Joan Micklin Silver Essay - Critical Essays

Silver, Joan Micklin


Joan Micklin Silver 1935–

American director and screenwriter.

Silver is one of the very few women whose films are independently produced. Her works are personal period pieces in which she attempts to recreate the feel of the times. Wit and the touching portrayal of human relationships add to the realism of her films.

Silver's first work, The Immigrant Experience: The Long, Long Journey, is a short film dealing with the arrival of Polish immigrants in America near the turn of the century. Silver expands this theme in Hester Street, her first feature film. In this work, a Russian Jewish family comes to America, much as in The Immigrant Experience, but Silver broadens her characters, and the themes associated with immigration provide a touching narrative.

Silver's next film, Between the Lines, deals with underground newspaper reporters who learn to face the loss of their idealism. Set in the 1960s, the film attempts to be both poignant and humorous—a remembrance of lost radicalism. Silver's most recent film, Head over Heels, is an adaptation of Ann Beattie's novel Chilly Scenes of Winter. Like Between the Lines, it treats the sixties and the need for individualism in the face of increasing pressures to conform.

In all of Silver's films, true humanity is the most prevalent theme; human interaction and the need to cope with problems exemplify this humanity.

Julie Semkow

For all of us who are second- or third-generation children of immigrants, the narration from the beginning of [the exceptionally beautiful The Immigrant Experience] strikes deeply in our hearts. Indeed, most of the sequences from this true story are direct visual enactments of tales we've all heard, of the long, long journey our grandparents made.

Filmed on location in Greenwich Village and Ellis Island, the drama follows the arrival of 12-year-old Janek from Poland. (p. 45)

The Immigrant Experience has been sensitively and beautifully filmed. The actors are attractive and in many instances actually are Polish or of Polish origin. The young man who plays the youthful Janek is particularly engaging, as is the teacher whose role demands that she be severe and, paradoxically, tender. It is a film for all age groups and audiences, to afford understanding of the elements which influenced the development of diversity in the national character, and to re-create the conditions and emotions shared by immigrants of many origins, the heritage of most Americans. (p. 46)

Julie Semkow, "The Immigrant Experience: The Long, Long Journey'," in Film Library Quarterly (© copyright, Film Library Information Council, 1973), Vol. 6, No. 4, Fall, 1973, pp. 44-6.

Stanley Kauffmann

Joan Micklin Silver made [Hester Street] with a script she adapted from a story by Abraham Cahan. It is utterly sincere and utterly abysmal. It's shot in poorly lighted black and white, the sound track is so flat it sounds as if it had been steamrollered, the camera use and editing would do little credit to a second-year film student, and the cast … is notable only for its memory of acting clichés….

Hester Street looks like one of those Films from Great Literature made for educational film catalogues, and is not even a very good example of that questionable genre.

Considerable advance fuss has been made about Silver because she has bucked the System to make and to release her film. That's important, truly worth celebration. But to let the congratulations spill over on to the film that resulted from her independence would be ludicrous. (p. 21)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Women at Work" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1975 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 173, No. 16, October 18, 1975, pp. 20-1.∗

Jill Forbes

The great American melting pot shows a low profile in Hester Street. The time-honoured themes—progress, assimilation, education—are deployed with taste, discretion and, above all, humour. This is Joan Micklin Silver's first film, made in black-and-white, with a self-effacing camera, not a zoom, hardly a close-up. It is a quasi-documentary style which allows her actors to slip with ease from English to subtitled Yiddish and exploit the comic vein with a minimum of fuss in such devastating aphorisms as Mrs. Kavarsky's "You can't piss up my back and make me think it's rain". The ironic symmetries of the fable and the comedy of the situations make the film thoroughly entertaining and belie any ethnographic intent. Yet Hester Street is a document in another sense. The portrait of an emerging community is shown as much through objects as through characters…. [Because] Hester Street is filmed without foreground or background, without height or depth, it succeeds both as infectious comedy and as a sensitive account of immigrant aspirations. Holding firmly to the middle ground, it entirely avoids parody or fetishism: American myths are rarely enacted so subtly or so sympathetically. (p. 262)

Jill Forbes, "'Hester Street'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1975), Vol. 42, No. 503, December, 1975, pp. 261-62.

Geoff Brown

[Hester Street] takes the bull by the horns, dealing solely … with life on New York's Lower East Side in 1896.

Its proportions and virtues are modest: it offers no labyrinthine saga of rags to riches to rags, no outsize characters flaunting their ethnic identity like a flag, no lashings of local colour. The narrative is dangerously slender, propelling a handful of ordinary characters along a well signposted road…. The plot … serves as a compact primer in the Americanisation of the immigrant Jew, stressing the impossibility of maintaining sacred habits and taboos in 'educated' New York.

The movie … has the qualities of a primer—stressing the same points repeatedly, presenting scenes crisply with few directorial distractions. Certainly, its perspective is limited…. Yet Hester Street covers its chosen ground with great skill and sensitivity.

Geoff Brown, "'Hester Street'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1976 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1975–76, p. 58.

Laurence Green

[The astonishing Hester Street] by independent film maker Joan Micklin Silver is a deeply personal work, based on her own family's ethnic experiences as first generation settlers in New York. But the film derives its real strength from its deliberate understatement—nothing is forced or artificial—and the feeling of total involvement with characters and situations.

Pathos and humour are carefully balanced….

Officialdom is gently ridiculed while at the same time showing the impracticality of formal procedure when dealing with individuals….

The period atmosphere is so scrupulously accurate—from the bearded machinists wearing skull caps, sitting sewing at small tables in the garment factory, to the bustling market atmosphere of this tightly packed ghetto street flanked by tenements and lined with stalls, where the range of activity taking place varies from selling second-hand clothing to plucking chickens—that it has the effect of an animated family album.

The authenticity is further heightened by the use of black-and-white photography and by having half the dialogue spoken in Yiddish and sub-titled in English so that the film captures the true flavour of well researched documentary. (p. 34)

In short, then, this is a simple, glowing, beautifully observed film, totally devoid of sentimentality which must rank as a minor classic. (p. 35)

Laurence Green, "'Hester Street'" (© copyright Laurence Green 1976; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 22, No. 4, January, 1976, pp. 34-5.

Sonya Michel

Hester Street is the film adaptation of Yekl, A Tale of the Ghetto, a story Abraham Cahan wrote in 1896 about Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. While remaining generally faithful to Cahan's original story, the film director, Joan Macklin Silver, adds dimension to it. She brings the period (the 1890's, when Jewish immigration was at its height) alive in colorful, richly detailed settings, and establishes a complex social context for the story, taking up where Cahan left off. (p. 142)

In general, Silver's casting seems to be something of a capitulation to American tastes. In the original story, the immigrants really do look different from the rest of the population. But Silver's Mrs....

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John Simon

[Between the Lines] is meant to be a tale of deradicalization, of how a group of bright, undisciplined but idealistic kids who during the sixties put out a paper with some genuine bite to it … decline into slackness, indifference, jadedness, selling out. To make any sense, the action should be situated some eight years back, which is where, as I understand, the original scenario placed it. Updated to 1977, the movie taunts us with an unfillable lacuna: What kept these kids going till this day? Why is dissolution setting in now? Why haven't they already gotten over and beyond their disenchantment?

The film records, with however questionable accuracy, a particular moment of time, and misplaces...

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Clark Whelton

Although Between the Lines is loaded down with silly dialogue, a poorly developed plot line, and fatuous characters who deserve everything negative that happens to them, the film some-how ends up as a convincing demonstration of why "underground" publications can't—or won't—defend themselves against overground money. Silver shows amateur journalists in a state of mutually destructive hostility. The moral is clear: People who are too disorganized to handle personal problems and hangups haven't got a prayer against a highly organized invader armed with dollars….

Between the Lines never really deals with the complex relations between management and labor in the world of underground...

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Andrew Sarris

Between the Lines is more interesting for what it is than for what it is about, which is to say that it is a pleasant showcase for half a dozen talented performers rather than an overwhelming overview of the underground press or a compelling study of '70s disenchantment in '60s radicals.

In his interestingly reminiscent piece [see excerpt above], my esteemed colleague Clark Whelton indicated that he found the characters odious, but the point of the picture convincing. My reaction is exactly the opposite. I like most of the major characters, but they never seem to get anywhere. Perhaps, that is the point of the picture….

At the very least, Between the Lines...

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Elizabeth Stone

Invariably, in Silver's films, there's a scene in which a woman eyes herself in a mirror as she tries on a new image that she hopes (or fears) will become her identity. "The relationship between a person's past and present," says Silver, "is an ongoing concern, though it's not so much that I even knew that until I looked at my films with hindsight."

Though Silver is a serious filmmaker, she is not somber. The theme of change, lightheartedly treated,… runs through "Bernice Bobs Her Hair"—which Silver adapted (from the F. Scott Fitzgerald story) and directed for the PBS series "The American Short Story." Bernice … finds that her small-town values and her tendency to cite the older generation as...

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Nicolaus Mills

Joan Micklin Silver's Between the Lines is far more than a 1970s gang-spirit picture. A worthy successor to her Hester Street, it is the best film we have had so far on what happened to the college radicals of the 1960s….

What makes Between the Lines so telling and unexpected is [a] kind of neat generational contrast [that] is precisely what Silver and screenwriter Fred Barron … allow for and then destroy by carefully avoiding a morality play in which the tough business world administers a dose of reality to the radical young. The real focus of Between the Lines rests not with the struggle between '70s money men and '60s print men but with the internal dissolution of a...

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John A. Gutowski

[The Immigrant Experience: The Long, Long Journey] has two goals. The first is to dramatize a slice of American immigration history as reflected in the experiences of a Polish peasant family upon their 1907 arrival to the New World. The second is to provoke discussion of success and self-fulfillment in relation to the American Dream. Though cut ethnographically thin, the film achieves its first goal in evocative dramatic scenes that powerfully convey the ordeal of assimilation throughout most of the footage. To accommodate the second goal the film requires two awkward devices: a narrational voice-over and a final contemporary scene, both of which express the American Dream but weaken the dramatic impact of the...

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David Denby

The romance at the center of Joan Micklin Silver's Head Over Heels is … rather murky, and that's a disaster for this very small movie, which gives little evidence of wanting to do anything more than tell us some intimate truths about its leading characters….

Joan Micklin Silver, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, has been faithful to the bleak mood of Ann Beattie's novel [Chilly Scenes of Winter], a book nearly punitive in its insistence that life is joyless, harsh, mediocre. The young people in this movie—the generation of the seventies—have been stripped of cultural identity, anger, rebellious instincts. These enervated children of the middle class lack the energy...

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Robert Asahina

[Head Over Heels] has a great deal of charm and truth in its characterizations.

This is especially surprising because the novel is so excruciatingly dull and lifeless. (p. 23)

[Joan Micklin Silver] has given form to the very raw material of [Ann Beattie's] novel and pruned the weedy expanses of meaningless dialogue….

Silver's direction is not as successful as her writing. She has studded the movie with annoying tics that she seems to have picked up from Woody Allen. Chief among these is her having Heard address the camera, a device that quickly becomes as tiresome as the Annie Hall-like fantasy sequences that she has also used. (As a result, Head...

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Renata Adler

"Head Over Heels," based on a fine novel by Ann Beattie, wastes its first half hour. Then it lives up for a while to its aspirations, before disintegrating toward its close…. Charles' love is meant to be absolute, single-minded, of the sort that occupies consciousness totally. It never rings altogether true. In the year of pining, although he parks outside her house and makes scale models of it, although he never repairs the eye-glasses he broke the night she left him, although he talks constantly about her, in narration and in interior monologue (an unnecessary device, and one that almost never works in film), he neither gains nor loses weight, he manages to take his baths and go to work, he never has that...

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