Movies and Monotheism


In 1932, an obscure Russian-born Jewish intellectual named Leon Zolotkoff wrote a novel called From Vilna to Hollywood. The protagonist is a talmudic prodigy named Hershele who abandons the dusty roads of Eastern Europe for the sunny coast of California and in the process becomes Harry Corbell, world-renowned director and owner of the upstart Corbell studio. Corbell/Hershele reaches a pinnacle of success unimaginable to his kinsfolk back home, but in the end he meets an inglorious demise, confirming the ethos of those less fortunate immigrant Jews for whom the American dream remained a groundless proposition. Zolotkoff's novel is deservedly obscure, but in retrospect it can be said to have established the outlines of a new story type: the "Jewish Hollywood novel." Among the sequels to Zolotkoff, we find Nathanael West's Day of the Locust (1939); Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run(1941); Norman Mailer's Deer Park (1955); a number of Daniel Fuchs' short stories, including "A Hollywood Diary" (1979); and Leslie Epstein's San Remo Drive (2003). The Coen brothers added a cinematic version, Barton Fink (1991), drawing on the experiences of the radical playwright Clifford Odets and adding a noir stylistic touch and a grisly apocalyptic denouement.

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