How Frank Ocean’s “nostalgia: ULTRA” Shines New Light on “Eyes Wide Shut”

Eyes Wide Shut Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" / Frank Ocean's "nostalgia: ULTRA"

Stanley Kubrick’s mercurial erotic drama gets some much-needed context thanks to one of Frank Ocean’s most infamous mixtapes.

Before I watched Eyes Wide Shut, I heard it.

In February 2011, before bursting onto the mainstream music scene with his debut studio album “Channel Orange” (which celebrated its seventh birthday earlier this month), singer/songwriter and noted introvert Frank Ocean released a mixtape. Fed up with a record label that wouldn’t give him the time of day, Ocean recorded “nostalgia: ULTRA” all on his own, releasing it independently through his Tumblr. You can still stream it on Bandcamp, right now.

“ULTRA” presents a unique relationship between past, present, and future. Throughout, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the tape is laced with references and allusions. The foundation of nearly every song is a sample, with Ocean singing over the beats and instrumentals of tracks that clearly mean a lot to him.  

The opener, “Strawberry Swing” is Ocean’s cover of the Coldplay song of the same name (although he infuses more atmosphere into a single bar than Chris Martin is capable of conjuring in the entirety of the original). Later, Ocean sings over The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” which drew the ire of Don Henley, who threatened to sue Ocean if he ever performed the song again. The tape concludes with Ocean converting MGMT’s “Electric Feels” into a seductive slow jam.

But Ocean doesn’t confine his nostalgia to just the music of his adolescence, setting his sights – and sampling – Stanley Kubrick and his final feature film, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick name is initially invoked on “Novacane,” as Ocean sings “Bed full of women, flip on a tripod, little red light on shooting/I’m feeling like Stanley Kubrick, this is some visionary shit/Been tryna film pleasure with my eyes wide shut but it keeps on moving.”

He goes one step further on the track “Lovecrimes,” explicitly sampling the conversation between Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill Hartford and his wife, Nicole Kidman’s Alice. Their argument – specifically, Kidman’s righteous fury – underlines most of the song, before fading in completely and closing the track.

“Millions of years of evolution, right? Right!? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women, it’s just about security, and commitment, and- and whatever the fuck else! If you men only knew. But you’re not the jealous type, are you? You’ve never been jealous about me, have you? And why haven’t you ever been jealous about me!? You are very, very sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

It’s just a snippet of the devastating argument between Alice and Bill that sets Cruise’s character on his odyssey through a surreal, erotic underworld. After indulging in a late-night joint, Alice asks her husband where exactly he’d disappeared to with two models at a Christmas party the pair attended the night before. It’s an excruciating interaction, as decades of Bill’s naïve, sexist assumptions are unspooled before his very eyes.

When the dust settles, Bill’s been shaken to his core. Well, because he’s been forced to recognize that his wife is a three-dimensional human being, with wants and desires and an endless interiority that exists outside of her marital obligations. Alice confesses that during a recent trip to Cape Cod, she had an explicit fantasy about a sailor she glimpsed in a lobby, experiencing an intense craving for someone else. It’s an image Bill can’t get out of his head.

Placing a horrible protagonist in the face of a horrible world was one of many tools Kubrick used to convey his vast lack of faith in human nature.

Now’s probably a good time to point out that the “hero” of Eyes Wide Shut is a bit of a boneheaded jerk: Bill has no reservations about flirting with women who aren’t his wife, while it truly appears that he’d never considered that Alice might be a person too. This is to be expected, as all of Kubrick’s protagonists exist somewhere on a spectrum of the unlikable, falling somewhere between aloof (see: 2001, Barry Lyndon) to insane and evil (see: The Shining, A Clockwork Orange).

Placing a horrible protagonist in the face of a horrible world was one of many tools Kubrick used to convey his vast lack of faith in human nature. Here, Eyes Wide Shut is no different. As soon as Bill exits the argument, his apartment, and – however momentarily – his marriage, he enters a tumultuous cacophony of sex and death.

Bill’s excuse to leave comes when he’s called to console a woman whose father has just passed, only for the woman to proclaim that she’s in love with him. He meets and flirts with a sex worker – later returning to discover that she’s HIV-positive. A costume-shop owner appears happy to be procuring his underage daughter to a pair of older gentlemen. Sex and death most obviously intersect during the famous masked orgy sequence, a gathering where the ultra-elite dive into their deepest lusts – hurting or killing anyone who threatens to compromise their meticulous and unexplained rituals.

This is the wasteland outside of endless, monogamous relationships, initially seductive and increasingly deadly. Distraught, Bill finally stumbles home and confesses everything to Alice. The pair take their daughter Christmas shopping and agree to stay together. Maybe forever.

But why does it have to be this black-and-white? It’s clear both Bill and Alice aren’t entirely satisfied together, but the film rejects any alternative to a most traditional relationship. Everything else is presented as a sugar-coated death sentence. That’s what’s jarring about watching Eyes Wide Shut in 2019: for the most part, the past twenty years have affirmed Kubrick’s pessimism, but it’s odd seeing such an affirmation of “normal” just a few weeks after the celebrations of Pride month.

Through this lens, Ocean’s use of the film makes sense. Now widely accepted as one of the most prominent queer artists working today, more than a year past between the release of “nostalgia: ULTRA” and Ocean publically exiting the closet, acknowledging himself as a bisexual man.

But on “ULTRA,” he plays straight. Ocean sings “Songs for Women,” and limits his discussion of sexuality to relationships between men and women. His lyrics lack the electric ambiguity that makes his later work – specifically, his masterpiece “Blonde” – so hypnotic.

This is not a criticism. In 2011, stepping out of the closet on such a public scale was a dangerous proposition – as dangerous as the world outside Bill and Alice’s apartment. This is also not to say that we’re living in a utopia where everyone is free to express themselves, but the fact remains that Ocean and his career continued to thrive after his decision to be open about his sexuality.  

It’s also worth clarifying that Eyes Wide Shut shouldn’t be viewed as regressive text, especially as it forces Bill – and by extension, the viewer – to recognize that men and women share certain yearnings. A more optimistic filmmaker might’ve presented some way for non-normative gazes to coexist. Yes, Eyes Wide Shut is very good at showing how homogenous forces strangle that which does not conform. But there’s not much to be nostalgic for in Kubrick’s last work.

Eyes Wide Shut Trailer:

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