'Great Directors': Listening Closely, But Missing Cues

Bernardo Bertolucci

hide captionInartfully Framed: Filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, the auteur behind films including Last Tango in Paris and The Sheltering Sky, sits for an interview with Angela Ismailos — whose disorganized documentary doesn't make much of such opportunities.

Anisma Films & Paladin

Great Directors

  • Director: Angela Ismailos
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 86 minutes
Not Rated.

With: Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, Stephen Frears, Agnes Varda

In the introduction to her debut documentary, Great Directors, Angela Ismailos confesses that she isn't sure what she hopes to discover in the course of making the film. That's a startling admission for a project of this scope — a meditation on the creative process, encompassing hours of interviews with a diverse and prestigious cross-section of 10 prominent filmmakers from the past half-century.

Without any goal to guide her, Ismailos ends up talking to each of them on a range of subjects broad enough to support a feature-length profile on any one of them. But faced with a sea of footage that doesn't concentrate on any particular aspect of the craft, she's essentially left trying to stuff 10 tenuously related biographies into one 90-minute documentary.

Ismailos further complicates her task through an inability to determine what role she wants to play in her own film. Her introductory statement suggests that this is a journey that we're going to take with her, an attempt to find a path through the material together. Yet after the confessional tone of that opening narration, her voice-overs mainly serve to provide simple factual background information, whether it's a quick primer on the role of the BBC and the election of Margaret Thatcher in the careers of Ken Loach and Stephen Frears, or a note about how John Sayles uses income from penning populist entertainments like Piranha to fund his own personal and political projects.

That retreat suggests that she's pulling back to a more journalistic distance, and indeed the interviews themselves are generally edited newsmagazine-style, sometimes presented as face-to-face chats with intercut shots of Ismailos nodding at the points her subjects make, other times framed as walk-and-talks, with her strolling alongside them down a city street or in a lush garden.

But now and again she inserts footage of herself — often black and white, sometimes in slow motion — walking alone and looking thoughtful against a picturesque backdrop. Is she pondering the significance of a recently completed interview? Meditating on just what it is that makes these directors "great"? Wondering just how she's going to edit this mess of talking heads into a coherent film?

Todd Haynes i i

hide captionWalk And Talk: Director Todd Haynes (left) is another filmmaker featured in Ismailos' debut documentary.

Anisma Films & Paladin
Todd Haynes

Walk And Talk: Director Todd Haynes (left) is another filmmaker featured in Ismailos' debut documentary.

Anisma Films & Paladin

Despite the general lack of a focus, a point or reason for the movie to exist, the interviewees' individual personalities (and the avalanche of classic clips) can make for small pockets of compelling viewing. David Lynch brings his trademark Midwestern gee-whiz charm; and Catherine Breillat displays the compelling defiance that's typical of her films.

But because Ismailos concentrates so much time on certain filmmakers — those two, along with Bernardo Bertolucci and Todd Haynes — some others, like Sayles or Liliana Cavani, get such a small amount of screen time that one wonders why she even included them.

Occasionally, the filmmaker hits on a clever segue to link the material — when Frears speaks to the escapist aspect of Hollywood entertainment, she blends his observations into a scene from Mulholland Drive in which David Lynch illustrates the same concept.

But more often, the film jumps around in dizzying disorganization, illustrating the fact that part of what a director provides to a film is not just vision and leadership, but also, as the word suggests, a narrative direction. Ismailos admits from the very start that she has no such direction for the project; in the end, she's no closer to an answer.

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