As one of the most studied film directors of all time, Stanley Kubrick has been analyzed through almost every lens. For those familiar with his work, the depth of research devoted to this man and his films should not come as a surprise. His thirteen films have forever changed their respective genres. His influence is universally recognized.
On Monday, October 29, Nathan Abrams, a film professor at Bangor University in Wales, gave a lecture here at Reed entitled “Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual.” “What can I say?” asked Dr. Abrams, referring to Kubrick as a figure “probably only rivaled by Alfred Hitchcock, who inspires levels of devotion among fans.” Abrams approaches an analysis of Kubrick through three perspectives: archival, ethnic and ethic. He argues that Kubrick’s films “adapted to the concerns of the time,” from feminism to the Cold War. Kubrick is generally described as cold, calculating and secular — he is not traditionally seen as a Jewish filmmaker. Despite his lack of religious faith, however, Kubrick embraced many aspects of his Jewish heritage and, according to his brother-in-law, gave a “great big bow to the unknowable.” Abrams is also interested in Kubrick’s ethical impulses, partially as they relate to Nazism and the Holocaust.
Abrams first places Kubrick among the New York Jewish intellectuals, as they are defined by Irving Howe. “They are, or until recently have been, anti-Communist; they are, or until some time ago were, radicals; they have a fondness for ideological speculation; they write literary criticism with a strong socal emphasis; they revel in polemic; they strive self-consciously to be ‘brilliant,’ and by birth or osmosis, they are Jews.”
These intellectuals consisted of a loosely tied net of writers, poets, and critics that dominated the literary magazines and who would eventually, and ironically, morph into the neoconservative movement under Reagan. Many of the “alternative” and anti-establishment cultural icons of the time, including Lenny Bruce, Joseph Heller, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan, would later be associated within this greater New York intellectual movement. With the exception of Dylan, Kubrick sought collaborations with all these figures.
Since moving to Greenwich Village in 1948, the birthplace of an intellectual and bohemian culture that would soon help produce the Beat Poets, Kubrick was incredibly influenced by his new “family.” Many speculate that this was, in fact, the source of his unique choice of source material (almost all of Kubrick’s films are adaptations of books) during the beginning of his career. Stanley Kubrick never went to college. His education stemmed from an informal osmosis with this environment.
In his lecture, Professor Abrams analyzed how the Holocaust underlies three of Kubrick’s films: Spartacus, Lolita, and Dr. Strangelove. Conscious of the myriad of conspiracy theories surrounding Kubrick, Abrams utilizes a historical analysis in an attempt to anchor these sometimes far-reaching claims. The examples listed below provide a snapshot of some of Abrams’ theories.
In Spartacus (1960), Kubrick uses shots of dead bodies to evoke images of the Holocaust. Although many question the extent of Kubrick’s involvement in the making of Spartacus, Kubrick carefully restored the only remaining version in 1991, suggesting its importance within Kubrick’s discography.
Abrams points to Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita (1962) to illustrate Kubrick’s concern with the Holocaust. Lolita’s sarcastic, left-handed Nazi salute causes her mother to send her away to a camp. Abrams argues that the film explores Betty Friedan’s bold comparison, put forward in The Feminine Mystique (1963), between the position of a housewife and that of a concentration camp inmate. The film’s casting decisions were also significant. In fact, almost all of the Jewish characters from the books Kubrick adapted were removed. This choice, according to Abrams, allowed for the themes — rather than the individual characters — to address the topic of Jewishness.
Another example can be found in Dr. Strangelove (1964), in the scene when the bomber pilot struggles to drop the bomb due to a technical malfunction. Abrams argues that the audience is meant to empathize with the soldier, due to our desire to watch him succeed despite the apocalyptic consequences. The movie explores Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil: how acts of tremendous violence are the sum of individual, non-threatening acts of bureaucracy. This bold claim gains traction when, in his introduction to Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1974), author Stanley Milgram cites this scene from Dr. Strangelove to describe our culpability in evil systems.
Collectively, Abrams’ analysis of these films provides a way to understand Kubrick’s larger project and connection to both New York intellectual life and his Jewish identity for longtime fans and new viewers alike.