Uncut Jews

*spoiler alerts*

In my 2012 book, The New Jew in Film, I wrote about the proliferation of new Jewish character types, ones that played with and undermined previous stereotypes. I argued that the number of such stereotypes exploded in the era after 1990.

One such character type was what I called “Jews in too deep or out of their depth.” Quoting the book:

Many violent films depict Jews who are not only out of their depth, but also who, metaphorically speaking, cannot swim. Gangster films, in particular, present Jews as victims. Typically, the Jew attempts to pass as tough, posturing as a gangster, but is ultimately exposed as unable to cut the mustard criminally and ends up dead. At the same time, often little sympathy for their plight is demonstrated, as these Jews tend to be ugly, both morally/ethnically and physically.

If only Uncut Gems had come out when I wrote the book. Howard Ratner is the epitome of this new Jewish character type who is out of his depth and cannot swim. He attempts to pass as tough, posturing as a gangster, but is ultimately exposed as unable to cut the mustard criminally and ends up dead. But, unlike his previous counterparts in this role, there is sympathy for his plight. His death is shocking, undeserved, and lingers in the memory.

Howard Ratner, as played by Adam Sandler, is the unholy offspring of a marriage between Sacha Baron Cohen and Al Pacino. He is ugly, morally, ethnically, and physically, subjected to an endless wurlitzer of dealing, pawning, and gambling. He is a low-class Bernie Madoff, building a crumbling empire on a Ponzi scheme. To throw in a British analogy, he is a latter-day Del Boy who you can imagine saying “This time next year we’ll be millionaires.” And he almost makes it, on paper at least.

He is a shpritzer, shooting his mouth off incessantly, talking himself into and out of trouble, Jew as mouth as brain. His monologues are interspersed with Yiddish and profanities (so many fucks that my mum walked out of the film).

His taste is vulgar. He sells tchatckes albeit not to Jews.

Most of the Jews in this movie aren’t attractive characters. None of them shines in a good light. Idina Menzel plays his wife Dinah; Eric Bogosian is Arno, his (easily mistaken for Jewish) brother-in-law and a loan shark who mixes in violent company; Judd Hirsch is Gooey, his father-in-law.

One of the only characters who comes across well is Julia, Howard’s employee and girlfriend, who, ironically given her name (Jewlia/jewelry) who seems to genuinely love him and despite the mulitple opportunities to screw him over opts against. She even gets a tattoo of his name.

Howard — can you get a name more Jewish than that? — plays a shyster jeweler just like his namesake Gerald Ratner who described his products as “total crap.” Such an expression describes much of what Ratner sells in his store.

Except for one product — an uncut black opal — upon which Howard’s unattainable dreams are built. But why name this movie Uncut Gems when only one is on show?

I can’t help thinking that the reference is a crude one: to foreskin.

“Uncut” is a synonym for uncircumcised and “gems” stands for genitalia, as in “crown jewels” or the Yiddish/German schmuck (which Howard also is) that means “jewelry” or “adornment.”

Are Josh and Benny Safdie really saying that no matter how ugly Howard inter alia might appear, that the genuine ugliness comes from the goyim in this film, those goyische shtarkers who ultimately screw Howard and his brother-in-law, as well as those Jews who behave like them in an “uncut” fashion?

The Irishman’s Jews

Joe Pesci, left, and Robert De Niro star in Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman.' (Netflix via JTA)

The title of this blog is not a reference to Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses but to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman released at the end of last year.

As I have written about elsewherelike Scorsese’s oeuvre in generalThe Irishman is liberally sprinkled with references to Jews.

Given that this new film is a fictionalized true crime story about the disappearance of union leader Jimmy Hoffa, it contains real-life Jews connected to the unions and the mob.

The first mention is to the notorious gangster Meyer Lansky. We then have two brief mentions to the Jewish role in moneylending as in the use of the term “Shylock” as verb in an alllusion to Shakespeare’s character in The Merchant of Venice. Later, a character refers to the “vig,” short for vigorish — which can be defined as “an excessive rate of interest on a loan, typically one from an illegal moneylender.”

The first sustained reference is to the Cadillac Linen Serive. Whispers DiTullio, played by Paul Herman, asks Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) to burn it down because it is hurting his profits. He instructs Sheeran that the business “is run by a bunch of Jews” and to “put these Jew fucking washerwomen out of business.”

Showing no remorse, and drawing upon steretoypes of “Jewish lightening” — a term referring to arson to deliberately collect the insurance –, Whispers says, “Let them collect their insurance, which I’m sure they have plenty, and leave this fucking other place alone, the one I’m involved in.”

The laundry is indeed owned by Jewish mobsters in partnership with another Italian mobster, Angelo Bruno, who, ironically is played by Jewish actor Harvey Keitel. Keitel, though, is far better known for playing Italians (think Mr. Wolf in Pulp Fiction) than Jews, possibly one of the reasons why Stanley Kubrick ended up dropping him from his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), in favor of the more obviously Jewish actor Sydney Pollack.

As recounted here, in I Heard You Paint Houses, the source text for the film, Frank Sheeran explains how the Cadillac Linen Services was owned by two Jewish gangsters called  Cappy Hoffman and Woody Weisman.

Another real-life Jewish character is Allen Dorfman played by Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin Hoffman. Dorfman was the owner of an  insurance agency and a consultant to the Teamsters’ Pension Fund.

There is also James “Jake” Gottlieb, who received a loan from Teamsters’ pension fund to buy the Dunes casino in Las Vegas in 1956. He is heard gratefully saying to Hoffa, “You’re a mensch.”

Jewish comedian also Don Rickles puts in an appearance.

While Jewishness is only superficially scattered throughout The Irishman, we can add this to the list of Scorsese films.

The Crown Jew(el)s*

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I have just finished binge-watching the Netflix series The Crown. Seemingly, nothing could be less Jewish than the British monarchy. But, as with everything, there is an interesting relationship between the Royal Family and its Jewish subjects some of which rear their heads during the series.

First off, The Crown‘s showrunner, Peter Morgan, had a Jewish father, Arthur Morgenthau, who was born in Germany and fled the Nazis, arriving in London in 1933.

When Princess Elizabeth is crowned as Queen Elizabeth 11 in June 1953, her annointment owes something to Jewish tradition. Indeed, this is acknowledged in the show, as in reality, with the recital of I Kings 1, 39, 40 which reads, “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.”

Antony Armstrong -Jones, the first Earl of  Snowdon tells his wife, Princess Margaret, and his friends, that she “looks like a Jewish manicurist” whatever that may mean. This may be because she had her hair cut by famous Jewish hairdresser, Vidal Sassoon. Although Sassoon does not appear in the show, he is mentioned.

While it might seem to be an antisemitic comment, Armstrong-Jones’ mother was of German-Jewish origin. The casting of the older Margaret in season three picks up on Snowdon’s characterization in having Helena Bonham-Carter (who, of course, has a Jewish background) play her.

Season Two opens with the Suez Crisis of 1956 and even shows Israeli tanks invading Egypt.

Another recurring figure is Baron who was a society photographer of Jewish heritage. He became friends with the Duke of Edinburgh and was hence appointed as a Court Photographer to the British Royal Family, taking the official photographs for many occasions including the wedding of Philip to Prince Elizabeth in 1947, the christenings of their children Charles and Anne and other occasions.

As Michael Berkowitz recounts here, “Baron asserted that he was close to the royal couple, and especially friendly with Prince Philip. Baron was one of the founders and masters-of-ceremonies of the social club that met above Wheeler’s Oyster Bar in Soho after World War II, which counted Philip as a member. (It is depicted a number of times in The Crown.)” Baron is portrayed by Julius D’Silva whom I suspect is Jewish (but am not certain).

Both Prince Philip and Prince Charles were educated at Gordonstoun founded by German Jewish émigré and educationalist Kurt Hahn.

And Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, sheltered Jews in wartime Athens for which, in, 1993 Yad Vashem bestowed her the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

I look foward to subsequent seasons in which hopefully these links between the Crown and the Jews will be developed.

*Kudos to my wife for suggesting this title.

 

 

The Jewish Symbolism of Frozen II

Frozen Elsa

I’ve previously written about the subtextual Jewishness of Frozen. Here I want to extend the analysis to include the new installment which has just dropped. Jewish actors Idina Menzel and Josh Gad reprise their roles as Elsa and Olaf respectively to which we can now add Evan Rachel Wood as Queen Iduna. Where in Frozen, it was the characters who personified  Jewishness, in Frozen II it is in the use of symbolism.

Hearing a voice in her head, calling her to action, Elsa travels to the north where she encounters fire that burns but does not consume. Elsa’s journey resembles that of the biblical prophet Moses, who wanders into the wilderness where he hears a voice emanating from a burning bush. Elsa learns that her calling is to liberate her people from a curse and she does so by releasing a flood of biblical proportions that cleanses her people of the sins of their past.

Like the Passover Haggadah that recounts the story of Exodus, four is a recurrent theme in the new film. There are four humanoids — Elsa, Anna, Olaf, and Kristoff — who journey together to the Enchanted Forest which is demarcated by four standing stones. Four is a resonant number in Judaism — think of the four matriarchs or the four sons and the four cups of wine of the Passover Seder.

But it also stands for the four layers of interpretation known as PaRDeS which, itself, means orchard (or maybe ‘forest’) into which four rabbis journeyed and came back transformed in some way. ‘Transformation’ is a key theme of Frozen II.

To return to the standing stones or monoliths, each one represents an element: earth, wind, fire and water but on one the Hebrew letter ‘shin’, denoting one of the Hebrew names for God, can clearly be seen. Monoliths have cultic significance, being erected in biblical Canaan wherever God was worshipped.

While on their journey, our four heroes encounter giants made from stone. They resemble the Watchers from Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, based on the fallen angels, the Nephilim. These stone giants also recall the mythical monsters made from clay known as golems.

Finally, Elsa finds her true place. Being in Arendelle, Elsa is “never fully comfortable in her skin (and) she was always a little awkward,” says Idina Menzel.  Maybe that’s because Arendelle sounds a bit like ‘Aryan-dell’ or ‘valley of the Aryans’.

 

The Secret Jewish History of Asterix

Asterix

He’s a French national icon, an ancient Gaul who loves a punch up, as well as hunting and eating boar, and he worships pagan gods. What could be less Jewish than that? But, as a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London celebrating the life and work of cartoonist René Goscinny, it’s timely to reveal the underlying Jewish roots of his most famous creation, Asterix.

Goscinny co-created the cartoon with Albert Uderzo. Born in Paris in 1926, Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He grew up as an expatriate French child in Argentina. In 1945 he moved to New York where by 1948 he was working in a small studio where he became friends with future MAD Magazine contributors Will Elder, Jack Davis and Harvey Kurtzman. He hoped to make it as a cartoonist there but he never did. Instead, he made it in France. Asterix began in 1959 when he teamed up with Uderzo who did the illustrations while Goscinny did the writing. When Goscinny died in 1977, thereafter Uderzo took over the writing and illustrations but without the same literary quality many felt.

The story goes like this. It is 50 BCE and all of Gaul is occupied by the Romans led by Julius Caesar, except for one tiny village of Amorica which is resisting, surrounded by several Roman camps. They have a secret weapon, a potion brewed by their druid Getafix. Armed with this potion, Asterix and his friend Obelix and his dog Dogmatix embark on an adventure, returning home successful, having overcome Romans, pirates, and other obstacles along the way. The stories all take the same narrative arc, culminating in a huge village feast consisting of roasted boar and beer, and the village bard tied up and gagged so he can’t sing. He’s called Cacofonix for a reason.

Asterix fits in a tradition of subversive Jewish humour of the type at which its contemporary MAD excelled. Indeed, that brief period spent with Elder, Davis and Kurtzman reveals its influence in Asterix’s revelling in sophisticated wordplay: the village chieftain’s name is Vitalstatistix, Unhygienix is the fishmonger, Cacofonix the bard, Fulliautomatix the ironmonger and Getafix the druid who brews the magic potion. Asterix’s pal, Obelix – so called because he delivers tall upright stones known as “menhirs” – has a dog called Dogmatix (or Idéfix in French from the term idée fixe). There are a myriad of visual puns and the books contain a playful and cross-generational appeal. There are references to high and low culture, art, history, and literature. The books can be read as a child but also enjoyed as an adult. The more one knows the better the jokes become.

Like MAD no one escapes from its satirical gaze. While the series focusses on the ongoing conflict between the Gauls and the Romans, it is full of national, ethnic, and racial stereotypes. Yet, in only one book did explicitly Jewish – or Judean– characters appear. That book was the twenty-sixth volume, “Asterix and the Black Gold,” which Uderzo wrote and illustrated alone after Goscinny died in 1977. In an affectionate homage to his late friend and collaborator, in this adventure, Asterix and Obelix travel to the middle east, which is full of warring Hittites, Sumerians, Assyrians, Medes, Akkadians, and Babylonians. They arrive in Judea and visit Jerusalem which is full of dark-skinned Jews with black eyes and beards – allegedly a tribute to Marc Chagall – and are helped by a brave guide who leads them through the Judean Desert. The name of the character was Saul ben Ephishul — a name fans believe was invented to resemble the words “so beneficial” in English. He was also drawn to resemble the late Goscinny.

But there is an underlying sensibility to the series. Just compare Asterix to his contemporary, the wholesome boy reporter Tintin. To paraphrase the great Lenny Bruce, if Tintin is goyish, Asterix is Jewish. Asterix is the outsider and the underdog, resisting the homogenizing influence of Roman culture and imperialism. He is an adventurer and a wanderer but one who always returns home. Indeed, every adventure is undertaken to protect his home.

Many also believe Asterix is, beneath the surface, a story about the Nazi occupation of France and in this respect the fact that Obelix wears blue and white striped breeches is highly suggestive. The idea of a small village holding out against the occupiers may have been directly influenced by the Second World War but it also has its parallels in a popular discourse that says describes Israel as a tiny country surrounded by numerous enemies. And where the Gauls have their magic potion, the Israelis have a powerful military (and nuclear weapons some say).

Goscinny and Uderzo may no longer contribute to the series but the Jewish spirit of Asterix the hero lives on.

Oy Story

Oy Story

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On the surface, a story about the toys of a boy named Andy led by a cowboy called Woody who befriends a space ranger with the unlikely Jewish name of Buzz could not be more goyish. But underneath lies a hidden Jewish history.

Certainly, the movies betray a Jewish sensibility in its lampooning of such tough square-jawed goyish heroes as Buzz Lightyear. It operates in the same mould as the oh-so Jewish Mad magazine, which also took swipes at similarly clean-cut American role models, and to which Toy Story is indebted. Name me one Jew called Buzz.

Underpinning the movie’s creation were Jews. Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow wrote the original screenplay under the aegis of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner.

Significantly, many of the toys are Jewish. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are voiced by comedian Don Rickles and Estelle Harris (George Costanza’s mum in Seinfeld) respectively. This is appropriate because Mr. Potato Head is a Jewish toy, the brainchild of Brooklyn-born toy inventor George Lerner, a Jew of Romanian descent. The Hassenfeld Brothers (later renamed Hasbro) sold the first Mr. Potato Head as a kit of facial parts with the suggestion that a real potato was used.

This potato couple also recalls Arsenal fans’ nickname for fans of Tottenham Hostpur – the club in English football with the label of being the “Jewish club” – as Spuds.

Wallace Shawn voices Rex, a sensitive and neurotic – both stereotypical Jewish traits – tyrannosaurus rex. T-Rex was the name of Jewish rock star Marc Bolan’s band.

Stand-up comedian Jeff Garlin who is famous for his role as Larry David’s agent/friend Jeff in Curb Your Enthusiasm played Buttercup the white male unicorn in Toy Story 3. He is set to appear in the fourth movie, too.

Whoopi Goldberg and Richard Kind also appeared in the third movie.

Note how none of these characters voiced by Jews are actually humanoid. They aren’t the cowboys, astronauts or soldiers, which buys into long-held stereotypes about Jewish male physical inadequacy, that they don’t belong in nature, outer space or the army.

In fact, casting Jews as a pair of potatoes, a dinosaur and a mythical one-horned horse recall the stories of Franz Kafka who often wrote about the Jewish condition using animal metaphors – beetles, jackals, apes and mice. I have long proposed that animated movies featuring anthropomorphised animals are the modern heirs of Kafka.

It has even been argued that Toy Story 3 is an allegory for the Holocaust. Perhaps this is attributable to the fact that its director is Lee Unkrich, who is also Jewish. Unkrich, massive Kubrick fan – he runs a website dedicated to The Shining (1980), peppered the film with references to that movie, which itself has been read as being a film about the Holocaust. It is now well known that Kubrick was Jewish. Buzz’s mantra, ‘To infinity and beyond’ can even be seen as a direct reference to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) the final section of which is named ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’.

That there are now four movies in the franchise is also a nod to the Jewish mode of interpretation known as PaRDeS which itself operates through four, increasingly complex and mysterious, levels. Fours crop up frequently in Jewish tradition – the four matriarchs, the four cups of wine at the Seder, the four sons, and so on.

In the final analysis, one might say all four parts of Toy Story have a very Jewish view of the world. Woody (Tom Hanks) is a mensch – he refuses to abandon his friends whatever the circumstances – and goes to extraordinary lengths to rescue them. One might even say: he who saves one toy, saves the entire toy world.

This is a revised and expanded version of a blog originally published by the Times of Israel on March 26, 2019 here: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/oy-story/.

 

 

 

Jews in Space or Jews on the Moon

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As two new shows, Amazon Prime’s Picard and Netflix’s Space Force both contain significant Jewish themes and/or actors. it is timely to reflect on the relationship between Jews and outer space in popular culture.

Typically, the notion of Jews in outer space was one only mined for humour. Jews could only mimic astronauts, but were out of place in outer space.

At the end of his History of the World, Part 1 (1981), Mel Brooks offered up a humorous sequence depicting a promised sequel to his preview of ‘Hitler on Ice’ entitled ‘Jews in Space’, a sci-fi spectacular featuring Star-of David-shaped spaceships, flown by haredim, singing of the glories of ‘defending the Hebrew race’.

In his parodic Spaceballs (1987), Brooks delivered.

This idea is developed elsewhere: in Deconstructing Harry, Allen provides a bar mitzvah party with a Star Wars (dir. George Lucas, 1977) theme, including the legend, ‘May the force be with you, Donald’.

Some believe that Stanley Kubrick was asked to fake the moon landings. Being the perfectionist, he agreed and shot them on location.

Generally, though, the Jewish presence in outer space was submerged in analogy. You had to read the clues to decode the Jewishness.

For example, the television series Star Trek and spin-off films  featured Leonard Nimoy as Vulcan scientist Mr. Spock. The cerebral, pacifist, intellectual Vulcans were conceived along Jewish lines and the Spock greeting sign is based on the raising of the hands during the priestly blessing. Yet, this was nowhere made explicit in the films and Spock, the only non-human member of the USS Enterprise crew, thus functioned as a symbolic or conceptual Jew.

Of course, the orginal Star Wars trilogy featured a Jewish actor playing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) whose name is Hebrew for ‘knowledge’.

David Lynch’s Dune based on Frank Herbert’s novel of the same name did not feature any explicit Jews and, despite the more obvious references to Islam (e.g. Jihad), much of Herbert’s vision owes much to Judaism, even if not always conscious. The belief in a Messiah is one of the main themes. Even Herbert’s term, the Kwisatz Haderach, resembles the Hebrew phrase kefitzat haderech, a magical transport or teleportation (which is how Emanuel Lotem translated the phrase in his Hebrew translation of the novel in 1989). The extreme secrecy of the Fremen, at home in a desert environment, who do much with scarce resources and are concerned mainly with their own survival suggests early Hebrew pioneers. 

Jews only show up in the sixth instalment of the Dune books, which Herbert wrote before his death in 1986, Chapterhouse: DuneThere, Herbert presented an ossified form of Judaism that had not changed in millennia. “It is probable that a rabbi from ancient times,” explains a Bene Gesserit leader to her disciple, “would not find himself out of place behind the Sabbath menorah of a Jewish household in your age.” “Herbert’s Jews are as they have always been,” observes Michael Weingrad, the product of a highly stereotyped form of thinking.

It would have been fascinating to see how the Jewish director Alejandro Jodorowsky would have adapted the book in the 1970s. It will be interesting to see what Jewish screenwriter Eric Roth brings to the 2020 version.

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), I have argued that both the chess-playing supercomputer HAL (Douglas Rain) and astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) can be read as conceptually Jewish. Kubrick even considered Jewish voices for the former — Jackie Mason and Martin Balsam.

The long-running British character Doctor Who also has Jewish roots.

Robin Williams’ Mork embodied the ultimate Jewish outsider in the classic American sitcom “Mork & Mindy,” which ran from 1978-1982.

On the surface, Mork was not Jewish. He was an alien from the planet Ork, whose propensity for humor in a humorless world made him an annoyance on his home planet and led to his being effectively exiled to Earth. But in Williams’ hands, the character was quintessentially Jewish.

Mork was the stereotypical wandering Jew (although he denies he’s a “wanderer” but an “explorer” instead). An alien outsider stranded on Earth, he embodied the Jewish diaspora experience, trying his hardest to fit in, but never quite making it. There was always something different about him, such as the way he wore his clothes backwards and substituted “KO” for “OK” when speaking English. In one episode, Mindy (Pam Dawber) attempts to instruct him on “how to pass for one of us” by speaking correctly. He lacked the required etiquette and civility. He blurts out to Mindy’s father that they’re living together. When asked to sit down he would sit on his face with his behind in the air. When told “it’s not nice to sit on your face,” his response was to answer with a question: “Then why did God put it there?”

But things are changing, are Jews are becoming more visible as Jews in movies about outer space.

In Serenity (dir. Joss Whedon, 2005), Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), is a recluse who lives alone on a moon with his blonde shiksa wife, Lenore (Nectar Rose), an automaton known as a ‘love-bot’. A techno-geek, he adores data, and is skilled at intercepting electronic transmissions and recordings anywhere in the universe. He is also religiously identified as Jewish, shown wearing a yarmulke (Yiddish: skullcap) and crushing on a cloth-wrapped glass on his wedding to Lenore. And after his death, stones are placed on his grave in the Jewish tradition.

In Independence Day (dir. Roland Emmerich, 1996) David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) saves the Earth from Alien annihilation.

Finally, Predators (dir. Nimrod Antal, 2010) features Isabelle (Alice Braga) as a beautiful, gritty and badass IDF sniper who is captured in an operation after her spotter is killed and transported to an alien planet where she and her male companions are hunted like prey by an alien species. Isabelle may well be the first serious Jewess in cinematic outer space!

In his 2016 novel Moon Glow Michael Chabon imagines ‘Jews on the Moon’. If we had the Frozen Chosen in his 2007 The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, now we have lunar landsmen. ‘They’re putting a lot of muscle and money and brainpower into a next-level system, Jericho 2. Lunar orbiters and landers. To build a Jewish settlement on the Moon.’

Watch this space for perhaps the Israeli statellite Beresheet, launched in February 2019, is just one of those landers.

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.

 

Goyston Vasey: The Secret Jewish History of The League of Gentlemen

 

So I have just been binge-watching The League of Gentlemen, which is a British sketch horror comedy show. Set in the fictional rural English village of Royston Vasey, it features a multitude of bizarre characters, including Edward and Tubbs, an incestuous couple who run a “local shop for local people”; Harvey and Val who give OCD a whole new meaning and have a weird obsession with bodily functions and toads; and Charlie and Stella, an endlessly bickering couple whose relationship is continually on the rocks.

One of its creators is Jeremy Dyson who is Jewish and while he is only one of a quartet of creative voices, a certain Jewish sensibility creeps into the show. For example, the village’ butcher is called Hilary Briss — a clear reference to circumcision. There is also a Star of David shaped design on the window of the village church.

A recurring sight gag involves different iterations of the poster for The Full Monty (e.g. The Dull Monty) and in one episode, it has been altered to The Shull Monty with a poster of semi-naked Hasidim.

Shull Monty

And there is a long-running explicitly Jewish character called Mrs. Judee Levinson. Her front door is adorned with a mezuzah and she talks about having stayed at the Dan Hotel in Haifa. Here, Dyson seems to have poured some of this own feelings about his Jewishness into the character. Her taste is garish, tapping into the stereotype of Jewish vulgarity. She employs a cleaning lady, Iris Krell, whom she delights in putting down at every turn, reinforcing her superior social and economic status. Indeed, one wonders what Judee is doing in Royston Vasey in the first place, given its obvious lack of any other Jews or religious Jewish infrastructure. Dyson admits that he based the character on his own mother and her relationship with their cleaning lady.

But where the show’s underlying Jewish sensibility comes through, arguably, is in its view of rural English village life, which is populated by a cast of freakish characters, who are scared of outsiders and change. The clearest illustration of this is Edward and Tubbs’ homicidal xenophobia and insistence on preserving their local shop for local people and refusing to serve or sell anything to visitors or tourists. In a clear analogy for Brexit in the latest series, they refuse to sacrifice this principle in the face of significant economic gain. When a new road is proposed to connect the village to the outside world, they do all they can to halt its progress. Edward even imprisons their son when he proposes to take his mother to London.

The population of Royston Vasey, whose tagline is “You’ll never leave,” is an exaggeration of the types that might be found in any English rural or small village location, places that have historically been afraid of such incomers and “strangers” as Jews. The makers are explicit in describing Royston Vasey as an “extraordinary” yet “quintessential English village.” It even has the sort of name that may well date back to the Middle Ages.

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?).