I've been to Heaven, you've only read about it.

From the opening seconds of Quills, it's obvious that this is not the work of the Philip Kaufman his fans had come to love. It moves with the feverish pace of quickened breathe. The film has a sense of humour so dark you need first to excavate, sift and polish it, and this becomes evident within seconds. It has the same perplexing mix of murky color palette and silky lighting that characterizes the work of Aleksandr Sokurov and the immediacy and the youthful mobility of something shot on digital. The faces have the same chiseled strangeness and fill the frame with the same aggression as those of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Michael Powell before them. Some might call it a perverse experiment from a man who'd forgotten how to make the sturdy, contemplative genre exercise in favor of a style as garish as his subject, the Marquis De Sade. Another way of seeing it (and as I'm championing it, I'll call it the right way) is that Kaufman had conquered slow-burning eroticism and was after a thrill much more imperative. The camera feels rooted to the spot, like it had grown out of a tree, in much of the director's oeuvre. There's a preternatural stillness to his take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the camera and the man behind it apparently aware of something that eluded so many of his peers. And the camera moves with the confidence of a master fencing champion in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There is a studied quality in his work that until Quills had never given way to the excesses of his frenzied subject matter. Despite having traveled from inhibited bedrooms to the very edge of space, he was ever a patient and forgiving spectator, letting us in on the secrets of people we could only dream of becoming, and that most of us were quite content only to fantasize about. With Quills, he took on the characteristics of his subject, he aligned himself stylistically with the man who sits at its core. Having come off his first major assignment that truly watches like one (Rising Sun) he was as aware of the barb of the critic and apparently sought to lash out in full force, giving the despotic artist the most sympathy despite tyrannical moods no less pointlessly vindictive than Napoleon's. Kaufman stomps as angrily as the Marquis, letting a cacophonous Stephen Warbeck score leave us little doubt as to who's suffering we're meant to empathize with. The public may not understand him and he may be a bit of a shit, but he's an artist and Kaufman knows a thing or two about people comparing his work to Pornography (he's seen the business end of an NC-17 rating in his day - Henry & June's reception still stinging as if they were the lashes endured by Kate Winslet's laundry maid). The marquis' tormentor and Priestly minder are over his shoulder forbidding his work from taking shape unencumbered (or at all). They're the producer and the critic, waiting on either side of the finished product with reasons why and why not. There's even a scene dictating the journey from idea to script to screen, with all the hands the words pass through, likening those who purport to understand and help the process to jabbering, inarticulate lunatics. And his final statement: when the words of artists are not allowed to reach the ears of the public, all hell will truly break loose. Kaufman punishes those who believe that his work would do so much harm as to warrant keeping it out of the reach of children - the words of the Marquis whip the maniacs into a murderous frenzy that sets about destroying many lives. He's ready with a response to this, as well, cruel though it may seem when he hear it. The bible is just as fanciful, the same passion and violence and filth broiling beneath the pious surface. No, there is no keeping art from the masses, try as you might, it will out.

Why am I offering a defense of a mostly well regarded movie over ten years old? Well, first of all there's been a lot of attention circling Kaufman lately. Annette Insdorf just wrote a book about him, retrospectives are popping up all over the place and his new movie, Hemingway & Gelhorn, is going to play Cannes out of competition. The reason I find him so fascinating is because despite having one of the most mature and dependable bodies of work of any American filmmaker working today, critics are always guarded in their defense of him. The Right Stuff was the subject of a BFI Modern Classic, but then again so was goddamn Star Wars and The Matrix. I've never once read a defense of his early works, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is often unjustly overlooked in favor of the original, The Criterion edition of Unbearable has gone out of print, I heard none of his titles mentioned in four years of film school, and he hasn't worked in almost ten years. Why the relative silence? Sex. Just as the works regarded as Kubrickian and Hitchcockian are the product of their namesakes' later work, the films most closely associated with Kaufman, what we might call Kaufmanesque, are those films of his that deal with sexuality in the frankest manner imaginable. Which for Americans, is too frank. Henry & June, Unbearable and Quills, too, are all about the many aspects of sexual attraction; glorifying its intricacies and removing the mystery, making sex plain for all to see. America has a hard time with this most European of attitudes. Perhaps why until lately, his latest works were studio commissions; Quills just happened to come form minds a little more creative than those who handed him the script for Twisted. Kaufman was handed Quills no doubt because he had uncovered all the angles of quiet eroticism. He explored sensuality with the careful eye the subject deserves. For the realm of pornography, he directed with the intensity of a man half his age, eager to get his message to the people with the irreverence and ferocity it deserved. And it's not as though the movie is a screed, either. It's riveting, funny, thrilling, incredibly sexy and terrifying in turn and unless you were someone as in tune with the endless push and pull between executives, filmmakers and critics as I like to keep myself, there's a good chance you could watch the film and simply admire the crazed battle of wits between three kinds of lunatic. In the process of crafting this, his most uncharacteristic movie, he also captured some of the best work his actors have ever done. Geoffrey Rush is of course marvelously out of control, using physicality in a way he doesn't always get to; the whole frame is utilized to accommodate his luxurious body language and never once does he seem overwrought. Michael Caine doesn't often play a villain and here he shows what a shame that is. Joaquin Phoenix is no slouch, but his intensity is especially electrifying. In the flurry of reviews that followed the 3D re-release of Titanic, a critic lamented that in his haste to distance himself from the film, Leonardo DiCaprio has since rarely used his gift as an actor to convey happiness. One could argue that Kate Winslet's been a victim of the same choices in the wake of her breakthrough (though I wouldn't argue that in either case their decision to get serious was a misstep); indeed she and DiCaprio seem to be competing for who can choose the most punishing, austere arthouse drama, which coalesced in their both appearing in the needlessly punishing and austere Revolutionary Road. Let me reiterate, I'm glad they've done this. Anyone sorry that we have The Aviator, Mildred Pierce, Inception, Shutter Island, Contagion and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind doesn't have cinema's best interest at heart. But Kaufman does something that I call fucking magic: he elicits the same girlish charm and gorgeous smile from Winslet that anyone will tell you Cameron did in the bigger budgeted movie, although in Quills it feels genuine. And furthermore it's wrapped in passion for two diametrically opposed ends, instead of one cartoonish evil and one cartoonish good; freedom of expression drives her laundry maid, but she cannot have both the words of the Marquis and the love of her priest. It's a tug of war you can see her struggling to grasp the depth of (and how beautiful that she manages to communicate that she is struggling with the implications of this knowledge!) and in the meantime she lets her whims run away with her, throwing herself into the pursuit of pleasure with gusto. It's a splendid performance and to cap it off she's rarely looked more beautiful.

"Yes, yes," I hear you saying "you've stood on your goddamn soapbox for X directed by Y in the past." Yes, I know, quite enough of that. My reasons, finally: I do all this not simply because I adore Quills and its director, but because I do firmly believe that no one can judge the work of a filmmaker until you have seen everything they have ever done. Just as a plant is never simply a seed, evolution, growth, development, all of these are beautiful and necessary steps to witness. And is there anything more exciting than discovering something in progress, a life not yet at its potential, about to reach it? Ti West is currently one of the most incredible talents working today, but I don't think I'd appreciate that quite so much if I didn't join him on the climb up. The Roost had rough edges, but it was more than enough fun for me to look past them. Triggerman could have used a touch more weight, but I was gripped the whole time and thrilled that West had done so much with so little. If we go chronilogically we then see his first studio assignment, Cabin Fever 2, a movie taken from him in post. The Kaufman Kinship begins. It's far from good, but it's also far from the movie West envisioned. Years ago, I fear he would have been written off for a misstep such as this, despite it being out of his control. Fortunately he got to the history books first and released The House of the Devil and there stood an artist in such breathtaking control of his form that nothing can now undo his legacy. A film three times as mangled as Cabin Fever 2 would not unseat him; he's in the filmmaking unconscious. He's an auteur. And then, despite some middling reviews, came The Innkeepers, a film that is at once terrifying and heartbreaking, and once again shows growth, as if he's started climbing again. He's even had time to examine his career by playing himself in Joe Swanberg's fantastic arthouse faux-Roman à clef Silver Bullets. And he does it with humility and a self-deprecating sense of humour. Good god! Just imagine what he'll make once he reaches the next peak! This is my point. The Philip Kaufman who released Invasion of the Body Snatchers was, outwardly, simply a man inordinately (I would say overly if I didn't so enjoy these films) qualified to direct genre films. Two unconventional westerns, two widgety low-budget comedies of form and one of the best sci-fi films of all time. Nothing in that, on paper, said that he'd produce such staggering works as The Right Stuff, Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry & June or Quills. I've seen people written off, I see it everyday in the MUBI daily round-up. A retrospective here or there, an article or dissertation on some filmmaker that was forgotten, unappreciated or hated in their time. It's a goddamned tragedy. Manohla Dargis shouldn't be the only person going to bat for Shirley Clarke, especially because she seems to miss the point of her films. We need to appreciate every corner of our artform - how many millions of dollars would we save every year if we didn't need to restore films long thought lost, or worse, unworthy of keeping. But more to the point, who could have watched the work Luis Buñuel did in Mexico and guessed at the surrealist heights he'd once again reach when he returned to France in the 60s? David Fincher's career could have ended with the botched studio cut of Alien³. We'd be quite a few Best Picture nominees short, wouldn't we? It took this long for Kaufman to be thought of (at least so far as I can see from my admittedly limited vantage point) as an auteur to be considered as thoughtfully as Welles or Fellini, and that's goddamned criminal because I have the full story in my head. I see now that he shines a light on the things we hide in darkness, the parts of ourselves too weird and dirty to show off in polite company; he holds them up to the light for us to reconsider, whether we want to or not. To him our sexual 'depravity' is effervescent and rare and should be revered as much as a passionate kiss or a triumph of justice in the storytelling toolkit. Sex is one thing we don't need society to enjoy, and yet we allow the one to intrude upon and make shameful the other. Kaufman does everything in his power to undo this thinking, to pull our puritanical urges away from us like so many garments until we stand naked and see how splendid we are without them. The human body and the sexual acts his characters engage in is more beautiful than any line of dialogue. And there's a heartbreaking conviction that runs through Quills underlining this point: take away the Marquis' pen and he'll write in blood or wine or shit. He needs to write just as he needs us to feel everything we're capable of. When the Marquis weeps upon hearing that a close friend died a virgin, crying over everything she never got to experience, I was reminded of a story I was recently told that may just have been apocryphal; when missionaries explained to South American Indians about heaven, they wept on the christians behalf. They could get to 'heaven' everyday through hallucinogenic drugs and meditation. How sad that we close ourselves off from it as a society. Kaufman is that proverbial native, his characters attempting to never let the confines of society prevent them from achieving their own heaven even if their place in the 'real' one is taken away. The artist must create and Kaufman's work is a testament to this devotion. Missteps or not, the man has made too many irreplaceable works of art, films that show complete command of the form, films well ahead of their time, to have been left off the cultural radar for as long as he has. It's easier to summarize, to write off, to turn the movie off before it's over and get on with our lives. Nothing makes me sadder than great artists being written off while they still have life in them, still have stories left to tell. If for no other reason than you simply have no authority to judge their work with any maturity or comprehension beyond the standalone artifact without having seen all that surrounds it, without understanding where they've come from, see everything because there's something beautiful in all of them - the journey from the start to the finish.

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