Nathan Abrams considers the Jewishness of Jordan Peele’s Nope.
Two alternative names have been suggested for Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope, but which have already been taken: “Don’t Look Up” and “Don’t Look Now”.
I am going to suggest an alternative if already taken title: Eyes Wide Shut. This is because in quoting Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Nope can be read as Peele’s most Jewish film to date.
At first sight, Nope is Peele’s least explicitly Kubrickian film because he moves beyond quoting The Shining. Where both Get Out and Us were full of visual references to that horror masterpiece, the references in Nope to Kubrick’s final film are more subtle than previously.
In adapting the work of Viennese Jewish author, Arthur Schnitzler, and casting Sydney Pollack as a middle-aged Jewish businessperson, it has been shown that Eyes Wide Shut can be seen as Kubrick’s most Jewish film.
This is also true of Nope. Peele has a history of drawing upon biblical quotations to open his films and Nope is no different. Where his earlier effort Us featured the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah 11:11 (“Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape”), Nope opens with text from another biblical prophet, this time Nahum 3:6: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.”
These references to the Hebrew Bible are more than coincidental across Peele’s body of work but particularly so in this film which develops into a chain of associations. At least twice, the film references the number six hundred and thirteen. The first frames of the film refer to “six minutes and 13 seconds of havoc” in which a trained chimpanzee, playing the title role in a sitcom known as “Gordy’s Home” embarks on a rampage of violence after a balloon pops on set and scares him. Later, one of the few physically unscathed survivors of this spectacle explains how he “bore witness” to a UFO abducting a bay horse named Trigger at exactly 6:13 p.m. The term is full of biblical resonance.
One reference might be a fluke but two suggest that Peele has done it deliberately especially given that 613 is traditionally cited as the number of commandments found in the Torah. And Peele once tweeted, “I love Jews. I’m an upper west sider which makes me an honorary Jew. We’re allowed to be self deprecating.”
And the film is full of other biblical, specifically Hebrew Bible, references which build up to make a key point. We learn that the UFO at the heart of the story appears every Friday night, that is around the time of Kabbalat Shabbat. Again, this cannot be a coincidence. One poster on Reddit has even suggested that the power cuts triggered by the UFO’s appearance could be seen as referring to the Sabbath and the injunction against using electrical devices.
On Friday nights, Jupe – the name holds a homophone for the word Jew but is also short for the Roman God Jupiter and could also refer to the director’s initials of JP — offers sacrifices of horses to the unidentified alien phenomenon and given that these are unclean animals he is eventually punished. The alien behaves like a territorial biblical deity, restricting itself to a defined territory which again uncoincidentally resembles a desert. Its form has even been described as a “biblical angel” and when it attacks its victims ascend to heaven as the creature sucks them up. At one point, there is a flood-like deluge as well as a rain of blood like the first plague in Egypt.
Reinforcing the biblical theme, one of the characters is called Angel. He is shown fixing an aerial on the roof the shot of which recalls a similar shot from A Serious Man another movie with biblical roots in the Book of Job.
The UFO is named “Jean Jacket” after one of the horses in the movie. Again, there is Jewish meaning here as denim jackets were invented by German-Jewish immigrant Levi Strauss in the late 1800s.
There are other references. Jean Jacket is a shy entity. Like in Exodus 24: 16, the alien stays covered by a cloud. When Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, it was shrouded in cloud. When Moses asks to behold God’s face, he is warned in Exodus 33:20, “a human being may not see Me and live”. In the Bible, Enoch “Walked with God” and “God took him” (Genesis 5:22–24) just as Jean Jacket takes Jupe and the other humans.
Those who look directly at Jean Jacket die just as Moses is unable to look upon the face of God. In fact, the key lesson of Nope is not to look directly at Jean Jacket. “Don’t look him in The Eye”, as our protagonist warns early in the film. Those who do, die. Jupe names Jean Jacket “The Viewers” and at one point it does resemble a giant eye.
This leads us back to Stanley Kubrick. The eye was central to Kubrick’s work. It was the basis for his shot composition and for their eventual viewing by an audience. From his early photography for Look magazine through to his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, metaphors of sight, eyes and blindness pervaded his work.
Consider Kubrick’s own eyes – rendered in the portrait of Mr Haze on the wall in Lolita — which critic Michel Ciment described as “the intense, dark, piercing, almost hypnotic gaze, beneath the heavy eyebrows.” The very first line of spoken dialogue in his first feature film, Fear and Desire (1953), was, “Do you think they’re looking for us?”
Eyes peer out from many of Kubrick’s characters: the eye of the Star-Child, at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and HAL’s all-seeing eye; Alex at the beginning of A Clockwork Orange (1971) together with the eyeball cufflink he wears, as well as his eyes being forced open during the Ludovico Treatment; the wild stare of the frozen Jack at the end of The Shining (1980) combined with his son’s ability to see without using his eyes; Private Pyle before murdering his sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (1987) culminating in the blindness of the protagonist of Eyes Wide Shut whose doppelganger, Nick Nightingale, is even blindfolded.
There are multiple references to 2001 — another very Jewish film. The number of letters in the title is four – a number key to the whole film. Both films open with prologues featuring apes: Kubrick begins 2001 with primal simians about to evolve into humans whereas Peele begins his with an enraged chimpanzee in a party hat. Peele breaks his film up into sections with intertitles, the font of which resembles that of 2001. Both feature unidentified alien phenomena and calling one of his characters Jupe invokes the final section of Kubrick’s film – “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”.
Indeed, the title of his closing film is significant. It was the first time the word “eye” appeared in a Kubrick film title, but it also contained the word “shut” which can be said to refer to the very mechanism of the camera: the shutter.
In Judaism, one covers one’s eyes when reciting the opening verses of the Shema. It is also the prayer uttered when facing imminent death. Whether Kubrick had this in mind when he came up with the title, we shall never know but in invoking the need to keep one’s eyes closed to avoid death Nope can be read as a very Jewish homage to Eyes Wide Shut.