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CRITIC AT LARGE

Kaufman: Passion For Comic Visions

July 22, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

When Bob Kaufman speaks, tobacco auctioneers beg him to slow down because they can't understand him. He talks a streak. Usually it is a passionate, freely associative confession of his love-hate relationship with the movies.

Kaufman is rounding out his first quarter-century in Hollywood. He wrote a lot of episode television, for "Ben Casey," "Get Smart" and the first "Bob Newhart Show."

His bag is comedy. ("The only thing harder than monogamy is writing comedy"--Robert Kaufman, 1986.) His first film credit was "Ski Party" for Gene Corman at AIP in 1965, starring Frankie Avalon with an unbilled appearance by Annette Funicello. That same year, also at AIP, Kaufman wrote the unforgettable "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine."

With a firmer foothold on the slippery Hollywood slopes, he wrote the story from which Norman Lear wrote the bitter comedy "Divorce American Style" in 1967. Kaufman followed it in 1970 with another acid-etched comedy, "I Love My Wife," in which Elliott Gould could never sort out love from sex or sex from love, and ended up compulsively miserable.

Kaufman in 1970 also adapted "Getting Straight" from a novel by Ken Kolb. Gould, his hero again, was a Vietnam vet trying to opt out of all commitment as a laid-back teacher but ending up in the thick of the campus riots at Columbia.

Kaufman has had his ups and downs. "Harry and Walter Go to New York" proved to be a way-down, after some ecstatic previews. But "Love at First Bite" in 1979 was what you could call a monster hit and possibly the first time Dracula got the girl permanently.

"All my films are about commitment," Kaufman says. "Somehow. The moral was, love is better with a monster who'll make a commitment than with a nebbish who won't.

"Listen, somebody once said that in every good movie the villains are what we're afraid of in ourselves and the heroes are who we want to be. Frank Capra said his secret was having believable people doing unbelievable things."

Off the success of "Love at First Bite," Kaufman bought a Rolls-Royce and became, as he now confesses, insufferably and tiresomely pleased with himself. The non-successes of "How to Beat the High Cost of Living" and of a good, tough film about deprogramming, "Split Image," had a stabilizing effect. His wife Robin drives the Rolls ("I can't find anybody to buy it," he says) and Kaufman keeps himself in line by using a humbler vehicle.

Now he is fired up to take advantage of the videocassette in the film world. He has acquired, Kaufman says, Wall Street financing for $10 million a year to do two films, aiming them post-theatrically to the large independent cassette distributors who have no access to product from the major studios (who distribute their own).

"I made a half-hour film of me telling about my movies," Kaufman says, "and the Wall Street guys loved it."

His first effort, Kaufman says, will be "Soldiers of Fortune," a satiric assault on the "Rambo" school of film making. Three housewives will gear up to locate their missing husbands with help from an instructor they find in an ad in a magazine. "The time's right to say it's all madness."

After that, he has in mind a film called "Flip Flop," a social comedy about women's backlash which sounds at least vaguely like a mirror image of "I Love My Wife."

"The mix is slightly daring, slightly generic and quite outrageous," says Kaufman. "At a certain point, the distributors may hope for quality but they'll settle for titles that people will rent: wild, sexy, scary titles. 'Beverly Hills Ninja,' how's that?"

This year, for the first time, Kaufman and his investors are sure, the revenues from cassettes will exceed the revenues from theatrical distribution, perhaps by a billion dollars.

This is good news and bad news. The rising hunger of the cassette market will, as in Kaufman's case, break the stranglehold of the $20-million-plus film and make it possible to produce films once again for $5 million and less. The question is how good those films will be. Will the nice little films be nice, in a qualitative sense, as well as little? Kaufman admits to his own distress about present movies, and about a generation (in the studios as well as in the audience) with so little sense of the film past, or of the past, period.

"This is a generation raised by television, not by parents or grandparents," he says. "They know 'Heckle and Jeckle,' not 'Treasure Island' in any form."

He laments the decline of passion, even if expressed only as a sense of fun. He detects a curious lack of optimism, an inability or an unwillingness to create likable heroes and admirable heroines.

"I can't sit through a movie with an unsympathetic hero or a female character who's a whore. I don't know, the movies used to get Americans through the weekend. You lost yourself in John Wayne's dream, up there on the big screen. You could forget for a while that maybe you weren't making it.

"There are some very cynical people in charge now. But somebody's got to fight the death of optimism. You can always appeal to the audience's lowest instincts. But there's the other side: You can make people feel better about themselves."

Kaufman is a devout believer in the healing aspects of comedy, and any writer who lets the vampire win has got to be an optimist.

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