Here's the nutshell lore of Saul Zaentz: He came up through Berkeley's Fantasy Records, made a mint by spotting and signing Creedence Clearwater Revival, leapt into a singular, artisanal and exacting film-production concern, bucked the studio trend of boring bottom-line-ism and gradually accumulated a heap of congratulatory hardware from the Academy.
John Fogerty's tunefully infuriated claim that "Zaentz can't dance but he'll steal your money" notwithstanding (and after Zaentz sued Fogerty for that, it was not withstanding), the consensus still holds that the power of Saul is not small. As local writer Sheerly Avni concludes in her 2006 book Cinema by the Bay, "Saul Zaentz, with all his talents and wiles and machinations directed towards the quality of the art itself, is a throwback to the great studio heads of Hollywood's golden age."
Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive proves it by screening a selection of four Zaentz-produced pictures, beginning today with director Milos Forman's 1984 film of Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, then continuing weekly on Wednesdays, with San Francisco director Philip Kaufman's 1988 film of Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, director Hector Babenco's 1991 film of Peter Matthiesen's novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and director Anthony Minghella's 1996 film of Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient.
"What is immediately apparent about these films," writes PFA video curator Steve Seid, "is their meticulous construction. Virtuosic sound design, graceful editing, and elegant cinematography characterize these works, which accumulated another four Oscars (and many more nominations) for technical excellence."
Also apparent: They're all arguably ill-advised adaptations, replete with actors who weren't necessarily "bankable" at the time of production, and rather flagrantly enamored of breadth and texture. It's hard not to notice that each of these movies, or "challenging modern entertainments," to borrow an apt summation from local writer David Thomson's take on Zaentz in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, is more than two and a half hours long.
They need that time, of course, to achieve their ambitions. In Lightness, a buoyant Daniel Day-Lewis plays Tomas, the late-'60s Czech libertine choosing between sexual liberty and provincial love -- as embodied with erotic abandon by Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche, respectively -- in a politically deadening era. It's a story about lovemaking as subversion of totalitarian oppression. In Amadeus, a magnetic F. Murray Abraham plays Salieri, the late 18th-century Kappellmeister of Vienna self-tortured to the brink of madness by his recognition of artistic genius -- as embodied with daffy abandon by Tom Hulce -- and concomitant failure to achieve it. It's a story of...well, my life, kinda.
Anyway, one gets the sense of how Zaentz rolls. It goes on like this, lushly, operatically, with At Play's culturally rapacious missionaries and mercenaries in the Amazon, and Patient's lovesick and war-weary cosmopolitans in Tuscany and the Sahara.
Certainly it takes a rare fortitude of character to realize such projects. Thomson concurs with the old-school-mogul assessment of Zaentz, adding a wry caveat: "I would urge anyone to keep awake when making contracts with him." Fogerty might not put it so nicely.
But as Avni reminds us, "Forman would say that the best thing about having worked with Zaentz twice was that they had been through all the fights and curses and the slammed telephones together the first time, so the next time they 'didn't have to dance any more.'"
With each of its four films introduced by a member of the creative team, Quality Control: Selected Works from Zaentz Films begins Saturday May 30, 2009, and continues Wednesdays through June 17, 2009, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.