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Screening Notes: James Ivory of Merchant Ivory Productions Discusses Howards End at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

July 29, 2016 | Brittany Stigler
Scene from Howards End

Scene from Howards End

On Monday, July 25, a day drenched by a smattering of summer downpours, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a new restoration of Merchant Ivory’s Howards End, with director James Ivory in attendance for a post-screening Q&A with Michael Koresky. Clad in a light, pinstripe suit, Ivory tapped his furled umbrella (conjuring up the film’s very own fateful parasol) behind the podium as he introduced the film, taking a moment to explain the significance of the restoration process. “When it came out originally, it came out in 70 mm. And in those days when you had a 70 mm print, you didn’t work directly from the original negative; you had to work from the dub. And now, of course, when they do a restoration they are working from the original negative, so the colors are more beautiful in the restoration, really, than it was in the 70 mm print all those years ago.” Already lauded for its rich details and textures (the film won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction in 1993), the restoration screened “glimmeringly,” with the hue of the bluebells and the glint of the afternoon silver intensified in 4K.

Adapted from E. M. Forster’s novel of the same name, Howards End follows three families of differing classes—the Wilcoxes (Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins), the Schlegels (Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter), and the Basts (Samuel West, Nicola Duffett)— as they negotiate love, society, and property in a transitioning Edwardian England. The third screen adaptation of a Forster novel by Merchant Ivory, the Academy Award-winning script was written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who collaborated with Merchant and Ivory from their conception in the early ‘60s. As Ivory recalled during the discussion following the screening, “Ruth thought, it was her idea, ‘Well you know, really, the Forster book that needs to be made is Howards End.’”

“I didn’t set out to specialize in E. M. Forster,” said Ivory. “I got interested in him because I read Passage to India.” After Forster’s death, King’s College in Cambridge, which held the Forster archive, asked if Merchant and Ivory would like to make Passage to India into a movie, to which the filmmakers responded, Ivory recalled, “Well, what we’d like to make is A Room with a View,” adding blithely, “I couldn’t say the real reason I wanted to make A Room with a View was because I wanted to go to Italy.”

At two hours and twenty-two minutes, Howards End is the longest Merchant Ivory film. After whittling it down from 3 hours to its final running time, Ivory recalled stepping outside with Jhabvala, who turned and said, “Well, it is what it is.” The editing, measured and even paced for most of the film, finds comic and rhythmic release in two scenes scattered with fades-to-black, which act as cleverly-placed ellipses. As deliberate as the cuts seem, however, the stylistic choice was not preconceived. “Both scenes were very, very, very long . . . you couldn’t have a scene like that, really. People would have gotten bored. . . . So we had to chop it about.”

Still, there was one scene that Ivory wishes he could have made work in the film. “Charles Wilcox (James Wilby) is driving Margaret (Thompson), and they are going very fast, and they go through a little village, and they hit a cat, who they were afraid was a dog. And he wouldn’t stop the car, and she stands up and jumps out of the car,” said Ivory. “This would be the most terrific scene to direct, but we couldn’t do it.” He continued to explain, “Nowadays you could show a car running over a cat or a dog—there are ways of doing that—but in those days there weren’t any . . . you couldn’t do it.”

Integral to the team, Howards End composer Richard Robbins, who created nearly every Merchant Ivory score (the first being for The Europeans), insisted on the iconic swell of music that opens the film, much to the dismay of Ivory. “That swell of music puts off projectionists, or it did in the past. . . . That was one of the things I complained about.” To accommodate, Ivory would warn the projectionists himself, saying, “You’re going to have this blast at the beginning, and you just have to live with it.” Of course, this would prove worth the trouble, as Robbins’s score for Howards End and the subsequent film, The Remains of the Day, would go on to earn Robbins back-to-back Academy Award nominations.

Speaking to this act of compromise, the phrase that underscored the evening, whether Ivory was talking about Robbins or the many luminous actors of the Merchant Ivory troupe, was “You have to let them demonstrate what it is they want to do.” As a result, Merchant Ivory’s dedication to craft and freedom of expression imprints the film with a glow that only grows more luminous with time, highlighting that the film is far more than a starched period drama.

If you were unable to make it to the Film Society’s screening of Howards End, the restoration will open at The Paris Theater and at Film Forum on August 26.

By Brittany Stigler

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