Stanley Kubrick belongs to the category of select filmmakers to have elicited a massive body of critical work as well as gained a cult following among fans and mainstream audiences. In his expert study of Jewishness as an all-too-often overlooked influence in the director’s life and work, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, Nathan Abrams does, among many other things, provide an interesting key to solving the mystery of Kubrick’s dual popularity, his status as a high modernist and commercially successful filmmaker. This Abrams does by showing how Kubrick, through his signature method of misdirection, always tells (at least) two tales at one and the same time: on the one hand, we find the surface narrative, and on the other, the subsurface narrative of Jewish identity. Kubrick may not have been religious, Abrams tells us. But the impact of Judaism is apparent in his films obliquely, rather than explicitly, typically via analogies and metaphors that incorporate extensive biblical and other Jewish and Hebrew imagery.
His Jewishness all too often overlooked, Kubrick kept rehearsing tropes of his culture and faith, sometimes burying them deep beneath the surface of his films. But through Abrams’s lens, we see that these tropes are very much present, in a variety of formal and thematic clues (the colour yellow, for instance). Kubrick’s films simultaneously express his Jewishness while distracting many from recognising it.
As Abrams rightly points out, despite the voluminous research into Kubrick in existence, little has explored his Jewishness or rapport to Judaism hitherto. Geoffrey Cocks had dedicated a lengthy study to interpreting The Shining (1980) as a text about the Holocaust.1. Abrams continues in a similar vein, detecting scores of allusions and themes drawn from normative Judaism in Kubrick’s films, expanding the reading of crypto-Jewishness and going deeper than those critics who acknowledge at least the importance of the Holocaust in his oeuvre. The tantalising complexity and density of Kubrick’s films has beckoned hordes of interpretations, and allowed for a myriad other (often fanciful) perspectives to emerge, all trying to “crack the Kubrick code”. Abrams convinces us that the subsurface Jewishness reading is not just one other such reading, lost in a Nabokovian maze of sorts, but rather, that the very way Kubrick negotiated his identity and heritage, and the form it took in his films, through misdirection, is very much behind all the other interpretations, including the ones that veer furthest into paranoia and conspiracy theories and territories, very much looking for what was never there in the first place, but at least right in intuiting the presence, in the text, of some “hidden message”. Hidden, that is, until now, Abrams having provided a reading that indeed reconciles the manifest narrative and subsurface intimations of Jewishness.
Proceeding by a film-by-film approach, from the early shorts (and early photographic work influenced by Diane Arbus and WeeGee) all the way to Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and the unfinished projects (Napoleon, A.I., and, of course, Aryan Papers), Abrams expertly unpacks aspects of Jewish culture which he reads between the lines or sees as “coded” to varying degree of opacity in Kubrick’s films. Such reading will be useful to any film scholar, reinstating the importance of the psycho-biographical, all too often dismissed by academic analyses since structuralism and Marxism. While such resistance is warranted to a point (overly easy shortcuts or false conclusions derived from establishing links between an author’s life and oeuvre may easily arise), here it reveals itself to be productive and helpful, connecting Kubrick’s life to major events of the 20th century and beyond, and showing deeper or hidden meanings beneath the surface, that is, beyond the literal reading or representation of Kubrick’s films. Thus, Abrams yields compelling and often illuminating readings, from A Clockwork Orange (1971) as a theological film dealing with the nature of evil from the perspective of Jewish normativity, to The Shining as a retelling of “The Binding of Isaac” from the book of Genesis, in relation to the problem of blind obedience to authority in the twentieth century; from the pursuit of menschlikayt by the Kirk Douglas characters (Spartacus and Paths of Glory’s Colonel Dax ) to the ambivalent Jewishness of James Mason and Peter Sellers in Lolita (1962). Sellers, the protean, virtuoso Jew, Abrams argues provocatively, delivers his most Jewish character where one would least expect him, namely as Dr. Strangelove, the Nazi scientist, in Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). To Abrams, Strangelove is indeed also a Jew, with a grafted Nazi saluting arm to complete the monstrous, grotesque hybrid.
Strangelove is never explicitly identified as Jewish in Kubrick’s film, and, as Abrams rightly reminds us, only a handful of characters in the entire Kubrick canon are overtly Jewish. Yet tropes of Jewishness run through most of them, irrespective of the explicit ethnic background of the characters, or of the actors playing them. Indeed, if Douglas and Sellers are Jewish or of direct Jewish descent, and Ryan O’Neal happens to have remotely Jewish ancestry, Jack Nicholson, Keir Dullea or Matthew Modine are quite gentile, not to mention Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. And yet, pointing out to misdirection as one of the defining aspects of Kubrick’s method, Abrams describes Redmond Barry as a Jew on his quest to both menschlikayt (the quality of being a mensch, a righteous man) and assimilation and recognition by the 18th century British establishment, practicing “scientific” boxing much like Peter Sellers’ own ancestors, the legendary Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza. Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket (1987) are seen as Jews in their quests for knowledge and some righteous deed in the face of an electronic golem or brutal authority.
As for The Shining’s Jack (or Jacob “the Jew”, as the author puts it) Torrance, Abrams’ analysis allows us to at last better understand the appeal of what on paper was truly a horrible and despicable character – an abusive father and husband and failed writer on the wagon, married more truly to the sinister Overlook Hotel than to his wife. Abrams establishes parallels between Nicholson and Kubrick himself, parallels we can appreciate through the documentary directed by Vivian Kubrick about the film’s making (including Kubrick’s very real bullying of Duvall on the set). Kubrick being a secular Jew, so is Torrance: he has kopf, is sensitive and intuitive, yet doomed to a cruel fate in the end. It is in Torrance’s dual nature (as the murderous madman and as the failed mensch), more so than in Nicholson’s screen charisma, that we can understand the complexity and strange fascination of the character.
Also, to a point, we find here one of the reasons why Kubrick’s literary adaptation always tended to stray so far from the source texts, even when they remained relatively faithful to the plot. A case in point is Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (Rhapsody), a novella written by a Central European Jewish writer, and which fascinated Kubrick for decades. Yet upon rereading Schnitzler’s text, one is struck by how similar and yet unfaithful Kubrick and Frederic Raphael’s treatment of the story became as Eyes Wide Shut. Abrams illustrates how the film cleverly inverts roles, against traditional typage: the sinister Victor Ziegler (a character absent from the novella!), played alternately by Jews (Harvey Keitel and Sydney Pollack), carries more of the traits of brutality and unscrupulous disingenuousness of the hyper-wealthy WASP (in his sexual rapaciousness and leering he evokes Donald Trump rather than Jewish stereotypes). Opposite him, played by the quintessential goy Tom Cruise, Bill Harford is a coded version of Arthur Schnitzler’s Fridolin, a crypto-Jewish character, NYC doctor intent on sleeping with shiksas and devoured by guilt, neurosis and anxiety, in stereotypical fashion which is thus deflected by the casting choice. Indeed, Abrams reminds us that Kubrick considered Woody Allen to play the part, which would have no doubt yielded an entirely different film altogether – and perhaps undermined the masterful subsurface quality of the narrative at hand here.
Although Kubrick grew up in an entirely secular environment, never had a Bar mitzvah, and ended up marrying a gentile (the niece of Nazi filmmaker Veit Harlan, to boot), the Jewish question unquestionably remained with him throughout his life. In view of this, Abrams pushes forward a seductive theory whereby the 2001: A Space Odyssey (paradoxically enough, viewed as Kubrick’s most religious and most atheistic film!) is not at all a tripartite film built around a Christian idea (hitherto it has been read overwhelmingly as such). On the contrary, an alternative reading reveals a distinctly Jewish understanding of the universe in the sci-fi classic, especially in its use of imagery drawn from the Hebrew scriptures, Talmud, liturgy and Kabbalah. Objectively, 2001 is composed of four episodes, not three (although it features only three intertitles), each of which corresponds to levels of reading of Kabbalah, the PaRDeS. From the literal, superficial level of interpretation of Peshat (“simple”, “plain” – the “dawn of man” segment), we move to the Remez (“clue” – the signal from the unearthed monolith on Clavius). The next, third phase is Derash (“research” – the mission to Jupiter), a variation of Midrashic textual interpretation (where Abrams rightly notes the name of the spaceship – Discovery). Finally, the psychedelic and abstract sequence of Bowman’s journey ‘to Jupiter and beyond’ is aligned with Sod (“infinite”, “mystery”), the final stage of Kabbalistic interpretation. Driving his point home, Abrams reminds us how Kabbalah had its revival in the spiritual 1960s all around the US, appealing to Jewish intellectuals, including the Beats, whom Kubrick knew and spent time with before relocating to London in the mid-1960s.
The degree of insight and research that went into Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual is impressive – indeed distinguished – and surely Abrams ranks among the most learned and knowledgeable Kubrick scholars around, having mined the London archive in the process of writing the book. There is a slight downside to this impressive display of biographical and critical knowledge: at its weakest, the chapters indulge in a string of fascinating anecdotes and observations, advancing Abrams’s overall point no doubt, but detracting from the narrative of each chapter at hand (this surely is the case of the chapter dedicated to Full Metal Jacket). But this minor flaw is consubstantial to Abrams’ (indeed very Jewish) method of interpretation and scrupulous unpacking of every detail – sometimes to a fault, but never off the mark. In addition, there is poetry in this: as Michael Herr (who co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket) remembered, Kubrick loved footnotes, arguing that all the most interesting aspects of books were often to be found therein. In this sense, Abrams’s method, with its passages in the text very much like insightful endnotes, is another homage to Kubrick. And these passages also infuse the book with a Talmudic quality – a book of lore and knowledge, that can be picked up at any point, and yield nuggets of brilliance and food for thought. The poetry is not only Talmudic, but vectorial, too: if we accept the idea that we can “read” Kubrick’s films “from left to right” (their manifest unfolding) and “from right to left” (the subsurface Jewish direction), we are reminded again of the games with symmetry and complexity of the films.
Another, real regret one may have regarding Abrams’ book is the occasionally insufficient historiographic approach. The close reading of motifs (say, the colour yellow in Kubrick) detracts from and precludes a more detached overview of where Kubrick fitted not just merely vis-à-vis Jewishness, but vis-à-vis American history and the processes of late capitalism from the 1960s to the late 1990s. Conversely, some of the more numerological approaches (though rarely indulged in, as opposed to the frenzied interpretative delirium found in films dedicated to the “mystery” hidden in The Shining) 2 could be dismissed as purely speculative, even within the frame of Kabbalistic numerology.
There will be time to discuss the importance, relevance, but also symptomatic nature of the emergence of this overdue analysis of Kubrick through a Jewish lens at this juncture in history (likewise, seeing 2001 as a Jewish text against an overly Christian interpretation puts in fascinating perspective the fraught relationship of Christianity and Judaism, opening up a possible and productive dialogue between the two). Voices will arise no doubt, too, to see this approach as just one more among the aforementioned countless interpretive exegeses that have mushroomed around Kubrick’s films, from the most fanciful (the moon landing filming scenario) to the most serious and compelling ones (of which Abrams partakes). Others still may criticise what could be regarded as an overly communitarian or segregating approach, which would purportedly ‘reduce’ Kubrick to his Jewishness. Nothing could be further from the truth: Kubrick’s Jewishness, on the contrary, amplifies the profound and universal reach of his oeuvre, and accounts for its lasting appeal as much as does its technical mastery. Abrams’s study—this is not the least of its virtues—encourages us to revisit the films with a refreshed, enlightened eye. This is what any serious and good work of film criticism should do.
Nathan Abrams, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual (Rutgers UP, 2018)