Thursday, February 16, 2006

Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream

One of my goals for this blog was to create a resource for people interested in the Jewish film genre (along with regular editorials on current events.) Eventually, the site will include more film reviews, movie trailers and video clips. I’m also using the site to workshop some ideas I’m working on related to ‘Jewish film.’

Jewish film. It's a complex topic. It's universally understood that Hollywood began as a Jewish venture - perhaps the word "adventure" would be more appropriate - even if very few films portrayed Jewish culture and characters. But the influence was there. Westerns are my favourite Jewish films: "Rabbi, there's a posse of Cossacks headed towards the shtetle, er, town!" Ok, you get the idea. It's also been suggested that the "American dream" itself owes a lot to the Hollywood Jews and their idealized vision of their new homeland, an idea prevalent in Neal Gabler's An Empire of their Own.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this subject as the director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. Our concern was what constituted a "Jewish film" in order to warrant inclusion in our schedule. The definition seemed to mutate as necessary. Still, I'm intrigued at the idea that there are Jewish concepts and ideas in mainstream films. Considering the number of Jews that continue to work in the film industry, it's inevitable that some sense of "Jewishness" has permeated into film consciousness. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of resources on this subject. Most websites and books that deal with "Religion in Film" really mean Christianity. Personally, I’ve already seen far too many Christ-figures and could stand a few more Moses- or Ruth-figures.

I’ve started a book on this subject. Jews in film (and television) has been done (Omer Bartov's The "Jew" in Cinema) so rather, this will be an exposition on the perception of film issues from a Jewish perspective, for example, Jewish attitudes towards magic and the supernatural as it relates to fantasy films like the “Harry Potter” series. There will also be a discussion of Halacha (Jewish law) as it relates to film.

Mostly, the book will focus on watching films in a Jewish context. Are there Jewish sensibilities that contribute to how we deconstruct film narrative? Do we recognize Jewish concepts that may have subconsciously found their way into the film’s themes? If you have any thoughts on this subject, let me know. This is a work-in-progress, and I invite your suggestions and comments.


Anonymous said...

I've always had a bit of trouble expressing this, but I've often felt that there was a streak of Jewish theology in the works of David Lynch (or at least some of his better films). I felt it most in The Straight Story which just "feels" like a meditation on the nature and importance of teshuva within one's family.

The ways in which characters look for (and find) divine intervention in Lynch's films have always intrigued me. I think that's because he sometimes channels a distinctly Jewish approach to spirituality.

Morey Altman said...

Interesting. I've recognized some Christian mythology - as much as it's possible to recognize anything in a Lynch film - but not Jewish. Maybe it's finally time to go back and watch Eraserhead again. MA

Soferet said...

I heard a comedian say once that there's an "American Dream", but not a "Canadian Dream". & Canadians don't have a dream because we're awake ;)
Anyway, invite me over for Eraserhead. Unless you have it on VHS, then you guys can come over.