By Robert Gluck/JNS.org
Judaism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when watching “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but Jan Harlan, the brother-in-law of its legendary director Stanley Kubrick, makes that connection.
“In ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Kubrick takes a big bow to the unknowable,” Harlan told JNS.org. “I told him this was a very Jewish film, and I explained why I thought so. Judaism is a breakthrough in thinking; it is like the discovery of the fact that the earth is a globe circling the sun. It was the sun, mountains, animals and fantasy figures that represented God before. Now this God had no name, was eternal, the omnipotent creator of everything. What a breakthrough in thinking. Stanley liked my reasoning.”
The films of the late Kubrick, who died in 1999 at age 70, have served as an inspiration to other renowned Jewish directors such as Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen. “Stanley Kubrick,” an exhibition running through June 30 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is the first retrospective of the filmmaker. Developed in collaboration with the Kubrick estate, the show is getting its North American premiere in California after previously being seen in Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, Brussels, Amsterdam and Melbourne.
According to Jarrett Gregory, an LACMA curator and the show’s organizer, the exhibition provides access to Kubrick’s vision and working methods while illuminating the network of influences and conditions that came together to make his films universally regarded as masterpieces.
“There’s a lot to learn for everybody from his working methods especially,” Gregory told JNS.org. “For me that was the most accessible entryway into his work and the validity of it. The focus he had, the research, the meticulous nature with which he went about his projects and his uncompromising vision. He controlled every aspect of his films.”
Harlan worked with his brother-in-law and also produced and directed the documentary “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures.” Narrated by Tom Cruise, Harlan’s film brings Kubrick’s career into sharp focus with footage of his early years as a photographer for Look magazine and commentary from collaborators and family.
Kubrick, born in New York to Jewish parents, was very aware of his religion but did not practice, Harlan told JNS.org.
“He knew he looked Jewish and his big beard emphasized this, but he was not religious,” Harlan said.
The LACMA exhibition illustrates Kubrick’s early fascination with fairy tales, myths, ghost stories, surrealistic and allegorical narratives, and tales of the supernatural. Although he did not attend college, Kubrick audited film classes at Columbia University taught by writers Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren and attended film programs at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Essentially the film is a mythological statement,” reads a quote by Kubrick that is part of the LACMA exhibition. “Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level rather than in a specific literal explanation.”
Gregory said her primary goal is to get people to re-watch Kubrick’s films.
“You’ll feel inspired,” she told JNS.org. “For me, from a visual perspective, 2001 would be the film to talk about if I had to pick one. It is visually stunning and breaks genres. Part of Stanley’s legacy is that he is different, and it is inspiring to see how much he pushed himself.”
Harlan continues to spread the word about his brother-in-law’s films. He will appear this spring as a guest speaker for a screening of “The Shining” at the From Page To Screen film festival in Bridport, UK.
“I am invited often to film festivals and film schools, as a member of the jury, to give lectures on various topics to do with filmmaking or for Q&As after screening a Kubrick film or one of my documentaries,” Harlan said. “Jack Nicholson tells the story about ‘The Shining’ so well. Stanley told him that ‘The Shining’ is a very positive film since it is about ghosts. If there can be ghosts, then something else is happening after we die.”
Kubrick, who reinvented his visual style with each of his films, was known for his exacting methods.
“Yes, he was a perfectionist. He tried to get things right and to his liking,” Harlan told JNS.org. “He was always the last to be satisfied with his work. He did not just want to make another movie—there was no need—enough movies were made. He wanted to do films of substance that might last. I am so glad he succeeded. Some of them take years to be fully recognized, like ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’”
Harlan said “Eyes Wide Shut” is his favorite Kubrick film, and that it was also Stanley’s favorite. Based upon Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Dream Story, the film was Kubrick’s last; the director died five days after showing Warner Brothers his final cut. The story, set in and around New York City, follows the sexually charged adventures of Dr. Bill Harford, who is shocked when his wife, Alice, reveals that she had contemplated an affair a year earlier. He embarks on a nightlong adventure, during which he infiltrates a massive masked orgy of an unnamed secret society.
“He struggled with this difficult story for 30 years after buying the rights to Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (the German title for Dream Story) in 1970,” Harlan said. “I also lived with this story and Stanley’s struggle to make it into a film.”
Harlan recalled that Kubrick, during the 1980s, fell in love with the idea to make “Eyes Wide Shut” with Woody Allen in the lead, playing a Jewish doctor in New York. Kubrick gave up on that goal “since he was not satisfied with his script,” according to Harlan, and he made “The Shining” instead.
“Eyes Wide Shut,” eventually released in 1999 with Tom Cruise playing the doctor, took almost three years to make and was “the most difficult film” of Kubrick’s life, Harlan said.
Two years after Kubrick’s death, Spielberg came out with “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” which was originally developed by Kubrick but given over to Spielberg because Kubrick considered him “the better director for it,” Harlan said. Kubrick also never got to make a film about Napoleon based on a script he completed in 1969, but it was reported this month that Spielberg is taking on the project as well, as a television miniseries.
“Stanley had become a great scholar on the topic and was most interested in what the French emperor, his strength and weakness, means for us today,” Harlan said. “Nothing has changed.”
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