Film: Inventors of the American dream

Jews created Tinseltown, but can there be such a thing as Jewish cinema? By David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
Marlon Brando is famous for redefining the image of American masculinity, method acting and, thanks to Last Tango in Paris, popularising a non-culinary use for butter. Yet two months ago, he dwarfed all that with his outburst on Larry King's TV chat show in which he announced that "Hollywood is run by Jews. It's owned by Jews", and proceded to harangue them for perpetuating racial stereotypes. "We've seen the Chink. We've seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap. We have seen the wily Filipino. But we never saw the kike because they knew perfectly well that that's where you draw the wagons around."

Disregarding his ill-advised outburst - he publicly recanted - the more interesting point is the lack of positive portrayals of Jews in an industry not so much owned as created by Jews. The entire image of the American dream in song, on stage and on screen is arguably a Jewish invention. Broadway without Jews? That means discounting Ziegfeld, Jolson, Gershwin, Bernstein, Sondheim. Who wrote "White Christmas"? Israel Baline aka Irving Berlin. On the West Coast it was the same story. Try imagining Hollywood without Thalberg and Mayer at MGM, Harry Cohn at Columbia and Zucker at Universal.

Not, of course, that their controlling interests resulted in a flood of Jewish subjects on screen. Powerful they certainly were, but with the advent of McCarthyism, Jewish studio heads, notoriously shy of producing Jewish subject matter, were accused of running a Jewish conspiracy. It took the goy in the pack, Darryl Zanuck, to produce the Academy Award- winning Gentleman's Agreement (1947), in which Gregory Peck posed as a Jew and discovered unsuspected depths of anti-semitism at every turn. But, with rare exceptions, the rest is silence.

Aside from Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus (1969), Barbra Streisand's musical adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yentl (1983), Joan Micklin Silver's matchmaking and dill pickle comedy Crossing Delancey (1988), Spielberg's historical Schindler's List (1993) and large swathes of Woody Allen's uvre, you could be forgiven for assuming that the catalogue of Jewish film would be a decidedly slim volume. Not according to Davina Stanley, programme director of the 11th London Jewish Film Festival. "There are 37 Jewish Film Festivals across the world," she proudly observes. "We're showing films from Iceland, Italy, Hungary, Portugal, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, as well as Israel, America and the UK."

Stanley's criteria for inclusion in the festival is anything with Jewish subject matter or that relates to Judaism. "I want to infuse life into the festival," she laughs. "There's a danger that events like these can become stagnant. I have tried to widen the appeal. In Dogs: The Rise and Fall of an All-Girl Bookie Joint, the central character is Jewish, but non-Jews won't necessarily notice. The film is gutsy and sassy and relevant to a younger audience but it's not obviously Jewish." That, of course, begs the question, what precisely is a Jewish film? The more people you ask, the more answers you get. Stanley stands by her definition of subject matter but is anxious to underline the universality of much of the work on show. "Passover Fever is a comedy about a family on Seder night, arguing about things like putting too much sugar in the Lockshen pudding, but it could just as well be a family squabbling about the brandy in the Christmas pudding."

Writer Martin Sherman is beginning to dislike the whole question of "the Jewish film" because it suggests that "minority" filmmakers are somehow different from the majority. "No one ever talks about Christian films and there are a hell of a lot of those. Everyone's background influences their work." He has just completed his latest film, Indian Summer. "It's a gay film but the director Nancy Meckler and I are Jewish which makes it a Jewish film, too. We know that Steven Spielberg is Jewish but is ET a Jewish film? It's about a stranger, an alien within another society. I'm not sure a non-Jew would have identified with ET in the same way. Sensibility is the point here - if a film-maker is in touch with that sensibility, Jewish, gay, whatever, then you can categorise it as such. Are Mike Leigh's films Jewish? On some level, yes. There's a sense he has of people within circumstances they find oppressive, yet they find a life force within that and it's done through humour."

Gary Sinyor, writer and producer of Leon the Pig Farmer and Solitaire for Two, also suggests humour as an identifying characteristic. He agrees that it has something to do with being an outsider. Sense of humour is a statement about who you are, how you see yourself and the world, and the relationship between them. "If you felt completely at home in an environment, what would you laugh at? Woody Allen's humour is inherently Jewish, but it's becoming more generalised New York, I think. It's been suggested that Jewish humour is about being angst-ridden, but that's not necessarily true. There's something about rules and regulations in a religion like Judaism which makes people feel henpecked. That has something to do with it."

Despite his dislike of labelling, is his work specifically Jewish? "Leon is definitely a Jewish story. The central character in Solitaire was conceived as Jewish, but I went to great pains to make him obviously so. The problems he faces are Jewish but that doesn't mean that non-Jews don't fall prey to them."

Davina Stanley won't be drawn on the authorship angle. Judaism is not a qualification for entry. "We don't ask them that on the submission form," she says, simply. None the less, the preponderance of examinations of political and personal histories suggests that most contributors are drawing on personal experiences of the faith and culture. If that conjures up eight days of portentousness, take a closer look at the programme, which opens with a rare screening of Vittorio de Sica's sumptuously evocative romance The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The Party Favour, a short in which a young lesbian couple attend a nightmare bridal shower in search of a turkey baster, was smash hit at the recent Lesbian and Gay festival and is about to be turned into a major feature. There's even the Christmas/ Hanukkah episode of thirtysomething. You can see rights-of-passage dramas, documentaries on the Middle East and attend discussion panels with historians, film- makers and join workshops for children.

By the end of all that, you may be no closer to an absolute answer on the Jewish film conundrum, but you will certainly be clearer on the three key questions: who is speaking, what are they saying, and to whom. Context, as ever, is all. And the really tough one? Try Schindler's List. A Jewish masterpiece or perhaps just a supremely well made generic Hollywood picture about a non-Jew triumphing against the odds?

n The London Jewish Film Festival runs from 16 to 23 June and then tours Bristol, Edinburgh, Hull, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield in July. For details, call 0171-928 3232