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Book Review: Annette Insdorf's 'Philip Kaufman' Elevates the Director But Skips the Pain

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 2, 2012 at 7:13AM

Annette Insdorf's monograph on director Philip Kaufman is just what you'd expect from the astute and thorough Columbia University Director of Undergraduate Film Studies.
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Kate Winslet and Philip Kaufman on "Quills"
Kate Winslet and Philip Kaufman on "Quills"

Annette Insdorf's monograph on director Philip Kaufman is just what you'd expect from the astute and thorough Columbia Director of Undergraduate Film Studies. It makes sense that Insdorf, a Eurocentric cinephile fluent in both French and world cinema, admires this American director based in San Francisco, who makes very European films, from "Henry & June," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" to "The Right Stuff."

If you want straightforward thematic analysis of Kaufman's films, Insdorf's book is for you. (No other such treatise exists; the book is for sale on Amazon.) She writes clear, intelligent, if hagiographic, analysis. But what I find so heartbreaking about Kaufman--a thoughtful craftsman whom Hollywood has failed to support as much as he deserves-- she skips over, partly out of courtesy, I suspect. (She has been interviewing him for some two decades.)

The man has had a very tough time getting movies made. He is one of those filmmakers who makes sophisticated films for adults and has little patience for studio commercial demands. Who can blame him for turning away from a system that yielded "Twisted" (which Insdorf compares to Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil")?  Like everyone else, Kaufman has finally turned to HBO; next up is Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, which debuts on May 28.

At the end of her book, after carefully assessing all of Kaufman's films, Insdorf publishes an excellent 1993 Q & A with the director (adding bits of emails and other interviews), and thus ends the book, tantalizingly, by giving Kaufman the last word:

"We try, with varying degrees of success, to create and explore a world of beauty, mystery and sensuality--a world with its own rules, its own unique inhabitants. Characters, players, artists, clowns, jokers and sometimes monsters--a world of fun. Fun while it lasted. Eventually each of these films had to bite the apple, to get released into that howling world where they journeyed through pain and suffering, often misunderstood, sometimes maligned. Yet when I look back on these films, they are now suffused with a warm, golden glow of memory, green thoughts in a green shade. It makes me wonder if just outside the Garden of Eden someone had posted the sign: Beware all who enter here. You will be judged as to how you did at the box office."

Insdorf is on the promo beat: check out some of Kaufman's must-see films, schedule below.

Kaufman and Insdorf will intro "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art at 7:30 pm on April 11, opening a MoMa retrospective of his work. They will also talk before a MoMa screening of "The Right Stuff" on Thursday, April 12, at 7:30 pm.

The Columbia University Bookstore book signing will be on April 24 at 6 pm, followed by The National Arts Club on April 25 at 7:30 pm (before a members-only screening of "Quills") and The Museum of the Moving Image on April 28 at 5 pm before a screening of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." The tireless Insdorf will also sign books after a screening of "The Right Stuff" at The Jacob Burns Center in Pleasantville, NY on the evening of June 21.

This article is related to: Books, Directors


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.