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The Kaufman Chronicles

The director provides interesting commentary on new releases of his 'Lightness of Being' and 'Body Snatchers.'

June 04, 1998|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Philip Kaufman must be one of America's most underrated directors, able to move deftly between styles and genres. Two recent releases in the world of digital media showcase Kaufman's chameleonic talents, sharp intellect and his preoccupation with even the minutest details that make up a movie.

First, there's Voyager's stunning remastered version on laserdisc of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," the adaptation of the brainy and humorous Milan Kundera novel that Kaufman directed 10 years ago.

If you're really into the mystique of filmmaking then you'll be enthralled by the three-hour audio commentary where Kaufman, French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, actress Lena Olin and supervising editor Walter Murch dissect every possible element of the film, uncovering the motifs that reappear throughout its tapestry, among them the number 6, a sexy black hat and Czech composer Leos Janacek's music.

Kaufman is an affable, bright conversationalist, and the accents of Carriere and Olin are charming, but the casual fan will be just as happy watching the movie by itself, rediscovering the sensuous textures of what its creators call "an intimate epic."

On the audio commentary for the DVD release of 1978's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," Kaufman demonstrates that he is equally adept at discussing science fiction and the symbolic mechanisms of horror. His remake of the Don Siegel classic is an eerie, subliminal sort of chiller that although a little dated by today's standards, still manages to convey a genuine feeling of paranoia.

The director believes that "establishing the mood right from the beginning has to be part of the game plan," as he explains how the repulsive pods of the title take over San Francisco, and reveals all the subtle tricks that he used to create the movie's disquieting moods.

*

As DVD keeps growing in popularity, releasing more and more Hollywood classics with plenty of added extras, laserdisc is by contrast becoming the format of choice for the serious-minded collector.

An example of this is the spectacular laserdisc box set that Image has just released under the title of "Classics of the Early Soviet Cinema Volume Two." The set is geared toward the serious connoisseur only, since the better-known Russian classics such as Dovshenko's "Earth" and Dziga Vertov's "The Man With a Movie Camera" were already included in Volume 1. But because it presents films you are less likely to expect and probably didn't even know about, Volume 2 has a fresher feel to it.

Among the highlights: the epic "Storm Over Asia" and "Deserter," both by the director of the classic "Mother," Vsevolod Pudovkin. "By the Law," directed by Lev Kuleshov, is an adaptation of the Jack London story "The Unexpected"; "Bezhin Meadow" is a partial reconstruction of a lost Eisenstein project that was banned by Stalinist officials and would have been the director's first sound film, and arguably his most lyrical one. All of these films except "Deserter" are silent films and are accompanied by music.

Overall, the collection transports you to another world of stark black-and-white images and rigorous sociopolitical messages.

CURRENT RELEASES

Laserdisc

"Quatermass and the Pit" (1967, Elite). This cozy, rainy afternoon slice of outlandish sci-fi was produced by the Hammer studio in the late '60s. Includes an audio commentary with both the writer and director of the film. (Unrated)

"Fairy Tale--A True Story" (1997, Pioneer). Do yourself a favor and watch this breathtaking piece of visual nostalgia on a digital format. The lavish form certainly makes up for the uneven content. (PG)

"Deathtrap" (1982, Image). Ira Levin's wicked play was directed with cinematic flair by Sidnet Lumet and acted with gusto by Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. The results are simply thrilling. (PG)

****

Digital Video Disc

"Dracula" (1979, Image). The gloriously gothic art direction, Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasence make up for some disappointments in this interesting version of the Bram Stoker novel that was critically panned when first released. (R)

"The Great Escape" (1963, MGM). A moving, gutsy, elaborate action movie if there ever was one. You'll need a big TV to enjoy the original wide-screen ratio. Includes a documentary on the making of the film. (Unrated)

"Cosi Fan Tutte" (1989, Image) Riccardo Muti conducts the orchestra of La Scala, Milan, in Mozart's comedic opera about the perils of love and trust. Includes a synopsis of the libretto. (Unrated)

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