image: University of Chicago Magazine - logo

link to: featureslink to: class news, books, deathslink to: chicago journal, college reportlink to: investigationslink to: editor's notes, letters, chicagophile, course work
link to: back issueslink to: contact forms, address updateslink to: staff info, ad rates, subscriptions

  Written by
  Chris Smith

  Photography by
  Dan Dry


  > > Auteur! Auteur!
  > >
A Run for Our Money
  > >
My Life as a Mind
  > >
Thinking Inside the Box
  > >
Home, home in the Reg


Auteur! Auteur!
Philip Kaufman, AB'58, is not clamoring for your attention-but he certainly deserves it.

IMAGE:  Philip KaufmanIt would be a shame if Philip Kaufman ever became famous-as in Steven Spielberg or Oliver Stone famous, the kind of recognition that stems from record-breaking box office sales rather than appreciation by fans as an underrated auteur. Such success could pigeonhole an independent filmmaker, or even worse, make him move to Los Angeles.

Kaufman, AB'58, has made 11 films since 1963, but few have been successful in terms of dollar signs. So why has he been honored with retrospectives and tributes by a half-dozen film festivals and organizations, including Sundance and the American Film Institute? Why has film critic Roger Ebert, X'70, called him "one of the best American directors"? Why is Columbia University offering a course this spring exclusively on his work, with professor Annette Insdorf praising him as "the greatest living American filmmaker"?

"If there is here revealed a capacity to shock, to startle the lifeless ones from their profound slumber, let us congratulate ourselves;" writes Anaïs Nin in her 1934 preface to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, "for the tragedy of our world is precisely that nothing any longer is capable of rousing it from its lethargy." Nin could as easily have been writing about Kaufman's films as Miller's novel-and it is no small coincidence that Nin and Miller have both profoundly influenced his work. Kaufman manages to excite and disturb fans and critics to the point that his films are too risky for heavily publicized release (thus their poor earnings), but too important to be ignored (thus the critical acclaim).

From the wall of windows in his second-floor San Francisco production office, Kaufman looks down on Stockton Street in the heart of North Beach, a West Coast Greenwich Village where bohemian artists still camp at the cafés reading their Ferlinghetti, sometimes across the patio from Ferlinghetti himself, who still haunts the neighborhood. The beat writers knew these streets well, holding readings of banned literature at City Lights Bookstore, scribbling on beer-soaked notepads at the Vesuvio Bar where Columbus Avenue intersects the recently renamed Kerouac Street. The artistic energy of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and Cassady lingers on park benches and patio tables in the blocks surrounding Kaufman's office, places where everyone seems to have a tattered paperback poking from a hip pocket.

Kaufman's production company, Walrus and Associates (a name he chose while shooting his 1974 Arctic adventure The White Dawn), consists of Kaufman; his wife Rose, who helps him choose projects and occasionally cowrites scripts; son Peter, who produces his films; and assistant Leslie Kaye, who seems to have a hand in everything.

The Kaufmans-including Leslie, who is more like a family member than an assistant-take leisurely lunches together almost daily, often with friends or guests in tow, at one of the local Italian bistros. (North Beach consists largely of Italian bistros, bars, Italian bistros, beauty parlors, Italian bistros, curio stores, and Italian bistros.) On a first-name basis with the hosts and waiters, exchanging hugs and gossiping about other customers, the crew can't walk a block without catching the hand or shoulder of a familiar passerby in their adopted hometown. At one of the restaurants, Steps of Rome, Kaufman literally has his own table, still photos from his movies pasted under a thick layer of shellac, a collage of underappreciated talent.

Kaufman had tried the Bay Area twice in the 1960s but left to travel and shoot films, finally making San Francisco his home in 1973 after five years in Los Angeles, a fortress of studios where all directors seem to start out or end up. He joined other recent L.A. émigrés John Korty, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas to form a community of Hollywood outsiders who engaged in independent projects or studio films with a comfortable 374-mile buffer zone between them and L.A.

Today you can't swing a dead extra in this enclave without hitting a filmmaker- Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter), Joan Chen (Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl), Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard), and Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Smoke) among them-many Los Angeles expats living the indie life away from the Hollywood shuffle. Just blocks away from Kaufman's door is Coppola's American Zoetrope studio, the cornerstone of the NoCal film community, which brought to the screen such gems as American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, and the Godfather trilogy. Often indie directors use Zoetrope's space to launch their projects. Lucas, who co-founded Zoetrope with Coppola in 1963, lives at his Skywalker Ranch just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.

Like most filmmakers Kaufman relies on studios to make his films because that's where the money is-in conversation he simply calls Hollywood "the Bank." Five years in L.A. left a bitter flavor in Kaufman's mouth, one he can still taste every time he begins a studio film only to have it flushed down the tubes after months of work. The egress of talent to the Bay Area has not loosened Hollywood's grip on the money belt, and although the community is more supportive among the North Beach outlaws, the money is still controlled by the meddling Hollywood inlaws. To oversimplify, in Hollywood film is an industry; in San Francisco it's an art form.

North Beach's fame as home to the beat writers appeals to Kaufman's literate sensibility, a trait heavily influenced by his undergraduate years at the U of C, which he attended after growing up on Chicago's North Side and spending two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "When I was at the University of Chicago literature was everything," he says. "It was the end of the Hutchins era but the aura was still there. It was a very intense time." As a third-year living in Burton-Judson in 1956-57 he was surrounded by Korean War veterans entering college on the G.I. Bill. "These guys were older, in their mid-20s, and all they wanted to do was study and learn." A self-described autodidact, Kaufman was a sponge, "trying to read as much as I could about as many things as I could."

Besides literature, Kaufman encountered another love at Chicago that would shape his future: his wife Rose Fisher, X'59, whom he saw sunbathing on the Midway while he was walking with his friend Ted Gertz, AB'58. (Gertz's father, Elmer Gertz, PhB'28, JD'30, would later successfully defend Henry Miller's banned Tropic of Cancer before the Supreme Court. Miller paid Gertz in original watercolors, which covered the Gertz family's walls.)

It was spring 1958, and Kaufman was set to attend Harvard Law School in the fall. Rose stayed in Chicago, but they visited often and were married in Boston in 1959 as Kaufman began to question his educational goals. "I went to law school because I didn't know what else to do. My parents said, 'It wouldn't hurt.' But it did. On top of the pain, I missed Hyde Park and the atmosphere of the U of C."

Leaving Harvard after a year, he returned to Chicago to pursue graduate studies in history but left before finishing his master's. "I guess I was looking for another kind of history," Kaufman says, "the kind not found in the books we were reading, which were all too scholarly, analytical, and bright."

He had just begun reading Henry Miller and became more enthralled by the world of literature than that of academe. "Miller was filled with a generous spirit of appreciation," says Kaufman. "The problem with the academic world is it's too often about depreciation rather than appreciation. I believe in being critical, but you can be both critical of something and enthusiastic about it. Henry was very generous about finding the life spirit of things. To a degree he was like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti-there was an energy about them that was coming out of the literature, and they put it back into life."

Avid moviegoers, Rose and Phil found a similar energy in European films, falling in love with Bergman, Fellini, Pasolini, and especially French New Wave directors such as Truffaut and Godard. "They were breaking the rules, moving out on the streets and using handheld cameras," recalls Kaufman. "Hollywood had fallen into a post-blacklist doldrums, and there weren't many really interesting films in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In Europe film was an art form, a form of excitement."

In 1960 Peter was born at the Chicago Lying-in Hospital on campus, and the couple decided to move again. Kaufman had been readmitted to Harvard, but as if by instinct, he says, "Instead of heading east we drove west, out to San Francisco, not knowing what lay ahead." He took jobs as a mailman and a Fuller Brush salesman and began work on a novel.

Since Henry Miller lived just down the coast in Big Sur, one of the first things Phil and Rose did was leave Peter with an uncle and drive down to meet him. Kaufman had tried to visit him a few years before while traveling with a friend, so he knew which dirt road wound toward Miller's house on the shore. "At the end of the road there was a sign tacked onto his gate asking to be left alone," says Kaufman. "We were dejected and about to leave when a gardener appeared. After talking to us for a while, checking us out, he told us to wait until Henry got up from his nap; he thought Henry would like to see us. We stood looking down at the crashing Pacific far below for about an hour. Then Henry was standing next to us."

Miller took them on a guided tour of the trees on his land, telling them about each one "as if they were his friends. His refrigerator, which was outside, next to an outside sofa, was on the blink. No ice, so the gin was warm. We drank and talked all day." As evening came, Miller offered them a place on his floor to sleep, but they opted for the beach, awakened at 3 a.m. by a police officer who told them to move on.

Moving on seemed to be a theme with the Kaufmans. After nine months in the Bay Area they traveled to Greece and spent the next two years touring Europe. Kaufman worked odd jobs, continued his novel, and, with Rose, saw as many films as possible. Their passion for the European cinema they had watched at the seedy Clark Theater in downtown Chicago and in Doc Films' early screenings in Cobb Hall was rekindled by their travels. The European New Wave was in full swing and the New American Cinema was dawning. "More and more it seemed like film was being freed from the stifling Hollywood world of the late 1950s and early 1960s," says Kaufman. After catching Cassavetes' Shadows in Florence and Shirley Clark's The Connection in Amsterdam, Kaufman was inspired to make his novel into a film, and in 1962 they found themselves back in Chicago.

Soon after arriving, Kaufman visited the University to see Anaïs Nin-then known more for her intimate association with Miller than for her own risqué writings-speak on the films of her husband Ian Hugo. "Everyone thought of Nin as this black-caped bohemian icon," Kaufman recalls. "So we all came wearing our black outfits and sandals, and she showed up in this pink dress." He approached Nin after her speech and took up the afternoon talking to her about his story. With Nin's encouragement, and still intoxicated by his recent travels, Kaufman joined forces with his friend Ben Manaster, AB'59, and raised $40,000 to make his first film, Goldstein, a story about a modern-day prophet who rises from the waters of Lake Michigan to wander the streets of Chicago. "As far as I can remember I don't think there were more than six or seven independent filmmakers in all of America," says Kaufman. "We were the only ones in Chicago making [independent] features."

Goldstein's first screening was at the Coronet Theater on Rush Street in March 1964. Francois Truffaut, who happened to be in town visiting the set of another film, attended the show and at one point jumped up and started applauding, much to Kaufman's delight. Truffaut's enthusiasm was not isolated-Goldstein went on to win the Prix de la Nouvelle Critique at Cannes, sharing the prize with Bernardo Bertolucci's first film Before the Revolution.

"[French director] Jean Renoir said it was the best American film he'd seen in 20 years," says Kaufman. "That was all swell, but we were still broke, and it was hard as hell to get another film going." He did manage to raise money for a second feature two years later, Fearless Frank, a comic-book inspired tale featuring the debuts of actor Jon Voight and cinematographer Bill Butler, who would go on to shoot Grease and Jaws. Not as critically praised as Goldstein, it nonetheless was enough to secure him a small contract with Universal and a move to Los Angeles. Over the next several years he wrote and directed his first Western, The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, featuring a young Robert Duvall as a more evil than heroic Jesse James, and got his first taste of working within the Hollywood studio system. "I like a lot of people down there," says Kaufman of L.A., "but I found the general atmosphere of strife and struggle and competitiveness and commerciality to be nerve-wracking and uncreative."

The oppressive atmosphere of L.A. prompted the move to San Francisco in 1973, which Rose coordinated while Phil was shooting a polar adventure story called The White Dawn. This was Kaufman's first of four projects with cinematographer Michael Chapman, who built his name on such classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Fugitive. Filming kept Kaufman in the Canadian Arctic for four months, where he and his crew endured dysentery and fatigue to produce a realistic account of an 1896 encounter between shipwrecked whalers and an Inuit tribe.

Just as in The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid - where Kaufman contrasts Jesse James's backward-looking denial to Cole Younger's forward-looking stoicism - in The White Dawn he explores contradictions of honor and shame, insider and outsider, and civilized and uncivilized as the whalers exploit the Inuit charity, each group considering the other a barbarous and lesser species. This exploration of dichotomies in everyday life would become a hallmark of Kaufman's directing.

Just before leaving to film The White Dawn, Kaufman took what turned out to be his last pilgrimage to visit an aging Henry Miller, who would die in 1980 after suffering a stroke. "He was quite elderly then," recalls Kaufman, but his living arrangements remained unconventional: "The dining room was filled by his ping-pong table. The last image I have of him is of two beautiful Japanese women taking him up his staircase to bed."

After five years in Hollywood Kaufman found a new sense of artistic freedom in the laid-back film community of North Beach but experienced a string of near misses through the 1970s. He developed the Raiders of the Lost Ark story with George Lucas, only to see it shelved for five years until Spielberg was chosen to direct it, and wrote The Outlaw Josey Wales-described by Tom Gunning, professor of art history and cinema & media studies at Chicago, as "perhaps the last great Western script"-but again lost the director's chair, this time to producer Clint Eastwood. Kaufman also spent eight months developing the first Star Trek film, then watched the studio scrap the project (declaring that science fiction was dead) one week before Star Wars was released.

But in 1978 he had his first commercial success with a remake of the classic sci-fi horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which established him as an artist who could direct in multiple genres, a talent he proved again and again. Moving from Western to Arctic adventure to sci-fi remake, he avoided being pigeonholed as a thematic auteur. This versatility, however, came at the cost of anonymity, because he did not forge a brand name by which the general public could recognize his work. A hallmark of auteurism is the recognizable style of the director: Scorsese will deliver loners, New York, and Robert De Niro; with Spielberg it's suspense, special effects, and a clear idea of who the bad guys are; Tarantino sends the viewer home quoting clever dialogue and wondering from which movies he borrowed some of those scenes. Kaufman, on the other hand, is a chameleon, a Howard Hawks-like figure able to flit from genre to genre, guiding the material to tell its own story rather than stamping his imprint on each film. "I don't really ascribe to the theory that a distinguished filmmaker, an auteurist, makes a movie at 19 with guys shooting guns at each other and is supposed to replicate that movie for the next 50 years," he says. "It may make it easier for the critics to identify the director as an 'auteurist,' but personally I'm interested in lots of things." Indeed you could see every Kaufman film back to back and not suspect all had the same director.

Two years after Invasion of the Body Snatchers he made The Wanderers, a cult classic about a group of pre-Vietnam War Italian-American high schoolers growing up in the Bronx. The film's release was unfortunately timed within months of the Walter Hill film The Warriors, which was criticized for promoting gang violence. Although Kaufman's treatment is more of a humorous coming-of-age story, his film was found guilty by association and languished in second-run theaters. "The Wanderers was a real sleeper masterpiece," says Chicago's Tom Gunning. "It should be better known."

The relatively obscure Wanderers was followed in 1983 with the three-hour space-race wonder The Right Stuff. Not commercially successful, it was nonetheless lauded by critics and earned four Oscars and a nomination for best picture, scoring high on Siskel and Ebert's top ten films of the decade. The Right Stuff could have been simple-a two-hour gloss of Tom Wolfe's astronaut chronicle-but Kaufman favored a nuanced look at how the training and media attention affected the individual men and their wives. Where many directors try to pepper epic adventure tales with bits of the characters' personal lives, Kaufman turns this formula on its head, subsuming the epic to the everyday moments of the characters. Much like the Iliad and Odyssey, the backdrop may be impressive, but it's the intimate moments that carry the story.

Kaufman achieves another coup with The Right Stuff by giving the hero of the story less screen time than the rest of the cast. The astronauts owe their fame to Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who broke the sound barrier-chasing the sky demon, the pilots called it-but managed to avoid the stardom that dogged the others. Yeager is a ghost haunting the celebrated men: not famous, but essential to the fame of others.

Perhaps three hours is a magic length for Kaufman. In 1988 he released The Unbearable Lightness of Being, slightly shorter than The Right Stuff and hailed by some critics as his best film. Adapted from Milan Kundera's thickly layered novel, the film probes a love triangle during the 1968 Russian occupation of Prague. As in his previous films, Kaufman alternates his focus between the epic themes-in this case free speech and open sexuality-and the private-the choices individual characters have to make in their personal lives as their country caves in about them. A scene in which Tomas and Tereza put their ailing dog to sleep carries under Kaufman's hand the same weight as the backdrop of rival nations and artistic repression.

Kaufman is able to blend both the epic and the intimate because he doesn't merely film subjects, he explores them as he goes, forcing awkward situations for their deeper truths rather than stringing action/sex/drama/comedy situations along between plot points to form linear, two-dimensional stories. "I don't know that I work with theory to begin with," says Kaufman. "The more you get into a film the more you abandon the chalk outlines and just begin working with colors. Storytelling is about rhythms. It's not just something you find in the editing room later. You should feel a rhythm as you're filming a scene, seeing how it's going to fall into the movie. A lot of films seem to have no beating heart, no life, because they're fabricated later by editing or music thrown over the top."

Kaufman's freehand worked well for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, earning him the National Society for Film Critics Awards for best picture and best director, the British Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, two Oscar nominations including best screenplay from another medium, and the 1988 International Orson Welles Award for best filmmaker. "Some directors have had greater successes [than Kaufman]-Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola-and others greater critical acclaim as auteurs-Scorsese, Altman, and Allen," says Columbia's Insdorf, who teaches the course on Kaufman. "My criteria are neither box-office numbers nor whether we can tell that a few films were made by the same director with a recognizable personal style. Rather, I ask of the best films a layered richness."

The Unbearable Lightness of Being became a critical success partly because no one believed such a complicated book could ever be made into a film. Kaufman's follow-up, 1990's Henry and June, was equally tricky. It took Kaufman and Rose a year to design a plot for Henry and June, which was based on the diaries of Anaïs Nin. This film was truly a family project, marking Peter's producing debut for Walrus (he has since produced all of Kaufman's films). But Henry and June got much of its press for its X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

Kaufman appealed the decision, believing that mainstream theaters should allow adults to watch films that have mature themes but lack gratuitous sex or violence. "[Henry and June] was made with the same guidelines as The Unbearable Lightness of Being," says Kaufman. "But when I spoke to the head of the ratings board he said, 'I missed that screening of Unbearable, but I would have given that an X too,' because at that point they disliked two women in bed. Violence was allowed. You could get an R rating for cutting off a breast, but you could get an X for fondling a breast. Violence was-and still is-much more accepted in America than sexuality." So Kaufman retained Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz and prepared to lobby on the film's behalf. "We find ourselves imprisoned in juvenilia," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's not the bodies that are naked in our film, but their frankness."

Rather than upgrade the film to an R rating, the MPAA gave out the first NC-17 rating, allowing adults over 17 to view the film but not to bring minors with them. "I thought this would be a great thing," says Kaufman, "that American film can be made with adult situations the way Europeans had dealt with those things for years. But what happened almost immediately was places wouldn't show NC-17-it suddenly became the new X. Newspapers wouldn't take ads for NC-17 movies, and Blockbuster wouldn't stock the video. All the critics who were behind this change suddenly went on to something else, they were no longer fighting the good fight."

The debate surrounding Henry and June was followed by fresh controversy when his next film, Rising Sun, came out in 1993. The Michael Crichton corporate murder mystery upon which it is based was criticized for anti-Japanese sentiments, attracting picketers to the film's debuts in a half-dozen cities. Ironically, because Kaufman had cleaned up much of the offending material (so much so that an angry Crichton walked off the project), he attracted more criticism for being too P.C. Discussion of the film's artistic merits fell into two camps: those who saw formulaic, buddy-cop Hollywood fare and those who felt Kaufman was going for a subtle attack on corporate deception. Both views were drowned in a sea of picket marchers and juicy press leads.

For the rest of the decade Kaufman worked in San Francisco trying to get studios to bite on about a dozen projects, including a biography of jazz musician and drug dealer Mezz Mezzrow, a script based on John Grisham's Runaway Jury, and a screenplay of the Caleb Carr bestseller The Alienist, which Kaufman spent two years on before the studio backed out at the last minute.

In 1998, after years of pursuing projects that died at the hands of studio politics, a project began pursuing him. Fox Searchlight Pictures, the artsy arm of 20th Century Fox, delivered a script that seemed destined to be a Kaufman film: Quills, a pseudo-historical account of the Marquis de Sade's declining years as a prisoner in France's Charenton Asylum.

Quills had the opposite effect of Henry and June. Despite its frank subject matter and male frontal nudity-the big taboo on the movie screen-the MPAA gave it an R without asking for a single cut, and the press honored its engaging story as much as the lines it crossed. It would seem that Kaufman had gotten his message across that there is a difference between sex and sexuality. Though he does not shy away from nudity in his films, Kaufman's most intimate encounters take place in moments that display great trust between characters in emotional situations. In Quills Geoffrey Rush (who received an Oscar nomination for his performance) spends a full 15 minutes completely nude, but the point when the viewer really feels intimate with him is when the Marquis, stripped of his writing instruments, yells his prose line by line to the prisoner in the next cell, who relays it to his neighbor and on down the line to a chambermaid (Kate Winslet) who writes it down. ("My glorious prose, filtered through the minds of the insane?" says the Marquis to himself. "Who knows? They might improve it!")

Quills also marked a turning point in Kaufman's career path. Tired of investing months and even years into writing projects that don't get made, he decided to focus on developing other writers' films rather than spending all of his time and energy scripting pieces himself. Projects in the works include a Liberace biography with Robin Williams, a drama based on the life of Louis Armstrong (backed by Max Palevsky, PhB'48, SB'48), and an adaptation of Saul Bellow[X'39]'s, Henderson the Rain King with Jack Nicholson.

Only time will tell if Kaufman is a hero of independent film, and he has to be pressed to admit he may have made a difference for future directors. "I suppose you can say that every act is a political act, in a way," says Kaufman. "Just like Godard said every place you put your camera is a political act. But I just sort of did it because that's what I wanted to do."

Because filmmakers like Kaufman did what they wanted to do, later filmmakers have had places to put their cameras, to engage in political acts of their own. Perhaps Kaufman is the Chuck Yeager of filmmaking, breaking the barriers, a ghost in the independent film world, chasing the movie demons so later artists can have their fame.

Pictures worth a thousand words

link to: top of the page 

  APRIL 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 4

  > > Class News

  > > Books
  > > Deaths

  > > Chicago Journal

  > > College Report

  > > Investigations

  > > Coursework
  > > Doctoral Studies

  > > Editor's Notes

  > > From the President
  > > Letters
  > > Chicagophile
  > > e-Bulletin: 04/15/02



uchicago ©2002 The University of Chicago Magazine 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-2166