Sunday 26 May 2019

Review: Eyes Wide Open by Frederick Raphael

A book unfairly maligned in these eyes
Having recently attended the amazing Kubrick exhibition at the London Design Museum, I sought out some books on the man to learn a bit more. The first I finished was by his collaborator on the screenplay of Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick shunned interviews for a very long time, and what has been publicly said about him has leaked out in often contradictory forms. Those closest to him can't speak highly enough, but don't share details, and those on his periphery share contradictory details. The result is a mystery. Who really knew him, and what was he really like?

The endless hagiographies surround the man are tiresome, so I found Raphael's untainted eyes to be a very refreshing change of pace.

Upon finishing Eyes Wide Open, I was surprised to discover the backlash, prompted by the family and associates of Kubrick, on the book's publication. Kubrick's widow both accused Raphael of betraying her late husband's privacy, as well as painting an image of him that was false.

I don't mean to sound unfeeling toward those who were close to Kubrick, but there is a slight bit of contradiction in that complaint (too revealing and false in its portrayal?).

Another faint whiff of contradiction comes from the fact that Michael Herr, another collaborator of Kubrick's, wrote a series of articles about working and knowing Kubrick for Vanity Fair, which were later collected into a book. His recollections of private conversations and moments received no criticism from friends and associates for not respecting Kubrick's privacy, but they were far more flattering by comparison.

I think those close to the real man were blinded by the proximity to someone they loved and/or admired. They saw Raphael's critical observations as cold-hearted and overly critical, frustrated that he could make such comments about someone they felt he didn't know.

The truth is, and I hope those close to Kubrick take some solace in this, that Raphael's book is not about Kubrick the husband, the father, the friend. It's not even really about Kubrick the collaborator (although it's much closer to being this), it's actually about the relationship Raphael had with Kubrick.

Raphael makes no claims to have cleared the mystique surrounding Kubrick; an experienced Hollywood screenwriter, he attempted to peer through the haze, but the mysteries surrounding Kubrick only seem to intensify the closer he got. Raphael shares his particular experiences with him, through their relationship as director and writer. It would be disingenuous (as others have tried) to suggest it is anything but a completely and frank and honest account of Raphael's view of that working relationship.

As someone not close to Kubrick, and so not hurt by unflattering portrayals of a person I miss, I read this book very differently to his bereaved friends and family. Raphael is not an omnipotent or unquestionable narrator, and nor does he present himself as such. His personality bears down into the narrative, and (from a reader's perspective) is open to as much scrutiny as his supposed subject.

Raphael never professes impartiality or objectivity, only the accuracy of his feelings and thoughts. He shares his views, his perceptions, his experiences, and, yes, he comes across as cantankerous, difficult, and cynical about Hollywood (all possibly with good reason), and even seems to acknowledge this about himself.

It's ironic, but despite the book's reputation I found Kubrick to be ultimately humble, patient, honest and understanding. Raphael's worst fears about working with him are never realised, and Kubrick stays true to his word throughout. When Raphael at one point nearly sinks the entire project by one act of accidental impropriety, Kubrick is quick to forgive and move on. Kubrick is never a beast, he's never dishonest, and is always forthright. He may be kooky at times, but there is plenty to admire about him in Raphael's account.

In fact, I found the Kubrick in Raphael's book to be largely the same one revealed in Michael Herr's book (which, despite being glowing towards Kubrick in general, could occassionally be unflattering -- calling Kubrick cheap, obsessive and demanding) and perhaps across both books we see a clearer picture of the real man: Demanding, but not with malice. Humble, but also difficult. Distant, but also soft-natured. Confident, but also searching.

We will never know the father, the husband, but across both Raphael's and Herr's lenses, we do get a glimpse of the colleague.

Also, unlike Herr's book, which is frequently embarrassing and sophomoric when it tries to offer insight into Kubrick's work, Raphael has moments of genuine and deep revelation. In fact, I could recommend his book for those rare moments alone. I've never read a better distillation of what made a Kubrick film. (The flipside is that, unlike Herr, Raphael is often embarrassing and pretentious when describing himself, especially at the beginning of his book. Soldier on, dear reader.)

So I'm sorry, friends and family of Kubrick (and by automatic extension, overprotective fans), I don't think this book does anything to damage the lasting image of the man. If anything it makes me wish I knew him better, and actually made me appreciate his work more.

I highly recommend this candid book. The author lays himself bare, and through his honesty, we get a glimpse of a very interesting, unique, and talented man that was taken from the world too soon.


If you want to watch Raphael share some anecdotes (aged 83, and especially cantankerous and a little full of himself, but brutally honest and entertaining none-the-less), here's a great series of videos.