At the beginning of Great Directors, a documentary comprising a series of interviews with 10 of her favorite cinematic artists, filmmaker Angela Ismailos outlines her project’s rationale: “I felt like I knew them from their cinema, but realized I knew nothing…I wanted to connect the films that meant so much to me with their directors.” Speaking as a critic, I’ve always been deeply distrustful of this need to square the art with the artist, which is why I’ve shunned the chance to interview filmmakers and often looked askance at the whole interview process. So long as the exchange is limited to technical questions or a discussion of the material circumstances of the production, such relations have a limited utility, but when the interviewer starts asking the director to elaborate on specific films, he or she runs the risk of establishing the filmmaker’s readings of his or her work as misleadingly definitive.
All of which is by saying that I was probably conceptually biased against Ismailos’s project from the outset. But with a few exceptions (most notably Todd Haynes), the representative directors avoid interpretative discussions of individual movies. As an interviewer, Ismailos doesn’t probe too deep, but the 10 filmmakers (of whom, for my money, only two—Agnès Varda and David Lynch—qualify as “great”) are more than happy to talk, discoursing on such topics as how they got their start, how they finance their films, the political function of cinema, and their response to the public and critical reception of their work.
While not all the subjects prove equal founts of insightful tidbits, the film provides such keepers as John Sayles sardonically discussing his work-for-hire as a screenwriter on projects like The Patriot (a film he labels “a lying piece of shit”), Ken Loach and Stephen Frears opining on the changing nature of the public-television world in which they both got their start, and Haynes turning critic to explain why his beloved Fassbinder rejected the approach of such cinematic modernists as Godard, favoring Sirkian melodrama as the ideal means of political expression. These reflections, combined with a generous selection of clips from the representative directors’ work, which Ismailos and her editors skillfully weave into the film’s smoothly episodic structure, as well as the engaging personalities of several of the subjects (most notably the wryly self-deprecating Loach and the delightfully philosophical Varda) makes The Great Directors at the very least a breezy bit of cinephiliac entertainment.
But we’d be wise to remember the on-screen admonishment of a surprisingly down to earth Lynch: “As soon as you finish a film, people ask you to talk about it. The film is the talking, the film is the thing.” Exactly. It’s at precisely that point that the director’s job ends and the critic’s begins.