“Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limit of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.”
Milan Kundera / The Unbearable Lightness Of Being
Philip Kaufman is an American writer, producer, and director with credits that span the seventies till his last project back in 2012. A progressive thinker, Kaufman cannot be boxed into one category. His films can be overtly political and sexual, with sometimes intermixing the two into interesting themes regarding societal doctrines. As a writer, he crafted one of the best Westerns Clint Eastwood ever made (Outlaw Josey Wales) and gave Indiana Jones his first (and still best) ever adventure that was tough as nails. He was the first to earn the much maligned NC-17 rating for a film with adult themes deemed too much for teenagers sneaking into R rated screenings. Kaufman’s projects are acidly funny, but challenge audiences on serious subjects in an offbeat literary sense. Some of his best work is based on original novels or sources, but his screenplays inject a European modern wit, a wink and a smile if you will, to the proceedings which leavens the sometimes heavy subject matter.
Kaufman’s voice in cinema is sorely missed in these current turbulent times. One can only imagine what he would make of the continually scorched political climate, the confusion and chaos of our landscape. One would hope he will soon plunge a dagger into this soft mess and reveal the vile under layer with amusement and wit in the very near future. His last film was a project featuring Ernest Hemingway locking literary horns with Martha Gellhorn in 2012. There have been no new works since.
Filmmakers, such as Philip Kaufman, fly under the radar and need a voice sometimes to spotlight their contribution to cinema. What better way to argue for Kaufman’s return than to swing that spotlight now onto some of his best films which clearly illustrate his eye for the political, social, and sexual mores of our society. These are highly intelligent, humorous and challenging films. They are entirely re-watchable and entertaining in the best way possible; they cater to intelligent audiences.
In 1983, the film version of a much beloved book, The Right Stuff, was released to theaters with all the Academy Award hyperbole sufficient to deem it as “important”. What no one realized at the time, was that Philip Kaufman wrote a subversive script that gave rise to the wonder of space travel, but also poked fun at the convoluted political shenanigans that went behind the scenes with the space race with the (then) Soviet Union. The one line during an exchange between President Lyndon Johnson and several German scientists hard at work on the American side is so much on point with how ludicrous the actual space race could be:
Von Braun: Mr. President, our German scientists are better than their (USSR) German scientists!
The media covering these events certainly did not get any mercy under Kaufman’s direction. We see the propaganda infused Life Magazine editors, the incessant buzzing sound of bug/pest like reporters surrounding the Mercury Seven astronauts, and the flash bulb intrusions into homes and personal lives of these people. The media in 1983 did not take kindly to this and blasted Kaufman for this (actually accurate) portrayal on screen.
The Right Stuff certainly infused the mythological aspects of space travel beginnings in the guise of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (played memorably by playwright Sam Shepard). It is the very stuff legends are made of in the sequence featuring Yeager on horseback challenging the new test rocket plane designed to break the sound barrier. The old ways versus the new. Kaufman continually alludes to how brave these men were, but reminds us the absurd conventions that made it possible to put these lives on the line. It is a glorious epic that transcends the normal biopic. It captures an all encompassing view, both intimate and huge, with a pace which is languid and engrossing. This film failed at the box office because it was marketed as a patriotic emblem, instead of the subversive epic it really was. The socio-political landscape is detailed beautifully amidst the grandeur of reaching for the stars. That is a hard balance to maintain, but Kaufman effortlessly achieves it in this fine film.
In 1988, Kaufman turned his attention to another much beloved novel by Milan Kundera about the roving adventures of a Czech surgeon, along with two very important women in his life, in Prague 1968, right before the Soviet invasion. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is a marvel of originality. This time, Kaufman tackles the sexual politics along with the radical politics of a country on the cusp of intellectual and spiritual freedom before the Soviets crushed those dreams underneath the many tanks it rolled into Prague.
This sounds very serious and its themes of political/religious/sexual freedom are indeed very serious. However, Kaufman’s touch gives the film an airy texture that lifts the film to a place where characters have room to breathe and grow and laugh. One such example is the wonderful scene where Tomas (played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) hints at his jealously of another man dancing with his live-in girlfriend Tereza (a simply glowing Juliette Binoche) and it develops into a free-for-all tickle romp on the floor ending in Tereza proposing marriage to a laughing Tomas. It is sweetly intimate, as if we are peering into a room and seeing this spontaneous and loving couple enjoying life. Sexual freedom comes with a price. Sabina (brilliant performance by Lean Olin) completes the triangle of Tomas and Tereza as an artist who claims to want no ties with anyone–but secretly loves Tomas completely and runs from it. The sex in this film is gloriously silly, playful, and intensely erotic. The tension between these characters is so thick, you can sense an electrical bond between these characters. It is a credit to the actors and to Kaufman’s innate ability to present sex outside of Hollywood’s gauzy pristine standards. The photo shoot sequence between Tereza and Sabina was worth the price of admission alone. There is a European flavor to it, but the heat generated between these two characters provided such a fitting tribute that love can still never be easily defined.
Let us not forget how The Unbearable Lightness Of Being displays a political landscape of Soviet blanketed propaganda that tried to place a good light on their invasion of Czechoslovakia. People were brutalized, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for protesting such a wrongful show of force. The film deftly mixes actual documentary images with our characters to give a real grounding on how massively shocking this all was to the world. The Soviets placed a foot on the throat of democracy and freedom until it choked under the weight of the so called righteous. We now live in a world that frowns upon the act of protest as a movement. We are to follow our leader into the abyss if need be. We blindly take sides against each other and do not listen. There was a time when you took to the streets because there was no alternative choice remaining at your disposal. We are faced with those times again and it would be wonderful to see what Kaufman could do with these themes today.
In 1990, Philip Kaufman brought a dream project of his to life by adapting the lives of writers Henry Miller and Anias Nin with the first NC-17 rated film in cinema history, Henry & June. Sex is prominently in the forefront with this film as Miller (a surprisingly great Fred Ward) assumes the self exiled status of an artist living in Paris. He loves his wife, June (a luminously tragic Uma Thurman), and is jealously devoted to her. Nin (a sexually intelligent performance by Maria de Medeiros) catches his eye, but it is her mind that he craves even more. Their romance ended up lasting a lifetime through letters, but again, Kaufman presents sex and love in an entirely adult fashion that confused general audiences. Their definition does not fit the norm of society. Paris was at the height of freedom to explore and redefine sexuality and art. American audiences may have been too straight laced to fully appreciate what Kaufman was attempting, thus the box office failure of yet another wonderfully subversive and intelligent film.
Another love triangle was on display in Henry & June which beautifully defies all standard love story conventions. These are people rich in the experience field willing to put themselves (and their partners in some cases) on the line in order to find something that no one else has found. Miller and Nin duel mentally throughout the film with literature, life, and love. They consistently habitually redefine themselves, but fall back onto social conventions such as monogamy and financial success. It is a rarity to see a Hollywood project take on the fringe elements of art and love with such openess. It is not surprising it earned an NC-17 rating, but it is not exploitation. It is adult with adult themes which require an audience with intelligence and open mindedness. How often can one be challenged on how we were brought up to think about relationships and sex on a level that questions it. Miller and Nin were free spirits, but haunted by their own inadequacy and limitations placed by society and class structures. These people may come across as self absorbed, but Kaufman places them in the context of adventurers of a modern world not quite ready for their conquests.
So, we plead to Philip Kaufman, the missing in action American writer and director…please return to the cinema screen and give us your shaman magic for the modern world. Redefine for us again what it is to be human with all of our subtleties and frailties and the wonderfully funny behaviors that enrich us. We don’t care what project you have your eyes on, just put your wonderful words to paper and train the camera with your all seeing eye. We need it now, more than ever. Our subversive nature is slowly being throttled by unseen forces. Please, Philip Kaufman, we need you more than ever.