Friday, January 16, 2015

KAFKA (1991): A little TOO Soderbergh, ... Even for Soderbergh! - by CEJ


(revised 4/8/18)

     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And for this reason we saved our old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves.

     Some films are perhaps just too experimental and deliberately vague / "Rorschach"- like (or maybe ahead of their time) to be understood, ... even by their makers. After winning the Cannes Film Festival's Palm d'or for his 1989 breakout hit SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE - and at age 26 becoming the youngest director to do so, Steven Soderbergh went on to be lauded as (Roger Ebert's words here) the "poster boy of the Sundance generation", and, along with a handful of others at the time such as Spike Lee and Wayne Wang, was credited with helping to launch the modern independent cinema movement. Eagerly courted by studios large and small, filmdom's fans (and industry execs) eagerly anticipated the wunderkind's next cinematic endeavor. Then when KAFKA hit theaters on November 15th, 1991 there was a resoundingly loud world-wide collective "Huh?" accompanied by quite a bit of head scratching.

     To say KAFKA was a box office disappointment is an understatement. With a budget of $11 million (a hefty price tag for an independent film - in this case funded by the still fledgling Miramax in conjunction with Barry Levinson's Baltimore Pictures) it barely broke $1 million in ticket sales. Critics were split down the middle; and not in the sense that half liked it and half didn't. But in the rare sense that almost every critic both liked AND hated it, or at least certain elements. Many questioned why Soderbergh would choose as his sophomore effort something thematically so far removed from the intimate Eric Rohmer-esque nature of SEX, LIES. And while Soderbergh defended his position, saying he'd ALWAYS been drawn to this kind of film making, and that SEX, LIES was actually the departure for him, he would later publicly state that perhaps KAFKA was indeed a career "misstep"; and even today he talks of revamping it completely. Wow! Now, for those who "came in late" and are not familiar with this intriguing (if yes, somewhat indecipherable - it does beg repeated viewings) little gem, here's a little primer.

     In Prague of 1919, Kafka (a fictitious amalgam of Kafka characters "Joseph K", "Gregor Samsa" and the writer himself; ... and here portrayed by Jeremy Irons) works a life-sucking existence as an insurance claims cipher by day, but let's his imagination loose by night via the spinning of stories the world will come to recognize as being from the author's famous pen. When a co-worker mysteriously disappears, Kafka seeks answers and is plunged into a dark, disturbing (and very funny) web of intrigue involving a possible police cover up, politics, and a group of bomb planting anarchists who insists a conspiracy is afoot ... though they have nothing but their own paranoia on which to base their theory. Kafka's personal investigation allies him with his missing co-worker's mistress (Theresa Russell), and leads to his piercing the walls of the macabre "Castle" overlooking the city, to where it seems many street innocents have been dragged for human experimentation.

     Close thematic, visual and tonal kin to Terry Gilliam's earlier BRAZIL, David Cronenberg's later NAKED LUNCH and Alex Proyas' DARK CITY, screenwriter Lem Dobb's fashioned KAFKA the film as sort of his own version of Cronenberg's "Brundle-Fly" - wherein the DNA of two very different beings are merged to create a third. In this case feeling it was impossible to faithfully adapt a Kafka story to the screen, he took literary DNA samples (so to speak) from various works by the author, combined them with references to the author's actual life, then stirred them together into a new narrative all his own. And we've always loved it.  It's certainly not for all tastes. And as stated earlier one has to watch it more than once to start peeling away it's layers of socio-political brilliance - especially it's satirical humor aimed squarely at conformist mentality. But for those who don't mind putting a little "brain work" into their cinema viewing, KAFKA is a visually stunning work of art, and a 24 fps thesis paper on bravura filmmaking technique.

     Quite possibly it was marketed incorrectly. It's posters and theatrical trailers billed it as "A new thriller from the director of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE".  And when audiences and critics saw it, what they got was something more like a grand scale "chamber piece" featuring characters verbally fencing over concepts such as the nature (and function and purpose) of man in a "civilized" society; and all of it doled out with the fast, furious and funny, back-and-forth, racquetball-like verbal witticisms one might expect to be more at home in an Abbott & Costello routine or Zucker - Abrams - Zucker film.

     Jeremy Irons had one year earlier displayed his (at times dark and dead pan) comedic chops as wife-murderer suspect Claus von Bülow in REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, and Joel Grey had already proved he knew his way around an acerbic verbal put-down as martial arts master Chiun in REMO WILLIAMS. But who the hell knew Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jeroen Krabbe, Ian Holm and Alec Guinness could actually, while playing it entirely straight, be so damned funny. There's even method-in-the-madness (or is it madness-in-the-method?) in Soderbergh's casting choice of the usually grim and proper Theresa Russell - perhaps best known to art house cinema audiences as six time collaborator with director (and former husband) Nicholas Roeg on films such as BAD TIMING, INSIGNIFICANCE and TRACK 29.

      But this is precisely part of KAFKA's genius as a film - it's subversion of / homage to cinematic convention. In the "classic homage" department the film is stunningly shot in old school black & white (with one climactic WIZARD OF OZ-like color sequence) by Walt Lloyd - of TV's THE WONDER YEARS and ARMISTEAD MAUPIN'S TALES OF THE CITY; and it features gorgeous Oscar worthy period production design by Gavin Bouquet. In fact it's Bouquet's work here which convinced George Lucas to hire him for his YOUNG INDIANA JONES chronicles TV series and second trilogy of STAR WARS films. And, while cinematic costume design is usually (and appropriately) executed to have a more background / subconscious effect on audiences, KAFKA's craftsman-like bravura features a magnificently detailed wardrobe by Michael Jeffery (Ken Russell's go-to guy on LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, GOTHIC and SALOME'S LAST DANCE), which not only delivers to the audience a distinct and deliberate "in your face" reference to the days of Huston / Curtiz-esque noir (appropriate as the film's narrative unfolds as a Chandler-esque mystery), but is of such runway world caliber as to make Coppolla's THE GODFATHER films, or Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER, green with envy.

     On the "subversion" side of the coin, Soderbergh's casting of usually "hard core" / straight faced British cinema stalwarts like Guiness, and having them play their parts soooo straight as to poke fun at the corporate and political mindset, is one of this film's sooo many / sooo subtle "below the waterline" pleasures. But that's of course only if you're in on the joke.

      If you take KAFKA dead serious as a "thriller" you're bound to be not only disappointed, but to (as most of the world did during it's initial release) scratch one's head while screaming "What the f***!". No, if it wasn't clear before, let it be made so now - KAFKA is satire, the kind born of "playing it straight". Y'know, kind of like NETWORK. While visually reminiscent of BRAZIL (and it would make a fascinating companion piece / double bill with it) it doesn't make it's post modern intent as obvious as Gilliam's film does - with it's cast kind of side-winking at the audience via the characters deliberately playing things over the top. Uh, uh! KAFKA plays it straight. And as such we feel it was misinterpreted by audiences as "a suspense thriller that's not thrilling" when it never had any intent of being one. At any rate ...

     While developing a loyal cult following over the years (and we consider ourselves amongst the loudest members of it's cheerleader squad), KAFKA's only ever official availability on home video has been a simultaneous one time only VHS and Laser Disc (remember those? - we still have ours) release by Paramount in 1992. It has since been made available as a supposedly Region Free DVD manufactured in Korea, but with dubious legality. And because it's price on Amazon and other outlets exceeds $200.00, coupled with the fact that there are some complaints about the disc NOT playing properly on Region 1 (U.S. and CANADA) players, leads us to suggest anyone interested in checking out this nifty piece of film making either do so via YouTube (yes, a decent copy is available on YouTube FOR FREE!, and it's been there for a few years), pick up the VHS tape (you can find one for $20 bucks online), or ... just wait. Huh? Yeah, seriously, just wait.

      You see, KAFKA's status as a relatively obscure film which many don't give a damn about, actually now has a positive side. After years of subsequent critical and commercial Soderbergh successes such as OCEAN'S 11 and it's sequels, ERIN BROCKOVICH, OUT OF SIGHT, K STREET, CONTAGION, MAGIC MIKE, THE KNICK and more, the rights to KAFKA have since reverted back to Soderbergh, and he wants to re-do it in a major way. Last year in interviews with both The Vulture and Empire magazines, the director revealed that, while filming SIDE EFFECTS, he'd shot new inserts for KAFKA, and that he was working with Lem Dobbs on dubbing the entire film into German, and "recalibrating some of the dialog and the story" so it's (as he states) "a completely different movie".

      "I was frustrated with KAFKA", Soderbergh said, "It had a mixed-to-negative reaction when it came out – and I’m trying to completely rethink it in the hopes of at least turning it into something that’s unified. The tone was all over the place – which is the classic young filmmaker’s mistake. I’d like to make it a little more abstract and more of a hardcore art movie. It’s not a tweak: it’s triage”. These "triage" plans also include giving the film a shorter running time than it's current 100 mins., re-editing it, jettisoning it's current score (not something we're too keen on as we love Cliff Martinez's current "Gypsy" influenced hammer dulcimer take on things), and calling it the "Midnight Edition" as it would be perfect for Friday and Saturday night screenings - an intentional "cult film" of sorts, ... if there can be such a thing.

     Normally we'd bristle at such a notion, as "extended" / "altered" / "director's cut" versions of films such as HEAVEN'S GATE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, BRAZIL, LEGEND and WATERWORLD now and then are improvements, but more often than not (as evidenced by the re-jiggering of say THE NATURAL, CINEMA PARADISO, AMADEUS, David Lynch's DUNE and more) prove that "more is less", Soderbergh claims he'd like to release both the original and new versions on Blu-ray. And if this is indeed the case, well then hell, anything that gets the original version of KAFKA restored, remastered and re-released in High Def, has got our thumbs-up vote.
     We'll see how these plans play out.


Postings of earlier installments of VAULTED TREASURES available to read @ 

Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved.

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