Stanley Kubrick: New York Intellectual

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: College of Arts and Humanities


Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) demonstrated a commitment to the dynamics of ethics and ethnicity that informed his craft. Tracing the development of Kubrick's work over his entire career, I will examine the subtle link between then moral and intellectual vision that distinguishes his films and its foundation in Jewish thought, values and cultural experience, which have been insufficiently acknowledged or understood hitherto.

This project is the first major study to investigate the intellectual, religious, ethnic and moral foundations upon which the aesthetic vision of a seminal figure in postwar film are established. It will explore the impact of personal experience upon aesthetic vision to illustrate the presence of substantive Jewish content and methodology. It will also investigate how Kubrick fuses identity with Jewish cultural experience and moral imperative in films seemingly devoid of ethnic reference and where the deliberate suppression of the explicit reference to Jewish culture and historical experience appears evident.

Kubrick's first principles were informed by Jewish cultural and historical experience. Although not immediately noticeable or obvious in his films, Kubrick's Jewishness was indelibly inscribed, forming the bedrock of his filmmaking, what George Steiner referred to as 'the pride and the burden of the Jewish tradition' (1961: 4). As historian Paula Hyman has observed, 'Even secularized Jews were likely to retain a strong ethnic Jewish identification, generally internally and reinforced from without' (1997: 91). For example, Kubrick displayed a pattern of casting such identifiably Jewish actors as Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Peter Sellers, Miriam Karlin and Sydney Pollack in key roles in his films.

The first tropological study of Kubrick's work, this project explores Kubrick from a cultural, historical, intellectual and ethnic perspective, exploring the diction, discourse, depiction and disconnected nature of Kubrick's characters who by conduct or particularized portrayals invite identification as Jews. Close scrutiny of Kubrick's canon reveals that Jewish thought and values are not a digression but an intrinsic, integral element of his work fundamental to his artistic vision.

Frustratingly, however, unlike his contemporaries (Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, David Mamet, Arthur Miller), Kubrick refused to affirm his Jewish identity and offers us no easy way into ethnic identification in his work (but then Kubrick offers us no easy way into anything!). As a New York Jew, with a central European background, Kubrick shared with his coreligionist emigre filmmakers-Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Josef von Sternberg-a reluctance ever to explain his intentions (Ciment 2003: 59). Stripped of overt, explicit Jewish reference, Kubrick's films appear severed from his ethnic and cultural roots, ostensibly the least Jewish of the twentieth century's Jewish filmmakers.

It is not my intention, however, to reduce Kubrick to a single message or to suggest that he had 'Jewish films', whatever that may mean, with purely literal and exhaustive meaning. Indeed, Kubrick's work can be enjoyed without recourse to its Jewish aesthetic or vision. Yet to do so, is to fail to read it backward, to understand the impact and sweep of history that inform his canon. Rather than diminish the universality that he has achieved in his cinematic oeuvre, I will illuminate the sources and scope of Kubrick's body of work in the hope of enhancing our understanding of his artistic expression by intensive and comprehensive re(viewing) of the work of the US' foremost postwar filmmaker. The principal output of this Fellowship will be an 80,000-word monograph on Kubrick.

Planned Impact

Given Kubrick's high profile and status as a film director, as well as the popularity of his films, this project has the potential to reach and impact upon a broad audience beyond the academic community. A major study of filmmaker-as-intellectual such as this can not only widen our understanding of the role of the intellectual within contemporary society, but also contribute to our knowledge of the intellectual's specific vocation and responsibilities and how these are communicated in alternative, non-written, fictional frameworks such as film (I have already productively explored this approach in my work on Miller's drama). In doing so, the project will illuminate how fiction film is not merely a means of entertainment but can communicate a wide variety of messages and is essential to a better understanding of twentieth-century history, particularly after the Second World War. As film's mass-medium appeal shows no signs of slowing in the twenty-first century, this study will also contribute to better understanding among policymakers of film's cultural import and impact, particularly in the light of current discussions of public funding for film bodies (e.g. BFI, the now-disbanded Film Council).

I have a commitment to and track record of public engagement. Communicating my research to both academic and non-specialist audiences is an area in which I have proven experience, notably that derived from my extremely successful Clore Duffield 'Sparks' Award, Welsh Assembly Government Beacon award, and AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the Cardiff Reform Synagogue, all of which have facilitated extensive public engagement, communication and understanding of local history. In addition, I have given approximately fifty popular presentations and public lectures in the last five years. I intend to liaise with the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement and have submitted (awaiting outcome) an application to join its Public Engagement Ambassadors scheme.

1. Non-specialist audiences: My project is designed to increase public understanding of Film Studies. Since Kubrick is a well-known, yet enigmatic and elliptical filmmaker, this topic will generate interest among broad audiences seeking to understand him. I intend to communicate my findings in an accessible manner that will demystify what is often perceived as a field dominated by abstruse high theory. This will be achieved by the following steps: (a) active dialogue with media outlets, beginning with an initial press release. I regularly receive queries from local media organizations (e.g. BBC) looking for expertise in this area. I will build upon these links, utilizing my extensive contacts; (b) popular publications in film magazines (e.g. Empire, Total Film, Sight & Sound). I have written for non-academic publications on numerous occasions; (c) material for broad- and/or podcast. Using the students' technical/broadcast expertise on my Kubrick module, podcasts, radio and TV documentary will be explored; (d) popular talks delivered and aimed at broad, lay audiences, e.g. local schools with which I already have connections and where film is an important part of the AS/A curriculum, local film societies and cinema education programmes; (e) policy brief aiming materials at key film stakeholders.

2. Academic audiences: Contact with my research will come in the form of presentations at seminars and international conferences; articles submitted to refereed journals; and an 80,000-word book with Harvard UP.


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Description I have gained a deeper insight into Stanley Kubrick's working practices, the nature of his archives, as well as how his films might be understood from the perspective of his own authorial intentions.
Exploitation Route To inform their understanding of the films of Stanley Kubrick.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description They have informed popular discussion of Stanley Kubrick
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description British Academy Small Research Grant
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Funding ID SG112102 
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2012 
End 02/2015