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Hey, Tablet: E.T. go home, make ‘Lincoln’ #1

“Lincoln” didn’t walk away with the Oscar for best picture. But maybe our friends at Tablet could show this movie some love by making it #1 on their “Greatest Jewish Films” list instead of E.T.

Yes, that’s right. Last year At the end of 2011, Tablet published its Top 100 list and made E.T. numero uno.

Now I would have been inclined to go with a movie that had something more to say about being Jewish, the modern Jewish condition, Jewish consciousness, etc. Probably “The Producers,” maybe “Annie Hall,” or if I was really feeling wild… “Inglourious Basterds” or “A Serious Man.”

Tablet, on the other hand, likes to go with something less Jewish at the top of its Jewish lists. But even if you accept that approach — they blew it on this one. [[READMORE]]

Here’s how they tried to justify E.T. as the top pick:

Many viewers have detected religious overtones in E.T.—Christian religious overtones. The critic Andrew Nigels likened E.T. to Jesus, citing his third act death-and-rebirth, and few could look at the original E.T. movie poster and miss the allusion to Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” But squint closer and the film’s Jewishness comes into focus. Spielberg himself called E.T. “a minority story.” The saga of the spaceman marooned on planet Earth follows the classic, folkloric outline of the foundling myth. But there is another, archetypally Jewish story here, a minority story, indeed: an immigrant’s tale. E.T. is the ultimate greenhorn—an anxious, bewildered creature, adrift in a strange land. Like generations of newcomers before him, E.T. learns to speak a few halting, oddly accented English words, including the phrase that migrated from Melissa Mathison’s script straight into pop-culture lore. Your great-great-grandparents recited Psalm 137 and sang “Mein Shtetle Belz.” This alien says “E.T. phone home."

You can stop squinting. There’s nothing to see.

Our great-great-grandparents came, they settled, they worked hard and eventually saw their own kids produce little Steven Spielbergs who grew up to help define what it means to be an American. Not just here in New York (I’m just a subway ride from Ellis Island and the Lower East Side). That is the story of the Jewish Diaspora, again and again, across many countries and centuries. Besides, we know what a Spielberg immigrant story looks like (hint: Fievel Mouskowitz). And so do the Tablet folks (after all, they did put “An American Tale” on the list).

E.T. wasn’t an immigrant. He didn’t leave; he got left behind. If this movie were an immigrant’s tale — and a Jewish one at that — then instead of fretting about phoning home, E.T. would have gotten himself a pushcart and started peddling Reese’s Pieces. A few years later he would have opened a candy store, a few years after that turned it into a chain, then invented the easter egg and eventually shepped nachas as his kids and grandkids enrolled in elite colleges and grad schools on the way to becoming white-collar professionals.

But, hey, Tablet folks, I feel your pain. You were putting together a very ambitious list, and you knew Steven Spielberg needed to be at the top because, well, he’s Steven Spielberg — at once the embodiment of the American Jewish experience and modern Hollywood itself. The problem is, this wasn’t a "Greatest Jewish Directors" list, in which you could point to a career’s worth of work. You needed to settle on one movie that says Spielberg and Jewish. The obvious answer answer was "Schindler’s List" — it was his "get in touch with my Jewishness" film and the one that finally won him the Oscar. But as you made clear by ranking it dead last at 100, you didn’t like the movie. And you really didn’t like its Jewish mojo. And "An American Tale" and “Munich” were good enough to make the list, but not good enough to be at the top.

But here’s the thing … is putting a Jesus-themed extra-terrestrial story at the top of your Jewish list that much better than crowning a Jewish awakening film centered on a non-Jewish Nazi buddy saving a bunch of helpless Jews? Again, I get the dilemma. Maybe I would have gone with "Saving Private Ryan" — an American masterpiece that speaks to Jews and non-Jews alike, which after all is the very point about Spielberg. One problem: In an army with hundreds of thousands of Jewish G.I.s, Spielberg had to focus on one (played by Adam Goldberg) who’s a real wuss. "The Color Purple" would have been a provocative choice, but in the end it would have been as big a stretch as "E.T."

But now there’s “Lincoln,” which is your best bet if you’re dedicated to the idea of going with an out-of-the-box Spielberg flick.

With Spielberg’s directing and Tony Kushner’s screenplay, “Lincoln” serves as a founding myth for the America that Jews have been embracing, building and thriving in for the past century. It recounts one part of the story of how President Lincoln used his unbending political will to recast our national narrative to create an American story open to all minorities and immigrants. The real Lincoln did so by downplaying the storylines of states’ rights and racial castes in favor of individual liberties, social mobility and economic opportunity for all. In turn, Spielberg and Kushner have given us a film with Lincoln as talmudist, one who complicates an already vexing military and political situation with his conviction that freeing the slaves for good would require a legalistic path. Their Lincoln sounds like a rabbi in the Sanhedrin as he walks his advisers through the legal limits and contradictions inherent in the Emancipation Proclamation, as he explains why — even after a civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead — a wartime executive order freeing the slaves is not enough and a constitutional remedy is needed. (Hey, what would you expect from the director-screenwriter duo who in “Munich” gave us Mossad assassins wrestling with the morality of their actions as they hunt down Palestinian terrorists.)

As for the rest of Tablet’s list…Let’s not spend much time on number 2 (Billy Wilder’s "Sunset Boulevard") and number 3 (the Marx Brothers’ "A Night At the Opera"). These selections are also best understood as nods to whole careers, not just individual films. So let’s just accept that this was a list of 97 great Jewish movies before turning into a top 3 Jewish movie-makers list. Rounding out the top 5 were "Annie Hall" and "The Jazz Singer," two selections that are easy to endorse based on the merits of the actual films and their historical importance.

We could quibble forever about where various films fell out, so I will raise only three objections on this front:

  • Blazing Saddles (7) vs. The Producers (14): Basically, I think Tablet had it backwards (like I said, “The Producers” probably would have been my top choice). I say that as someone who devoured every Mel Brooks spoof through "Space Balls" (sorry, you lost me at "Men in Tights"). And, yes, "Blazing Saddles" is arguably the best and most Jewish of the parodies, with Brooks deploying Yiddish-speaking Indians to help upend the traditional American Western, not to mention the WASPy white man’s claim on America. But I remember the even stronger sensation of popping "The Producers" into the VCR and realizing that Brooks had it in him to tell his own story as well. Not just any story — but one, as Tablet notes, that made it "OK to laugh at Hitler." At least for Jews, that’s much more important than being able to laugh at rednecks and Klansmen.
  • The Big Lebowski (15) vs. A Serious Man (20): Again, I think they got it backwards, giving the nod to a very funny Jewish gag in a not-so-Jewish film over a brilliant exploration of the Jewish condition.
  • Inglourious Basterds (82): I have nothing much to add to Jody Rosen’s entry. My only question is: 82?! Jeez, they could have slipped this in at 10 and just dropped "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and not one reader would have blinked.

Speaking of “Eternal Sunshine” at number 10… I’m all for an expansive definition of "Jewish Film" — but films with goyim, about goyim pretty much acting like goyim? Well, that’s where I draw the line.

So scratch:

  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (10) — We don’t forget, we don’t shed.
  • Miracle on 34th Street (11) — You can call me Scrooge, call me Shylock, I don’t care. This is about a guy who thinks he’s Santa!!!
  • Ghostbusters (13) — Yes, I know, Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis. But… "I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts." Well, great, but we Jews are.
  • Citizen Kane (19) — To suggest that this is a Jewish film because Charles Foster Kane has mother issues is to confuse absence with dominance.
  • The Lady Vanishes (37) — Why should there be a token Hitchcock slot on a Greatest Jewish Films list?
  • The Natural (45) — Yes, I know, Bernard Malamud. But we need space for some sports movies about Jewish jocks!
  • The Sound of Music (47) — No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If only Jews had a choice to spend the war running through the hills and singing songs. In the same vein, though not offensive, are three other movies primarily about how non-Jews experienced/behaved during the Nazi years: Casablanca (12), Army of Shadows (27),  and The Sorrow and the Pity (32). [ON SECOND THOUGHT: What was I thinking? "The Sorrow and the Pity" stays. But do we really need "Sophie's Choice," a film about a Polish Catholic coping with her emotional scars from Auschwitz?]
  • Animal House (63) — This is a film about WASPs who can’t cut it.
  • The Wizard of Oz (78) — Tablet decided to double down on its choice of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the greatest Jewish song. But even if one accepts this ditty as an ode to the millennia-long Jewish quest for Zion, the message of the movie is the exact opposite — you can find salvation by staying put on the farm in Kansas and feeding the pigs.
  • White Christmas (95) — objections to Miracle on 34th Street + The Wizard of Oz = a song by a Jewish musician is not enough turn a Christmas movie into a Jewish flick.

So that gives us 13 slots to fill. And I’m going to use them for:

  • The Ten Commandments (1956) — Charlton Heston as Moses. An all-time box-office smash.
  • The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) — I know. It’s a shanda fur die goyim. But Mordecai Richler and Richard Dreyfuss. And the best bris movie ever made.
  • The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 (1974) —  In picking “The Squid and The Whale,” Tablet argued: “It captures a slice of bourgeois-bohemian Brooklyn Jewish life. You want to know what it was like to grow up in a book-lined brownstone near Prospect Park in the 1980s? Look no further.” Fair enough. But a lot more Jews in the ‘60s and ‘70s made their way as municipal workers. Who will speak for them? I’ll tell you who — Walter Matthau’s grumpy Jewish transit cop, Zachary Garber. And while we’re on the topic of Walter Matthau, if this list isn’t just for brainy, fancy Jews…
  • The Bad News Bears (1976) — Hey, Coach Morris Buttermaker, we know deep down you’re a mensch. Don’t worry, you’ll get ‘em next year.
  • The Front (1976) — An anti-McCarthyism flick with Woody Allen and Zero Mostel, in which the former delivers what might just be the greatest last line of any movie.
  • The Frisco Kid (1979) — Harrison Ford plays a cowboy who ends up helping a Polish rabbi cross the Old West to get to his new pulpit in San Francisco.
  • The In-Laws (1979) — The Jew becomes the WASP, with Alan Arkin playing a dentist who has to learn to love his daughter’s more ethnic father-in-law (played by Peter Falk). Serpentine Shelly!
  • Radio Days (1986) — Woody Allen lets us into his childhood and the childhood of many of our parents and grandparents.
  • Reversal of Fortune (1990) — A movie about the Dersh! With Ron Silver nailing it! ‘Nuff said.
  • Focus (2001) — What do you get when the politician arguably most in sync with the Jewish political zeitgeist (Michael Bloomberg) decides to bankroll the cinematic production of Arthur Miller’s only novel, the story of a non-Jew (William Macy) who is mistaken for a Jew and becomes the target of anti-Semitism when he starts wearing glasses? A spot on the list! And that’s even before we get to David Paymer as the immigrant Jewish shopkeeper who teaches Macy’s WASP what it means to be an American.
  • Homicide (1991) — David Mamet gives us the story of a cop (Joe Mantegna) whose latent Jewish pride sets him up to be duped by a shadowy Zionist organization.
  • What About Bob (1991) — “Ordinary People” made Tablet’s list for Judd Hirsch playing a shrink who helps a suicidal kid deal with WASP repression. Well, “What About Bob” is the opposite — with Jewish psychoanalysis (Richard Dreyfuss) losing out to goyishe meshugas (Bill Murray).
  • Quiz Show (1994): John Turturro (as Herbie Stempel) and Rob Morrow (as Dick goodwin) gave us a morality play between Shylock and The Court Jew.

That’s about it, but we still need to swap a few out for some more deserving candidates:

  • History of the World Part I (in place of “Young Frankenstein") — Even if you put aside Mel Brooks as Moses and Jews in Space, if understanding the importance of learning to laugh at Hitler puts “The Producers” in the Top 20, how do you ignore "The Inquisition … what a show!"? Talk about an Ashkenazi bias!
  • The Believer (in place of “Every Jeff Goldblum Movie Ever Made”) — This Jeff Goldblum thing was always silly. Be happy that “The Big Chill” didn’t get the boot. And revel in thought of Ryan Glossing getting his start as a Jew-turned-white nationalist. What a punim!
  • Don’t Mess With The Zohan (in place of “The Wedding Singer") — I enjoyed “The Wedding Singer” as much as anyone, but “Zohan” is essentially the comic sequel to “Munich,” and arguably the definitive post-Zionist flick. This is the Adam Sandler flick that deserves a spot on the list.

UPDATE: Ooops, I forgot a few.

Two real Jewish sports flicks:

  • Chariots of Fire (1981): Winner of the Oscar for best picture, this film is built around the Olympic showdown between two sprinters — a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God and an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice. (Sometimes Wikipedia says it best.) Sorry, Goldbllum groupies, on second thought, "The Big Chill" is out.
  • School Ties (1992): I added two more Woody films, so we’ll drop "Sleeper" to make room for Brendan Fraser as a Jewish hunk quarterback trying to pass (bad pun) at WASP boarding school.

Dustin Hoffman oversight:

  • Marathon Man: Dustin Hoffman dueling in Central Park with an evil Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier means either "Tootsie" or "Kramer vs. Kramer" gets the boot. You decide.

X marks the spot:

  • X-Men: First Class: For all the reasons that Tablet was right to put X-Men on the list, this prequel that delves into the origins of the post-Holocaust moral clash between Magneto and Professor X also belongs. The two films can share the spot.
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