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This documentary covers a lot of ground: sexuality, aging, death,
spirituality, art, literature, war, celebrity, alternative life styles,
tragedy, mental health, drug use
and love. Pure and simple love.
Now I went to this movie reluctantly. The subject matter of the lives of the famous has wornif not all of usme down with the 24 hour news cycle. Christopher Isherwood's literary contributions were more a bridge than, say, the works of W.H. Auden which stand alone in any age. To unveil, posthumously, his private life examining the testament of his living lover, I was braced for something like testimony contesting Rock Hudson's estate.
But, I was very wrong.
Whether you can sit and hear the word "queer" and flinch or not (in any of its incantations either pejorative or defiance), it quickly doesn't matter. There is such a wealth of first hand material (photos, film footage, paintings, drawings, interviews) we don't have time to judge (as I was prepared to do) the age difference of the two subjects or their lifestyles.
Whatever the staying power of Isherwood's written words, his legacy as a gentle human being is forever preserved in this film. And whether or not Don Bachardy was "abused" by an older man or not, we're so dazzledas the young Bachardy must have beenby the world he's invited into with Isherwood, we don't have time to sit in judgment of anyone. And that's a good thing, because at the end of the day, and at the end of this filmas at the end of these people's livesit's for them to say whether their story was one of fulfilled love or something pathological. And what is revealed here by both the diaries of Christopher Isherwood and the loving testimony of his partner cannot be denied.
I had some quibbles with the choices made by the filmmakers, however. The use of animation seems like unnecessary padding. Only once (during a rough period in the relationship) is it well used, and the score is patchy. When jazz from the period is used it matches what we see on screen; but the original music seems generic. My biggest objection was using actors to stage some crucial events. There is such a wealth of archival footage that I began to doubt which was real and what was staged. I think using actors sells everyone--including the audience--short. What the principals have to say is so powerful, we didn't need what has become an almost obligatory trend in documentary films.
The interviews are all carefully chosen and never intrude into anything we'd call inappropriate or salacious. And the central character here, Don Bacarady, is allowed the freedom to say what he wants (most of it very funny) and he holds little back.
It's a great love story, and it's told at a time when our Country is considering whether or not it should sanction same sex marriage. Well, there's nothing here that would point towards not doing that. Yet no one on the screen has an agenda or an ax to grind. I think it was during an interview with Leslie Caron when she remembers something Isherwood sayshe delays his death because "Don isn't ready"that I realized this was no ordinary love story, it was a true love story. And it's heartbreaking and a mind-opener. Go see it.
For how unusual and "scandalous" the love story portrayed in this movie can be (or rather, could have been at the time the facts took place), the way it is narrated by the film-making and producing duo of Guido Santi and Tina Mascara is so sophisticated, gentle and harmonious that it really brings you back to the atmosphere in the most romantic Hollywood movies of the fifties. Perhaps it's because the sentimental relationship between Isherwood and Bachardy was mediated by such an incredible artistic exchange that it elevated their passion to the ranks of a work of art. Or perhaps it's because the authors have wisely elected to look at their love with unpretentious discretion, as if the camera was always attempting to remain unobtrusive enough to ensure the utmost authenticity in Bachardy's moving and vivid memories of their past together. Overall, this touching documentary has bestowed me with a higher feeling of satisfaction than a regular movie as I realised that real love does not only exist in fiction, but occurs, if rarely, in reality. Quite an extraordinary experience in movie-making, this one.
Presented at the Telluride Film Festival, this is one of the most touching, romantic and cinematically innovative movies I've seen in a long time. First of all, let's not forget this is a documentary, with all the visual and narrative difficulties associated with the genre. Second, it's the love story between two men. Yet, it is more emotionally involving than if it was a fictionalized version, and this is because as you watch it you are aware all that is told is absolutely true. Notwithstanding this, the movie never indulges on the aspect of homosexuality, but it looks at this as just an extraordinary story of passion between two persons bound both emotionally and artistically. Never boring, not even for one second, "Chris and Don", produced and directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, is an original way to tell a love story by mixing current footage with archive material and cartoons that results in a coherent and compelling storytelling. Reminiscent in style of "The Kid Stays in the Picture" and similar documentaries centering on real personalities, it has a beautiful musical score and benefits from a rhythmic, involving editing.
It looks like we will finally be able to watch this masterpiece documentary in theaters as distributor Zeitgeist has picked up the Miami Festival winner for a limited release. Produced by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, a team of longtime documentary authors whose "Mandala" revealed a few years ago a very sophisticated talent in visual storytelling, "Chris & Don" is the love story between famous playwright Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy in the golden years of Hollywood, with exclusive interviews and footage with actors and other personalities. Although Isherwood and Bachardy's was a homosexual love during a time when these relationships were looked at with criticism even in the more liberal California, the movie is somehow capable of setting the sexual factor aside and focus instead on the depth of the protagonists' personality. By the end of the movie you feel so intimate with both, that it is almost natural to want to know more about them and their art. A refined, well directed portrait and an opportunity for exemplary film-making that should easily captivate audiences.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Calvin A. Tripp in his book The Homoxexual Matrix comments that gay
couples are better than others at spanning differences. This story
certainly shows that. When Christopher Isherwood met Don Bachardy he
was 46 and Don was 16; he was a famous writer and Don was unknown and
unformed; he was from the English landed gentry and Don's father was a
worker in the aerospace industry. They met through Ted, Don's older
brother, also gay--on the "queer" beach of Santa Monica. Chris slept
with Ted. Two years later in 1951 he slept with Don. They bonded for
life. They stayed together till Isherwood's death 34 years later. As
director John Boorman says, "Of all the people I came to know in Los
Angeles, their marriage was the only one that endured." People said it
wouldn't. They were wrong. In the Fifties, they went out as an openly
gay couple--which even the sophisticates of Hollywood where Chris was
by then a successful writer weren't used to--because they were
committed to each other, and Christopher Isherwood recognized the
importance of not hiding their sexuality or their love.
Isherwood was partly a father to Don, who needed to discover who he was. In the course of this process Don very early on adapted Chris's ways of speaking and mannerisms--so completely that Boorman felt as if Chris had "cloned" himself. Then when Don's artistic talent emerged Chris sent him to art school, where he was a dedicated and successful student, and gave him the support and encouragement he needed. Perhaps as some say Don's subsequent success as a portrait artist was "why" the relationship endured--certainly it is how Don moved out from under Chris's shadow--but in fact the relationship was hard in its early years because Don was looked down on as nothing but Chris's boy toy, a blank. Then when Don realized all the wild oats Chris had sown in those extra thirty years, he revolted and there was a rough patch when Don threatened to go off with somebody else.
During this time Isherwood went north for three months as a guest lecturer, which led Don to realize how important his older lover was to him and how relatively unimportant the new person was.
Chris and Don: a Love Story is a marvel of seamless and thorough construction that fills us in on Isherwood's story before Don, his family and school origins, Berlin and the Cabaret years, his involvement in Hollywood society (Aldous Huxley, Swami Prabhavananda, Stravinsky, et al.). Likewise Don's life before Chris and after, including an ugly homophobic encounter with Joseph Cotton for Don). There are important perspectives from Boorman, Leslie Caron, briefly by Lisa Minelli (Chris found her Sally Bowles too "professional" but was glad the film was popular), and others. There are useful comments by Isherwood archive-keepers and chroniclers, home photos of Don and Chris in early days together, archival film interviews with Chris, Isherwood diaries read aloud by Michael York, and above all plenty of time spent with Don as he is today, a trim and vigorous 74, puttering around the sunny, pretty hillside house where he's lived since he moved there with Chris in the 1950's, painting handsome nude men; working out at the gym, reminiscing about his thirty-four years with Christopher Isherwood.
It's enough to see how Bachardy's eyes still light up when he tells about his first meeting with Chris, how often he laughs remembering things, to know theirs was a happy and enduring love. During the last days when Isherwood was dying of prostate cancer, Don did as many as nine or ten big drawings of him a day, and then drew his corpse. Chris would have said that was what an artist would do, Don says. "And that is what an artist did do." When Chris died, Don set about reading Chris's diaries, starting from the present and working back. He couldn't wait to get to the moment when they met.
There are many interesting details. An important theme is Don's and his family's early fascination with movies and movie stars and how Chris's many acquaintances in the world of movies fed into that and dazzled him--till reality came in when he discovered at a shoot where he was a humiliated extra, that a certain Italian lady star...farted, like anybody else. It's clear that over two decades since Chris's death, Don still thrives--but not all questions about his present life are answered (who does he hang out with?). Also missing is any sign of Chris's longtime friend Julie Harris.
There are a couple of unnecessary things: murky reenactments of scenes such as the one where Don and Chris huddled in Morocco during a bad trip after meeting Paul Bowles in Tangiers--a description would have been enough; and as has been noted, the animations of the pair's kitty/pony drawings representing themselves are a little too cute. Still, this is a handsome as well as a touching piece of work.
This movie can easily be seen as a meditation. It is a kind of
wonderful meditation on impermanence, the transient nature of youth,
beauty and health, on the inevitability of loss and finally on the
Triumph of Death. An art of losing and dealing with sorrow.
It is not often in our days that someone has the time and is being allowed a slow pace when talking to you as in this film. Especially not on very subtle and intimate matters. That is praiseworthy. Not often either do you see love treated spiritually. Not often do you see someone follow a life partner to the very gate of Death and past. Making drawings of the corpse, lovingly, without disgust or even crying. That is an impressive remaining within reality.
I stumbled upon this documentary on the Sundance Channel and the name
Don Bachardy sounded familiar to me so I began watching. Then I
realized that he was the artist who authored a book called "Stars In
His Eyes" that dealt with many famous film personalities that posed for
him. Each actor/actress had their portrait sketched and he wrote
interesting details about the experience of setting up these meetings
and how the sittings went.
So I watched, and discovered that he was Christopher Irsherwood's lover since he was a youth, meeting the writer when he was an unformed adolescent and quickly becoming his lifelong companion. It's a touching documentary, detailing the closeness of their relationship which began in the Hollywood of the 1950s at a time when discretion had to be uppermost in the minds of anyone contemplating a same sex relationship.
Bachardy was fascinated by the many well-known people that Irsherwood's associations included--everyone from Montgomery Clift to Julie Harris to Leslie Caron--and quickly became a part of that world when Irsherwood sponsored his education as an artist. Later, he would be doing portraits of these famous people and have his own opening at a gallery.
But the story deals mainly with the intensity of their close relationship over the years despite some difficulties due to their age difference. However, I found some of Bachardy's choices rather morbid, such as the endless fascination with sketching the dying partner during his final months, again and again.
Bachardy himself does much of the narration and ends by saying that he's reading Irsherwood's diary from the back toward the beginning because he can't wait to get to the part where they first meet.
Make of it what you will--it's all there for the viewer to ponder.
What is love? And how does it exercise us? As, regardless of age or
experience, we grope, or dance, or trot, or what you will, our way in
life, is there not at some point, for some of us, a deep impact
encounter with another person that challenges our expectations, our
fears, even our love? Let alone the fact that, for example, a friend's
fleeting remark can trigger an unpleasant memory. That much for
frailty, for I do not want to deliver any kind of portentous
philosophical or psychoanalytic sketch as a response to the film, but
there was one thing, one thing if you may, that touched me profoundly,
and although it shows, I think, an immense refinement and spontaneity
of affect, it is of the simplest logical necessity!
First things first! you may say, if you still read this.
Like, this is a documentary concerning two men, two artists, in love, in a relationship for more than thirty years, along with geography, exile, backgrounds, celebrities, chronology, hilarity, love and its discontents making for a (dual) portrait.
Like Chris Isherwood, a somewhat canonical writer, mostly for his Berlin stories, living the 20th century passion in an insouciant pre-fascist Germany, ends up in Hollywwod, California coming from rural upper-class England, and, past middle age, he encounters a charming adolescent who ends up the love of his life. A worthy artist, also.
Like all that this entails, what is influence, what are the stakes, of youth coming into age, into art, jealousy, manhood, disgust for mushrooms (and even worse, where this, combined with canned breakfast, can lead to!), shock treatment, and what is the use of a horse being with a cat, along other matters.
Or even why love is as rare as guts. I felt my saliva freeze in my neck and tears at the back of my eye-bulbs, when Don Bachardy raised to the camera the first drawing of Isherwood's dead head.
Or why love is as frequent as ideology. If one bothers about the same sex marriage issue, thumbs up or down, mildly or not, that is if such a story can trigger a political, ideological statement or pronouncement, then one should bother also for re-balancing the debt towards people shock-treated. Recall how a broken, elderly Ted, Don Bachardy's brother, comes just a couple of minutes after the sly editing of his former, radiant and handsome self. And, even more sobering, how his brother's voice says, in a tone hurt, with all the could-have-beens of a life muffled, and still matter of fact: the shock treatment ruined his life.
But as this, too, begins to smell of ideology, I turn to what, how shall I put it, elevates to a higher degree the linear, ideological, biographical data of the film.
The day Chris Isherwood died, Don Bachardy commenced reading his diaries backwards. He wanted to reach back to their meeting. Now, for me, if there ever was an effective and affective definition of Jean Baudrillard's awkward phrase "Things get their full meaning when played backwards", this is the case!
To make first things last, a true, a truly meaningful act of love!
Like a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, namely her last one, simply and aptly called "Poem". I would like to quote it in extent:
(...) Our visions coincided - "visions" is
too serious a word - our looks, two looks:
art copying from life and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they've turned into each other. Which is which?
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
- the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much. (...)
An exquisite memoir! Portrait artist Don Bachardy, still active in his seventies, reflects on his 30-year love affair with British writer Christopher Isherwood, who was 30 years Bachardy's senior. Meeting in early-1950s Southern California, the immigrated author-turned-screenwriter and the bright-eyed, star-worshiping young man seemed to have little in common, yet their attraction and devotion to one another proved all their naysayers wrong. Although intriguing as both a microcosm of homosexuality (and the ways in which it was greeted by the heterosexual community) in the 1950s as well as an enduring gay love story, the piece also touches tenderly on age, on talent, on family and friends, and on reflections of the past from a still-sharp and brilliant mind. Bachardy is a colorful character, a sweet and sentimental fellow, and his thoughts are heightened visually by wonderful old home movies of his journey with Isherwood, days both blissful and turbulent. Michael York narrates succinctly from the diaries Isherwood kept from 1939 to 1960, and several celebrities and biographers recount their experiences in knowing or researching the two men. This is as complete and satisfying a documentary as you're likely to see. It's also an extraordinarily moving testament to the human condition. ***1/2 from ****
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This was just a beautiful, fascinating, really touching film. And the
filmmakers nearly destroyed it. Like so many of the other commentators,
I have to add that the use of recreations and animation - as little as
there was - was a grave mistake. They had a wealth of - gorgeous -
archival footage to work with. Truly, the quality and aptness of the
Isherwood/Bachardy footage they were able to use was quite remarkable.
So they had no need at all to add poorly shot bits of recreated
narrative. It was obvious and completely unnecessary. As there was so
little of it, it might have been overlooked. But the cringe-inducing
cartoons could not be. They were used to illustrate the personal
pet-names the two men would use with each other. Many of us tend to wax
infantile when lovingly addressing our spouses or partners; they were
no exception. That's fine. That's lovely, really. But to ratchet up the
"cute" by morphing their messages and drawings into animation was a
stupid choice. And to actually end the film with one of these
sick-sweet cartoons is really unforgivable.
I wish I had been told about those missteps. I wish I'd been told to be ready for them and do my best to ignore them. If the viewer can do that, this is a fantastic film.
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