Five years ago cinephiles and semioticians were invited to join forces and wander the conspiratorial maze of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237. It showed, in ways both witty and unsettling, how the director’s work lends itself to a kind of close reading that can reflect back whatever light you wish to shine.
Nathan Abrams’s extraordinarily entertaining new book, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual (Rutgers University Press), does for each bullet on Kubrick’s résumé what Ascher’s zealous interlocutors did for The Shining. Everything the Bronx-born photographer-turned-auteur made (or even considered making) has, according to Abrams, rich seams of Jewish signifiers if you just know where to drill. There’s not a character or plot development that can’t be read as a reference to Kubrick’s cultural heritage. Chapter by chapter, this book is an extended stay in Room Jew-37.
The common wisdom is that Kubrick was raised secularly and did not consider himself much of a Jew. Abrams, who teaches film at Bangor University in Wales and has written two previous books about Jewish themes in cinema, argues that everything in Kubrick’s world is heimish as schtup.
“My taste includes both snails and oysters” from Spartacus is as much about treyf as bisexuality? Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut is a wandering Jew? HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey is a digital Golem? OK, that last one sounds a bit plausible, but these are just a few of the many “I think you are pushing it” moments in the book. Still, between them are many more reasonable theories.
The book’s title is a bit of a misdirection, the sly “Jewish trait” that Kubrick uses throughout his career. “New York Jewish Intellectual” connotes scenes of arguing until dawn at the Hungarian Pastry Shop or quipping at Cedar Tavern (RIP); while Kubrick did travel in these circles during his formative years, there isn’t much of a record of his experiences, though there are some associations that jump out.
In 1945, at age seventeen, he sold his first photo to Look magazine, and quickly secured a staff position. (College wasn’t much of an option. His grades were poor and the G.I. Bill meant ballooning enrollments.) His department head at Look was Arthur Rothstein and, once his work got him some notice, he was mentored by Diane Arbus and Arthur “Weegee” Fellig. All were Jews. Kubrick’s first feature, the disavowed Fear and Desire (1953), is his only work to have an obviously Jewish character, Paul Mazursky’s Private Sidney, a “jittery recruit” who brings trouble upon himself and his comrades.
Part of Abrams’s thesis is that it is actually more Jewish of Kubrick to go out of his way to obfuscate the Jewishness of his later characters. Time and again we see how he downplayed any explicit references from source material like Spartacus, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and the books that became Full Metal Jacket or Eyes Wide Shut, but he also expanded the roles that are “coded” as Jews.
The best example of this is Lolita’s Clare Quilty, who figures peripherally in Nabokov’s novel, but bookends Kubrick’s film and dominates many scenes. He isn’t Jewish per se (though Peter Sellers was), but the character’s mercurial, charismatic, and untrustworthy nature play with all the best anti-Semitic stereotypes. (Similarly, Kubrick greatly enlarged Tony Curtis’s mensch-y entertainer Antoninus from Spartacus’s book and first screenplays, and Sydney Pollack’s Victor Ziegler has no equivalent in Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, from which Eyes Wide Shut is adapted.)
The Jewish author Schnitzler was one of Kubrick’s obsessions, as were Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and basically any book he could find about the Holocaust. Jewish-American sociologist Stanley Milgram’s first obedience-to-authority studies were published during the production of Dr. Strangelove, a film about the mundane processes of mass murder.
Dr. Strangelove was inspired as much by the very Jewish Mad magazine as MAD, the fatalistic Cold War term for mutual assured destruction. Strangelove made Kubrick a satellite member of the so-called sickniks, edgy Jewish humorists like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Shelley Berman. As far back as 1958, Kubrick discussed adapting Traumnovelle with cartoonist (and Village Voice mainstay) Jules Feiffer.
But by Dr. Strangelove’s release, Kubrick had already become an expatriate, having settled in England with his third wife, Christiane. His brief previous marriages were with Jewish women. Christiane was not Jewish, and in a very remarkable way, especially for a filmmaker: Her uncle was Veit Harlan, director of the Nazi-era propaganda picture Jud Süss, arguably the most important and effective anti-Semitic film ever made.
If Joseph Goebbels was the Kevin Feige of anti-Semitic media, Jud Süss (1940) was his Avengers: Infinity War. It opened big across all Nazi-occupied territories, and members of the SS were urged to see it. It was the top-grossing film of the year and won an award at the Venice Film Festival (which only showed films from Axis nations during the war years).
Veit Harlan and Kubrick met and even discussed the idea of making a movie about the German filmmaker. One of Kubrick’s unfinished projects, along with A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (which in his initial drafts featured “selection” sequences similar to ones at Auschwitz), was a project called Aryan Papers, based on Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, about a Jewish boy masquerading as a Catholic during World War II.
Kubrick never really fit in in England. He couldn’t lose the Bronx accent (search for audio interviews discussing the “supah-naturuhl” elements of The Shining) and the issue of genteel (or gentile?) assimilation is what powers his adaptation of Barry Lyndon. By the time you get through Abrams’s book, you may find yourself a convert, buying the argument that the biggest box-office goy of the Nineties, Tom Cruise, is actually a masked Jew despite the name Harford and all those cans of Budweiser beer. Maybe that orgy sequence really is a spin on a Spanish auto-da-fé. (Abrams quotes Kubrick associates who reiterate that the director considered this to be his masterpiece, which means I really ought to rent it again.)
What’s most exciting about the book is that even when it spins into poppycock (sorry, Private Pyle getting pummeled by bars of soap is not a Holocaust metaphor), it is exhilarating. That’s thanks to Kubrick’s endlessly fascinating output, but also Abrams’s sharp and impassioned style. He consistently threads recurring themes (the Sacrifice of Isaac pops up more times than you might imagine) and it can’t be a coincidence how often variants of Kubrick’s father’s name make their way into his movies. What this all means for a filmmaker who shrugged off the religion of his parents is, of course, very much open for debate. But if any New York Intellectuals (Jewish or otherwise) would like to meet for coffee and get into it, I am eager.
Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual
By Nathan Abrams
Rutgers University Press