VENETIAN MASKS & DIONYSIAN AMBIVALENCE

”An additional street sign reference to an ancient God is the word EROS, written in red neon across the street as Bill is buying entry into Milich’s costume shop. Eros is no less than the Greek god of lust, love and intercourse. So with these references to Gods in street signs, including a sun-god, perhaps the sun masks at the orgy were a hint of the group being sun worshipers, a trait also associated with modern secret societies. Some researchers have even attributed sun worship and the constellations of the Zodiac as the core inspirations behind religious mythological stories, including those of Christianity. What is perched at the top of Red Cloak’s throne? A small, but clearly visible, Christian cross, verifying the presence of a religious belief system at the Somerton proceedings. Christianity, monarchies, sun worship, ancient religions and secret societies. As always Kubrick takes on the grandest of subject matter.” ( Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick )

Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick

The mask has a long history and its essential role has always revolved around hiding information, and a portal that enters one into the realm of myth, sometimes nightmare, a harbinger of death and often shallowness and repression.An image of difficulty filled with obscurity where God is in the details. Venetian masks have a long history of protecting their wearer’s identity during promiscuous or decadent activities. Made for centuries in Venice, these distinctive masks were formed from papier-mâché and wildly decorated with fur, fabric, gems, or ribbons. Eventually, Venetian masks re-emerged as the emblem of Carnevale, a pageant and street fair celebrating hedonism.The practise of wearing masks for disguise reached its peak in the eighteenth century when Venetians of different social classes used Carnevale as an excuse to mingle and, in some case, to make sexual favours without fear of recognition or retribution.

In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the setting is the Venetian Carnevale, where the central figure, Aschenbach, transitions from a world of reason, knowledge and sobriety to the realm of chaos and intoxication. Mann makes serious allusions to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy whereby the narrator points out the Aschenbach’s thoughts and actions are controlled by ” that dark god” whose pleasure it is to trample man’s reason and dignity underfoot. This God is Dionysus, the God of intoxication, rapture and chaos. In a mountain landscape populated by tree trunks and mossy boulders, and men with horns growing out of their heads reminiscent of Wagner’s nordic German mythological world, an ”orgy of limitless coupling” , takes place.

Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

It is the world of the ”stranger God” of Dionysus, whose central symbol is a huge wooden phallus. It is a barbaric world in which sexuality, debauchery, and promiscuity reign and where life is celebrated unconditionally; ”and his very soul savored the lascivious delirium of annihilation”. In challenging this morality by evoking images that stand in contrast to bourgeois Christian mores and restrictions, and by denying them realization in the life of his character, Death in Venice contains both an affirmation and a resistance to the world of anti-bourgeois values of anarchism, chaos and nihilism.

Venetian masks emerged in a climate of cultural and religious repression during the Medieval era in Italy. People donned the colorful masks to free themselves from judging neighbors, all of whom knew each other in such a small city. The gentry class and peasants alike sought anonymity for promiscuity, gambling, and other indiscretions. Even the clergy were known to dress up to go dancing.After the 1100s, the masquerade went through periods of being outlawed by the Catholic Church, especially during holy days. Their policy lead to eventual acceptance when they declared the months between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday free for Venetian mask-attired decadence. This period evolved into Carnevale, the pre-Lent celebration meaning, “remove meat.” Although Carnevale lost popularity as Venice’s cultural production faltered during the Enlightenment, it was officially reintroduced in 1979.

Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick

It was this immoral dimension of art that pulls Death in Venice through the streets that gave Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, his own take on morality from the economic dimension; a sensuality of usury. Thomas Mann implies that the insights and knowledge that art conveys are anti-bourgeois, destructive forces, leading to a sympathy with the abyss. Art is thus a questionable authority. Should  Aschenbach’s critical stance toward the position of bourgeois artist and his art be taken seriously or be discarded as irrational? Death in Venice refuses to resolve this ambiguity.

Death in Venice. 1971. Luchino Visconti

Death in Venice. 1971. Luchino Visconti

It was wealth and prosperity that was to bring about the tradition of the Venetian mask. Over time, the citizens of the Venetian Republic began to realise that if they concealed their identity they b

e able to carry out their daily lives in secrecy and without fear of retribution. With so much personal wealth in the state, people often found themselves making deals and agreements with other citizens outside of the eyes of the law. With the population as small as it was, many wanted to carry out such deals as these without other people knowing their business, and so the wearing of a mask became popular.

Venetian Masks

Venetian Masks

Undoubtedly, Death in Venice resists what it espouses, and in this sense is repressive as it attempts metaphorically to exhale and suck at the same time. The counterforce to classicism, associated with humanism and rationality, are the voices of decadence and nihilism, manifested both by Aschenbach’s fate and the allusions to Wagner and Nietzsche. Wagner’s celebration of love and death, and Nietzche’s concept of Dionysian intoxication, together with his questioning of bourgeois morality permeate the narrative. Death in Venice is inevitably the story of a failed overcoming of  decadence through ambivalence to it. The forces of life destroy Aschenbach because the artist succumbs to his emotions. However, in contrast to previous narratives of Mann that had used female characters to mask his homosexual desires, Death in Venice drops this mask.

In writing openly about his stigmatized desires and secret identity, Thomas Mann found, paradoxically, another perfect mask, and a way to defy bourgeois morality. Death in Venice is both affirmation of forbidden desires and a renunciation of them; a rebellion against homophobism and a submission to bourgeois Christian morality. With its depiction of the deadly consequences of asocial aestheticism and the unleashing of the archaic-primitive and chaotic anti-humanist forces, Death in Venice certainly has visionary qualities.

Death In Venice. Thomas Mann

Death In Venice. Thomas Mann

”This mutual benefit for all of wearing masks was not to last long though. It did not take long for people to start to take advantage of the concealment of their identity and to benefit from their anonymity. Knowing that there were to be no repercussions of their actions, as no-one could be identified, the society began to behave more lavishly and without fear. As a busy city with travellers and business visitors descending upon them daily, sexual promiscuity became common place and gambling was known to be occurring all through the day and the night, all over the city. In fact, gambling was even occurring in convents and was undertaken by men, women and even children. Homosexuality was starting to spread throughout the Republic and was not condemned there as it was in the rest of the country. Women were able to flaunt their sexuality in revealing clothing and engaged in promiscuous behaviour. Even those who had taken religious vows, such as monks and nuns, were undertaking the same activities as the rest of the population, wearing fashionable outfits, gambling and prostituting themselves.” ( Steve Gink )

Death In Venice. Thomas Mann

Death In Venice. Thomas Mann

Venetian masks feature prominently in the film Eyes Wide Shut. In the film, the main character,played by Tom Cruise,infiltrates a masked ball where high ranking individuals engage in secret orgies and masonic rituals:All we can do is try to put the pieces together and, like much of the film, it’s an exercise in comprehension skills. What I can tell you is this: the party is a variation on Venetian masquerades, Bill’s mask is not Venetian, both Gayle and Nuala are in attendance, Ziegler is in attendance, but I have yet to confirm that Mandy is, since the role of Mandy and the Mysterious Woman are credited to two different women. This might be a trick, however — the Mysterious Woman is credited to Abigail Good, which reminds me of Vivian Kubrick’s alias Abigail Mead, who scored Full Metal Jacket. The jury’s still out on that one. Detractors commented that the scene had poor sound quality. I’m not sure what they meant by that. Did they want the dialogue to be more stylized? It was lurid melodrama played out by naked people wearing masks. It was funny and scary at the same time. The masks and costumes created a sense of fantasy, yet the plain, earnest voices coming from under the masks was comical in its juxtaposition. Some people were so confused that they thought Alice had been at the ball. For the record, she wasn’t. ( Jamie Stuart )

Death In Venice

Death In Venice

Upper class European nobility types such as Sandor Szavost are in attendance at Zieglars party, but at the Somerton mansion we are presented with a crowd of anonymous masked people to puzzle over. Now considering Stanley Kubrick’s career-long distrust of wealthy and political establishments, which he took painstaking efforts to encrypt in his films, the artwork doubling up as mirrors concept could provide a direct answer as to the identities of the orgy participants. Notice how there are very few actual mirror props at Somerton. The mirrors are there, but their content is presented in painting form. The portraits are symbolic mirror images of those in attendance, unmasked and undisguised. Even as Victor Ziegler circles his pool table refusing to reveal the names of his orgy associates, we can see their portraits up on his walls. Ever the controversial risk taker, Kubrick was having a direct stab at nobility and right or wrong, he viewed them as decadent.

Death In Venice. Visconti

Death In Venice. Visconti

Also included in this character synthesis is the prostitute Domino who picked Bill up on a street corner. Her name itself is a giveaway. The word Domino originally referred to the black hooded cloaks worn by 17th century priests and it later became a name for certain types of Venetian masks. Domino cloaks were also worn by women as mourning veils and the word stems from the latin word Dominus, which means “lord” or “master”. This all links up with what we witness at Somerton. And what do we see hanging on the wall in Dominos bedroom? Masks of course.

For yet another clue as to Dominos symbolic presence at the orgy look at the beak-like mask of the man who takes away the female after she redeems Bill. These masks were worn by plague doctors centuries ago and the beaks were stuffed with herbs to purify the air breathed by the wearer. So why the disease metaphor? Because Domino, as we soon find out, is HIV positive. So we have three female characters, Domino, Mandy and Alice, symbolically rolled into one.

At Zieglers people greet each other with false smiles, false kisses and false personas. At Somerton their false personas take on the physical form of masks, which of course cancels out smiles and reveals their kisses as ritualized gestures devoid of intimacy. The masks themselves are the kind used in Venetian masquerade balls, which have historically been a high society pastime.
Bill is unfamiliar with the Somerton rituals. He stands in the wrong place as he watches the choreographed proceedings, and draws the attention of a couple on the balcony. The male figure acknowledges him. Could this be Ziegler and his wife? It probably is. Note the sad expression and tear like markings on her mask. In fact the concept of female prostitutes in this scene could be Kubrick’s uncompromising revelation that those who marry for money are forever enslaved.

”Banal dance music echoes from downstairs as we see the call girl Mandy sprawled naked in a narcotic stupor, while Victor hurriedly pulls up his pants, his use of her having been interrupted by an overdose. (Or has it?) After Bill brings her around, Victor impresses upon him that this near-scandal has to be kept “just between us”–but Kubrick, our own contemporary American artist-in-exile, in his own bitter Art of Love, tells all. With every detail and allusion he exposes the base, exploitative impulses behind imperial high culture: the erudite Szavost uses the classics, ballroom dance, and Renaissance sculpture as so many lines and props to seduce another man’s wife, while Victor, looking distractedly down at Mandy as she lies naked and twitching, is framed by a painted nude. Asked about Alex’s fondness for Ludwig Van in A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick answered, “I think this suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men, but it didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good.”  This point is reprised overtly in Eyes Wide Shut when we hear the title of a Beethoven opera used as the password to an orgy.” ( Tim Kreider )

Now we cut back to Bill and his interrogation and here we get some more clues about the groups possible religious leanings. In the first shot that we see of the circular gathering staring at Bill there is an interesting mask to the right of the shot. It is a golden sun with rays emanating from it. And in other shots of this scene we can see at least one more Sun shaped mask among the crowd. The remaining masks appear to be a mixture of those used in Venetian masquerades, theatre productions and ancient religious rituals;  in particular those depicting demons. A possible reference to Masonic beliefs can be found in a white and green mask, which has a protruding triangle etched onto it. The top corner of the triangle overlaps the wearers right eye, creating a Masonic pyramid-like emblem, just like the one depicted on the dollar bill. Even the colours of the mask are the same colours used in dollar bills, as if the mask is a crumpled up dollar bill with the masonic pyramid still visible.

”Being beautiful is Alice’s job, as much as it is the former beauty queen and call girl Mandy’s or the hooker Domino’s. During the quotidian-life-of-the-Harfords montage, in which her husband examines patients at the office, we only see Alice tending to her toilette: brushing her daughter’s hair, regally hooking on a brassiere, applying deodorant in front of the bathroom mirror. Hers is the daytime regimen of a courtesan (or an actress), devoted to the rigorous maintenance of her looks. She’s associated, more than any other character, with mirrors; we see her giving herself a critical once-over before leaving the party, and look of frank self-assessment in the medicine cabinet when she decides to get stoned. Her expression in the mirror as she watches her husband making love to her (the film’s iconic image) begins as bemusement, giving way to fondness and arousal, but in the last seconds before the fade-out it becomes something more ambiguous, distracted and self-conscious; this is her moment of clearest self-recognition, an uncomfortable glimpse of what she really is.”

There is a mask  on a pillow in one scene which is imaginary is imaginary. It is a manifestation of Bill’s sudden awareness that he has been lying to himself and his wife throughout their entire marriage. He was wearing a mask of deception even before going to Milich’s costume store. At another point Alice tears off her mask and reveals her most secret sexual fantasies to Bill. Now he must do the same. So when he sobs and says to her “I’ll tell you everything” he is not necessarily referring to Somerton. He is referring to his marriage and partnership with Alice.

”When Bill passes through the ornate portal past a beckoning golden-masked doorman, we should understand that we are entering the realm of myth and nightmare. This sequence is the clearest condemnation, in allegorical dream imagery, of elite society as corrupt, exploitative, and depraved–what they used to call, in a simpler time, evil. The pre-orgiastic rites are overtly Satanic, a Black Mass complete with a high priest gowned in crimson, droning organ and backward-masked Latin liturgy. What we see enacted is a ceremony in which faceless, interchangeable female bodies are doled out, fucked, and exchanged among black-cloaked figures, culminating in the ritual mass rape and sacrificial murder of a woman.”

Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut

The Venetian  masks worn by the revelers, an allusion to another mercantile empire, serve a similar symbolic purpose and that is the transformation of the wearer into a soulless object. They certainly aren’t expressive of ecstatic self-annihilation;they’re quite creepy .There is  a bird with a scythe-like beak, a cubist face fractured in half, contorted grimaces and leers, a frozen howl, painted tears, blindly gazing eyes.The utterly still, silent shots of staring masks at Bill’s “trial” are images of empty-eyed dehumanization, faces of death.They also serve as metaphors for women being treated as possessions, part of what Kubrick conveys as society’s hatred of the female.Also, Note that when Ziegler first sees Bill enter the ceremonial hall, even though they are both masked, he gives him a knowing nod. He recognizes him. Here the guests at Ziegler’s party are unmasked for what they really are.

Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick

While Alice’s real status is unmistakably that of the wife as prostitute, the orgies themselves make the metaphor of sexual objectification visually literal. The prostitutes wear masks that make them anonymous and identical; like all the other commodities in this rarified world. They are photographed in a way that desaturates them from any real eroticism. Even the ritualistic kissing is sterile and macabre. Like Mann’s Death in Venice, the ambiguities are preserved, but on a deeper level. There is no question of submission to bourgeois morality; they are simply to be fucked and discarded, servants to the great imperialistic wealth at the apex of the pyramid.

”Now the final scene in the toy store loses its cryptic vagueness and offers a more satisfying resolution. Bill and Alice are not discussing the dangers of being tangled up in a conspiracy. They are talking about their relationship. When Alice tells Bill that they need to “fuck” as soon as possible it is because they have never had sex without removing their masks of deception. They have used each other as sex objects just like the orgy participants at Somerton and the partner-swapping couples at Ziegler’s party. By engaging in real intimacy with their eyes wide open this marriage will be healed. In his own unique way Kubrick is giving us a happy ending”.( Rob Ager )

Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick

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2 Responses to VENETIAN MASKS & DIONYSIAN AMBIVALENCE

  1. hello madame/sir,

    i always want to know more information in this special unique membership and black gown and masked and sex involved. this is real precious to me and my heart for that for years. so i want to stick with that. even i am from canada but i know there is somewhere in canada no question.
    hope somebody will reply to me
    thankyou so much
    eddie nagle

    • Dave says:

      no idea. Likely exists, as Kubrick didn’t invent the ritual, but these “happenings” are not exactly public.

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