In a previous questionnaire I recommended organizing a graduate seminar around the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998). Of course, I could simply rehash the answer I gave there for it is still relevant today. However, this would be far too easy. It would also be far too easy to suggest one alternative film here. It would be even easier to suggest a film that is explicitly Jewish in its plot and/or characters, whether The Jazz Singer (1927) or Schindler's List (1993). Instead, I want to argue for a new approach to Jewish Film Studies—one that makes scholars and students work harder. Rather than pick yet another obviously Jewish film, why not select one in which the Jewishness is not explicit but in which it inheres beneath the surface of the text? Maybe such a film has a Jewish director or screenwriter or creative personnel or identifiably Jewish actors and actresses, which make a Jewish reading possible. Maybe none of these exist but it is still possible to read the film in a Jewish fashion. Let us reach back into Jewish history and use the tools of playfulness, intertextuality, inter-referentiality, and midrash to elicit a Jewish meaning, which may strike us as apparent in the first place. I have been applying such an approach productively to the films of Stanley Kubrick and each of his films, particularly those from Paths of Glory (1957) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999). My particular concern at the moment is his Lolita (1962), which, in its adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, and casting of Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers, tackles such issues as the Holocaust, postwar American anti-Semitism, the Jewish American Mother, and Hollywood's history of stereotyping. Perhaps, then, my answer to the question is: Kubrick's Lolita.
The text I would choose would be Joel and Ethan Coen's film, The Big Lebowksi (1998). While many of the Coens' films—Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and, of course, A Serious Man (2009)—are essential to understanding contemporary Jewish cinema, The Big Lebowski is the epitome of many new Jewish cinematic trends, particularly those in evidence since 1990. Its key Jewish character Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is not only a slightly deranged Vietnam veteran, he is also—atypically—a convert to Judaism. Unusually for a cinematic Jew, Walter is not identified by any decontextualized markers (indeed Walter is not even ethnically Jewish), but by his beliefs, values, and behavior. Thus Judaism rather than Jewish ethnicity defines Walter. Walter is doubly unusual in cinematic terms in that he is a convert and, for a non-haredi Jew, maintains a level of Jewish Orthodox practice. Walter appreciates, understands, and takes his adopted faith very seriously, certainly more so than many other Jews on film, haredi or otherwise. At the same time, I would argue that the Coens use Walter to mock the de-Semitizing and de-Judainizing strategies of the past. One cannot help reading him as nothing less than a deliberate parody of those Jewish directors (particularly the moguls of the studio system) who denuded their films of Jews and Judaism and/or produced crass, sentimentalized caricatures for didactic effect and Gentile consumption. Furthermore, Walter's passionate, even fanatical, adherence to the rules of bowling can be read as a critique of the increasing stringency amongst Orthodox and haredi Jews who, it has been argued, prioritize obedience over spirituality. Walter thus becomes a satiric representation of a particularly dogmatic and buffoonish rabbi. Overall, The Big Lebowski provides a wonderful text for considering contemporary Jewish cinema and how it has metamorphosed over the decades.