Average Person Sits Down with Leading Filmmakers, Asks Banal Questions

06/30/2010 1:00 PM |

Great Directors

Directed by Angela Ismailos

When this critic first heard about Great Directors, a documentary consisting of interviews with nine prominent filmmakers, a sudden fear gripped him. The fear was that despite the potential inherent in interviews with Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Stephen Frears, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, David Lynch, John Sayles and Agnes Varda, the film would be nothing more than a cobbled-together piece of flattery as unconnected and arbitrary as the collection of filmmakers themselves. Upon viewing the film, this critic learned that he was unfortunately correct. Rather than delving deep into the minds and creative processes of these (markedly different) filmmakers, we merely watch them skimming the surfaces of their creative histories for 90 minutes.

One wonders if the pre-production process for Great Directors was as simple as this: contact as many notable living filmmakers as possible. Ask them if they will be subjects in a documentary. Interview whoever says yes. One hopes this project was not merely an excuse for helmer Angela Ismailos to mingle with (and perhaps, to some minor degree, assert herself as in the same intellectual league as?) her industry betters, but judging by the completely unnecessary reaction shots of Ismailos during the interviews (very 20/20) and just plain baffling 16mm silent footage of Ismailos wandering aimlessly and ominously around various European cities, one has to wonder.

What emerges from Ismailos’ experiment is something of a reflection of the viewer’s cinematic tastes; if there’s filmmakers listed above whose work you enjoy, you may enjoy watching them talk about their work here for a bit. Some give away more than others. David Lynch talks about the career maneuvering that got him his Elephant Man directing gig, and the importance of final cut. John Sayles gives insight, some of it quite amusing, into the world of script doctoring (“I can guarantee you, the first draft of The Patriot, Mel Gibson’s character had slaves. By the time the movie comes out, you’ve got these kind of random black people who are#&8212;what? Working on his property as some kind of happy volunteers, right?”) Some offer rather enigmatic aphorisms combined with superficial career reflections (Breillat for both; Frears for just the latter). Ken Loach seems awfully polite, and informs us both that he owns a bus pass and that the ornate garden setting for his interview is not his home, but a film set (he doesn’t say anything too interesting about his filmmaking process). Agnes Varda talks a bit about her kids, and how she’s happy to still be working. It’s a bit like trying to start conversations with strangers in a coffee shop#&8212;hit or miss.

Of course, it didn’t have to be. Any cinephile will feel a pang of jealousy at the access Ismailos gained, as well as a sense of missed opportunity at the dullness of her questions (how did your career get started, do you worry about failure, etc.). According to the film’s press notes, Ismailos is “a lifelong cinephile,” albeit one who “studied law and earner her master’s degree in political science.” She also studied film at NYU and the New York Film Academy. It was upon reading this that Great Directors began to reek of being an independently wealthy film buff’s vanity project; upon reading that Ismailos “resides in both New York and Paris,” said reek became a full-blown stench. So it comes as no surprise that the questions aren’t particularly penetrating, that the conversations feel terribly informal and trivial. Bertolucci talks about having large Sunday lunches with his extended family growing up, and his father introducing him to Pasolini. This is Filmmaker Interviews Lite. Ismailos says in the press notes that “I sat up reading Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto” in preparation for her interview with Bertolucci; whether the joke here is on Bernardo or Karl is unknown.

The one real gem here is Todd Haynes. Haynes, who majored in Semiotics at Brown, is one of the most powerfully intellectual filmmakers working today. At his best, his critical-theory background has provided him with a template for critiquing the most ubiquitous elements of our lives, the ones so omnipresent we are often unaware of them#&8212;as in Safe. In that film, Haynes’ intellectual read of an American upper class that is being suffocated by its own shallowness and lack of meaning was turned into a bizarre, formalist horror film where the eerie control of his mise en scene and photography perfectly dramatized such a shallowness. At other times#&8212;as in I’m Not There#&8212;his intellectual game-playing has been so wound up (in that film, due to having six different actors playing six radically different, thinly veiled versions of Bob Dylan) that it has been difficult to find genuine emotion and character underneath the intellectual showmanship (which, admittedly, was perhaps the point of I’m Not There). Regardless, there’s no doubting that he’d be awfully fun to have a conversation with, as evidenced by how he steals the show here. He speaks early on about his circa-1990 premonitions of how New Queer Cinema would become adopted into the symbolic order: “I had a feeling that we were going to create some kind of an idea of queerness, and that would solidify and be viewed back on, later on, as some kind of encapsulating idea of what queerness is.” He later unpacks Fassbinder so deftly that his take probably deserves an essay all its own, touching upon how Fassbinder seemed to eschew much of the exciting things going on at the time in contemporary European cinema, and arguing that Fassbinder was more influenced by Douglas Sirk than anyone else (Haynes himself did his own Sirk riff, Far From Heaven). His interview confirmed this critic’s suspicions#&8212;that his intellect is both his greatest asset and, at times, greatest hindrance as a filmmaker.

Opens July 2