“We are questioning a canon and creating a canon.”
Thus did Doris Berger, senior director of curatorial affairs at the Academy Museum, explain when asked by Sharon Rosen Leib of The Forward why Jews had what seemed to her a disconcertingly small place in this new shrine to the movies.
The exchange was reported in an October 14 piece entitled: “Jews built Hollywood. So why is their history erased from the Academy’s new museum?”
In truth, Jews and their work have an inevitable presence throughout the museum, though their contribution doesn’t get a tribute on the order of those afforded Haile Gerima, Hayao Miyazaki, Sophia Loren, Satyajit Ray or Jane Campion. Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz, King Vidor, Howard Koch and other Jewish filmmakers certainly make appearances.
Moreover, the museum seems to promise something for almost everyone over time.
“The Academy Museum is deeply committed to presenting a holistic and diverse exploration of film history via rotating exhibitions, daily screenings, and public and educational programs,” said statement from a spokesperson n Monday. Referring to the Jewish artists and executives currently represented, the statement said: “These filmmakers are a vital part of our content, and their stories will continue to be told at the Academy Museum.”
Still, Berger’s answers to The Forward make clear that the museum will tell its stories with considerably less emphasis on Jewish legacy than was presented, for instance, in Neal Gabler’s much-read book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. As described by Berger, in fact, the museum isn’t really an archive of film history at all. Rather, it is an engine—and a big, shiny one at that—for shaping history to fit the needs of the present.
Such revisionism has always been a touchy business. Pushed too far, it risks replacing truth with narrative, fact with convenient constructs, if not outright fiction. This used to be called “the whig interpretation of history,” and was discredited in a book of that title by Herbert Butterfield, read widely by college freshmen some decades ago.
“Behind all the fallacies of the whig historian there lies the passionate desire to come to a judgement of values, to make history answer questions and decide issues and to give the historian the last word in a controversy,” wrote Butterfield. In other words, historians—or curators—take it upon themselves to “create a canon,” i.e., the laws, basic principles and recognized saints of the matter at hand.
They play God, rearranging history to suit.
But here’s what Berger actually said: “Giving a comprehensive motion picture history is not possible. Our goal is to tell complex stories and to question film history—so much of which has been forgotten and underrepresented.”
In honoring “forgotten and underrepresented” Black, and Asian, and Latin filmmakers, the museum said less than might be expected about the specific contribution of Jewish filmmakers, performers and executives, including that of Rosen Leib’s great-grandfather Sol M. Wurtzel. He helped run Fox in the silent era, produced hundreds of films, and was among the first members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
That “abridgement,” to use one of Butterfield’s favorite terms, was made with an eye toward the current populace and values—the past told as a product of the present. “We want people to see themselves in our programs and exhibitions featuring highly known objects and films as well as lesser-known filmmakers,” Berger said.
Certainly, there’s nothing wrong in highlighting bits of history that were slighted, often through racial bias or a tendency to credit the powerful for others’ achievement. But in the long run, there’s nothing to be gained by diminishing the main facts. It’s as if, for instance, the nearby Museum of Tolerance were to replace its painfully direct Holocaust exhibit with ethnically inclusive stories of heroic rescue and liberation.
Such things happened, but they were a subplot. And the Jews, however the canon is rewritten, were certainly not a subplot in Hollywood. From the beginning, they were center stage.
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