Sunday, April 03, 2011

great directors and their great films

What makes a director, a great director? Box office, awards, charisma, endurance, diversity, establishment, anti-establishment, independence... There can be as many variables as there are movies and directors themselves and many of them we repeatedly hear, do in fact, refer to formative meanings, rather than to describe the "greatness" of the subject. After all, "great" is a difficult to term to begin with. For Angela Ismailos it is a group of filmmakers, whose films she says she has been deeply inspired by (it is more likely that it is a group of directors to whom she had easy access to). She has interviewed them and made a documentary titled Great Directors. It is her very personal "journey" with a narrative that does not always connect very easily. In fact, the reviews of the film are usually anything but good, criticising the lack of coherence through the feature as well as of Ismailos' incapability to get more out of the directors she has interviewed. Furthermore, her own appearances in scenes where she has portrayed herself as a very serious filmmaker, what feels like an attempt to mark her introduction to the film industry (this is her debut film) already at a league of "great directors" end up as a caricature. Rightly so, many reviews criticised the selection of the directors and her editing style that falls short of convincing the viewer to believe there is an overall story to tell. However, the appearances of Ken Loach, David Lynch, Agnes Varda, Todd Haynes, Bernardo Bertolucci among others is enough to make this film a worthwhile watch. If anything, one wants to visit, re-visit the truly great works of cinema these directors have made and that seems to be a point many reviews have missed. And it is an important in its own right.

Bernardo Bertolucci introduces himself through his encounter with Pier Paolo Pasolini, which, obviously was a definjng moment for the former's career due to the role he was offered by the latter. At this eraly scene of the documentary, we are drawn back in time to 1960s which is probably the era Ismailos started appreciating cinema. What seems to be set at a chronological narrative, thanks to introduction of Ken Loach, Agnes Varda and their films from the 60s and 70s, the documentary often jumps through eras, whilst attempting to bridge the directors through more abstract themes such as "struggle to define a new identity in his art" or "use of form in his/her narrative". Many of these connections are made somewhat poorly and the transition scenes often include a harsh-beat symphonic music with appearances of Ismailos herself walking along collonnades in Vatican or cruising by industrial docklands, shot from ground-level angled up towards her face, with a hint of magnitude with her very serious looking posture.

And then suddenly, we are back at Varda's garden where she is talking about her purple dyed hair and getting old while two cats play with flowers in the background, and walls carved with her name during the time spent here for more than 30 years. Another zoom into Lynch's shaking hand, scenes from Eraserhead and Mulholland Dr. and back again into the heavy drum beats. But it is precisely this cheesy play between the pure and simple emotions of the diverse range of filmmakers and their films that Ismailos attempts to fill her camera with. It is the tangibility of the directors she has interviewed, as opposed to their real-life attitude, grandeur, pompousness, or humility, which is what audience can associate with and which is what makes this documentary ever so graspable and digestable. Ironically enough, there is almost no greatness in any of the interviews and despite the fact that some of the directors interviewed may not even know another or approve of one another, they all seem to be part of this "family" that exclusively belongs to Ismailos' imaginary to which we are invited to for an hour and a half. This casual interplay does not always work though. It is easy to understand how frustrated reviewers of this film were to see Fassbinder used as a tool to enhance the film with his only real association tothe film being the mutual admiration of Ismailos and Todd Haynes, but then again, many reviewers may have been pissed off not to have had the chance to sit down with many great directors to make a documentary like this.

Not everyone does get the chance to spend a sunny English afternoon with Ken Loach who ends his interviee by saying "I've just been given a bus pass, so I guees I now have started the second half". Long-time Communist Party member Bertolucci may have suffered an identity crisis in the last couple of decades of neo-liberalism, but Loach has never lost his wit to enlighten the masses with the stories that mattered the most but exposed the least. If anything, his sharp cinematographic edge was recently highlighted with The Wind That Shakes the Barley. What "Great Directors" does great is to stimulate such discussion for the audience whilst browsing through a library of films that not only include those of the directors included in the documentary but also of people like Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese.

Greatness may only be a facade of this film. At best, a naive attempt to catch the attention of the audience, at worst, a farcical self-indulgence. It is no less than a "100 films you have to see" list, and more often than not, is it a lot more inspiring than that. Take it with a pinch of salt, if you will, but we've got to listen to the director, whose attempt it was to uncover a mystery she did not even know where would lead to, following the inspiration of these people. A very self-motivated journey it is, it is a pleasure to be part of it whilst reading into, what may only be momentary excerpts from (after all, these interviews only last a good couple of hours, at maximum) minds and eyes that saw through their lenses to bring the imagery on the big screens.

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