Tyro documentarian Angela Ismailos interviews 10 filmmakers — Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Stephen Frears, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, David Lynch, John Sayles and Agnes Varda — in “Great Directors,” an illustrated homage to the now-quaint notion of auteurism. Some viewers will doubtless argue over Ismailos’ choices or balk at her adherence to a romantic single-vision theory of a highly collaborative art. Still, her eclectic pantheon weighs in with entertaining anecdotes and illuminating comments, illustrated with well-chosen samplings of the artists’ work. Bowing July 2 in Gotham, docu targets upscale urbanites and die-hard cineastes.
At first, Ismailos loosely but decisively unites her very disparate helmers through discussions of their beginnings, enlivened with clips from seldom-seen early opuses. Directors’ key early influences are cited — except that in Bertolucci’s case, influence is indistinguishable from source, proven by striking shots from his Pier Paolo Pasolini-scripted feature debut, “The Grim Reaper.”
The story of Breillat’s directorial bow abounds in irony; lacking any knowledge or money, she wrote a novel and got it published, hoping she’d be asked to direct the film version. All went as planned, except that 17-year-old Breillat was legally barred from purchasing her own provocative novel (it was off-limits to anyone under 18). The uniquely corporeal film that resulted (“A Real Young Girl”), excerpted here, was banned for 20 years.
Largely left unresolved is a perceived conflict between commercial and independent production, which fence-straddler Sayles (script doctor for “Shark Tale” and “Jurassic Park” on the one hand, auteur of the low-budget “Matewan,” “City of Hope” and “Lone Star” on the other) posits as a political dichotomy. Like-minded studio/arthouse flip-flopper Linklater intriguingly stirs the pot by professing his greatest lingering affection not for “Waking Life” or “Before Sunrise,” but for his biggest commercial flop, “The Newton Boys.”
Ismailos ascribes more overtly political roots to Frears and Loach, who both began at the BBC in its left-wing heyday; pic includes satisfying chunks from Loach’s “Cathy Go Home,” with its innovative fudging of distinctions between narrative and documentary. But with the exception of Haynes (who subtly incorporates political discourse into his cinematic analysis here, and links European independent cinema to the Hollywood tradition in a joint tribute to Fassbinder and Sirk), Ismailos’ attempts to trace political threads remain superficial.
In the film’s most nettlesome structural device, Ismailos inserts herself moodily strolling past the BBC or contemplatively wandering tree-lined avenues, as if auditioning for Antonioni. Interviews are punctuated by Katie Couric-style reaction shots, Ismailos’ long blond locks differently coiffed each time as she poses a question or reverentially soaks up a maestro’s words of wisdom.
Random associations offer more fertile ground for the docu’s subjects, an area not surprisingly dominated by Lynch. Complaining about demands that he talk about a film when the film itself is the talk, Lynch gesticulates wildly and offers numerous effervescent insights into his decidedly oddball creative process (though an overreliance on “Inland Empire” reps a rare miss in terms of clip selection).
After a half-century, Cahiers du Cinema’s “politique des auteurs” surely deserves updating, and Ismailos has assembled a visionary lot. Treating these figures like one-man bands, though, does them a slight disservice. Frears, who partly prides himself on cinematically translating other writers’ constructs, mentions Christopher Hampton’s considerable contributions to “Dangerous Liaisons.” (A clip from Frears’ “My Beautiful Laundrette,” however, evokes the strong presence of scripter Hanif Kureishi, who goes unacknowledged.) Similarly, a clip from Lynch’s “Elephant Man” is haunted by the ghost of cinematographer extraordinaire Freddie Francis.
Docu’s strengths and weaknesses finally lie in its own mixed-bag diversity. Liliana Cavani admits to being disconcerted by the box office success of her sadomasochistic Nazi tale “The Night Porter,” though excerpts from her four-hour documentary “The History of the Third Reich” show fascism to be a lifelong obsession. Agnes Varda, meanwhile, does a much better job recounting her career in her own films (indeed, Ismailos co-opts uncredited shots from Varda’s autobiographical “The Beaches of Agnes”).
Tech aspects are above average, particularly in the quality and editing of film clips.