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Is 'Lightness' the Right Stuff for Philip Kaufman?

January 26, 1988|JACK MATHEWS

The last time that film director Philip Kaufman met the American press, he was the reluctant point man in one of the most overly staged and ultimately most unsuccessful movie promotions in Hollywood history.

The picture, released in the fall of 1983, was "The Right Stuff," and even with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to explain the box-office failure of a movie with so many rich commercial elements.

It was a big, expensive, sweeping epic about America's space program--adapted from the best seller Tom Wolfe, with one of the most engaging casts imaginable, and featuring the same kind of dazzling aerial footage that turned the otherwise banal "Top Gun" into a blockbuster hit nearly three years later.

Critics were divided on "The Right Stuff," but exit polls showed that people who saw it were glad they did, and at Oscar time, it rang up a total of eight Academy Award nominations.

But Kaufman, who had been heralded as one of America's next great directors before "The Right Stuff" was released, was left out of the critical celebration. As if he were being punished for the commercial outcome of his movie, Kaufman was overlooked by both the writers' and directors' branches of the academy.

"I'm still reeling," Kaufman said last week. "It was a huge disappointment to everyone, but particularly to me."

There was trepidation in Kaufman's voice, as he began discussing his latest movie, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," another grand-scale film, this one based on Czechoslovakian novelist Milan Kundera's story of love and eroticism set against the Soviet invasion of Prague in the late '60s. The film opens here Feb. 5.

"I am not very good at promoting my films," Kaufman said. "I don't like to articulate what I'm trying to do in a movie. I would rather let critics figure out what's in there. In a way, that's part of the game, isn't it?"

It's a strange and often unfair game that directors are asked to play. It's all a part of the cultural kitsch that Kaufman feels pervades this era. There is a lack of passionate commitment, he says--to the arts, to politics, to relationships, to living itself.

It is also an era, at least in the United States, where people in the popular arts are so much mulch in a media feeding frenzy. They are not always measured by the quality of their work, but by the commercial heat they generate, and when the heat is off, so are the media.

In the case of Kaufman, who suffered both a commercial failure and a critical snub by his writer/director peers, it was quickly a matter of out of sight, out of mind.

"Somebody wanted to interview me recently about a piece he was doing on directors who have disappeared," Kaufman said, laughing. "I didn't know what to say. I have been busy all the time."

Kaufman, 51, said that he spent the year after "The Right Stuff" adapting some 1920s adventure stories into a script. But producer Saul Zaentz showed up at his door at just the right moment--Kaufman was facing a location trip to the Himalayas at the start of monsoon season--and asked him to direct "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

Kaufman immediately shifted his interests from adventure to eroticism, which was the essence, theme and fuel of Kundera's novel about the relationships among three people--a womanizing doctor (played by Daniel-Day Lewis), his free-spirited sexual playmate (Lena Olin) and the innocent country girl (Juliette Binoche) who becomes his wife and his emotional mentor.

The only similarity between "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Right Stuff" are their running times. "The Right Stuff" ran a little more than three hours; "Lightness" runs just under three hours.

"I felt it took that long to tell this particular story," Kaufman said. "More than anybody, I wanted to make it as short as possible. As I get older, I find that eroticism takes a longer time."

Kaufman said "Lightness" is the kind of movie he had been wanting to make for years. He was a fan of Kundera's novels, which he said conveyed the same sort of passion for living that he had found in the Henry Miller novels that consumed him as a young man.

There were, in fact, parallels between Kundera's Prague and Miller's Paris, Kaufman said. Both cities, as described by the writers, teemed with intellectuals and romantics and fostered vital, free-wheeling social environments.

In Prague, that atmosphere was suffocated by the Soviet invasion of 1968, an event that is almost miraculously re-created in "Lightness." Kaufman used archival footage of the invasion shot by Czech citizens to set up additional scenes with his cast. The new footage, edited by longtime Francis Coppola associate Walter Murch, was degraded in the lab to match the archival source material.

The result is a long documentary montage--of both black-and-white and color film--that places characters from "Lightness" in the midst of the chaos in the streets of Prague. If it weren't for those actors, it would be impossible to tell which scenes were real and which were staged.

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