Archive for Philip Kaufman

Falling Don

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2014 by dcairns

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“That’s a lot of money for a dame without a head” — statue outside the Church of St Nicholas in Venice, where DON’T LOOK NOW was filmed. Forty years on and they STILL haven’t got a head on that thing.

A story from Philip Kaufman’s commentary on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS — he was filming the climax, with Donald Sutherland gamely staggering around a catwalk high in the air in a big greenhouse, and a mutual acquaintance approached. “Is that Donald Sutherland up there?” Kaufman affirmed that it was, and his friend, with a note of panic, cried “Don’t you know he’s The Clumsiest Man Alive?”


This makes Sutherland’s cameo as “The Accident-Prone Waiter” in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE much funnier, but adds a frisson of terror to DON’T LOOK NOW and several other Sutherland films. As Sutherland described it to Mark Cousins in a TV interview, the scene in DLN where he dangles from a rope at ceiling level in a cavernous Venetian church was originally going to be performed by a stunt man. But, he says, rather apathetically, the stunt man “wasn’t happy about something” and in the end Sutherland volunteered and did the dangling himself. He had a kirby wire running down his sleeve to a harness, securing him so he couldn’t actually fall.

Years later Sutherland is talking to another stuntman, who congratulates him on the awe-inspiringly dangerous sequence. Sutherland demurs: “I was quite safe, I was fastened to a kirby wire…” “But you were going like this,” says the stunt man, making a twirling motion with his index finger to indicate the way Sutherland spun helplessly on his rope. “Yes, I was.” “Well, when you go like that on a kirby wire, the kirby wire breaks.”*

Sutherland actually had premonitions of doom on the movie, feeling that it was such a tragic and death-haunted tale, somebody might actually have to die while making it. Fortunately for him, that was silly.

But one of the strange pleasures of re-watching the film with students — and it unlocks fresh pleasures each time — is the number of times poor Donald falls on his ass, or nearly so, during the show. Nic Roeg has him staggering along beside canals, blundering over barges, and straddling ledges fifty feet up… It’s all a touch ungainly. Julie Christie, meanwhile, negotiates rowing boats and the like with the grace and dexterity that only the Rank Charm School can instill.

What else — ?


Odd framings, like this shot which picks up a sinister sign-post as a plank glides across the lower edge of frame like a shark’s fin.

Constant communication trouble: Sutherland speaks fluent Italian to his work crew, but whenever faced with an emotional question or a conversation with a woman, his language deserts him. “English… English…” he pleads abjectly.

Julie Christie sees a police sketch of one of the two sisters (vacationing from Scotland, though their accents are VERY English) — “It doesn’t really look like her.” “It doesn’t matter,” says Inspector Longi (how I’d love a whole series of films about his unsuccessful cases! Maybe he could team up with Harvey Keitel’s Inspector Netusil from BAD TIMING to fight crime ineffectually across Europe). He means, “It doesn’t matter since no crime has been committed and we’re no longer seeking her,” but what Christie understands, from her nonplussed expression, is obviously “It doesn’t matter if our sketches don’t resemble the people we’re looking for because that’s not their purpose.” Whole worlds of mystery open up at that thought.

The first view of Julie —


This prefigures the film’s climax, which hinges on that uncanny lurch you feel when you approach somebody you know and they turn around and it’s not them. I first got this with a woman who wasn’t my mum in the supermarket when I was small. (“His little world swung half around; the points of the compass were reversed.” ~ Chickamauga, by Ambrose Bierce.)

I was in Venice recently, making a side-trip from Pordenone on a free day after the Silent Film festival had ended, and I visited Donald’s church. It’s still there, looks the same, but doesn’t have any mosaics that I could see. They don’t let you take pictures inside as they fear the camera will steal away the Holy Spirit, I guess, but I snapped away outside. And no, I didn’t see any little figures in red macs. Fiona suggests the Venice town council should hire little people to dart about and peak from round corners wearing the appropriate plastic attire. She’s right — I think you’d only need about seven at a time to cover the city. You wouldn’t want them to become commonplace or anything.


Donald sees a glove on a window ledge. I saw a segment of orange.

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*Sutherland has another great story about shooting Bertolucci’s 1900 which left him with concussion and a half-severed ear. I can tell it in the comments section if there’s interest.

The Whiteness

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2013 by dcairns


The author meets the auteur: Philip Kaufman and a dazed man in a borrowed hat.

One of the results of meeting Philip Kaufman in Telluride (above) was the realization that, despite loving a number of his films (I have literally no idea how many times I saw THE RIGHT STUFF in the eighties, at the cinema and on VHS) there were big holes in my knowledge of his career. One movie he mentioned as being a little neglected was THE WHITE DAWN (1974), which I’d heard of but never seen.


It proves to be an excellent film, and I’m not just saying that because Mr. Kaufman was so nice (if I didn’t like this one, I’d find something else to talk about). It’s really one of the best films about intercultural failure of communication, standing comparison with MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE, which it’s arguably better than because it doesn’t have David Bowie in a school uniform. Instead it has Timothy Bottoms, Warren Oates and Louis Gossett, Jnr, a near-unbeatable trio of axioms of 1970s American cinema, acting against a genuine selection of non-professional actors gathered from a single Inuit tribe.

The story, based on James Houston’s novel in turn based on true incidents, deals with three whalers stranded in the arctic who are taken in by an Inuit tribe. The initially friendly approach of the natives ultimately takes a tragic turn as the interlopers fail to fit in, contribute, or understand the people they’ve become dependent on. While the reliably surly Oates is an obvious walking trouble-spot, Bottoms and Gossett’s response to the apparent free love offered by the community also seems likely to cause problems, with the sensitive young Bottoms becoming enamoured and possessive of one young woman (Pilitak).


The blend of languages and acting styles works remarkably well. “The trouble with non-professionals is they’re not professional enough. And the trouble with professionals is they’re too professional.” ~ Milos Forman. “When you put a non-professional and a professional together the effect is immediately to show up the artificiality of the professional.” ~ Alexander Mackendrick. And the movie manages to create sympathy for both sides — its theme has never been more timely, and it’s regrettable that the movie isn’t easier to see (according to its director, no good 35mm print of this handsome film, shot by Michael Chapman, exists anywhere in the world).

If everyone saw it and absorbed its theme, it could actually save us.


My Kaufman essay can be bought as a bonus along with: Invasion of the Body Snatchers [Blu-ray]

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Natan News

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2013 by dcairns


Time I collected all our NATAN news together — or all the news that’s ready to print.

The movie just played two dates at the Cambridge Film Festival. Here’s a Podcast interview with me.  And last weekend it was on in Penicuik town hall. This Sunday it screens there again, part of the Penicuik Festival of Scottish Films (it’s an Irish production, but I’m Scottish and we shot our studio scenes in Edinburgh).

On October 10th (my birthday!), the film screens at Dallas Video Fest at the famous Alamo Drafthouse — I hope to do a Q&A via Skype.

The French premier is on October 17th at the Lumiere Festival in Lyon. This is VERY exciting. Lyon has an amazing line-up and it’s astonishing to be in such company. And we can’t wait to see the French reaction to a couple of Celts blundering in and rewriting their film history.

Before that, however, Pordenone Festival of Silent Film are stretching a point and showing our talking documentary on the 12th. David Robinson, Chaplin biographer and former director if Edinburgh International Film festival, programs this one and it seems like another amazing cinephile treat.

Since Telluride, much has happened or is happening that we can’t go public with yet. But —

I’ve written liner notes for a forthcoming Arrow Blu-ray of Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. I was excited to realize that Tom Luddy, director of Telluride is IN the film, playing a pod person, so I thought I’d find him at the Fest and ask him about that. I located him at the amazing mountain brunch, and he immediately said “Oh, Phil’s here somewhere.” so I got to drink bloody marys (with freshly-grated horse radish) with Philip Kaufman and ask him about his movie.


Phil K and I. Altitude sickness can be fun!

Later, I slipped him a DVD of NATAN and he was kind enough to say he liked it. We asked if we could quote him and he sent us this astonishing testimonial —

“David Cairns and Paul Duane have brilliantly explored the archives and shadows and have unearthed a man, airbrushed out of History, virtually unknown to the present, who was one of the most important figures in the history of French cinema. Natan was a nonpareil entertainer responsible in great part for the survival of modern French cinema; yet he was vilified, hounded, and brutally destroyed. In resurrecting him, they have also unearthed the most startling show-biz story ever told: a tale of ambition, fun and shady business that turns into a remarkable horror story: a morality tale without morality. Natan is an extraordinary film!”

My eyeballs popped out ping-pong-fashion when I read that, I can tell you. I’m also very fond of this piece from Boulder Jewish News, which ties the film to the recent debate re Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. Pointing to Natan’s downfall, Stan Kreis suggests that Hollywood execs must have felt that their own wealth and power was imperfectly secure, accounting for their general reluctance to make themselves heard on political issues and particularly on Nazism before the war (and they largely avoided using the J Word even during the war). Kreis is right to assume Natan’s story was known — it received a little coverage in the American trade press, but owing to Natan’s business dealings in America (he distributed Disney’s cartoons in France, for instance), Hollywood bosses would have known a good deal more than was publicized in The Film Daily. The fact that French papers covered Natan’s trial with headlines about “the Jew Tannenzaft, known as Natan,” for instance…

One more great response to the film: at Edinburgh, Ehsan Khoshbakt filmed an interview with me, and it’s now edited and up at Fandor along with his smart and flattering critical observations.