Monday, February 20, 2017

Films on Youtube: Hester Street

Thanks to widespread, unchecked criminality, there are currently several truly great films available on Youtube. Some of these films are worthwhile only to the kind of cineaste whose favorite films are a Yugoslavian Black Wave film, a propaganda film by Angolan communist party, and a Paul Shartis film where he tries to feed a comb through a 16mm projector, but there are also a few films that have been excluded from the standard repertory film cycle, the bi-monthly TCM schedule, the Criterion Collection, and every Cool Dad's DVD library for no good reason.

Take for example Hester Street (1975), a female directed film (by Joan Milkin Silver) starring Carol Kane (who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance) and Steven Keats. They play Russian Jewish immigrants in New York navigating the process of assimilation at the end of the 19th Century. Keats will dive into whiteness head first, while Kane clings to her identity with the tenacity of the hasidic communities that have thrived in New York down to present day.

Hester Street is a quintessential 70's American film. If films like Paper Moon, Days of Heaven, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Chinatown feel revolutionary, it was because make a quintessential modernist gesture of establishing a vision for the future by revising a shared idea of the past. New Hollywood dominate mode was a period film meant to interrogate the histories of the filmmaker's parents and grandparents generation, to remind them of their own youthful idealism and messy sex lives and to suggest a redemption of the old in the sexuality and socialism of the young. This circuit of hope and memory is what makes New Hollywood films so vibrant, it's only the period films that look into the past and find nothing they want to project on a better future take on a dusty, academic, pedantic air that afflicts the rest of the genre - and it's the particular affliction of present American art cinema, of the A24 variety, that the new is always forged at the expense of forgetting what came before.

Joan Milkin Silver has plenty to teach contemporary indie filmmakers, unlike some of her male contemporaries, Silver's artistic achievement was not the result of Michael Cimino-sized budget excess. This is a very lean film about fin-de-siecle New York Jews. Silver knows that one of the secrets of low budget filmmaking is building as much of the world as you can in an actor's face, and Carol Kane and Steven Keats carry that burden with aplomb. The former sews the world down to grey realism, the latter tears it out again for both tragi-comic artifice. Kane carefully embodies a thousand period details that come from the source novel, her performance shows all the pain of dislocation, forced assimilation, and patriarchal dominance women like her had to endure. Keats cartoonish mugging gives all the cruelty, all the drama, all the rough edges of the production a sort of dreamy unreality, which allows them to be viewed distantly, like a Brechtian alienation technique. Every element of the film manages this balance between responsible representation and loose suggestion. The final effect is like a Kathe Kollwitz drawing: sketched, but in no way incomplete.