Spring 2012

Contemporary Film Directors: Philip Kaufman
(University of Illinois Press, 155 pages, $22 )
By Annette Insdorf

Contemporary Film Directors Book It took a long time getting here, but the first-ever book-length examination of the career and films of Philip Kaufman was well worth the wait. Annette Insdorf’s perceptive and immersive monograph benefits not only from her years spent teaching the director’s films to her students at Columbia University, but also from the willingness of Kaufman himself to interact with Insdorf over the years (usually in lengthy emails, which are liberally quoted throughout the book). Indeed, perhaps the most rewarding section of the book is the lengthy interview between author and subject that appears at the end, in which Kaufman ranges freely and articulately over subjects such as the appropriate use for a zoom over a track-in (zooms are for when something needs to feel false); the games he played with sound construction (the jumpy reporters in The Right Stuff are heralded by locust noises); the NC-17 rating he received for Henry & June; and the enduring belief among studio moneymen that they possess a supernatural ability to read the audience’s mind (including the one who told him, pricelessly, just before Star Wars came out, “There’s no future in science fiction!”).

Insdorf offers a sympathetic, in-depth, and entirely jargon-free look at Kaufman’s work, opting to cover the literary adaptations Henry & June and The Unbearable Lightness of Being before backtracking to the earlier movies of the 1970s and his highly intelligent pictures that declared war on their own genres for laughs. Those include his fascinating oddball Western The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, enervating remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, anti-American Graffiti street gang flick The Wanderers, and his airborne cowboy movie that is The Right Stuff. Kaufman is an unusually literate and literary filmmaker, an American who makes quasi-European movies, an accomplished visual stylist interested in machismo, honor, history, politics, sexuality, and deceptive imagery. Insdorf’s portrait of Kaufman reminds me why I wish he had made twice as many movies as he has.

Review written by John Patterson.


The best of new publications by, for, and about directors, their teams and the industry.

More from this topic
More from this issue