Friday, March 5, 2021 - 6:00pm
CinemaLit Film Series
March 2021 – Merchant Ivory from Page to Screen
To cineastes worldwide, the filmmaking brand "Merchant Ivory" may conjure images of British period dramas with stiff collars, chintz teacups, and slow pulse acting. Scratch below the surface and there's a lot more going on.
Producer Ismail Merchant (1936-2005) and director James Ivory (born 1928) delivered over forty films in their four-decade partnership. Despite their established reputation for British settings, their films are multinational in scope. Neither men were British by birth. Merchant was Muslim born and raised in Bombay, while Ivory is from the San Francisco Bay Area, schooled at the University of Oregon and USC. Their frequent screenwriting collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013), was born Jewish in Cologne. Two films in this month's series, Heat and Dust (1983) and The Bostonians (1984), barely set foot in England. The other two, Maurice (1987) and Howards End (1992), are closer to the image many hold of Merchant Ivory films as stylistic precursors to contemporary television fare such as Downton Abbey and The Crown.
In looking at these four films, certain themes emerge. All concern themselves with the politics of sex, wealth, and class. All illuminate loners and outsiders whose passions run against the oppressive expectations of society, with some finding a measure of happiness in open rebellion. All look exceedingly posh on limited budgets, and are cast with big-name movie stars who took salary cuts so as to attach their names to literate and worthwhile projects. And all are based on novels, one by Jhabvala and Henry James, and two by E. M. Forster. You are invited to read the novels to enrich your experience. Or not – these exquisite films very much stand on their own.
March 5 – Heat and Dust (1983) – 130 minutes
The early 1980s saw a boomlet of films and television ruminating on British colonialism in India – The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions as miniseries, and Gandhi, A Passage to India, and Merchant Ivory's Heat and Dust on the big screen.
Author-screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala faithfully adapted her own novel. Tracing the lives of two Englishwomen in India, she splits time and story in book and film. Olivia, the idle young wife of a high-ranking colonial administrator, is increasingly drawn to a handsome Nawab. Sixty years later, Anne (the narrator of the film and "I" of the novel) is an unfulfilled London career woman who comes to India to research the opaque life and fate of her intriguing great aunt Olivia. As the film traverses the 1920s and the 1980s, we see colonial and post colonial women grasping to understand the subcontinent, separating myth from reality, and thoughts from feelings. As both face life choices, both are transformed. "India changes people," says a contemplative Anne.
Heat and Dust made a bigger impact abroad than in the US, winning the BAFTA award for Best Adapted Screenplay and netting a Palme d'Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival. True to form for Merchant Ivory, it's blessed with a cast of intelligent and sensitive actors, with Julie Christie as Anne and Greta Scacchi making her notable feature film debut as Olivia. Also starring Indian cinema superstar Shashi Kapoor and actor-master percussionist Zakir Hussain, Heat and Dust is a film of uncommon grace and sensuality. It was personal for Christie and Merchant, who both began their lives and spent their youths in India. For them and us, Heat and Dust is a film that invites contemplation of journeys and homecomings.
Matthew Kennedy, CinemaLit’s curator, has written biographies of Marie Dressler, Joan Blondell, and Edmund Goulding. His book Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, was the basis of a film series on Turner Classic Movies.
“I don't have a favorite film,” Matthew says. "I find that my relationships to films, actors, genres, and directors change as I change over the years. Some don't hold up. Some look more profound, as though I've caught up with their artistry. I feel that way about Garbo, Cary Grant, director John Cassavetes, and others."
“Classic films have historical context, something only time can provide,” Matt observes. “They become these great cultural artifacts, so revealing of tastes, attitudes, and assumptions.”
INSTRUCTIONS FOR JOINING THE CINEMALIT SALON
First watch the selected film on Kanopy. All you will need is either a Mechanics' Institute library card, or a San Francisco Public Library card, which will give you access to Kanopy and its treasure trove of movies. Make a reservation for our CinemaLit Salon as usual via Eventbrite and watch the film on Kanopy at your leisure. You will receive a link to the Friday night CinemaLit salon on Zoom one day in advance, and then an additional reminder roughly two hours in advance. On the night of the salon click the Zoom link and join us.
If you do not receive a Zoom Link by 4:00 PM on the day of the event, contact Pam Troy at [email protected]
Mechanics’ Institute members can now sign up for FREE access to Kanopy, a wonderful film streaming service. To sign up:
1. Click on THIS LINK.
2. Click on the large orange login button that reads, “Log in to milibrary.”
3. Enter the 14-digit bar code from your MI Library card
4. Set up your account following Kanopy’s instructions, including your email and a password.
5. Kanopy will send verification to your email address.
You’ll be able to choose from a wonderful selection of films, including classics, pre-code, foreign films, and documentaries, including the films we’ve scheduled this month for CinemaLit.
If you are not a Mechanics’ Institute member, consider membership and click HERE to join online:
Or, you can check with your public library to see if they are Kanopy members. If so, you may use your public library card to set up a Kanopy account.
Register with Eventbrite below.
If the green TICKET button is not immediately visible, scroll down on the right in the Eventbrite window until it appears.
Future CinemaLit Films
Mar 12 - 6:00pm
Mar 19 - 6:00pm
Mar 26 - 6:00pm
Apr 2 - 6:00pm