Movie review: ‘Great Directors’

This must be the season for vanity documentaries. First Oliver Stone rounded up seven Latin American leaders for his misconceived “South of the Border” and now Angela Ismailos corrals 10 of her favorite filmmakers for “Great Directors.” The results, as with the Stone film, are very much of a mixed bag.

Ismailos, a cineaste making her feature debut, has acted on an impulse to meet her cinematic idols and try to “connect the films that had meant so much to me to these filmmakers who made them.” She started with a longer wish list but ended up with David Lynch, Catherine Breillat, Bernardo Bertolucci, Agnes Varda, Stephen Frears, Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, Todd Haynes, John Sayles and Liliana Cavani.

As any list of favorites must be, this is very much an idiosyncratic selection. One person’s genius, after all, is inevitably the next person’s poseur. And anyone who puts Linklater and Loach on the same exalted plane cannot be accused of conventional thinking.

One of the problems with “Great Directors” is that the film demands not only tolerance for Ismailos’ choices but tolerance for her as well. For the director gets both in her own way and in the way of her own best material.

A striking looking, impeccably dressed woman, Ismailos has not been able to resist making herself, for no apparent reason except self-regard, a major presence in the film.

Not only does the director consistently shoot herself with the filmmakers she’s interviewing, she is forever inserting shots in which she stares moodily at places like the Paramount studio gates, the BBC building in London, even the Vatican. The director may look like a movie star, but that’s no reason for her to act like she is one.

While Ismailos, on the basis of the evidence on screen, is an unimpressive questioner whose insights are often pedestrian, she does have the ego, financial resources and strength of will necessary to travel around the world to get these directors to sit in front of her camera.

And after they are so positioned, and if you are able to block out the director’s intrusiveness, these people, edited down from 250 hours to 86 minutes, do say some interesting things.

Here’s Bertolucci revealing when he first met director Pier Paolo Pasolini, a great friend of his father’s, he thought he was a thief. Or Sayles getting angry at the way the Mel Gibson-starring “The Patriot” distorts history. Or Frears describing how Margaret Thatcher made British filmmakers into small business people, which was her goal all along.

Though she professes to love all of them equally, Ismailos does not give all of her directors equal screen time, and at least three of her subjects emerge as this film’s stars, presenting themselves impressively and saying intriguing things.

Haynes, for instance, speaks insightfully about the ideas behind “Safe,” about his reverence for German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and about the passion he and Fassbinder share for the subversive films of Douglas Sirk.

It shouldn’t be surprising, but some of these directors are more interesting than their work. French director Breillat, never a personal favorite, is an absolutely hypnotic speaker who holds the screen the way her films rarely have.

Lynch, with a cigarette always in his hand, is another expert spinner of tales. He talks about how freeing it was “to have a great failure” on the order of “Dune” and is eloquent about how he dislikes analyzing his own work: “The film is the talking, the film is the thing, it is the whole thing, it is there and that is it.” Fortunately for us, and the film, he didn’t take his own advice.