Philip Kaufman: An appreciation

How an arty UChicago history student ended up remaking Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

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Iʼm not a big horror fan, but my video library includes a few eerie essentials I like to cue up each October: The Exorcist, Halloween, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. (I'm a staunch member of the better-than-the-book camp.) A personal favorite missing from my collection—still waiting on a decent edition that may never come—is the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Philip Kaufman, AB’58.

After graduating from the College with a degree in history and a love for literature, Kaufman (whose birthday is October 23) tried his hand at law school, fiction, grad school, and fiction and law school again. He found his true calling while traveling in Europe, just as French New Wave cinema crashed ashore. Returning to Chicago in 1962, Kaufman directed two independent features, which earned praise from the likes of Francois Truffaut and Jean Renoir.

Inevitably, Hollywood waved him over. Yet despite having directed 13 films—the latest was 2012’s Hemingway & Gellhorn, made for HBO—the critically lauded Kaufman has never become a household name like George Lucas and other peers. Maybe it’s because he’s never settled into a single genre or trademark style, unless you count adapting books for the big screen. But even they run the gamut: Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff, 1983), Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988), and Michael Crichton (Rising Sun, 1993). Kaufman did make headlines in 1990 when his Henry & June became the first film to receive an NC-17 rating, but few remember his story credit for Raiders of the Lost Ark. (He worked with George Lucas for six weeks on the plot, providing the idea for the ark. No word if it was Lucas—these days a good friend of the University—or Kaufman who suggested Indy’s UChicago pedigree.)

The first time I saw Kaufman’s Body Snatchers, at age 10, I wasn’t really into reading credits. All I remember of that Saturday matinee is bagpipes and losing my voice. The body snatchers, when they spotted a human, would point and produce a unique alarm—a sound-mixing masterpiece that’s half croak, half scream. Emerging into the sunlight, my friends and I ducked and dodged around cars in the theater parking lot, pointing and croak-screaming at one another. All our throats were shredded in minutes; I happened to be developing a cold, so my hoarseness blossomed into full-blown laryngitis.

As for the bagpipes, the film—a sci-fi twist on familiar ’70s tropes: post-Watergate paranoia, hippie hangover, Donald Sutherland’s afro—climaxes with an out-of-left-field blast of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard playing “Amazing Grace.” So that's why, as I marched out of Rockefeller Chapel 12 years later, UChicago degree in hand, one of my first thoughts was of Philip Kaufman.

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