So many films overstay their welcome, it's rare to come across a movie that should, legitimately, be about twice as long as it is. Such is the case with Great Directors, but that's not entirely a compliment; director Angela Ismailos profiles ten of our greatest living directors in about 89 minutes, so you do the math. With those kind of time restraints, some folks are bound to get short shrift--Richard Linklater is barely glimpsed until well past the halfway mark; John Sayles disappears so early that by the time he was included in a film-ending montage, I'd forgotten he was even one of the subjects. Add in Ismailos, a filmmaker who clearly enjoys being on-screen herself, and you begin to get a pretty clear summary of the picture's problems.
This is not to say that Great Directors isn't worth seeing--each of the profiled directors (Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Stephen Frears, Todd Haynes, Linklater, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Sayles, and Agnés Varda) shares fascinating anecdotes, and the assemblage of clips is well-chosen and fast-paced. Ismailos and editor Christina Burchard work with a non-chronological, non-linear organizational style that somehow works; they follow thematic leaps of faith rather than encapsulating one filmmaker at a time. They work through some of the subjects' humble beginnings: Bertolucci remembers meeting Passolini as a movie-crazed teen, and going to work as his assistant director. Lynch recalls how he was hired by Mel Brooks for his first Hollywood movie, The Elephant Man. Loach and Frears remember learning the ropes at the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s.
They walk through their breakthroughs, their successes, and their failures (Lynch says that Dune was "to be fair... only about 75% nightmare"). They discuss periods of self-doubt and self-imposed exile; Varda speaks most eloquently, stating that, for her, "an apple tree is supposed to make apples, and you're supposed to create something." And Lynch explains his frequent refusal to "explain" his films on commentaries and in interviews thus: "The film is the thing. It's the whole thing. It's there, and that's it."
Of course, the filmmakers discuss their influences--Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, Hitchcock. And we occasionally marvel at the connections: Sirk inspired Fassbinder, who inspired Haynes, who subsequently went back to Sirk when he made Far From Heaven. There's not much here in the way of pointed commentary--save for Sayles, who provides tales from the front lines (he famously funds the independent films he writes and directs by working as a Hollywood script doctor) that are sharp and biting.
But then he's gone from the movie. The primary flaw of Great Directors is that it's uneven--we feel as though some of the filmmakers (Bertolucci, Lynch, Haynes) have been thoroughly covered, and others (Sayles, Cavani, Linklater) barely skimmed. There are also immediate questions about exactly how much a first-person movie this should be; not only does Ismailos insert herself into the interviews whenever possible, but in selecting B-roll for her voice-overs, she eschews sensible choices like clips and photos, instead giving us artsy shots of her walking and driving around--presumably thinking about these great directors? Whatever the case, it smacks of self-indulgence.
There's much to learn from Great Directors, and great value in the voice it gives to the artists within. It's a solid, thoughtful, film, suffused with the love of cinema, even if it is, in many ways, somewhat incomplete.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.