If I were to ask you to compile a list of "great directors" I imagine your choices would differ greatly from mine. Sure, there may be the random crossover, yet the odds of the list matching exactly - or even close - are probably pretty high. I may hold someone like Michael Haneke in high regard (and I do) while you might consider him a tiresome dullard (really, how could you?).
But that's the beauty of the subjectiveness of art and cinema, in that it graciously allows for opinion and preference to become our own personal realities. For her 2009 documentary entitled Great Directors writer/actor/filmmaker Angela Ismailos set out to have conversations with her own list of greats, and her impressive list included the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci, Agnes Varda, David Lynch, John Sayles, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Ken Loach and Stephen Frears.
What? No Michael Haneke? Oh well...
That is indeed quite the lineup (even minus Haneke) and whether you agree or disagree with her choices is not really the issue here. She made the doc, she picked the filmmakers for reasons of her own and all we are required to do is sit back, revel in the personal stories of how/why they do what they do and learn what it means to them. The reasons are diverse and yet similar at the same time, as common linking threads are elements such as creative stands against the establishment, the government, sexual mores, personal freedoms, or in some instances the ability to exhibit pure artistic expression. Ismailos globe hops across the U.S., England, France and Italy to assemble this heady representation of filmmakers, and she allows them the forum to explain their passion amidst talking head interviews and the occasional film clip. It's a simple format, yet extremely fascinating.
The doc itself is structured weirdly at times, and for the first 40 minutes or so the presence of Ismailos is rather unobtrusive, and she's only represented from behind by an over-the-shoulder two shot during an interview or during some of the stylized transitional bits with her strolling along dramatically or letting her long blonde hair blow while driving a convertible. After the 40 minute mark it was almost as if she suddenly realized she was not appearing in her own doc quite enough, and the visual flow shifts to a distracting number of the cliched interviewer-nodding-knowingly cutaways, as well as Ismailos offering the next deep thought/question on camera. Perhaps just a nitpick on my part, but I found it somewhat distracting.
Even with that minor quibble I must say that for a fan of cinema this is indeed a treasure trove of knowledge, and if you (like me) were not familiar with someone like Agnes Varda before this doc you will walk away wanting to know and see more. There is an artistic commonality amongst these filmmakers that is both exciting and inspiring, because it is the notion that they have persevered and have been able to apply their own very unique visions to film for us to enjoy, discuss, argue and hopefully marvel at.
Catherine Breillat seemed to speak for the whole bunch when she so eloquently said "I did what I wanted to do. Good or bad...it was me." Right on, Catherine.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks quite good during the interview segments, as well as during some of the transitional elements with Ismailos; this is the majority of the doc so all is well and good most of the time. Colors are bright, fleshtones are warm and the level of image detail is pretty solid. The only beef would be the quality of the film clips used by Ismailos, some of which are a bit unpolished, and in this era of restoration it almost seems a sacrilege to laud these filmmakers and then use scenes from their work that are less than perfect. Or maybe I'm just nitpicking again. Sorry, Angela.
The 2.0 surround is exceedingly barebones, and isn't required to do any sort of aural heavy lifting as it delivers clear voice quality for the interview segments and the occasional film clip without any trouble. There were no issues with hiss or crackle, distortion or any other measurable detritus. Simple. Clean.
Wow, there's a lot of extra material here, and it's all good. This two-disc set features the main film on the first platter, along with some additional interview footage with Agnes Varda (27m:52s), Bernardo Bertolucci (47m:29s) and Catherine Breillat (15m:33S). Disc two houses even more interview segments, featuring David Lynch (29m:44s), John Sayles (41m:17s), Ken Loach (20m:31s), Liliana Cavani (05m:39s), Richard Linklater (28m:57s), Stephen Frears (04m:17s) and Todd Haynes (50m:52s).
If you're looking for a movie geek wet dream, well then this doc is it, my friend. It's chock full of intelligent, insightful comments and observations from some of the most revered, influential and daring independent international directors of the last half-century (or at least those deemed great by filmmaker Angela Ismailos) including Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, Stephen Frears and Catherine Breillat.