On February 14, 1953, Don Bachardy (18) meets his brother's lover Christopher Isherwood (48) on a beach in California and, unbeknownst to both parties, is locked in for life--a life that would enlarge into creative soars for a portrait artist yet to know his calling and an established author awaiting his eternal subject. Yet "Chris and Don: A Love Story" is not simply about the ungovernable urge to create the life of art that only an artist can know where often the object is art itself; it is more humbly about two lovers' bonedeep adamancy to preserve as much of life as one can in a durable yet aesthetic medium. Here, the intended substance is neither the piece drawn nor the word written but the protraction of human essence by embalming it in text, in sketch. The documentary, much like its own subjects, is the act of reinforcing memory with creative proofs-- the body of evidence, which, in the process of its production, inspires more memories than any paper or celluloid can hold. A sketch of a gnarled Chris, haggard with cancer, opens the smell of the author, the smell of the ink-then in the charcoal-now, and the taste of that morning on this morning that you, as spectator, have just been made privy to. It is a story of an artist drawing an author while the author writes his muse into immortality all at once. But symbiosis can sometimes be brutal.
Amid this Edenic coalescence breathes the quiet defiance of a ritual-weary, mid-aged Chris Isherwood against heteronorms that are predictably ageist in creed. What could have been (and was) perceived as Isherwood's Humbert Humbertish captivity of the sun-sinewed boy-Lolita is now cited as one of the primary prompters in the gay liberation canon. Yet Humbert Humbertish it all was in many ways as dangerously young Don, calling himself "an unconscious impersonator," willingly and star-struckly serves as Chris' substrate, replicating his accent, his Cheshire mannerism, his sparse diction. Eclipsed by Chris' deserved fame and proportionate clout, Don confesses, "I wanted people to like me for who I really was but I wasn't sure myself who I was. The only thing I knew that I was good at was drawing people..." And draw he did, and with it came the irrepressible desire to break free from the only lover he had known. Chris' enabling of Don's art pushes the latter to gauge the cost of unequal sexual experience with his seasoned, three-decade-distant partner; in short, he goes out. Plumbs the sea. All Chris wants is for young Don to come home at the end of the day after his shenanigans. Which he does in the late 60s. (Sometimes).
But Don does return for good and draws Chris and Chris only in the last few days of his life, chronicling the coming of his death piecemeal in a preemptively elegiac set of sketches. Chris Isherwood bares his all, his full, bleak nakedness in sacred singularity with his scribe. For Don's furious fingers, each tender stroke is a prayer for bonus time. Chris dies; Don spends the day drawing his corpse lest memory alone betray. These last images of depleted youth are so deeply lyrical that one can't but wonder if the body's shriveling in the embarrassment of age is beauty itself and unto its own. They reveal the kind of lovely grotesqueness that only death can boast. Guido Santi and Tina Mascara juxtapose them against a lithe-yet-withered Don feverishly working out at the gym. The story--the text--closes with the artist in his solitary atelier where all that is left are drawers of pictures and shelves of books in poetic arrest, all the company a man has shored for a night to allay "the foul rag and boneshop of the heart."
Reviewed on July 20, 2008