Lots of access, but little vision
Rarely have clips from so many good and great movies been put to such dull use. But “Great Directors’’ has no idea what to do with those images or the filmmakers who created them. In ponderous slow motion, sometimes in pretentious black-and-white, first-time writer-director Angela Ismailos makes her way around the world. Her goal is to interview her favorite directors, 10 men and women whose movies have inspired her and filled her soul. Her connections are impressive, her movie a mess.
Ismailos spends quality time with Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, David Lynch, Agnès Varda, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Todd Haynes, John Sayles, Liliana Cavani, and Richard Linklater. But the movie is not even an hour and a half, and the minutes not evenly distributed. “I gave myself time to digest our conversations,’’ Ismailos says in Greek-accented English. Did her afternoons with Sayles and Cavani upset her stomach? They’re barely here.
Several filmmakers provide minor insights. Lynch, for instance, reveals that he finds “Eraserhead’’ to be his most spiritual film. Frears says he believes all his American movies (“Dangerous Liaisons,’’ “The Grifters,’’ “Hero,’’ for starters) are about being British. And Breillat, the French provocateuse, proves as humorless and forbidding as her work.
Ismailos appears to have engaged these people. They seem happy to talk to her. But she has no central idea and can’t unify what she has into a cohesive statement about a medium she claims to love. As a title, “Great Directors’’ is merely a catchall. About that: Not all of these directors are inarguably great. The most potentially interesting aspect of her film is the allowance for idiosyncrasy. Linklater is a genius; here’s why. Cavani is not a one-sensation wonder. But “great’’ is used axiomatically. Of course, Frears is a master. Ismailos never makes the personal case she needs to or should. So you’re free to think terrible thoughts: Is this just who said “yes’’?
Occasionally, the movie threatens to find a topical rhythm — on failure, success, insecurity, America. But as neither great moviemaker nor great interviewer, Ismailos misses her own point. One hates to say it, but it’s possible she was meant to be on the other side of the camera. She manages to appear in the frame of many shots. There she is walking with Loach in a vast garden, like Barbara Walters with certain stars for her Oscar-night special.
Actually, there is something striking about Ismailos. In the company of many of these filmmakers — Lynch and Bertolucci, especially — she looks like she might have walked off their set. She has luxurious blond hair, a lacquered, chiseled beauty, and great clothes, and she appears to know it, judging by the number of times we see her striking Bergmanesque poses for no reason at all. The movie has the rambling, privileged quality of bad graduate work. But the only PhD Ismailos would get is for access.