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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, July 12, 2020

entry arrow10:00 AM | The Film Meme No. 78

[78th of 100]. The pleasures of a Merchant Ivory production stem from a particular sensibility: sensualists of manners, usually through the lens of class, and almost always of the English variety. [Not always, since we do also have Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Le Divorce, and The City of Your Final Destination in the mix, among many others.] But think of Merchant Ivory -- specifically director James Ivory and producer Ishmael Merchant -- and the films that come rushing to our memories would invariably include A Room with a View, Howards End, and Maurice, among their most acclaimed films: all of them prestige productions of the most polished sort [miracles of procurements actually, since most of these films have really low budgets], usually culled from prestige literary sources, and populated by British types of various backgrounds -- but mostly the privileged class -- in stiff upper-lip skirmish with each other regarding property and propriety, honor and honesty. What sets them apart from your typical Masterpiece Theatre extravaganza is Ivory's big-hearted approach to the material, which makes his films intriguing and curious, and also somehow managing to enlarge the closed up world he makes us enter even as he shows an eye for the littlest detail -- the fashion, the cutlery, the manners, etc. I've mentioned that they are sensualists of manners, and that's because they do put the dynamics of people and class under the microscope, not to make fun of them, but to observe them with an eye for the human. And there is something sexy in their taking with sincerity their subject matter. Perhaps it is the surprise of intimacy. You always come away from a Merchant Ivory film without a sense of alienation from the material, and with a sense of connection to the characters we've followed. I love most of their films -- even the ones considered critical failures -- but the one film I cannot forget is this 1993 drama of a long-serving, emotionally closed-up butler living out a life of service in Darlington Hall, refracted in two timelines: a pre-World War II golden age with ugly undercurrents he makes himself be blinded to in the name of loyalty, and a scaled down present where he undertakes two instances of reckoning: his service to a past that's checkered with intimations of betrayal, and his unwillingness to admit that love has touched him. The tensions between past and present as they elide and inform each other makes for a drama that's exquisitely involving, but the film's concentration on the minutiae of service [the ironing out of the morning paper, the measured distances of cutlery on a dining table, the protocols of serving tea, the business of a hunt, the hierarchies of household management, etc.] also makes it a paragon of cinematic anthropology. It's all so fascinating. I read the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro prior to watching its film adaptation, and I loved it, which made the prospect of seeing it onscreen fraught with expectations of disappointment. The book, I believed, was unfilmmable. But Ivory and Merchant, with a screenplay by long-time collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, managed to distill the nuances of the book into crystal-clear scenarios, amazingly faithful to its themes, intentions, and spirit. No one does movies like this anymore, at least not with the care and regularity Merchant Ivory used to exhibit in the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, perhaps their most productive and critically-acclaimed decade. We have only Downton Abbey now, which is a different behemoth altogether, and even that is gone. What's the film?

For the introduction to this meme, read here.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich