By choosing Philip Kaufman (“Quills,” “Henry and June”) as the subject of her latest book, Columbia University Film School professor Annette Insdorf hasn’t just given his films an extreme close-up. With “Philip Kaufman” (University of Illinois Press), the first book-length study of the impossible-to-categorize director, Insdorf has also nominated Kaufman to the pantheon of cinema greats like Francois Truffaut and Krzysztof Kieslowski — the subjects of her other acclaimed studies. Insdorf spoke to The Arty Semite about Kaufman’s versatility, quixotic characters, and what makes him a world-class director. Kaufman’s latest film, “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” premieres on HBO May 28.
What drew you to Philip Kaufman as a subject?
Annette Insdorf: I’ve been appreciating his films for over 20 years, always surprised and disappointed at the lack of sustained, serious study of his superb work. When I showed his movies to my Columbia students — especially “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Right Stuff” — their enthusiastic respect confirmed my sense that Kaufman’s films deserve more attention. The problem has been a lack of recognizability; because he is so versatile and is drawn to different kinds of material, even cinephiles don’t realize that the same person directed films as disparate as “The White Dawn,” “The Wanderers,” “Henry and June” and “Rising Sun.”
Kaufman is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Poland. Is there anything you’d characterize as a Jewish sensibility to his work?