Everywhere you look, filmmakers are talking about how they make films — from behind-the-scenes featurettes for each episode of a cable series to now-ubiquitous YouTube interviews with directors of even the most artless action movies. So perhaps it’s no wonder that the most august of fests, the 53rd New York Film Festival, is presenting documentaries on filmmakers Brian De Palma, Nora Ephron, Haskell Wexler, Robert Frank, Jia Zhang-ke and even one-time producer Ingrid Bergman. It’s a bigger reflexive lineup than at any NYFF in recent memory.
No film embodies this trend better than “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” which examines the two legendary auteurs through interviews with Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Richard Linklater and other filmmakers. Yet in a strange twist, despite garnering acclaim in Cannes, Telluride and Toronto, it was overtly snubbed by NYFF’s director, Kent Jones — who also happens to be the director of “Hitchcock/Truffaut.”
As Jones wryly notes, “if a filmmaker submitted a documentary or even a fiction film to me, and I were to go back to them and say, ‘Unfortunately we will not be showing your film at the festival, but, lucky me, I’ve made a film that everyone seems to like, so we’ll be showing mine,’ I wouldn’t be able to look anybody in the eye.”
|Kent Jones’ “Hitchcock/Truffaut”|
Perhaps his own magnificent obsession with helmers led him to subconsciously program an impressive array of filmmaking-themed docs into the fest.
“There just happened to be a lot of them this year,” says Jones, under whose watch the Spotlight on Documentary section expanded from a panel to a 12-film sidebar. “People remarked on that in Cannes — and the quality was higher than usual, I suppose.”
Walter Salles, who helmed the Spotlight on Documentaries entry “Jia Zhang-ke: A Guy From Fenyang” about the Chinese director, says what attracted him to cinema “was that films could show you how the world can be much more fascinating and complex than you thought at first. Documentaries about filmmakers only reinforced this understanding. I was profoundly impacted by Chris Marker’s film on Akira Kurosawa, ‘A.K.,’ Wim Wenders’ film on Yasujiro Ozu, ‘Tokyo-Ga’ and (Jean-Pierre) Limosin’s film on Abbas Kiarostami.”
While relatively low-brow DVD extras and “Breaking Bad” featurettes are turning us all into amateur film students, some filmmakers want to focus on the art involved in the process. “There’s an explosion of kids going to film school, and it’s so easy to make images today,” says Laura Israel, who profiled her longtime collaborator in the Main Slate world premiere “Don’t Blink: Robert Frank.” “I feel people should go back to spending more time thinking about what goes into an image than just taking so many and editing them later.”
(Israel is coy about whether her own film will feature images from Frank’s most infamous film, the 1972 concert tour doc “Cocksucker Blues,” which the Rolling Stones refused to let him release. “Representing the obstacles Robert went through with it was the most important thing to me,” she says, “not necessarily the film or the incident itself.”)
|Walter Salles’ “Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang”|
Some docs are simply a filmmaker’s equivalent of “write what you know” — from “Don’t Blink” to first-time filmmaker Jacob Bernstein’s portrait of his mother, Nora Ephron, “Everything Is Copy.” Even a doc that plays like an artfully made, feature-length master class, such as Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s Special Events selection, “De Palma,” began after they’d become friends with the 75-year-old director of such stylized thrillers as “Carrie” and “Dressed to Kill.”
“When filmmakers talk to filmmakers, there’s a kind of candidness that tends not to be analytical or even intellectual — it’s much more about process,” Baumbach says.
Baumbach and Paltrow filmed a week of interviews with De Palma five years ago to “document our relationship with him in terms of his work and career,” Baumbach adds. “We had the idea we might turn it into a movie, but we also wanted to have it on record just for us.”
Though Baumbach claims the film is more a “personal document of our friendship,” it delves into the reasons for De Palma’s trademark split-screens and suspense techniques far more than his psychology. But an anecdote about how the director followed his cheating father on a tryst before stalking the mistress in an office building is revelatory.
It’s one of several NYFF docs offering the undiluted voices of their subjects, another way some docmakers are paralleling print works like Tom Roston’s new book “I Lost It at the Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era.” “We didn’t want expert talking heads, because often you end up with superlatives,” “De Palma” co-helmer Paltrow says. “We didn’t want to affect the way Brian experienced it.”
“De Palma” also recalls Baumbach’s recent “While We’re Young,” in which Ben Stiller plays a doc filmmaker spouting lines like “I steal from everyone: Wiseman, Maysles, Pennebaker.” But Baumbach scoffs at any unconscious influence one film may have had on the other. “I’m now aware of the irony,” he quips.