Retelling Jewish American Story Through History of Cinema

Scholar Examines 12 Films From 'The Jazz Singer' to 'Avalon'

Look Who’s Talking: ‘The Jazz Singer’ marks the beginning of talking pictures and of Eric A. Goldman’s study of Jewish American cinema. This image was taken on the set of the first version of that film in 1927.
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Look Who’s Talking: ‘The Jazz Singer’ marks the beginning of talking pictures and of Eric A. Goldman’s study of Jewish American cinema. This image was taken on the set of the first version of that film in 1927.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Published April 18, 2013, issue of April 26, 2013.
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The enthusiastic case Goldman makes for Barry Levinson’s “Liberty Heights” (1999) piques my curiosity somewhat. But none of his other key entries that I’ve seen has stuck in my memory with much resonance: “Crossfire” or “Gentleman’s Agreement” (both 1947), “The Young Lions” (1958), “The Way We Were” (1973), “The Prince of Tides” (1991), “Avalon” (1990) or “Everything Is Illuminated” (2006). Basically Oscar fodder or worse, these are the sort of disposable mainstream movies whose interest resides mainly in what they have to say about Jewish roles in society when the films were made, which is obviously why Goldman picked them.

Recalling Jacques Rivette’s classic remark that D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” has more to say about 1916 than it does about any of the historical periods it depicts, he notes that although “The Way We Were” “is set in the 1930s–1950s, it is essential to understand that it is really about the 1970s, when it was made” — which overlooks the confusions that might arise from three separate decades being represented by the sensibility of only one. “Gentleman’s Agreement” may have won three major Oscars, but even its director, Elia Kazan, who acquired one of them, admitted in his autobiography that he barely remembered anything about having made it.

And maybe I’m just being a spoilsport, but the thing that I find most illuminating in “Everything Is Illuminated” — apart from its many fadeouts to white, and its dog reaction shots — is how blotchy digital video can look in the wrong hands.

This isn’t to argue that what Goldman has to say about his chosen movies isn’t often interesting and instructive — when he brings his own original research into the picture. But because he’s talking most often about subject matter and only incidentally about style or vision, what he has to say about these movies’ production histories often exceeds anything he has to impart about their artistic or social value.

It’s fascinating to learn that some members of the American Jewish Committee attacked “Crossfire” before they even saw it, fully convinced that any movie about virulent anti-Semitism was bound to stir up trouble and make things worse, while the Anti-Defamation League “wholeheartedly endorsed the film.”

As for “The Young Lions,” Goldman is quite fascinating on a variety of subjects — that is, distinguishing between attitudes toward Nazis as they’re expressed in Irwin Shaw’s novel and Edward Anhalt’s script; the separate demands and/or attitudes of lead actors Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando (the latter of whom insisted on basic changes to make his Austrian Nazi character more sympathetic and less of a Nazi), and the positions of director Edward Dmytryk (who had a non-Jewish, Ukrainian background but wound up directing other films with Jewish subjects, such as “Crossfire”).

What gets lost in the shuffle, unfortunately, is any effort to make any cultural distinctions between Austrians and Germans, and it becomes impossible for me to tell whether this lack is a matter of insufficient knowledge or indifference, on his part or on Shaw’s. However emotionally understandable it might be from a Jewish standpoint to equate German Nazis with Austrian Nazis, I’m not sure how helpful it is intellectually or historically.

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