Unsung Auteurs: Marisa Silver

July 21, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: the hugely promising and now sadly retired filmmaker turned successful novelist Marisa Silver.

It’s disappointing enough seeing gifted, sensitive, highly original filmmakers doing the bulk of their work turning out instalments of episodic television rather than focusing on their own big screen projects. It’s even more disappointing, however, when directors of great promise opt – for a variety of understandable reasons – to pull out of filmmaking altogether. And while Marisa Silver is now a highly regarded professor and very successful author (with the acclaimed novels The Mysteries, Mary Coin, Little Nothing, No Direction Home and The God Of War to her credit), it’s difficult not to lament the director that she could have been when considering her film work during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Being a talent-blessed but under-celebrated director would actually appear to be in Marisa Silver’s blood: she is the daughter of two talent-blessed but under-celebrated directors herself. Silver’s mother is the late Joan Micklin Silver (who helmed a number of interesting flicks, including 1975’s Hester Street, 1977’s Between The Lines, 1978’s Chilly Scenes Of Winter, 1988’s Crossing Delancey and several more) and her father is the late Raphael D. Silver (who directed two films – the compelling 1978 prison flick On The Yard and the little seen 1987 drama A Walk On The Moon – and produced several for his wife), with both passing down their deep sense of humanism and interest in stories told in a minor key.

Marisa Silver at The Sundance Lab in the 1980s.

Marisa Silver started her film career while studying Visual Studies at Harvard, where she directed the 1977 short film Dexter T and edited the documentary Light Coming Through: A Portrait Of Maud Morgan. Marisa Silver made her major directorial debut in 1983 with the 55-minute Emmy nominated PBS documentary Community Of Praise. A co-direct with legendary documentary cinematographer and director Richard Leacock (who famously shot the seminal Monterey Pop for D.A. Pennebaker), the film follows a family with fundamentalist religious beliefs and tracks how this affects their everyday lives and relationship with the community around them.

Silver’s debut proper came the following year at the age of just 23 with 1984’s now largely (and tragically) forgotten Old Enough, a wonderfully sensitive and involving coming of age drama that is surprisingly and thankfully easy to access due to the wonders of the internet. The New York-set story of the unlikely friendship that develops between streetwise twelve-year-old Karen (Rainbow Harvest) and upper class eleven-year-old Lonnie (Sarah Boyd), Old Enough is wholly and winningly sympathetic to its beautifully drawn characters (Silver also wrote the script), and boasts fine central performances and excellent early work from Danny Aiello (terrific as Karen’s abusive father), Roxanne Hart and Alyssa Milano. Old Enough premiered at The Cannes Film Festival and then went on to win the top prize at The Sundance Film Festival, and stands as a 1980s coming of age charmer in desperate need of rediscovery.

Keanu Reeves in Marisa Silver’s Permanent Record.

Marisa Silver’s next film, however, was even better. Equally under-celebrated, 1988’s Permanent Record is a wrenching, utterly devastating story of teen suicide and the pain and suffering that shudder in its wake. When smart, popular high school musician David Sinclair (the fine Alan Boyce) ends his life, his family and friends (including Keanu Reeves in one of his best performances, along with Pamela Gidley, Jennifer Rubin and the delightful Michelle Meyrink, in her final film appearance before her premature retirement from acting) thrash and ponder over the reasons why. As with Old Enough, Silver’s understanding of and feeling for her youthful characters is nothing short of stunning.

On top of the film’s heartbreaking levels of emotion, Permanent Record also has an undeniable sense of cool, boasting a musical score by The Clash’s Joe Strummer and a cameo appearance by Lou Reed. “Permanent Record is Silver’s second feature, after the wonderful Old Enough,” wrote esteemed critic Roger Ebert. “In that film and this one, she shows that she has a rare gift for empathy, and that she can see right to the bottom of things without adding a single gratuitous note.”

Diane Lane in Marisa Silver’s Vital Signs.

Following on from the tweens of Old Enough and the teens of Permanent Record, Silver graduated to a group of medical students with 1990’s Vital Signs, a lighter and far less consequential work than her previous films. Entertaining but not wholly bracing, the film is filled with romance and drama, and features solid leading performances from the always lovely Diane Lane and the charismatic Adrian Pasdar, with strong support from Jimmy Smits, Jane Adams and Laura San Giacomo. Though Silver’s most obviously commercial film, Vital Signs pulses with the director’s characteristic humanism, and her sense of warmth overrides some of the standard beats in the screenplay.

Silver’s next film, however, was far more interesting. It would also be her final big screen effort. A truly high concept affair, 1991’s He Said, She Said looked at the same romantic relationship from the distinctly different perspectives of the male and female parties. Starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins, the film replays the same scenes from different POVs, and the results are fascinating. Pushing the concept even further, the film is an ingenious co-direct, with Silver helming the female half and her then boyfriend (and now husband) Ken Kwapis behind the camera for the male section of the film. He Said, She Said is fresh, funny, charming and pertinently biting on gender issues. It also very sadly prompted Marisa Silver’s voluntary withdrawal from the world of filmmaking. “It was a very formalistic project and we had a good time,” she told Pif Magazine in 2010. “But when I was finished with that, and thinking about what to do next, I had a very strong feeling that the next thing I needed to do was to no longer make movies.”

Ken Kwapis and Marisa Silver, directors of He Said, She Said.

And that, disappointingly, was pretty much that. Outside of the 1992 telemovie Indecency (a thriller starring Jennifer Beals and James Remar) and an episode of the popular TV series L.A Law, Marisa Silver’s career as a director was effectively over. “I felt very strongly that the stories I was telling weren’t the stories I wanted to tell,” Silver told Pif Magazine in 2010.  “What interested me – human behaviour, the nuance of character, the life that exists in shadows and moments – was not, for the most part, the stuff of film. I wanted to tell stories but I had a very profound realisation that I was working in the wrong medium. I started to write stories. And then I thought it might be time to finish that education that I’d taken a rather long break from, so I put myself in graduate school. Was it hard to leave the world of filmmaking? For me, it felt absolutely essential. I knew that as a filmmaker, I was on a very fast-moving, sometimes exciting train, but that it was the wrong train taking me to the wrong place. I’m so glad that I was conscious enough to understand what felt wrong to me about working in film and what felt right to me about sitting alone in my room writing stories.”

Marisa Silver’s career change was obviously the right one for her, but for those who adore her film work, it’s a profoundly bittersweet one. While it’s incalculably great to have grand, gorgeous novels like Marisa Silver’s The God Of War and The Mysteries, it would be even better if this gifted individual was making movies too. Or maybe that would just be greedy of us…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs John Mackenzie, Ida LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins


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