Magazine article Tikkun

Is America Entertaining?

Magazine article Tikkun

Is America Entertaining?

Article excerpt

Is America Entertaining?

* J. Hoberman. The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties. New Press, 2003.

* J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler. Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting. Jewish Museum/ Princeton University Press, 2003.

Jim Hoberman (he always uses "J." for his first name) has been the reigning Village Voice film critic for almost thirty years, has long since become a member of the New York Critics Film Circle, and is an adjunct professor at Cooper Union. In short, he's the movie teacher to die for. TlKKUN readers should (but may not) know him best for the heavily illustrated Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film between Two Worlds, an extremely sensitive recuperation of films that are now rarely seen but were once (shortly before 1940) the pride of the Jewish world from Warsaw to Manhattan and beyond. Hoberman has also become, in a larger sense, the film critic as social critic, and that's a Jewish-inflected story worth at least one good postmodern movie.

From the dawn of sound to the middle of the 1950s, American newspapermen with a background in theatrical drama and novel-reading : dominated the prestige end of film reviewing. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther was the golden critic for a Golden Age Hollywood. He and his counterparts worked in real-life conditions reminiscent of The Front Page and other 1930s-40s films that made the reporter a real character, working always under a furious boss, facing an even more furious deadline, sometimes with an office romance as a siclebar to the action. These critics celebrated a good film comedy, of both the sophisticated (Katharine Hepburn) and slapstick (Abbott and Costello) type, as well as musicals with lots of dancing, family movies with a loyal horse or dog, and the three-hankie "women's films" like Stella Dallas, gendered masochism in full flower.

But they most loved the serious film, the "meller" (Variety-speak for melodrama), that lifted up the audience, films with stars like Paul Muni (birth name: Muni Weisenfreund) playing Emile Zola-the kind of film that Jewish intellectuals and self-educated working people considered the closest to real theatrical drama. By the time of the Second World War, "message" films with costars like John Garfield had gone from financial risk to financial security, thanks to the action-filled war dramas with just enough liberalism (like multi-ethnic squads, Jews included, and some talk about what it meant to wipe out fascism) to give the politically-inclined viewer a thrill of significance. In Casablanca, Hollywood had already made the best of the antifascist romances, but the mood swelled and extended into the immediate postwar period into anti-anti-Semitic melodrama and the earliest of feature films with dignified African Americans near the center of the plot. Then came McCarthy's political crackdown and soon after, the near disappearance of the kind of films that the Crowther types liked best.

Throughout, these critics had cheered, jeered, and laughed at the films themselves, often commented on the live audience response in Manhattan and other venues, and cast themselves in bronze as hard working liberals of the age when liberals seemed to be always fighting tycoons and fascists of various kinds (including racial and sexual). If they had one great flaw, it was to bemoan Hollywood's finest art product, the noir film, because it was too pessimistic for their hopes.

The next generation of film critics, above all the New Yorker's Pauline Kael, was already born to another age. That time's mixture of consumerism, alienation, and Cold War politics prompted deep suspicion of liberal idealism, let alone anything resembling "protest." Looking back, Casablanca seemed to them simpleminded and Charlie Chaplin (self-exiled for refusing to testify in front of HUAC) an annoying has-been who refused to move off the sound stage. Where Crowther cheered Salt of the Earth-that low budget drama about mining-town Chicanas, made by mostly Jewish blacklistees as an attempt at a commercial hit-Kael hissed it as anti-American propaganda. …

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