At the age of 24, Stanley Kubrick was a successful magazine photographer with a few short documentaries under his belt when he borrowed 20 grand from a wealthy uncle to shoot his first feature-length film.
“Fear and Desire” was a low-budget existential war film about four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. The cast included a Brooklyn College student and aspiring actor named Irwin Mazursky, who later changed his name to Paul and wrote and directed “Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” and other hit movies.
“Stanley did all the shooting,” Mazursky recalled in his memoir, “Show Me the Magic.” “No matter what the problem, Kubrick always seemed to have an answer. To me there was never a question that Stanley was already master of his universe.”
Indeed, Kubrick went on to achieve great heights with masterpieces such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), “The Shining” (1980), “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and many others.
He was the rare director who didn’t influence other filmmakers so much as carve a swath through the culture.
The Jewish filmmaker’s intensive creative process and extraordinary eye will be on full display in “Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition,” opening Thursday, June 30 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.
The extensive show is composed of documents, film clips, props, costumes (including the red spacesuit from “2001”), even cameras and lenses that Kubrick (1928-1999) developed or commissioned to achieve specific effects.
The exhibit was assembled through the efforts of Kubrick’s executive producer and brother-in-law Jan Harlan; Kubrick’s widow, Christiane; the Stanley Kubrick Archive at University of the Arts in London; and Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, Germany, where the exhibit premiered in 2004.
The San Francisco installation is its first in a Jewish museum, and includes additional items borrowed from private collections and adaptations of the accompanying text, which changes with every exhibition in a new city.
Born in 1928 and raised in the Bronx, Kubrick did not grow up in a religious household. But the neighborhood was home to a growing Jewish middle class, where Kubrick encountered many who would influence his life and work.
“The museum grapples with things that Kubrick did as a secular Jew, ” said CJM executive director Lori Starr. “He was not religious, though he was born into a Jewish family, but he was deeply influenced by many Jewish sources — philosophical sources, theological sources.”
Although the CJM doesn’t attempt to explicitly position or reclaim Kubrick as a “Jewish artist” in the exhibition itself, it has scheduled several panels with scholars and authors who have researched the director’s work and analyzed it through a Jewish lens.
“The programming goes very deeply” into his background, Starr said, and, together with the exhibit, presents Kubrick in “a Jewish context.”
“By and large, artists are understood for their work and what they have to say in their work,” Starr said. “They don’t want to be pigeonholed by their religious identity. Many don’t want to be understood in one dimension. So this exhibition takes a very broad view of Kubrick’s Jewishness.”
That includes, of course, acknowledging Kubrick’s coming of age in a particular place at a particular time in history.
The CJM is highlighting an unrealized project of his entitled “Aryan Papers,” an adaptation of Louis Begley’s autobiographical novel “Wartime Lies.” Kubrick drafted the screenplay of the Holocaust survival story, storyboarded it, scouted locations and cast Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege.
“It is provocative in a sense that Kubrick did everything but shoot the film,” said associate curator Anastasia James. “Warner Brothers instructed him to stop his work on it.”
One possible reason, she said, was that “Schindler’s List” was about to open at the time. But some researchers suggest that Kubrick was secretly relieved to drop the project, because he found the material so disturbing.
Of the films that Kubrick did make, most would agree that “2001: A Space Odyssey” — which contemplates the “unknowable” — was “his most Jewish film,” Starr noted. The gallery talks include learned speakers in Jewish studies riffing on what they see in it.
“Jan Harlan shared with us Kubrick’s fascination with two particular aspects of Jewish thought,” Starr said. First was “the unknowable. In the Bible, various matriarchs and patriarchs note that they can’t look into the face of God or else [they will] be destroyed. He must always remain the unseeable and the unknowable.
“The other is that we can’t say or even spell the name of God. Kubrick was fascinated with [the concept of] ‘G-d.’ ”
The exhibition covers the breadth of Kubrick’s professional pursuits, beginning with his early documentary films and the little-known photographic works that he created between 1945 and 1950 for Look magazine, and continuing with his groundbreaking directorial achievements of the 1950s until 1999, the year his last film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” was released.
His work is explored in several individual gallery spaces dedicated to specific films, and includes the survival kit from “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), the costumes for the Star Child and the ape from “2001,” dresses of the sisters from “The Shining,” and the “Born to kill” helmet of Private Joker from “Full Metal Jacket.”
“Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition,” June 30-Oct. 30 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. www.thecjm.org
Kubrick through a Jewish lens — and more
To present a complete picture of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, the Contemporary Jewish Museum has scheduled dozens of events in conjunction with the new exhibit, which runs through October.
Gallery talks, panel discussions, film screenings, even San Francisco Symphony concerts featuring the score from Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” will take place. The exhibit will also serve as a springboard for children’s arts activities.
Although Kubrick was not a religious Jew, a few talks will examine him from a Jewish perspective.
Three of the foremost scholars on Kubrick will look at his films through a Jewish lens at a gallery talk from 6:30 to 8 p.m. July 14. They are Nathan Abrams, an expert on Jewish cinema and professor of film studies at Bangor University in Wales (and author of the soon-to-be-published book “Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual”); Geoffrey Cocks, history professor at Albion College and author of “The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History and the Holocaust,” and Reed College associate professor Marat Grinberg.
Abrams returns the following day, at 12:30 p.m. July 15, for a 20-minute “gallery chat” that will explore Jewish interpretations of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Kubrick films will be screened at various San Francisco venues, starting with “Paths of Glory”(1957) on July 15 and ending with “Lolita” (1962) on July 30 and 31. The screenings are part of the series “Kubrick in Black-and-White” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St.
Next comes “Kubrick in Color,” at Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, 2550 Mission St., from Aug. 28 to Sept. 19. Films include “The Shining,” “Barry Lyndon” and “A Clockwork Orange.”
The San Francisco Symphony will play the score from Kubrick’s Academy Award-winning “2001” on Oct. 13, 14 and 15. (For tickets, call the box office at (415) 864-6000 or www.sfsymphony.org.)
For additional information about all Kubrick programming, go to www.thecjm.org.