Merchant Ivory

Begging and Borrowing

"Henry James' whole world is based on what is acceptable good behavior," Ivory says. "It's a kind of civilized way of living with other people in which the most violent emotions are not supposed to come out. Because of this, there's an awful lot going on beneath the surface that must be suggested rather than expressed. Then tremendous upheavals will suddenly occur with little provocation. Sharks leap up out of placid waters."

The worlds re-created by Merchant Ivory are, in other words, heavily ironic (a quality popular to the point of national mania in 2001 America); ostensibly ordered and well-mannered (properties that classical fetishists starve for in today's raucous popular culture and cynics prefer to call "repressed," thus pleasing two very different audiences with a Victorian romance and a social critique in one movie); curious about the interplay of different cultures (free trade and the Internet are collapsing borders as never before); and involved with histories and customs considerably older than our adolescent republic can boast. The best of their movies are timely, because of and despite their dedication to the past. Merchant is a bit of a braggart himself--albeit a very charismatic one--but he's also a tireless worker who believes his efforts are answering a call in this, his adopted country.

James Ivory, left, directing Kate Beckinsale in The Golden Bowl; Ismail Merchant, bottom
James Ivory, left, directing Kate Beckinsale in The Golden Bowl; Ismail Merchant, bottom


Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala will attend a tribute to their work hosted by Uma Thurman on May 3 at 7 p.m. A career compilation of film clips, as well as their new feature The Golden Bowl, will be screened.

"People think American audiences are dumb," he says. "Merchant Ivory and Woody Allen and Robert Altman, filmmakers interested in story and character, have proven them wrong. It's not about being dumb; it's about living in an instant gratification world. It used to be movies would be allowed to start small and earn more money the longer they played. Now the goal is to make as much money on opening weekend as possible, and to do that, you have to spend ridiculous sums on publicity, as much as it costs to make the movie. There are intelligent movies being made, and they succeed sometimes--look at Traffic and Erin Brockovich. But for the most part, nobody wants to do the creative marketing it requires to find the intelligent audiences."

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