Final chapters: James Ivory's 'The City of Your Final Destination' finds the Berkeley-born-and-raised director maintaining the trademark style.

Merchant-Ivory: A Look Back

Dennis Harvey May 27, 2010

This past week saw the Bay Area release of The City of Your Final Destination, director James Ivory’s first project since the passing of longtime producer and partner Ismail Merchant. (Still on board is their customary scenarist, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.) This adaptation of Peter Cameron’s novel features a starry international cast–Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Hiroyuki Sanada, Norma Aleandra, Alexandra Maria Lara–in the tale of a grad student (Omar Metwally) whose research on a famed, deceased Latin American writer forces him to deal with the eccentric characters who’d shared his life. Now they protect his legacy, albeit largely by lunging at each others’ throats.

City doesn’t fall too far from the familiar Merchant-Ivory tree; it’s a literary adaptation filled with first-class actors in sumptuous settings, working out their stormy relationships via prickly banter. That’s a mixture that has to be appealing to fans of the team’s most popular and acclaimed films, a run of impeccably mounted costume dramas drawn from E.M. Forster (A Room With a View, Howard’s End, Maurice), Henry James (The Bostonians) and Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day). Those movies practically define Anglophilic arthouse cinema–which makes it downright disorienting to note James Ivory was born and raised right here in Berkeley.

“Merchant-Ivory” itself has become a sort of byword for a particular kind of accessible prestige film that frequently wins Oscars and doesn’t ruffle many feathers. But this is as good a time as any to point out that the duo (and Ms. Prawer Jhabvala) made many films which didn’t quite fall into that category.

Some were rather offbeat, others downright weird. If they’ve been known best since 1979’s James adaptation “The Europeans” as purveyors of Victorian and Edwardian-era drama, before then they were contrastingly very much filmmakers of their era: Spending the ’60s (like the Beatles and Mia Farrow) fascinated by mystic India, then spending the Me Decade “finding themselves.”

Ivory and Merchant met in 1959 at a New York screening of one of the former’s short early documentaries. Two years later they’d set up their own production company. Two more years farther they’d finished their first feature: The Householder, adapted from one of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novels. She was a German Jew whose family fled to England in 1939; she married an Indian Parsi architect in 1951 and spent the next quarter-century largely based in Delhi.

That history was reflected in the 1960s films she made with Merchant-Ivory, social comedies involving culture clash between Indian and Western mindsets. Nearly all star the great Bollywood actor Shashi Kapoor: In The Householder he’s a newlywed whose problems include an interfering mother and the spiritual tourism of American visitors; in 1965’s Shakespeare-Wallah a playboy smitten with an actress in a traveling English theater troupe; in Bombay Talkie (1970) a married movie star getting distracted by a pretty English novelist.

Kapoor sat out The Guru (1969), in which a pre-Cabaret Michael York played Beatle George–well, actually “Tom Pickle,” a fictional British pop star in Bombay to take sitar lessons and soak up some local enlightenment. These movies were low-key, low-budget, and very much influenced by the gently probing humanism of Satyajit Ray.

The team would return to Indian subjects (1975’s Autobiography of a Princess, 1983’s Heat and Dust, plus the handful of later films Merchant directed himself), but with the dawn of the Seventies they went Western with a vengeance. Their next two features were their weirdest, remaining a must for any fan of strange obscurities from that adventuresome cinematic decade. Both were complete flops at the time.

First up in 1972 was Savages, the rare Merchant-Ivory film based not on a book but on a (very) original idea–one hatched by Ivory himself, and co-written by future Saturday Night Live scribe Michael O’Donoghue. Savages involves beautiful people at a beautiful country estate, wearing Gatsby-esque attire. But these particular people arrived there from the forest primeval, naked but for a lot of mud. Once drawn there (by the magical find of a stray croquet ball), they go through a parabolic process of “civilizing.” What begins with the discovery of clothes and speech proceeds rapidly to decadent excess and societal collapse. (The actors include a couple Dark Shadows veterans, future TV stars Susan Blakely and Sam Waterston, and Warhol Factory “superstar” Ultra Violet.)

I’m not sure Savages is a good movie–certainly nobody then seemed to think so–and it is jaw-droppingly arch and pretentious. Yet it also goes out on a giddy limb like nothing else Merchant-Ivory ever put their hyphenate to. It may be from the folks who would give you Howard’s End, but it feels more like something from the people who gave you Hair.

Three years later they got pulled into mid-‘70s Hollywood’s infatuation with “Golden Age” nostalgia, as well as exploitation studio American International Pictures’ brief, disastrous period of making would-be mainstream prestige films. 1975’s The Wild Party was something you don’t see every day: A movie based on a modern epic narrative poem. Which was banned as obscene for many years after its 1928 publication. Whose verse is recited by an onscreen narrator. And which is a semi-musical. With Raquel Welch. Yowsa, yowsa, yowsa.

The Wild Party is definitely not a good movie–though better than it used to be, as its DVD release is a “director’s cut” that undoes the harm AIP wreaked on a film they first poorly re-edited, then shelved after that version was understandably trashed by critics and preview audiences. But it is a definite curio. Loosely inspired by the murky scandal that destroyed silent comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s career (and which occurred at San Francisco’s own St. Francis Hotel), it stars James Coco as a rotund, washed-up screen comic desperate for a comeback. La Welch (whom Ivory & Co. apparently found pretty tough to work with) plays his long-suffering mistress, a showgirl who frequently breaks into flapper dance routines.

Perry King, who would follow this with the equally out-there likes of Mandingo, notorious Margaux Hemingway rape-revenge thriller Lipstick and the immortal Andy Warhol’s Bad, here plays a rising heartthrob star named Dale Sword. Jeez–how porn a name is that? Ah, the ’70s…the mistakes made were so much better then!

There are other eccentricities in the Merchant-Ivory catalog, but we have now covered the most watchable highlights. (You really don’t need to endure Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures or Jane Austen in Manhattan, let alone Tama Janowitz’s adaptation Slaves of New York, as colorful as those titles might sound.) I’m sure The City of Your Final Destination will be tasteful, intelligent entertainment. Still, it is somehow reassuring to know that once upon a distant time these titans of cinematic respectability fired their artistic ammo in so many arbitrary directions.

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