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Suddenly ‘conspiracy theories’ look all too plausible

A protester holds up a photo of Jeffrey Epstein outside Manhattan Federal Court (Getty)

Much has been made in recent days of the prescient verisimilitude of Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this summer – just as America caught a glimpse of the life-world of the late Jeffrey Epstein, who died by an apparent suicide last weekend while in pretrial custody on sex-trafficking charges.

The film, for those who haven’t watched it, follows a New York physician, Dr Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise), on a surreal journey into the dark side following a tiff with his wife (Nicole Kidman). The climactic point of the journey takes him inside a mansion, somewhere presumably in Tony Westchester county, where dozens of masked men get intimate with many more supermodel-like women.

One might say that Epstein ruined the Kubrick masterpiece for us: The whole pleasure of Eyes Wide Shut lay in toying with the idea that America’s most powerful men are involved in a neo-pagan sex cult, with capes, masks, Satanic liturgies, orgies and so forth. Emphasis on toying, not believing: this disturbing possibility intrigued the viewer, but then he walked out of the theater or shut off the DVD, reassuring himself: “Of course, that’s not how the real world works, and only conspiracy theorists would imagine otherwise.”

After the Epstein revelations, however, Kubrick’s masterpiece won’t have the same effect – because none of us can reassure ourselves that that’s not how the “real world” works. We could enjoy Kubrick’s vision only so long as it was a dark fantasy, a fanciful vision of what the highest echelons of American society get up to at night. It’s quite a different matter if, as the Epstein revelations suggest and Twitter cads like to joke, Eyes Wide Shut was, indeed, a documentary.

The billionaire financier – though no one quite seems to know how much money he really had and how he made it – allegedly sexually trafficked underage girls, including to his 72-acre personal “pedophile island” in the Caribbean, which happened to be a popular spot with some of the most powerful men in American politics and business.

The island might as well have been the great Westchester mansion where Eyes Wide Shut’s notorious cult-orgy scene takes place – with one crucial difference: The women exploited by the movie cult are all apparently adults. Whereas Epstein “allegedly had a team of traffickers who procured girls as young as 12 to service his friends,” as Fox News reported.

The coercion depicted in Eyes Wide Shut, moreover, may have well been mere cloak-and-daggers and symbolism. Whereas Epstein and his assistants operated a more grubbily mundane system of exploitation. “Once on the island,” speculates New York magazine, “the underage girls and women say they were coerced into sexual encounters and, in some cases, even held hostage.” One victim “said that they kept her passport so she couldn’t leave – a ruthless tactic they allegedly used in an attempt to hold more than one victim against their will.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the odd structure, often described as a temple, that sits on the island at some distance from the main residence. Before Hurricane Irma blew it off, in 2017, the temple structure featured a golden dome flanked on both sides by golden statues of owls — or are they Canaanite gods or who knows what?

“While the purpose of the temple is unknown,” reports New York, “one possibility is that it had served as a place for the classically trained Epstein to practice piano.” Or was it a place of ritual abuse, as conspiracy theorists have suggested? A few months ago, the notion that captains of state and industry gathered in some sort of temple to Baal or Moloch or what have you to abuse underage girls would have struck me as fantastical — as something out of, well, Eyes Wide Shut. Now it’s just yesterday’s news.

And maybe these points of verisimilitude should deepen our appreciation for the movie. As the novelist Lila Shapiro noted recently, Kubrick was a filmmaker who left nothing to chance, including his choice of a painfully naïve, painfully WASPy protagonist in Dr. Bill. “He didn’t make a naïve film — he made a film about naïvete and the toll it takes on the world.” L’affaire Epstein, it seems to me, should compel all of us, not least journalists, to cast off all that remains of our own naïvete toward power.

Note to readers: This will be my last Herald column for a few months while I finish a book project.

Sohrab Ahmari is op-ed editor of the New York Post and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald. He is writing a book exploring 12 questions our culture doesn’t ask