Friday, March 19, 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 19 - Maurice (1987) – 141 minutes
In 1986, Merchant Ivory released A Room with a View, based on a romantic novel by E. M. Forster. It became far and away the team's biggest hit to date, winning Oscars and vaulting them from art houses to cineplexes. They used their new deal making leverage not for safe commercial filmmaking, but to bring another more challenging book to the screen. Maurice, Forster's novel of forbidden homosexual love set against the stifling social norms of Edwardian England, remained private in the author's lifetime. He began Maurice in 1913, revised it in the 1930s and 1950s, but never sought a publisher. Forster died in 1970; Maurice was published to mixed reviews one year later.
With the subsequent normalizing of LGBTQ friendly cinema, it's easy to overlook Maurice as a breakthrough film. Throughout much of the history of English speaking cinema, with the exception of a few British New Wave titles and a smattering of American comedies, homosexuals were portrayed as some combination of predatory, sinful, criminal, and/or mentally deranged. That changed in the 1980s, and came to fruition with Maurice. Here was a depiction of homosexual men as struggling against their own demons, not because of inherent pathology but because society condemned them as criminals. Additionally, Maurice appeared at a mournful time when HIV tore through the gay community, and government's inaction to suffering and death spawned a generation of ACT UP activists.
Perhaps the gay community was predisposed to embrace Maurice, but time confirms it as a genuinely fine film. Ivory and team illuminate a bygone culture with keen detail, while James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves give bold performances. Through them we see the wrenching decisions Maurice and his comrades must make – to live a rewarded but false life, or to sacrifice for the chance of something better.
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 5 - 6:00pm
Mar 12 - 6:00pm
Mar 26 - 6:00pm
Apr 2 - 6:00pm