Professor Annette Insdorf releases book on filmmaker Philip Kaufman

The Right Stuff. 1983. USA. Directed by Philip Kaufman

Annette Insdorf is a Professor in the Graduate Film Program of Columbia University’s School of the Arts, as well as Director of Undergraduate Film Studies. She is the author of Francois TruffautIndelible Shadows: Film and Holocaust, and Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Each of her books has become the definitive text on its subject, and the measure for other studies that follow. Professor Insdorf recently released the book Philip Kaufman, and she answered a few questions for CUarts about Kaufman and her new book:

Arts Initiative: What first drew you to Kaufman’s work? What are some of your favorite characteristics of his films?

I was galvanized after seeing Henry and June in 1990: I contacted a mutual friend for Kaufman’s address in order to send him a fan letter.  He replied, quickly and generously, and we continued to correspond. I was gratified that he appreciated my book on François Truffaut. It struck me that Kaufman was making sophisticated films for literate viewers–the kind of stylistically and philosophically juicy movies that I associate with the French new wave.  Henry and June was the first film to receive the NC-17 rating, which created controversy (both for the film and for the rating system). Kaufman courageously tackled the famously “macho” Henry Miller, but through the female perspective of Anaïs Nin.

AI: When and how were you first inspired to write a book about Kaufman? What were the most difficult and most rewarding parts of the process of writing about Kaufman’s work? 

I started writing my book around 2002, after having interviewed the wonderfully articulate Kaufman onstage a few times. Given that there was no book about his rich cinema–and that he was equally under-appreciated in academia and popular film criticism–I figured I had to write it.  The most difficult part was simply finding time.  In addition to teaching and running Columbia’s undergraduate film studies program, I was taking care of my mother, who was quite frail. That’s why it took me 8 years to finish the book.

The most rewarding part was all the rest–teaching his work to my students, incorporating their fine perceptions by quoting them in my manuscript (as I had done with my book on Kieslowski), and getting to know Kaufman better.  The actual writing was joyful.

AI: What are some of Kaufman’s signature techniques that unify his work and make it distinct?

What unifies and distinguishes his work is less a question of techniques than concerns. Like many great American directors, he finds the particular visual style that is appropriate to the story, rather than imposing techniques for their own sake.  He is drawn to the individuals struggling for freedom (whether artistic, erotic or political), pushing the envelope in a vivid place and time.  A fine example is his latest film, Hemingway & Gellhorn, which will premiere on HBO May 28: starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, it is a compelling portrait of Hemingway as seen through the eyes of the war correspondent (and third wife) who was superior in many ways. That being said, there is often a gentle self-consciousness to his work: he invites us to reflect on the very process of cinematic storytelling at the same time that he weaves the complex interactions of the individual body and the social landscape.

AI: What are some lessons that students and aspiring filmmakers can learn from Kaufman and his work?

First, that it is possible–and desirable–to make American films that don’t insult the viewer’s intelligence.  Movies like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Right Stuff only get better on subsequent viewings, as their richness can’t be grasped from only one. Like the best novels, they ripen during repeat engagements: after the first time, one can appreciate not simply what happens, but how it is being expressed.

AI: What is your favorite Kaufman film and why?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being because it still entrances me after approximately 18 viewings.  Even though people called Milan Kundera’s novel “unadaptable,” Kaufman found a cinematically vital way to tell the story of Tomas, Tereza and Sabina in 1968 Prague.  He illuminates political history (and its representation), perception (and its limitations), personal freedom (and its price), not to mention visual storytelling.

AI: For those of us who are just starting to familiarize ourselves with Kaufman’s work, what are some films you would recommend?

The Right Stuff, which Quentin Tarantino said “created a new genre, the hip epic”. It’s a terrific adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book, juxtaposing old-fashioned hero Chuck Yeager (played by Sam Shepard)–who broke the sound barrier–and the group of astronauts who became the USA’s first space voyagers.  It’s part of the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Kaufman’s work on Thursday evening, April 12. I also recommend Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which I’ll be presenting at the Museum of the Moving Image on April 28.  And I admire so many of his other films as well, from The White Dawn to Quills.

Upcoming Events:

More information on MOMA’s upcoming Filmmaker in Focus events on Philip Kaufman can be found on their website.

Click here for tickets and info on the screening at Museum of the Moving Image.

Professor Insdorf will also appear at the Columbia University bookstore for a book signing on April 24th. More info here.

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