. At that point the wardrobe suddenly fell shut or disappeared, I can’t remember exactly. The room was very bright, but outside the window it was pitch black…All of a sudden you were there – galley slaves had rowed you here – I saw them disappear into the darkness. You were dressed in splendid clothes, in gold and silver, with a dagger in a silver sheath at your side, and you lifted me down out of the window. I too was now gorgeously dressed, like a princess.

Fridolin now disappears, Albertine is joined by the man from Denmark she lusted after, they finally consummate her fantasy and are suddenly surrounded by other couples in carnal union. Albertine is not sure if she has sex with other men after this, but this is not the point which disturbs Fridolin, but rather what takes place upon his return:

Then, while you stood in the courtyard, a young woman with a crown on her head and a purple cloak appeared at one of the high arched windows between red curtains. She was the queen of this country, and she looked down at you with a stern and questioning gaze.

She was holding a piece of parchment in her hand – your death sentence, in which both your guilt and the reasons for your conviction were written. She asked you – I didn’t hear the words, but I knew it – whether you were prepared to be her lover, in which case your death sentence would be canceled. You shook your head, refusing.

Then the queen moved toward you. Her hair was loose and flowed over her naked body, and she held out her diadem to you – and I realized that she was the girl from the Danish seashore that you saw one morning naked on the ledge of a bathing hut. She didn’t say a word, but the meaning of her presence, yes, of her silence, was to find out whether you would be her husband and the ruler of the country. Since you refused her once more, she suddenly disappeared, and I saw at the same time that they were erecting a cross for you – not down in the courtyard, no, but on the flower-bedecked, infinitely broad meadow where I was resting in the arms of my lover in the middle of all the other lovers.

You climbed higher and higher, the path became wider as the forest receded on both sides, and then you were standing at the edge of the meadow at an enormous, incomprehensible distance from me. But you greeted me with smiling eyes, as a sign that you had fulfilled my wish and had brought me everything I needed: clothing and shoes and jewelry. But I thought your gestures stupid and senseless beyond belief, and I was tempted to make fun of you, to laugh in your face – because you had refused the hand of a queen out of loyalty to me, had endured torture, and now came tottering up here to a horrible death. I ran toward you, and you toward me faster and faster – I began to float in the air, and you did too, but suddenly we lost sight of each other, and I knew: we had flown past each other. Then I hoped that you would at least hear my laughter, just at the moment when they were nailing you to the cross. And so I laughed, as loudly and shrilly as I could.

Fridolin acts more virtuously than he did in his own travels, yet he is considered a fool for not surrendering to his own carnality, by all those in the field, by his wife. The story may have a setting like that of the “1001 Nights”, but it is one where women have power, with a female leader wearing a crown and an imperial robe.

Fridolin wishes to have the heroic qualities of a bygone time, courage and martial valor, yet the lack of these virtues are not the cause of difficulties between him and his wife. The gallantry one associates with the figure of the valorous man makes him a figure of ridicule in his wife’s dream. Fridolin returns from travels where the sexual self underneath the most virtuous exterior is revealed, to a home that he wishes to be a sanctum from such hungers, only to be confronted by a wife who reveals that she thinks even these external virtues are ridiculous. She dreams of Fridolin dying as a christian martyr, a man on a cross, and thinks this hilarious.

Fridolin’s sense of himself and his world is shaken. A later passage captures this vertigo.

After finishing his consulting hours he stopped to check on his wife and child, as he usually did, and ascertained, not without satisfaction, that Albertine’s mother was visiting and that the little girl was having a French lesson with her governess. And only when he was on the stairs again did he realize that all this order, all this regularity, all this security of existence was nothing but an illusion and a deception.

Both Fridolin and Bill now go back and examine each part of the night before: the grieving daughter, the prostitute, the costume shop, the masquerade. A search for answers, but also the possibility of consummating what went unconsummated, a reprisal for his wife’s dream infidelity.

* The description of Nightingale can be seen in the larger context of how the Jew may have been perceived in society from this passage in Hannah Arendt’s The Origin of Totalitarianism, on how Jew hatred merged with hatred of the parvenu, with Nightingale both parvenu and pariah:

The “Jew in general,” on the other hand, as described by professional Jew-haters, showed those qualities which the parvenu must acquire if he wants to arrive—inhumanity, greed, insolence, cringing servility, and determination to push ahead. The trouble in this case was that these qualities have also nothing to do with national attributes and that, moreover, these Jewish business-class types showed little inclination for non-Jewish society and played almost as small a part in Jewish social history. As long as defamed peoples and classes exist, parvenu- and pariah-qualities will be produced anew by each generation with incomparable monotony, in Jewish society and everywhere else.

That there is something magical and exotic in Nightingale’s gifts, a beautiful mixture of strange chords played with the left hand (as everyone knows, the left side is the sinister side) co-incides with Arendt’s description of the Jews in French society (though this overflows with a more general discussion of the Jew in European society) as something like members of an exotic circus, a subclass of magicmakers and artists:

The role of the inverts was to show their abnormality, of the Jews to represent black magic (“necromancy”), of the artists to manifest another form of supranatural and superhuman contact, of the aristocrats to show that they were not like ordinary (“bourgeois”) people.

In Eyes Wide Shut, Nightingale is no longer Jewish (or not such that it’s made note), his powers are not necromantic, but the masquerade is transformed from something faintly exotic, but comic, into something like a secular black magic ritual.


All images and dialogue excerpts copyright Warner Brothers.

On April 25, 2015, this post underwent a copy edit. On January 11, 2017, the lengthy Schnitzler excerpt describing Nightingale was added. The subsequent paragraph highlighting some details of the excerpt, along with the Hannah Arendt footnote, was added Janaury 12, 2017. On September 13, 2017, this post received another copy edit.

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Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story Part Three


(SPOILERS for both the movie Eyes Wide Shut and “Dream Story”. The translation of “Dream Story” is an excellent one by Margaret Schaefer from the collection Night Games. To supplement some points, stills from the movie have been used. Some of these stills contain nudity. For the usual tiresome reasons, the usual suspect parts of these stills have been distorted)


The doctor in film and story goes back to the costume shop, meeting again the owner and his daughter. In both, the doctor returns the costume. Where the film emphasizes the amount paid and the mask gone missing, the story does not note the absence of a mask at all. It then returns to a moment not in the film, Fridolin’s attempt the night before to help out the mentally ill daughter.

“I am also here,” said Fridolin in the tone of a police magistrate, “to have a word with you about your daughter.”

Herr Gibiser’s nostrils twitched – whether it was out of discomfort, scorn, or annoyance was difficult to tell.

“What do you mean?” he asked Fridolin in a similar tone of voice.

“Yesterday,” said Fridolin, with the outstretched fingers of one hand resting on the office desk, “you said that your daughter was not quite normal mentally. The situation in which we found her does seem to indicate that. And since chance made me a participant or at least a spectator of this strange scene, I would very much like to advise you to consult a doctor about her.”

Fridolin is complicit in this scene, because he felt lust for this girl. There is now an “unnaturally long” penholder, which may be a phallic sign, and an indicator that we remain in a dream world.

Gibiser, twirling an unnaturally long penholder in his hand, surveyed Fridolin with an insolent air.

“I suppose the doctor himself would be so good as to take the treatment upon himself?”

“I beg you not to put words in my mouth that I haven’t said,” Fridolin answered sharply.

The store owner’s barb finds its mark, for if his daughter is guilty of depraved feeling and in need of a cure, then so is the doctor.

At that moment the door that led to the inner room opened, and a young man with an open coat over an evening suit stepped out. Fridolin knew immediately that it could be none other than one of the inquisitors of the night before. No doubt he came from Pierrette’s room. He seemed taken aback when he caught sight of Fridolin, but immediately regained his composure, greeted Gibiser casually with a wave of his hand, lit a cigarette, for which he used a match lying on the desk, and left the flat.

“So that’s how it is,” remarked Fridolin with a contemptuous twitch of his mouth and a bitter taste on his tongue.

“What do you mean?” asked Gibiser with perfect equanimity.

“So you changed your mind, Herr Gibiser,” said Fridolin, letting his eyes wander about significantly from the entrance door to the door from which the judge had come, “changed your mind about notifying the police.”

“We came to another agreement, Herr Doctor,” remarked Gibiser coldly, and stood up as though an interview had ended. Fridolin started to go. Gibiser obligingly opened the doors, and in an affectless manner he said, “If the Herr Doctor should want anything else…it needn’t necessarily be a monk’s robe.”

A variation of all this is in the film, though the small changes alter the implications. What takes place in the story is an absurdist rendering of Fridolin’s own conflicting feelings of lust and protectiveness for his own daughter, who will one day be courted by beaus driven by his same impulses. He wishes to protect this young girl, yet he also lusts for her, and she feels this back. Fridolin condemns the store owner, yet this man is not much different from other fathers, who must accommodate themselves to the sexual lives of their children. Another crucial point is that before there were two inquisitors, now only one leaves. This, I think, has to do with these men expressing a duality, with one half, the rational, moral, restrained part, leaving the daughter’s room, while the carnal half remains.

The store owner of the film is made into something simpler and more sinister, a venal man who pimps out his daughter to the men of the night before, and speaks of an arrangement that can be made with Bill as well. Again, the father of the story and the inquisitors are both expressions of Fridolin, whereas the men of the movie are made into something entirely other, part of a disturbing sexual world that Bill has intruded into, but does not belong to.

MILICH [the store owner]
Would you like to say hello to Dr. Harford?

DAUGHTER extends hand. BILL gently shakes it.


The TWO ASIAN MEN emerge from the back of the store.

Thank you, Mr. Milich. I’ll call you soon.

Goodbye, gentlemen. Merry christmas and happy new year.

And you too.

Well, Dr. Harford, here is your receipt.

DAUGHTER smiles radiantly.

I’m tearing up your deposits and thanks for the business.

Mr. Milich, last night…you were going to call the police.

Things change. We have come to another arrangement. And by the way, if the good doctor should ever want anything again…anything at all…

MILICH meaningfully pulls his daughter close to him. A close-up of the DAUGHTER, still smiling radiantly.

It needn’t be a costume.

Another of Kubrick’s masterful shots, where we see the daughter, the light fully capturing her beauty and radiant smile, yet at the same time there being an eerie hollowness to the image, the child as wind-up doll.

Storeowner's daughter smiling

The doctor continues his search for answers by going to Nightingale’s hotel. There is again the contrast between the brevity of the scene on the page, and its length in the movie, though both give much the same information.

A tough-looking concierge with sly, red-rimmed eyes, ready to give information to the police, willingly gave Fridolin information. Herr Nightingale had driven up around five o’clock in the morning in the company of two other gentlemen who had disguised their faces, perhaps intentionally, with scarves wrapped high around their heads and necks. While Nightingale was in his room, the gentlemen had paid his bill for the last four weeks, and when he didn’t appear after half an hour, one of the men had personally brought him down. All three had then driven to the North Train Station. Nightingale had appeared to be very agitated – well, why not tell the whole truth to a man who seemed so trustworthy? – and, yes, had tried to slip the concierge a letter, which however the two men had immediately intercepted. Any letters for Herr Nightingale – so the men had explained – would be picked up by a person properly authorized to do so.

There was nothing to be done about Nightingale for the time being. They had been extremely cautious and probably had good reason for it.

Fridolin’s caution here does not reflect a simple physical cowardice, but his own reluctance to look too deeply into himself. If we consider the world he travels in a dream world, one he himself constructs, with the second masquerade his most hidden inmost desires, then what takes place now should be seen as his own reaction to these desires. Where the two inquisitors were reflections of himself, so too, I believe, were the two servants who gave him entrance to the house, his own self letting him peer deeply at his own carnality, and the two men who now appear in the story to take Nightingale away are a projection of himself as well, wanting to get rid of any trace or connection to these desires. The letter that the pianist tries to pass but is unable to, is the unconscious trying to transmit a message to the conscious mind that it cannot, whether because the very nature of the message won’t be understood by the rational, conscious mind, or because such messages are suppressed.

Given that the movie has removed much of the fantastic and metaphorical cues of the story, when the film’s concierge gives this information about Nightingale, these men become more “real”, frightening men who act on behalf of a secret society that hosted the night’s masquerade. When they take away Nightingale, his face is bruised, a detail of violence absent in the original text, a sign of intimidation unnecessary in the original text. A countervailing note is the way the concierge delivers the monologue in a way that sometimes seems frivolous or mocking, as if it’s a performance that he’s been paid to give, the intent to make Bill believe a false story of brutality so he’ll stop asking questions. In one of the few moments where the camera is not with Bill or Alice, it returns to the concierge after Bill has left, and we are given an ambiguous moment of his nervousness, though whether he’s unsettled about his performance achieving the desired intent, or the repercussions of his having given this information, goes unanswered.

Concierge after Bill leaves

Later, the doctor contacts Marion / Marianne to cheat with her in order to pay back his wife for her betrayal. This is a very short moment in the film, with a phone call to the woman’s house answered by the fiancé, after which Bill hangs up. It is an extended scene in the story, a moment which best conveys that the virtue most wanted from this man is empathy, rather than heroic valor, and this lack is what hurts him and those around him. It might be the most upsetting passage in the story, and makes clear that this is a woman not sick with infatuation but crushing grief.

He rang the bell, and Marianne herself opened the door. She was dressed in black, and around her neck she wore a black hade necklace that he had never seen on her before. Her face became slightly flushed.

“You’ve made me wait a long time,” she said with a feeble smile.

“Forgive me, Fraulein Marianne, but I had a particularly busy day.”

She sat motionless, and tears streamed down her cheeks. He saw them without sympathy, more with impatience; and the thought that she might in the next minute perhaps be lying at his feet once more, repeating her confession of yesterday, filled him with fear. And since she said nothing, he stood up brusquely. “much as I regret it, Fraulein Marianne-” He looked at his watch.

She raised her head, looked at Fridolin, and her tears kept flowing. He would gladly have said a kind word to her, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

She didn’t move, as though she had heard neither his congratulations nor his farewell. He held out his hand to her, but she did not take it, and he repeated almost in a tone of reproach, “Well, I sincerely hope that you’ll keep me posted about your health. Goodbye, Fraulein, Marianne.”

She sat there as if turned to stone. He left; for a second he stopped in the doorway, as if he were giving her a last opportunity to call him back. But she seemed rather to turn her head away from him, and he closed the door behind him.

Both Bill and Fridolin re-visit the house where the masquerade took place. The location and type of house in both works is of great importance. Eyes gives us a vast mansion on an estate far from the city. It is in all respects distant from the doctor’s life, in positions both social, economic, and geographic, its hosted perversities far from his own life as well.

Mansion of the masquerade

This contrasts with the source material, which aptly makes its masquerade house an undistinguished one, much like many others, in the heart of the city, with the bustle of children and families close by.

It was a quiet little street. In one front garden there were rose bushes carefully covered with straw; in the one next to it there stood a baby carriage; a boy, dressed from head to foot in a blue wool knit, was romping about and a young woman was looking down from the first-floor window, laughing. Next came an empty lot, then an uncultivated fenced-in garden, then a small villa, next a lawn, and then, no doubt about it – there was the house he was looking for. It didn’t look grand or magnificent in the least. It was a one-story villa in modest Empire style and obviously renovated not very long ago.

In both cases, he receives a warning to cease his inquiries. The threat in the movie feels more literal, an actual warning from a secret society that he is in physical danger if he continues his questions. The alert in the story feels closer to an existential warning, that his questions into what took place is an investigation into his own desires, and may well endanger his own sense of self.

Now the doctor tries to visit the prostitute of the night before, with him discovering that she has AIDS in the movie and syphilis in the story. He goes to a café, casually flips through a newspaper before reading that the night before a beauty queen overdosed on drugs, the account in the New York Post of the movie, or that a baroness committed suicide while staying at a hotel, the plot point of the story.

Shortly after coming across the story, there is this passage:

He would see her; no one on earth could stop him from seeing the woman who had died because of him; indeed, who had died for him. He was the cause of her death – he alone – if this was the same woman. Yes, it was she. Returned to the hotel at four o’clock in the morning in the company of two men! Probably the same ones who had brought Nightingale to the train station a few hours later. They didn’t have a lot of scruples, those two!

Fridolin very much wants to transform what has taken place – a messy, unsuccessful search for sex – into a gallant quest. The two men who returned this woman to the hotel are those who took Nightingale away – they embody his own self, his own mind, eliminating all evidence of this inconvenient desire.

His investigation winds near its close as Fridolin and Bill now travel to the morgue to see the body, under the suspicion that it is the woman of the night before.


This section of the plot, a conclusion to the search for answers about the masquerade, is a brief episode in “Dream Story” and a much longer sequence in the movie. That it is a briefer moment of the former does not dilute its importance. Fridolin goes to the morgue to try and see first-hand the body of the suicide and confirm that it is the woman of the night before. There, he runs into Adler, a man he went to medical school with. He is the only male character of prominence other than Nightingale, and like Nightingale, a variation and double of Fridolin. Where Nightingale abandoned medicine for music, becoming more intuitive and sensual, Adler is at the other polarity, a cold, clinical doctor who works beside corpses, comfortable in his isolation of working nights among the dead. It might be imagined that Fridolin, with his lack of empathy, his aversion to intimacy, will become more and more like Adler as he grows older.

Fridolin looks among the bodies of the morgue with a flashlight and finds a possibility.

Was it her body – that wonderful, voluptuous body for which only yesterday he had felt such agonizing desire? He saw a yellowed, wrinkled neck; he saw two small and yet already somewhat limp girl’s breasts between which – as though the work of decomposition was already beginning – the breastbone already stood out with terrible clarity from the pale skin; he saw the rounding of her brown-tinged abdomen; he saw how the well-formed thighs now opened indifferently from a dark and now meaningless shadow; saw the kneecaps, slightly turned outward, the sharp edges of the calves and the slender feet with the toes turned inward.

The mysterious woman has a hold on him for her extraordinary virtue in pledging to save him, yet his obsession with her is also intertwined with her physical form. Now this body is entering the stages of decay, and that desire is lost. The obsessive feeling he has had, for the image of this woman, nude except for a nun’s veil, and the decomposition he is confronted with, is part of the same theme of the distance between the image of the material and the material itself which is throughout the book, whether it is the memory of the Danish girl for Fridolin, the officer for Albertine, the image Albertine holds of him in her dream, the image of Albertine that Fridolin holds in his. The image of this woman, of that moment in the masquerade, will persist, even while this body decays. There is a subtle point made here, I think, about Fridolin’s marriage to Albertine, a union whose bond lies with how the two saw each other during their courtship, blind to how each other is now. Fridolin confronts the decay of this woman’s body, but also the distance between his image of Albertine and who she is now, as well as what he is now and the vision of him Albertine once held onto.

This last point is also implied when Fridolin begins to look through the bodies of the morgue and realizes that he has no idea what the woman’s face looks like, that he has in fact been picturing his own wife as this woman.

He only knew her body – he had never seen her face, had only been able to catch a hasty glimpse of it at the moment he was leaving the ballroom last night, or rather had been chased out of the ballroom. He realized that he had not thought of this fact before because, up to this moment, in the last few hours since he had read the notice in the newspaper, he had envisaged the suicide, whose face he didn’t know with Albertine’s face. In fact, as he now shuddered to realize, it had been his wife that he had imagined as the woman he was seeking.

Throughout the story, Fridolin has always suffered from a lack of empathy, a too cold distance from others. Now, for this dead woman, this distance disappears. It begins when he first asks Adler to see the corpses in the morgue. My bold for emphasis.

“I have a feeling that this so-called Baron Dubieski is someone I knew casually years ago. And I’d like to know if I’m right.” [Fridolin’s line]

“Suicidium?” [Adler]

Fridolin nodded. “Yes, suicide,” he translated, as though he wished to restore the matter to a personal plane.

Then, when he comes across the possibility, he is moved by feelings he has never known as a doctor:

The head was hanging down on one side; long, dark strands of hair feel almost all the way to the floor. Instinctively Fridolin reached out his hand to put the head in its proper position, but with a dread which, as a doctor, was otherwise foreign to him, he hesitated.

He moves, arguably, out of a place of strict science, to the landscape of magic. The body becomes imbued with a subtle anima. Fridolin sees life stirring in the eyes, and he is drawn closer and closer to look into them.

Rigid as they were, it seemed to him that the fingers tried to move, to seize his; yes, it seemed to him as though from underneath the half-closed eyelids a vague and distant look was searching for his eyes, and as though pulled by a magic force, he bent over her.

Suddenly, he heard a voice whisper behind him, “What on earth are you doing?” [this is Adler speaking]

The use of the phrase “magic force” is not, I think, an idle one. A sort of magic starts here, Fridolin looks into the eyes, achieving something closer to empathy than at any point in the story, and then – the spell is broken by Adler, a cold rationalist at the pole furthest from magic, sensuality, sex.

The magical trance has ended. He moves back to being the clinician of the story, and this is a regrettable choice, returning him to a more limited world. Note also the “pedantry”, a brief moment where he must re-acquire the instincts of an unempathetic man. My bolds for the key phrase.

He freed his fingers from those of the dead body, clasped the slender wrists, and with great care, even a certain pedantry, he laid the ice-cold arms alongside the trunk. And it seemed to him as though she had just now, just now this moment, died.

Now, one of the most important passages of the story:

“Well – was she the one?” [asked Adler]

Fridolin hesitated a moment, then nodded wordlessly and was hardly aware that his affirmation might in fact be a falsehood. Because whether the woman who was now lying in the morgue was the same one he had held naked in his arms twenty-four hours ago while Nightingale played his wild piano, or whether the dead woman was someone else, a stranger he had never met before, he knew: even if the woman whom he had sought, desired, perhaps loved for an hour was still alive and no matter how she now lived her life – he knew that what was lying behind him in that arched room, illuminated by the light of flickering gas flames, was a shadow among shadows, dark, without meaning or mystery like all shadows – and meant nothing to him, could mean nothing to him except the pale corpse of the past night, doomed to irrevocable decay.

The paradoxical image of sensuality and virtue persists, will continue to persist for all his life, and whether or not the woman here was the figure of mystery behind this image, is now of no consequence.

Eyes has a shorter morgue scene, entirely without dialogue, with Bill shown the beauty queen while a sleepy doctor stands by, Bill moving closer and closer to the woman before he stops himself. The nude woman’s body, like that of all the female nudes in the film, is perfect, without any sign of decay or flaw. Bill then receives a call to meet with Ziegler, the doctor who hosted the opening party, for urgent reasons.

Ziegler is entirely from whole cloth, absent from the original story, and not Adler or an Adler variation at all. He strikes me as very true in every note, a wealthy arrogant doctor of New York City, callous and grasping enough to have sex with a woman in the bathroom of a party his wife is at, a man who is casual in his cruelness, entirely blind to how his malice is seen by others. The character has all these qualities – yet he doesn’t come across as a stock villain, but rather, a very recognizable man. This, no doubt, is in part due to the excellent performance by the late Sidney Pollack. A supplemental point: though Bill and Ziegler suffer from wayward lust, the viewer does not see one as a variation of the other, again making the movie about a man intruding on the world of disturbed sexual desire, rather than a story about the exploration of his own.

Ziegler at pool table

Ziegler reveals he was at the second masquerade, a point underscored by the way his parlor feels like a light re-shuffling of elements of the rooms of the masquerade house, such as the lined bookshelves, the oil portraits, the similar carpet pattern, the red of the pool table at the center like the red of the circle in which the ceremony is performed. He makes ambiguous warnings, telling Bill that the people at the masquerade are incredibly powerful so he should stop asking questions, but that no harm has come to Nightingale, and though the beauty queen is the woman with the blue headdress, she died of a simple overdose. Ziegler tells Bill that there was no sacrifice, it was just a ruse to keep him from talking. What’s interesting is the way the movie takes Fridolin’s own doubts about the sacrifice, his wish that there be no sacrifice at all and he not need to take up any quest, and places them in the mouth of Ziegler.

A secret society? Well, yes, it certainly was secret. But they probably knew one another. Were they aristocrats, perhaps members of the court? He thought of certain archdukes who might easily be capable of such pranks. And the women? Probably…recruited from brothels. Well, that was not by any means certain. At any rate, they were very attractive. But what about the woman who had sacrificed herself for him? Sacrificed? Why did he persist in imagining that it was really a sacrifice? It had been an act. Of course, the whole thing had been an act. He should have been grateful to have gotten out of the scrape so lightly. Well, why not? He had preserved his dignity. The cavaliers must have recognized that he was nobody’s fool. And she must have realized it in any case. Very likely she had cared more for him than for all these archdukes or whatever they were.

Why was she willing to sacrifice herself for me?

Bill, are you so sure she was the kind of woman for whom the things you imagined were actually a sacrifice? If she attended these affairs and knew the rules so well, do you suppose it would have made any difference to her whether she belonged to one of the men, or to all of them? Bill, she was just a thousand-a-night- hooker – no more, no less.

BILL stares at him blankly.

Bill, tell me, did you never consider the possibility that the whole thing might have been nothing more than a charade?…A charade played out for the benefit of someone who didn’t belong – to frighten them and make sure they keep quiet?

Though whether or not to believe in the sacrifice still lies with the doctor, Fridolin’s need to doubt her virtue is because of the codes of virtue and gallantry of his own time, codes by which Fridolin has failed. That the sacrificed woman had met such codes, giving herself up to save another, while Fridolin lacked the bravery to do so, is something he does not or cannot accept.

A further discussion of the sacrifice in Eyes requires a separate section to look at the movie’s own themes, implanted and separate from those in the original story.


Eyes has several concerns not in the book, one being a man attempting communion with women and failing throughout. This is something different from Fridolin’s lack of empathy, as Fridolin makes no such attempts. That Fridolin wishes to act gallantly or be seen bravely, is for his own benefit, that he may demonstrate and be observed having this virtue, rather than for any attempt at a deeper contact with the women of the story.

There are five kisses in the movie, absent from the story, each an attempt at this contact, each for different reasons a failure.

Bill kissing Alice

A kiss that Alice breaks off, before giving herself a look in the mirror, a point of self-analysis and self-doubt. Perhaps asking herself, given all this happiness, my great husband and daughter – why am I unhappy about much of my life? This question might be tied to her own feelings about having to stay at home and take care of their child while her husband goes to work.

Marion kisses Bill

A deep kiss from Marion which Bill rejects, a kiss made out of desperate need for comfort, which Bill cannot reciprocate. When he does call her house to perhaps follow up on the promise of this kiss, it is for the petty reason of striking back at his wife.

Domino kisses Bill

A long, deep kiss which might be a communion between these two people except for a detail. Domino is a sex worker, and she makes this kiss as a servant might to a subject. The camera pulls back and we see that she is bending over and down to kiss Bill.

Domino bending down

This moment is interrupted by his wife’s phone call.

Masked woman and Bill kiss

There is the lengthy kiss at the masquerade between Bill and the woman with the blue headdress. Yet this also is a failure, it’s entirely a ceremonial one, their lips never touch because of the masks.

He remains obsessed with this woman, finds her body at the morgue, and drawn closer and closer, he does simply look into the woman’s eyes, as in “Dream”, but moves towards a kiss, before breaking away, knowing it is now too late, he is in the world of the living, she is in the world of the dead. In many ways, she is the woman he feels closest to, other than his wife, and the possibility of his reconciling and finding communion with his wife is left an open and ambiguous point by the film’s end. This woman has perhaps sacrificed her life for the doctor, while his wife has made the sacrifice of forgiving him for his attempts at infidelity.

woman at the morgue

Also absent from the story, but prominent in the movie, is the idea of society as partitions closed off by wealth and privilege, which require the equivalent of passwords to gain access. Some of these passwords Bill has, and some he lacks. In order to gain access to the costume shop at night he must show his doctor’s ID and have the extra money to pay the gratuity. He has the money for a long cab ride, and an extra hundred dollars for the cab to wait. The second masquerade, obviously, has a password which he knows, and a second trick password: the code that there is no second password. He uses his doctor’s ID to get information at the diner, to find out what took place from the concierge, and to gain access to the morgue.

That there are, literally, gates through which he can and cannot pass is made clear through two similar images.

Bill at gate of costume shop

Bill at gate of estate

The first is the gate of the clothing store, by which he gains access through the wealth and identification of a doctor. The second gate is that of the estate of the masquerade, which remains closed.

That his movement is restricted by his economic place, rather than anything inherent in his character, is made clear in the scene from Ziegler’s parlor, where he makes explicit how they knew right away he did not belong, even though he had a costume and password for the event:

Was it the second password? Is that what gave me away?

Yes, finally. But not because you didn’t know it. It’s because there was no second password. Of course, it didn’t help a whole lot that those people arrive in limos and you showed up in a taxi.

That the second password doesn’t exist, that ignorance of the fact is what marks those in the society and those without, is specific to the movie, not to be found in the story. It further conveys the exclusivity of this group and that it is ultimately a rigged game, that the expected method of answering a riddle to gain entry is pointless: the very fact that you think there is a riddle makes clear that you should not enter. Further, no second password is necessary because it can already be seen whether you should be at this place based on external cues, like a cab for a ride instead of a limo.

So, Bill has stumbled upon a corrupt enclave of extraordinary wealth, all powerful, at the heart of society. Bill may be able to travel to places restricted to some of us because of his medical license, but Ziegler can travel to those places too, as well as many more forbidden to Bill. This is not a recognition of the benevolence associated with a doctor, but recognition of power.

These themes are all intertwined with the last one indigenous to the movie, the setting of the whole story at Christmas. The holiday marks, of course, the birth of a savior who sacrifices himself for the redemption of man. This context, I believe, is not an arbitrary one, but an attempt to move this idea of a virtuous sacrifice from a religious context, which a Jew, a Mslim, any atheist or skeptic might question as having taken place, to a secular one, a woman having actually sacrificed herself for this man. Where believing in the Christian sacrifice is tied with Christian belief itself, and the obscurity of an event that took place thousands of years ago, Bill’s belief or non-belief in this sacrifice lies only with the acceptance of the consequences of his belief. If he is to believe that the sacrifice genuinely took place, it would mean disrupting his entire life and abandoning everything he has.

The world he lives in is something like ancient Rome, a wealthy elite devoted to a pagan cult with a sudden self-sacrifice that places this entirely in context, making the place look utterly squalid and corrupt. An obvious aside: this cult’s emphasis on materialism and a world twisted for the benefit of an elite is not alien to society’s top tier, then or now. Were he to believe the sacrifice actually took place and continue his investigations, he would be like a pre-Constantine Roman who took to Christian belief, a believer that there were virtues lacking in the society he lived in. It would mean leaving behind the comforts of his life, risking the possibility of exile and the appearance of a lunatic. Were he to believe the sacrifice actually took place, that would be his only moral choice, and it might offer him the possibility of a secular communion that eludes him so far.

It’s unimplied what takes place after the end of the movie, but of what we see until that point, Bill considers this burden too great, and refuses to see the sacrifice as real. We in the audience may wish to refuse to believe in the sacrifice as well, to believe that the choice he makes, to try and return to the life he had, is the best possible compromise, when it might be the lesser one. Where Fridolin is a man who very much wishes to be a hero in such a simple conflict, yet very clearly is a timid man lacking the necessary virtues, the movie presents us with a figure who, outwardly, has many of these heroic qualities, someone very good looking, strong, who often does the proper thing, played by an actor who has a long career of heroic roles. Yet at this crucial point, the protagonist makes the easier choice – one that is also the wrong choice, though the audience may well wish that it were the right one, since few of us would have the strength to take on the same burden of questioning our lives so much.

A final, minor, note. I think everything just mentioned rests on what’s easily seen and said in the movie. I leave this small point for last since it’s far more tenuous. Ziegler may signify to other members the upcoming ceremony of the masquerade cult, placing the cult’s symbol, a banal star surrounding a circle at various points, throughout his house.

At the party, this star is lit up.

lit up small star

lit up large star

After the ceremony has been completed, when Bill visits Ziegler, the star is now off, as we might turn off Christmas lights after the end of that holiday.

unlit small star

unlit large star

However, this may well be just a simple star of the magi, and it may be off for the obvious reason that even the wealthy like to save electricity.


Both movie and story end with the doctor arriving home to his wife, finding his costume mask on the bed. Bill’s mask is missing already when he goes to the costume shop, so the viewer assumes that the cult behind the masquerade somehow acquired it, then placed it in his house as a final warning. The story has Fridolin assuming that his wife placed it there in an effort to get an explanation. Something in the doctor bursts now, in both versions. He lets out an unrestrained sob, and then confesses to his wife all that took place.

His wife’s reaction, however, is very different at this point. In the film, she is utterly devastated by what she hears, and they are both emotionally spent after the doctor’s revelations.

Bill devastated after revelations

Alice devastated after revelations

Only after, when they go later that morning to a toy store with their child is there an attempt at reconciliation, though no completed kiss. This is all in extraordinary contrast with the story, which has Albertine hearing about the attempts at infidelity with great calmness, no visible reaction whatsoever. Her attitude is shaped in part, I think, in what a woman’s choices were then compared to now: Albertine cannot simply divorce her husband and find work on her own. This option, however difficult, is available for Alice. Albertine, who I read as far more perceptive than her husband, sees this man with a clarity that she’s never had before, a man who is fundamentally weak, childish in his attitude to his wife, and lacking the courage to engage in any sexual adventure, even an impulsive one born out of brief petty jealousy of her past lusts. Some image she had of him has finally died. His weaknesses will make it easier for him to stay loyal to their union, while also making him increasingly intolerable as a husband. That they are both awake for a long time to come, that they will now see each other without illusions, is entirely a good thing.

Albertine hadn’t once interrupted him with a curious or impatient question. She probably felt that he neither would nor could keep anything from her. She lay thee calmly, her arms folded under her head, and remained silent long after Fridolin had finished. Finally – he was lying stretched out beside her – he leaned over her, and looking into her immobile face with the large, bright eyes, in which morning also seemed to be dawning, he asked in a voice of both doubt and hope, “So what should we do now, Albertine?”

She smiled, and with a slight hesitation, she answered, “I thin that we should be grateful that we have come away from all our adventures unhared – from the real ones as well as from the dreams.”

“Are you sure we have?” he asked.

“Just as sure I suspect that the reality of one night, even the reality of a whole lifetime, isn’t the whole truth.”

“And no dream,” he said with a soft sigh, “is entirely a dream.”

She took his head with both her hands and pressed it warmly to her breast. “But now I suppose we are both awake,” she said, “for a long time to come.”

Forever, he wanted to add, but before he could say the word she put a finger to his lips and whispered almost as if to herself, “Don’t tempt the future.”

The movie, as said, ends in a toy store, the characters in a background of red and blue, the daughter with red hair and a blue outfit. Alice, who often wears blue clothes contrasting with her red hair, now, perhaps significantly, covers her dark blue outfit with a tan coat. Bill is a mix of blue, coat and pants, with red sweater.

Alice and Bill at toy store

child of Alice and Bill at toy store

Alice and Bill, Bill with coat open

This may be the conflict between two opposing qualities of the world, which now balance in Bill. I am not entirely sure, as I find the movie more cryptic than necessary in this area and others. A good quote about the respective mysteries of the story and the movie may be found in “The Wrong Shape” (a story with a vile attitude towards hindus and hinduism, but with some solid moments apart from this) by G.K. Chesterton:

“The modern mind always mixes up two different ideas: mystery in the sense of what is marvellous, and mystery in the sense of what is complicated. That is half its difficulty about miracles. A miracle is startling; but it is simple. It is simple because it is a miracle…If it was pure magic, as you think, then it is marvellous; but it is not mysterious-that is, it is not complicated. The quality of a miracle is mysterious, but its manner is simple. Now, the manner of this business has been the reverse of simple.”

I find “Dream Story” something like a miracle, one of the best stories I’ve ever read, an extraordinarily subtle and detailed work, without any melodramatic notes sounding its importance, a substantial lasting tale made up of elements light as cake dust. That Kubrick became obsessed with such a story is not surprising. To reproduce its qualities would be difficult, if not impossible, for any director. The change in time and setting ultimately requires other changes in detail, and in a story as finely sewn as this, small changes in the stitching will create something different, and ultimately, dilute the achievements of the original material. That these beauties are lessened is not to say the movie does not have beauties of its own, as any Kubrick movie would. Ultimately, the enigmas of the story do seem miraculous, a half smile cast partly in shadow, whereas the enigmas of the movie are too complex, an opaqueness for the purpose of puzzlement and worship, a monolith on the moon, but a monolith one keeps looking at, not for its puzzles, but the beauty of its puzzling face.

POSTSCRIPT (25/04/2015):

Earlier this year, I came across by chance the story “Melonie Haller’s Lost Weekend” by Anthony Haden-Guest, from a May 12, 1980 issue of New York magazine. Any one who enjoys Eyes Wide Shut will find this piece intriguing, as it feels like a precedent to the film, and were it not for “Dream Story”, it could be the unconscious inspiration for the central idea of the movie: a privileged society that engages in debaucheries behind closed doors, leaving behind a victim and unanswered questions. The first three paragraphs, which start with the killer open, “It was the cheapness that undid it”, introduce a story centering around a young actress and a show business producer named Roy Radin:

It was the cheapness that undid it. And this was odd. be-cause while Roy Radin’s house party may have been short on the urbanity associated with Southampton house parties, it was certainly lavish.

There were about a dozen present, including Robert McKeage IV, a busi-nessman, and his date, model Melonie Haller. The women were young. and pretty. The men were rich, and some were nearly famous. There was, as Melonie tells it, a Scene. Sexual rough stuff. And this time it went too far.

Melonie rebelled. With the camera-honed instinct of a trained actress—and it was her smartest move since she had arrived—she smashed a videotap-ing apparatus that was turned on her. What followed was, by her account, ugly: a beating and rape by two women and two men.

McKeage and Radin deny her account. But nobody denies that they wanted Haller out of the house. Myra Haller, Melonie’s mother, was telephoned and told that her daughter was “incoherent.” Myra Haller asked that she be put into a limousine and chauffeured back to Manhattan.

A limo. Sixty dollars. They had already tried to find a discount limousine service and failed.

So they put Melonie into a car, drove her to the Southampton station, and dumped her on a train. A conductor called the cops.

All that lavishness. And a single act of cheapness had blown a little Southampton secret wide open.

Well, one thing is plain. Whatever did, or did not, happen to Meionie Haller, and whether anything did, or did not, happen at the Radin household, some unwelcome limelight is playing on a specific Southampton milieu. It is one that has blossomed both quickly and recently. The evolution can be traced in photographs. Polaroids, usually. Holiday snaps. Years back, all the pictures seem to have been taken on lawns, on boat decks, at poolside. The males are young to middle-aged, with that beefy. rich look, grinning at the camera in pink or green Lacoste shirts, while the women are blondes, bronzed in bikinis, with gleaming overbites as though forever coming in at the kill at a fox hunt. Call them Park Avenue Red-neck.

The story was in the photographs taken at these houses in the Hamptons:

At about which time, photographs of a different nature began to show up. They record the doings of an inner core, and they suggest another shift in mores. Here is a young woman, shackled to a dinner table. Here a familiar male face, grinning through a transparent polyethylene bag. Here are four young things, handcuffed and chained into a quadrangle, and here a winsome duo, grimacing with what may, or may not, be pure pleasure, being bespattered with hot candle drippings.

Just what has happened here? The godfather of it all is a man I shall refer to as the Roman Senator, because he looks like Roman senators used to, and behaves even more so. “It began in England,” he tells me fondly.

The Roman Senator, you see, spent many happy years in England. It was in England that he became a habitué of certain townhouses and country estates where those diversions that the French call le vice anglais are practiced with patriotic fervor. What act would be more natural than his bringing his skills to Southampton?

“They thought it was weird at first,” he recalls. Not for long. On one memorable sunny afternoon, he devoted half an hour and two cat-o’-nine-tails (the traditional model and a softer one for delicate work) to raising the consciousness of a willing volunteer. The relevant spot has been called the Whipping Tree ever since.

The fad was launched. Underground, the Pleasure Chest, and other purveyors of exotic gear, began to be visited by a new sort of patron—hearty fellows with club tics. Tennis carryalls swelled with unusual equipment, whips and such. Sufferers from tennis elbow were likely to get a knowing look, or a coarse allusion to “thrashers’ arm.”

A handful of Southampton houses became famous last year. Guests would leave formal dinners early, pleading the need for an early night. It seemed there was no shortage of lovelies long-ing to slip out of their Halstons into something uncomfortable. Often naked ladies might be transported giggling to three locations on just one night.

This, by the way, is the Roy Radin house, very much in the tradition of the prestigious manse depicted in Eyes Wide Shut:

Roy Radin’s house is on Meadow Lane. Fcw addresses arc choicer. His close neighbors include coal and culture magnate John Samuels III and William Salomon of Salomon Brothers. The Meadow Club, one of Southampton’s inner social citadels, is just up the road, though Roy Radin has seldom, if ever, been beneath its roof. His house, though, has a history, having been famously vandalized by guests after Fernanda Wetherill’s 1963 debutante dance, where 1,634 window panes were smashed. Robert Harriss, owner of the place, said at the time, “I just feel like—well, I just wonder what the country’s coming to.”

Radin may have had a kind of immunity, just like the secret society of Eyes, due to his fundraising for various police associations. The piece ends on a note of open mystery, which appears to have been never resolved in any other sources I can find. The last sentence in the second to last paragraph is easily the best in the piece, and the one which I choose to close this addendum.

Further reverberations can only be guessed at. “What bothers me,” said one regular visitor, “is the impact on Southampton.”

He left it unclear whether he was talking about Southampton Proper, where the Melonie Haller affair struck like a bolt quite out of the Blue Book. or Southampton Improper, which is to say that smaller, more exotic domain.

Just how small, or large, is not so easy to assess. The Roman Senator says that he knows of at least a dozen houses where such events occur and claims that the size of this community runs to about a hundred. Others say that the goings-on are as often classic as baroque.

Just the other evening I was round at the Roman Senator’s place. He was eager to show me some of his equipment—inventive devices put together from leather, rubber, and polished metals. His girl friend put on a new acquisition, a diamante collar and leash. “Other girls’ boyfriends get them jewelry from Van Cleef’s,” she said. “My boyfriend gets me stuff from Harrod’s Pet Shop.”


All images and dialogue excerpts copyright Warner Brothers.

On April 25, 2015, this post underwent a copy edit. On September 13, 2017, it underwent another one.

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