Archive

Archive for the ‘Joan Micklin Silver’ Category

Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment


Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler
©by Leo Adam Bga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Three filmmakers from Omaha who’ve made impressive marks in cinema as writer-directors represent three distinct generations but their work shares a strong humanistic and comedic bent:

Joan Micklin Silver
Alexander Payne
Nik Fackler

You may not know her name or her films, but Joan Micklin Silver is arguably the most important filmmaker to ever come out of Nebraska. Her feature debut “Hester Street” (1975) was something of a phenomenon in its time and it still resonates today because of how it established her in the film industry and helped open doors for other women directors in Hollywood.

Dorothy Arzner was a studio director in the early talkies era and then years went by before another woman filmmaker got the chance to direct. Actress Ida Lupino directed a small but telling batch of features from 1949 through the mid-1950s and became a busy television director. Lupino helmed the original “Twilight Zone’s” classic episode, “The Masks.” The last feature she directed “The Trouble with Angels” was a hit. Her subsequent directing was back in television for a large variety of episodic shows. But it was years before other women followed Lupino as studio directors and Elaine May and Joan Micklin Silver led that fledgling movement. They ushered in an era when more women directors began working in the mainstream: Lee Grant, Penelope Spheeris, Amy Heckerling, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow. Hundreds more have followed.

Silver first came to the industry’s attention with her original story about the stateside struggles of wives of American POWs in Vietnam. No studio would let her direct and the story ended up in the hands of old Hollywood hand Mark Robson, who’d made some very successful pictures, and he brought in future director James Bridges to work on the script with her. Silver was not happy with the changes made to the story and though the screenplay bears her and Bridges’ names, she largely disowns the resulting shooting script and the movie Robson made from it, which was released under the title “Limbo” in 1972. However, Robson knew how much she wanted to direct and did something unheard of then: he invited her to be on set to observe the entire shoot and be privy to his interactions with cast, crew, producers, et cetera. She may have also had access to pre- and post-production elements. This experience allowed her an intimate study of how a major feature film production gets made. This, along with the films she’d been keenly watching since falling in love with cinema at the Dundee Theatre in Omaha, was her film school. Only a couple years after “Limbo” Silver was shopping around another script she penned, this one an adaptation of a novella about the Jewish immigrant experience in early 20th century America that was part of her own family’s heritage. The focus was on New York City’s Lower East Side and the travails of a young woman trying to reconcile the ways of the Old Country with the new ways of America. Jake has come ahead to America and sends for his wife, Gitl, and their son. Gitl is little more than chattel to Jake and she finds herself stifled by social, cultural, economic pressures. Much to Jake’s surprise, she rebels. Silver titled the story “Hester Street” and again no studio wanted her to direct and she was not interested in giving control of her script to another filmmaker. To be fair to the studios, on the surface the project did have a lot going against it. For starters, it was a heavily ethnic period piece that Silver saw as a black and white film. Indefensibly though, while Hollywood by that time was giving all sorts of untested new directors opportunities to direct, it wasn’t affording the same opportunities to women.

Silver and her late husband Raphael Silver, who was in real estate then, raised the money themselves and made the film independently. Her beautifully evocative, detailed work looked like it cost ten times her minuscule budget. She and Raphael shopped the finished film around and, you guessed it, still no takers. That’s when the couple released it themselves by road showing the film at individual theaters with whom they directly negotiated terms. And then a funny thing happened. “Hester Street” started catching on and as word of mouth grew, bookings picked up, not just in Eastern art cinemas but coast to coast in both art and select commercial theaters. Before they knew it, the Silvers had a not so minor hit on their hands considering the less than half a million dollars it took to make it. National critics warmly reviewed the picture. The story’s feminist themes in combination with the film having been written and directed by a woman made it and Silver darlings of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film even got the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as the film’s then unknown female lead, Carol Kane, earned a Best Actress nomination.

Years later “Hester Street” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work. In designating the film for inclusion, the Library of Congress noted historians have praised the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process in its portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in America.”

Silver is now writing a book about the making of “Hester Street,” which is also being adapted into a stage musical the adapters hope to bring to Broadway. A biography of Silver is also in the works.

The success of “Hester Street” allowed Silver to make a number of feature films over the next decade and a half, some with studios and some independently, including “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey” and “Loverboy” as well as some notable made for TV movies such as “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and “Finnegan Begin Again.” These films show her deft touch with romantic comedies. I’ve always thought of her work as on par with that of the great Ernest Lubitsch in its sophisticated handling of male-female relationships and entanglements.

I recently saw “Finnegan Begin Again” for the first time and now I see what all the fuss was about for this 1985 HBO movie starring Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Preston, Sam Waterston and Silvia Sydney. It’s a thoroughly delightful, mature and surprising dramedy that features perhaps the two best screen performances by Moore and Preston, which is saying a lot. Waterston goes against type here and is outstanding. Sidney never lost her acting chops and even here, in her mid-70s, she’s very full in her performance. A very young Giancarlo Espositio has a small but showy part. Watch for my separate Hot Movie Takes post about the movie.

During the 1990s and on through 2003, Silver directed several more feature and television movies, “Big Girls Don’t Cry, They Get Even,” “A Private Matter” and “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” among them. The tlater two made for cable movies are straight dramas, which she also handled with a sure touch. I just saw “A Private Matter” for the first time and it is a searing true-life tale about a young American married couple with kids who become the center of the thalidomide scandal and tragedy. Sissy Spacek and Aidan Quinn portray Sherri and Bob Finkbine, who discover that the fetus Sherri is carrying will likely be born severely deformed due to the effects of the then widely prescribed drug thalidomide. When their intent to terminate the pregnancy goes public, it sets off a firestorm of controversy that nearly destroys them. In the midst of the medical deliberations, legal wrangling and media stalkings, the couple learn how widespread abortions are and how secret they’re kept. Silver brilliantly contrasts sunny, placid 1960s suburban family life with the dark underside of hypocrisy, greed, fear and hate that surface when issues of morality get inflamed. In this case and cases like it, what should be a private matter becomes a public controversy and the people involved are persecuted for following their own conscience. Spacek delivers a great performance as Sherri and I don’t think Quinn has ever been better as Bob. Estelle Parsons is excellent as Sherri’s mother. William H. Macy has a small but effective turn as a psychiatrist.

More recently, Silver had been working on some documentary projects that never came to fruition. And then her longtime life and professional partner, Raphael, died. Now in her early 80s, she’s seemingly more focused on archiving her work and sharing her experiences as a woman trying to shatter the American film industry’s glass ceiling.

Her maverick ways and superb films are highly regarded and yet she remains almost unknown in her own hometown, which both saddens and baffles me. The lack of recognition for her here is a real shame, too, because she’s one of the great creatives this place has ever produced and her exquisite films stand the test of time. I believe Alexander Payne, who is her junior by some 26 years, is one of the great American filmmakers to have emerged in the last half-century and I regard the best of Silver’s films on a par with his. And yet her name and work are not nearly as well known, which reminds us that even after all this time women filmmakers are still not accorded the same respect as their male counterparts. Even in their shared hometown, Payne is celebrated but not Silver. I’d like to do something to change that.

When Silver was eying a career in film starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the old studio contract system was dismantled and the New Hollywood hot shots from television and film schools were all the rage. Even guys who’d never directed anything were getting their shot at studio features. Women were still left out of the equation but for the rare exception like Silver, and even then it took her battering on the walls before she was reluctantly let in to that privileged Old Boys Network. Her path to breaking in was to learn her writing and directing chops in theater and television. It was her ability to write that got her a seat at the table if not at the head of the table. She had to make her own way the hard way. She’s lived long enough to see progress, if not enough yet, for women directors to now be almost commonplace.

Alexander Payne’s cinephile development came right in the middle of the New Hollywood revolution and his entrance into the industry happened right on the wave of the indie film explosion. But like Silver before him, there was no visible Hollywood presence around him when he was coming of age here as a cineaste. No one was making anything like grade A feature films locally. The industry was remote and disconnected from places like Nebraska. His entry into the industry was his student thesis film. But it wasn’t until he wrote “Citizen Ruth” and got financing for it that he arrived.

Dan Mirvish is another Omahan from the same generation as Payne whose directorial efforts bear discussion. He’s actually been the most ingenious in pulling projects together and getting them seen. None of his films have yet crossed over in the way that Silver’s, Payne’s and Fackler’s have, but he and his work are never less than interesting. He, too, is a writer-director.

A generation later, Nik Fackler came of age when the new crop of filmmakers were coming from film schools as well as the worlds of commercials and music videos. But just as Silver and Payne used their writing talents to get their feet in the door and their first films made, so did Fackler. His script for “Lovely, Still” was good enough to attract a pair of Oscar-winning legends in Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. He directed those Actors Studio stalwarts when he was in his early 20s. He was much younger than Payne and Silver were when they directed their first films but he had the advantage of having directed several short films and music videos as his film education. He also had the advantage of having seen a fellow Omaha native in Payne enjoy breakout success. But where Payne and Silver followed up their debut feature films with more projects that further propelled their careers, Fackler did not, It’s been nearly a decade since “Lovely, Still” and many of us are eager to see if Fackler can recapture the magic he found so early.

I find it interesting that Fackler, Payne and Silver all tackled tough subjects for their first features:
Alzheimer’s in Fackler’s “Lovely, Still”
Abortion in Payne’s “Citizen Ruth”
Jewish immigrant experience in “Hester Street”

Whereas Payne and Fackler have made most of their films in Nebraska, Silver, despite a desire to do so, has never shot here. There’s still time.

These three are not the only Nebraskans who’ve done meritorious work as directors, but they are in many ways the most emblematic of their times.

Wouldn’t it be fun to get Silver, Payne and Fackler on the same panel to discuss their adventures in filmmaking? I think so.

Meanwhile. a special screening of “Lovely, Still” in memory of Martin Landau is happening at Film Streams on Thursday, Oct. 12. Payne’s “Downsizing” is playing festivals in advance of its Dec. 22 national release. And Silver’s films can be found via different platforms, though a retrospective of her work here is long overdue.

Advertisements

Hot Movie Takes Friday – Indie Film: UPDATED-EXPANDED

March 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes Friday

Indie Film

UPDATED-EXPANDED

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

There’s a common misconception that indie films are something that only came into being in the last half-century when in fact indie filmmaking has been around in one form or another since the dawn of movies.

Several Nebraskans have demonstrated the indie spirit at the highest levels of cinema.

The very people who invented the motion picture industry were, by definition, independents. Granted, most of them were not filmmakers, but these maverick entrepreneurs took great personal risk to put their faith and money in a new medium. They were visionaries who saw the future and the artists working for them perfected a moving image film language that proved addictive. The original Hollywood czars and moguls were the greatest pop culture pushers who ever lived. Under their reign, the narrative motion picture was invented and it’s hooked every generation that’s followed. The Hollywood studio system became the model and center of film production. The genres that define the Hollywood movie, then and now, came out of that system and one of the great moguls of the Golden Age, Nebraska native Darryl F. Zanuck, was as responsible as anyone for shaping what the movies became by the projects he greenlighted and the ones he deep-sixed. The tastes and temperaments of these autocrats got reflected in the pictures their studios made but the best of these kingpins made exceptions to their rules and largely left the great filmmakers alone, which is to say they didn’t interfere with their work. If they did, the filmmakers by and large wouldn’t stand for it. After raising hell, the filmmakers usually got their way.

blogopener

Zanuck made his bones in Hollywood but as the old studio system with its longterm contracts and consolidated power began to wane and a more open system emerged, even Zanuck became an independent producer.

The fat-cat dream-making factories are from the whole Hollywood story. From the time the major studios came into existence to all the shakeups and permutations that have followed right on through today, small independent studios, production companies and indie filmmakers have variously worked alongside, for and in competition with the established studios.

Among the first titans of the fledgling American cinema were independent-minded artists such as D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Douglas Faribanks, who eventually formed their own studio, United Artists. Within the studio system itself, figures like Griffith, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. De Mille, Frank Capra and John Ford were virtually unassailable figures who fought for and gained as near to total creative control as filmmakers have ever enjoyed. Those and others like Howard Hawks, William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock pretty much got to do whatever they wanted on their A pictures. Then there were the B movie masters who could often get away with even more creatively and dramatically speaking than their A picture counterparts because of the smaller budgets and loosened controls on their projects. That’s why post-World War II filmmakers like Sam Fuller, Joseph E. Lewis, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher and Phil Carlson could inject their films with all sorts of provocative material amidst the conventions of genre pictures and thereby effectively circumvent the production code.

Maverick indie producers such as David O. Selznick, Sam Spiegel and Joseph E. Levine packaged together projects of distinction that the studios wouldn’t or couldn’t initiate themselves. Several actors teamed with producers and agents to form production companies that made projects outside the strictures of Hollywood. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were among the biggest name actors to follow this trend. Eventually, it became more and more common for actors to take on producing, even directing chores for select personal projects, to where if not the norm it certainly doesn’t take anyone by surprise anymore.

A Nebraskan by the name of Lynn Stalmaster put aside his acting career to become a casting direct when he saw an opportunity in the changing dynamics of Hollywood. Casting used to be a function within the old studio system. As the studios’ contracted employee rosters began to shrink and as television became a huge new production center, Stalmaster saw the future and an opportunity. He knew just as films needed someone to guide the casting, the explosion of dramatic television shows needed casting expertise as well and so he practically invented the independent casting director. He formed his own agency and pretty much had the new field to himself through the 1950s, when he mostly did TV, on through the ’60s, ’70s’ and even the ’80s, when more of his work was in features. He became the go-to casting director for many of top filmmakers, even for some indie artists. His pioneering role and his work casting countless TV shows, made for TV movies and feature films, including many then unknowns who became stars, earned him a well deserved honorary Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards – the first Oscar awarded for casting.

 

Lynn Stalmaster

Lynn Stalmaster

Photo By Lance Dawes, Courtesy of AMPAS

 

In the ’50 and ’60s Stanley Kubrick pushed artistic freedom and daring thematic content to new limits as an independent commercial filmmaker tied to a studio. Roger Corman staked out ground as an indie producer-director whose low budget exploitation picks gave many film actors and filmmakers their start in the industry. In the ’70s Woody Allen got an unprecedented lifetime deal from two producers who gave him carte blanche to make his introspective comedies.

John Cassavetes helped usher in the indie filmmaker we identify today with his idiosyncratic takes on relationships that made his movies stand out from Hollywood fare.

Perhaps the purest form of indie filmmaking is the work done by underground and experimental filmmakers who have been around since cinema’s start. Of course, at the very start of motion pictures, all filmmkaers were by definition experimental because the medium was in the process of being invented and codified. Once film got established as a thing and eventually as a commerical industry, people far outside or on the fringes of that industry, many of them artists in other disciplines, boldly pushed cinema in new aesthetic and technical directions. The work of most of these filmmakers then or now doesn’t find a large audience but does make its way into art houses and festivals and is sometimes very influential across a wide spectrum of artists and filmmakers seeking new ways of seeing and doing things.  A few of these experimenters do find some relative mass exposure. Andy Warhol was an example. A more recent example is Godfrey Reggio, whose visionary documentary trilogy “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi” have found receptive audiences the world over. Other filmmakers, like David Lynch and Jim McBride, have crossed over into more mainstream filmmaking without ever quite leaving behind their experimental or underground roots.

Nebraska native Harold “Doc” Edgerton made history for innovations he developed with the high speed camera, the multiflash, the stroboscope, nighttime photography, shadow photography and time lapse photography and other techniques for capturing images in new ways or acquiring images never before captured on film. He was an engineer and educator who combined science with art to create an entire new niche with his work.

Filmmakers like Philip Kaufman, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and many others found their distinctive voices as indie artists. Their early work represented formal and informal atttempts at discovering who they are as

Several filmmakers made breakthroughs into mainstream filmmaking on the success of indie projects, including George Romero, Jonathan Kaplan, Jonathan Demme, Omaha’s own Joan Micklin Silver, Spike Lee and Quentin Taratino.

If you don’t know the name of Joan Micklin Silver, you should. She mentored under veteran studio director Mark Robson on a picture (“Limbo”) he made of her screenplay about the wives of American airmen held in Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. Joan, a Central High graduate whose family owned Micklin Lumber, then wrote an original screenplay about the life of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. She called it “Hester Street” and she shopped it around to all the studios in Hollywood as a property she would direct herself. They all rejected the project and her stipulation that she direct. Every studio had its reasons. The material was too ethnic, too obscure, it contained no action, it had no sex. Oh, and she insisted on making it in black and white,which is always a handy excuse to pass on a script. What the studios really objected to though was investing in a woman who would be making her feature film directing debut. Too risky.  As late as the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s there were only a handful of American women directing feature and made for TV movies. It was a position they were not entrusted with or encouraged to pursue. Women had a long track record as writers, editors, art directors,  wardrobe and makeup artists but outside of some late silent and early sound directors and then Ida Lapino in the ’50s. women were essentially shut out of directing. That’s what Joan faced but she wasn’t going to let it stop her.

 

Joan Micklin Silver

 

Long story short, Joan and her late husband Raphael financed the film’s production and post themselves and made an evocative period piece that they then tried to get a studio to pick up, but to no avail. That’s when the couple distributed the picture on their own and to their delight and the industry’s surprise the little movie found an audience theater by theater, city by city, until it became one of the big indie hits of that era. The film’s then-unknown lead, Carol Kane, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. The film’s success helped Joan get her next few projects made (“Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter”) and she went on to make some popular movies, including “Loverboy,” and a companion piece to “Hester Street” called “Crossing Delancey” that updated the story of Jewish life on the Lower East Side to the late 20th century. Joan later went on to direct several made for cable films. But “Hester Street” will always remain her legacy because it helped women break the glass ceiling in Hollywood in directing. Its historic place in the annals of cinema is recognized by its inclusion in the U.S. Library of Congress collection. She’s now penning a book about the making of that landmark film. It’s important she document this herself, as only she knows the real story of what obstacles she had to contend with to get the film made and seen. She and Raphael persisted against all odds and their efforts not only paid off for them but in the doors it opened for women to work behind the camera.

The lines between true independent filmmakers and studio-bound filmmakers have increasingly blurred. Another Omahan, Alexander Payne, is one of the leaders of the Indiewood movement that encompasses most of the best filmmakers in America. Payne and his peers maintain strict creative control in developing, shooting and editing their films but depend on Hollywood financing to get them made and distributed. In this sense, Payne and Co. are really no different than those old Hollywood masters, only filmmakers in the past were studio contracted employees whereas contemporary filmmakers are decidedly not. But don’t assume that just because a filmmaker was under contract he or she had less freedom than today’s filmmakers. Believe me, nobody told Capra, Ford, Hitchcock, Wyler, or for that matter Huston of Kazan, what to do. They called the shots. And if you were a producer or executive who tried to impose things on them, you’d invariably lose the fight. Most of the really good filmmakers then and now stand so fiercely behind their convictions that few even dare to challenge them.

But also don’t assume that just because an indie filmmaker works outside the big studios he or she gets everything they want. The indies ultimately answer to somebody. There’s always a monied interest who can, if push comes to shove, force compromise or even take the picture out of the filmmaker’s hands. Almost by definition indie artists work on low budgets and the persons controlling those budgets can be real cheapskates who favor efficiency over aesthetics.

 

  • Director Alexander Payne grew up in Nebraska.
©Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

 

Payne is the rarest of the rare among contemporary American filmmakers in developing a body of work with a true auteurist sensibility that doesn’t pander to formulaic conventions or pat endings. His comedies play like dramas and they’re resolutely based in intimate human relationships between rather mundane people in very ordinary settings. Payne avoids all the trappings of Hollywood gloss but still makes his movies engaging, entertaining and enduring. Just think of the protagonists and plotlines of his movies and it’s a wonder he’s gotten any of them made:

Citizen Ruth–When a paint sealer inhalant addict with a penchant for having kids she can’t take care of gets pregnant again, she becomes the unlikely and unwilling pivot figure in the abortion debate.

Election–A frustrated high school teacher develops such a hate complex for a scheming student prepared to do anything to get ahead that he rigs a student election against her.

About Schmidt–Hen-pecked Warren Schmidt no sooner retires from the job that defined him than his wife dies and he discovers she cheated on him with his best friend. He hits the road to find himself. Suppressed feelings of anger, regret and loneliness surface in the most unexpected moments.

Sideways–A philandering groom to be and a loser teacher who’s a failed writer go on a wine country spree that turns disaster. Cheating Jack gets the scare of his life. Depressed Miles learns he can find love again.

The Descendants–As Matt King deals with the burden of a historic land trust whose future is in his hands, he learns from his oldest daughter that his comatose wife cheated on him. With his two girls in tow, Matt goes in search of answers and revenge and instead rediscovers his family.

Nebraska–An addled father bound and determined to collect a phantom sweepstakes prize revisits his painful past on a road trip his son David takes him on.

Downsizing–With planet Earth in peril, a means to miniaturize humans is found and Paul takes the leap into this new world only to find it’s no panacea or paradise.

Payne has the cache to make the films he wants to make and he responsibly delivers what he promises. His films are not huge box office hits but they generally recoup their costs and then some and garner prestige for their studios in the way of critical acclaim and award nominations. Payne has yet to stumble through six completed films. Even though “Downsizing” represents new territory for him as a sci-fi visual effects movie set in diverse locales and dealing with global issues, it’s still about relationships and the only question to be answered is how well Payne combines the scale with the intimacy.

Then there are filmmakers given the keys to the kingdom who, through a combination of their own egomania and studio neglect, bring near ruin to their projects and studios. I’m thinking of Orson Welles on “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Francis Ford Coppola on “One from the Heart”, Michael Cimino on “Heaven’s Gate,” Elaine May on “Ishtar” and Kevin Costner on “Thw Postman” and “Waterworld.” For all his maverick genius, Welles left behind several unfinished projects because he was persona non grata in Hollywood, where he was considered too great a risk, and thus he cobbled together financing in a haphazard on the fly manner that also caused him to interrupt the filming and sometimes move the principal location from one site to another, over a period of time, and then try to match the visual and audio components. Ironically, the last studio picture he directed, “Touch of Evil,” came in on budget and on time but Universal didn’t understand or opposed how he wanted it cut and they took it out of his hands. At that point in his career, he was a hired gun only given the job of helming the picture at the insistence of star Charlton Heston and so Welles didn’t enjoy anything like the final cut privileges he held on “Citizen Kane” at the beginning of his career.

Other mavericks had their work compromised and sometimes taken from them. Sam Peckinpah fought a lot of battles. He won some but he ended up losing more and by the end his own demons more than studio interference did him in.

The lesson here is that being an independent isn’t always a bed of roses.

Then again, every now and then a filmmaker comes out of nowhere to do something special. Keeping it local, another Omahan did that very thing when a script he originally wrote as a teenager eventually ended up in the hands of two Oscar-winning actors who both agreed to star in his directorial debut. The filmmaker is Nik Fackler, the actors are Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn and the film is “Lovely, Still.” It’s a good film. It didn’t do much business however and Fackler’s follow up film,” Sick Birds Die Easy,” though interesting, made even less traction. His film career is pretty much in limbo after he walked away from the medium to pursue his music. The word is he’s back focusing on film again.

 

Photobucket

 

Other contemporary Nebraskans making splashes with their independent feature work include actor John Beasley, actress Yolonda Ross and writer-directors Dan Mirvish, Patrick Coyle, Charles Hood and James E. Duff.

These folks do really good work and once in a while magic happens, as with the Robert Duvall film “The Apostle” that Beasley co-starred in. It went on to be an indie hit and received great critical acclaim and major award recognition. Beasley is now producing a well-budgeted indie pic about fellow Omahan Marlin Briscoe. Omahan Timothy Christian is financing and producing indie pics with name stars through his own Night Fox Entertainment company. Most of the films these individuals make don’t achieve the kind of notoriety “The Apostle” did but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t good. For example, Ross co-starred in a film, “Go for Sisters,” by that great indie writer-director John Sayles and I’m sure very few of you reading this have heard of it and even fewer have seen it but it’s a really good film. Hood’s comedy “Night Owls” stands right up there with Payne’s early films. Same for Duff’s “Hank and Asha.”

Indie feature filmmaking on any budget isn’t for the faint of heart or easily dissuaded. It takes guts and smarts and lucky breaks. The financial rewards can be small and the recognition scant. But it’s all about a passion for the work and for telling stories that engage people.

Carol Kane Interview

August 20, 2012 Leave a comment

A filmmaker who doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves is writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, whom I’ve written about over the years.  Many of my stories about her can be found on this blog.  Her 1975 debut feature, Hester Street, was a phenomenon for its time because Joan and her producing partner husband Raphael (Ray) Silver were forced to go totally independent when all the studios rejected the script.  Thus, the couple raised the few hundred thousand dollars needed from investors, gathered a cast and crew, completed the film on time and on budget, then distributed the picture themselves.  It all came together, too.  The period piece looked like it was done on a much larger budget.  The performances were stellar.  Most amazingly the film found a large enough audience at theaters to make millions at the box office, making it one of the most successful indie films up to that time.  The capper was star Carol Kane getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her sensitive and insightful performance as Gitl, a traditional Jewish immigrant wife and mother who undergoes a transformation in the face of the new world she enters and the gulf that’s grown between herself and her husband.  It’s a powerful and moving portrayal of emancipation and empowerment as Gitl finds a path of her own from her and her son.  The impish film-television-stage actress recently spoke with me about working with Joan on the film and what it meant to be part of a movie that’s now part of the National Film Registry.  She’s a delightful interview.

Look for coming Q&A’s with Robert Duvall, Martin Landau, Danny Glover, and legendary cinematographer Bill Butler.

 

Interview with Carol Kane

©by Leo Adam Biga

LAB: So what are your thoughts about Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry?

 

CK: “I had no idea about it until Joan wrote me a couple days ago saying she’d talked to you. I didn’t know. I’m so glad you’re doing this because I didnt know about the movie getting this status and I think it’d be fun for us to have people know about it.”

LAB: It’s selection in the registry pretty much ensures it will be part of the American film canon going forward.

CK: “Isn’t that wild? It’s a wonderful feeling to feel like something we did was authentic enough and true enough to be valued as something which should be preserved. You know that’s an extraordinary thing because so many movies are made every year and a lot of them just disappear. And it’s wonderful to know that ours will be preserved and, of course, I’m proud to be part of it.

“I always loved the story, it’s just a great, great story. When I read the script I saw the movie in my mind. She (Joan Micklin Silver) wrote the movie so beautifully that you could see it, and so I’m just so glad that it materialized in the way it read.”

LAB: I understand that Joan first saw you in the Canadian dramatic feature, Wedding in White.

CK:  “Yes, I co-starred in the movie with Donald Pleasance when I was 19 actually, and I guess somehow she saw it. It was voted best film in the Canadian Film Festival I believe. Donald and I were disqualified because neither of us were Canadian. But it got very lovely reviews in the New York Times and in other publications and I guess her being an independent film gal she went and saw it.”

LAB: Joan told me she assumed that you were Canadian and therefore it would be difficult to get you to come on location for a small indie pic on New York’s Lower East Side.

CK: “Oh, I didnt realize that or I forgot about it. But I do know at that point a lot of people did think I was Canadian because somehow I was working a lot in Canada when I was young.”

LAB: In fact you’re a native of Cleveland, where coincidentally Joan settled after college and that’s where she got her start in theater and in film. By the time she was casting Hester Street she and her husband Ray lived in New York, where you had moved as well.

CK: “Yes, and did she tell you that my dad and Ray knew each other in Cleveland?”

LAB: No.

CK: “Yeah, because my dad was an architect, Michael M. Kane, and Ray’s dad was a rabbi, Rabbi Silver. I think I’ve got that right. And my dad did some work with the temple at that time and so they knew each other in this other life, you know. Ray also was involved in pre-fab housing when we made Hester Street. I don’t know if that’s still his business or not or whether he gave it up for the love of the movies. Yeah, so the Silvers and the Kanes knew each other in Cleveland. It’s a strange aside, right?”

LAB: Yes, I love that kind of thing. In checking your IMDB page…

CK: “Oh my God, I’ve got a movie on there that I’ve just begged them to take off from mine and they won’t. It’s some movie (supposedly) like early on in my career, and I have no idea what it is, and they also say I’m also known as this other person that’s in that movie. It’s still there and I can’t get it off.”

LAB: Before even doing Hester Street you had already made Wedding in White, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail, which was an incredible start to your career and found you working with some impressive talents like Pleasance, Nicholson, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Randy Quaid.

CK: “I know, I’m so lucky.”

LAB: When you got the part in Hester Street did you give much thought to the prospect of working with a woman filmmaker?

CK: “I don’t think I thought of a woman or a man…Like I told you, I read that script and saw it and I just wanted to be in it, but I don’t think I thought, ‘Hmmm, what’s it going to be like to have a woman in charge?’I didn’t really feature that, and I still don’t. I mean, I just think a good director is a good director and the sex doesn’t feature in that much. But I do think at that time some female directors were very tough because they had to be. That’s not my main recollection of Joan. But I know there was a time when there was such a battle to make a movie that some of them were pretty tough.

“But the Silvers had this sort of unit of belief in the fact that if something was good and worthwhile it would happen, which was very nice. And of course it was a time in film history when that was coming true, when a lot of strange little movies somehow were happening from beautiful scripts about people rather than you know giant events. So it was the right time for this little story I guess.”

LAB: What about working with Joan and the tone she created on the set?

CK: “Well, it had to be very serious because it had to happen very fast because we didn’t have a lot of money. We had less than $400,000 I believe, so you know we didn’t have any time to waste but she would never sacrifice the essence of a scene for that. Ray was producing. They both had to be very, very, very prepared, which she was, and I think I was too. I think there was a lot of research and work that happened before the camera rolled.

“Our art directors were so brilliant, the costume designer, makeup and hair, our DP (director of photography), everyone was so prepared. And as an actress that was so so helpful to me that I would look around and what I was seeing was what would have been. I was wearing clothes from that time and earrings from that time. Our little set was just a little apartment, and it was so real. The settee the boarder had to sleep on was so tiny and you would think, ‘How could a grown man sleep on this behind a curtain?’ You know, it was all there. And everybody was so prepared in working as fast as they could but with a very determined view toward it being right and real. I don’t mean right as in there’s only one right way but it had to ring true before we moved on.”

LAB: Joan described to me that there was a particular article of wardrobe you wanted to take home with you and the costumer balked at letting you do that until she approved it.

CK: “I don’t know if you’re talking about the sheitel (a wig or half wig,) which I believe I did take home and wear around, or maybe my nightgown. But I do remember taking the sheitel and wearing it somewhat. It’s so interesting what we go through in falling in love with our characters. For awhile I was thinking that sheitel was really beautiful, that I looked really good in it, and then if you look at it objectively it’s like, ‘What? What is that thing on my head?’ But I became very happy with it, very comfortable with it because you have to get used to the fact…I mean, that’s my partner and it’s very important to an Orthodox woman. So they did let me take it home and wear it.”

LAB: What is your take on your character and her transformation and awakening?

CK: “I haven’t seen it (the film) in awhile I must confess. I think the last time I saw it was when the film was going to come out on DVD and Joan and I recorded commentary for it.

(Speaking of her character Gitl in the first person):

“I just think I came here to America with kind of a pure hope and attitude and feeling that my life with my husband and child would continue very much as it had been and of course I arrive to find out that’s completely untrue and that I’m somehow kind of an embarrassment to my husband and not ‘modern.’ Because I’m very religious in the beginning I’m not flexible about practicing the things I practiced in the old country, like wearing the sheitel or not looking at men in the face and not using American names for my son and husband as he wants me to.

“I think life teaches me that I have to change. I think of Gitl as very, ver,y very strong but not tough. Very strong to be able to change in a way that would make her life and her son’s life feel rich while getting divorced, which you know is a huge traumatic scandal. She works so hard at learning English. People always say to me, ‘What do you think happened to Gitl afterwards?’ and I always think she probably went on to run Macy’s. You know how were walking down the street at the end and we talk about opening a store and I tell Mr. Bernstien that he’ll study and I’ll sell? I have the feeling we did quite well.

“Who knows what would have become of me if we hadn’t had a son, which I think is a story that’s repeated very frequently throughout history. Women have to learn to be strong because they are responsible for a child and that brings out things in one that one didn’t think were there, and thats true of Gitl.”

 

 

 

Carol Kane as Gitl in Hester Street 

 

Montage from Hester Street 

 

 

LAB: I don’t know how you feel but I regard Hester Street as one of the great immigrant experience depictions in screen history.  There aren’t that many.

CK: I think The Godfather II, don’t you?”

LAB: Yes. And Kazan’s America, America.

CK: “Right. I have to say, I don’t know how, it just seems impossible to me those people (immigrants) did what they did. How did they do it? I mean, get on a boat to someplace they’d never even seen a picture of and don’t know the language. My grandmother came over and taught English and she barely spoke English. You know, the resourcefulness is just…It’s scary enough nowadays in the modern age –with the computer and you Google where you’re going and you see the pictures of the hotel where you’ll be staying – to go to an unknown country where you don’t speak the language. To just leave your life and start over from scratch like that, the bravery is just unimaginable to me.

“Can you possibly picture yourself doing that?”

LAB: No, I can’t.

CK: “I can’t either.”

LAB: “Both sets of my grandparents made the immigrant journey from Europe – my father’s parents from Poland and my mother’s parents from Italy – and I regret not knowing more about how they did it and why they did it.

CK: “I think we all lost a lot of opportunities to find out what that was like and what drove them to be brave enough to do it. Gosh. My relatives went to Cleveland. It’s not like, OK, the boat lets us off by the Statue of Liberty and we’ll just stay there.”

LAB: And my people ended up in Omaha, right in the middle of America.

CK: “That old cliche which is so true about necessity being the mother of (invention). I guess that was the main thing, people reinvented everything about themselves.”

LAB: It’s often said that completing any film is a small miracle and getting it seen in theaters and having it be well received is perhaps even more miraculous. But in the case of a small indie film like Hester Street that saw the filmmakers raise the money, produce the picture and get it distributed themselves, and have the film find an audience and do quite well is the rarest of all miracles, especially in that era.

CK: “Oh, I know. And by the way yours truly big mouth here was adamant against that (self-distribution). I tried to explain to Ray it was impossible (laughing), but you know he talked to my later to become dear friend John Cassavetes and I think John was very inspirational and helpful as he was all the time with every artist he ever spoke to and in business too because he was such a maverick. He was an immigrant in Hollywood, you know. He did such a brilliant job, Ray. Where I’ve done other wonderful tiny little movies like this, like a movie called In the Soup that Alex (Alexandre) Rockwell directed and you know the distribution part is so critical and it doesn’t always work. And Ray (and Co.) just did a great job.”

LAB: I understand that it was Joan who had the thrill and privilege of calling with the news of  your Oscar nomination.

CK: “Well, that’s the craziest thing in the world isn’t it?”

LAB: I’m sure you never saw that coming.

CK: “Uh, no, no I didn’t think of anything like that. I think when I was nominated I was 23. I know it’s crazy.”

LAB: I assume you attended the Academy Awards ceremony?

CK: “I did but I really think I was pretty much in shock.”

LAB: What do you recall of it?

“Well, the thing was again Joan and Ray had done sort of a maverick thing and hired this wonderful man named Max Bercutt who had worked in PR in the studio system (at Warner Bros. publicity from 1948-1968, where he headed the department for 15 years, before working as a consultant from 1968-1984). He was retired and he was a man who loved to gamble and he loved to gamble on a dark horse and he had done Julie Christie’s campaign for Darling and she had won for a similarly tiny movie. And he came out of retirement to do my campaign. Oh, he was just so great. I think for me the biggest disappointment was not winning for Max because I had hoped to be one of his dark horses. But I mean the fact I got nominated was amazing. I know he went around with a can of film under his arms and went over to Roz Russell’s house and had her invite six people, he went to these dinner parties with the film and people sat down and watched it and that’s why I got nominated – because of him schlepping it around.”

LAB: Yeah, but you overcame such huge odds just to get nominated.

CK: “I did but I still do feel sad that I didn’t go the distance for him. But I think it was a pretty big distance to get where we got. I tried to track him down after and I never found him. And he was just as you would have imagined, with a cigar and scotch. Anyway, he was tremendously kind to me and you can imagine I was way out of my league and he was a great guide in a very human and humane way through this strange experience.

“And the other thing for me that was very moving was that that was the year Jack (Nicholson) was nominated for Cuckoo’s Nest. That year Cuckoo’s Nest won everything. So I was there and it was so sweet and surrealistic for me to be sitting a stone’s throw away from Jack, whom I had done my first movies with, Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail. The most amazing thing was the next day. In the days before you’re at the Beverly Hills Hotel or whatever and every one sends you flowers and calls. People come out of the woodwork to celebrate you and it’s lovely but it’s just completely overwhelming and then the next day it’s like the phone doesn’t work, there’s no ringing. Suddenly the phone stops ringing, there’s no flowers, and who calls me but Jack and he invites me to go with my friend Angelica (Huston) at the time and they took me to El Cholos for lunch. Only Jack would understand what that day is like and what it meant to be included.”

LAB: What a graceful thing to do.

CK: “Oh, so graceful, he’s a very graceful person. It’s almost like when I tell that story I think it can’t be true because it was so graceful but it is true and it is quite a strange thing to wake up the next morning and to realize the air has been completely changed in your room. Everything about it is different.”

LAB: Were you surprised by Joan’s subsequent success after Hester Street, when she went on to make two of the better comedies of the late ’70s-early ’80s period in Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter, respectively, and had her greatest triumph with Crossing Delancey in the late ’80s? I mean, I think she has one of the best bodies of work from that era.

CK: “Yes, she does. Amy Irving (the star of Crossing Delancey) and I are very close friends and we had lunch the other day and we were saying wouldn’t it be fun if somebody did a program, a double feature with Crossing Delancey and Hester Street (the films look at Jewish life on the Lower East Side from contemporary and turn-of-the-last-century lenses, respectively). I think that would be very fun.

“Joan and I tried to do one or two other things together and never got them off the ground and that’s what surprised me more than any success – that it wasn’t a guarantee you could pick up and tell more stories (together). There was another book that was a true story that we had really tried to get done but it didn’t happen. But there’s still time. And we worked for awhile on a play together that also has not yet happened but we really enjoyed working on it. But I’m not at all surprised by any success they have had or would have in the future.”

LAB: I note that you say ‘they’ and so I take it you think of Joan and Ray as a team?

CK: “Yeah, I guess I do. I know that they obviously perform very different functions on a set but at least on Hester Street I did think very much of them as a team.”

LAB: The fact that they’ve endured as a couple for all these years in an industry that’s not conducive to long term relationships certainly indicates they have something very strong together.

CK: “Yes, very unique, very non-show biz.”

LAB: I really appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.

CK: “Sure, and if like in the middle of the night you think of another question, give me a call, but don’t call in the middle of the night, wait till the morning (laughing).”

Leo Greenbaum is collector of collectors of Jewish Artifacts at YIVO Institute

June 9, 2012 6 comments

In the course of my work I meet folks I would ordinarily never meet if I were in some other profession, and one of those is the subject of this profile: Leo Geeenbaum.  Even though we both share Omaha as a hometown, we are years apart in age and come from two very different backgrounds.  I was born and raised here Catholic.  The Jewish Greenbaum was born in Israel and lived there until his teens.  I attended parochial school.  He received traditional Jewish training and attended public school.  We do share, however, the same alama mater for our undergraduate studies, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, though we were separated there by more than a decade.   He long ago left Omaha for the east coast and for several years now he’s worked as an archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, where he’s found an apt home for his scholarly interests and familial-cultural legacy.  The story of the institute itself – it got its start in Europe – and how its founders, workers, and supporters took extraordinary measures to preserve its collections in the face of Nazi persecution is dramatic and heroic, is shared here.  You’ll also learn some things about Greenbaum’s personal connection to the Holocaust.

 

 

 Leo Greenbaum shows visitors a century-old manuscript , © yivo.org

 

 

Leo Greenbaum is collector of collectors of Jewish Artifacts at YIVO Institute 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

In early November the Jewish Press caught up with former Omaha resident Leo Greenbaum, accessioning archivist at the famed YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. Greenbaum was in town to visit friends and family. While here he stayed at the home of author Oliver Pollock, with whom he’s collaborated on articles about the Yiddish Theater and Workmen’s Circle in Omaha. Greenbaum’s mother, Mina, resides at the Blumkin Home. His father Joshua died last year.

Begun in 1925 in Vilna, Poland, YIVO is both a major repository and disseminator of Jewish culture through institute publications, exhibitions, classes, activities and programs. Individuals accessing the collections come from all over the world and all walks of life. The holdings are utilized by historians, authors, journalists, artists, filmmakers, scholars, educators, students and every day folks.

Filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver said that in “researching at YIVO” to inform her and Matthew Goodman’s new documentary on the bagel’s immigrant history in America, she met Greenbaum, whom she described as a “lovely guy, very bright and helpful.”

Inquiries about topics and materials are fielded every day and cover the gamut of Jewish life, as YIVO is well known for the wide scope of its vast archives and library. The collections encompass commerce, politics, religion, the arts, labor, education, family life…you name it. Nothing less than the totality of Jewish endeavor can be found there. Marketing materials refer to YIVO as “the world’s leading organization for the study of Eastern European Jewry and their descendants” around the globe. On shelves, in files and in store rooms lay books, official records, diaries, letters, posters, photos, films, recordings, art works, et cetera. Some are quite rare. Reading rooms and audio/video booths are available for perusing printed materials, listening to recordings or watching films. Walk-ins are welcome but a call ahead of time is advised. Select materials can only be accessed by appointment.

As chief collector for an archive that boasts some 25 million documents spanning the breadth of Jewish experience, Greenbaum is responsible for not only preserving and cataloging the history of a people, but adding to it. Always adding to it. He said the position is a good fit for someone like himself, who is ever curious about history and ever in search of treasures which help illuminate that history.

“It has become my specialty,” he said.

His being there is apt given the tumult that the institute and his own family experienced in the Holocaust. Some of the holdings in his charge today were rescued by brave YIVO staff members, volunteers and sympathizers at the height of the Shoah. Most YIVO artifacts, like most of its workers and supporters, were lost in the war and in the genocide, just as were the members of Greenbaum’s extended maternal and paternal family. His parents only made it out alive by luck and guile. Viewed in this light, his work at YIVO is a testament to all the people and history destroyed. Their legacy is in his hands. The extant articles represent an inheritance for him to safeguard for future generations.

“It’s our job, I suppose,” he said.

 

Ilustracja

Leo Greenbaum welcomes a group at the YIVO Institute, ©Photo: A Rafalovitch

 

 

 

He acknowledges his work has perhaps even deeper meaning for him than for others. “I have sort of personal motivation for YIVO in this respect because I lost my family on both sides in the Holocaust. My father had a large family and they were all wiped out except for himself and one of his brothers. My mother’s family was entirely wiped out. So that’s a personal thing, you know.”

YIVO’s preservation of Yiddish culture resonates with the Greenbaums’ own Yiddish heritage, from the institute’s collection on the Yiddish Theater, which his mother was involved in, to its renowned summer classes that teach the Yiddish language, which his family spoke. “My mother was active in the Yiddish Theater in the Soviet Ukraine,” he said. “She performed with a semi-professional group. Also, my parents spoke Yiddish and I learned it from them. So I have a personal interest. Not all the staff members at YIVO have this background. In fact, some of our archives staff don’t have a Jewish background at all.”

Greenbaum came with his parents to the United States, by way of Israel, as a teen in 1961. The Omaha Central High School and University of Nebraska at Omaha grad was from an early age fascinated by current affairs and the currents of time. Until age 10 he lived in Poland, a bittersweet land for Jews, and the birthplace of YIVO. From ages 10 to 13 he and his family lived in Israel, the sanctuary for so many displaced Jews in search of an ancestral homeland and a new life. It’s no wonder then he pursued post-grad studies, at now defunct Dropsie University, in a field dedicated to archiving fragments of history that inform the past and the present.

YIVO’s Jewish scholarship mission was part of a larger heritage movement led by Jewish intellectuals, scholars and educators in Europe and elsewhere. The idea was to give the masses ownership of their own history. The academy model for YIVO was designed by Max Weinreich, a Yiddish linguist who became its first director. At the start, the fledgling institute was based in Weinreich’s apartment, but it soon grew to a set of rented rooms before constructing a permanent headquarters building in Vilna. Emblematic of Europe’s troubled history, Vilna was variously part of Poland and Lithuania during YIVO’s 20-year lifespan there.

Vilna was chosen as the base for YIVO, Greenbaum said, as its Jewish residents were not as assimilated as those in Warsaw or, for that matter, Berlin, where Jews looked down on Yiddish culture. Besides, he said, “the Vilna Jewish community was a highly developed cultural community. It had several Jewish libraries in it, some of them with quite old and valuable collections.”

Even early in its life, YIVO enjoyed prominent supporters. The original board of directors included Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Impressive names on a letterhead didn’t do much for YIVO’s perpetually short resources though. It largely depended on donations of time and money and materials from those sharing its ideals. Then, as now, YIVO could not afford to pay for acquisitions. Beyond Weinreich and the cadre of professionals he gathered to establish the aims of YIVO and to catalog, exhibit and publish its findings, the institute depended on an extensive network of volunteer zamlers or collectors, working in groups or circles throughout Eastern Europe, to do research and to collect artifacts.

In keeping with its egalitarian, grass roots philosophy, YIVO supplemented its small staff with this army of volunteers who scoured attics, basements, flea markets, antique shops, book stores, public records and all manner of sources and sites for historical finds. YIVO also trained university students in the methodologies of conducting Jewish studies. “The volunteers played a huge role,” Greenbaum said. “They were going around copying communal registers, interviewing folks.” Even today volunteers play a vital role in handling and cataloging YIVO’s huge collections.

He said until YIVO’s formation, Jewish studies tended to be limited to the elite and the old guard, focusing on the distant past, not modern times, and on religious, high-brow subjects rather than secular, working-class ones. Where things like communal registers, periodicals and contemporary Yiddish works of fiction, iwere ignored before, he said, YIVO made these prime areas of study. And where the entrenched old school paid scant attention to the new social sciences, YIVO embraced sociological studies, sending researchers out into the field to interview the proletariat for their impressions and memories and stories.

Special YIVO committees were formed in America, London, South America, Africa and Palestine. A steady stream of artifacts flowed in. The early 1930s were good to YIVO. Yet tempering this sense of pride and surge of interest in a shared Jewish consciousness was anti-Semitic tension. The threat of pogroms was always present for Jews in Europe. Adding to the unease was a post-World War I economic depression and the rise of political parties and social movements that targeted Jews as scapegoats and worked against Jewish coalitions.

 

 

 


The Collections | YIVO Institute for Jewish Research YIVO Vilna Collections Project:


 

 

 

 

By the late ‘30s the climate was poisonous. The Nazi-Communist pact made life miserable for Jews throughout Europe and the Soviet Union. Jewish institutions in places like Kiev and Minsk, where similar initiatives to YIVO had blossomed, were closed. When Poland was invaded by the Germans and Russians in 1940, YIVO’s “trouble started,” Greenbaum said. At first, Vilna was under Soviet occupation. Soviet officials incorporated YIVO into the Lithuanian Soviet Academy of Sciences. They replaced Weinreich with a hand-picked puppet. During the occupation Weinreich was on vacation with his family and ended up surviving the war and relocating to America, where he reestablished YIVO in New York City.

“They (Soviets) were looking for what they considered politically reliable people,” Greenbaum said. “They put somebody who was a fairly low level researcher at YIVO in charge. They changed the personnel. They brought into YIVO material from the Soviet institutions they’d closed. They dumped everything there.”

When the Nazis took over, YIVO was shut down as part of sweeping restrictions that stripped Jews of all enterprises, possessions and rights and isolated them into a ghetto. A special Nazi unit plundered YIVO and other Jewish cultural institutions of treasures for a planned Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt-am-Main. The remaining YIVO materials were removed and put aboard wagons to be shipped by train to sites where the precious cargo would be “turned to pulp,” Greenbaum said. To carry out this desecration, the Nazis selected a group of Jewish workers from the ghetto. However the Nazis did not realize the strong sentiments among the prisoners for the heritage bound up in these items. In acts of defiance and resistance right under their captors’ noses, the prisoners, who came to be known as the Paper Brigade, risked their lives to save and secret out YIVO materials for safekeeping in the ghetto and in the homes of sympathetic non-Jews. “Some of the stuff was literally buried underground,” Greenbaum said.

Eventually, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated and most of its inhabitants, including most YIVO staff, killed. Some in the resistance movement survived, escaping to the outlying forests, to continue their fight against the Nazis. In the fluid chaos of war, Vilna kept changing hands. Near the end, the city came back under the Red Army’s control. In the immediate post-war years, a salvage effort was undertaken by the U.S. Army on behalf of YIVO to locate as much of the confiscated treasure as possible. The few stashes unearthed and few train wagon loads discovered, some in Czechoslovakia and some in Germany, where the artifacts awaited disposal, recovered a portion of YIVO’s holdings. Other wagon loads were never found. “At least one wagon was still in Vilna after the war ended,” Greenbaum said, “and the people working at the train station did not know what it was. They thought it was junk paper and it was pulped. So that material was lost. I don’t think it was done intentionally. It was a mistake. Another wagon disappeared in Czechoslovakia and we don’t know what happened to the materials to this day,”

He said estimates put the amount of original YIVO materials that survived the war at 30 to 40 percent. Even long after the war, caches of scholarship from various Jewish sources continued to surface in the Soviet Union, Lithuania and Poland. part of the plundered YIVO collection was found in Paris, including copies of communal registers. After the Soviet Union fell YIVO negotiated with the new Lithuanian government to copy and catalog a large collection of records, some 100,000 pages worth. In the post-war years YIVO also acquired a host of materials, ranging from Nazi reports on the Jewish question to Nuremberg Trial documents.

 

Max Weinreich

 

 

 

Within YIVO’s own struggles are the stories of heroes who risked their lives to save artifacts. His parents did not save historical artifacts as such, but their survival meant life for Greenbaum and the birth of his interest in Jewish studies, which led him to YIVO and the work he does preserving history. It’s all intertwined.

The life undone his parents faced mirrored that of millions of refugees. Before the war his mother, Mina, acted part-time in the Yiddish Theater and worked part-time in a factory in Kremenchug, Ukriane. His father, Joshua, was from a family of bakers in Zawiercie, Poland. They did not know each other prior to the trouble. Each faced danger alone during the Holocaust, only meeting after the war.

“My mother jumped on the last train out of her hometown in the Ukraine,” Greenbaum said. “She saw people running and her instinct told her to jump the train. She ended up in Tashkent in Central Asia. My father ended up in Russia during the war. He was immediately arrested and put in a Siberian labor camp. It was a very tough camp. He barely survived it. When Russia was invaded by the Nazis he was released as a Polish citizen. He wanted to join the Polish Army but was denied. He worked in factories” the rest of the war and trained as a tailor after it.

The pair met in a refugee camp in Tashkent, Russua. The couple fulfilled Joshua’s wish to return to Poland, settling in the territories, where their only child, Leo, was born in Wroclaw (Breslau). His parents applied to go to America, where Leo’s uncle Jacob emigrated, working the ovens at Adler’s Bakery in Omaha, but a visa was refused. Poland’s Communist regime enforced strict emigration policies. Finally, in the late ‘50s, the restrictions eased enough to allow the family’s move to Israel.

The family settled in Beit Shenesh, then a small, undeveloped immigrant town thick with Moroccan and other North African refugees. History was all about. “Near our yard you could pick up these fragments, like jar handles and things, from Biblical times,” Greenbaum said. “There was an archeological dig done by an Englishman

in the 1920s. He found interesting things and he left all the shards” on the site.

Times were hard in Israel and so Greenbaum’s father left for America in 1960, joining his brother in Omaha. Here, Joshua Greenbaum found work as a tailor at Charles Asmann Clothing Company. A year later he sent for Mina and Leo to join him. Leo had a rough go of it his first full year of school at Central.

“I didn’t know very good English,” he said. “I think I was the only immigrant in the whole school. The teachers were not that sympathetic to me. They would not give me slack on the language thing. I was kind of isolated. But I got my grades and passed all the classes.”

 

YIVO staff and associates unpacking crates in New York, ©yivo.org

 

 

 

Between school and television, he said, “I picked up the language. By the time I was a sophomore I was fluent in English. I was able to keep up with the other students.” As a history major at UNO he would have enjoyed Jewish studies, but none were offered then. A sleight young man, he was deferred from military service during the Vietnam War because he was under the minimum weight, which suited him fine. “I was very skinny and I was not very military-minded anyway,” he said.

His interest in Russian and Eastern European studies led him to Dropsie College in north Philadelphia. Once a leading Jewish studies institution, the nonsectarian Dropsie transformed into the Annenberg Research Institute and was later absorbed into the University of Pennsylvania. To pursue his interest in modern Jewish history he commuted to New York, where he was offered a job with the Bund Archives, the repository for the Jewish Labor Bund, a secular socialist party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He moved to New York in 1978 to work at the archives and in 1989 he was hired by YIVO. Eventually, the Bund Archives merged with Yivo.

Seventeen years into his YIVO career, Greenbaum said he is “now one of the veterans” on staff. He’s seen the institute’s impact continue to grow. Many books, films and exhibitions, for example, have drawn on YIVO’s archives. YIVO’s produced works of its own, notably Image Before My Eyes, an exhibition, a book and a documentary about Jewish life in Poland.

Since YIVOs reincarnation in New York, it’s focused more and more on Jews in America, compiling thousands of case history files of Jewish immigrant applicants, autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and home movies made by Jewish Americans touring Europe before and after WWII. As YIVO continues accumulating new finds, he said, “we’re running out of space. Every archive has the same dilemma — where to store stuff and how to preserve it.” Part of the challenge, he said, is that at YIVO “we collect pretty much everything. We have a pretty wide scope. I’m pretty liberal with what I keep.”

YIVO gets donated items from some unlikely sources. For example, it works with the New York State Insurance Department Liquidation Bureau to access the records of retiring Jewish mutual benefit societies, of which there are fewer and fewer. Serving insurance, charitable, social, even political functions for members, these societies offer a revealing window into various aspects of Jewish American life.

 

YIVO RG 8 Esther-Rachel Kaminska Yiddish Theater Museum, Box 94

 

 

 

Greenbaum fields calls all the time from people who stumble upon old items and call to ask if he wants to see them. He almost always does. “You never know what you’ll find,” he said. Landlords who would otherwise junk stuff that tenants leave behind call. The same with employees from the public or private sector. “They notice something old and interesting and they call us and say, ‘Come over before I throw it out,’ and I come over and pick it up. At least once a passerby on the Lower East Side saw somebody throwing out these huge records on the street and called us, saying, ‘Better come before it’s trashed.’ We came over, along with people from the Museum of Broadcasting, and found these broadcast disks for recording old radio shows like Fibber Magee and Molly. They’re very fragile.”

He said a good proportion of the research done at YIVO today is by lay people digging into their family roots. “It’s third generation nostalgia,” he said. “The first generation is immigrants. The second generation wants to be Americanized. The third generation becomes nostalgic for grandpa’s culture.” He’s not so keen on genealogy himself, preferring instead to explore the arts or politics. He’s a devotee of ballet and opera. He reads a lot. But as he’s learned, you can’t dismiss any area of investigation. After all, you never know what you’ll find.

YIVO is located at 15 West 16th Street in New York. It is closed on Jewish holidays and most federal holidays. For details, call 212-246-6080 or visit www.yivo.org.

 

 

“The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story” – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary

March 16, 2012 4 comments

A highly anticipated project long-in-the-making is Joan Micklin Silver’s documentary, The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story.  She’s best known as a feature filmmaker (Hester Street, Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Crossing Delancey). With this project she has a great take on a favorite and familiar food that’s too easily taken for granted. Like any food that has ethnic origins, the bagel didn’t just show up out of nowhere in the States, it was brought here, in this case from Europe, and then it experienced its own assimilation process that saw it go from obscure ethnic enclave staple to ubiquitous item found in most any grocery store or bakery or coffees shop or convenience store. It’s even in some vending machines. The bagel’s become Americanized to the point few people associate it anymore with its Jewish provenance. But the bagel has a very particular history and heritage and its journey to America and its experience in the America melting pot parallels that of the human immigrants who brought it here, complete with its own labor disputes.  Former Food Maven columnist and best-selling author (Jewish Food: The World at Table) Matthew Goodman is the documentary’s writer. I don’t know when the film will be completed and officially ready for screening, though you can find excerpts and rough cuts of it on the Web. My story below about the film actually appeared some years ago when Silver and Goodman were just launching the project and trying to find investors and sources for it. You’ll find several more stories by me about Joan Micklin Silver on this blog.

“The Bagel: An Immigrant‘s Story”
Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary
 ©by Leo Adam Biga
 Originally published in The Jewish Press
Bagels occupy much of acclaimed feature filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver’s time these days. That’s because the Omaha native and Central High School graduate, best known for Hester Street (1975) and Crossing Delancey (1988), two films about the Jewish experience in America, is preparing to shoot a new documentary that tells the history of the bagel in the U.S. in terms of the classic immigrant success story.  The film is slated to be called, The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story.

Silver was turned onto this story by noted food writer Matthew Goodman, author of the book Jewish Food: The World at Table and the former Food Maven columnist for The Forward. Co-producers on the project, Silver will direct Goodman’s script.

The bagel film project arose from a meeting Silver arranged with Goodman for his insights into the food of the Catskills, the famous East Coast Jewish resort that is the subject of a second documentary Silver is prepping. In the course of their Catskills conversation he mentioned his findings on the bagel and suggested it might make an interesting film.

According to Goodman, long an admirer of Silver’s films, she said, “’Would you like to work together on it?’ Of course, I was delighted. I think she has a wonderful literary sensibility when it comes to her work.”

As research by these first-time collaborators reveals, the rise of the bagel has strong reverberations with the greater immigrant story in America and the assimilation and discrimination that is part of it. “It came from Poland, it struggled and strained and went through everything most other immigrants do before it prospered,” Silver said. “That caught my imagination so totally when we figured that out that we decided, Okay, let’s do this.”

 

Joan Micklin Silver

 

Immigrant tales have long fascinated Silver, whose parents, the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, came here in the wake of the Russian revolution. Hester Street explores turn of the century life for newly arrived Jews on the Lower East Side and their struggles to blend in. Crossing Delancey eyes contemporary Jewish life in Manhattan and the conflict of traditional versus modern values.

The now ubiquitous bagel was brought here by Eastern European Jews, among whose members were artisan bakers steeped in the closely guarded tradition of Old World–read: handmade–bagel baking techniques.

“This was artisanal baking. These guys were the holders of the keys of the kingdom, as it were, when it came to bagels. This was the knowledge of the correct way to bake a bagel that had been passed down from generation to generation, going all the way back. The way to do it was a pretty tightly held secret,” Goodman said.

“They took great pride in their ability. It was not easy to do. The ovens were not easy to work. The dough unwieldy. It took a long time. You had to apprentice awhile before you became a member. So these guys really were craftsmen,” he said.

Unfortunately one of the things lost over time is that sense of artisanship, he added.  “They were masters at making bagels. There was an art to it,” Silver  said. “They were artists and they really cared about the quality of the product.”

Old-style bagels, much smaller than the modern variety, were distinctive for their hard crusts, chewy interiors and savory flavor. The International Bagel Bakers Union Local 338 formed to protect the recipes, methods and interests of the master bagel bakers. Only sons or nephews of current members could join. Every bagel in New York City came out of a union shop.

 With the advent of bagel-making machines that churned out bagels faster than any hands could, the oldways became obsolete and the bagel assimilated into the cultural melting pot, turning blander and fatter in the process.

“Part of the story we’re telling in this film is that the demise of the union really led to the demise of the bagel as well,” Goodman said. “The machine just couldn’t make as good a bagel as the men could, for a number of reasons. One reason being the traditional bagel dough was too stiff to go through the bagel machine. It kept breaking down the machines. So bakery owners started adding water to the dough so it would go through the machines better, but that ended up making the bagel softer. And bagels since that time have gone through all sorts of changes with the addition of dough conditioners, which most bakeries use now, to relax the gluten in the dough immediately so bagels don’t have to sit overnight. It’s a big money saver for the bakery owners, but it reduces the flavor of the bagel significantly.

“A lot of places don’t even boil their bagels anymore before baking them, which is the hallmark of the bagel — boiled before baked. They just sort of steam them because they don’t want that hard crust. They think people don’t want to chew that hard.”

Goodman said the bagel’s transformation from hand-crafted, ethnic food stuff to homogenized, mass-produced staple reflects “the American public’s taste. The American public likes big, soft, bland, white baked goods. But that’s part of the story, too — that as the bagel became less Jewish and more mainstream American it had to take on more of mainstream America’s tastes.” A similar thing happened with pizza and many other ethnic foods whose authentic characteristics were diluted or distorted on the path to Americanization.

The story of the bagel in America is also the story of the IBBU Local 338. Bagel bakers fought hard to improve the arduous conditions they worked in, using their union as leverage in negotiations with employers.

“The conditions were terrible. The heat of the bakery while they were baking got to be like 110 degrees. Bakers often slept on benches in the bakery. They went through a lot. After a great deal of effort, they built a strong union. It was a terrific thing,” said Silver, who is doing much of her studies at the famed Yivo Institute of Jewish Research in New York, where former Omaha resident Leo Greenbaum is associate archivist-acquisitions archivist.
Goodman “discovered” the IBBU while doing research for an essay on the history of the bagel published in the Harvard Review. He’d never heard of the union.

“I just thought it was a fantastic thing, you know, a union composed entirely of bagel bakers,” he said. “And the more I looked into it the more fascinated I became by the story of a union that for several decades controlled all of the bagel bakeries in New York City and then within a span of less than a decade had been wiped out. I thought this was a really poignant story. It’s a little-known story. And also a story that allowed the telling of a larger story about the way ethnic foods assimilate in the larger society and also the demise of the labor movement.”

 Murray Lender helped speed along the bagel’s assimilation

 

 

The IBBU, whose exclusive ranks never exceeded 300-some members at any one time, reached beyond New York, although that’s where it was centered.

“My sense of it is if you were a bagel baker anywhere in the country you were a member…It happened that the vast majority of bagel bakers were in New York, but I believe there were members in places like Chicago and Boston,” Goodman said.

Long before bagel machines replaced them and broke their union, Local 338 brethren faced challenges from bakery owners, who, Goodman said, used “strikebreakers and scabs” to try and crush their solidarity. Resistance to the union included the emergence of “non-union shops,” said Goodman, “many heavily subsidized by organized crime. So, there was certainly a lot to deal with.”

By the mid ’70s the union was no more.

“The older guys retired. Some ended up working in non-union shops, working in much poorer conditions than they had been working in previously. Some joined the general bakers union and went to work in other union shops, not necessarily baking bagels. A lot of the guys left New York and took off around the country to open their own bagel shops. That’s how bagels really got introduced to different parts of the country that had never known bagels before. That’s the first time places like Albuquerque or Sacramento had seen fresh baked bagels,” he said.

Goodman and Silver say a fair number of IBBU bakers are still around, but no one’s quite sure exactly how many. The filmmakers’ plans call for on-camera interviews with many of these men, some quite aged now. There’s a sense of urgency to record and preserve the bakers’ stories before the legacy of their craftsmanship and union is irretrievably lost. For his Harvard Review essay on the bagel Goodman interviewed some of the men, tapping memories of long ago.

Memories of favorite foods, especially aromas, are known to be among the strongest our brains store. As the bagel is a food bound up in ritual, whether along family ethnic lines or urban lifestyle lines or breakfast staple lines, it is a food that serves as a nostalgic “touchstone,” Silver said.

“People think about it and it’s sort of like Proust’s (Marcel) madeleines. It has kind of ringing memories for people.” Her own remembrances of things past take her back to when she was a little girl and her father brought her to a downtown Omaha bakery for “the best rye bread you can imagine and wonderful bagels.” Goodman too recalls the traditional bagels of his childhood.

The filmmakers are counting on the public’s bagel nostalgia, including memorabilia, to help illustrate their story. In a letter recently emailed to Jewish newspapers nationwide, the filmmakers made an appeal: “As part of our research for the film, we are interested in obtaining all manner of visual material concerning the history of bagels in America: old photographs of bagel shops or bagel bakers, home movies that include bagels, newspaper or magazine advertisements for bagels, etc.”

Readers with materials are asked to respond to bagelmovie@hotmail.com. The filmmakers’ letter ends with, “We would be very grateful for any assistance you might provide. We look forward to hearing from you.”

The pair hope to start production in late fall. They must first secure funding.

In a new immigrant twist on the bagel’s evolution in America, the filmmakers say the rare bagel made today in the traditional manner is usually crafted by…Thais. Oy vey!

Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic “Hester Street” Included in National Film Registry

February 9, 2012 5 comments

Women feature filmmakers were fairly abundant at the start of motion pictures but by the time the sound era took off in the early 1930s they were pushed out of the male-centric industry’s directing ranks, save for Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, and really didn’t return again, except for underground or art house filmmakers like Shirley Clark and Barbara Loden, until well into the 1970s.  Elaine May made a big dent in the boys only network with her early 1970s films The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf.  Joan Micklin Silver followed with her own breakthrough, courtesy her 1975 feature debut, Hester Street, whose unexpected success helped open doors to more women filmmakers the remainder of that decade and especially in the 1980s.  Silver and Hester Street are of particular interest to me because she is a fellow Omaha native and her film stands as a landmark screen portrayal of the immigrant experience in early 20th century America alongside Elia Kazan‘s America, America and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II.  As the following story details, the film overcame all odds in just getting made and released and then defied all expectations by becoming a darling of critics and audiences, earning a then-astounding box office take for a small indie film – $5 million, plus a Best Actress Oscar nomination for star Carol Kane.

I have been following Silver for many years – you’ll find some of my other stories about her on this blog – and I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her again in the aftermath of Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry.  I also interviewed Hester Street star Carol Kane, though I won’t have a chance to post anything from my conversation with her until a later date.  Silver, by the way, is one of the most underrrated filmmakers of her or any time.  Her body of work in the 1970s and ’80s, though quite small, can stand with nearly any director’s.  I highly recommend Hester Street, the rarely screened Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter (also known as Head Over Heels), Loverboy, and Crossing Delancey, which for my tastes is one of the best romantic comedies ever made.

The grapevine tells me Silver may be coming back to Omaha (a rare occurrence) for a Film Streams program that Alexander Payne is arranging.  After years of interviewing her by phone and writing about her, I hope to finally meet her.  Stay tuned.

Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic “Hester Street” Included in National Film Registry

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in the Jewish Press

 

Long before Kathryn Bigelow struck a blow for women filmmakers by capturing the Best Director Oscar, Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver made her own Hollywood inroads as a feminist cinema pioneer.

With her 1975 directorial debut Hester Street  she joined a mere handful of women directors then. Just completing the film and getting it released was a major feat. The low budget, black-and-white independent told a period Jewish immigrant story partly in Yiddish with English subtitles.

“With great effort we made the film,” says Silver.

Her script adapted the Abraham Cahan novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. As the eldest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the story held deep reverberations for Silver, who says she gloried in her father’s tales “of what it was like in Russia and what it was like coming over and his first banana.” Hester Street allowed her to commemorate on screen the immigrant experience she sprang from. “I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world,” she once told a reporter.

That the film became a sensation was a small miracle.

“One thing I thought as I was making the movie, ‘Well, who knows if I’ll ever get to make another film,’ and I say that because things were pretty dire for women directors and I really wanted to make one that would count for my family. The immigrant experience was a very big part of my family’s experience.”

Silver feels the film strikes a chord with viewers because “it tells an immigrant story in an interesting, believable and honest way.”

Last November Hester Street’s impact was confirmed when the National Film Preservation Board included it among 25 new selections in the National Film Registry, a U.S. Library of Congress-curated archive of significant American movies. Its citation notes the film’s been “praised for its accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process.”

The honor took Silver by surprise.

“I was really pleased, I had no expectation, and I was delighted to be on the same list with a John Ford movie (The Iron Horse) and a Charlie Chaplain movie (The Kid). It’s pretty exciting,” the longtime Manhattan resident says.

The recognition is doubly satisfying given the difficulty of getting the movie made and released. She recalls one Hollywood executive who rejected the project suggested she change the story to Italians. When no studio would finance the story of early 20th century Eastern Jewish immigrants, her husband Ray Silver, who worked in real estate, raised the $350,000 to do it. He also produced the picture and made sure it got seen.

“Certainly he’s the hero of my story,” she says.

Much of the film was shot where the film is set on New York’s Lower East Side. The tight production schedule meant added pressure. “It was really scary” says Silver. “I remember one day when I went to shoot a scene and the location had not been secured and it took two hours to secure it, so I was two hours behind, and the whole time I was directing the scene I was thinking, How do I make up the two hours? It isn’t what you should be thinking about when you’re directing a scene.”

She’s forever grateful to her collaborators.

“I had a chance to work with such good people. I had a wonderful cameraman and production designing team and costumer, and that makes all the difference in the world to somebody just starting out. And I had such a good cast (Steven Keats, Paul Freedman, Doris Roberts, Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh) and I’m still really close and friendly with Carol (Kane).”

Silver first saw Kane in the Canadian drama Wedding in White and thought her perfect for Gitl, a naive new immigrant wife-mother whose painful assimilation leads to her emancipation. As Silver assumed Kane lived across the border she despaired her meager budget could not afford putting her up for the shoot until learning the actress resided in NYC.

The two felt a connection as Kane came from a Jewish immigrant family not unlike Silver’s and grew up in Cleveland, where Silver once lived. The filmmaker recalls Kane as “a very conscientious, serious, careful, lovely young woman” who went home to rehearse in the sheitel and period jewelry provided for the part.

After all the hard work to finance the film, meticulous research to ensure authenticity and stress to complete the project on time, no studio wanted to distribute it. Silver was heartbroken.

“I went through a bad period thinking, I’ve made this film nobody will distribute, what am I going to do? how are we going to pay the money back?”

On the advice of maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes, the couple distributed it themselves through their own Midwest Films company. And then a remarkable thing happened. Ray entered the film in the Cannes Film Festival and it was accepted. More prestigious festival showings followed. As the film proved a critical and popular darling more theaters screened it. Hester Street became a surprise hit, earning $5 million at the box office and gaining enough industry notice for Kane to be Oscar-nominated, both unheard of accomplishments for an indie pic then.

Silver had the thrill of informing the actress she’d been nominated.

The project established Silver’s reputation as a bankable director. Her subsequent theatrical films include Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Perhaps her crowning achievement was Crossing Delancey, when she revisited Lower East Side Jewish culture in a modern love story poised between Old and New World values. She later directed many made-for-television movies (Hunger Point).

The Central High graduate left Omaha in the early 1950s to pursue a love for writing, theater and film nurtured here. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College she settled in Cleveland, where plays she wrote were performed. In New York she wrote and directed educational films

Her dream of a Hollywood breakthrough was partly realized when her story about the wives of American POWs, Limbo, was optioned and she worked under veteran studio director Mark Robson adapting it to the screen.

“In the end I was replaced as the writer (sharing screenplay credit with James Bridges) on the film. Not knowing very much, I disagreed with the director in meetings and he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and replaced me, which is the privilege of the director.

“But he then invited me – because he knew what I really wanted to do was direct as well as write – to come to the shoot and stay as long as I wanted to avail myself of    anything I wanted to learn about. Of course, I felt very upset I had been let go but I got past it and I said, ‘OK, I’m coming,’ and that was a tremendous learning experience for me.”

Robson’s largess was rare in the misogynist, male-dominated movie field. Besides, Silver notes, “Who wants a disgruntled screenwriter around? So that was very generous of him. He let me look through the camera, he let me review the film’s budget, he let me talk with any of the actors, and I did. It was marvelous. I gained a real understanding of how one sets up a budget for a feature film.”

For Silver, who never formally studied filmmaking, it was her film school. Confident in her abilities, she vowed her work would never be compromised again.

“I think almost everybody who gets along in film seems to have experiences like that because it’s a pretty tough field and you need guidance and you need friendship and generosity, and I was very lucky to have it myself.”

In a sense Silver prepped all her life to make Hester Street. The stories she absorbed from her father previously led her to make The Immigrant Experience for the Learning Corporation of America. For her first feature she again fixed on subject matter close to her heart.

“My father was ill during my teenage years and he was home a great deal, so I spent a lot of time with him. He was looking for somebody to talk to and believe me I was there and I was really happy to talk to him. I’ve always thought immigrants fall into two experiences: those who don’t want to talk about it at all and those who want to talk about it all the time and that was my father – he loved reminiscing about it. As a very bright, questioning man, he was also interested in the world, politics, current events and books. I was so lucky to have talk after talk with such a wonderful father at a time when it was unusual for fathers to talk to their daughters.”

He father died before she became a filmmaker, but her mother lived to revel in her Hester Street triumph. “One of the first things she did when Hester Street came out was make the cover of what would be a scrapbook. Yeah, she loved it and she was thrilled for my success.”

Silver’s interest in immigrant tales continues with her in-progress documentary The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story. She has a feature script in development. Meanwhile, she’s struck up a friendship with fellow Omaha native filmmaker Alexander Payne. The two are discussing a possible Film Streams program with her and her work.

Women’s and indie feature film pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s journey in cinema

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

To date, I have written a handful of extensive pieces on filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver, a seminal figure among women’s and independent feature filmmakers in America. This is one of those stories and the others can also be found on this blog.  Sooner or later I will add a couple much shorter pieces I’ve written about her and her work and her thoughts on women directors in Hollywood. When Kathryn Bigelow made history by becoming the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director (for The Hurt Locker), the first person I thought of was Joan, whom I called to get her to weigh in on what that breakthrough meant to her and to the other women filmmakers. Joan, who began making a lot of television movies in the 1990s, hasn’t made a feature in going on a decade or more, but she has been developing two feature-length documentaries – one on the Catskills and great Jewish women comedians and the other on the history of the bagel in America. I look forward to her completing the projects.

Silver, Joan - still image [media]

Joan Micklin Silver on the set

Women’s and indie feature film pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s journey in cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

When Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver’s directorial feature film debut, Hester Street, proved an unexpected but unqualified critical and commercial success in 1975, women gained a stronger foothold behind the camera in American cinema. The breakthrough independent film, scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband Raphael Silver, paved the way for more women to call the shots in the chauvinistic playground of moviemaking.

Twenty-five years later Micklin Silver has seen women go from being ignored to tolerated to, finally, respected.

“When I started, there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing,” she said by phone from her New York home. “But women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”

Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. It is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.

The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said. Her deep love for the movies was first nurtured in Omaha.

“I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid.”

Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays. Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, to attend Sarah Lawrence College in New York State occurred right around the time her father died. Later, she met Silver, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.

Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of independents John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project. Then fate intervened. At a party she met Joan Ganz Cooney, a founder of the Children’s Television workshop, who put her in touch with Linda Gotlieb, then an executive with an educational film company. Gotlieb fed her freelance script writing work and when Micklin Silver told the company head she wanted to direct as well, she got her wish — writing and directing three short educational films.

One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.

Later, she and Gotlieb formed their own production company. Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With Joan’s properties lying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west.

“A director there by the name of Mark Robson (Champion) wanted to do the film but he had a very different take on it. He saw it as more of a women-without-men kind of thing when it was meant it be a gritty look at the difficulties these women faced and the fact they really couldn’t get a straight story from the military as to where their husbands were or when they were coming home. I went out there and I explained how I felt about the film, and when I got back to New York I was told I was going to be replaced,” Micklin Silver said.

Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.

“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets and cast and crew. It was very helpful.”

Getting that close to a major motion picture further wet her appetite for directing. “It emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’ If he had said, ‘Well, what do you know about it? Why don’t you apprentice at film school first?’ I would have probably said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’ But he didn’t. He gave me support and a sort of permission to try.”

That’s when she and her husband took matters in their own hands and developed Hester Street themselves (under the Midwest Film banner). Besides the novella Yekl, the guts of the movie grew out of Micklin Silver’s Omaha childhood and her beguilement with the tales her Russian-Jewish emigrant family told of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation.

Joan and her older sister Renee (who still resides in Omaha) are the daughters of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin. Their father founded Micklin Lumber Co. Joan said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.”

Her mother, who was only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.

“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So I was attracted to those stories in the first place.”

Her immersion in those tales not only gave her the subject matter for her first film, but later informed her direction of the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond.

Joan Micklin Silver

Although not a Jewish director per se, she has often explored her heritage on film (14 years after Hester Street she revisted the Lower East Side to explore the intersection of old and new Jewish life in Crossing Delancey), most recently in the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Based on a Rod Serling TV script produced live on Playhouse 90, the made-for-cable film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. Mine Enemies marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.

In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller.

Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.”

In her acceptance speech the filmmaker explained how someone from such a goy hometown “could become so addicted to Jewish stories and characters.” She referred, of course, to the stories her family told “…dotted with a pungent Yiddish and much laughter at the human comedy of it all. Such were my introductions to the magnificent and terrifying history of the Jews. When I began making movies I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up.” But, she added, “making movies about the Jewish experience is a dangerous prospect. Every other Jew has an opinion. You can never satisfy everyone. I learned this after an early screening of Hester Street.”

When, despite great reviews at festivals, Hester Street failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called John Cassavetes for advice and was told: “Distribute it yourself.” Ray, who has described it as the “most significant call I’ve made in the film business,” released the film with help from Jeff Lipsky. Made for $400,000, it grossed more than $5 million — then-record earnings for an indie feature.

She followed Hester Street with two decidedly non-ethnic features (Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter) that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. In the past two decades she has directed numerous features as well as films for cable (including A Private Matter for HBO). She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.

Film U.S. 5 - still image [media]

From Crossing Delancey

 

“I used to make it my business to go to every film directed by a woman, just as a kind of show of solidarity” she said, “but I could not possibly do that now because they’re all over the place. They’re making everything from music videos to television films to feature films.”

Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s glad to share her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”

More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film.

“Absolutely. It’s great.” She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the gates of opportunity long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and peers like actress-director Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle) made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed feature films (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with a new short film (Kalamazoo) out.

Of her daughters’ following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”

Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, she still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggles to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality.

A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a romantic relationship. Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.

A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey (adapted from the Susan Sandler play) was picked-up by Warner Bros. and when she was brought in as a hired-gun to direct two screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release), she did not originate. While she enjoyed doing the latter two projects, she prefers generating her own material. “In the end it’s more satisfying to me to be able to make films that I just feel more personally,” she said.

Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new Lifetime original movie drama starring Rita Wilson.

Along the way, there have been many unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.”

She is quick to add, however, filmmaking is a tough field “for everyone. It’s extraordinarily competitive.” Besides her gender, she feels her own idiosyncratic vision has limited her options. Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, the romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss.

Her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, illustrates the point. Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara star as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz. “It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”

Peter Riegert and Amy Irving from Crossing Delancey

 

Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, her films delight in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.

Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.

About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas… and God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”

She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue  partnering on some projects and pursuing others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue.

While rarely returning to her home state anymore, she did accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. On that visit, she drove across state and admired the unbroken prairie.

“I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.”

A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a hoped-for future project called White Harvest, a period piece set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. “It has a great feeling for place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” she said. If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. I want so much to come back to that world.” There’s also a film noir script she’s tinkering with.

Next spring she is slated to direct a film adaptation of a Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime.

Ideas are what feed her work and her passion. “I’m never without something I want to do. It’s your life. What you’re doing…what you’re thinking.” Meanwhile, she’s excited by the prospect of a more dynamic cinema emerging from the rich new talent pool of women and minority filmmakers. “Yeah, it’s going to be a much richer stew, and something all of us can enjoy.”

%d bloggers like this: