Note: This essay features excerpts from Daniel Kremer’s forthcoming book Joan Micklin Silver: From Hester Street to Hollywood.
Charles arrives for Thanksgiving dinner at his vampy, neurotic mother Clara’s house. In tow is his best friend, the “unemployed jacket salesman” Sam. The kooky, usually bathtub-ridden Clara has somehow managed to emerge all gussied up in a rather lavish party gown. Considering her psychosis, everything seems too good to be true, but of course there is a catch: she has neglected to prepare any of the food for the meal. Before they know it, she’s revelling in the declaration “There isn’t any dinner!” As she erupts in wild, manic laughter at her oversight, her two guests look on incredulously. Charles, for one, is speechless.
“I guess the joke’s on us,” Sam deduces. Indeed: “That’s right! The joke’s on you!” (Incidentally, in my family, this scene is legendary, a classic; the utterance of “There isn’t any dinner! The joke’s on you!” incites at least a cockeyed smile.)
This is an apt microcosm for Chilly Scenes of Winter as a whole. The film, reduced to simplest terms, is about people all dressed up with no place to go and nothing to do. No one else is left to care that life has deceived them. They are left in the cold, ostensibly ready for love, but unable to find it, fully receive it, or in any way live with it. So, what is there to do except laugh to spite the pain of a chilly reality?
Above all, the film is about people who consistently set themselves up for disappointment. Screenwriter and director Joan Micklin Silver observes, “Everyone, at some time in their life, has loved someone more than that someone has loved them.”
At the center is the Sentimental Man, and this all sees its root in literature. In the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel This Side of Paradise, the woebegone Amory Blaine defines a sentimental person as someone who “thinks things will last” and a romantic person as someone who “has a desperate confidence that they won't.” Through the prism of that profundity, Chilly Scenes of Winter and a significant number of Joan Micklin Silver’s films construct a tragicomic reality, where two threads – the comedy of the romantic person, and the tragedy of the sentimental person – are braided. Her skill as a director lies in her uncommon mastery of tonal acrobatics. One can even trace a clear trajectory that Silver’s films follow when applying Fitzgerald’s insight as a navigational tool.
Silver considers one of the other themes of Chilly Scenes of Winter: “I can still see a funny thing in unrequited love. And when things are very funny, I still see a sad thing in them. I’ve always thought that that’s a little bit Jewish, a little bit female, that there’s a kind of a point of view that sees the material a little bit differently. When I wrote the script of Chilly Scenes of Winter, which went very easily, I had been thinking about it and just knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Silver is certainly no stranger to Jewish content, having helmed Hester Street (1975) and Crossing Delancey (1988), both of which are now rightly considered classics of Jewish-American cinema. The sub rosa “Jewishness” in Chilly Scenes of Winter – though it lacks explicit Jewish characters – is woven into its fabric in such a way as to be oddly pronounced. Charles’s sporadic direct-to-camera addresses break the fourth wall at infrequent, uneven intervals, playfully refining the style of Woody Allen’s asides in Annie Hall (1977) two years prior. In Charles’s sardonic narration, he often digresses in a manner that suggests the occasional whimsicality of Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth (as in accounting his grandfather’s suicide after a hunting expedition, or when he submits the story of Jacques Cousteau’s beloved dolphin as a metaphor for his current condition). Although some of these digressions are extracted verbatim from the text of Ann Beattie’s novel, Silver’s structuring and delivery of them suggest an alternate sensibility that departs from Beattie’s.
In Silver’s world, the character Charles Richardson, though clearly a handsome Gentile, is a nebbish, and specifically so as “nebbishness” stood as the classic trait defining the Jewish film hero in the seventies (Woody Allen, Elliott Gould, and Dustin Hoffman being the titans). Despite his moments of charisma, humor, and gallantry, Charles’s sexual frustration and resulting malaise (two more cinematic and literary Jewish traits) are rendered with conflicting tones. When Andrew Sarris professed that Chilly Scenes of Winter was “a very funny film” all the more so because “the laughs are all the richer for being tinged with sadness and desperation,” and also when Kenneth Turan stated that “it will make you laugh to keep from crying,” this is the very aspect they were suggesting.
Silver’s humor cannot help but bespeak Jewish humor in general, in that Jewish humor is of a disenfranchised people who have leaned on a world-weary wit from time immemorial, to spite the hostile attitudes oh-so-traditionally directed their way. Thus, finding unexpected laughs in personal misery is a centrally Jewish conceit. The audience is expected to chuckle at the sight of Charles parked outside an elementary school stalking Laura as she picks up her stepdaughter Rebecca (like a common creeper), or when Charles puts Laura’s “family” to bed in an A-frame dollhouse that replicates the house in which Laura lives with her family.
Charles’s pathological behavior, which would be treated as a serious, maybe even grave, central predicament in the hands of another director, is given a full-bodied comedic anchor in Silver’s hands. As comedy, the film is a daredevil high-wire act. To the unattuned, perhaps the question of “Is this supposed to be funny?” might persist. Silver leaves no question that she thinks it is, and makes it so easy to follow her down the road she paves. After all, it is not uncommon even for a rabbi to take a stab at humor at a funeral.
Daniel Kremer lives in San Francisco, California. He has written for Filmmaker Magazine and Keyframe, and is the author of the book Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films (available through Patrick McGilligan’s Screen Classics Series). He is currently writing a book about the life and films of Joan Micklin Silver, due in 2018. Starring John Heard, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Riegert, Kenneth McMillan and Gloria Grahame, Chilly Scenes of Winter, featuring an Audio Commentary with writer/director Silver and producer Ann Robinson, plus an Isolated Track of Ken Lauber’s score that includes some unused music positioned as originally intended, debuts on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray February 14. Preorders open February 1.