REVIEW: David Lynch, Todd Haynes Tops Among Great Directors
I don't know if Angela Ismailos's Great Directors is a great documentary, but for the most part it's a treat to watch. On second thought, I do know: This not a great or even a particularly good documentary. It lacks structure, posits fandom as perspective and persists in drifting into unforgivable non sequitur shots of Ismailos looking moody and glamorous. And yet it's packed with raw material that even lesser directors than Ismailos couldn't ruin: She gained access to 10 of the world's more interesting directors and recorded their conversations at length. Though the movie is largely vanilla in its pleasures, film lovers will eat it up.
Discursive and loose in tone and flow, the interviews are assembled into a kind of ADD symposium on the creative process, the artistic career track and the importance of influence in this rarefied art form. The directors -- David Lynch, Agnès Varda, Ken Loach, Catherine Breillat, Stephen Frears, John Sayles, Bernardo Bertolucci, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater and Liliana Cavani -- make up a band of outsiders, artists Ismailos cites as her favorites.
Some of the anecdotes have a high dish-quotient: Bertolucci reminisces about apprenticing under Pier Paolo Pasolini; David Lynch recalls screening Eraserhead for Mel Brooks, who was not sold on him as the choice to direct The Elephant Man. After the credits rolled Brooks ran straight for Lynch in the lobby and beamed: "You're a madman! I love you! You're in!"
What's striking about these great directors is that they don't behave like Great Directors. They don't behave, in other words, anything like the wicked impression Todd Haynes does of Steven Spielberg's appearance in Wim Wenders's vaguely similar 1982 documentary, Room 666. The directors are modest and reflective about their roots and their careers; there's a sense of wonderment and gratitude, for example, behind Bertolucci's thoughts on the performance Marlon Brando gave him in Last Tango in Paris (a film he suggests was a response to the previous decade's perversion of pleasure into decadence). So many of the opportunities are chalked up to luck and a kind of cosmic convergence.
Only the formidable Breillat embodies a more traditional combination of swagger and commanding intellect. While the others -- particularly Haynes and Linklater -- speak eloquently and evocatively about the development of their aesthetics as a highly responsive, organic process, Breillat makes grandiose statements about her work with perfect composure. To paraphrase: "My films are addressed to the audience, not their wallets"; "I am Bergman's granddaughter"; "I make films like Van Gogh made paintings"; "I did what I wanted, good or bad: It was me." It's a traditionally male form of self-mythologizing, and I have to say I couldn't get enough of it.
Although Lynch initially insists that his films offer the answer to any possible question you could have about them, he winds up giving some of the most pleasurably weird and insightful answers to generally uninspired questions. Often the answer is transmitted at least partially by his fingertips, which undulate like tentacles when he hypothesizes about a foreign version of himself, one who he believes would have inevitably developed his same fascination with America.
By virtue of their participation in Ismailos's random but earnest project, these directors suggest a desire for a voice outside of their work; the space for that voice has been pared down in the cultural and intellectual discourse over the last decade as that discourse itself went on a reality-show diet. The film is a welcome reminder, in a summer of rehashes and sequels, of the singular passion and perspective it takes to embrace what Lynch describes as a filmmaker's highest calling: "Reflect the world, reflect the world, reflect the world."