The place of the 'civilized' movie on today's screen

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James Ivory and Ismail Merchant make civilized movies.

That's a rare pursuit these days, and it has its drawbacks. Studios prefer to invest in big-budget blockbusters, which makes intimate pictures hard to finance.

Moreover, today's audiences lean toward John Belushi and lost arks rather than Henry James and Jane Austen, to mention just a couple of names Ivory and Merchant have brushed against lately. Civilization is not all the rage at our neighborhood theaters just now.

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Yet these enterprising artists have made a go of it. In fact, director Ivory and producer Merchant are celebrating their 20th year as a team, from ''The Householder'' in 1962 through ''Quartet'' and ''Jane Austen in Manhattan,'' which are currently opening across the United States. In between have come such respected titles as ''Shakespeare Wallah'' and ''The Guru,'' ''Roseland'' and ''The Europeans.''

It's a long list -- 17 features in two decades -- and an elegant one. Not all its entries have found audience applause, critical praise, or black ink on the ledgers. But as a body of work, they have earned enormous respect for Ivory and Merchant, even from viewers who quarrel with their approach.

And a distinctive approach it is. Ivory likes a leisurely style, letting a story take its time to unfold, with the burden of interest falling on character rather than plot. He also has a high regard for scenic design. The settings can seem as important as the actors and the actions.

In all these strategies, he has willing collaborators in producer Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who has been a third member of the team on nearly all their projects. Together they have invented their own brand of cinema: deliberate, contemplative, and, well, civilized.

As part of their 20th-anniversary celebration, Merchant/Ivory Productions is sending an extensive sampling of its work to theaters in various American cities. A complete Merchant-Ivory retrospective is due in New York at the Museum of Modern Art late this year or early in 1983, and similar programs are being prepared for London and Bombay.

In addition, two Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala films are now in first-run release. One is ''Quartet,'' based on a brooding Jean Rhys novel -- in fact, it improves on the novel, especially at the end -- about a young woman on the loose in Paris after her ne'er-do-well husband is jailed. The other is ''Jane Austen in Manhattan,'' a flawed but often fascinating yarn about a rare playscript by Austen that piques the interest of two rival theater groups which want to stage it - one as a traditional opera, the other as an avant-garde outburst.

Meanwhile, Ivory and Merchant have just headed for Europe to oversee their latest production, ''Heat and Dust,'' with Julie Christie as a woman who visits India to unravel the facts of a long-ago family scandal. When it is finished, the team will move on to ''The Bostonians,'' based on a Henry James work. The stars will be Christopher Reeve, Jody Foster, and Blythe Danner. Anticipation for this one will be high, since the last James opus by Merchant and Ivory -- ''The Europeans'' -- is among their most successful productions.

Over the years, Merchant-Ivory movies have fallen into three categories. Their early films were heavily influenced by India -- ''The Householder,'' ''Shakespeare Wallah,'' and ''Autobiography of a Princess'' among them. Equally respected are such literary adaptations as ''The Europeans,'' from James, and ''Quartet,'' from Rhys. And, a fact sometimes forgotten by Merchant-Ivory fans, there have been original screenplays having nothing to do with India or literary classics: ''Roseland,'' for example, and the new ''Jane Austen in Manhattan.''

Controversy has followed all these films, and others by the Merchant-Ivory team. Many critics have objected to their halting pace. What's restful to one viewer may be lackadaisical to another. Ivory's intensely pictorial style has been accused of masking a lack of energy and imagination. Films hailed by some as bold and deliberate have been slammed by others as just plain boring.

There is truth to some of these criticisms, especially with regard to some of the weaker Merchant-Ivory productions. It's easy to sympathize with viewers who have trouble staying awake during ''Roseland,'' for example, and even the ingenious ideas behind ''Jane Austen in Manhattan'' are weakened by too many dead spaces among the genuine dramatics and poetics. Other examples could be chosen without looking very far.

In celebrating the Merchant-Ivory anniversary, though, the point is not to rehash old criticisms. Rather it's to cheer the integrity, the originality, and -- not least in these dog days of cinema -- the very existence of a team that has believed in something worthwhile, found a way to realize its vision, and stuck to it no matter what.

How does the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team go about choosing its various projects, ranging about the globe and covering subjects as varied as dance halls and expatriates? Ivory and Merchant answered that query over lunch recently in New York.

''Our films reflect our lives -- where we've lived, what we've done, who we know -- and our interests,'' Ivory said. ''Where else could they come from?''

Though he looks at life from a cosmopolitan viewpoint, that doesn't mean a new idea will appeal to Ivory just because it's exotic. ''There are lots of places in the world, and even in the United States,'' he maintains, ''where I couldn't just go and make a film arbitrarily. The place and the subject have to be something I know about and feel something about.''

Ideas for new projects usually begin with director Ivory. The other members of the team, Merchant and Jhabvala, generally concur. But there are exceptions: The highly regarded ''Roseland,'' for example, was a Merchant suggestion -- and Ivory, by his own admission, ''had to be dragged into it.'' In retrospect, of course, he is delighted that the dragging succeeded.

Do the filmmakers have a particular audience in mind when they embark on their projects? Yes, says Ivory. ''It's the generally literate audience in this country -- and England, and France, and anyplace. I'm talking about fairly mature, educated, sophisticated people. We don't really aim at any group, large or small. But I suppose the people we appeal to are the same ones educational television goes for. And I suppose that's why we survive.''

Merchant agrees, adding that ''we do appeal to all ages, and not just segments of the audience.'' The important thing is the team's commitment ''to film, and not just to blockbusters.'' That's what limits the number of its fans, but ensures the maturity of the productions.

Not surprisingly, the insistence on personal and meaningful projects has prevented the Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala team from sliding into the well-oiled Hollywood machine. They have always been something of an oddity in the movie world, working alongside but never quite within the system.

This pattern began with their first film as a team, ''The Householder,'' based on Miss Jhabvala's own novel. ''We wanted to film it,'' recalls Merchant, ''but we were told right away that Hollywood would never be interested. So we did it on our own.'' They have been working with similar independence ever since , though Ivory grants that ''there's always been a tenuous link with the system.'' Indeed, on such pictures as ''Shakespeare Wallah,'' ''The Guru,'' and the new ''Quartet,'' they worked directly with Twentieth Century-Fox, a Hollywood mainstay if ever there was one. ''But,'' Ivory insists, ''we have never changed a picture so it would be more conducive to studio financing.''

To date, the most successful Merchant-Ivory pictures - measured by the number of viewers - are ''Quartet,'' ''The Europeans,'' ''Shakespeare Wallah,'' and ''Savages.'' Ivory's own favorite is ''Autobiography of a Princess,'' among the Indian films, and probably ''Quartet'' among the others. Merchant favors ''Shakespeare Wallah'' from the Indian batch, along with ''The Europeans'' and ''Quartet.''

Their most expensive project was ''Quartet,'' at $2.1 million - about 20 percent of the average Hollywood budget. At least one feature, ''Bombay Talkie, '' apparently didn't even earn its costs back, though there is some disagreement about the details. Says Merchant, ''It was made for under a million, and we sold it to TV for a million.'' Returns Ivory, ''But they didn't make the second payment!''

Such are the vicissitudes of the low-budget movie life. Moreover, says Merchant, ''We have had the experience of making a movie other people wouldn't touch, and then having it bought by a major company when it is completed. They wouldn't gamble on the original novel or the talent, but they certainly would gamble on the finished product.''What's the secret of achieving success with such an unlikely project? ''Start with a good idea, then spend a minimum amount of money, putting it where it counts, not on frills. You can get a wonderfully opulent look that way.''

The team of Ivory, Merchant, and Jhabvala is international in fact as well as in outlook. As producer Merchant describes it: ''India is my country and America is my second home. Ruth is European and has adopted America. Jim is American, with an interest in India and Europe.''

Their meeting was as fortuitous as it was fortunate. Ivory, a budding filmmaker from Oregon, was breaking into the business with short documentaries on artistic subjects. While shooting a movie on Venetian painting, he saw Indian miniatures for the first time. ''They were so beautiful and vivid,'' he recalls, ''and they seemed to be telling some kind of story, though I didn't know what it was. I wanted very much to film them.'' To that end, he started reading about Indian history and art -- and by a happy coincidence was hired for a film on Delhi, a chance to combine his various interests. He met Merchant while working on this project, and ''it was natural that we team up.''

Merchant, a film buff from Bombay, had always dreamed of ''going to Hollywood and seeing how films are made.'' His idea was ''to get an international cast and make movies for an international audience, not just for India'' -- unlike most pictures made by the huge Indian movie industry, which are intended for home consumption only.

After deciding to work together, Ivory and Merchant visited Miss Jhabvala to discuss the possibility of filming her novel ''The Householder.'' They ended up with not only the rights to the book, but with the author herself as the writer of the screenplay. The three felt cozy together from the first. ''She liked doing it,'' recalls Ivory, ''and we liked working with a serious writer, not someone who just turns out screenplays for a living.''

Gradually they fell into their independent niche, not rejecting the establishment but not joining it, either. ''At first,'' says Ivory, ''we saw no reason why our projects shouldn't be financed in Hollywood. We felt they were viable films that ought to be made. It was only later on, after repeated troubles, that we realized the difficulty of paying for what we do.''

''But after we had gotten a reputation for making good films,'' he continues, ''we were able to interest box-office stars in working with us, even if the budget wasn't very big. And that made our films somewhat more appealing to conventional sources of finance. But it's always been a hard, hard struggle. We're almost always turned down.''

The next Merchant-Ivory production will be ''Heat and Dust,'' a drama that shifts between 1923 and the present, with some scenes in between. Then will come ''The Bostonians.'' Other forthcoming items include ''A Room With a View,'' from the E. M. Forster novel, and a pair of projects called ''The Courtesans'' and ''The Deceivers.''

Clearly, this is a team that plans ahead, reflecting Ivory's confidence that movies have a healthy future despite the challenges of cable TV and other changing conditions in the show-biz world. ''People go to the movies now in the same way they used to go to the theater,'' he says. ''It's a special event. Audiences still want the impact of that big screen and that big sound. Also, they have to get out of the house once in a while, even if it's just once a month.'' Even big Hollywood films can have strong quality, Ivory continues, citing the work of Woody Allen. ''When you do see a civilized mass-market movie, '' he says, ''it makes you feel so good!''

Beyond immediate plans, what is the future of Merchant/Ivory Productions and its members? Like the producer he is, Merchant gives a practical answer. ''I'm happy we got the rights to 'A Room With a View,' and I want to do another film in New York, because I enjoy working here. Also, we want to start our own distribution company. We've taken almost 50 percent of the responsibility as producers anyway, so why not take it all, and succeed or fail on our own? It's vital for a producer to have a distributor who shares his own enthusiasm for the film. There's no point in giving it to someone who's halfhearted. You work for two or three years on a project, raising money and working with actors and getting people to believe in you. And then you put it in the hands of someone who wants to forget about it if it isn't a blockbuster in the first two weeks!''

And like the director he is, Ivory gives a more visionary version of the team's future. ''I hope we'll go in whatever direction our lives go,'' he muses. ''I hope our films will continue to reflect ourselves and our feelings and thoughts. But who can tell how our lives and thoughts will develop? One never knows. And that's a big part of the adventure . . . .

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