Dialogue Cohen / Kubrick.


Adrian Martin &
Cristina Álvarez López

It is said of Richard Strauss that he would take a literary source (a story or poem) and then compose a piece of music that, in his mind, matched its flow of events and moods exactly. But, before unveiling his new work, he would suppress this literary point of origin, keeping the knowledge only to himself. His music told a story, possessed the shape of a story – but the specific characters and situations of that story remained cryptic, hidden. 

We will never know how many artists work this way, with secret sources of inspiration, and obscured models. Launching an exhibition of new works, the Australian painter James Clayden stood proudly before his large, abstract canvas: forms, shapes, smudges of colour, mere suggestions of bodies and postures. A spectator looked at it and suddenly exclaimed: “Ah, the ending of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie!” Clayden was amazed: his template had been found out.

While watching Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a song comes insistently to mind, haunting the viewing: it’s Leonard Cohen’s The Guests, from his 1979 album Recent Songs. Kubrick first acquired rights to his official source, Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story, in the 1960s, so he could well have heard Cohen’s song during the three decades it took to realise the project. But whether or not Kubrick was actually influenced by Cohen is beside the point; more intriguing is the undeniable, uncanny mesh between the moods, situations and imagery of the song and those of the film. Each work takes up its place as a guest of the other.

, Cohen once described The Guests as a song about “how a new soul comes into the world, looking for the feast, feeling completely separated from everything, feeling isolated and in exile. And how the great author of this dismal catastrophe, this vale of tears, pulls each of these souls into the fete, into the feast, and into the banquet”.

Kubrick’s film, too, builds a mythic, almost cosmic aura, as it splits apart the trajectories of husband (Tom Cruise) and wife (Nicole Kidman), and plunges into a dark, anguished voyage in which “No one knows where the night is going / No one knows why the wine is flowing”. Cohen’s song is a waltz; and Kubrick, too, makes extensive, expressive use of Dmitri Shostakóvich’s Waltz No. 2. Motifs recur from song to film and back: doors, corridors, guests, gardens, an orgiastic feast, weeping … and pulsing through both, insistently, is this endless, aching cry: “I need you … now”.

Adrian Martin & Cristina Álvarez López