By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
'CHRIS & DON: A LOVE STORY'
Zeitgeist Films presents a documentary directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara.
Running time: 90 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening today at Landmark Century.
It's tempting to think, midway through the charming documentary "Chris & Don," that the film should instead be titled "Don & Chris." Don Bachardy, after all, is the one half of this love story who's on screen or narrating probably 80 percent of the time. It's Don's life we get the most details from. Or at least, we see more of his emotions, his reactions, hear his decisions discussed. These are the things we want from biography, things we can learn from. Don, surely, should get the first billing.
But to think that would be a tragic (though common) misunderstanding of human relationships, of true love, even of art. Because the story of Don Bachardy is very much the story of the late writer Christopher Isherwood, and vice versa. The two artists were intertwined, affected each other's work, reflected each other in their work. They were utterly in love, and (as the subtitle reminds us) this film is not a document of two noted figures and their artistic legacy, it is a document of a relationship, a marriage. Given the news out of California these days, such an objective look at a gay marriage couldn't have been more serendipitously scheduled.
There's an extra level of "controversy" to this relationship. Chris and Don were not only a gay couple, Chris was 30 years Don's senior. They met on a Los Angeles beach when Don was 16. "Chris & Don" is laden with home-movie footage of the two of them, in the '50s, both looking so fresh and exuberant. Don, though, features more prominently in that footage, clearly the fixation of Chris, the writer who once proclaimed "I am a camera." Don is young and beautiful, his gap-toothed smile gleaming through the grainy images. The film's relatively few talking heads discuss the impact Don had on all Chris' friends and colleagues. It's easy to see.
But therein lies the slippery slope this documentary seeks to reverse, and almost succeeds in doing so. It's tempting to rush to judgment, as we do with relationships in which one partner is significantly older than the other: He corrupted the boy. Don himself frames it in the beginning of the film, describing Chris this way as "the archvillain, warping him to his mold, teaching him wicked things" — before adding, with a devilish grin, "which is exactly what the boy wanted."
"Chris & Don" shows no wickedness at all. It is not whitewashed — the dark times in the relationship are not ignored, such as Don's thoughts of leaving Chris (who died in 1986), arguments, the stress of the age difference, how they were evicted from a house because of it — it's simply objective. There is no Gay Issue and no Age Issue, nor was there in Isherwood's work. To make issues of these things, Isherwood understood, would overpower his narrative and make caricatures of his characters. It would be unrealistic, untrue. The tone of the film is perfectly in line with that of Isherwood's prose and the stylistic declaration of his "I am a camera" quotation from "Berlin Diary" in Goodbye to Berlin (the basis for each incarnation of "Cabaret"), which continues: "... with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking ... someday this will all have to be developed."
And here is the film, developing it. We see that not only did Chris deeply impact the life of young Don, encouraging and fostering the artistic talent that made him a renowned portrait artist, but that Don deeply impacted Chris. The good times in their relationship were Isherwood's inspiration toward that more reportorial, objective style of prose for which he was made famous — turning the "fiction" of Goodbye to Berlin into the autobiographical narrative of Christopher and His Kind, his fastest-selling book. The bad times inspired the successful point-of-view experiment of A Single Man, in which the older Chris struggles to come to terms with his impending mortality and the loss of his life — and the love of his life.
In the end, we have here a very human love story, one reminding us that our own biographies are not our own stories. My story hasn't been mine for nearly 15 years, since I met my partner. It's impossible to evaluate Fitzgerald without considering Zelda. Chris, we now see, couldn't have been Isherwood without Don.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.