A New Collection of Essays on Jewish Cinema in Hollywood

Nathan Abrams on eds. Bernardi, Pomerance, and Tirosh-Samuelson’s Hollywood’s Chosen People

Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (eds.), Hollywood’s Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema, Wayne State University Press, 2012. 270 pp. $31.95.

The editors, Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson – three well-known scholars in the field of Jewish Studies – have assembled an somewhat unusual collection of scholars, which includes some high profile ones in terms of Jewish cinema (Murray Pomerance, Lester D. Friedman, Vincent Brook), as well as some who I would not have immediately associated with this topic: Peter Kramer, Vivian Sobchack and Sumiko Higashi (albeit they are all recognised in their own right!).

The book consists of twelve chapters and an introduction (a fitting number in Jewish tradition) covering almost a century of Jewish cinema in the United States, as well as a diversity of genres including the Holocaust on film and comedy; such directors and writers as David Mamet, George Cukor, Sidney Lumet, Edward Sloman and Steven Spielberg; and stars, notably Barbra Streisand, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller. While the collection covers a great deal of ground, it is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive, but is instead a collection of essays which grew out of a conference held at Arizona State University in October 2009.

The Introduction surveys the contributions of the following twelve chapters but also contains ‘Jewish Experience and Film Studies’, a section which offers a much needed theoretical consideration of the major trends in the field. If anything, this subsection could have been longer, drawing upon Joel Rosenberg’s excellent essay on the subject, ‘Jewish Experience on Film: An American Overview’, American Jewish Year Book, vol. 96 (1996), pp. 3-50. Further, I do have a minor disagreement with the editors’ assertion that Tom Cruise’s depiction of Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder (dir. Ben Stiller, 2008) is antisemitic. Instead, I would read Cruise’s performance as far more playful and ironic, the oversized, hirsute hands, the big gold dollar sign chain, the glasses and foul-mouth, all fit into a long trend of humorous depictions of Jewish movie moguls such as Michael Lerner’s Jack Lipnick in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991). On a more positive note, I was pleased to learn from Murray Pomerance that Cecil Linder who played Felix Leiter in Goldfinger (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964) was Jewish because he confirmed my suspicion that one can read the character as such.

Sarah Kozloff’s chapter on film criticism (‘Notes on Sontag and “Jewish Moral Seriousness” in American Cinema’) is fascinating because it engages a somewhat neglected area of study beyond, perhaps, that written about Robert Warshow (unmentioned in the book, however) and Susan Sontag. Warshow pioneered this type of criticism and a host of Jewish critics wrote film reviews for such intellectual magazines as CommentaryThe New LeaderEncounter and Partisan Review. In many ways, this film criticism – undertaken by writers who were not specifically trained in film writing – has not dated as it was sensitive to both the formal as well as the narrative aspects of the art. Furthermore, let us not forget that Pauline Kael’s early reviews appeared in Partisan Review. It would be useful to investigate any possible correlation between the content and the source in which such reviews were published. Given that many of these magazines were engaged in the fight against communism, and became precursors to neoconservatism, as well as receiving covert funding from the CIA, one wonders if their film criticism was neutral. This was certainly not the case with Commentary under Norman Podhoretz, where Sontag started out.

David Sterrit has contributed an incisive and perceptive essay comparing the representations of September 11 and the Holocaust (‘Representing Atrocity: September 11 through the Holocaust Lens’). In so doing, he revisits the earlier work of Alain Resnais, Marcel Ophuls and Claude Lanzmann, in particular, their The Night and the Fog (1955), The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and, of course, Shoah (1985) respectively. But Sterrit would have done well to note that 9/11 has not yet had its Resnais, Ophuls or Lanzmann moments and perhaps he could have considered why this was the case in further depth. More specifically, he mentions the ‘saccharine Holocaust fairy tales’ of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (dir. Mark Herman, 2008) and The Reader (dir. Stephen Daldry, 2008), observing that ‘the former film is sheer counterfactual fantasy; the latter reduces the Holocaust to one individual’s travail; and both carry the same disheartening message: We all feel bad about the Shoah, but hey, Nazis had problems too’ (p. 152). While I do not disagree with his point – indeed both films fit into a more recent trend of blurring the distinction between perpetrator and victim that often generates more sympathy for the former at the expense of the latter – I think it should be noted that both films had significant British input (which also raises the question of how far they can be considered ‘American’) and what this tells us about the representation of atrocity emanating from the United Kingdom (where I live).

Director/actor Ben Stiller signing autographs prior to a screening for Tropic Thunder at Camp Pendleton. 3 Aug 2008. Dave Gatley, U.S. Marine Corps

The prolific Vince Brook deconstructs contemporary Jewish American masculinity in his trademark witty, wide-ranging and incisive style by examining its exemplars: Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler (‘Boy-Man Schlemiels and Super-Nebishes: Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller’). In so doing, he points to the non-monolithic nature of Jewishness in contrast to those who tend to collapse all intra-Jewish differences into Ashkenazi whiteness, a point that needs to be made with more insistence as it still continues to blight Jewish Film Studies in the United States in particular.

The one major disappointment was the essay on David Mamet (Lucy Fischer’s ‘David Mamet’s Homicide: In or Out?’), which, in my opinion, suffers from not contributing much that we do not already know about that writer’s Homicide. It certainly lacks the in-depth subsurface analysis that distinguishes Leslie Kane’s book on the topic (Weasels and Wisemen: Ethics and Ethnicity in the Work of David Mamet [Palgrave Macmillan, 2001]). But even then Kane is at pains to discuss the significance of the whole page of the Book of Esther that the haredi Jew holds up during the film. This must be the only close up of the Megillat Esther in mainstream US film history!

Portrait of Barbra Streisand taken in London during the taping of her TV Special ‘Barbra Streisand… and other Musical Instruments’. Credit: Allan Warren, Wikipedia

Finally, those that chose the cover made a strange choice. While it depicts an image from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Allen only gets mentioned sporadically throughout the book, and that film is cited only once, and then merely in passing. This perhaps sums up a problem inherent in Jewish Film Studies: Woody Allen is so dominant a presence and has been the subject of many, many studies (a new one is forthcoming in which I must confess I have a chapter) that he must appear on the cover of a book about the Jewish experience in American cinema, even he does not feature that much in it, and certainly does not have a chapter in his own right. Perhaps Streisand would have been a more fitting choice to grace the cover not least because Vivian Sobchack (‘Assimilating Streisand: When Too Much is Not Enough’) devotes her contribution to that star, asking the ‘troubling question’: ‘Why do so many people in our culture (Jews and non-Jews alike) hate Barbra Streisand?’ (p. 211). Streisand may well be despised (and adored in equal measure) by many, but not seemingly by scholars as she has been subject to numerous studies of her screen personae more than any other living American Jewish actress than readily comes to mind.

Quibbles aside, Hollywood’s Chosen People is another useful contribution to a growing field and will benefit students and scholars of American Film and Jewish Studies alike.