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DIRECTED BY: James Ivory
FEATURING: Lewis Stadlen, Anne Francine, Ultra Violet, Sam Waterston, and many more of approximately equal importance
PLOT: A tribe of “mud people” find a croquet ball, follow it to an abandoned mansion, put on the clothes they find, host a dinner party, then fall back into savagery.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Carefully structured but thoroughly strange from start to finish, Savages is a unique experiment from an unlikely source. Part mock-anthropological study, part absurd satire, the movie is made in the spirit of and of American underground filmmakers, but with the high level of craftsmanship imposed by the Merchant/Ivory team. It’s an oddball outlier in an Oscar-bait canon.
COMMENTS: Savages is a movie that’s almost as strange for who made it as for what it is. When you think of Merchant/Ivory productions, you think of their run from 1985 to 1993 when they produced three massively praised historical costume dramas: A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Remains of the Day. Watching these staid and starchy dramas aimed at audiences packed with little old ladies, you might never guess that the filmmakers were once young and willing to experiment with movies about stone age tribespeople who morph overnight into well-heeled gentlemen and ladies who throw lavish dinner parties and do the Charleston before spontaneously reverting back to savagery. Movies with nudity and lesbian sex and transvestites and a Superstar in the cast. And yet, strange as it seems, Merchant and Ivory were young and foolish once, and Savages exists.
It begins in the primeval forests (of upstate New York), where a tribe of “mud people” goes about their business of gathering narcotic leaves, kidnapping females from other tribes, and forced ritual lovemaking with the high priestess. These scenes are all silent, with explanatory intertitles and an eerie soundtrack of jungle drums, pan flutes, and bird calls, heavy on the reverb. Following the mysterious appearance of a croquet ball, the tribe makes its way to an abandoned manor house, explores, and after licking a few portraits on the walls, put on the clothes they find in the wardrobe (sometimes getting the genders wrong). Flash forward, and suddenly we’re in color and the cast is speaking English—although dialogue is often fancifully absurd and scarcely more illuminating than the grunts of the mud tribe. (The funniest bit in the whole movie is the ersatz-Broadway musical number”Steppin’ on a Spaniel,” with lyrics like “Close your eyes and give those guys a big smooch, right now/As you’re jumpin’ up and down and steppin’ on a pooch, bow wow!”) They throw a dinner party, complete with gossip and scheming and affairs. They drink too much after dinner, and take drugs, and have sex, and gradually their little society breaks down, until they all pour out onto the lawn at dawn, whacking drunkenly at croquet balls before shedding their clothes and meandering back into the forest to start anew.
Merchant/Ivory here mock the same species of bourgeois drawing room manners they will later romanticize in their Oscar-nominated features. Civilization is a farce; the tribespeople play the same social roles as they did in the jungle, but now with a veneer of sophistication. The enslaved woman serves as maid to the others, a young warrior becomes a bully, and the couple who were always shamelessly humping in the forest are now slipping away every chance they get for illicit assignations. Civilization is presented as a cyclical proposition, rising and then declining back into savagery (as things get turbulent near the end, we are tempted to place a pin in the timeline with a marker reading “you are here.”) It’s all very abstract, but there’s a recurring theme of imitation: the intellectual character is obsessed with an architectural model in the drawing room and how it recreates reality, only smaller, while the limping man tells a story but is unable to answer questions about it because he has merely memorized a book entry verbatim. The savages act out the manners of the civilized without understanding the purpose behind the traditions they carry out.
If there’s one big complaint with Savages, it’s that the scenario drags on far too long. The early reels, in the forest primeval, are the most interesting; a conscientious editor could have cut the rest down by fifteen minutes or even a half hour without doing any damage to the overall effect.
The film was made specifically to take advantage of an abandoned manor house location; Ivory thought up the savagery-to-civilization scenario and then hired a couple of writers (New Yorker essayist George W. S. Trow and National Lampoon‘s Michael O’Donoghue) to pen a script (which was still unfinished by the time the cameras started rolling). The Criterion Collection released Savages as part of their Merchant/Ivory collection. The disc includes an interview with the producer and director alongside the pair’s 1972 BBC documentary The Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by Brian, who explained “Don’t be put off by its Merchant/Ivory parentage; this was quite early in their career and one of the main brains behind it was the late weird Michael O’Donoghue, the famed Mr. Mike of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live fame.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)