An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #2: Hester Street (1975)

Less to say about this one, as it's perhaps more interesting for its novelty value than anything else. What makes it an oddity? For one thing, it was an independently produced, self-distributed film in an era when the word "indie" didn't yet exist and non-studio films were made mostly for the grindhouse. It's a near-plotless film in black-and-white, about a group of Jewish immigrants in 1890s New York, and here's the kicker: writer-director Joan Micklin Silver's commitment to authenticity was so strong that half the movie's dialogue is in fucking Yiddish.

I couldn't believe it either. One of the basic items of disbelief-suspension in American movies is that when characters from non-English-speaking countries talk to each other, they're probably going to speak English, because the movie is for English-speaking audiences who don't want to read subtitles. Not so here. I wonder—did the actors actually learn the dead language, or just train to read their lines phonetically? The only known quantity in the cast is Carol Kane, whose wonderfully subtle performance is several worlds away from her familiar flighty comic schtick. (She was nominated for an Oscar for the role, which is kind of cool.) Her character is an old-worlder just off the boat who's having trouble adjusting to life in America, while her husband, who's already been in New York for a while working at a sweatshop, already considers himself a proud Yankee. That's the only real conflict in this loose, episodic film, which verges on tedium at times but is ultimately rescued by charm and authenticity.

This is surely the only movie ever made to climax in an elaborate Jewish divorce ritual—and still somehow end on a happy, upbeat note. Silver's blithe disregard for audience-coddling makes this a notable film, albeit not the most engaging the decade had to offer. It's no classic, but it's an odd little gem that's both of its time and unique. Oh, and Ray Romano's mom from Everybody Loves Raymond is in it. Jeez, was she ever young? Alas I don't think she speaks Yiddish in the movie. But pretty much everyone else does.

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