Category Archives: film

Mensch, he’s no Mensch

Mensch, he’s no Mensch or: Eyes Wide Shut the F**k up

Following the publication of my book, Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, among the many reviews I received was this one, “Captain, he’s no Captain”, in the once great Commentary Magazine no less.

It is a sign of how far it has sunk, that its editor, John Podhoretz, son of its former and erstwhile editor, Norman Podhoretz, commissioned the review from a far from disinterested party, Frederic Raphael, the screenwriter on Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

I wasn’t particularly moved to reply until I received an unsolicited email from its author in which he sent me the longer, unedited version of his review, coupled with the allegation that my “tendentious partiality” is because I am the “creature” of the Harlans. He signed off with the words, “On no account imagine that I look forward to hearing from you.”

Now my interest was piqued.

In my book, which is three hundred and twenty-eight pages long, Raphael is mentioned a mere twelve times. Despite the fact that the book covers the years 1928-1999, and Raphael only collaborated with Kubrick from the mid-1990s, he still managed to distil its entire content into being about him. And, lo, he becomes, in his own words “the sole villain of the piece.”

Had Raphael read my book more closely, rather than the bits which mentioned his name, I argue that where Kubrick departed from the seriousness of the New York Intellectuals was in his playfulness.

I do not, as Raphael claims, affect “to unlock what Stanley was ‘really’ dealing with, in all his movies”; in fact, quite the opposite. I emphasize the films’ multivocality and diversity, but simply wish to add a further voice to the cacophony, one which Raphael raised in his own book about working with Kubrick, Eyes Wide Open, namely, Kubrick’s Jewishness. And, yes, while Geoffrey Cocks has tilled this ground before, his research led to very different conclusions to mine: that Stanley always wanted to make a film about the Holocaust and the film he ended up making about it was The Shining (1980). Fair play to Mr. Raphael, though, for he did read the Lolita and Barry Lyndon chapters it seems.

I did not have a “scheme” per se but I did have a word limit and unfortunately what Raphael calls “mundane biographical facts” had to be limited to what was relevant. Please find me a publisher that will let me write a five-hundred-page tome!

Yes, I did call Mr. Raphael’s memoir “self-serving.” Unsurprisingly, Stanley emerges as the sole villain of Mr. Raphael’s piece. It also says much that Mr. Raphael published his memoir a mere four months after Stanley died never giving him the chance for a rebuttal.

And I did call it “unreliable.” Parts of his memoir recollecting his conversations with Stanley indeed read as if constructed like a screenplay so how are we to know that he wasn’t applying his singular talents in the artform of fictional screenwriting to his memoir? How else are we to treat evidence without any independent verification? When I say that Mr. Raphael “claims,” it is not to doubt his veracity, but simply to admit I don’t have any proof that what he says is true. Raphael was repeatedly unavailable when I tried contacting him without success several times.

The actual role Raphael played in the final screenplay, as all writers working on Kubrick screenplays found, is debatable. And the disgruntled and embittered screenwriter is long a trope of the movies, let alone Stanley’s films. Dalton Trumbo had some very harsh words to say about his experience of working with Stanley on Spartacus. As did Kirk Douglas, who certainly tried his hand at writing some of that film and the one that preceded it, Paths of Glory. He described Kubrick as a “talented shit.”

It is hard for Raphael, to use his own words, to deny (but convenient to omit) that, maybe it took Stanley some thirty years to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, and not the writer. But, of course, in Raphael’s scheme, he is the sole hero of the piece.

Mr. Raphael doesn’t like that I called “S.K.” an “intellectual” because I am not sufficiently deferential to his own credentials as an intellectual. It has always struck me how, bright, educated individuals with a huge array of honours, seem to need to shout the loudest about how brilliant they are. Of course, the pugilistic Norman Podhoretz was a genius at this and hence it’s no surprise that Mr. Raphael’s attack on me is published in his beast: the magazine that excelled at ad hominem attacks par excellence.

Another correction: I do not refer back to Peter Arno, the New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949, but rather look to forward to suggest that Kubrick’s interest in the subject matter that formed Lolita might have already had its roots sometime earlier. Yes, Kubrick might well have not written the caption, but I am sure he certainly he read it!

And in what sense is Christiane K. my “benefactress”? I have received no funding from the Kubrick Estate other than access to the Stanley Kubrick Archive, which is available at the University of the Arts London to anyone within reason. Nor did the bibliography “shun” anything: it was trimmed, again, for reasons of length.

I do, though, agree entirely with Mr. Raphael in one sense: Rather than waste time on his words, “It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.” And, on no account, should we look forward to hearing more from him.

 

Superbad to Supermarket

In past blogs, I’ve argued that if one wants to find the contemporary heir to Kafka’s use of animals to analogize the Jewish condition, then look no further than animated movies featuring anthropormophic animals and monsters (Madagascar, Rio, Monsters Inc., Bee Season, and so on). Now, with Sausage Party, we can add food products to the mix.

Take the movie Superbad, turn the characters into groceries, animate and anthropomorphize them, throw in the Holocaust, and the result is Sausage Party. Seth Rogen plays Frank, a sausage, yearning for the day when he will be bought by a god (a customer) and be delivered to the promised land of “The Great Beyond.” There his wishes will come true and he can (literally) enter his curvaceous bun shiksa girlfriend, Brenda (Kirsten Wiig). It has elements of Toy Story, but where that film was Goy Story, this one is firmly Jewish.

Along the way, however, Frank discovers the truth about food. Victuals are victims. Meat is murdered, sausages are slaughtered, potatoes are peeled, beetroots are boiled alive, tortilla chips are toasted. Women and children are not spared. Baby carrots are devoured whole — alive. And so on. This Holocaust subtext is signaled by the opening musical number in which, during one The Producers­-like segment, a Nazi-like mustard talks of killing “The Juice.”

Frank is not explicitly Jewish other than being voiced by Rogen. As a frankfurter, he’s presumably circumcised and possibly kosher (although the inclusion of some clearly goyish types in the same packet make that assumption suspect). But (minor spoiler alert) he discovers his true ethnicity by the end of the film and many of his companions are voiced by the so-called “Jew-Tang Clan” as found in many of his previous movies from 40-Year Old Virgin to This Is the End.

Frank embarks on an odyssey to warn his fellow foodstuffs. He is a modern-day Moses, seeking not to lead his people into the Promised Land, but to keep them right where they are, on the shelves of the supermarket, to ward off the human threat. He plays a prophet. The film’s subtitle is “A hero will rise.”

Frank partners up with Palestinian flatbread Lavash (David Krumholtz) and Jewish bagel Sammy (Edward Norton), doing a curious impression of an impression of Woody Allen, including accent, incessant hand-wringing and worrying. Lavash and Sammy spend most of the movie bickering, with Lavash complaining that Sammy and his kosher ilk have taken over most of the “West Shelf.” But, together with Frank, they learn that they’re not the enemy, but that the humans are. Yes, the stratification of the real world is preserved and reflected in the supermarket one and the film is full of stereotypes. It’s all pretty obvious.

By the end of the film, Sausage Party proposes a pretty unorthodox solution to the bagel-pitta conflict, and even a form of reconciliation between the mustard and the Juice, as well as all the other foodstuffs that have inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts. Lavash and Sammy even bond over their mutual friend hummus (but who eats hummus with a bagel, right?).

The Frozen Chosen

 

On the eve of the release of Frozen 2, it’s timely to republish a blog I wrote about the original film’s Jewishness.

On the surface, nothing could be less Jewish than a Disney-produced movie about a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian princess in the land of Arendelle named Elsa. And having watched it dozens of times, I didn’t consider it Jewish either. But if Michael Chabon can relocate the Jews to the frozen wastes of Alaska, in his 2007 The Yiddish Policeman’s Union then we can consider the underlying Jewishness of Frozen.

Frozen’s Jewishness is embodied in two characters in particular: the above-mentioned Elsa and her creation, Olaf. While Elsa is voiced by Jewish actress Idina Menzel, it is the nature of the character that she plays that really suggests a sub-surface Jewishness. Elsa is different, like an X-Men mutant (also Jews), with secret powers that she has to keep hidden from others lest her Otherness be detected. She has to pass, undetected.

This very much allegorizes the Jewish condition in Western society in which, according to John Murray Cuddihy, the Ostjude must learn to civilize very quickly in order to be accepted in Western Protestant society. Consequently, the Ostjude must quell his/her inner (Y)id and submit to the Gentile superego. However, in moments of high emotion, this inner (Y)id may emerge. This is precisely the ordeal that Elsa undergoes, required to suppress her inner nature. Shut behind the castle doors, her upbringing is the stuff of Freudian nightmares. When she comes of age, and, in a flash of anger, Elsa reveals her secret powers she is cast out, into exile, to become a wandering nomad. It is only when she establishes a new homeland in that faraway place, where she can feel safe, that she no longer has to “Be the good girl you always have to be” or to “conceal, don’t feel.”

Majorie Ingall in the Tablet (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/159386/frozen-feminism-jewish-values) explained how she thought Frozen had “a Jewish-inflected spirit” because of the film’s “concern about passing, about not calling attention to difference and otherness.” She pointed to other “American Jewish women who have succeeded in our culture,” such women as Barbra Streisand who rejected the norms of American womanhood as found in Disney movies, to act in a brash, Jewy fashion that transgressed the boundaries of decorum and correct behavior. Elsa behaves in a similar way once she has thrown off her self-imposed shackles by embracing her difference and reveling in it.

If Jews like to tell themselves that “we are like everybody else, only more so” then they need look no further than Elsa for a role model. She’s excessive and refuses to be contained. Her song, “Let it Go,” recalls the Book of Exodus and Mel Brooks’ famous pronouncement in Blazing Saddles, “Loz im geyn! [Let him go!]”

Elsa creates two other Jewish figures in the form of Olaf and Marshmallow. Both are what Ingall calls a “snow-golem,” coding the two sides of the modern Jewish condition. Marshmallow is created by Elsa as her personal bodyguard, to keep out any intruders. He therefore resembles the famous creation of the Maharal of Prague. But in his strength and power, he is very much the tough, macho, Israeli.

By contrast, the little, goofy, snowman Olaf, who is voiced by another Jewish actor, Josh Gad, is described by Ingall as “the Jewy-Jewiest nebbishy-voiced singer who has ever played a Mormon on Broadway.” Olaf, then, despite the oh-so-Gentile name, is the Woody Allen-esque schlemiel, the weak spineless (he literally lacks a backbone, skull, or any other bones) Diaspora Jew, who survives only by his wits and sense of humor. He’s witty and probably given the funniest lines in the movie. Ingall feels that “the way he’s perpetually attacked and bounces back with a smile (‘Oh, look at that, I’ve been impaled!’ he observes after being pierced with an icicle) feels Jewish, too.” When he’s given a nose, it is small and pert — Gentile. but when it’s elongated into a stereotypically Jewish schnoz he “loves it even more.” And what’s more Jewish than the last name Snowman (a version of the German surname Schneemann; there was even a famous mohel Dr. Snowman)?

Elsa’s difference, though, must be suppressed by the Gentile superego as represented by Prince Hans of the Southern Isles (rhymes with Gentile) and he hunts her down in the film and almost kills her. Is it just a coincidence that his name is Germanic?

Ultimately, though, Elsa is victorious. She is saved from death by the unselfish act of her sister, Anna, who reveals her menschlikayt. Elsa survives to revel in her Otherness – a victory for the (Y)id and mensch over the Gentile superego – and that is the real Jewish ethos underlying the film.

In the casting of Evan Rachel Wood and Ciaran Hinds (who played a Mossad agent Munich) in Frozen 2, this Jewish subtext looks set to continue.

 

 

Kubrick, Kafka, and The Shining

“I have a wife, three children, three dogs, seven cats. I’m not a Franz Kafka, sitting alone and suffering” – Stanley Kubrick (1972).

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, this blog contains a few preliminary thoughts on the influence that he had on Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, which marks its thirty-fifth year.

Kubrick was an avid reader of Kafka’s fiction and named him among his favorite authors. This may well have been because of their shared central European and Jewish heritage for Kubrick’s ancestors, like Kafka, hailed from parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Even before he made The Shining, Kafka’s influence is detectable in Kubrick’s films, including Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Barry Lyndon (1975). But it is perhaps in The Shining that Kubrick really showcases his Kafkaesque influences.

Diane Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick, explained how he was drawn to King’s novel because of its “psychological underpinnings.” “A father threatening his child is compelling, it’s an archetypal enactment of unconscious rages. Stephen King isn’t Kafka, but the material of this novel is the rage and fear within families,” she has said.

It is highly significant that Johnson cited Kafka as her example here for Kafka haunts The Shining like one of The Overlook Hotel’s spectral figures. He is a ghostly presence in a number of ways. In a 1980 interview, Kubrick identified Kafka’s work as the template for the film:

The hotel’s labyrinthine layout and huge rooms, I believed, would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere. This realistic approach was also followed in the lighting, and in every aspect of the décor. It seemed to me that the perfect guide for this approach could be found in Kafka’s writing style. His stories are fantastic and allegorical, but his writing is simple and straightforward, almost journalistic.

A year later, he told Cahiers du Cinema, “I compare the mood of the film to the lucid style of Kafka’s writing … it is not overwrought, for the fantastic should be based on the ordinary.” Thus, as scholar Geoffrey Cocks notes, the resulting horrors in The Shining “are Kafkaesque since they take place not in the gloomy shadows of an old private home but in the bright public rooms of modern life and activity.”

In The Shining Kubrick draws upon Kafka’s own obsessions. Father/son relations featured prominently throughout Kafka’s oeuvre. Hostility, or fear, of the father, in particular, pervades Kafka’s work – he had, in his own words, “written myself almost into a hatred of my father” – which was immortalized in his letter to him. According to Rodger Kamenetz:

Franz Kafka is about Yom Kippur, the day of judgment: the last chance, the knifing in the quarry, the gate closing on the last gleam of light. He dates his real beginning in writing to the night after Yom Kippur, 1912, when he wrote “The Judgment” and discovered his great subject – guilt and punishment […] Kafka’s “The Judgment” carries the feeling tone of Yom Kippur into an entirely secular context. It’s an assimilated story, though: its connection to Yom Kippur can be felt by those who know the feeling, and completely missed by those who don’t. It can be read simply as an Oedipal story, or a story of generational conflict. Except the father in Kafka is more terrible than God is in the akeidah. The father goes for the kill, while God, after testing Abraham’s faith substitutes a ram for Isaac.

These preoccupations bleed into Kubrick’s films, but particularly The Shining which, as I have argued elsewhere, can be read as Kubrick’s contribution to the commentaries on Genesis 22, that is “The Binding of Isaac,” known in Hebrew as the Akedah.

The Shining bears superficial resemblance to The Metamorphosis, in which a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect-like creature, possibly a beetle. This transformation from human to beast ironically frees him from life in modern society and liberates his family to achieve happiness without him. Like Gregor, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) awakens from troubled dreams. His family is horrified but somehow recognizes him as their own Jack, albeit transformed. Eventually, though, as in The Metamorphosis, they decide that he is no longer their Jack, and that it would be a blessing for him to disappear. Reinforcing this connection are the Volkswagen Beetle that Jack drives and Jack’s mimicry of the wolfish commercial traveler.

In another nod, Shelley Duvall’s previous role had been a cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). As Pam, one of Alvy Singer’s lovers, she had tells him “Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience.” Three years later, a Duvall character would be suffering another Kafkaesque experience at the hands of another Jewish New York director.

Another connection to Kafka is provided through the use of a hotel or sanatorium as a metaphor for mittel Europe. The Hotel Occidental in Kafka’s Amerika (1927), published one year before Kubrick was born, is suspiciously Central European.

The Shining was also surely influenced by Alain Resnais’ L’annee derniere a Marienbad/Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Among the many similarities are the shared locations in labyrinthine hotels which disorient the viewer in their maze-like layouts. In fin-de-siècle Europe and continuing until the 1930s, spas such as Marienbad had become recognized as “Jewish” such that Sholem Aleichem wrote about Polish Jews swanning around the eponymous spa town in his Marienbad (1911). One such, real-life, visitor, in July 1916, was Kafka himself, who wrote: “There are ghosts that haunt one in company and those that haunt one in solitude.”

This diary entry from Kafka certainly provides a fitting coda to The Shining and could be a tagline for the film.