New Look at Directors Going Against the Tide

Berlin filmfest gives cinema buffs fine documentary. FILM

FICTIONS and fantasies usually attract most of the attention at filmfests, as they do in neighborhood theaters. Yet a major treat at last month's Berlin Film Festival was the presence of several nonfiction movies that proved as engrossing as they were informative. They ranged from Frederick Wiseman's well-received ``Near Death,'' a hospital study that turns somber human experience into expressive verbal and visual language, to Anne Belle's lively ``Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas,'' a colorful visit with dancers whose lives intertwined with that of master choreographer George Balanchine. As it happened, more than one documentary dealt with cinema itself, and I don't think this is mere coincidence. Filmmakers often have a special interest in the nature and history of their own medium. Moreover, cinema is approaching its 100th anniversary, if one dates it from the Lumi`ere brothers' historic screenings in 1895. As this centennial approaches, filmmakers are showing signs of becoming more concerned with film history and their own places in it.

The documentary that seems most likely to show up on American theater screens - and certainly on American television - is ``Hollywood Mavericks,'' made by Florence Dauman and Dale Ann Stieber under American Film Institute (AFI) auspices.

The movie focuses on the careers and contributions of ``mavericks'' who, despite their nonconformist qualities, have found a place in (or near) the Hollywood system.

It starts on an amusing and sardonic note by defining a ``maverick'' not only in its colloquial sense of a rebel or an independent spirit, but also in its primary sense as, literally, a straying calf. This lends an amusing undercurrent to the documentary, when it treats filmmakers who aren't usually thought of as ``calves'' - people such as the late Sam Peckinpah, who was known for his interest in on-screen violence. (Then again, many observers would say Peckinpah did a fair share of ``straying'' from moviemaking norms.) It also gives a touch of poignancy to segments on directors with more vulnerable images, such as Alan Rudolph.

But the most interesting (and risky) aspect of ``Hollywood Mavericks'' is its inclusion of people who challenged Hollywood not only by innovating stylistically but by bucking the system of movie financing (here Orson Welles is the classic example) or (like David Lynch) by assaulting their audiences with outrageous material.

The documentary also sees full-fledged maverick qualities in some of cinema's most revered figures: D.W. Griffith was a maverick in his time, for example, and is treated accordingly. Ditto for Erich von Stroheim and John Ford. And ``Hollywood Mavericks'' treats not only the mavericks themselves, but the changing definitions of what makes a maverick.

The makers of ``Hollywood Mavericks'' also take interesting risks in terms of structure. Their film is basically an alternation of talking-head interviews and movie excerpts. But these are not tied together in a strictly one-to-one relationship. Instead, a film clip might relate to what an interview subject just said, instead of providing a sample of the speaker's work.

Unfortunately, the print shown in Berlin not only had incomplete German subtitles, but was also missing various English-language titles identifying speakers and film clips.

For all its virtues, however, ``Hollywood Mavericks'' also has a couple of other problems. For one, its selection of filmmakers seems arbitrary at times. In a discussion after the screening, a couple of the documentary's makers revealed their policy of omitting any directors who have made only two or three films, since it's ``too early to tell'' if they'll keep on being mavericks in future years.

The trouble is: ``Hollywood Mavericks'' doesn't observe its own policy in a consistent way. We see only a tiny moment from ``Do the Right Thing'' because Spike Lee is ``too new,'' with only three features under his belt. Yet plenty of attention is given to David Lynch, who has only four features to his credit, one of which (``Dune'') was a would-be commercial blockbuster.

There's also a built-in limitation to the movie's premise, since its emphasis falls inevitably on white males. The filmmakers say they would have included Ida Lupino, only her health didn't allow her to be interviewed, and that no other female or minority-member filmmakers were fully qualified. But what about the non-Hollywood mavericks who have made contact with the American film scene: Belgian director Chantal Akerman, for example, or American experimentalists such as Maya Deren, Anita Thatcher, Abigail Child, and plenty of others.

One final quibble: ``Hollywood Mavericks'' is an AFI production, so why doesn't it explore the checkered history of the AFI as a discoverer and supporter of maverick talent, including Mr. Lynch? This is a perky and valuable film, but it could have been even more so.

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