The first time I entered Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery on Houston Street, I was greeted, across from the signs selling cherry-flavored cream cheese knishes and egg creams, by the poster for Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street (1975). I’d just moved from Los Angeles to New York City, unsure of where to go or what to do for paid work, and was spending a lot of hours milling about the Lower East Side, browsing bookshops. On the walls of Yonah Schimmel’s I would pore over the strips of yellowed newspaper clippings, which told stories of the local Yiddish theater players who’d come there in the ’20s to unwind over a knish after a night of performances, and who would stay talking into the next morning. When I finally sat down with a black-and-white egg cream, I made sure to face that Hester Street poster. I was enticed by the bare story it told. Inside an egg-shaped portrait like you’d find in a grandparent’s locket, Steven Keats smirks at the camera, an assimilated Jew, fist-on-hip next to fancy pocket-watch, as cocksure as the Tammany Hall boss he wants to be—and won’t be. Carol Kane, playing his yet-unassimilated wife, looks away from the photographer and casts an amused side eye at her émigré partner. Above them, the film’s tagline: “Goodbye O Lord, I’m going to America!”
The poster stuck in my brain. Though I hadn’t seen much of Silver’s work at that point, it turned out to be a precise encapsulation of what makes her movies do the same. Beneath the hokey trappings of genre and formula and banality (the tacky font of the tagline is more apt for an elementary-school wall flanked by crude drawings of Columbus’s boats), an unseen drama unfolds between two greenhorns in love. The fantasy: Keats, puffed up in the manner of baby-face emigrants, rejects his past with pride. The reality: Kane, with a touch of irony, privately and warmly cuts her husband’s US mishegoss down to size. The Silver lens, which ribs reality with a nose laugh, is there to track all the barely felt rumblings of domestic struggle.
From the interviews she’s done, and from the obituaries that have come out in the wake of her death on the last day of 2020, you can glean the facts of Silver’s life. You’ll learn that she freelanced for pennies at the Village Voice. You’ll learn her husband Ray Silver worked as a real-estate agent to form the joint production company that funded Joan’s first film. I’m more fascinated to learn that she was terribly shaken by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), his first film set in a US milieu, when she saw it at age 8 in her hometown of Omaha. It seems that the plight of Teresa Wright’s Charlie, at the mercy of her serial-killer uncle (Joseph Cotton), stuck in the young Silver’s brain. “Evil exists for her,” Silver explains in a 2005 interview with the Directors Guild of America. “Not out there, but within the bosom of the family, and that was a very potent theme for me.” That’s not to say that any of Silver’s subsequent characters can be tagged as evil. Even smug-jawed John Heard in Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979)—an unsparing study of male narcissism that cuts deeper than your average Manhattan marriage story—is, at film’s end, more pitiable than anything else; to hate him is wasteful, exhausting. Rather, a person’s capability to be brutal in a Silver film is often cloaked in gooey intent, in the name of some nobler imagined future, and, above all, in proximity. The terror is in how close someone like Jeroen Krabbé’s navel-gazing author in Crossing Delancey (1988), playing up all the hamminess of the Upper West family, gets to a trusting beloved like Amy Irving. He rehashes Orientalist bits and pieces from Confucius (“poetry is stripped to the flesh, not the bone”) in the hopes of wooing her over. And, for a few hours, it works.
1975’s Hester Street was Silver’s feature film debut, an almost-sentimental tale of 1890s Lower East Side Jews buying into melting-pot-ism. With it, she introduced most of the themes she would pursue throughout her career: intimate and human-scaled humor, an untaxed ease in the way psychic and camera space is mapped out, an unflagging loyalty to the formation of Jewish girls in the USA. “I’ve always felt there’s two kinds of immigrants,” Silver said in 2005. “One, they’re a bit ashamed of [when they first arrived to the US], and the experience was traumatic, and they want to put it behind them. Well, my family wasn’t like that. My family was the other kind, who enjoyed talking about it, and remembering, and reveling.”
Hester Street contains no muckraking impulse to uncover the “truth” of How the Other Half Lives. She rejected any sort of outsider gaze in favor of an awareness to the cadences of Yiddish, the shimmering falling leaves as an immigrant son and his father learn how to play baseball in a sun-kissed park, the loving camera effect gotten out of Keats’s blindingly over-exposed white shirt. It’s a perceptiveness that doesn’t advertise how perceptive it is. Much of Hester Street is consumed with the ordinary problem of how Carol Kane should style her wild hair, what raiment she should cross Delancey Street in, which hat to wear. Nearly a century after the events of Hester Street, in Crossing Delancey (my favorite Silver film, a rom-com set in contemporary 1988 New York), Amy Irving is obsessed by the same problem: whether to wear a Diane Keaton-ish bowler hat that was gifted to her by the owner of a pickle shop (Peter Riegert). The past constantly revives in Silver; newer generations never forget where they came from; time ebbs and flows in and out of style.
After her stint in freelance journalism, Silver realized that she wanted to write and direct her own films. So she got in touch with Bill Deneen of the Learning Corporation of America and signed a contract to make three short films. She developed her eye and knack for detail out of the arid landscape of government-funded educational shorts intended only to be screened on US classroom TVs. Silver stole all the good elements of television—its nearness to the face by proxy of the small screen—and left behind the bad: i.e., the inattentiveness to negative space, the autopilot visuals, the too-clear editing scheme that cuts to a reverse shot at the end of someone’s sentence. Who can forget, once noticed, the loving pan across the porn theater marquees in both Between the Lines (1977; an independent film) and Finnegan Begin Again (1985; an HBO TV movie)? It’s a beautiful object that, along with the mirrors and stages in the strip club of Between the Lines, Silver observed with the unpretentiousness of a sneak journalist who maintains a one-to-one rapport with her niche, ignored, blandly covered subjects. Silver sought out precise details of the daily: the white guy star reporter with his un-framed and coffee-stained mattress on the floor, whose office is filled out with framed covers of Marvel comics and stacks of empty Miller High Lifes. On the off chance that we find our attentions drifting away from Doris Roberts’s battle-axing or the dreamboat stares of Peter Riegert, there are always things in a Silver background to replenish our interest in her world: the Old and New World knickknacks, baby portraits or Irish jeff caps, that clutter the tenement walls in Hester Street. This devotion to background becomes lyrical in Crossing Delancey, where the senses are overwhelmed by the casual intensity of New York shared by Upper West and Lower East Side Jews in love: Yiddish storefront signs hawking wine “you can almost cut with a knife,” subway entrances and the racquetball courts adorning the corner, the Chinese bodegas across the street, the just-right book titles on display in bookstores and apartment shelves, indoor jogging tracks at the Y, pickle delivery men, Jamaican taxi drivers in training, and a homeless street singer who wanders into an 86th Street hot-dog-and-papaya-juice-stand and—on a brief, enchanted evening—becomes the center of the universe.
If, as Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson wrote, the Godfather movies are uppercase filmmaking, the movie synonym for those Gothic friezes that one submissively admires before walking into the garish church that they adorn, then Hester Street is proudly lowercase. You can tell that cement trucks of millions went into making the Godfather II scenes of Little Italy as painfully correct as possible. Meanwhile, the $350,000 it took to fund Hester Street limits much street activity, with most of the visible budget spent on the right makeup on a face, the right costumes. Still, if the landscape is shrunken, the players are denser, more garrulous, more expansive. Part of what makes it pure Silver is the integration of process—of slow-moving actions—into a low-stakes narrative. She adores each step that the superstitious Kane mother takes to prepare her son Joey for school: the ginger placement of cap on head, the sneaking off to steal a box of kosher salt behind Dad’s back, the sifting of the grains, the slipping a pinchful of them quietly into each of the son’s coat pockets, the calm explanation: “The salt will keep the evil eye away,” and the spit past his shoulder (just to be extra safe). Or consider the deliberate manner in which Kane picks up a match, strikes it, turns on a gas lamp, and finally puts a shade over it to filter the light evenly through the room—all flowing in a kind of weirdly slowed-down time that doesn’t resort to horrendously literal slow-motion. Silver gave her own twist to an old-hat scene that’s been rehashed from Gone with the Wind and Gaslight to Pirates of the Caribbean: the girl (Kane) sucks in her gut as an older female mentor (Doris Roberts) pulls tight on the girdle lace, giving her the hourglass figure that is desired in the mangled immigrant pursuit of WASPyness. The twist is in Roberts’s low-key explanation: “If you wanna be American, you gotta hurt.” It’s an unforgettable line that cuts against the film’s tired view of the joys of assimilating, and that powers the Silver soundscape like the Roches bopping and humming throughout Delancey.
What’s remarkable about Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter is how much of a hesitant romantic comedy it is. It maintains the perfect distance from which to observe the toxic relationship between John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt. The studio, United Artists, couldn’t figure out what Silver’s film was about and tried to market it as a happy-go-lucky rom-com. They released it with a stupid happy ending and clumsily changed the title to Head Over Heels, softening much of its original bite. Three years later, in 1982, the producers—Griffin Dunne, Amy Robinson, and Mark Metcalf—re-released it with the original title of the Ann Beattie novel. It became a hit—but what a strange, brutally honest film to land with an audience the second time around. At the start, you can’t tell things are in shambles with “good guy” Charles (Heard), who stalks and possessively lingers over the “elusive” Laura (Hurt). The warning signs are never made obvious. Silver has the subtly nauseating Charles narrate the film as remembrance, so we can only see the events from his perspective. A dazzling array of distraction techniques—voice-over, direct John Heard addresses to the camera, and a faux-cliché happy TV score—jar us from the fact that the central hero is a bouquet of red flags. His way of expressing his love for Laura is telling her, “I’m going to rape you.” By the end, the film becomes something like a self-aware Paul Schrader film in which the taxi driver or American gigolo implodes himself and destroys his only chance at happiness in the world, no hint of redemption. (Funny enough, Schrader later fell in love with Mary Beth Hurt, and vice versa. Their fortieth wedding anniversary is next year.)
Skip ahead to Silver’s 2002 Showtime TV movie Charms for the Easy Life. In cable TV, she got so many tight, snug, career-best performances out of big screen titans: Adrienne Shelley, Robert Preston, Sylvia Sidney—and triply so for Gena Rowlands as the misandrist unlicensed doctor of a saccharine Southern town who shit-talks everything in sight, from good ole boys to Gone with the Wind stans. “You’re gonna walk outta this picture stupider’n when you walked in . . .” she says to her annoyed daughter (Mimi Rogers) and her gleefully impressed granddaughter (Susan May Pratt). She’s the only woman in town with the guts to call out a beloved pop object for what it is: a boring piece of junk. Near the end of Charms, Silver zoomed in to Rowlands bidding her newly married daughter goodbye. It’s a classic TV shot that plays up the sap in an obvious way, but it’s the length of time in which Silver lingered on Rowlands’s reaction, letting her melancholy and sudden isolation settle in real-ish time, that made the scene. It predicted the unflinching way Greta Gerwig films another maternal farewell: Laurie Metcalf wheeling around the airport in Lady Bird (2017), the whimper that escapes Metcalf as she hopes she’s not too late to say a proper goodbye to the college-bound Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan).
Silver’s knack for movie rhythm always interrupted the programmatic TV editing scheme that she had to work around. Shonni Enelow writes in her great 2017 piece on Silver that “it’s time to reconsider the way we talk about the film history of this era, still too dominated by clichés about ‘New American Cinema’ and its masculinist narratives of alienation and rebellion. Doing so might require us to think differently about what counts as aesthetic experimentation, and to look for it in less obvious places (like an educational short).”1 A limited definition of what constitutes aesthetic experimentation would see Silver’s early collaboration with Barbara Loden, The Frontier Experience (1975), as a simplistic afterschool special made to placate middle-schoolers as they return from recess. Take it for what it is: a Late Rossellini-ish oddity of the Kansas plains, unsettling and trance-like, a soft intro to the omnipresent American impulse for domination that gets a full-length expansion in both Chilly Scenes of Winter and Loden’s Wanda (1970). So many good filmmakers, then and now, have to go into TV to say anything with their singular voices or to receive funding—and this, they recognize, is a non-choice. Silver understood this and ran with the opportunities given to her by HBO and Showtime (case-in-point: her gorgeous 1985 rom-com Finnegan Begin Again, shot by Robby Müller, which I hope to God someone has a 35mm print of). She certainly wasn’t going to work to placate the male execs of film studios who told her point-blank to her face: “Women directors are one more problem we don’t need.” That was and, to a large degree, is still the state of things in this country’s underfunded film industry, where Kelly Reichardt has to shoot seasons of America’s Next Top Model to finance her movies while a pair of mediocre brothers-for-hire have the audacity to gussy up their superhero commodity by claiming it’s like Altman’s Nashville or whatever (they forget Joan Tewkesbury). As these soulless, overpriced products of coin and clang fill up space in increasingly empty cineplexes, free-thinking artists of Silver’s generation like Loden, Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Bill Gunn, Lee Grant, and so on (those whose fingers are on the pulse on life) had and have to deal with the whims of a private TV industry and the hundreds of impositions placed on them: the deadlines, the set lengths of time, the space for commercial breaks, the nothing imaginations of the statues in charge, the quiet acceptance of streamlined garbage. These days, if it’s not lame Hallmark Christmas romances that are the problem, it’s Netflix degrading the regal lineage of the mature romantic comedy for the nth straight year in a row.
As media institutions crumble around them and crypto-fascists muscle their way into their lives and tell them the future is bright and sunny, the crew of Boston irascibles in Between the Lines have to keep moving in spite of the dross. This nostalgic comedy about the final glory days of an alt-weekly newspaper—M*A*S*H by way of The Last Days of Disco—is bookended by the appearance of a corporate shark, outsourced from the West, who intends to buy out and rebrand the “failing” Back Bay Mainline. Watching this too-topical ensemble piece in the year of Covid-19, I pause the movie to check my Twitter and see that the Los Angeles Times has just run an interview with Brian Calle, the guy who’s spearheading the “return” of the Village Voice this year. He’s the same guy who bought the LA Weekly and turned it into a zombified version of itself, loaded with unpaid writers, and reduced to writing half-assed puff pieces about what to binge on Disney Plus. In an unconscious rehash of the ending of Between the Lines, the Weekly’s editorial staff were either fired the first day by Calle or quit in protest. In this new interview, when asked about his favorite place in New York City, Calle responds, “One of my favorite restaurants is called La Esquina, which in Spanish means the—you know, I speak Spanish—it means the corner.” He goes on to play it up as a “hole-in-the-wall” “literally on a corner,” which even has—get this—a “downstairs speakeasy situation.” Maybe if Joan were still around, she’d make comedy out of this pathetic new episode: Vichy Village Voice. But it would be hard to cast a movie Calle: he’s even more basic and uncouth than any trust-fund brat Silver could have imagined.
Joan Micklin Silver’s work will outlive her now-dying nation. Masterpieces like Crossing Delancey, Finnegan Begin Again, and Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976) will surely have more to say to people in the future than anything the Brian Calles of the world deem newsworthy. The major streamers may not care about Joan Micklin Silver enough to put her work on demand, but her loved-in, lived-in cinema will be remembered long after we’ve stopped caring about the difference between HBO Go, HBO Max, and HBO Now.