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Stereotypical USA:

Why Shylock Dominates Cinema

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Shylock After the Trial by John Gilbert (late 19th century). Image retrieved from Wikipedia.
A Professor And Author Explores How In Feature Films And The Small Screen, Hollywood Reinforces Anti-Semitic Stereotypes Even When It Helps To Devalue The True Message


By Stacy Graber
Special for Modern Times Magazine

July 29, 2015 — Thankfully now accessible only in the super-saver theater, and soon to be consigned to the morgue of Instant Video, is Doug Ellin’s paean to youthful virility, the Entourage movie.

Synopsis: Four rollicking friends muscle and screw their way to prosperity and celebrity, ultimately attaining the dream as screen surrogates for all of us.

That captures all of the essential elements of story such as theme, plot, characterization, symbolism, and denouement.

Therefore, since at this point it seems redundant to reiterate the film’s many failures, perhaps it would be useful to pose a fresh question: Why do many of the roles Jeremy Piven accepts seem to reprise the figure of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice (e.g., Entourage, Cars, Keeping Up with the Steins)?

Recall that, in the character of Shylock, Shakespeare concretized for all time virulent stereotypes such as the rapacious Jew and the ethnic Other that stalk the racist imagination. Briefly, the play tracks the disastrous consequences of a business deal between a merchant named Antonio and a money-lender named Shylock. And, ultimately, when payment for a bond comes due, despite being offered two times the amount owed by Antonio, Shylock demands one pound of flesh, as agreed in the terms of the bargain.

What we don’t see in the play is the source of Shylock’s anger: The physical and spiritual humiliation he suffers as a Jew, condemned for practicing one of the only professions left to Jewish people at the time. What we do see in the play is a degenerate clown/psycho who gets a brutal ass-kicking (and maybe a two minute glimpse of his humanity delivered through a catalogue of searching rhetorical questions).

Piven indirectly reanimates, through reprising the role of the vulgar and avaricious agent, the Shakespearean buffoon/villain for new audiences of strikingly varied ages.

Consider the character Ari Gold from Entourage. What payment does he get for brokering years of deals for the talentless Chase boys? A barrage of “F-you, Ari,” delivered relentlessly by cast and walk-ons—including Liam Neeson, no less, in a bizarre Oskar Schindler-gag. Ari rants, winds up a joke in counseling, and stuck on meds that mess with his mojo in contrast to the hyper-sexed Entourage-bros. In all ways he’s emasculated by the text, principally because he deals in the sordid world of money, whereas actors and directors exist in the ethereal world of art.

Now consider the character “Harv,” Lightning McQueen’s soul-less agent (voiced by Piven) from Pixar’s 2006 animated feature Cars. Here we have the same character retooled for a different demographic, being an artifact of children’s culture.

Cars is a bildungsroman in which narrative action is spurred by the protagonist’s ethical growth from a shallow, bling-worshipping narcissist to an altruistic, civic idealist. But the Faustian roadblock preventing enlightenment is his agent Harv whose phone calls beckon to McQueen from an egocentric, superficial, cash-obsessed and, regrettably, “Jewish” perspective, as evidenced by his speech peppered with Yiddish.

The film establishes Harv as a vulture, parasite, and capitalist siren who seductively lures McQueen away from his better self. To resist Harv, then, within the ethical context of the film, is to save small-town America and recuperate the idealized vision of the American West, characterized by the nostalgic town of Radiator Springs. Radiator Springs—“A Happy Place”—is a friendly, retro-civic center where people truly care about one another. There are no chain stores, only craftsmen and artisans. In fact, Radiator Springs resembles a rustic fair from the Quattrocento more than a town for the new millennium. The suggestion is that sharks like Harv are ruining it for those who would otherwise choose a laid-back, Jeffersonian, Sedona-based artist colony over a frenetic, urban, monied landscape.

Until McQueen’s relationship with venal commerce is dissolved—and that means breaking with Harv who brokered the fat, Dynaco sponsorship—he cannot actualize and become the mythic, American hero of the Wild West. Therefore, by the end of the film, Harv is properly reduced to a petty, transparent crook, understood as a symbol of moral and spiritual bankruptcy.

In a way, these characters, Ari Gold and Harv, close the chapter on Shylock as Shakespeare and history have typically done. The stereotypic Jew is critiqued for inhabiting the economic world consigned to him and he is exiled.

The character of Shylock uncomfortably haunts popular culture and resurfaces in times of economic tension as the perennial scapegoat. When and where he appears ought to be the subject of critical inquiry because further misunderstanding of this figure places the Jewish culture at a mournful remove.

Stacy Graber is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include popular culture, pedagogy, critical theory, and semiotics.
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