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Home Vision Entertainment presents
Hester Street (1975)

"Maybe tomorrow you'll take me out to see America, too."
- Gitl (Carol Kane)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: January 04, 2005

Stars: Carol Kane, Steven Keats
Other Stars: Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh, Doris Roberts
Director: Joan Micklin Silver

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:29m:03s
Release Date: December 21, 2004
UPC: 037429200629
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- A-A-B B-

DVD Review

The founding fathers of our dream factory were largely immigrants or first-generation Americans, but over its first decades Hollywood was not especially candid about the immigrant experience in America. In many respects, new Americans went to the movies to learn how to be American who wouldn't want to walk and talk and act like Spencer Tracy or Henry Fonda or Clark Gable? Neal Gabler, in his excellent book An Empire of Their Own, documents how the early impresarios were eager to offer up a cheery, sanitized version of their homeland, and to bleach out any and all references to the old country. We know, of course, that the transition wasn't so seamless nobody stepped off of the boat and onto the soundstage. But it took many years and a couple of generations for the movies to re-examine this part of our history, and it has happened nowhere better than with this lovely and understated film.

Joan Micklin Silver's debut movie is set on New York's Lower East Side in 1896, and the degree of specificity with which she and her crew re-create that world is staggering and wonderful. The story is set in the community of Central and Eastern European Jews, passing through Ellis Island to the land where allegedly the streets are paved with gold; the sheer numbers of newcomers are overwhelming, and hence the stratification among them is that much more fierce. Someone who has been here for a year or two can have a good laugh at the greenhorn just off the boat; and it's that transition from the Old World to the new one that's at the heart of this movie. Jake (Steven Keats) works over a sewing machine for hours each day; he was Yankel on the other side of the Atlantic, but he's given himself a new name, developed a love for baseball, and brought with him an eye for the ladies. What the objects of his affection don't know (and what we don't learn at first) is that Jake has a wife and son; it's their arrival in New York that sets the story in motion. Jake's wife, Gitl (Carol Kane), wants to cling to the old ways; her English is poor, and she wants to protect her son, Yassele, whom his father renames Joey, a good American name. Jake has been romancing Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh); what's he to do with his girlfriend now that his wife is in town? Can this marriage survive the journey to the new world?

That's the question at the heart of the film, and though the story begins as Jake's, it is in almost all respects Gitl's movie, and Kane turns in a terrific performance. She doesn't understand her husband's relentless need to Americanize everything about himself, and their relationship makes manifest the classic tension between the desire to assimilate and the desire to hold on to one's heritage and ethnic identity. But Kane's Gitl is no mouse: scorned, she can be unforgiving, almost Biblical in her wrath. Much of Kane's dialogue is in Yiddish; Gitl's English improves as the story goes on, but whatever language she's speaking, Kane offers clarity and layers of nuance. She has rarely since been given a part with this kind of complexity, and that's an awful shame.

Jake is a louse, and Keats plays him well; it's a rough role, because he's kind of obnoxious and hopelessly stuck on himself, but Keats doesn't give in to the trap of trying to make Jake sympathetic. Kavanaugh can be a little cartoony, and Doris Roberts, as Gitl's neighbor and ally, pushes it a little bit, too; much more understated and powerful is Mel Howard as Bernstein, Jake and Gitl's boarder, a scholar in the old country who spends his days sewing hems in the promised land.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The black-and-white photography is particularly evocative of the time and place; perhaps because it's a period piece, the workings of time on the print don't seem quite as devastating as they might. There are a fair number of scratches; this was a low-budget film, and it's evident here, though the transfer seems to have been done with care, and the gray levels are frequently spectacular.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish and Yiddishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The bilingual mono track has some dynamics and sync problems—the low end of the range is especially troublesome—but it's pretty well rendered here.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Joan Micklin Silver and Raphael Silver
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet with an essay by Victoria A. Brownworth and Judith M. Redding
Extras Review: Four interviews, recorded in 2004, demonstrate the fondness the filmmakers retain for the project. In the first, Carol Kane (09m:04s) talks about getting cast, and her acting process; Silver was the first female director for whom she had worked. Doris Roberts (08m:21s) loves the movie, but she loves Doris Roberts more, and decides to give a speech on the craft of acting. Joan Micklin Silver (13m:45s) discusses the trials of being a woman director, the material on which the project was based (a story by Abraham Cahan), and the difficulty of casting; she was inspired by Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, and got some editing tips on this project from Elia Kazan. Her husband and producer, Raphael Silver (14m:28s), a real estate investor, raised $350,000 to give his wife this opportunity, for which he was rewarded by being shaken down by the Teamsters. They're a delightful couple, and distributed the movie themselves; they got some pointers on this from John Cassavetes, who had recently been down this path with A Woman Under the Influence.

The Silvers also sit for a commentary track, in which they discuss the labors involved in getting the authenticity they strove for, and how, with only one camera, they were still able to bring the movie in on time and under budget. By the second half of the movie, though, they've sort of run out of steam, and only occasionally chime in with comments about moment-to-moment nuances in the acting choices. Also on hand is an excerpt (17m:39s) from Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, providing some useful cultural context for the world of the Silvers' story.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

A carefully and well told story that's more than just a parable of the immigrant experience in America; it's an evocative and lyrical movie, with an extraordinarily strong central performance from Carol Kane.

 


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