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That last bit of detail is emblematic of Kafka's all-embracing tackiness. But still the film is well cast and shot. Notwithstanding that Franz Kafka was not the man of action Soderbergh would have us believe (and Jeremy Irons is about as Jewish as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding), Irons's elegantly sustained dispassion, an English trait, suits the movie Kafka's introspection, a writer's trait. The supporting players are basically left to their own devices, which is fine for such theatrically solid performers as Guinness, Grey, Holm, and Krabbe. But what of poor Theresa Russell, a fill-in for another actress who - perhaps wisely -dropped out of this project? She plays Gabriela Rossman, an anarchist, like a SoCal hooker waiting to turn tricks at a San Fernando valley mall. (She played that role last year for her vulgarian namesake, Ken Russell.)
The most interesting argument over this film has less to do with the author of Amerika than it does with the author of the screenplay, Lem Dobbs. Film critic Vincent Canby neatly panned Kafka in the New York Times as "a very bad well-directed movie," and said of Dobbs's screenplay: "It has the blinding optimism of a sophomore who expects his five-page outline for a novel to win a National Book Award." Then, in a later article by Bernard Weintraub about the screenwriter's criticisms over the finished product, director Soderbergh, speaking more half-wittedly than anyone thought possible, confessed to a superficial take on Kafka: "I really wanted to make a mystery thriller and not a biography." Dobbs, denouncing the film as a thoroughly trashed version of his work by Soderbergh, complained, "If I gave it a moment's thought as a screenwriter, I'd have to slash my wrists." Calling the assumed collaborative process of filmmaking "a ridiculous myth," Dobbs said he plans to direct his own material from now on.
Ah, the old auteurist ruse.
Keeping in mind David Lean's line about the movies not having yet found their Michelangelo, the next question is: Who makes the movies? In fact, that was the very title of a 1976 essay that appeared in The New York Review of Books by one-time screenwriter Gore Vidal, in which he adroitly skewered the auteur mystique and placed the moviemaking process, warts and all, at the hands of the writer. "Since the talking movie is closest in form to the novel," concluded Vidal, "it strikes me that the rising literary generation might think of the movies as, peculiarly, their kind of novel, to be created by them in collaboration with technicians but without the interference of The Director, that hustler-plagiarist who has for twenty years dominated and exploited and (occasionally) enhanced an art form still in search of its true authors." In light of this proposal, perhaps Dobbs's original thoughts were truer to Kafka's life, less kitschy, and in and of themselves, more interesting and deserving of consideration. But would that have delivered a better film?
I doubt it. Canby is correct: Kafka is basically an insulting idea realized well enough. Further, the great author would have been appalled. In a letter written in 1915 to his publisher apropos of "The Metamorphosis," Kafka expressed serious misgivings about an illustrator drawing the imposing vermin of the story. "Not that, please not that," implored Kafka. And he was right, for the widest possible canvas to depict such a startling image -and so many others strewn across Kafka's work - resides solely in the space between one's ears, in the more diverse stage of the mind. It is a caveat both Dobbs and Soderbergh, more alike in their pro-movie view than their public spat indicates, should ponder the next time they aim to conquer the literary world. Movies being what they are these days, they probably won't.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; with Jeremy Irons, Theresa Russell, Joel Grey, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbe, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Alec Guinness. Rated PG-13.
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