Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut:
The Masquerade Waltz

Go to TOC for this film ( (which has also a statement on purpose and manner of analysis and a disclaimer as to caveat emptor and my knowing anything authoritatively, which I do not, but I do try to not know earnestly, with some discretion, and considerable thought).

Before last week, I'd never listened to Aram Khachaturian's 1941 Masquerade Suite, which is formed of a Waltz, Nocturne, Mazurka, Romance, and Galop. And the waltz is insanely wonderful, as the galop is insanely fun, but it's the waltz I'm concerned with here.

Glorying in the music as I listened to it over and over again, what I wrote about it on FB was this:

This is a killer waltz that wants to sweep you around the room so hard you're in danger of being sent flying into the walls. Except it's in too perfect control of all that WTF-is-this adrenalin 1-2-3-ing you away from the gentler arms of Shostakovich to leave you bloodied on the floor, because with this waltz, in which you definitely have someone who leads, and that leader is Khachaturian, he just wants you to be magnificently impressed with the way he swings you around--albeit he does also want to kick Shostakovich out the door and slam it hard on his savagely clipped heels. Such a dark edge to the grandeur, and then midway through we're dropped into sparkling-conversational-stroll time, which turns out to be the perfect break, and lasts just long enough before a very deliberately restrained, accomplished build back up to sweeping Shostakovich off the floors and out the doors with fervent vengeance. For which reason it's nice to listen to this back-to-back with Shostakovich's "Waltz No. 2 in C Minor and E-Flat Major". And then I come back to this because I've got anger issues and this is a waltz that embraces and sweetens rage.

Wait a minute. How often did I mention Shostakovich above?

Listening to the Masquerade waltz, I for some reason kept being reminded of Shostakovich's "Waltz No. 2 in C Minor and E-Flat Major", with which Kubrick opens Eyes Wide Shut. But I had it backwards, envisioning Khachaturian as responding to Shostakovich, for Shostakovich's waltz is from the 1956 Suite for Variety Orchestra. However, until 1999 it was believed to be the lost Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2 of 1936 or 1938 (depending on the source). In 1999, the original piano sketch for the Jazz Orchestra No. 2 was rediscovered. Kubrick's film used the Koninkijk Concertgebouworkest version, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, given as "Jazz Suite, Waltz 2", from 1924.

"Waltz No. 2 in C Minor and E-Flat Major" for Suite for Variety Orchestra is actually a slight reworking of a waltz Shostakovich had either written for the 1955/1956 film The First Echelon, or it was written previously and used in that film.

That film is now on Youtube and we can see how the waltz in the following clip composed of the two scenes from the beginning and near the end of the film in which the waltz appears:

At the beginning of the film, the Komsomol youth squad, having arrived in a steppe district of Kazakhstan, hopeful of developing the "virgin" land, the waltz briefly plays as they dance in the snow beside the train. I have no idea what is being said by characters over the music. Then jump to near the end of the film and the same waltz is used now that the construction of buildings has been completed and a wheat crop is ready to be harvested. While everyone celebrates, in the few minutes remaining to the film a fire is accidentally set in the expansive wheat field, threatening all their work, but everyone bands together and puts it out.

The music is used as an almost inessential piece, any Russian waltz would have done as it's buried within the film under the action and dialogue. Neither composition nor musicality matter. But if Kubrick was familiar with the film he would have appreciated the circularity, how the waltz began the film and ended it, a dance in which people go round and round.

Kubrick also had a waltz in 2001, Johann Strauss II's "The Blue Danube Waltz" making a graceful dance of Heywood's flight in the Panam shuttle to the slowly revolving wheels of the space station, then the same waltz used again with Heywood's flight to the moon in which circularity is stressed with the stewardess on the revolving floor that, aided by the tenacious grip of her velcro shoes, carries her from one part of the ship to another. Following Heywood's confrontation with the monolith, Kubrick moves from the Austrian composer to the Soviet-Armenian Khachaturian, using the 1941-1942 Adagio from the Gayane ballet when we are introduced to the Jupiter mission, poignance rather than the breezy joy of a waltz accompanying the circularity of Frank Poole jogging on the Discovery, shadow boxing as he runs past the pods in winch the mission's scientists rest in artificially-induced state of hibernation.

I don't know if it's notable or not that Khachaturian had also written music for a 1954 Spartacus ballet, considering Kubrik's turn as a director on the Hollywood Spartacus in 1960.

There is probably no connection between Kubrick's use of the Shostakovich waltz, and Khachaturian's waltz from The Masquerade Suite, but I'm going to explore a possible relationship anyway, because the Shostakovich waltz reminds me so much of the Khachaturian, and because the Khachaturian waltz was for a theatrical production of The Masquerade, and what is the centerpiece of Eyes Wide Shut but a masque. Plus, the play has been compared with Shakespeare's Othello, and who do we have in Othello but Lodovico, who witnesses Othello's brutality toward his wife, Desdemona, and becomes, at play's end, the individual who bears witness to the tragic murders inspired by treachery Iago, who refuses to disclose his motives. The reader will be aware that the Lodovico technique was the new method of brainwashing by which Alex, in A Clockwork Orange, was able to be released from prison as a new man, unable to do harm as it made him ill, but free choice had also been taken from him. Kubrick referred to Lodovico in Barry Lyndon, having Barry purchase an expensive painting by the artist, Lodovico Carraci, one of the many ways in which he wasted wealth in an effort to gain a title for his son, hoping to gain advantage with the nobles who benefited from that open purse.

The Masquerade, written by Mikhail Lermontov in 1835, concerns the tragedy of Arbenin and his wife, Nina, who he murders. According to Wikipedia:

The hero of the drama, Arbenin, is a wealthy middle-aged man endowed with a rebellious spirit and a strong will. Born into high society, he strives in vain to gain independence and freedom. He lives by the laws of his society, and, in trying to defend his honor while blinded by jealousy and pride, ends up murdering his wife.

Source: WIkipedia

Finding that an English interpretation of the play was available, I purchased and read it as part of my preparation for writing this piece, and...I have to say it's pretty bad, or the translation of it is. Or both. The play was never performed in Lermontov's lifetime, supposedly because, despite rewrites, it could be taken as an attack on elites and their extravagances.

Invited by Arbenin to a masquerade, the young Prince Zvezdich imagines the women there, under the masks, are "paragons of beauty", while Arbenin points out that at a mask all ranks are equal and that it is easy to conjure a fantasy. So, off they go to the ball, Arbenin without his wife, Nina, a much younger woman than him who he presumes to be at home. Zvezdich, who is unmasked, carries on a flirtation with an unknown masked woman, a Baroness Strahl who is friends with Arbenin's wife. As a memento, the baroness gives the prince a bracelet she finds on the floor. When Arbenin sees Zvezdich with the jewelry, he recognizes the bracelet as identical to one of Nina's and becomes suspicious, then he is convinced Nina had been the masked woman who gave the bracelet to Zvezdich when he learns that his wife has lost her bracelet and that she may have been at the ball as well. Zvezdich, discovering that Nina had lost an identical bracelet, is convinced she is the woman who had given it to him.

Jealous, the baroness, who is in love with Zvezdich, spreads the rumor that Nina and the Prince are in love. Zvezdich sends Nina a love letter, which Arbenin reads. Possessed by jealousy, he poisons Nina's ice cream at another ball, then reveals to her what he has done and why, and doesn't accept her protestations of innocence as she dies. After this, a person only called The Unknown, goes to Arbenin with Zvezdich, both desiring revenge, bringing with them a letter from the countess that attests to Nina's innocence. In response, Arbenin goes insane.

The audience is, however, led to the conclusion that Arbenin is not the only guilty party in Nina's death. The baroness and other players, with motives of their own, did not always tell the truth, allowing Arbenin's delusion to continue or indeed abetting it. Thus the meaning of the play's title, "Masquerade", may be taken in more than one way.

Source: Wikipedia

Indeed, even before the baroness had found and given the bracelet to Zvezdich at the mask, Arbenin had been approached by masked men, one of which who had said "unpleasant", shameful things to him--just what, we don't know, those things are never divulged--and then had warned Arbenin, "Fare you well, my friend, but please be on your guard: Tonight's misfortune is going to hit hard."

The implication is that the bracelet may have been stolen and left on the floor in a set up, but that's quite an assumptive leap to make, to have had the confidence that the baroness would notice the bracelet on the floor then think to pick it up and give it to Zvezdich. As for whether or not Nina had been at the ball, I could be wrong on this, I may not have caught a resolution, I don't believe it's ever clarified whether she was or wasn't, after a servant has said something that indicated she was, but her innocence is vigorously promoted.

Curiously, Lermontov had written the play during a time when he became known as a womanizer, a period which his Wikipedia biography gives as beginning in 1834, a year before the play was written, when he met again at a ball a very slightly older cousin with whom he'd been infatuated when he was sixteen and who had not taken him seriously. Now twenty, his revenge was to seduce her, drop her, and broadcast news of the affair, which became a pattern. Yet in The Masquerade, the woman met at a ball is innocent, or at least she is innocent of having had any relationship with the prince. Though Lermontov bragged he was a Don Juan, and enjoyed the exercise of power over a woman, having her believe his was a real interest then devastating her by dropping her and smearing her reputation, he apparently felt a kinship with the plot of Othello in which no such seduction even takes place, it is only a false accusation. And, from what I read, he also spread some false tales of seduction.

In Othello, Iago, enraged that Othello had given a promotion he desired to Cassio, plants in Cassio's belongings a handkerchief of Othello's young wife, Desdemona. Of course, when Othello realizes Cassio has been in possession of the handkerchief, he believes his wife gave it to him. Both Othello and Arbenin are men who are provoked to mistakenly believe their wives are unfaithful to them, and are trusted to be violent enough to murder them. In both The Masquerade and Othello, the suspicion of infidelity is manipulated to fall upon the young wife by individuals seeking revenge against Arbenin and Othello. Eyes Wide Shut, as well, concerns jealousy, Bill's confidence in his wife, his life, and himself undone by her revelation that she had once fallen in love with a man with whom she'd never even spoken. There is no "other", in a sense, over which to be enraged, as nothing occurred, and the "who" his wife fell in love with is unknown, but Bill becomes obsessed with this and pursues his own kind of vengeance which ends up taking him to the masked party, at Somerton, where he is attracted to a masked woman who warns him he must leave the party, then presents herself as his proxy and savior.

At Victor's party, Bill had left his wife to wander and was approached by two young women who state they are going to take him to where the rainbow ends, stating that though doctors seem knowledgeable they work too hard and miss a lot. The implication is that Bill is overly judgmental and, before being concerned with the dust in another's eye, should mind the plank in his own. Bill doesn't say no to the invitation, the situation is instead interrupted. In the meanwhile, Alice has also been propositioned, but turns the offer down. Both observe these flirtations, and Bill's disappearance, and refusal to tell Alice the real reason why, are what prompt the discussion in which Alice reveals she almost once left him for an unknown other man. Even more so in the novel, than in the movie, the Bill character's ego is so paranoid about his own standing, and so injured by Alice's revelation, that he's determined to avenge himself with an affair. But this is a conversation which wouldn't have happened had the two not been propositioned at Victor's party, and the audience is given the feeling that Bill may have been somehow set up. But why? And how? Or was it all coincidence?

More interesting to me is in how, at the film's beginning, with the introduction of the waltz, Kubrick sets up the audience to wonder about Alice with the manner in which she's shown undressing, and many in the audience believe, due this scene, she might be a participant at the masked ball. The shot is a decidedly provocative lead-in, though all that it shows is a woman slipping off her dress. The removal of her clothing in the privacy of her bedroom is, for a woman, banal and ordinary. The audience, taking the position of the voyeur, makes it "more than" and judges Alice's manner, the how of the disrobing, and the fact she is nude beneath her dress. One can look at Kubrick as intentionally setting Alice up for this appraisal, or simply presenting the ordinary and placing the onus on the audience for any response that reveals any inherent sexist interpretation. Just as there is a portion of the audience that negatively responds to Wendy, in The Shining, because she isn't a starlet blond, there's a portion of audience that will judge Alice as potentially licentious due the opening shot of her slipping off her dress and dropping it to the ground so she is only attired in her black high heels.

The instrumental tonality of the two waltzes is much the same. Their use of the heavy bass in the punctuation of the oom-pah-pah is much the same. My husband suggests they both are more 6/8 than 3/4. I've listened to a lot of waltzes in the past couple of days and I realize these two pieces are even more alike one in another in how unlike they are the typical waltz, even the old Russian waltzes. But a difference between these two waltzes is that the one for The Masquerade is immediately wild and overpowering, whereas the Shostakovich waltz is a just right fit for a prelude to a party, to be listened to while dressing. It's a waltz with a bit of circus edge to it that just wants to move you, not to threaten, whereas the Khachaturian waltz, in keeping with the passion of The Masquerade, seizes upon the individual and wants them to forget anything else. When one considers the soundtrack for Eyes Wide Shut, which has two parties--Victor's, and the masked ball--no dance music is ever played that would compel one into the arms of another. Ever.There's never a hint of fever in the music. Even the Strangers in the Night heard at the mask is peculiarly cover band suburban.

Well, there's a bit of fever in Chris Isaak's "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing", but despite its lyrics and its placement in the film suggesting someone has or will do a bad, bad thing, it is fundamentally a fun rockabilly tune.

[Trivial note. My husband was with a band that opened up for Isaak at several places during his 1998-1999 "Speak of the Devil" tour, and I was on that tour for much of it, on the bus of the opening band with our infant>toddler son, so it was rather fun to hear "Baby Did a Bad Thing" in Eyes Wide Shut. I never met Chris as I was otherwise occupied, but my husband said he was a very nice guy, really liked him. Coincidentally, at the same time the band my husband was in did a music video featuring Domique Swain, who had been in the 1997 remake of Lolita.]

2700 words or 5 single-spaced pages. Posted September of 2022.

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