When the film producer and occasional director Ismail Merchant died earlier this year, his obituary in The Times mentioned among his credits that he had directed The Remains of the Day . In fact, the film was directed by Merchant's partner, James Ivory; Merchant was its producer. But although the obituarist should certainly have known better, the mistake was understandable, given that "Merchant Ivory" has become perhaps the best-known pairing behind the camera since Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Merchant Ivory Productions started in 1962 with a film set in India, The Householder , based on a novel and script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who became the screenwriter of most of their films. They followed this with other films set in India, notably Shakespeare Wallah and Heat and Dust , but in due course moved away from the sub-continent into the English world of E. M. Forster ( A Room with a View ) and the Anglo-American world of Henry James ( The Bostonians ). In later years, they developed a penchant for films with French settings, such as Jefferson in Paris and Surviving Picasso .
Theirs was a cosmopolitan and in many ways a romantic journey, and, like many others, I have followed Merchant Ivory with considerable curiosity and goodwill. One wanted such an unconventional trio (Ivory from America, Merchant from India and Jhabvala from Europe) to succeed outside the mindless Hollywood machine. And in many ways they did, combining artistry with commercial success. The Remains of the Day , for example, starred two major actors, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and was a hit with both audiences and critics. The novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote the original novel, calls Ivory "one of our greatest living directors" on the back jacket of James Ivory in Conversation ; and some others, less closely involved with Ivory, might agree. But for me - and, I suspect, the majority of people seriously interested in the cinema - the dominant impression is of a director who enjoys surface gloss but avoids genuine psychological depth.
A pivotal revelation, almost embarrassing to read, occurs when the indulgent interviewer, Robert Emmet Long (a James scholar), asks Ivory about his film Savages : "How did you decide to shoot a sequence with split screens, so that there was something happening on four different screens being shown at the same time?" Ivory answers: "You know, with me, it's usually that I have some shots that are visually nice but lacking content or real dramatic interest, and I don't want to throw them away. So I pile them one on top of the other: the eye can take in more than one idea at a time, as we know. Sometimes these different shots, by accident, complement each other and even have some overall relevance."
As Ivory remarks much later in the book, with further disarming frankness:
"There's that English saying that no man can be a hero to his valet. Well, no director can be a hero to his editor." Sadly, Ivory does not seem to have learnt all that much about editing since his first film, The Householder , which was entirely recut by his friend Satyajit Ray (who composed the haunting music for Shakespeare Wallah ). As Ivory confessed in an earlier book, The Wandering Company: Twenty-one Years of Merchant Ivory Films (1983): "Ray stood behind the Moviola crying out 'Cut!' at the points where material was to go. This took some getting used to - not so much losing sequences, but the explosive force of the command which blew them away."
There is similar honesty, combined with sharp intelligence and shafts of wit and occasional malice in Ivory's replies to Long about his entire body of work. Like his mostly watchable films, Ivory in person is seldom less than interesting. But as with the overwhelming majority of American directors, he is not so much an artist with a personal vision as someone looking for a property with potential that he can exploit on screen.
Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The Times Higher , has recently published Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema .
James Ivory in Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes Its Movies
Author - Robert Emmet Long
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 337
Price - £15.95
ISBN - 0 520 23415 4