BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 24, 2009
Chris & Don: A Love Story (Zeitgeist)
My Winnipeg (IFC)
19th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival
In 1964 Christopher Isherwood published A Single Man, a novel about a homosexual man and his state of spirit after his lover dies. Now comes Chris & Don, a documentary film about Isherwood's lover and his state of spirit since Chris's death. The subtitle of the film is "A Love Story." The picture makes the worn term fresh, moving.
The principal place is the couple's home in Santa Monica, where Don Bachardy still lives. They met in 1953, when Chris was forty-nine and Don was eighteen. Isherwood was already a celebrated writer; Don was a good-looking youth, intelligent and vital but just a youth. Isherwood's diaries, quoted in the voice-over, detail what we would know anyway. He was smitten: so deeply that, far from any embarrassment about homosexuality (a condition he had long since superseded), the age difference did not deter him. Don's response was unworried and full. The pair began to live together, and, allowing for a few separations through the years due to Chris's teaching jobs, allowing too for a few sidebar affairs by both, they remained together until Chris's death in 1986. In effect, which is much of the film's point, Don still lives with Chris.
Chris is literally there, too--quite a lot. Footage of him comes from a BBC television interview that was done with him in the 1970s, as well as from home videos. We see and hear Chris in settings ranging from his workroom to a gondola in Venice, often with Don and such acquaintances as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Somerset Maugham, and E.M. Forster. One regret is that the directors, Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, whose work is otherwise true and tender, have had a few scenes from Chris's diaries re-enacted, in long shot, by others. Well, there is one other regret. Though the picture offers a colorful, attractive portrait of Chris the man, it insufficiently celebrates his distinction as a writer. This is the man who early in his life collaborated with Auden (who had been a school chum) on three plays, startling works at the time. Chris went on to write, after some years in pre-Hitler Berlin, Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. (Stories in the latter were the basis of the play I Am a Camera and the musical Cabaret.) He and Auden came to America in 1939. Auden stayed in New York; Chris moved to California, and added screenwriting to his range.
Books continued to come from him during his California years, but he also worked on or solely wrote a number of screenplays. He is quoted here as saying that he improved as a writer through screen work, learned how to make structures more compact and to strengthen his dialogue. Nonetheless his scripts were not remotely as good as his other work. The only film of his that I remember pleasantly is his adaptation with Terry Southern of Waugh's The Loved One; the only one mentioned in this film is Frankenstein: The True Story, which he co-wrote with Don and which was produced for television.
Chris's most notable work related to film, however, was not a screenplay and was set in England. In 1945 he published Prater Violet, a short novel based on his early screenwriting experience in London. It stands with Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon in the front rank of fiction about film. Also, through these years he became immersed in Vedanta Hinduism, which resulted in translations and his book My Guru and His Disciple.
It is this man, humorously dignified, spiritually avid, aesthetically fine--even more of the last than the film affords us--who moves through Chris & Don and who is still present in the being of Don Bachardy. Chris's influence on him is marked immediately when we meet Don because this California-born man has a considerable English accent and uses English locutions. Now white-haired yet still very vigorous, Don, who is an artist, keeps on with his painting, at which he is strikingly if narrowly gifted. He only does portraits and naturally has done hundreds of Chris. He did many of them, including nudes, during what they both knew were the last months of Chris's life. The work in those last months seems an enormous bouquet of gratitude, for it was Chris who spotted the young man's talent early on and sent him to art school.
Indeed, gratitude is a signet of Don's character throughout this film--to Chris for all the material advantages, but, most affectingly, for the chance to have lived his life with Chris. Don Bachardy is still in love, there in their house.
Those who know something of Guy Maddin's reputation will not be surprised by the title of his latest film. We can foretell that My Winnipeg will not be just a slog through somebody's memories of his birthplace. Much to the contrary: Maddin is interested in what remembering actually is, at least as much as in what memory brings back. He is also ferociously--almost fiendishly--concerned to explore, revise, enjoy the artistic medium of his life: film.
The first shot of the picture is of a lovely elderly woman, rehearsing her lines with an unseen director. She is in fact an actress, but throughout the film she plays Maddin's mother in all the varied (sometimes frank) flashbacks. In this opening scene Maddin (whose voice we hear throughout) coaches his "mother." Oddly, this scene, which runs about a minute, is one of the longest segments in the film.
We then plunge into a fireworks display of bits of Maddin's childhood and youth and early manhood, drawn from home movies or from re-enactments with actors. This is not disturbing, as it is in Chris & Don, because the individuals are less well-known. Mixed into this melange are glimpses of Winnipeg, of past footage about Winnipeg, of hockey greats whom Maddin worshipped as a boy. (He even gets some of them, now elderly, to don uniforms and pretend to play.) These brief shots are frequently interrupted by large title cards--"Force!" "Heroes!" Segments are often briefly separated by patches of black with slivers of light in them.
Soon we are aware that, even more than what we are seeing, we are interested in the way it is all shown to us. The history of Winnipeg and its importance to a native are no more engrossing in themselves than those matters would be in a hundred other places. But to analyze Maddin's film in such terms would be like analyzing separately each component of a graphic artist's collage. My Winnipeg is a mobile collage, and its assemblage is fascinating. Winnipeg in itself is relevant only in that it is the spot that Maddin came from and treasures--and criticizes. It could have been Kansas City or Buffalo.
Hot and immediate as My Winnipeg is, it is nevertheless a link with the film past. In the last century, which was the first century of film, many film- makers--directors is not the exact word--were mostly interested in exploring the medium, finding out what film could do uniquely, rather than assuming that its whole function was to extend the drama and the novel. People such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Gregory Markopoulos, Jordan Belson, and dozens of others--some of whom made their works by scratching on film stock--were searching for possibilities that were not confined to actors and recognizable stories.
With retrospective insight, we can see that these activities were predictable. The film medium is so powerful, so various, so packed with possible wonders, it was inevitable that when it fell into the hands of the generations after D.W. Griffith (who came from the theater), some of them did not want to keep on the same path. Nowadays, however, the latest generation of film-makers seems to be at least as interested in the crannies of human nature as in the nooks of cinematic adventure.
Maddin is a kind of blend. He combines filmic bravura with warm human concerns. Those concerns begin and continue with the narration that he wrote and speaks, which makes us feel that we have been admitted to a privacy in his head--less stream of consciousness than stream of the unconscious.
Once again spring brings good news about bad news. Here is the nineteenth annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, comprising nineteen features and thirteen shorts from twenty countries. Each of these pictures is concerned with social malfeasance. Each of them reassures us that, whatever current film fashions are, there are still people around the globe who use film to stoke our hunger for justice. I have seen two of the features, which coincidentally have a thematic link, and they are easily up to the level of my experience with the past eighteen festivals.
Letter to Anna is a documentary about Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist, by Eric Bergkraut, a Swiss who knew her. She was acutely critical of the Putin government and was murdered in October 2006--shot in the elevator of her Moscow apartment house. Only a short time earlier, she had escaped death by poisoning on a flight somewhere, an attempt that had not deterred her. We see much of Anna herself (as was the case with Isherwood) because of earlier television appearances. She is completely taking, a woman in her fifties, attractive, sharp, companionable, unheroic but determined. The film moves swiftly, with just enough interviewing of friends and daughter to make Anna someone we wish we had known. Her killer, of course, has not been found. But her friends have no doubt about who was responsible.
The Sari Soldiers, by Julie Bridgham of New York, follows the lives of six women in Nepal and their involvement, on different sides, in the ten-year civil war in their country. Intimate and engrossing, the film gives us six commitments and hopes. Especially considering the conditions of work, the cinematography (most of it by Bridgham) is excellent. One of the six is a fervent Maoist. Her tenacious beliefs are especially notable after seeing the film about a woman who apparently was murdered by a (formerly) communist government. This Nepalese woman proves yet again that, for desperate people, communism often seems the only organized rational program that can help them.
An abridged version of the festival will visit forty U.S. cities. The filmgoers in those cities are lucky.
Stanley Kauffman is The New Republic's film critic.