Last night Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees dreamed that the ghosts of dead talk show hosts were trying to eat her shoes—and that wasn't half as strange as this early Merchant Ivory curiosity.
Our review of Savages (2012) (Blu-ray), published November 20th, 2012, is also available.
"You do know it's all going on somewhere else."
This low-budget 1972 film by the now-famous duo of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory is a far cry from the elegant dramas in historical settings that the team has become known for. With a screenplay by George Swift Trow and Michael O'Donoghue based on an idea by Ivory himself, Savages is a fantastical, absurdist satire unlike anything else Merchant Ivory has produced.
Facts of the Case
An aboriginal group of primitives known as the Mud People is about to perform a ritual execution of one of their own when a peculiar object appears in their midst: a croquet ball. Led by their high priestess to investigate, the tribe comes upon a deserted mansion, still filled with the clothing and possessions of wealthy 1930s folk. When they begin to appropriate these strange objects, they are transformed into elegant denizens of society who trade gossip, discuss politics, and recite poetry. At heart, though, they are still savages, and the veneer of civilization must eventually give way to the primitive desires that still drive them.
Savages is a film that evidently polarized audiences upon its release in 1972 and is highly likely to evoke the same reaction in its new DVD release. The very qualities that some will prize in it—the experimental quality of the entire production; the dreamlike illogic; the overt message—are likely to be the ones that most aggravate others. For my own part, I can respect the thought that went into it and the dedication and commitment of the actors and the filmmakers without being able to say I found it particularly enjoyable or illuminating. The message is simple and familiar: humans are savages, no matter how we may try to cover it up with fancy clothes, etiquette, or art.
The plot summary had prepared me for an exploration of how a primitive people might come to take on the qualities of civilized society simply through contact with material possessions, but in fact this is not remotely the point. The film is not at all interested in this process: Instead of focusing on how the Mud People learn to speak, to dress, to use the implements of modern life, it elides these issues altogether and removes the action to a fantastical realm in which logic has no place. The Mud People actually seem to be transformed into the people they would have become had they been born into the world represented by the manor. Thus, when we meet them in their fine clothes, coiffed and cleaned and cosmetically enhanced, not only do they speak proper English with cultured accents, but they all have individual histories and experiences in this world of privilege: They speak of having encountered each other at the opera, of attending a music hall, of their education and travels and childhood. If realism is something you look for in a film, therefore, look elsewhere.
The age of purported civilization that Merchant and Ivory have chosen for Savages is the 1930s, the brief, glittering era between the world wars, which has been dissected skillfully in, among other films, Robert Altman's Gosford Park; Merchant and Ivory themselves have gone on to scrutinize upper-class society with more subtlety and grace in films such as Howards End and The Remains of the Day. Unlike these later films, Savages has all the subtlety of a croquet mallet to the skull. The distinct types among the Mud People retain their personalities even as they undergo their makeover into proper English ladies and gentlemen, so, for example, the jungle warrior who grabs women for a quick hump becomes a bully in a tuxedo, who grabs women for a quick hump. The despised member of another tribe becomes the maid. The sad, troubled outcast becomes a sad, troubled wallflower. And so forth. For me, the main interest of the film lay in the way straightforward "savage" behavior was translated into high society interaction. Some interactions remained brutally similar (the bully grabs the maid for…), while in other cases the power struggles and mysticism that were more direct among the mud people in their natural state are cloaked in political disputes, high-class socialspeak, and trendy occult parlor games. This civilized world is still marked by carnality, casual cruelty, and sudden death, however, and under the influence of champagne, mysterious seeds, and their own libidos our savages shed both literal and metaphorical trappings of civilization, eventually to return to the forest.
Unfortunately, because of the film's self-awareness, it can become arch, as when it draws our attention for the umpty-jillionth time to the savagery underlying supposedly civilized behavior, as when affronted women refer to men as "beasts." It also seems unnecessarily precious for dinner-table conversation to turn to that curious archeological discovery, the Mud People. Moreover, because it has such a straightforward message and spends its running time repeating it rather than developing it, Savages felt to me like a short film stretched out to feature length. It is also burdened in this regard by a ploddingly slow pace.
Perhaps the film would not have seemed overlong to me if its message had not been so unremittingly depressing: It seems to be saying that there is an inescapable fate at work in all our lives—the fate of our own nature. This sense of futility pretty much does away with the possibility of suspense, since the few characters who show some complexity and a drive to rise above the brute animal instincts of feeding, fighting, and fornicating are pretty much doomed by these very instincts. Sam Waterston (Law and Order) and first-time actor Paulita Sedgwick bring poignancy and sensitivity to their roles: James, The Limping Man (as he is described in the opening credits), seems fated to be an observer of others' injustices, and Penelope, The High-Strung Girl, who is treated cruelly by most of the others, possesses a yearning for beauty that manifests itself in a flight of imaginative fancy at the dinner table. Because of their sensitivity to cruelty, however, these two have no place among their kind—among humankind. As composer Julian Branch, Broadway actor Lewis J. Stadlen (In and Out) performs an oddly touching little musical solo, which contrasts with the simply bizarre musical number "Steppin' on a Spaniel," in which nearly the entire company participates in a goofy little dance, a prelude to their reversion to an animalistic state.
Aside from these characters, however, most of the film's personages are one-note, and the performances, some of them by first-time actors (like Sedgwick and Susie Blakely) are sometimes awkward. There are some moments of humor, much of which is based in absurdity, as when Carlotta (formerly the high priestess of the Mud People, played by Anne Francine) predicts the future, with utter seriousness, from the contours of a peach: "Duplicity," she intones, looking and sounding like an Edward Gorey character brought to life. "Remorse. glandular imbalance. explosions at the mill. flypaper…" It's a shame that the brilliance of moments like this one, or the scene in which characters joyfully play ball with a head of cabbage, is not sustained throughout the film.
Since the film is really not telling us anything new, we focus more on the way it tells us. The filmmakers have chosen to use a number of different devices to emphasize the story's structure and to sharpen its satirical edge. The use of color delineates three stages in the Mud People's experience: They first appear in their natural state photographed in black and white as they forage for narcotic leaves and prepare for an execution. When they venture into the deserted mansion, the film changes to sepia, and when the erstwhile savages appear as society glitterati, the film blooms forth in gemlike, saturated full color. Distancing devices like silent-era-style title cards and (unsubtitled) German voiceover narration establish a documentary feel to the first two movements of the story, and when the narration returns as the once and future savages revert to type, it is an ironic reminder of the lack of distance between ourselves and these creatures we have been invited to study from a safe, skeptical distance. Indeed, the film is nothing if not generous with irony.
The lavishness that later Merchant Ivory productions have become known for is merely sketched in here, since the film was made on a tiny budget; nevertheless, touches like the '30s-style title song (performed by Bobby Short) create an evocative sense of time and place. This digital restoration does full justice to the film: the picture is almost entirely free from speckling and other defects, and the clarity and color are breathtaking. Although the sound is only available in mono, it too is crystalline. Among the extras, the ten-minute "conversation" with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant clarifies some parts of the film (Ivory notes, for example, that the "civilized" part of the film actually takes the characters through stages of maturity from childhood through adolescence and ultimately to old age and death) and offers interesting background on its origin and filming. I would have enjoyed hearing more about the making of the film, since I get the sense that the actors must have done a great deal of group improvisation to make their Mud People sequences so unself-conscious. The case insert features an essay by film scholar Robert Emmet Long that adds more details about the film's background, release, and technique.
The other major feature on this disc is scarcely an extra so much as the second half of a double feature: Merchant Ivory's 1970 documentary The Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization, a 53-minute program about Indian scholar Nirad Chaudhuri. As far as I can tell, its only connection to Savages is its Merchant Ivory pedigree, and it is about as different as one can imagine from that film. In it, the cameras follow Chaudhuri around through everyday situations, and we get to hear him speak—eloquently, amusingly, and, thanks to the murky sound quality, almost incomprehensibly. Both audio and video in this feature seem to have been captured from original elements of poor quality, perhaps due to age deterioration, so although it is evident that restoration has been done, this is still a very muddy-looking and -sounding feature. Merchant and Ivory provide an introduction in which they discuss the origin and subject of this documentary. While I applaud the decision to preserve this obscure work on DVD, I'm not sure it belongs on the same disc with the very different Savages.
Savages is one odd film. Because it is likely to put off many viewers, even (perhaps especially) fans of Merchant Ivory films like A Room with a View or Howards End, I urge the curious to rent this instead of making a blind purchase. Nonetheless, as an unusual experiment by two great names in filmmaking, it represents a worthy addition to a library of offbeat film. Its handsome DVD treatment deserves praise, as does the studio for making available a relatively obscure film that is unlikely to generate a great deal of revenue.
These savages exist in their own world, far removed from our standards of guilt, so it would be moot to make a traditional ruling in this case. The judge declares a recess so that she can go apply some insect repellent.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• "A Conversation with the Filmmakers"
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