ISMAIL MERCHANT (1936-2005)
My original plan for this month's column was to review a couple of recently released classic westerns that were off the genre's beaten trail, but that all changed when I read that Ismail Merchant had died this past Thursday. Merchant was half of the Merchant Ivory team. For more than forty years, he produced and James Ivory directed a string of literary films that redefined how we looked at costume dramas, casting aside the stuffy reputation period films had earned and making a whole new generation fall in love with prissy dramas about manners and repressed passion. They also opened the door for films about India and even imported some of Satyajit Ray's body of work to English-speaking countries.
It's nearly unheard of for such a long working relationship to exist in any creative business, much less film. Factor in that they have also worked all this time with the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and it becomes even more clear that these were folks of a singular vision. By sticking together, they created a mark of quality that they consistently improved upon and refined, from early efforts like Shakespeare Wallah in the mid-'60s and on to now, with two films on their way through production (The White Countess came out late in 2005, but had not been released at the time of the original writing). It's quite a legacy, and thankfully, one that's being preserved for the digital age.
In 2003, the Criterion Collection started a boutique label: The Merchant Ivory Collection. I reviewed one of their earliest releases, Quartet, in the second edition of this very column. Amongst the wave of titles from this past February was one of Merchant Ivory's best films, 1992's Howards End, starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and Helena Bonham Carter. The two-disc set has been sitting on the rack next to my television for three months now, perpetually one of the next in line to be watched. In honor of Ismail Merchant's passing, it went to the top of the pile.
Howards End is a perfect reminder of why Merchant Ivory are so good. In the wake of a scandal of misunderstanding, two women befriend one another. From her death bed, Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) sees a kindred spirit in the spinsterish Margaret Schlegel (Thompson). So much so that she ends up trying to leave Margaret her family home, the lush and extravagant Howards End. Her widower, Henry (Hopkins at his twitchy best), and his selfish children head off this request, but the lives of the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels become entwined anyway. Margaret eventually marries Henry, which puts off her sister, Helen (Bonham Carter). Helen didn't really need another reason to dislike the Wilcox clan after her botched engagement to the youngest son. When further scandals--both past and present--are discovered in relation to a lower class couple Helen has befriended, things are strained further, setting up the main threads of a complex family drama. Howards End was adapted by Jhabvala from E.M. Forster's 1910 novel, and the story's construction is seamless, weaving amongst the various characters and teasing out the large connections between them. Though seemingly covering ground the filmmakers had tread before, Howards End bristles with a clarity and energy that crackled like never before. The script, costumes, sets, performances--everything is in sync.
The new DVD, like all the releases in the collection, has a pristine picture quality and a bundle of extras. There are four documentaries, two new and two old. One of the older ones is especially essential for anyone looking to take a crash course in the career of Ismail Merchant. The Wandering Company was put together in 1984 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Merchant Ivory partnership. While some of it is a little hammy, it's the best available glimpse of how the two men went about creating their movies. The portrait it paints of Merchant is particularly fascinating: he lives his life at the largest proportions, but those who care about him see through the ruse, spotting the generous, gregarious man underneath. Here, clearly, was someone obsessed with filmmaking, who kept his crew together often through sheer force of will and by tugging all sorts of hidden purse strings. He was an irascible penny pincher, one who approached his role as producer almost like a swashbuckler, pulling through by the skin of his smiling teeth and the lint in his pocket. Merchant needed the reserved Ivory to balance him out as much as Ivory needed his forceful personality to get the job done. In a contemporary interview, the effect of such a long relationship is obvious. Like a married couple, they correct one another, tell the same stories completely differently, and finish each other's sentences.
In honor of Ismail Merchant's life, take some time with Howards End or any of the other movies he made with James Ivory. There are even several Merchant directed himself, including the most recent entries in the Merchant Ivory Collection: In Custody and The Courtesans of Bombay . His final film helming the camera was 2001's The Mystic Masseur, continuing his long tradition of bringing Indian themes to the screen. Comics fans may also enjoy The Wild Party, a 1975 movie based on the same poem that Art Spiegelman adapted to graphic form in 1994 after completing Maus.
In the past several years, the Merchant Ivory films have been a little out of vogue. DVD is giving their back catalogue a second lease on life, so that even if part of the team is gone, their legacy continues.