Around the World in 12 Days

"Views of Merchant Ivory:
3 Continents, 14 Films"
Oak Street Cinema, starts Friday

On the surface, the phenomenon that is "Merchant-Ivory" seems simple, like a shopping list: tweeds, linens, stiff upper lips. A taste of the Raj, a fondness for motorcars with brass trim, a weakness for drawing rooms. A belief that Western culture was both at its peak and starting to fall apart somewhere around 1925. Some comedy, some of it barely noticeable. Some drama, much of it well-meant but not always actually dramatic.

Life is a box of chocolates: Felicity Kendal in Merchant-Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah
Life is a box of chocolates: Felicity Kendal in Merchant-Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah

Based on the long-standing collaboration of producer Ismael Merchant (born in India) and director James Ivory (born in California), "Merchant-Ivory" is in some circles a knee-jerk adjective. When Minnie Driver recently said she was worried her new film The Governess could be too "chocolate-boxey," she was hoping it would set itself apart from Merchant-Ivory's A Room with a View, Howards End, or The Europeans.

Given the films' lavish and detailed production design, the Merchant-Ivory mystique has been both easy to explain and easy to mock. Yet Oak Street Cinema's 12-day, 14-film "Views of Merchant Ivory" provides some not-so-familiar titles as well as some contrary opinions. At the same time, the series's subtitle, "3 Continents, 14 Films," makes it clear that this pair's view of the world is often so preoccupied with culture that it can lack gravity. "You see, I have no money of my own, and I still have to make my way in Nigeria," says a bland young man to Helena Bonham Carter's refined lady at the beginning of Howards End (screening Saturday and Sunday, September 12 and 13). "It's beastly hot there for a white woman," he continues, adding as an apology: "I say, I do think you're a ripping girl."

Dialogue like this--not to mention the motorcar in the background while it's being spoken--is just archaic and ludicrous enough that laughter is a logical response. But Howards End, a drama about real estate and barely expressed class conflict, among other themes, is still a solid and subtle movie. This is in part because, like many of the best Merchant-Ivories (the term can be a noun, too!), it is more "literary" than other movies: It's not just based on a book by a respected (and dead) writer, it's written with a full cast of complex characters who are distinct from one another. Thanks in large part to the third-and-equal element in the Merchant-Ivory machine, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (born in Poland), the stories and scripts of their movies are often rich and conceptually detailed.

Cinematically bland as they may be, the Merchant-Ivory movies do manage to convey the delicacy of social interactions in both visual and verbal terms. Plots are not so much about deadlines or goals but understandings to be reached--or associations to be lost. "Events" in these movies are moments when a character's self-definition collides with cultural convention, as it does for the frisky slave Sally Hemmings (Thandie Newton) in Jefferson in Paris (Wednesday and Thursday, September 16 and 17); the earnest, impoverished teacher (Shashi Kapoor) in the 1963 film The Householder (Tuesday, September 15, and Saturday, September 19); the potentially eroticized and liberated colonialist's wife (Greta Scacchi) in Heat and Dust (Friday, September 11, and Wednesday, September 16).

Over and over, Merchant-Ivory(-Jhabvala) have told the story of a person who realizes he or she is something else, maybe even something new, and who almost indirectly tries to convince the world of it. There can be principle involved--in Maurice (Friday, September 11, and Monday, September 14), the outright confidence of the title character (James Wilby) in his homosexuality, or, in Jefferson in Paris, the speechifying banter of Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte)--to the extent that these films might be said to represent a "cinema of ideas," like the comedies of manners or rite-of-passage narratives that are their bookish sources.

This orientation to story and character is no guarantee of sophistication, of course. A frequent M-I dodge is to build tension by having one character say something and have another either not respond at all or with a Clintonian irrelevancy. The schoolteacher's boss in The Householder is a particularly obtuse fool, and consequently hilarious, because he ignores his poor employee's elegant complaints to expound on his dumb philosophies. On the other hand, the "decadent" Parisian expatriates in M-I's claustrophobic drama of sexual manipulation, Quartet (Sunday, September 13, and Tuesday, September 15), and the absurdly caricatured "downtown" artists in Slaves of New York (Saturday and Sunday, September 12 and 13), are just plain silly.

Dressed up so fashionably, but lacking fancy shots or effects, the Merchant-Ivory films do benefit from what is still an "independent" filmmaking attitude. At times they can be incredibly blunt and ahead of their time: A doctor's description of abortion in Heat and Dust is downright clinical, as is the sex-lesson-in-the-sand at the start of Maurice. Merchant-Ivory movies have also been unafraid to show male frontal nudity, though not often with much impact. (A clumsy "erotic photo" session in Quartet is one of the movie's funniest moments.)

There's an even stronger payoff to this "literary" frankness when you compare characters or themes across their entire body of work. Though they've made movies in India, England, the European continent, and the U.S., Merchant and Ivory (and Jhabvala) have almost obsessively pursued stories about people who are between cultures: the Anglos in India (plus a few comical Americans), the Indians who speak English rather than Hindi or Urdu, the English in Paris or Italy or Germany. This notion of a character who is both-and-neither is actually an old, reliable American theme, drawn from the postcolonial time--think of the Leatherstocking himself, or John Wayne's cowpokes who also speak "Comanch." (Tellingly, M-I's next movie--opening at the Uptown on September 25--is A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, based on the lives of novelist James Jones's children in Paris.)

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