Sunday, July 13, 2008
This afternoon, George and I enjoyed the film "Chris and Don. A Love Story". The film is the touching and intimate biography of Christopher Isherwood, a British writer most famous for his "Berlin Stories" which formed the basis of the musical play and film "Cabaret", and Don Bachardy, an American portrait artist. Their relationship lasted from when they met on a Santa Monica beach in 1952 until Isherwood died in 1986. Their relationship was glamorous, extraordinary, and profound. Glamorous in that Isherwood moved in literary and Hollywood circles, with friends from W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Paul Bowles to Igor Stravinsky, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. Extraordinary, in that they were thirty years apart in age, and lived an open and unflinching life together through decades when open gay couples were unheard of. And profound, in that the two nurtured one another creatively as artists and emotionally as lovers, from the start, when Chris helped Don discover his self-confidence as a portrait artist, to the end, when Don cared for Chris as he died of prostate cancer. The film is touchingly intimate, much of it told by the present-day Bachardy, with shots of him and the home they lived in together, and parts narrated by him, creating the effect of being invited into his home, being shown around, and hearing him share memories as they are inspired by objects and mementos in his home. It is an interview without any interviewer, creating a very intimate space into which we the viewers insert ourselves, and Bachardy is talking directly to us. This effect is enhanced by contrast with all the other people interviewed for the film, both academic biographers and personal friends of Chris and Don, all of whom are presented in a more detached documentary style, with name captions (though still without the interposition of an onscreen interviewer). This present-day interview footage is skillfully woven together with archival photographs, home movies and other period film footage, readings from Isherwood's diaries, shots of Bachardy's portraits, and some fanciful animation extending a horse-and-cat conceit that Chris and Don used in pet names for each other. The usual drama of "coming out" doesn't figure at all in this film, as these two men seem just to have been out from the start in a very matter-of-fact way. The tensions of their relationship were much more around their large age and experience difference, and how they worked through that. The early establishment of personal meaning behind the animation sequences, together with the personal "tour" of their house, come back in the end to make a tender and touching coda to the film. The blend of media, along with a lovely musical score that enhanced the film without calling attention to itself, successfully combined to convey the depth and complexity of their relationship. Like a great portrait, this film isn't completely photo-realistic, but rather, with subjective brush strokes captures the essence of these men -- of this couple -- in a way that is vivid, true, and deeply personal.