Pub date July 20, 2010
SectionFilm Review

FILM Everybody’s a curator, providing one or more terrain maps of their personality. What’s more telling, or potentially damning, than looking over someone’s iPod playlist or CD collection? My Detroit best-friend freshman roommates were first encountered pawing through my LP crate, diagnosing just what sort of hick they’d been stuck with. (Between the Sex Pistols and Dan Fogelberg, they were highly confused.)

Sussing taste in movies isn’t always as easy as perusing a shelf — not everyone necessarily cares to watch repeatedly even the films they esteem most. (Of course 1941’s Citizen Kane is brilliant, but do I own that? Nix. But 2000’s Dude, Where’s My Car? Yup.) Thus Angela Ismailos’ new documentary Great Directors is as interesting for what it reveals about the curator as for insights from "great" filmmakers themselves.

Of course "greatness" is ever-subjective, ever-more idly applied. Christopher Nolan is "the best director in the world" (according to threads), if being good among blockbuster-franchise mediocrities measures the depth of your purview (though after the overcomplicated nonsense of Inception, even that status is questionable. Bring it on, haters!)

Ismailos has tonier taste. Good if idiosyncratic, the kind you can respect yet argue with. She’s a real cineaste. And a narcissist, falling into that realm of filmmakers who make movies about other people yet incessantly insert themselves into the frame. (Over 86 minutes, we get to see how many hairdos she can subject her dyed blonde locks to.) Still, there have been far worse offenders in the realm of Gratuitous Me: The Documentary, and Ismailos chooses her subjects — plus filmic excerpts — with beguiling intelligence.

The interviewees are very articulate. Are all "great"? Well, it’s hard to argue against Bernardo Bertolucci and David Lynch. Richard Linklater and Todd Haynes are inspired next-generation American choices. With John Sayles we enter the land of good intentions. Likewise Ken Loach and Stephen Frears, liberal 1960s-1970s BBC Two beneficiaries later orphaned by Margaret Thatcher funding cuts, subsequently taking disparate big-screen paths; Ismailos is attracted primarily by their frequent social-undercaste advocacy.

The jury’s still out on Catherine Breillat, while one truly odd choice is Liliana Cavani. Including that mostly undistinguished veteran Italian director most famous for 1974’s S–M Nazi romance The Night Porter suggests Ismailos has a thing for women directing women being sexually punished. (She also draws attention to the famous scene in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris where buttered-up Marlon Brando anally rapes Maria Schneider, while barely referencing Bertolucci’s later achievements.) Offering contrast is Agnès Varda, whose puckish cinema is hobbit-like in its denial of sex.

Ismailos deserves props for achieving 40 percent female representation in a field where careers like that of The Kids Are All Right‘s Lisa Cholodenko — three features in 12 years — are considered gender-triumphant. Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2009) director Kathryn Bigelow made even fewer over a longer span, and you know it’s not for lack of trying. (Neither of those women are in Great Directors, however.)

Several participants cite meaningful mentors, whether actually met or loved from a celluloid distance: Pasolini (Bertolucci), Fassbinder (Haynes), etc. More interesting still are their tales of production travails, whether it’s Breillat on the censorious loathing exercised toward her many portraits of abused female sexuality, or Lynch claiming "It’s beautiful to have a great
failure" (i.e., 1984’s Dune) since it freed him to make smaller, more personal projects like next-stop Blue Velvet (1986).

Great Directors has myriad such behind-scenes revelations. Preening and adoring these idols in camera view, Ismailos flashes her
good taste around. This would be more annoying if her taste wasn’t, in fact, pretty choice.

GREAT DIRECTORS opens Fri/23 in Bay Area theaters.