SF Jewish museum celebrates Kubrick's films, career & legacy

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Surreal, polarizing, circus-like. These are all ways one could describe the current U.S. political climate, campaign and general election of 2016.  No matter where you lie on the spectrum of liberal to conservative, it’s safe to say the two main candidates are tapping into fears. Fear of who might get elected, fears about which of our rights or jobs could be taken away, fears of terrorism both abroad and domestic. When you factor in the reality of mass shootings, documented police shootings and brutality (oftentimes against communities of color) and now targeted cop killings, outrage seems to be everywhere. If you’re not protesting in the streets like many have over these issues, the common way to express indignation is to take to social media. 

But It wasn’t always that easy. At Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, you’ll find handwritten or typed letters on more than one occasion. Yes, well composed, with complete spellings of words, full sentences and paragraphs that structure thoughts and ideas. In this case, letters, painstakingly written, convey outrage over the work of arguably one of the greatest film directors of all time. In one case, a Florida Presbyterian Church complains to the studio that it’s obvious his risque 1962 film, Lolita, about a literature professor’s perverse obsession with a 12-year-old girl is based on a selling point of sex appeal.

In another instance, a woman from North Carolina felt so strongly about the violence depicted on-screen in his re-working of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (1971) that she was compelled to write and send a letter condemning his most controversial film that explores notions of inhumanity.

Now, those contorted and sexualized Korova Milk Bar maids (at least mannequin reproductions) with their alabaster skin and vacant eyes are part of the exhibit for all to ogle, including the preadolescent boy who sat on the bench gawking at the nudes. The museum does give fair warning that not all the material displayed may be age appropriate for some. After touring 14 countries around the world, the exhibit has arrived in San Francisco with over 1,000 artifacts spanning the career and body of Kubrick’s work, says Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) Executive Director Lori Starr.

“This is the first Jewish museum that’s presented Stanley Kubrick. A lot of people don’t realize he was Jewish. A lot of people think he was a Brit, because he lived most of his life in the U.K.,” Starr says one morning at the museum just as it’s opening. “But in fact, he was a person of Jewish heritage.” He was born in New York City in 1928 and grew up in the Bronx.  

“We’ve organized it chronologically, in order of his life, from his earliest years as a still photographer,” Starr says explaining that as a teenager, his career launched when he was hired by Look magazine as a staff photographer. The exhibit gives the backstory on how Kubrick, at 16, snapped a shot of a newspaper salesman looking rather morose over a headline about F.D.R.’s death, thus beginning his long-lasting career in the visual arts of about five decades. 

“He came of age in that period in America, if you think about it, the 1930s, the 1940s-- the pre and post World War II and he was immersed in the intellectual environment, particularly in New York at that time," Starr says. 

That influence worked as a motif throughout his films from his first feature, 1953’s Fear and Desire, an anti-war movie that demonstrates the trauma of modern war and technology (a scene shows prisoners of war being blessed by a priest as they stand before a firing squad awaiting their demise) while utilizing what’s described as a characteristic handheld-camera style as it deals with atrocities of war. A similar camera technique is reprised in Spartacus (1960) where the camera’s movement was said to have “overwhelmed” viewers as they saw it on the big screen.

1987’s Full Metal Jacket, based during the Vietnam War, captures the same sentiment perhaps in even more graphic detail.

While those angry letters of complaint weren’t exactly politically charged, but more likely based on a past generation’s standards, puritanical norms, and a tendency to self censor something controversial as a knee-jerk reaction; Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb seems almost prescient in the time of Trump.  Hillary Clinton has chided her opponent's temperament and famously questioned his trustworthiness at the helm of the button, when it comes to nuclear weapons. By comparison, the 1964 film, based on the novel, Red Alert, deals with the madness of Cold War nuclear armament, through absurdist satire and black humor. After all, it hit the box office just after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But the true draw here is the various and exquisite visual elements and displays. Beginning with a hall of vibrant ephemera in the form of movie posters, guests are led into a room that serves as a time capsule of film history.

Artifacts from 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1980’s The Shining may be worth the price of admission alone. “We have a model of the [2001] centrifuge. We have other models, including the actual Star Child. The apes at the beginning of 2001,” says Starr. You can also find the astronaut’s suit and the Oscar Kubrick won on this film for ‘Best Visual Effects’ on display.

Of course you won’t want to miss the crowning jewels that are the creepy twins’ dresses and Jack’s typewriter (All work and no play…) from The Shining.

“If you think about it, he reinvented every genre in which he worked; film noir, the war film, the horror movie, science fiction, the historic costume drama,” says Starr.

You still have about a month and a half left to check the exhibit out. It ends October 30th. The museum has also partnered with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and currently with Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission for screenings of Kubrick’s films.

More on ‘Kubrick in color’ here.

Lastly, The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is performing the film score live to a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, October 13, 14, and 15.