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Wrestling With His Faith: Stanley Kubrick

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In Judaism, there is a popular phrase that is oftentimes cited when questioning or struggling with your creed of God: “wrestling with your faith”. Although, not all worded the exact, same way, this phrase appears all throughout the holy book of the Jews, the Torah. This phrase is supposed to provide solidarity with those lost in their beliefs, by notifying those adrift that they are not alone in this contemplation. One such of these unmoored was a Jewish man from West Bronx, who would journey on to direct unique, unparalleled masterpieces and be lauded as one of the greatest film directors of all time. His name was Stanley Kubrick. And in him, there was a confusing dissonance stretching far back into his childhood, and affecting his life and legacy evermore. Although, he grew up in a Jewish household, there was always an emphasis in his family to break away from their Jewish identity. The family strived for secularism as much as conceivably possible: Kubrick’s father even wishing to go by Jacques or Jack, and not his legal name of Jacob, as a move towards leaving their Jewish heritage. Kubrick’s closest friends and family state that he did not have a religious upbringing, and repudiate that he held any sort of spirituality at all. And many of his interviews and conversations with others support this atheistic nature; one of which he tells an interviewer for American Cinematographer, the “whole idea of god is absurd. ” Thus, in public, Stanley Kubrick came off as the staunch atheist trying to disconnect from his ancestry and distancing from any existential questioning of something unimaginably mystic, godly or greater, but his entire filmography, various occasions of interactions, and an unfinished project confirm a completely different story of a man deeply lost in his beliefs. From the start of his long career to his death, Stanley Kubrick struggled with his contention of complete atheism, and held dissension of the unknowable and his religious ancestry.

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Almost all of Kubrick’s films contain at least a shred of his cacophony, but 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut are much more explicit in their exploration of his confused and questioning mind. 2001: A Space Odyssey outright evokes biblical imagery from the Torah in the very beginning with the “The Dawn of Man” sequence. In the scene, prehistoric humans, resembling apes, gather around a monolith. The prehistoric humans dance and scream around the monolith, and after touching the monolith, learn how to create tools and weapons. This scene parallels the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge. This allusion to the Torah is reinforced by the overlay of the unearthly and wordless heavenly choir of both Requiem and Lux Aeterna, devised by a Jewish composer, Gyorgy Ligeti. And while A Clockwork Orange additionally alludes to many narratives in the Torah, it explores much more the originally Jewish themes of choice in the Torah, and conveys a very traditional Jewish viewpoint on the issue of free will. In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick defends the idea that a man is a man, because he can freely choose, not because of what he chooses. This idea of free will stems from Judaism, which teaches free choice is that human beings can choose their behaviors, and therefore, are responsible for those choices. The source for this teaching is traced directly to the Torah and Jewish beliefs, and particularly a verse from Deuteronomy, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live”. Then, Full Metal Jacket, while about the Vietnam War, mirrors the Holocaust. Officers act Nazi-esque, and the propensity of man’s evil and ability to commit genocide is fully displayed. Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, it arguably has the most interesting relationship to Judaism.

Opening with Jazz Waltz No. 2, immediately a contradictory mood is set in the film. The greatest work of a defender of Jews in an anti-Semitic Soviet Union is used by this film that rejects and disregards its Jewish roots. Much like his previous films, Eyes Wide Shut contains many allegorical allusions to Judaism, the Torah and Jewish history, but the known production of the film is much more revealing of discord. When adapting the source text, Traumnovelle, by Jewish author Arthur Schnitzler, Stanley Kubrick wanted all references to Jewishness scrubbed from the script. The screenwriter Kubrick hired to help adapt the text, Frederic Raphael, and Kubrick persistently argued over the extent to which the characters should be identified as Jewish. During one of their discussions, Kubrick pointed out “how thoroughly Schnitzler’s story was impregnated with Jewishness”. In the first draft of the script, one of the main characters last name was originally Scheuer, but Kubrick vehemently objected: saying he did not want one of the main characters to be called Scheuer, because he wanted to “give him some name that doesn’t identify him. It could be Robinson, but we don’t want him to be Jewish”. Kubrick was firmly opposed to a main character being identified as a Jew. He wanted him to “be a Harrison Ford-ish goy and forbade any references to Jews”. The abundance of overtly Jewish connections in Kubrick’s films, and how his progression of becoming increasingly further from his religion and his Jewish past in public, show how troubled his mind was in regards to his faith and his own heritage. In his films, he would intensely implement diverse and dynamic Jewish ideology, that would require extensive research, studying Judaism, its holy book and its history, and a deep understanding Jewish philosophy. His childhood did not introduce him to these teachings, therefore Kubrick must have sought out these dogmas on his own. And if it is true that Stanley Kubrick was a hardlined atheist, why incorporate all these connections to a theology that he would publicly denounce and distance himself from? Because, in private, Kubrick struggled in knowing what to accept and questioned his public beliefs. Various interactions confirm this questioning. Ranging from his personal chauffeur and assistant, Emilio D’Alessandro, to the author, Stephen King, Kubrick would have private interactions, where he would question a person of their own beliefs, and lead them to believe he was questioning his own. Emilio D’Alessandro worked as Stanley Kubrick’s personal chauffeur and assistant for tens of years.

D’Alessandro stated that for almost a decade, he believed that “Stanley wasn’t particularly interested in religion, because he did not favor the scary fanaticism of religion”, but as the years went by, he saw a shift in Kubrick’s conviction. Much like in public and in interviews, initially with D’Alessandro, Kubrick berated all types of faith and told D’Alessandro that he believed in nothing. But after one day, where D’Alessandro was to pick up Kubrick for ride to a film set, Kubrick entered the car with a copy of the Torah and the Bible with no explanation, and for years after that, him and Kubrick would have “profound debates about the meaning of God, not the existence of God, and what the world meant”. “Stanley never told [him] or came to a conclusion about any of this junk”, but he questioned his very public beliefs with D’Alessandro. Kubrick had a similar, but singular interaction with the author of the book that he was currently adapting: Stephen King. King states that in the middle of the night, after a day of shooting, Kubrick called him. And asked him just one question: “Do you believe in God?” King answered “yes”, and then Kubrick hung up. Perhaps, he was not a full believer in any religion, including Judaism, but he was probing his own beliefs that he would cast out to others. His self-inquiry was to be private. Unbeknownst to anyone he was close with, until much later, for the end-part of his career, Kubrick was secretly working on a religious film that took place during the Holocaust and followed a Jewish boy and his aunt, who assume Catholic identities to avoid persecution.

Outlines and abstracts made for the unmade film show it as a deeply personal story of struggling with faith when someone’s life is constant fiction. Kubrick died prior to finishing the script, but him working on something like this shows his internal struggle with how he portrayed himself and who he actually was. Although, Kubrick had many unmade projects, none of them were as vividly realized, and lacked the same passion that he held for this planned film. Even his wife remarked that working on this potential film “moved something in him that had not been touched”. This unmade film mirrored who Stanley Kubrick was. Much like the Jewish boy and his aunt, Kubrick concealed who he truly was. Not that he was possibly a secret Jew, but that he was assuming an authoritarian disciple of atheism to cover up his uncertainty of his beliefs. His prior work tip-toed around his possible question in faith, but this excursion would have ripped away his loyal atheism and unveiled his much more complex confusion of what his beliefs were and could be.

However, even with all the evidence presented and more, Kubrick’s first and second wives, his daughters, many of his friends and the public believe Kubrick was a strict atheist who was unbound by any religion. His first and second wives, Toba Metz and Ruth Sobotka, reportedly scorned all religion with him. Growing up, his daughters “do not remember anything remotely religious, aside from a Christmas tree that was more for [them]”. Friends of his, such as Michael Herr, remark Kubrick did not “believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions or really any for that matter”. And the public, educated from his interviews, understood his beliefs to be godless. But Stanley Kubrick was very private man. His reclusive nature was just as famous as his atheistic views. Several friends and Kubrick’s third wife confirm his constant secretiveness: both in his personal life and in his career. The empirical accounts of Kubrick’s attitude that support his strict atheism contradicts the assertions made by his other friends and third wife, private conversations held with Emilio D’Alessandro and Stephen King, his entire filmography and the secretly planned film. It is much more likely that Stanley Kubrick held confidential, conflicting ideology, because he was such a sequestering man. Continually referencing chronicles in the Torah, Jewish philosophy and Jewish history in his films was a trend of Stanley Kubrick, but another staple of his was running away from any religion, including his own ancestral religion, Judaism.

Growing up in a Jewish household that was constantly full of attempting to assimilate and rid themselves of their past Jewish roots, it is not a shock that he would be described as “a guy who is a Jew, and he’s a man who hates Jews” and, at least in public life, try to break away from his Jewish identity. But lacking a religious upbringing did not stop Kubrick in questioning his religiousness or atheism: even if publicly he did not make it clear. By analyzing the components of his life and career, one begins to better understand the conflicting ideals of the unknowable and his religious ancestry. In public, he assumed the identity of a staunch atheist trying to disconnect from his heritage: distancing himself from any existential questions of something inconceivably mystic, godly or greater, but his entire filmography, private interactions and an unfinished project confirm a completely different story: a man, lost in his beliefs, wrestling with his faith.

10 December 2020

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