Documentary Delivers Love Letter to Film Geeks

Photo: There's a fish in the percolator. 'Great Directors' offers plenty for film buffs, yet the titular directors entirely surpass Angela Ismailos.
Paladin Films/Courtesy
There's a fish in the percolator. 'Great Directors' offers plenty for film buffs, yet the titular directors entirely surpass Angela Ismailos.

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What makes a director great? This is the question that most viewers would ask upon seeing the title of Angela Ismailos' documentary "Great Directors." That title, for better or for worse, is an apt description of the film's less-than-audacious approach. There is no mention of auteur theory, nor is there any discussion about why a director, above all other personnel involved in the filmmaking process, holds such esteem in the eyes of critics and moviegoers. Instead, Ismailos, who is a first-time filmmaker, simply interviews 10 respected directors and asks them to talk about their films.

This approach breaches potentially dangerous territory. The best artists work by instinct, using their gut to guide them. As soon as great filmmakers are put in the position of trying to put into words what makes their art so profound, some of that intangible filmmaking magic is lost.

Still, it's entertaining to hear David Lynch recall an encounter with Mel Brooks, who told him early in his career: "You're a madman. I love you. You're in." A number of the "great" directors launched their careers with the help of older filmmakers. Lynch had Mel Brooks; Bernardo Bertolucci turned to the provocative Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini for guidance.

By far the most fascinating part of "Great Directors" is its exploration of the way social challenges spark the creative process. Todd Haynes, in an enlightening interview, describes how his 1991 film "Poison" was a response to the fear and guilt the gay community experienced during the AIDS epidemic.

French director Catherine Breillat, of "Fat Girl" (2001) fame, experienced censorship and boycotts in her home country. The British press, on the other hand, deemed her, in the most complimentary of ways, "the bad girl of France." On the other side of the English Channel, British directors Stephen Frears, who made "The Queen" (2006), and Ken Loach created a series of provocative films that harshly criticized Margaret Thatcher's administration.

These are neat anecdotes, but "Great Directors" fails as a consistently compelling documentary. There's a throw-anything-against-the-wall-that-sticks philosophy that reeks of a filmmaker who lacks a clear vision. Strangely, Ismailos states as much at the film's start. "I wasn't sure what I was hoping to discover," she admits, which prompts more questions than answers.

For instance: Why focus on these directors in particular? They may have been of personal significance to Ismailos, but as far as viewers know, she could have just seen one of their films flash by during a late-night TV-watching binge, stood up in her armchair and shouted, A-ha! A great director!

One more question: Why are there arbitrary black-and-white shots of Ismailos wandering the streets, as if she's waltzing through a scene from Godard's "Breathless"? Perhaps she considers herself an auteur, now that she's made a film of her own. She has a long way to go before making her own "Breathless." Ismailos could start by hiring a new cinematographer. John Pirozzi's fitful camerawork he tends to zoom in and out of his subjects at the most inopportune moments gives "Great Directors" an air of unprofessionalism.

The film would have felt more professional if it didn't come across as a series of insider stories. As David Lynch says, "The film does the talking. It's the thing." But what if the film-thing itself doesn't have all that much to talk about? Viewers would be better off watching the excellent films that get mentioned throughout the movie.

Wander black-and-white streets with Max at [email protected]

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