Joan Micklin Silver Jill Forbes - Essay

Jill Forbes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.