Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Chris and Don" and "The Savages"

I watched "Chris and Don" at the Quad the Thursday before last, with The Quarterback, but did not have much to say about it beyond the obvious epithets like sweet, heartwarming. The documentary, directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, depicts the three-decade long relationship between Anglo-American writer Christopher Isherwood and American portrait painter Don Bachardy, thirty years Isherwood's junior. The film is somewhat more penetrating and interesting about Isherwood's aristocratic background and his years in Berlin, than about Bachardy's ho-hum middle-class origins. It weaves together Bachardy's contemporary reminiscences (in the Santa Monica home he shared with Isherwood), interviews with talking heads, archival footage, and cutesy animation based on the cat-and-horse cartoons the couple drew in their correspondence.

After coming out of the Quad, I felt vaguely dissatisfied with the film. For a story billed by Zeitgeist Films as an "against-all-odds saga," the odds dodes not seem very big, and are all-too-readily surmountable. The celebratory narrative makes a one-time trial out of Bachardy's fear of becoming paranoid schizophrenic like his older brother, and only hints at one other relationship Bachardy had while with Isherwood. The older man brought the boy out, not just sexually, but also socially and artistically, but that aspect of the relationship, so potentially fraught with insecurities, resentments and rivalries, receives sunny treatment. I think of Auden's tumultuous relationship with another younger man, a younger writer, Chester Kallman, and feel that Davenport-Hines, Auden's biographer, has got much closer to the truth. I wonder what Isherwood would have thought of the documentary.

Last night's film "The Savages," like the Auden biography, cuts close to the bone. Brother and sister find themselves having to look after their aged father suffering from dementia. All three have love relationships that are distinctly contemporary: loose, qualified, compromised. The father, Lenny Savage, lived with his girlfriend for twenty years, on the contractual understanding that he has no share in her assets on her death. The son Jon (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) lets his girlfriend return to Poland because he cannot bring himself to marry her, after living together for three years. The daughter Wendy (played by Laura Linney) is having an affair with a married neighbor.

It is not quite accurate to describe their common flaw as a lack of commitment. Jon is committed to his book on Bertolt Brecht, while Wendy is an aspiring East Village playwright. The movie does not make clear how much life has shaped ambition, or ambition has formed life, but the siblings are forced to re-examine their past in order to determine their obligations to the present. Despite the family name, the characters are not savages, but very fallible human beings. The story does end with tentative hopefulness. Jon goes to Poland to find his girlfriend. Wendy breaks up with her married man, but adopts his dog which he wanted to put down. In the last image of the film, the dog, hind legs in a tiny wheelchair, does not just represent the father, but also brother and sister.

The sad realism of this film (written and directed by Tamara Jenkins) stands in sharp contrast with the romantic idealism of "Chris and Don." The gay film appears to have taken over the fantasies and the film conventions of straight romances. We need an original vision to capture the untethered bonds of contemporary relationships.

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