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Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual

Despite his death at age 70 in 1999, Stanley Kubrick remains a cult favorite among millions of cinephiles, as shown by the recent 50th anniversary big screen re-release of his 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey in both 70mm and IMAX formats. The ambiguity of 2001 drove its first audiences crazy -- at its premiere in Los Angeles in April of 1968, Rock Hudson was heard to shout, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?!”

From Dr. Strangelove onward, Kubrick loved ambiguity as a filmmaker, telling Joseph Gelmis, his interviewer in the 1970 book The Film Director as Superstar, that “a certain degree of ambiguity is valuable, because it allows the audience to ‘fill in’ the visual experience themselves. In any case, once you're dealing on a nonverbal level, ambiguity is unavoidable.” Kubrick also practically admitted he had no problem lying to interviewers about his films, when he told Rolling Stone’s Tim Cahill while promoting Full Metal Jacket in 1987, “Some people can do interviews. They’re very slick, and they neatly evade this hateful conceptualizing. Fellini is good; his interviews are very amusing. He just makes jokes and says preposterous things that you know he can’t possibly mean.”

In Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, Nathan Abrams, a professor of film studies at Bangor University in Wales, makes a very convincing case that while Kubrick posed as an atheist technocrat filmmaker who wanted his films to appeal to worldwide audiences, among the many things he was burying in their subtexts were “the concerns of Jewish intellectuals in the post-Holocaust world.” According to Abrams, two themes repeat in various forms in virtually all of Kubrick’s movies: menschlikayt and goyim naches.

Regarding the first of the two Yiddish expressions, Abrams writes that menschlikayt, derived from the term mensch, originally meant a:

“[U]niquely Jewish ‘code’ of conduct,” emphasizing the moderate, meek, and intellectual values of Yiddishkeit (literally: Jewishness/Jewish culture, which John Murray Cuddihy defined as “the values, feelings, and beliefs of the premodern shtetl subculture . . . ‘Jewish fundamentalism’”). It privileged a posture of reliance on family, tradition, accommodation, nonviolence, gentleness, timidity, and a man’s responsibility for his fellow men in contrast to conventional goyish (“un/non-Jewish/Gentile”) masculinity.

Abrams notes, later in his book, that Kubrick, with more than a little assistance from Kirk Douglas (formerly known as Issur Danielovitch Demsky), began to push hard against the original concept of “Menschlikayt,” towards a more muscular post-WWII version. But in its original definition, Abrams writes that “Menschlikayt rejected goyim naches":

Literally meaning “pleasure for/of the gentiles,” its root is the Hebrew word goy (singular of goyim, meaning gentiles), but it also derives from the word for “body” (geviyah). It can therefore also be interpreted to mean a “preoccupation with the body, sensuality, rashness, and ruthless force,” as manifested in such physical activities as bearing arms, horse riding, dueling, jousting, archery, wrestling, hunting, orgies, and sports in general. Denied the right to participate in such activities, Jews instead denigrated them, consequently also disparaging those very characteristics that in European culture defined a man as manly: physical strength, martial activity, competitive drive, and aggression.