Great Directors

Great DirectorsSynopsis: Ten of the greatest filmmakers in the world passionately discuss their craft in Angela Ismailos’ hugely entertaining documentary Great Directors. Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, Stephen Frears, Agnes Varda, Ken Loach, Liliana Cavani, Todd Haynes, Catherine Breillat, Richard Linklater and John Sayles open up about their extraordinary careers with unexpected candor and humor. Ismailos gets them to talk about their artistic evolution from their debut works to their recent triumphs, as well as the role that politics and history play in their films. David Lynch discusses how Mel Brooks netted him his job on The Elephant Man as well as his travails with the studio on Dune. And they all honor their influences, from Todd Haynes on Fassbinder and Breillat on Ingmar Bergman, to Lynch on Billy Wilder and Hitchcock. Great Directors is an illuminating and surprising crash course on the state of contemporary cinema, and an example for where it might be headed.

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Great Directors 8.0

eyelights: the choice of subjects.
eyesores: the brevity of the interviews.

‘Great Directors’ is a 2009 documentary by Angela Ismailos. It proposes to introduce us to the minds of some of her favourite directors: Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Stephen Frears, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, David Lynch, John Sayles and Agnès Varda.

Narrated and hosted by Ismailos, this movie clip-filled motion picture cuts back and forth between the various participants as they talk about creativity, the impact of their personal lives on their art, their struggles with the changing times and many other subjects – some of which are deeply personal.

Bernardo Bertolucci: Bertolucci talks about meeting Pasolini, and how he found a mentor in him. He also talks about the weight of responsibility of being a film director, saying that when you accept or refuse values or take on a style, there’s a political choice being made. He also discussed deciding that pleasure was a fantastic thing to communicate, after the more political ’60s and the riots in France, …etc.

Catherine Breillat: Breillat tells us that she wanted to be a writer-director at the age of 12; that Bergman is what made her want to become a filmmaker. She felt that if she wrote a book, she would then be asked to make a film of it. So that’s what she did. In an ironic twist, the book was banned, so she was unable to read her own book. However, she was asked to make a film version of it. And that was banned too. She talks about the extreme controversy (there have been riots) around her films and states that when one becomes successful one is afraid of losing that success. She said that reality interests her less than truth (whatever that means), comparing herself to Van Gogh. And, of course, she talked about the power of female sexuality.

Liliana Cavani: The briefest interview of the lost, Cavani explained that, when she saw neo-realistic cinema, she decided to change route and study filmmaking. She made her first documentary about the Third Reich, a subject that influenced much of her work. She says we have never dealt with the psychology of Nazism – that we can all be good or evil depending on what happens to us in life. Anyway, it made me want to watch ‘The Nightporter’ again.

Stephen Frears: He was hired by the BBC to tell stories about the present, not the past, as had been customary on the British broadcaster. They were encouraged to be subversive for a while, but when Thatcher arrived he left. In leaving, he made his success: ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ was a smash. He says that, despite his American success, he couldn’t escape making films about being British. So he returned to Britain to make Brit films again.

Todd Haynes: He talked about the predictions he used to make about queer cinema; he compared it to the homogenized Sidney Poitier films of the ’60s. This notion compelled  him to talk about the issues in his films. He brought up “Chambre 666”, which is often referred to, talking about his admiration for Fassbinder. In reference to his film, ‘I’m Not Here’, he explained that Dylan always changed the moment that he became or felt confined; I suppose he was alluding to his own filmmaking.

Richard Linklater: He talked about being poor, how it taught him that he had to do it all himself, how it limited his sense of entitlement. He said that making films are a way to work things out, that they are part of a dialogue.

Ken Loach: As with Frears, he was hired by the BBC. In his case, he was interested in talking about political issues that were being abandoned by the Labour party when they came to power, to stir public discourse. When Thatcher arrived, he felt the need to leave the BBC and make documentaries to try to change things. Out of six or seven that he made, four were banned.

David Lynch: Lynch is always fascinating. He started off by claiming that ‘Eraserhead’ is his most spiritual film, but no one picked up on that (mental note: watch ‘Eraserhead’ again). He also talked about Mel Brooks producing his second feature, ‘Elephant Man’, being instrumental in getting it made. That seems so out of character, given that Mel Brooks is a comedian, but he apparently loved ‘Eraserhead’. Lynch said that when you’re finished a film, they expect you to talk about it. He says that it’s all there, that the film IS the talking. Talking about ‘Dune’, he said that when you don’t have the final cut, you “die the death” (not sure…). Of course, having experienced it, this set much lower set expectations of him and it was freeing. He also talked about the influence of living in Hollywood on his films. Then he got a bit weird, saying that ideas are like fish; if you bait them, they will swim in. Unlike some, he likes abstraction, likes to get lost in worlds he can’t put into words, can only feel. He said that movies reflect the world.

John Sayles: Interestingly, Sayles makes his films with the money he gains from his screenwriter gigs. What he does is write the scripts for big budget Hollywood stuff for the cash, then goes off and uses that cash to direct the films he’s passionate about. He discussed how Hollywood purposely avoids the issues, saying that leaving something out is a political choice. Thus, all movies are political.

Agnes Varda: She is considered the grandmother of the New Wave, and was the female director for the longest of times (Breillat says that, in France, she’s still the only one). Varda talks about ‘Cleo 5 à 7’ for a little bit. She also claimed that artists worry a lot, about not being good enough, but that confidence always comes back. She also said she is surprised to still have the desire to create at her age.

The documentary is slightly short, leaving some people to criticize it for being vacuous. I disagree with that assessment. Anyway, the DVD features three to four hours’ worth of extra interviews, all categorized by filmmaker, and ranging from just a few minutes to close to an hour (as is the case with Haynes). It’s well worth delving into.

‘Great Directors’ aspires to nothing else but to open up a dialogue with some of the world’s most renowned directors, and does a fine job of it. It’s not a biographical work, it’s not especially thorough, but, combined with the archival footage on hand, it’s an excellent primer for those unfamiliar with Ismailos’s subjects.

And, for fans of these filmmakers and for cinephiles, this is must-see material.

Date of viewing: March 15, 2014

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