“Cutting My Mother,” Reviewed: A Filmmaker’s Ingenious Web Series, Made in Collaboration With His Mom
Real-life relationships have long nourished movies, but it’s rare for directors to film their parents. John Cassavetes was an exception (he filmed both his parents and his parents-in-law), as is Nathan Silver, a current-day Brooklyn-based filmmaker who has often had his mother, Cindy Silver, act in his films. Silver’s best movie, “Uncertain Terms,” which proved him to be one of the most original American independent filmmakers working today, had her at its center. Her presence in his films is crucial to their tone and their form: even as his dramas stick close to their characters’ experiences, Cindy Silver’s presence imbues them with an element of documentary, of meta-performance. She has had prominent roles in four more of his films—and would have been in yet another of them, “Actor Martinez,” from 2016, which he co-directed with Mike Ott, but her performance ended up on the cutting-room floor. That exclusion is the proximate cause of “Cutting My Mother,” Silver’s new Web series, which streams on Topic as of May 1st.
“Cutting My Mother”—which is produced by Jarred Alterman, who is also its cinematographer—is both a moving tribute to Cindy Silver and an ingeniously crafted work of first-person meta-cinema. Made up of four ten-minute episodes, it begins with Nathan’s parents visiting New York City for the première of his film “The Great Pretender,” from 2017, a drama about a playwright who puts her life story onstage and finds that the production transforms her life. Afterward, at an East Village restaurant, Cindy starts discussing her role in “Actor Martinez,” which is a metafictional story about an aspiring actor who is assisted in his ambition by Nathan Silver and Mike Ott. She explains to Nathan that she “bonded” onscreen with the actor Arthur Martinez, who plays himself in the film. She describes a long scene that they filmed together, and then remarks that she was cut from the film. Nathan asks her, “And you said what to me?” Cindy responds, with a smile, “And I said to you, ‘This is the one thing I will never forgive you for.’ ”
“Cutting My Mother” is Silver’s cinematic way of making it up to his mother—by pulling her outside his fictional features and presenting her as herself. His films have implicitly relied on the loam of his family background, but the series considers it directly—both in the display of personal relationships and in the exploration of memory. Moreover, Silver’s way with documentary is as complex as his feature filmmaking. In his features, he displays a seemingly casual yet cannily self-conscious approach to dramatic construction, one that’s akin to the narrative manipulations of the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, but less overtly interventionist. For instance, even that little, calmly bitter exchange that unleashes the premise of “Cutting My Mother” is a mini-drama in which layers of time intertwine.
With each episode of the series, Silver constructs a magic box that similarly interweaves past and present dramatically and on an expanded scale. In their brevity and briskness, the episodes reveal a turbulent depth of experience and give it limpid and crystalline form. He revisits, with Cindy, their past collaborations. He shows an outtake of her scene with Martinez which hints at its unusual personal import to her. He recalls his own childhood and the long-standing fascinations that led him to cast his mother in his films. And he prompts her to discuss her own past—her frustrating childhood, her thwarted dreams, her peregrinations in adulthood through a life from which, to this day, she feels somehow distant.
In “Uncertain Terms,” Cindy plays the founder of a home for single and pregnant young women. In the film, she says (in character) that she was a teen mother herself. In the remarkable second episode of “Cutting My Mother,” she says the same thing, but this time as herself—affirming her own creative role in the development of that character as an expression of her own experience. In that episode, Nathan and his girlfriend, Nicole Fuentes, pay his parents a visit at their house, in Rhinebeck, New York. Childhood photos of Cindy on the walls spark a flood of reminiscences, largely about her enduringly frustrated artistic ambitions. These are amped up by Nathan’s father, Harvey, who displays photos that he took of Cindy when they were young married college students, and shows Nathan and Nicole a student film that he made, in which she appeared. Nathan, as if to compensate both for borrowing from her life and for maintaining control of its depiction, suggests, on camera, that Cindy tell her own story in a movie: she’ll direct the movie, with his help, and Nicole will play her young self.
Cindy flings herself into the effort with enthusiasm, and the results fill the third and fourth episodes of “Cutting My Mother.” The story that Cindy decides to film is centered on her humiliation, in her youth, by a ballet teacher. As eager as Cindy is to play along with Nathan—and as much as her role as the director of her own story remains merely a part in his story—she nonetheless feels a nearly ecstatic sense of recognition at seeing her memories from the outside. Cindy is well aware of her own lack of experience as a director, and there’s a peculiar aspect of her filming that appears to circumvent the cinematic process: though she and Nathan are parked in front of monitors where the film’s images (realized by the cinematographer Hunter Zimny) are on view, Cindy is reacting directly to the action that’s being staged in front of her, as if it were the theatre of her life.
Spoiler: Cindy prefers appearing in Nathan’s movies to directing her own, and her jibing with him about what he’s doing when he directs her—about whether he finds in her “a statement on humankind” or just his own “overbearing” and “neurotic” mother—is itself a casually far-reaching insight about the nature of the personal cinema. That dynamic recurs in home videos of the Silver family, taken by Harvey, which show Cindy waxing sarcastic with the young Nathan about his frequent drawings of her. It’s apparent that, even back then, mother and son shared a creative bond—and that, for Nathan, Cindy has always been a character, a real-life performer who, in her daily life, has always been provocative and impulsively inventive.
One of the crucial tropes of Cindy’s life, as she expresses it in “Cutting My Mother,” is the male domination of family life. She discusses the trouble that she had with the aggressive masculinity of the family in which she was raised, and she declares that the artistic activities of her adult family have been consigned to her husband and her two sons (Nathan and his brother Eric). Despite her expressed joy in family life, she doesn’t conceal her enduring melancholy; it’s as if real life were the offstage sideline to which Cindy were relegated. In his films, Silver has pulled her onto the stage and into the spotlight, but now, in “Cutting My Mother,” he honors the life offstage and the debt that he owes—one far greater than the one incurred by cutting her scene.