CHAUTAUQUA - Probably the most influential art form in our country today is the feature film - along with films' often unpleasant little stepbrother, television. During the coming week, the morning lecture platform at Chautauqua Institution will be focused on the subject ''On Film.''
Since the focus of this column is the arts, it seemed especially important that we give you an advance look at some of the speakers who will bring their knowledge of the film industry to the Amphitheater stage. While it wasn't possible to talk with everyone involved, I was able to speak by telephone with two of the most interesting: director James Ivory and actor Matthew Modine.
I'd like to share with you a small bit of what I learned from my talks with each of them.
Robert W. Plyler
James Ivory was born in California, but grew up and went to college in Oregon. He has been directing films, and working in a wide variety of film-related roles since 1953. In 1961, he co-founded Merchant Ivory Productions, together with producer Ishmael Merchant, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
The three artists have had roles which each of them usually filled, in making a film, but each made contributions to the others, so frequently that it is difficult to say who contributed what to their very successful output.
Ms. Jhabvala is a German Jew, and she prepared the majority of the screenplays for their films. Some she wrote outright and for others she adapted novels or other types of writing to screenplays.
Merchant, who died in 2005, was an Indian Muslim, and he generally served as producer, negotiating labor contracts for the people who worked on the films, arranging for food to be delivered, reserving plane tickets and hotel rooms, and basically dealing with the material needs of the production.
Ivory is a protestant American, and he directed the majority of the company's films, planning out such things as where the actors will stand when they speak their lines, deciding when the camera has captured what is needed from the filming, and supervising the editing of the filmed material into the finished form, which the audience will see, blending the acting with a musical score, visual and sound effects, and the like.
All but one of the Merchant Ivory films - ''The Guru'' - have been independently made, sometimes with partial funding by film studios, but virtually always under the trio's control and not under the control of a film studio.
The company's films have been nominated for dozens of Oscars and other prestigious awards. ''A Room with a View'' alone was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three. ''The Remains of the Day'' was nominated for nine.
Just a few of their other films would include ''Howard's End,'' ''The Bostonians,'' ''A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries,'' ''Bombay Talkie,'' and last year's ''The City of Your Final Destination,'' which was their most recent creation.
Just a few of the actors who have appeared in their films have been Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Maggie Smith, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ralph Fiennes, Bernadette Peters, and Matthew Modine.
On the telephone, Ivory is an energetic and most agreeable speaker. He told me he has been hearing about Chautauqua all of his life, but he has never been here, and he's certainly looking forward to seeing it in person.
He said that the subject of film is not a finite thing, and he hopes the Chautauqua audience will have a wide range of interests and concerns about the industry, rather than just sitting and listening to him talk about it. ''I can talk until the cows come home, but there are so many elements to filmmaking, it would really be better if the listeners told me what they want to know,'' he said.
''I decided I wanted to go into films when I was about 14 years old,'' Ivory said. ''I got the idea that creating the sets for films which made a new situation seem real to the audience, would be the most exciting thing I could imagine.''
The director's family home was being remodeled at the time, so he asked the architect who was supervising the work how he should go about getting into set design. The man advised him he should consider architecture school, and he graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in architecture. Then he attended the famous film program of the University of Southern California.
''I think the most important thing in whether a person is a successful filmmaker is what's inside him. If a person has a vision of what he wants to make, he can probably find a way to make it,'' he stated. He considered experience on actual film sets as the second most important element, with study in a film school a distant third in importance.
James Ivory sees a great many films. He lives in New York City where there are literally hundreds of theaters, and he attends them often. He said he often prefers European films to American ones, because European filmmakers tend to see their role as starting their audiences to thinking on a certain subject, rather than just telling the audience something, as U.S. films often do.
Unlike a director such as Woody Allen, about whom we did a column a few weeks back, Ivory almost never re-shoots scenes, once they are filmed. ''I like to have an arrangement with my actors in which they come back in, for a day or two after the main shooting is over, while we still have the costumes and the sets, and we do some additional filming. When we see the edited film, it may become clear that it isn't clear which actor in a scene said a line, or something just isn't obvious enough, although it seemed so during the filming, and then we can focus the camera on the actor who speaks, or make it more clear, what needs to be understood. But in my whole career, I have re-shot very little,'' he said.
I asked if audiences' reactions to his films have matched his expectations. He said Merchant Ivory has made a great many films, in many different periods of time and in many different cultures, and audiences have responded most enthusiastically to their films set in Europe and especially in England, in the late years of the 19th century, and the early years of the 20th century.
''I think some of our best films are the ones which take place in India, such as 'Shakespeare Wallah,'' and 'The Householder.' Some of our more recent films, such as ''Jefferson in Paris,'' and ''The White Countess'' are much better than people seem to think. It's often because they focus on some particular thing such as they don't see Nick Nolte portraying Thomas Jefferson,'' he said. ''I think if people would have another look at some of these films, they'd like them as much as the English films,''
Asked what he is working on now, Ivory answered that he is looking into a number of possibilities, but the one which interests him most, at the moment, would be a filming of William Shakespeare's poetic ''Richard II.'' If he succeeds in making his audience feel they are actually living in that historical period, as he has with so many of his other films, that should be a triumph, indeed.
One of the things I did in preparing to do the interview was to re-watch a number of Merchant Ivory films. One thing which haunted me was the beautiful performance by the late Natasha Richardson, who had the lead in ''The White Countess,'' performing together with her mother, Vanessa Redgrave and her aunt, Lynn Redgrave. Ms. Richardson did the voice-over narration, along with Ivory, in the DVD version of the film, and the two have an interesting chemistry.
Asked to comment, Ivory said that he had very much working with the actress. ''She was a beautiful woman, and beautifully trained, as so many English actors are. She could say a line 30 different ways, until we got a version we liked,'' he said. ''I was horrified when I learned she had died in a skiing accident, last winter, yet when I thought about it, it wasn't as surprising.
''Natasha was a person who was very secure in her personal life. She would take any direction I wanted to give her, while making the film, but for example, there was an incident in which she wanted to go shopping in a section of Shanghai, China, where we made the film. Several people tried very hard to convince her that it wouldn't be good for her to go there, but she went, and it created a very awkward incident.
''When I heard that she had insisted on skiing without a helmet, and that when she struck her head, she refused medical attention, it sounded very familiar,'' he said.
Few people living today know the film industry better than James Ivory, and his presentation, Wednesday morning, on the Amphitheater stage is sure to be both informative and entertaining.
Like Ivory, Matthew Modine was born in California. Like the director, he also decided very young that he wanted to make films - though as an actor, rather than as a director - as his father was the manager of a chain of drive-in movie theaters, and he got to see a great many films, over and over.
In another similarity, he attempted to study filmmaking in a formal program - in his case, at Brigham Young University - but he decided that he could best learn his craft by getting out into the business, rather than in a classroom.
He left Utah, and moved to New York City, where he did some studying with famed acting teacher Stella Adler, while auditioning for roles and working in fetch and carry jobs, to be near people in the business.
Modine's first film role was in John Sayles' ''Baby, It's You,'' a weeper about a wealthy Jewish girl who loves a blue collar Italian boy, which starred Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano. The film also introduced Tracy Pollan and Robert Downey, Jr.
His performance in the film caught the attention of director Harold Becker, who was looking for a young actor to play the leading role of a high school wrestler who was trying to drop two weight classes in order to compete against a wrestler who was considered unbeatable, in the film ''Vision Quest.'' Madonna had her first film role in that one.
The success of that film led to his casting as Private Joker, the principal character in Stanley Kubrick's violent Vietnam film, ''Full Metal Jacket.'' Modine published a book about his experiences in working with Kubrick.
Among his many other stage and film roles are ''Birdy,'' ''The Hotel New Hampshire,'' ''Mrs. Soffel,'' ''Streamers,'' ''Married to the Mob,'' ''Any Given Sunday,'' and the 2000 re-make of ''Flowers for Algernon.''
In another similarity to James Ivory, he believes that no one has absolute knowledge about the film industry which can be poured over the audience in lecture form and he hopes to initiate a give-and-take relationship in which he can share what he knows about the business, according to the audience's interest and involvement.
He was pleased to learn that his interview was intended to share the page with one by James Ivory, although he said the one film they made together was a very brief performance, for him. ''I had only a very short role in 'Le Divorce,' '' he said. ''I played a crazed husband who murdered his wife on the spectator platform of the Eiffel Tower.''
In fact, it was Ishmael Merchant who convinced Modine to accept the role, despite the fact that it was so short, because he believed it had to be very believably performed, he reported.
With a career established, Modine is free to follow his personal interests. These often include performing for the stage, rather than the silver screen. He has just completed a run in Connecticut as lawyer Atticus Finch, in a recent re-shaping of the classic ''To Kill a Mockingbird,'' a production which pleased the actor so much, he is committed to transferring it to Broadway, and staying with the leading role, if the author's permission can be obtained.
He has also convinced a number of first rate actors, including Dianne Wiest, Wallace Shawn, and Tate Donovan, to record line readings from a script he hopes to film, so he can present it to potential backers with himself acting with the voices of the others.
He's recently returned to his home in New York City's Chelsea district, from a performance in Los Angeles of a satirical play called ''Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas.'' I don't play myself in that play, I play a character named Matthew Modine. He's a former A-list actor who is trying to get back into the limelight by heading up a cause - it's a satire on performers who do things like adopting children from exotic places, in search of publicity,'' he said.
How have films changed in the nearly 30 years since he first began appearing in them? He replied that there have always been films which were successful in calling attention to important situations, and in getting people to care about injustices and profound problems.
''When I started out, it was fictional stories which were capturing attention. The point of the film 'Gross Anatomy,'' for example, was that people were being encouraged to go into the medical field to earn a lot of money, and little was being suggested about actually helping people.
''When we made the film 'And the Band Played On,' people knew nothing about AIDS and HIV, and millions of Americans were dying from it, but President Reagan refused to even say the name of the disease. The film helped the public to understand that AIDS was an illness which was harming people. Once that happened, it was possible to get people focused on trying to prevent it, and maybe to cure it.
''Today, it's more likely to be documentary films which are making a difference in the world,'' he said. I recently saw a brutal film called 'The Cove,' about a city in Japan which has been herding dolphins into a natural cove, selecting the most attractive for sales to aquatic amusement parks, then killing the rest and selling the meat to schools, labeled as whale meat, when dolphin meat is badly tainted by Mercury and makes people who eat it ill.''
Like so many actors, in the past and in the present, Matthew Modine had a period in which he was followed by photographers who followed him places, poked lenses through his window curtains, and manipulated photographs to support false claims that he was ill or gaining weight, and the like. I asked, was being famous worth the price?
He thought a while, then said there was a time when he would have said that it wasn't worth the trials and pressures of being famous. But he changed his mind, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.