Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Angela Ismailos' GREAT DIRECTORS proves good, chatty fun for film buffs

The first thing to get out of the way regarding GREAT DIRECTORS, the new documentary from first-time film-
maker Angela Ismailos, is: Why these guys and gals? Out of all the film-
makers living and working today, these are the "greats"? The answer is (mine, anyway): Why not? The ten filmmakers Ms Ismailos (shown below) tracks down around the world and interviews  -- chattily but never cattily -- have all made, if not "great" movies according to everyone's standards, at least very, very good films now and again.

If I had to append the word great to any of the ten personages that Ismailos has corralled, it would hang only on David Lynch (below) and Agnès Varda (two photos below) -- with Bernardo Betolucci and maybe Catherine Breillat occupying the "very nearly" category.  And yet every other filmmaker among the remaining six has done some fine work in his or her career, and so I am pleased to be able to learn more about them -- as I have done by watching Ismalos' movie.

Probably the single biggest surprise among these ten is the inclusion of John Sayles (pictured at the bottom of this post).  But, again, why not?  Mr. Sayles has done some fine work over the decades since his Return of the Secaucus Seven burst upon the scene, making him maybe the grand-daddy of the American independent-film movement.  I've never missed a Sayles movie, and I hope (unless I predecease him) that I never do.  So good on you, Ms Ismailos, for including him.  (Plus, what Sayles has to say about class in America, and how he separates the "money" work from the "love" work is worth hearing.)

Back to Mr. Lynch: His words about the making of Eraserhead, how midnight movies played into its success, and the advent of Mel Brooks -- yes! -- in his career is as surprising as it is fascinating.  And it should make all of us grateful anew, in an entirely different way, for Mr. Brooks.

Bertolucci (shown above), on the other hand, talks (among other things) about his debt to Pasolini and the first meeting he had with that late, great Italian director.

Want some British politics with your art?  The documentarian invites us to get to know Stephen Frears (above) and Ken Loach (below).

And though "great" and "Frears" have never left my lips in the same sentence, I've admired much of this filmmaker's work, too (especially, of late, his rather dumped-upon Chéri). And now I know something more about the why and how his films have appeared.

As for the sweet and charming Mr. Loach, he fills us in on a few things, including his banned-by-Britain documentaries. Though I have not appreciated his last couple of films to land on our shores, I would very much like to see those documentaries. And because of their being mentioned in Ms Ismailos' movie, maybe we shall.

Catherine Breillat (above) talks about her history a bit, and of the influence that Ingmar Bergman's work (who knew?!) had on her at quite a young age.

Todd Haynes (shown at right), for whom -- and this should come as no surprise -- Fassbinder was an influence, talks about getting around the current homogenized version of "gayness," while Richard Linklater (below, and another surprise on the "great" list) speaks interestingly of his "white privilege," even though his family has no money.  And finally, it's bracing to encounter a director, Liliana Cavani (shown in the penultimate photo below) who has remained somewhat out of the critical loop over the past couple of decades, now back again and speaking up and out.  I'd like to have heard even more from her, actually.

One of the strengths of Ismailos' movie is its very informality.  She was able to put these filmmakers enough at ease to get them to chat easily.  If no bombshells are dropped in the course of the film, we at least have a chance to see and hear some of our "heroes" and "heroines" as they looked and sounded at a particular time in their lives.

So.  Is Great Directors anything close to definitive? Not at all. But I would hope that Ms Ismailos does not expect it to be.  I'm awfully happy to have seen it, and in fact, would welcome another and even another round of interviews with a package (or two) of ten more filmmakers -- until this woman feel that she's come close to exhausting the well of all the many good and important directors working today.

Great Directors, (via film distributor Paladin, the letterhead of which features neither a phone number nor a web address!), opens Friday, July 2, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and on July 9th in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater.  Further dates and cities may be on the calendar soon,  followed by, one hopes, a DVD release.

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