“The decline of the major studios in the late 60s led to a lot more personal filmmaking,” says David Desser, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and coauthor of the 1993 book American-Jewish Filmmakers: Traditions and Trends. “A whole new generation of filmmakers did not come up through the Hollywood system but came through other areas like television or stand-up comedy.”
Among those filmmakers were Jewish comedians with serious agendas. Desser and Lester Friedman write that Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971) and
The Heartbreak Kid (1972) are “two of the most perceptive studies of Jewish self-hatred ever committed to celluloid” and Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) is “the clearest expression of Jewish fear and paranoia ever produced in the cinema.”
Desser, who’s giving three lectures on Jewish humor in film and on television as part of the Spertus Institute’s exhibit “Let There Be Laughter! Jewish Humor in America,” recommends Seinfeld for insights on Jewish identity in New York in the 90s. “The more I see it, the more I think it’s not only a funny show but a masterful program about contemporary American-Jewish life.”
“The American-Jewish Experience As Seen in Film” is September 3, “Funny Jews: Jewish Comics in Film” is September 10, and “Televisual Jews” is September 17; each lecture starts at noon at the Spertus Institute, 618 S. Michigan. Admission is $12 per lecture, which includes lunch, $10 for Spertus Society members. Call 312-322-1769.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Woody Allen (in Russian peasant garb) photo.