Movie actors are notoriously inarticulate about their craft, but what about movie directors? If the documentary "Great Directors" is any indication, the returns are a bit more promising.
Director Angela Ismailos set out to do more than simply interview 10 acclaimed international directors. She sought to celebrate them. Her lineup of filmmakers is eclectic but, at least in Ismailos's view, they share a cutting-edge psychosocial sensibility. Her honor roll: Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, Stephen Frears, Agnès Varda, Ken Loach, Liliana Cavani, Todd Haynes, Catherine Breillat, Richard Linklater, and John Sayles.
A number of these directors are, for me, either minor, such as Cavani (whose Nazi fantasia "The Night Porter," with Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, is an inadvertent camp classic) or, like Breillat, somewhat unfamiliar. Loach, the British social realist, has never been a big favorite of mine. The strong-arm politicking in his movies often subverts their humanity.
There's a revealing moment in "Great Directors" when Ismailos, strolling with Loach through what looks like an ornate garden estate, is reminded by him that this is a movie location and not his own grounds. Just in case we in the audience thought he was profiting from his films.
Her interview with Sayles, who in some respects is an American Loach, is much more open-ended, perhaps because, on occasion, he has also been an actor. (He's also been a novelist and short-story writer, something that Ismailos doesn't bring up, though she does get into his sideline career as a Hollywood screenwriter/script doctor for hire on everything from "Piranha" to "Jurassic Park.") Speaking of his coal miner film "Matewan," Sayles notes that: "In America, there is a class system and we don't want to talk about it."
Frears is an interesting case, and a good talker. He scored his first big hit with "My Beautiful Laundrette," which he framed as an attack on the Thatcher administration. The irony, he says, is that the film made him financially successful. He became "a small-business man, which is exactly what she wanted." Frears's best movies, he says, have always been about "what it was like to live in Britain now," which gives short shrift to a number of his first-rate Hollywood excursions such as "The Grifters."
Varda is voluble, as always, but her interviews seem redundant since her own documentaries, especially "The Gleaners and I" and "The Beaches of Agnès," are essentially autobiographical self-interviews. Haynes, whose movies, including "Far From Heaven" and "Safe" I have never warmed to, rhapsodizes about the films of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder in such a way that you want to see them again – even though their 10-ton masochism always does me in.
Ismailos doesn't get much from Linklater, and, surprisingly, she barely references his "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," which would seem to fit right in with her attachment to the French New Wave. But Lynch and Bertolucci are fascinating subjects.
Lynch talks about his love for directors like Billy Wilder, Hitchcock, Fellini, and Kubrick. "They created a world that didn't exist and now it exists," he says. He also turns the interview back on Ismailos. "People always want me to talk about my films. The film is the talking. It's the whole thing."
Bertolucci talks about how his memory of directing his first feature was like a trance. He talks admiringly about how Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris" "gave up part of himself." And we see a clip of Brando from that film demonstrating just that.
"Great Directors" is not a great film, but in moments like these we feel as though we're eavesdropping on genius. Grade: B (Unrated.)