Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual by Nathan Abrams (book review).

Any books I have about film director Stanley Kubrick tend to centre on one particular SF film. When Nathan Abrams’ book, ‘Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual’, came up in the Eurospan catalogue, I thought it was about time I read a bit more. That isn’t to say I don’t know anything about Kubrick’s background as I do tend to do research as a natural reflex.

Kubrick was born in the Bronx, New York in 1928. Rather than go to university, he chose to become a magazine photographer combined with a keen thirst for knowledge as a reader and a lover of films. Although Jewish, he isn’t religious. Abrams does explore Kubrick’s roots and how they affected his photography and how it affects his films. Hardly surprising considering Kubrick mixed in the the many creative Jewish people in New York. Reading the list in Abrams’ ‘Introduction’ is literally reading a list of the famous or about to be in the late 1950s.

It’s very odd reading this book. Yes, I can understand Abrams desire to point out all Jewish connections but there is little given in context and in comparison to other directors and films. If they’ve all got the same pool for production and actors, then there are bound to be similarities in whom you employ. Kubrick chose James Mason to star in ‘Lolita’ (1962) and he barely gets a mention in the chapter on the film. There are all kinds of factors taken into account when making a film, especially finance. When you’re a novice director, as Kubrick was, you have to accept various things. The pattern of choice of films Kubrick chose mirrors a lot of directors in that he didn’t want to be pigeon-holed in any one genre and I suspect the same applies to directors. This can also extend to repeat use of actors. Kubrick did this with Kirk Douglas and Peter Sellers but I’m sure it was because of their talent than ethnicity.

The character name choice in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964) is to follow the theme of the satire and a layer to see if people are paying attention. I’ve seen the film a few times but not all their names sunk in. If anything, it’s just an extra layer if you’re paying attention.

Of course, when it comes to ‘2001’, I’m very much on home turf so it’s interesting seeing how Abrams interprets everything with a Jewish context as if Kubrick chose it or instilled it from his background. The real problem is downplaying other people’s contributions. After all, Arthur C. Clarke, who was an atheist and pointed out in the text, was a major part of the screenplay and certainly defined what HAL’s initials represented. Oddly, Abrams draws comparisons of Jewishness with Dave Bowman’s name and some of the hibernauts to the detriment of other lead characters like Heywood Floyd and Frank Poole. Surely, if Kubrick meant to add his heritage, he would have played with their names as well. From a writer’s perspective, coming up with names is more a feeling of what feels right to the character more often than other undertones. Abrams makes an interesting point about how many things are done in 4s but I can’t see Kubrick counting on his fingers over it. As Abrams points out ‘2001’ is really 4 interconnecting stories but within each one are the more normal 3 acts.

With ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Abrams points out that ‘orang’ is Malayan for ‘human’, but then points out later writer Anthony Burgess’ source of the title which is a quote. I should point out, which he doesn’t, is that Burgess is from a catholic background. Granted, it took Kubrick a long time before he read the novel, but he was on the look-out for film potential than something to fulfil his background. If anything, there’s a bigger counter-argument showing he picked his cast for what they would contribute not their heritage.

When we get to ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975), I do think Abrams is stretching things when he points out that Ryan O’Neal’s maternal grandmother is Jewish. Can anyone see Kubrick checking on anyone’s ancestry before employing them? Also, if you look over Kubrick’s films, he touched toes in every genre. Although ‘Dr. Strangelove’ could be regarded as SF, it had more in common with dark satire and probably his only comedy. Abrams points out the lack of Jewishness in ‘The Shining’ (1980) but considering that its original author, Stephen King, was brought up a Methodist, that shouldn’t be surprising.

When it comes to ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987), Abrams points out the undertones of Jewishness and I still think he’s pushing it. Mostly because Kubrick isn’t making anything of the ethnicity of the characters and just a blend of recruits. Incidentally, the use of soap in socks to batter Pyle with has similarities to the assault on Lilly Dillon in ‘The Grifters’ (1990) because any bruises are below the skin but still very painful.

There are mentions throughout the book that Kubrick wanting to make a film about the Holocaust but ever the researcher and a need to find books from the German perspective this one eluded him. I would have thought this, considering that it came from Kubrick himself, should have clued Abrams in that the director liked to do balanced films regardless of ethnicity. As he later points out in his ‘Epilogue’, Jewish names weren’t used much in American films so there is a possibility that Kubrick was balancing the books a little considering he filmed in the UK rather than making a point of their apparent non-existence elsewhere.

From the acknowledgements, Abrams points out that this book had its origins in a degree module for Bangor University on Kubrick looking at the Jewish aspects of his career. Even so, I do think this book is rather top heavy in that regard to the point of exclusion of anything else which doesn’t make for balanced reading. We are all products of our upbringing to some extent but the way Kubrick devoured books and research, it’s pretty clear that he would have preferred balanced arguments. That isn’t to say I didn’t get anything from this book, it’s just that I wish the arguments were better balanced.

GF Willmetts

February 2019

(pub: Rutgers University Press, 2018. 328 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £30.95 (UK), $34.95 (US). ISBN: 978-0-8135-8710-3)

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