On a crisp September evening in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1999, I accompanied two fellow residents of my dorm-style apartment building, Le Foyer George Williams, to a local theater to see Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. It was Kubrick’s first film in twelve years, an event in itself, and the official promotion for the film promised a lurid, boundary-pushing good time. The three of us ate American fast food prior to the movie—a memory of particular clarity because the two young women, one German and one French, had insisted—and then argued over whether to eat at McDonald’s or Burger King, each quite adamant about their choice. The German won the argument fait accompli by simply walking into the McDonald’s and ordering. Strange as it was to be compelled by locals to eat my native cuisine, I happily obliged.
The theater was intimate and perfectly atmospheric, dimly lit with carpeted stairs leading down to a spacious, old-world salon. Flowing red curtains covered both walls and screen. The house was packed; buzz about the film was intense, though as Brian Raftery points out in this great article about the making and reception of Eyes Wide Shut, too much focus had been placed on its supposedly boundary-pushing sexual content. After the film, the talk was mostly complimentary, but most viewers expressed disappointment in the film’s attempt to “shock” an audience already numbed to that kind of content. People blamed Kubrick’s age and isolation, suggesting the culture had zipped by his formerly radical sensibilities. I probably said something similar, and given my age at the time, it’s not surprising that I would have missed the boat. Years later I would take a screenplay adaptation class in which we watched the film and read Traumnovelle, or “Dream Story,” the German novella on which the film is based. The lecture gave me a much better appreciation for the film and its depiction of our constant internal conflict between reality and fantasy.
Criticisms aside, I do remember enjoying Eyes Wide Shut on that first viewing. I was particularly taken in by the protagonist’s long, lonely strolls through empty, dreamlike New York streets. Most of those streets were actually backlot constructions at Pinewood studios in London, a production decision that lent a manufactured—but fitting—unreality to the setting (the emptiness also helped, because that pretty much never happens in the real New York). Raftery’s article took me back to that night, but also to my overall time in Geneva. My life bore no resemblance to the events of Eyes Wide Shut, but I did spend many evenings walking the city’s near-empty streets, whether coming home late from a work function or just out of boredom. This was before the time of smartphones or even regular cell phones (for most people), and when I was out there, especially in that first month when I knew relatively few people, I was really out there. Just me, the streetlights, my thoughts, and a fascinating mash-up of the ancient and the new (in Old Town, anyway). It’s the kind of experience rarely possible now without a lot of pre-planning, a lot of discipline, and an empty calendar.
I’ve always been a film lover in any context, but going to the movies while living abroad made for the most memorable experiences. Some of this I can credit to the alleviation of homesickness, as most films I’d see were American in origin. I still remember walking by the theater every few days and peering at the time listings (1999 wasn’t pre-Internet, but it was pre-convenient Internet) while also making sure the showing I wanted had a printed V.O. by the time. This indicated Version Originale, a designation for showings in the original English and not dubbed in French. But for whatever reason, I remember with absolute clarity every film I’ve ever seen in another country, and usually with complete details about the setting and who I was with.
Another 1999 Geneva film-experience mind-blower was Fight Club, seen with two coworkers on a Saturday night in early November. What a mind-blower. That trippy experience had me firing off emails to friends, demanding they go see it immediately. Version Originale, of course.
The Brian Raftery article I linked to above is an excerpt from his new book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, a tour and analysis of what he calls the greatest year in movies. I’m looking forward to reading it—1999 did indeed have a stacked roster, and I’d like to hear case for it being the best movie year ever (if we allow for such a concept). A handful from 1999 that remain among my favorites: The Matrix, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, The Blair Witch Project, and The Iron Giant.
Eyes Wide Shut and Fight Club I’ve already mentioned—add The Matrix to that 1999 trio and call it “films that succeeded in transporting me to another reality.” The latter two had me leaving the theater dizzy from the experience. The screenplays for Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, and American Beauty were all taught as story structure examples in my UCLA professional program classes. The Blair Witch Project, regardless of how it’s aged, was an atom bomb for its time, spawning an entirely new genre of horror film—found footage—that’s still with us twenty years later (though mercifully slowing down). Many more from 1999 are just plain great.
I spent four months in Geneva, a wonderful, life-changing, formative experience in many ways. I did many wild and wonderful things while there, but I also saw a lot of movies, and I don’t regret a single one. I ate at McDonald’s. And Burger King. And Pizza Hut. A lot. I was seriously broke, an unpaid intern, and Geneva was damn expensive even then. But hey, 23-year-old arteries…
My point? Not sure, but to sum up: 1999 was a great year for movies, and now there’s a book about it. Eyes Wide Shut is a much better film than it got credit for upon release. Seeing movies while abroad lends them a special magic. If you do so in a French-speaking country, look for V.O. next to the time listing.
Walking lonely foreign streets at night makes a lasting impression.
Movie theaters with curtained screens are cool.
Some Germans really like McDonald’s.