By Shonni Enelow in the September-October 2017 Issue
I didn’t want to feel like the woman director. I wanted to feel like one of many women directors.
—Joan Micklin Silver, interviewed in New York in 2017
The films of Joan Micklin Silver are not in and of themselves difficult—if difficult means abstract or assaultive—but they’re often about difficult people: people who don’t make it easy for others to like or care for them, or who don’t accept the help they clearly need. If there’s a common characteristic among her protagonists, it might be their diffidence—an odd thing to say about films that are generally so warm. This contrast gives her works their somewhat indefinable tone, falling between offbeat comedies of social behavior and character-driven dramas. And though they usually end with a level of resolution, it often feels precarious and uncertain, buoyed by spontaneous joy or recognition, but quite possibly temporary. In some cases, this layered and uneasy tone led to marketing purgatory, as with her Ann Beattie adaptation Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), which now has a small but devoted following but was bizarrely packaged upon its initial release as a romantic comedy with the title Head Over Heels. By contrast, in the reception of her best-known films, Hester Street (1975) and Crossing Delancey (1988), the impression of genial charm has overshadowed their more complex gestures. A director who is not famous but whose movies are not themselves obscure, Silver occupies an uncertain position among American filmmakers: her films are neither mainstream nor arty; not fashionable, albeit beloved by a select group; recognizably Jewish, but without broad ethnic humor. Her works are neither opaque, nor bizarre, nor self-conscious enough to be considered true cult classics, but singular and specific enough to fall between the cracks of sweeping narratives of American film history.
If Silver’s films don’t fit neatly into a broader movement or ethos, it may be because their historical location has yet to be properly situated. What might be gained, for instance, from thinking about Silver as one of several American female directors—including Barbara Loden, Claudia Weill, Kathleen Collins, and Lynne Littman, among others—who emerged in the ’70s and ’80s? At the time, a crucial juncture for American feminism, their narrative films not only centered on women but also offered implicit models for feminist cinematic spectatorship, whether or not their concerns were explicitly political. The reception history of Loden’s Wanda (1970) offers a case in point: received uneasily upon release because of its title character’s passivity and misdirection by a movement whose embattlement sometimes led to dogma, the film has by now taken its rightful place at the forefront of feminist cinema. Today we’re more primed to understand that reading films for their feminism doesn’t necessarily mean discerning political statements or allegories; instead it might mean noticing feminist perspectives in framing and composition as well as in narrative patterning, or perhaps simply recognizing how a film negotiates the shifting terrain for women on both sides of the camera.
It might also mean reading a movie as part of a conversation going on between a diverse group of female filmmakers who, despite very different aesthetic interests, addressed some importantly related ideas and themes. Take Loden and Silver. Putting them into dialogue might seem counter-intuitive: Silver is known for her warm and offbeat urban-set realist comedies; Loden’s film is rural, bleak, and astringent, and shot in an observational style. In tone and temperament, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. But both directors worked in the ’70s under conditions of great skepticism and numerous obstacles. In an interview conducted in May, Silver told me that when after pounding the pavement she finally got a meeting with a studio head, he told her, “A woman filmmaker is one more problem we don’t need.” Under these conditions, Silver and Loden each made films on their own, without studio support or financial backing, that took up the question of what it means to be a modern woman. Wanda’s answer is paradigmatically modernist: to be modern is to be unmoored, without history or direction— to be alienated from the world and one’s place in it. In Silver’s films, women are often all too moored: embedded in family and cultural expectations, struggling to negotiate conflicting duties and desires. Their modernity is their ambivalence.
In fact, the link between Silver and Loden in particular is quite direct: they actually worked together. Contrary to common belief (and to Nathalie Léger’s 2015 book Suite for Barbara Loden), Wanda was not Loden’s only film. She made a second, with Silver, a 25-minute educational piece called The Frontier Experience for the Learning Corporation of America, released in 1975—a job she took, according to Silver, because “after she made Wanda, she couldn’t find work.” Written by Silver and directed by Loden, who also starred, the film tells the story of a woman named Delilah Fowler (Loden) and her transformation from docile wife to powerful frontierswoman in 1869 Kansas. The Frontier Experience is a case study in Loden and Silver’s mutual ambition—and the limited parameters in which they were permitted to exercise it. It starts conventionally, with a tight shot of Delilah and her husband by a campfire, Delilah listening impassively as he talks of his plans (and gives the film’s exposition), but then quickly leaves the stagey mode of historical reenactment behind. After a quick shot of just the husband, Loden’s camera returns to the two of them, except now we see Delilah writing in her journal, and we hear her diary entry in voiceover. Loden and Silver pepper their story with such artful and expressionistic emotional touches: a poetic turn of phrase heard over a long pan of the lonely horizon, a dramatic moment cut short by a striking extreme close-up of Delilah’s face.
Perhaps the most telling scene, both in writing and direction, depicts an encounter with the only other woman on the prairie, Mrs. Pope, who visits Delilah’s homestead and warns her of the physical and emotional hardships they face: “Did you know that you and me are the only two women within 10 miles around here? Mrs. Pierce, she died of the cholera. Mrs. Higgins, her husband just couldn’t make a go of it, so they had to move on. And poor Mrs. Delman. The wind has just simply driven that woman batty. She just can’t stand to hear the wind. And her husband has to tie her up to keep her from wandering off and getting lost.”
Silver’s dialogue is amusing and alarming in equal measure: the image is absurd, but the message is horrifying. The camera moves between Mrs. Pope, who speaks with satisfied knowingness, and Delilah, sitting across from her on the bed; we watch her react as Mrs. Pope describes the “batty” woman whose husband “has” to tie her up. Mrs. Delman is never mentioned again, but several scenes later, after Delilah’s husband has been shot by a claim jumper and the weight of the family’s poverty has begun to sink in, we suddenly see her, in an otherwise upbeat scene about a footrace. Imprisoned in a wooden chair, a rope wrapped around her torso, her hands frozen over her ears, she’s a ghost from the netherworld of women’s silent agony. Loden films her in mid-range, just far enough away to isolate her in the brown wash of the landscape, with Delilah moving toward her, removed from the cheering crowd of men. After her son wins the footrace easily, and one of those men offers to take him off her hands to compete around the country, Loden films herself watching him depart across the dusky prairie from the torso up, with her arms wrapped around herself in a visual echo of the tied-up woman.
The Frontier Experience certainly reveals Loden and Silver’s shared anthropological interest: how have women lived? But the conflicted appearance of Mrs. Pope, and the ghostly one of Mrs. Delman, also demonstrate a specific aspect of their concerns. An older woman is trying to communicate something about the world she knows to a younger one. We understand that she means well, but we side with the bewildered, quiet woman: are there really no alternatives to death, imprisonment, or servitude? By the end of the film, Delilah has decided not to remarry, and instead to make a go of it herself; her purposeful movements across the land contrast sharply with Mrs. Delman’s frozen incapacity.
When I asked Silver about her early film career, what came across most strongly to me was her will to work: not to express something in particular, not even to make art, but to work—to get the chance to be competent, to succeed, to do a job well. She cast her frustration with the dearth of female directors in terms of labor equity: “It’s a job women can do.” It was a low-key statement from a director who thinks of her work in plain terms. This artistic humility, as well as her films’ loose realism and sometimes undistinguished visual style, might be part of the reason Silver isn’t typically considered in the canon of second-wave feminist filmmakers. But a closer look at her early work tells a different story: a story, first of all, about women and work, which might begin with The Frontier Experience and its portrayal of Delilah Fowler, working her land on her own.
For instance, about a half-hour into Between the Lines (1977), the ensemble comedy about a Boston newspaper Silver directed after Hester Street, there’s a quietly radical scene between newspaper photographer Abbie (Lindsay Crouse) and a stripper she’s accompanied her journalist boyfriend Harry (John Heard) to photograph. The sequence begins with a strip show; we see a line of middle-aged men in the front row watching openmouthed, and then Abbie and Harry: Abbie with a delighted smile, Harry with a studied nonchalance. When they go to interview the stripper, Danielle (Marilu Henner), Abbie approaches her with bubbly and appreciative questions: “Oh, your costumes are terrific. Where do you get them?” “My mother makes them.” “You’re kidding!” They laugh and lean forward, their lines spilling over each other’s. Harry tries to break in, his pencil cocked, before stopping the conversation and taking Abbie aside to tell her to stop butting in. When they return to the table, Danielle contrasts their politeness to writers who “don’t even treat you like a real person. ‘How’s your sex life?’ As if it’s any of their fucking business!”—clearly the question Harry was ready to ask. Flustered, he retorts, “But isn’t your whole act about presenting yourself as a sex object?” “I see myself as a stripper,” she responds drily, cheered on by Abbie: “Alright!”
Later, in her dressing room, while taking her picture, she and Abbie talk like girlfriends about men and false eyelashes; Danielle even dresses Abbie up in spangles and a bustier. Harry sees her and bursts out laughing, and they have a fight in the car on the way home: “I really had a rapport with her, and you were so threatened it was pathetic.” Among the striking things about this scene is the fact that it was made in the era of what now are called “the feminist sex wars”: in a film from the late 1970s, a portrayal of a friendly and independent sex worker, neither victimized nor particularly bothered by her job, is fairly remarkable. Abbie recognizes Danielle as another working woman, and treats her as such.
This interest in female relationships, wrought in and around women’s labor, also crops up in Hester Street and Crossing Delancey, which, despite both centering on a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, give primacy to relationships between women as well. In Silver’s essentially optimistic vision, these relationships allow women to test their discoveries and work through their uncertainties, reflecting elements of their experience and also challenging them.
The two films also showcase Silver’s abiding interest in narratives of female self-determination that don’t require their subjects to reject all traditional values. Hester Street is set in 1896, among Jewish immigrants newly arrived in New York from Eastern Europe, and first follows Jake (Steven Keats), a blacksmith in the old country turned dapper ladies’ man in the new, who prides himself on his assimilation and balks when his wife, Gitl (Carol Kane), and son show up with their shtetl habits and assumptions. The film’s true subject, however, is, like The Frontier Experience, a woman’s transformation from subordinate to independent: when Silver wrote the screenplay from a novella by Abraham Cahan, she shifted the focus from Jake to Gitl, translating it from a story about the moral compromises of assimilation into a celebration of female self-sufficiency. For Gitl, accepting the new world means accepting that her life with Jake is gone, but also continuing to claim and celebrate the older parts of herself that still have meaning: after her divorce from Jake, in which she makes out very well, she chooses to marry Bernstein (Mel Howard), their former boarder, who is both gentle and religiously learned, and who takes an ironic attitude toward their new country.
Hester Street, Silver’s first feature (she began working on it directly after The Frontier Experience), is also stylistically her most adventurous. Shot in black and white with its dialogue largely in Yiddish, it evokes not only neorealism but also silent film, opening with a scored scene in a dancing academy that is almost Chaplin-esque in its comedic expressiveness. According to Silver, it was Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), showing at an art-house theater in Cleveland, that made her want to make movies: “Afterwards I sat there and I said to myself, ‘I can do that. I can tell stories on film.’” Though more conventionally structured than Pather Panchali, Hester Street echoes the affectionate musicality of Ray’s film, its jaunty score highlighting the playfulness of its world of underclass wheelings and dealings, shabby rooms, and blunt emotions. It also follows Ray in its expressive, wordless close-ups in which one character assesses another (as well as its black-and-white palette, which Silver has said was inspired by photographs from the era). Like we do with Pather Panchali’s Karuna Banerjee, we often watch Kane considering, negotiating, questioning, usually without words. When I asked about her method of working with actors, Silver described a similar watchfulness: “I have found that when I talk to people, if I stop talking, they keep talking. And sometimes they keep talking in a way that tells you more than it would have told you if they were just answering questions.” Allowing revelations to unfold in gently measured moments between actors gives the theatrical storytelling of Hester Street its pensive wonderment: even Jake has moments of reverence and doubt.
Crossing Delancey returns to a Lower East Side that has diversified, its Jewishness still palpable but worn around the edges, like the fading sign for the kosher winemaker that boasts “wine you can cut with a knife.” Isabelle Grossman (Amy Irving), or Izzy, who could be Gitl’s granddaughter, is a wry, self-possessed woman in her thirties who works at a bookstore and lives by herself in an uptown apartment, and whose life choices are cast into question by her exuberant Yiddische grandmother (Reizl Bozyk), who surreptitiously hires a matchmaker to find her a husband. The film bounces through Izzy’s alternately stimulating and melancholy New York life to the soundtrack of the sister trio pop group The Roches (one of whom, Suzzy, appears in the movie as her friend Marilyn). Her rom-com equivocation between the arrogant European novelist (Jeroen Krabbé) who condescendingly seduces her and the sincere, good-humored Jewish pickle monger (Peter Riegert) she first rejects, then warms to, is ironized, gently, by the series of piquant urban intimacies with which Silver juxtaposes it: the frank sex talk between two women Izzy and her friend overhear in a sauna; a teasing interaction with a scruffy bookseller on the street; a goofy avant-garde performance on a public access TV channel.
One of these moments, an almost dialogue-free scene in a Papaya King, exemplifies Silver’s sensibility: it’s Izzy’s birthday, and although she’s told her co-workers she’s going to a fancy dinner at Lutèce, we cut to a row of hot dogs and blaring hip-hop. The scene is bright and loose; Izzy smiles slyly as she reaches for the mustard. We follow her perspective as she turns toward the door and a character out of a medieval carnival enters: a round woman in late middle age draped in a gold lamé caftan with a feather in her hair, her face done up in drag-style exuberance, who theatrically removes her shawl and begins to sing Rodgers & Hammerstein: “Some enchanted evening / You will meet a stranger…” The customers around her form a panorama of ’80s New York: a punk couple, a white man in a gray suit and trench coat, a black man in a leather kufi cap, a pair of old-timers in flat caps, a disheveled woman eating alone. One of the kids working behind the counter looks at the singer and shakes his head. But the patrons all watch her, like Izzy does, at first a bit resentfully and then more intently, as the camera moves in swiftly toward the singer’s face: “Once you have found him / Never let him go.” From a colorful nuisance to a street-corner Cassandra: the scene is both anarchic and on the nose. Irving plays the moment subtly, her ambiguous expression registering both rueful receptiveness and a current of resentment, but the other customers’ faces resonate just as strongly. It’s as if the whole city has joined in Izzy’s longing.
It’s perhaps because Silver’s films hew so closely to their protagonists’ points of view, and use them to portray tight-knit shared worlds, that Chilly Scenes of Winter, an uncharacteristically near-violent movie that tracks the fixation of Charles (the late John Heard) on his ex-girlfriend Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), and features an unhinged late-career performance by Gloria Grahame as Charles’s mentally ill mother, plays so unsettlingly: we’re with Charles and his passion for Laura for most of the film, until suddenly we really aren’t (“I’m gonna rape you,” he says when she tells him she’s leaving). The film offers an unanticipated revision of a romantic setup (ironically, given the marketing of its first release), unmasking the drive for possession that underlies Charles’s idealization of Laura, which finally collapses when she leaves her husband but refuses to return to Charles, choosing instead to live on her own. Though tonally it feels like an outlier in Silver’s filmography, Chilly Scenes of Winter could be a companion piece to Between the Lines: both are about semi-directionless twentysomethings who fixate on each other in the absence of a larger purpose (represented in Between the Lines as the bygone radical ’60s); today their humor and pathos are palpable but somewhat hard to access.
If, in contrast, Hester Street and Crossing Delancey continue to feel fresh, it may be for the same reason that Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978) has had such a strong comeback in the era of Girls: we tend to think of the story of an educated and urbane young woman who is blundering and knowing, vulnerable and irrepressible, told with gentle mockery and earnest emotionalism by turns, as a contemporary trope (something from the confessional blogosphere, or the tribe of Lena Dunham). But it’s a theme that in Silver’s hands became a kind of form: not just narrative content but a way of approaching movies—with the improvisational energy of women who are making it up as they go. 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), as well as to trace less familiar connections between filmmakers and reconsider the kind of epoch-defining theorizations that hold so much sway over historical consciousness.
Closer Look: Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 Between the Lines will open in revival on February 22 , 2019 at Quad Cinema in New York.
Shonni Enelow is the author of Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-Drama (Northwestern University Press). She is an assistant professor of English at Fordham University.