Certain movies simply must be seen on the big screen. When people say that, they're usually referring to a spectacle, a widescreen epic like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey.. That's certainly the case with The Right Stuff, a terrific 1983 look at the U.S. space race and the Mercury astronauts at the heart of it. Cutting edge special effects, brilliant acting, the desire to capture America at a particular point in time -- The Right Stuff is a grand film that deserves the silver screen.
But it's just as true for movies that are ambitious in their ideas. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the other masterpiece from director Philip Kaufman and both of them are being screened this week at MOMA, with Kaufman in attendance both Wednesday and Thursday night to introduce these two movies (along with Walter Murch at the Right Stuff screening, one of the team of editors that worked on that film).
I love both these movies and yet I haven't seen them in many years. Why? No matter how big my TV may be, no matter how good my BluRay player or DVD copy, these are films I want to experience in a darkened theater with a live audience. It's been well over a decade and I can't wait to see them again.
Kaufman is no stranger to the big screen hits: he was an integral part of creating the story for Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Indeed, coming on the heels of a western and his (unnecessary but acclaimed) remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff was hotly anticipated. Some even fretted that its straight arrow presentation of astronaut John Glenn might give him an unfair advantage in the upcoming Presidential elections. (No dice. Ronald Reagan knew how to play the President better than Glenn ever would.) Despite rave reviews and a clutch of Oscar nominations, The Right Stuff performed modestly at the box office, failing to even match its budget.
The trailer doesn't help: its rah-rah sensibility is a far cry from the movie's nuanced, subtle and complex take on these men and their mission.
That makes it all the more remarkable that Kaufman was given such a free rein with his next movie. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a remarkably intelligent film that showcased three powerhouse new talents: Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin and of course Daniel Day-Lewis hot off his one-two punch of My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room With A View. I hope someone asks Kaufman how he was ever able to get the green light to make this sexy, adult, philosophical tale about young lovers caught up in the Czech spring for a U.S. studio. The trailer offers the promise of what every foreign film used to embody for cineastes trapped in puritanical America: sex!
Of course, they came for the sex and they stayed for the philosophy. Both films are based on books. The Right Stuff is based on Tom Wolfe's famed nonfiction work and Unbearable on Milan Kundera's "unfilmable" masterpiece. I've seen the movie and read Kundera's book and still can't fathom how anyone would ever even attempt to turn that work into a movie. And yet somehow Kaufman did it and managed to capture the playful, essence of the work. It is wholly faithful to the spirit of the novel by being wholly true to its own needs. Neither author was happy with the films made from their books, which may explain why they're authors and not filmmakers. See either film and you'll be sent right to the books they're based on (not to mention the music of Leos Janacek after Unbearable) and find very different, rich works of art that inform the movies you've seen. And see the movies if at all possible on the big screen, where their scope, their vision and above all their ideas demand to be aired.
If you're interested, here is my original review of The Unbearable Lightness of Being back in college, along with my inclusion of the film on my best of the year list and a passing nod to The Right Stuff. (It made my 1988 list because art films took a long time to reach the rest of the country back in those days.) Kaufman's next film is an HBO movie about the fiery relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, one of the best war correspondents there ever was. I can't wait to see it. On my TV.
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.