The place of the 'civilized' movie on today's screen
James Ivory and Ismail Merchant make civilized movies.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.