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Joan Micklin Silver’s patient films challenged a bombastic Hollywood system

Starting September 24, UW Cinematheque honors the director, who was fascinated by cultural shifts in American society, with a four-film retrospective across four Fridays.

Header Collage (L to R): “Between The Lines” (1977) features the writers of “Back Bay Mainline” paper (John Korkes, Jeff Goldblum, Susan Haskins) discussing editorial decisions. In “Crossing Delancey” (1988), Izzy (Amy Irving) walks away from Sam (Peter Riegert) wearing the new brown, broad-brimmed hat he gave her as a gift.

Joan Micklin Silver’s death last year marked a tragic end to a life spent working within and yet against a hostile film industry. Her career spanned roughly 30 years between the early 1970s and early 2000s, during which she released a handful of theatrical features and almost a dozen made-for-TV projects. While this is a regrettable ratio, it’s also usually a surefire sign of a figure (à la William Greaves) whose eccentric talents don’t lend themselves to studio profitability.

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But Silver is a more curious case. Her films operate in a narrow range of genre and writing style, usually the kind of not-quite-comedy, not-quite-drama filmmaking that would persist later in the films of Nicole Holofcener (see: 2006’s Friends With Money). Even Silver’s 1975 debut Hester Street (which earned an Oscar nomination for leading actress Carol Kane) approaches the sad realities of hypermasculinity and first-generation culture shock with a gentle touch. Additionally, her theatrical releases in the ’70s and ’80s were all box-office successes relative to their budgets.

So, what happened? It seems that studio risk-aversion and old-fashioned sexism are mostly to blame for Silver’s career gradually flaming out. She regularly directed TV features and increasingly lowbrow comedies until her last project, Hunger Point, in 2003. This is a shame, as her earlier films are the type whose patience and humanity is sorely lacking in retrospective appreciations of the New Hollywood period. Thank goodness, then, for this fall’s UW Cinematheque’s honorary retrospective of three of her features at 4070 Vilas Hall—Hester Street (1975), Between The Lines (1977), and Crossing Delancey (1988)—plus her husband Raphael Silver’s 1978 feature On The Yard.

Joan Micklin Silver’s films are fascinated by cultural shifts in American society. Their adult protagonists often have a second coming-of-age as the world they know disappears before them. Her films’ depictions of secular Jewish life approach this most directly, reflecting her own experiences as a daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. But her interest in displacement applies to her explorations of labor fields like manufacturing and journalism as well.

The heroines of Hester Street and Crossing Delancey are adrift somewhere between traditionalism and modernity. Their ultimate choices align more with the former than the latter. That’s not necessarily because Silver is making a traditionalist point, but because she rejects the idea that the two are mutually exclusive. Through her films, Silver wants to reinforce that cultural identity exists not as a “here” or “there,” but rather on a broad spectrum whose nuance, especially in the metropolitan cities of her films, is a quintessential part of modernity itself.

Silver’s most popular film, Crossing Delancey, screening on Friday, October 15, does much to complicate this binary by introducing three separate love interests for protagonist Izzy (Amy Irving). It is a bit too convenient for the plot that two of her three love interests are cheating on their respective spouses; nonetheless, the increased field of options makes it so that even the clear best option, the devout and working-class Sam (Peter Riegert), isn’t necessarily the perfect fit for her personally. Sam doesn’t easily fit in with the literary community fostered by Izzy’s job at a bookstore, and he seems to get along better with her grandmother and their shadchan (matchmaker) than even her. When Izzy ultimately does begin a relationship with Sam, Izzy’s choice feels grounded in an understanding that her Jewish community’s sense of values is less a religious particular than a habit of any good person.

Hester Street, the series’ third selection on October 8, takes an even more hard-lined look at the transition of Jewish orthodoxy between Eastern Europe and the United States, but still finds its protagonist Gitl (Carol Kane) discovering new agency by embracing traditionalism. By leaving her abusive and vain “Americanized” husband Jake, she is able to strike up a more personally and spiritually satisfying relationship with Jake’s boarder, a devoted scholar of the Torah named Bernstein (Mel Howard). After Gitl begins seeing Bernstein, she even starts wearing her hair uncovered. Silver knows that morals are independent of religious observance. The protagonists’ ultimate partners in both Crossing Delancey and Hester Street are genuine and morally upstanding, which is more important to the story than their specific heritage. 

In Between The Lines, screening on September 24, Silver shifts her eye for cultural dissonance to a Boston alternative newspaper, Back Bay Mainline, in the 1970s. The traditions in Between The Lines are those of a bohemian idealism held over from the 1960s, and its characters struggle to reconcile their values with the changing publishing industry.

By widening her lens from religious practice to a more nebulous cultural movement, Silver clearly outlines how the enjoyment of a lifestyle’s customs is separate from practicing its philosophy. She illustrates this divide through the relationship between a beatnik music writer named Max (Jeff Goldblum) and a fading star of a political reporter named Harry (John Heard). Max seems to have little in the way of coherent ideas about art, but more than makes up for it with charm. Realizing he won’t receive a raised salary for the little effort he puts into the paper, he makes one attempt at teaching a community college course about poetry and popular music, which quickly devolves into a free-associative and nonsensical mashup of Beatles quotes and come-ons to the students.

At Back Bay Mainline paper, Max is the most typical of the writers, who all decry the corporate-driven decline of ad-driven print media and the upcoming corporate takeover of their paper, while also not pitching anything of value. Harry, ostensibly the most substantial and intellectual of the crew, clings to his past accomplishments and struggles to move ahead with his work. While Harry is vocal about the need to stand up to their new owners’ plan to gut the paper, neither he nor his colleagues feel equipped to keep a once-proud beacon of counterculture journalism relevant in a changing world.

Between The Lines‘ final scene shows Harry leaving a bar to begin work on a book while Max hangs behind to use his local fame to get a free beer. Even if the tenets of this secular way of life are ultimately just charm and charisma, Silver still expresses a cautious optimism about the persistence of belief against changing tides. Regardless of its more objective value in the world at large, Silver’s films show that idealism and ideological commitment can always adapt to new challenges. In a more perfect world, that optimism would have yielded more dividends for her own career. Instead, her films now function as a sad and ironic sort of epigraph to a career spent challenging a bombastic system with subtlety.

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