Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

01 May 2007

James Ivory Double Feature

Last week, Julie and I watched James Ivory's The Wild Party. Julie, for her Musical Theatre History class had to come up with a syllabus for a course she was teaching. One of the class sessions was supposed to surround Michael John LaChiusa's Broadway musical The Wild Party (not to be confused with Andrew Lippa's off-Broadway The Wild Party from the same year). At any rate, the musical is based on a well-known 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March, and as Julie and I discussed the show, I mentioned that Merchant-Ivory had made a film based on the poem in 1975. We decided we should see the film as research for the course she was designing (for me it was just an excuse to buy another James Ivory movie), so we took a break from all of our work and watched.

The Wild Party stars James Coco and Raquel Welch, but despite the poem's cleverness (and ribaldry), Ivory's film is incredibly, almost unbelievably dull. It has a lot of Ivory trademarks. There is some nice subtlety at times, and there are a few cool sequences. Coco stars as a fading comic buffoon of a film star. He's no longer famous, and he insists on making silent pictures, even though it's 1928 and hardly anyone is making silent pictures anymore. The silent film-within-the-film is very fun, and also quite cleverly done. There is also a fairly cool orgy sequence (more tame than it ought to have been, but still—) and one or two nice musical numbers (the film is a musical, though I don't think it wants to be). Mostly, though, it's boring, and sometimes Ivory's ideas about what is beautiful are off the mark. He has the ability to see beauty in things that will not strike other people as beautiful, I think. Sometimes, this strikes me as revelatory, but often (at least in his 1970s films, his ideas of beauty strike me as strange and uninteresting).

Bombay Talkie is one of Ivory's earlier Indian films. It stars the gorgeous Sashi Kapoor, his wife Jennifer Kendal, and the beautiful Aparna Sen. This movie is cute, and cleverly done. The opening credits sequence is very, very cool (actually, Wild Party's opening credits are really cool, too). Bombay Talkie is a kind of histrionic melodrama, with a plot similar to a traditional Bollywood musical from the period, with a lot of fun conventions. It is also a story about white privilege and silliness. I quite liked the film, but like most of Ivory's work, I begin to like it even more the further away from it I get. By next week, I'll probably be deeply attached to the movie. Ivory clearly knows what he's doing, and the Merchant-Ivory team is one of the cleverest. Bombay Talkie is an experiment, though, more than it is anything else. The plot is loose and silly, and flecked with melodramatic nonsense. Kapoor is beautiful, and there are quite a few nice things about the film, but I'm not sure it has anything really interesting to say.