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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Like some of the movies he chooses to focus on, Goldman has a habit sometimes of diving straight into pools of kitschy cliché. Consider how he ends his discussion of “The Prince of Tides”: “What insight does this film provide? America was changing. The Jew once sought acceptance, then assimilation and societal entrée. By the 1990s, the American Jew was firmly entrenched. The Jew, the new person on the block, had finally established residence, and would not move.”

It’s hard to know how anyone can tell the truth in language of this kind. And in “Everything Is Illuminated,” the writing gets still worse, grasping after superlatives that express only banality: “[Jonathan Safran] Foer and his wife, Nicole Krauss… are among a group of contemporary young Jewish writers who are enthralling readers with their artistry. Just as impressive are the effects of a cadre of capable screenwriters and actors like [Liev] Schreiber, who have decided to try their hand at producing and directing Jewish-themed films.”

Enthralling or not, such stories become dull when they’re written about so mechanically. This suggests that Goldman is a far better critic, analyst and historian when he goes looking for fresh discoveries and arguments. When he clicks onto automatic pilot, his readers can go only through the motions of being attentive.

Jonathan Rosenbaum is the author of “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition” (University of Chicago Press, 2010).


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