Film review by: Witney Seibold
It think I can safely declare that It’s indisputable that Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, and Agnes Varda are indeed great directors. It may be more debatable that Richard Linklater, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Todd Haynes, and John Sayles are also “great,” but I could, and would, easily defend any one of them.
The greatest director in Angela Ismailos‘ “Great Director” seems to be Ismailos herself, first-time documentarian, who, with the repeated reaction shots, and needlessly arty black-and-white poetic pillow footage, is clearly putting herself and the center of her own film. Yes, I admire that she managed to get some of the best working directors all in one film to talk about their craft, and I loved hearing some of these men and women I admire revealing their influences and theories, but why did I get the sense that Ismailos was trying to equate herself with these hardworking artists?
Indeed, Ismailos’ habit of putting herself so centrally in her film seems to be the only central narrative she has to work with. Sure I loved seeing Haynes rolling his eyes in delight as he described his early viewings of Fassbinder. I loved seeing David Lynch sputter in his own idiosyncratic fashion. I loved seeing Loach’s resigned modesty and frank politics. I loved seeing Breillat’s shadowy sexual angst, and her almost orgasmic praise of Bergman’s “The Naked Night.” I loved hearing about Bertolucci’s early career with Pasolini. I even loved the crazy-aunt ravings of Varda.
Those are the specters looming over this film: Fassbinder, Pasolini, Bergman. If you don’t know their films, you’ll only be doing yourself a favor to learn. Start with “Ali: Fears Eats the Soul,” “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” and “Persona.”
Ismailos seemed to be trying to get her subjects to reveal that they hate commercial filmmaking, and are all about making personal, important films. Each of these filmmakers are artists with integrity, but each of them is, I think, too smart and too experienced to really preach like an upstarting art student; they are much more content to talk about film in general than whine about the system. Indeed, when Ismailos learns that John Sayles makes a decent living re-writing Hollywood blockbusters, and that Stephen Frears has made more American mainstream hits that little indies, she seems to let them drift away, like she’s ashamed to reveal that information.
And with the anti-blockbuster thrust abandoned, we’re only left with an aspiring film student trying desperately to compare herself to her idols.
“Great Directors” is certainly intriguing, and young film buffs may use it as a dandy primer to learn about some of the more talented filmmakers working today. As a lover of film, and someone who is – if I may say – at least somewhat well-versed in some of these filmmakers’ careers, I have to say that much more insight can be found elsewhere.
Know, then, that I am not dismissing the film’s subjects. Just its style and approach.