1999: A Bronx Odyssey

One can only suppose how Stanley Kubrick might have filmed the life story of Joe DiMaggio. How might the disparate life visions of these two Bronx icons who last week died barely hours apart have meshed on the silver screen? For one thing, Kubrick, who liked biographies of the outsize (he made Spartacus, wanted to make Napoleon), would almost certainly have used idiosyncratic, Max Ophlus-like moving-camera shots to depict those two nifty backhand stabs utilized by Ken Keltner to stop Joltin’ Joe’s famous streak in 1941. As for the Yankee Clipper’s well-documented weekly ritual of sending a bouquet of roses to Marilyn Monroe’s grave site for twenty years, one can only guess at how Kubrick’s mordant comic spirit might have handled that. After all, Kubrick, horny boy of the Bronx, was never noted for love scenes, requited or not, even if Shelly Winters did keep the ashes of her beloved husband on her beside table in Lolita.

Joe D, a film by Stanley Kubrick – it might not be Dr. Strangelove, but ya gotta love it. Could have happened, too, since as a boy-wonder Bronx still photographer in the midst of cranking out a 70 average at Taft High School and haunting movie palaces like the Loews Paradise and the RKO Fordham, Kubrick rarely missed an opportunity to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, where he saw the peerless Clipper patrol the center-field greenery in all his Apollonian glory. The stuff of dreams, no doubt. While never fulfilling his primary ambition of playing second base for the Bronx Bombers, once Kubrick began working as an assignment photographer for Look magazine, he often returned to the Big Ballpark. Indeed, in the May 9, 1952, issue of Look, there is a photo of Joe DiMaggio taken by Stanley Kubrick.

It is a marvelous Bronx symbiosis: DiMaggio, made for nothing except to be seen, as viewed by Kubrick, ultimate seer. And as has been blah-blah well-documented on talk radio this week, we may never see their like again (or at least the like of Joe D – expatriate moviemakers not being the usual fodder for WFAN nostalgia-mongers). Still, one can only celebrate that there was once a place in time where these two geniuses might both be present in the same building for so many Saturday afternoons. But that was another kind of Bronx, before Fort Apache and Steinbrenner playing the white-flight/parking card, a zone where the ballplayers made what bus drivers did, Dion and a million other Belmonts sang a cappella, and NYU was on the Heights. This said, truth be told, Kubrick, resident of 2715 Grand Concourse (where his best friend and neighbor was Marvin Traub, who would reinvent Bloomingdale’s as the center of haute seventies glitz), was more of the Bronx than DiMaggio, who never lived there, as had Babe Ruth and other Yankees stalwarts. More of an in-and-out sort of outer-borough guy, San Francisco Joe mostly saw the Bronx from inside the Yankees clubhouse, choosing to bed down at the Edison Hotel on 47th Street and shoot up to the Stadium via the West Side Highway, which might be the current mayor’s best excuse to rename that thoroughfare in the ballplayer’s honor.

Reputedly, DiMaggio was Kubrick’s favorite player when he grew up far too “private” (the forties version of nerdy) to be asked to join the neighborhood stickball games. As for Joe D’s opinion of Kubrick’s eventual oeuvre, not much is known. He spent untold hours in hotel rooms watching John Wayne Westerns, but the Clipper’s most notable commentary pertaining to the cinema occurred on the set of Billy Wilder’s Seven Year Itch, after the famous scene when his then wife Marilyn’s dress is lifted by the draft from a subway grate. “What the hell is going on here?” demanded Joe, who, in his old-country way, thought MM should stay home and cook his buddies bowls of spaghetti. As far as can be ascertained, outside of that 1952 photo session, the two men never met again.

Still, the two are connected in ways beyond the consonance of their death. For one thing, there’s the oddly prescient sequence in the aforementioned Spartacus, in which Tony Curtis, supposedly playing an itinerant poet of early Rome but speaking in a perfectly Bronx accent, tells slave-rebellion leader Kirk Douglas, “Spartacus, I am a singer of songs.” It is as if, under the transtemporal aegis of the popular culture, Curtis were instructing the proto-Italians of Roman times how to employ the dese-and-dose they will need once they leave their native country and settle on Arthur Avenue, where the presence of the great Joe DiMaggio swatting homers next door at Yankee Stadium will be a source of endless civic and ethnic pride.

And even though it might appear that DiMaggio, the mainstream hero, that entity to which the nation would turn its lonely eyes, and Kubrick, often a malicious satirist of mom-and-pop virtues, would be at loggerheads, such is not the case, at least stylistically.

Both men are defined by their perfectionism, their utterly hermetic sense of themselves. Indeed, it is not impossible to imagine the young and dreamy Stanley sitting in the Yankee Stadium grandstand watching the impeccable Joe drift effortlessly back on a high fly ball. Following the trajectory of that fly, Kubrick might suddenly find himself in outer space, where, in the year 2001, massive interplanetary ships and monoliths float frictionless, until the pop of the ball into DiMaggio’s mitt. Outside of Kubrick, few commercial filmmakers have approached the sort of formal integrity one might associate with DiMaggio’s style on the field. But there is danger in all this airless nonpareilism. Among Joe D’s fabulous records, the one often cited by the cognoscenti is the fact that in 6,821 regular-season at-bats, the Yankee Clipper struck out only 369 times, an astounding total for a man who hit 361 home runs. Reggie Jackson, for instance, struck out 2,597 times. Yet, there seems a kind of anality in striking out only 369 times, a kind of withholding for perfection’s sake. It is not a lovable trait. Nor is Stanley Kubrick a lovable moviemaker, especially since about the middle of A Clockwork Orange.

In the end, privacy issues were paramount for both men. Famously unapproachable throughout his career, especially in regard to his brief marriage to Marilyn, DiMaggio lived long enough for Paul Simon’s eulogy on the Times op-ed page to end with “we … mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence.” As for Kubrick, long removed from the Bronx, living in England in the manner of a semi-mad lord, always described as “the reclusive director,” his sudden death left the hero mechanics out of sync. Two days after his death, the Times was reporting that for a supersecret screening of his last, just-finished film, Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick demanded that the projectionist turn away from the screen while running the picture. So, for one of his last artistic decrees, Kubrick forbade looking upon his creation, which is about as reclusive as you can get, especially for a $65 million picture.

It made sense that Joe D’s World War II constituency lauded his great fight against the cancer racking his body while many of Kubrick’s fans seemed a tad disappointed that the director had not committed suicide, as the first reports of his death seemed to indicate. Every generation loves its heroes for its own reasons; we like them to die right, too. Most of the people who saw DiMaggio play are likewise passed on. In place of those memories is the Joe memorabilia, which had fallen relative to Mickey Mantle’s following that Yankee center-fielder’s demise. Now the stuff will be through the roof. And, of course, there should be a decent retrospective of Kubrick’s movies, even Barry Lyndon. So this Bronx Tale will go on, a long way from a sunny Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

1999: A Bronx Odyssey